Chicano Music Festival Celebrates Colorado's Music History and Future

The Chicano Music Festival celebrates its twentieth anniversary this weekend.
The Chicano Music Festival celebrates its twentieth anniversary this weekend.
Courtesy of Tony Garcia

Although Denver is often cited as a center for Gothic Americana, EDM and jam bands, it has also long been a hub for another rich and diverse tradition: Chicano music. Through his work with the Chicano Music Festival and the Chicano Music Hall of Fame, Su Teatro executive artistic director Tony Garcia hopes to bring to light a host of Colorado-based Chicano artists who have made massive contributions to Colorado’s musical history, representing an important chapter on the local level while drawing from a variety of global experiences and influences.

This year, on the second night of the 20th Annual Chicano Music Festival, which takes place Wednesday, July 27, through Sunday, July 31, at Su Teatro, Garcia and his staff will induct six new members into the Chicano Music Hall of Fame, a yearly tradition in recognizing deserving musicians.

“So many of these cats have played in obscurity forever,” says Garcia, a musician himself who started playing guitar at the age of twelve. “No one ever wanted to take the time to recognize their contributions. Our criteria is artists who have been innovative and original. These are amazing people who made these incredible contributions. When we induct them, we always hear things like, ‘I never knew anyone noticed what I was doing.’”

The corresponding festival is a five-day celebration that focuses on our state’s deep musical traditions and showcases Chicano and indigenous musicians from Colorado and Mexico, covering many aspects of the Mexican-American music experience.

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While the inaugural festival took place in 1996, the Hall of Fame was started in 2002. The first two inductees were violinist Eva Nuanez and activist and radio host Paco Sanchez. Many people, including Garcia, feel that Sanchez is largely responsible for putting Colorado on the Chicano-music map. He was the first Hispanic owner of a Spanish-language radio station in Denver, KFSC-AM, which he started operating out of his Denver home in 1954. The radio station was an important community hub for Colorado’s Latino community, and Sanchez was instrumental in forming the Good Americans Organization, which helped build low-income and senior housing in Denver. He was the first disc jockey in Denver to play ranchera, conjunto and other forms of traditional folk music that were popular in areas with larger Latino populations, and KFSC served as a beacon for performers passing through Colorado.

“Because of [Sanchez], Denver was a big stop-off for groups from Mexico and Texas that would come here,” Garcia says. “This was a destination for people. They knew that when they got to Denver, they would have a chance to perform. We’ve always been influenced by all of this, and it contributes to our eclectic mix of music.”

The Chicano Music Festival celebrates its twentieth anniversary this weekend.
The Chicano Music Festival celebrates its twentieth anniversary this weekend.
Courtesy of Tony Garcia

Through the efforts of people like Sanchez, Denver’s Chicano community continued to grow and absorb influences from Texas, California and New Mexico. While enriching the local music scene, Chicano music also served as a soundtrack to a burgeoning civil-rights movement occurring in Denver, where people like Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales spearheaded the Crusade for Justice, which supported Chicano nationalism and sought to give Chicano youth better educational opportunities.

“Historically, Denver has always been interesting for Chicanos, because during the civil-rights movement, it was a big hub for activism,” Garcia says. “Our population at that time was only about 12 percent, but the activism was still much stronger than those [cities with] larger populations. The Chicano movement taught us a lot about being Mexican.”

By the time Garcia started the Chicano Music Festival, Denver’s Chicano population was a robust and vibrant one, and he wanted to find a way to celebrate its traditions and music.

“I figured there was an opportunity to present music that was born in Mexico but raised in the United States,” he says.

His inspiration at the time was the Tejano Conjunto Festival in San Antonio, which draws performers from all over the world and is considered to be the oldest and largest event of its kind.

“The first Chicano Music Festival was a collaboration between Su Teatro and Swallow Hill [Music School]. They were bringing in Tejano folksinger Tish Hinojosa and asked if we were interested in going in on a concert,” recalls Garcia. “We were planning on bringing in Agustín Lira and his band, and we were able to combine the events. We did it at Loretto Heights, and we filled out the bill with local bands. We actually started calling it the Chicano Music Festival after we had the bill together. The next year, we didn’t have a festival, but later we moved it to our space in Elyria and did it more as a street festival. We had it in our parking lot, which was dirt. We’ve learned a lot about what makes the festival work and not. When we moved to the Santa Fe Arts District, we were able to take advantage of all the great equipment that was available in the building. We also had the indoor bar and, of course, indoor bathrooms. It is really the best of both worlds.”

Twenty years later, the festival still celebrates storied traditions while attempting to bring in new influences to an audience of all ages. This year’s festival will feature performances from previous Hall of Fame inductees Eva Nuanez, Freddie Rodriguez Sr., the Mood Express and La Familia Coca, as well as more contemporary groups such as Barrio Funk, Mariachi Vasquez and Denver’s own Pink Hawks doing a tribute to Little Joe, a Grammy-winning Tejano performer. While many of these groups are not household names, they’re an important part of Mexican-American culture and an integral part of Colorado’s musical legacy.

“This should be a regular experience for everyone, but it’s really not,” Garcia says. “We get caught in all of these pockets of commercial music, and we have to go seek out these experiences on our own. This is an expression of our experience. We have these connections to other parts of the world, but we’ve lived here, in Colorado, for hundreds of years. Our experience is not a foreign experience; it’s a U.S. experience.” 

20th Annual Chicano Music Festival
July 27-31, showtimes vary, Su Teatro, 721 Santa Fe Drive, 303-296-0219, $45-$60, all ages.

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Su Teatro Cultural and Performing Arts Center

721 Santa Fe Dr.
Denver, CO 80204

303-296-0219

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