Why Are So Many Latin American Musicians Moving to Mexico City?

Photo by Philippe Sawicki

Every artist dreams of making it in the city. If you’re an actor, it’s Hollywood. Techno DJ or producer? Must have eyes on Berlin. Experimental multimedia visuals? Gotta be Brooklyn. But for Latinx and Latin American musicians, the U.S. and Europe aren’t always the obvious reference points. Instead, the millennial (as in around for thousands of years, not born in 1998) capital city of Mexico is where the action lies.

In the 19th century, German author Alexander von Humboldt called the former seat of the Aztec and Spanish empires “the city of palaces,” arguing that it could rival any royal court of Europe. In creative fields, that’s still true today. The inheritors of the legacy created by Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Luis Barragán are currently painting murals in Coyoacán, working out of studios in La Roma, and steadily being gentrified out of Condesa.

On the music front, the Mexico City-based label NAAFI may be the most visible current incarnation of a burgeoning scene. Meanwhile, festivals like NRMAL, rock en español juggernaut Vive Latino, and electronic outpost MUTEK.MX are reflections of a healthy year-round music community that ranges from avant-garde DJ nights to blistering live shows to the city’s deep cumbia sonidera culture. All of which has positioned Mexico City as an attractive destination for Latino and Latin American artists looking for cheaper and more culturally relevant alternatives to music industry hotspots like New York and London.

In Mexico City, we caught up with several recent transplants who shared the stories of their aspirations in making the big move – and what it was really like once they moved to CDMX. Four artists lay out the good, bad, and ugly of life as a chilango.

Boogat (Canada)

Last year, the Montréal-based rapper’s wife spontaneously quit her job and said, “Let’s move to Mexico.” Boogat is the son of Paraguayan and Mexican parents who have been traveling regularly to Mexico City over the last three years. Boogat didn’t need any arm-twisting, since to him, CDMX is a city that feels like it’s living through the same musical moment that put Montréal in the early 2000s spotlight. “Every time I went back home, I felt saudade,” he said, borrowing the Portuguese term for longing or nostalgia.

Boogat. Photo by Guillaume Simoneau
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The move was also a chance to offer a lasting connection for his family. “Being a second-generation Latino that was born in Québec, being married to a francophone woman – the Spanish level of my kids was so-so,” he told me at a vintage ice cream parlor in the Condesa neighborhood, where his two kids, 8-year-old Salvador Marcos and 5-year-old Naïma Selva, indulged their sweet tooth after we had polished off heaping fish tacos at the corner immortalized in the Amores Perros car crash scene. “Since identity is the center of my work, being Latino is a big part of me, so I wanted my kids to speak [Spanish] properly.”

“It’s like the mecca for me. Mexico City is the biggest city for arts in the Latin world.”

In August, they moved into a house in Coyacán (quieter and cheaper than more bustling neighborhoods closer to downtown), where his kids enrolled in a local school. His wife doesn’t regret the decision for a second, and while his children profess to miss Montréal at times, their homesickness seemed easily soothed with tamarind-flavored picolés.

Although it’s been less than a year since he and his family packed their bags, they’ve settled in easily and have no immediate plans to return. “Coming here, I realized I’m way more Latino than I thought,” he said. “I’m supposed to be in a foreign country somehow, but I’m at home, I felt home the day I arrived.”

Compared to his previous short stints circulating in the spheres of Condesa and La Roma, the chance to marinate in Mexican culture has proven an invaluable crash course. He has immersed himself in banda, narcocorridos, old school cumbia, and son jarrocho. He appreciates a mariachi band now as the soundtrack of love – when a band pops up in the park, you know someone is proposing. He’s got a favorite cantina and knows when to drink mezcal pechuga versus enterrado. In sum, he said, “The things that make you a real cultural Mexican, I had time to experience more of that.”

For Boogat, the move came just as his star has begun to rise in Canada. In March, his album Neo-Reconquista won a Juno Award (the Canadian Grammy) for World Music Album of the Year. He also has a hefty upcoming tour schedule in the U.S. and Canada. When we met, he was fresh off the plane from Toronto, where his Juno nod resulted in an impromptu magazine cover photo shoot. The fact that Mexico City is a reasonable distance from the rest of North America has helped make his move viable.

In turn, Boogat’s new home base has given him a different perspective on success in his homeland. “Coming back here, it’s really humbling,” he said. “Here nobody knows you.”

While on the one hand he acknowledges the city’s cultural riches (“It’s like the mecca for me. Mexico City is the biggest city for arts in the Latin world”), on the other hand, he’s reasonable about the economic reality as a North American transplant. “There’s no money here, point blank,” he deadpanned. “Let’s not lie about it; it’s not a place [where] you’re going to become rich overnight.”

But those conditions have forced Boogat to hone his craft. “With what people are paying you because you’re starting again, you can’t have the sound, musicians, level of show you want,” he explained. “It brings you back to basics.” Ultimately, Mexico City has taught him to focus on the fundamentals. “Put me in front of 200,000 people with lights, fireworks, and the best sound in the industry and I will shine, no problem,” he said. “But how can you shine with nothing?”

La Vida Bohème (Venezuela)

Though the media’s portrayal of the Venezuelan economic crisis can teeter on sensationalism, the formerly Caracas-based indie rock band La Vida Bohème saw the handwriting on the wall in 2014. After playing at Vive Latino that year, they decided to take the plunge and move the whole band to Mexico City, a place they had previously visited for a few gigs.

