Pachucos, Pin Up Girls and Cars at This Year’s Viva Las Vegas

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Hot rods, pool parties, and a soundtrack like the rougher side of “Happy Days”: the Viva Las Vegas Rockabilly Weekender isn’t your average Easter. Its recently finished seventeenth year a roaring success, Viva Las Vegas, or “Viva” as the more than 7,000 attendees call it, is a four-day celebration of rockabilly music and culture. Bands, vendors, and DJs come from all over the country and the world to celebrate the southern-accented, raw iteration of early rock ‘n roll. Attendees come year after year; longtime members of the scene bring their children.

Called the twang heard ‘round the world, rockabilly is proud of its roots in country and bluegrass. At times, southern pride can seem to tiptoe toward something a little nastier; it isn’t all that uncommon to see Viva goers with Confederate flags on the back of motorcycle jackets or tattooed on arms. Somewhat strange, then, is the strong Latino presence in rockabilly in general and Viva in particular. Why be part of a subculture that is at first glance a little unwelcoming of people of color? But they come: greasers, pinup girls, zoot suiters, in bands and showing off classic cars. In 2012, we explored this phenomenon, taking a look at how and why these two seemingly incongruous worlds collide.

But even though it’s a subculture rooted in nostalgia, rockabilly is becoming more inclusive than in its first life in the 50s, partly because Latinos are putting their own stamp on it. We talked to some of this year’s participants about what draws them to the rockabilly world:

Lisa Love, program model

Photo: Desiree Browne

Lisa Love Mendoza is what our grandparents called a knockout. Hardly five feet tall, it’s hard to believe the beauty fell into modeling accidentally; but it was a happy accident that’s gotten her a lot of recognition. “[Viva founder] Tom Ingram contacted me and asked if I was interested in being in the official program and I was like yes, of course, and it’s been such an honor because I love Viva Las Vegas.”

Even years later, modeling is still a passion project for Mendoza. Photos of her vintage clothing collection got a lot of feedback; she took it a step further to infuse her Mexican and El Paso roots in photoshoots. Mendoza’s Day of the Dead and La Soldadera images are the most popular.

Mendoza became part of the rockabilly world because of the clothes and, if she had to guess, she says other Latinos are drawn to the scene for similar reasons. “Good music, nice cars–it’s just in our blood, I think.”

El Pachuco Zoot Suits

El Pachuco has been making zoot suits since 1978, but the flashy threads made popular by Chicanos and jazz musicians go back even further, to a time when the long jackets and wide pants took on a political connotation for young Mexican and Mexican-American men sick of catering to white American standards of decency. The term itself refers to a Chicano subculture that flourished in the 30s and 40s, attributed to El Paso, Texas.  Now, in a different political climate, the people wearing these suits has expanded. “A lot of people think our clientele is only Hispanics because of the pachucos,” explains El Pachuco manager Vanessa Estrella, “but stores in Japan, Europe and all over the world carry our merchandise.”

That doesn’t mean tradition isn’t there. Since Estrella’s mother-in-law started the business in 1978, every piece has been made in-house. Even now, the family-owned business is the only one to carry authentic zoot suits in the United States. Some of the business’ current customers today are the sons (and daughters) of customers El Pachuco had in the 70s and 80s. That same loyalty is what brought the company to Viva. “People would come into our store and say why aren’t you vending at Viva?” El Pachuco’s customers were going to Viva because because what are pachucos but the older cousins of greasers? It was a no-brainer to start selling their products in the festival’s eighth year. “It’s not a costume you put on to go outside,” said Estrella, “it’s a lifestyle.”

Los Santisimos Snorkels, surf band

Photo: Desiree Browne

When Los Santismos Snorkels hit the Viva Las Vegas stage, they didn’t need to explain themselves. No one worried about a language barrier. From Puebla, Mexico, the trio talked to a small but hugely enthusiastic crowd almost completely in Spanish and though it wasn’t clear whether everyone understood, it was obvious it didn’t matter. Blending surf and rock ‘n roll, they’re right at home at a rockabilly festival. A guitarist in a luchador mask marks the group as Mexican but by no means are they or their music foreign to the scene. They stick to the stuttering guitar sounds and distortion that’s the hallmark of the surf guitar created by Dick Dale. And like the sound’s creator, they rarely write songs with lyrics.