I visited the 15th annual Viva Las Vegas Rockabilly Weekender this past April. I remember distinctly my very first Viva Las Vegas (VLV) in 2007 and I couldn’t help but notice how things have grown. To call VLV a weekender is a bit of an understatement. VLV lasts for four solid days, plus there’s a plethora of pre and post events; maybe they should shave the “ender” off and just call it “Viva Las Vegas Week.”
VLV is a place you can experience a world flipped on its head in a parallel 1950s universe where thousands of people dressed in character straight from an episode of Happy Days or I Love Lucy (but way cooler and with lots of tattoos). It’s a bit like taking a trip back in time where you get to bring along your Blackberry or iPhone.
When I arrived at the Orleans hotel, I didn’t need the big, animated sign out front to tell me I was at the right spot. There were James Dean look-a-likes and greasers wearing rolled up jeans with chained wallets. Combs were protruding from their back pockets for their pompadour hairstyles as they strolled around with their rockabilly girlfriends; many of them dead ringers for Bettie Page or Marilyn Monroe.
In the parking lot, there were crazy looking hot-rods from the ’30s through ’60s and at the hotel entrance, a couple that looked like they had stepped out of my aunt’s photo album were getting chauffeured to a wedding chapel in a bright pink 1950s Cadillac driven by none other than Elvis himself.
VLV is a fun filled feast for the eyes and ears. It’s a celebration of all things rockabilly which begins of course with the music. Music from the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s with lots of Jerry Lee Lewis, Patsy Cline, Johnnie Cochran, James Brown, Wanda Jackson, Chuck Berry, Elvis and more was played over the loudspeakers at all times throughout the four-day affair.
There were dozens of bands from all over the world playing small rooms, pool parties, large ballrooms and huge outdoor stages; there were burlesque dancers & pinup girls in impromptu photo shoots in front of the hooked up retro rides at the car show. There were bowling tournaments, and on the vintage clothing floor, shoppers browsed while the faint sound of tattoo needles at work buzzed in the background underneath a Richie Valens tune; there were jive contests, jitterbugging, swinging and old school sock hops that broke out at the drop of a porkpie hat.
There were mom and pop vendors and talented artists of every medium who live in and cater to this underground subculture that the mainstream media happily just does not understand.
WAS IT JUST A MATTER OF A GEOGRAPHICAL LUCK OF THE DRAW
OR WAS THERE SOMETHING DEEPER AT WORK, SOMETHING WITHIN
THE CULTURE OF AMERICAN LATINOS THAT ATTRACTED
THEM TO A ROCKABILLY SUBCULTURE?
But among all this stimuli, there was one thing that hit me over the head in 2007 and continues to fascinate me to this day; of the thousands of people visiting Viva Las Vegas, it seemed an overwhelming amount were Latinos. Since 2007, I’ve written about this a couple of times before, conducted dozens of interviews on this very subject and even oversaw production of a special “Rockabilly” themed episode of the nationally syndicated TV show I once Executive produced.
Why was I so fascinated by this subject? Well, being from the south, I know firsthand about hillbilly culture and having worked in Latin TV and marketing for the past several years (not to mention traveling extensively and living in Latin America), I feel I know a little something about Latin culture. So, when I hit Viva Las Vegas back in ’07, it felt I had just witnessed peanut butter meeting jelly for the very first time. It seemed crazy at the time but now in retrospect, I see that, of course, it works beautifully.
I remember seeing tatted up, punk-looking 20 and 30 some-things sporting old timey overalls (something I’d only previously witnessed as a child when folks my grandfather’s generation wore them) and how they somehow made it look cool, and then noticing how others were combining Spanish with hillbilly and rock-n-roll music while wearing shirts proudly proclaiming “Mexibilly Pride” or “Viva La Rockabilly”.
For me, this wasn’t just a slightly fascinating look at subcultures; these were my two seemingly incongruous worlds joyously colliding. But at VLV, there it was, in black and white or perhaps I should say in brown and white (there are incidentally quite a number of Black and Asian rockabilly fanatics as well, but not nearly at the level of Latinos).
But alas, I am not Latino and while fascinated with it, I’m not a diehard rockabilly fanatic on the level of most VLV attendees either. For most people at VLV, these sometimes over-the-top outfits are not costumes… these are their chosen mode of dress for everyday activities, like work, school, etc.
So rather than simply penning my theories and hearing the inevitable dismissals — it is simply a matter of geography (i.e. rockabilly fanatics are numerous on the west coast, as are Latinos, therefore rockabilly is made up of many Latinos) — I asked a few of the many Latinos visiting VLV about their rockabilly experience. Was it just a matter of a geographical luck of the draw or was there something deeper at work, something within the culture of American Latinos that attracted them to a rockabilly subculture?