“We needed to leave Venezuela because of the political, economic, and social situation that’s been going on for the last few years,” guitarist Daniel de Sousa explained via e-mail. “It wasn’t going to be sustainable to keep up the project [of the band], so we took what little we had, caught a flight, and came here to make a life and keep on working.”

The Nacional Records signees won a Latin Grammy in 2013 for Best Rock Album even as Venezuela was engulfed in political crisis. Lead singer Henry D’Arthenay first described the complicated political situation for Remezcla earlier in 2013 after the disputed election between current president Nicolás Maduro and his then challenger Henrique Capriles. Since then, with deteriorating conditions at home, there was too much at stake to be swallowed by the changing sociopolitical landscape.

La Vida Bohème
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Along the way, they’ve come to appreciate their adopted home as a Latin American crossroads. “Mexico City is a meeting place for lots of musicians, artists, and cultures from around the world,” de Sousa wrote. “We’re encantados to be able to live here and have the experience to get to know new cultures.”

The vibrant scene in the Mexican capital is also a stark contrast to the situation back home. “For many years now the Caracas music scene has diminished because of everything I mentioned before,” de Sousa wrote. “People don’t feel safe in the streets so they stopped going to shows. There are fewer and fewer places for bands to play, so there ends up being fewer bands.”

But as a band-in-exile of sorts, they haven’t lost their hope for improvement in Venezuela. “It’s a difficult situation, unfortunately,” de Sousa wrote. “At the same time, Caracas historically has been the cradle of important musicians and groups of different genres, so we hope that the current situation doesn’t last long and that the city can return to what it used to be.”

Frikstailers (Argentina)

Iconoclastic producers Frikstailers are known for their left-field take on digital cumbia and bizarro global bass DJ sets performed in costume. So it’s perhaps no surprise that the Córdoba natives eschewed the usual pathway that would have sent them to Buenos Aires in order to advance their music career. While they gigged there plenty as part of the ZZK Records roster, Rafa Caivano, one-half of the duo, said, “We resisted the obvious step that everyone in Argentina has to pass through there.”

Instead, they followed their sound engineer and former Córdoba roommate to make their way to Mexico City. Over tacos and micheladas on a busy La Roma corner just across from their studio, Caivano said, “We came here to tour basically.” Proof positive: A few days after we met, they took off for Australia to open for Ratatat. “Mexico is a place that’s very close to everything,” he explained. “We didn’t realize just how far we were when we were in Argentina.”

While the proximity to the U.S. helps, Mexico itself is also fertile ground. With the Southern Cone dominated by Buenos Aires and Santiago, there aren’t so many secondary cities that offer opportunities. They haven’t found that to be the case in Mexico, where they’ve averaged a different city almost every month.

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“Argentina has too many producers and not a big enough audience,” Caivano observed – but in Mexico, it appears to be the opposite. In Mexico City alone, they’ve been booked performances at Vive Latino, NRMAL, and Mutek.MX, as well as the WACO Festival in Torreón.

“Argentina has too many producers and not a big enough audience.”

With steady bookings, they’ve found Mexico City very much a viable place to get by, if not thrive, as musicians. They chalk that up in part to the sheer size of the metropolis. “The time it takes for gentrification is faster in the U.S.,” Caivano said. “Here there’s always an affordable neighborhood.” While the wealth of low-cost housing often leads to the displacement of the city’s longtime residents, such casual security about housing costs is music to the ears of artists in cities like New York, who face a constant battle to stay afloat.

Of course, cheap housing is also a function of low pay. “The fees are better than in Argentina for DJs, but the minimum wage is terrible,” Caivano noted. That, along with an influx of affluent residents in central neighborhoods, has subsequently raised the specter of gentrification. Harvard’s Mexican Cities Initiative has been documenting the “rayo gentrificador” spilling over from La Roma (where I met Caivano) into La Doctores, a district long regarded as a no-go zone by many Mexico City residents.

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There are other downsides that Frikstailers didn’t anticipate when they relocated. “Nobody told me about the rainy season,” Caivano lamented. “It doesn’t stop one single day for months – it’s hard to handle emotionally.” He’s also been disappointed by the amount of machismo that his Spanish girlfriend must deal with – worse, he says, than back home.

But he takes the negatives in stride. “Unexpected things? There’s plenty,” he said with a contended shrug. “It’s a chaotic city.”

Sonido Martines (Argentina/Bolivia)

A record-hunting nomad, the DJ, producer, and rare vinyl buff Sonido Martines rarely stays in one place for long. Born in Argentina but with a nominal home in La Paz, he recently spent two years in Mexico City after a stint in New York. Like La Vida Bohème, he had visited before, but it was a 2014 booking at Vive Latino that sealed the deal. After working odd jobs and anxiously counting the days on his U.S. visa, arriving in the capital was a breath of fresh air.

“New York is a place that has become not very fertile for artistic expression.”

“We all know that New York is a place that has become not very fertile for artistic expression that doesn’t have anything to do with corporate spectacle, whereas in DF you can do things with more freedom and there are more spaces available for independent, autonomous music trends,” he wrote via Facebook on wi-fi cribbed between bus rides on his way to Cusco for another record-buying excursion.

For Sonido Martines, the thrill of Mexico City was the chance to immerse himself in the sonido scene. While plenty of sonideros play New York, there’s nothing like coming to the home base of cumbia-driven soundsystem culture. “They’ve been searching for music for decades all over the continent and have put together the absolute best selection of Latin America and the Caribbean,” he said.

While he has since moved on, Sonido Martines reflects positively on his experience. “It’s a place to develop yourself and grow professionally.”