As a Dominican kid born and bred in Chicago, I grew up with a wildly romanticized vision of Washington Heights. For me, WaHi was 3 a.m. perico ripiao, street corner quipe, tigueres and buenmosos. It seemed like a place where I’d feel whole, where the hollow space in my chest would fill up with the sense of belonging I so desperately sought. When I moved to New York at 18, that facile mythology unraveled into a more realistic portrait of the neighborhood: a community rooted in struggle and tradition, but anchored by its familial and warm spirit.
Over five short years, I’ve seen that community turn into boutique bodegas, marble sinks and counters, wi-fi connections over breakfast pastries. The greasy pollo horneado at Margot Restaurant, a classic Alto Manhattan joint, is no more. In 2014, Curbed ranked Washington Heights as the no. 2 fastest gentrifying neighborhood in New York. I don’t mean to claim ownership over the Heights under false pretenses, but when so many worked tirelessly to get your people visibility and support, it’s taxing to see that history slowly erased by predatory real estate developers.
So it’s all the more powerful that Aventura, the Bronx-born quartet that brought bachata to the world, have a residency at the Heights’ United Palace Theater this month. These performances mark their first formal reunion since Lenny, Max, and Henry Santos joined bandleader Romeo at his sold-out Yankee Stadium show in 2014. At yesterday’s opening night concert, Romeo himself seemed to contemplate the meaning of the group’s return to the Heights. “They ask me, ‘why United Palace?’” As he so accurately conveyed, it’s a place that carries over 15 years of the band’s history. It’s where they grew from Los Tinellers into Generation Next, a place where they broke the rules, where young, urban quisqueyanos saw themselves represented for the first time.
That return-to-roots narrative took center stage at yesterday evening’s opening night performance. Roves of smartly dressed concertgoers (what else can you expect from dominicanos?) filed into the aging theater in the rain. United Palace is no Barclays Center or Madison Square Garden; the theater wasn’t adorned with prop beds, flashy lights, or special guests – this performance was envisioned as a hometown hero tale at its core. Nothing evinced that rise to fame more than the show’s opening montage, where an almost divine voiceover offered a retelling of the Aventura story. Four teenagers who dreamed of success, and achieved it after much adversity – a process that ended up being its own adventure. Four teenagers who broke the rules of the genre, fusing it with R&B and U.S. urban rhythms. Four teenagers who became the kings of bachata.
They’ve become ambassadors for a generation of Latinos pushing our culture forward.
The Santos crew opened with “El Desprecio,” a cut off their 2009 album The Last. Within seconds, the abuelas seated next to me FaceTimed their daughters and nietas, while the younger women nearby fired up their Snapchats for premium selfie video time. Romeo threw his sunglasses (and later his sweaty towel) into the crowd to plenty of piercing screams. They powered through the first few songs of the set, throwing down classics like “Por Un Segundo,” “Los Infieles,” and “Un Beso.” The crowd roared with every one of Romeo’s pelvic thrusts, every line and syllable belted from each corner of the room. Who knew four teenage bachateros from the Bronx would one day hold the glamour and mystery of 70s-era rock stars? There were wardrobe changes, bedazzled guitars, stonewashed jeans encrusted with rhinestones, swooning girls, and the crowd ate up every minute of it.
Romeo sidelined some of the more infamous romantic antics from his solo performances, though he did manage to sneak in two kisses with an audience member during “Un Beso.” He also doled out his notorious loverboy wisdom, like “Don’t fight women, join them.” As expected, it was a bachata-heavy set, with one interlude between heavyhitters like “Cuando Volverás” and “No Lo Perdona Dios” for the reggaeton classic “Noche de Sexo.” After the crowd roared for an encore, the quartet closed out the explosive performance with the now legendary “Obsesión.”
Aventura has brought bachata and its Dominican roots global.
Aventura has brought bachata and its Dominican roots global, taken a culture and an Uptown story that speaks to millions to an international level. But there’s nothing quite like seeing them perform in their element, in the community they speak to so powerfully. They’ve become ambassadors for a generation of Latinos pushing our culture forward. Even as the spirit of that mission comes under threat from the bulldozing force of gentrification, Aventura continues to hold a magnetism and power that allows us to escape from the harsh realities of Washington Heights’ changing identity, even for just one night.