DJ DEl VILLAREAL
DETROIT-BASED ROCKABILLY DJ
DJ Del Villareal is a Mexican American hailing from the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan and host of Motorbilly Radio, a popular online rockabilly radio station. This DJ got into rockabilly by hitting some of the local weekenders in the Midwest. Not surprisingly for a DJ perhaps, music was his entry point and a facet of the culture he feels is most important.
When asked why he felt Latinos gravitated towards rockabilly, his answers — ironic when you consider he’s from the Midwest — indicated that geography is indeed a factor:
Many of the California Latino families (I’ve heard the term “taco-billies” used -it’s kinda funny to me, but probably a tad racist…!) grew up exposed to and enjoying the sounds of honking rhythm & blues music of the ’40s and early ’50s as well as smooth/romantic doo-wop/early soul into the ’50s and ’60s, and so many may be naturally predisposed to 1950s American music and culture. Add to the mix the flashy retro fashions and the vintage car culture scene (which crosses over with the rockabilly scene), I think you’ve got an attractive mix of the past and present, especially with so many excellent Mexican American rockin’ acts performing and recording today…
When asked if he thought the rockabilly scene in the U.S. would be as big as it is without Latinos, DJ Del responded:
No! Not at all! I’ve known and seen a strong, vibrant Latino-billy presence in the U.S. scene since I first became involved more than 15 years ago. So many of the best DJs in our rockin’ scene are of Latino origin. I can’t imagine how things would be without them.
I asked DJ Del if he found it surprising that what many perceive as a Southern white redneck/hillbilly or black Motown/R&B culture is embraced by Latinos. He says:
There’s a Western Americana aspect to the culture that may resonate here as well. I think that there’s always been a similarity between the Latino subculture and the African American subculture (both have been institutionally marginalized, romanticized and relegated as “outside” the mainstream), and you’ll see Latinos pick and choose the best aspects from both of these cultures. You may not see Confederate Rebel flags flying, but Latinos will often emulate the hair styles, the sexier & coolest clothing, partner dancing, traditional tattoo patterns, vintage motorcycle & more styled period cars and hot rods -and they/we will always do it well!
DJ ROCKIN VIC
LOS ANGELES-BASED ROCKABILLY DJ
A big name rockabilly DJ spinning tunes around Los Angeles events is DJ Rockin Vic. Rockin Vic was born in LA and is ½ Mexican and ½ Ukrainian. Rockin Vic estimates that as much as 80% of rockabilly followers in LA are Latino.
Now, when you consider that roughly 50% or so of young people in LA are Latino, then you can see how Latinos greatly overrepresent in this subculture.
DJ Rockin Vic adds that Latinos have been an influence on American music since rock ‘n’ roll’s first wave. Vic states:
…If you revisit the history of American music, there are many unsung Latin heroes of the 1940s and 1950s who played jump blues, doo-wop, rockabilly, and rock ‘n’ roll who incorporated Latin elements to their song structure — to name a few: Lalo Guerrero, Don Tosti, Trini López, Freddy Fender, Tito Guizar, Danny Flores (aka Chuck Rio), Chan Romero and of course Richie Valens. Many Latinos already know some of these artists from their parents and grandparents. Also DJs like Art Laboe and Huggy Boy have played oldies for generations of Latinos on A.M. radio, and often included in their sets, 1950s rock ‘n’ roll, doo-wop and rhythm & blues. If you are a Mexican American from East L.A., chances are, you more than likely grew up on oldies in your house. To get into rockabilly, really isn’t a far stretch.
When asked about his family’s reaction to his lifestyle choice, Rockin Vic responds:
They love it! They think the music, furniture and the cars are fantastic. I was raised to understand that ‘made in America,’ especially stuff from the 1950s, meant high quality and durability. My father is very knowledgeable of antiques, therefore my family can appreciate and admire my life style.
VICTORIA INEZ RIVERA
BLOGGER AND VINTAGE ENTHUSIAST
Victoria Inez Rivera is from East LA and a self-described “voluptuous vintage Mexican gal” who writes and publishes a vintage inspired blog at Viva Victoria Vintage which covers everything from upcoming area events to her take on vintage fashion and lifestyle (which covers more than just clothing by the way).
While Victoria does consider herself more of a vintage enthusiast than a hardcore rockabilly fan (her musical tastes veer more towards ’80s Depeche Mode than old school rockabilly), she is a big supporter of the scene.
