When Mexican rock exploded in the ‘90s into a commercial and cultural force, it did so by displaying its identity proudly. Bands like Caifanes, Café Tacvba, Maldita Vecindad, Molotov, and more made it a requisite to sing in Spanish almost exclusively. However, they also turned to signifiers like iconography from pre-Hispanic Mexican culture and cultural heroes like Chava Flores, Tin Tan, Los Xochimilcas, luchadores, and others as their own. As we fast forward to 2023, Mexican rock has undergone a significant transformation, both in terms of its appearance and sound.
This new form is led by a newer generation of musicians taking an alternative direction, redefining what it means to portray their Mexicanidad — a route that’s far from a straight path. Bands like Tijuana’s Mint Field, Mexico City’s Sunset Images, and Oaxaca’s Valgur take their cues from different genres while indulging in their own set of themes and moods, taking a different approach. By doing so, they depart from the conventions established by the iconic bands of the rock en español heyday, effectively reshaping the narrative of what constitutes a Mexican rock band in the contemporary music scene.
Identity has played a central part in the history of Mexican rock music. When rock n’ roll first arrived in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, the genre was defined by Spanish versions of hits from the U.S. Later in the ‘60s, Mexican bands worth their salt would play covers and originals in English. After the rock scene went underground after the Avandaro Festival in 1971 — a massive event that sparked outrage among mainstream society due to drug use and nudity among audience members, resulting in what essentially became a ban on rock music — bands began adopting Spanish in earnest, indulging in slang and other colloquialisms. With nods to every national cultural identifier, from Aztec idols to B-movie stars of the ‘70s, Mexican rock had reached mainstream consciousness by the ‘90s.
By the new millennium, after years of mining Mexican culture, many up-and-coming rock bands stopped going that route, choosing different symbolism and themes to express themselves. Today, Mexicanidad is a much subtler aspect of rock. While there are artists nowadays who choose to present themselves without any identifiers in hopes of crossing over to international audiences, most Mexican musicians feel a strong sense of their roots while doing their own thing to separate themselves from the Café Tacvbas and Molotovs of yesteryear.
Some current bands express admiration for rock mexicano bands of the ‘90s, while others — like Sunset Images — admit to never getting into it, finding underground bands in later years more exciting and significant. However, few of the current crop of bands are direct descendants of that previous generation, and thus, find what makes them Mexican in other details.
Language, for many bands, like the dreamy and ethereal Mint Field, serves as the cornerstone in expressing their identity. “Being Mexicans is a very important aspect of our music, especially when we write lyrics,” says Estrella Del Sol, one half of the band. “I wanted this to be one of the cornerstones of the band, playing in a genre — shoegaze or dream pop or whatever — in Spanish. We wanted to draw attention to the fact that we didn’t need to write in English to be known in other parts of the world.”
“[Mint Field] wanted to draw attention to the fact that we didn’t need to write in English to be known in other parts of the world.”
For others, such as Sunset Images, their art is intrinsically linked to the context of growing up in Mexico. “Our music is a reflection of what it is to be born and raised in Mexico City,” says Samuel Osorio of Sunset Images, a band that evolved from pensive post-rock to heavy psych-punk. “There’s the calm that was felt in middle-class, family-centric neighborhoods, and the chaos and movement found in commercial zones. I think that can be compared to the evolution of our sound.”
Yet, for many, like Valgur, identity remains a multifaceted concept that can’t be easily defined or embraced. “It’s complicated for us to talk about identity,” says Elizabeth and Hugo Valdivieso of Valgur. “Even if we’re part of a geographic territory, we haven’t let ourselves be defined by our nationality, because then our creative imagination won’t have any limits. We can ride freely through all the continents and through every century.”
This is an essential point for the new generation. While all these bands regularly gig and tour all over Mexico, they don’t want their audience to be limited to their own country. Many of these bands — also including Margaritas Podridas, El Shirota, Mengers, and many more — have been able to have a fanbase in Mexico and abroad. Ambition definitely plays a role in this, but mainly, finding a larger audience for their loud guitar music has proven to be difficult over the years. In a nutshell, rock fans in Mexico are not as open to new bands as they once were.
In the mid-‘00s, reggaeton replaced rock as the music of choice for young people, and just a few dedicated fans searching for new and adventurous sounds make up the fanbase of the current wave, leaving them to find audiences in other countries. “When we have played in the U.S., we notice that 50 percent of the people who attend the shows are of Mexican origin,” says Mint Field’s Del Sol. “It’s a beautiful feeling, that they can connect with us through our shared roots.” It’s a sentiment shared by Sunset Images’s Osorio: “I feel a great responsibility to represent Mexico [when we play in other countries].”
Still, even with a new reach, being a Mexican rock band nowadays is more challenging to define than ever. But it comes with subtleties. Perhaps the members of Valgur come close to give us an answer, as ambiguous as it may seem. “Right now, we are debating our identity within the country,” says the Valdivieso duo.
“We feel identified with certain aspects of Mexican culture, yet we feel distant from many others. Especially those rooted in nationalism and territory. Fortunately, the borders around territory, nationality, and language are less defined in music with each passing day.”