Victoria says she views her rockabilly experience as a part of an overall larger picture of all things vintage, which she sees as a natural progression for many Latinas who are often drawn to the glamour of dressing up from an early age.
For Victoria, vintage is a way of life that her family has embraced.
Her family supports here lifestyle and even encourages here to continue it as they see it as a way for Victoria to stay rooted to her culture and heritage — a familiar sounding theme I heard through many of my interviews.
BOOM BOOM L’ROUX
BURLESQUE DANCER & PINUP MODEL
So we know rockabilly culture is strong among Mexican Americans and on the west coast, but what about Puerto Ricans from the east coast?
While PuertoRican-Billy (I just made that up!) may never take the place of salsa or reggaetón as the music of choice for most young Puerto Ricans, they are in the scene.
Boom Boom L’roux is a Puerto Rican burlesque dancer from New York City currently living in Seattle. She originally got into burlesque when she stumbled upon a performance by dancer “Dirty Martini” at the famous Slipper Room in NYC.
The performance influenced Boom Boom so much that it led her to become a professional burlesque dancer and pinup model, and precipitated her move to the west coast where the scene was more vibrant.
While the number of Puerto Ricans in the scene is small compared to Mexican Americans and other groups, there is a history of greasers (West Side Story anyone?) among Puerto Ricans.
In fact, Boom Boom’s late uncle was a greaser who turned her onto the likes of Richie Valens and other Latin musical influences.
Boom Boom says of her uncle’s influence:
His nickname was Che, and he was a true greaser. He recently passed away and my time at Viva really made me think of him. He was like a father to me and taught me that real men drive Chevys and that true love is forever. He knew all the Chevys by heart and could tell them apart by sound. He picked up his wife with his baby blue Chevrolet Impala Convertible with white interior in 1960.
Like Victoria, Boom Boom says rockabilly is a way for her “to stay true to her roots” and honor her late Uncle Che.
Boom Boom sites Latina icon Rita Hayworth as a big inspiration as well.
These are just snapshots of the dozens of in interviews I’ve conducted over the years of Latinos and others involved in the rockabilly subculture. Obviously, I can’t list all their answers here, but there are a few conclusions I think that can be drawn from these and other interviews.
Does geography play a role? Absolutely! But to simply dismiss this as the primary reason Latinos are so overwhelmingly involved in the U.S. rockabilly scene is, in my opinion, simplistic and perhaps even intellectually lazy. It just doesn’t fully explain the sheer volume (or passion) of their participation.
There is no one size fits all answer as to why Latinos embrace rockabilly. The answers are as varied as the individuals themselves, but there does seem to be a general theme throughout: that is, staying connected to the roots of an older generation, many of whom were first generation in the U.S. when they arrived; it was the popular mainstream culture of their day. Perhaps it was a way to assimilate to a new but exciting culture in a strange land. Whether a father, mother, uncle or aunt, it seems there is a familial connection that gets passed down from generation to generation in many Latin families.
And perhaps therein is the difference between Latino and their non-Latino counterparts. Generally speaking (always a danger, but necessary in this instance) for Latinos, families often represent a major influence where for non- Latinos peers tend to provide a more powerful influence. I know that I, as a Gringo (AKA Caucasian American), never once considered carrying on my parent’s musical legacy, and certainly not their dress or style preferences. That would have been met with widespread derision from my peers.
Yet — and I noticed this most when I moved to NYC and was surrounded by hip hop & urban culture — I subconsciously craved music that reminded me of my youth in Tennessee; rock ‘n’ roll, Elvis Presley and even the despised country music that had infiltrated my brain.
When I first heard a Social Distortion song that seemed to effortlessly meld punk with rockabilly and roots country into a genre of music many call “punkabilly,” I was hooked without even knowing or caring why. But looking back, I see that the songs probably felt familiar even though I’d never heard them before. Familiarity during that time of my life living amongst a strange culture was comforting.
When I first stumbled into that VLV weekender in ’07 and heard some retro rhythms and lyrics being sung by a boyish guy named Omar Romero, who incidentally resembled a young but Latin Elvis, I had a similar feeling. That too felt strangely like home. Maybe that’s it. Maybe that’s what rockabilly is for all of us, Latino or not, it just feels like coming home.
To read and watch complete video interviews with DJ Del Villareal, DJ Rockin Vic, Victoria Rivera, and Boom Boom L’Reux click HERE, and to see the complete set of photos from this year’s Viva Las Vegas, click HERE. Read more on rockabilly culture by visiting our Viva La Rockabilly & Punkabilly article.