Meanwhile, Back at the Ranchera
Delia Flores has selected raspberry lipstick, a blue headband and six tiny gold hoop earrings for the evening. Although she still has to wear her khaki uniform and lug around a dustpan and broom, Los Temerarios, Mexico's hottest romántica band, is playing tonight, and she wants to look good. A native of Chihuahua, Delia's been a resident of the United States for three years and a passionate Temerarios fan even longer.
While the crowd gathers outside the Denver Coliseum, Delia sweeps up a cigarette butt here, a gum wrapper there, secretly scouting the arena for the perfect spot to stand once the house lights dim.
"Love," she explains, fanning her face. "Looove."
Last year, Los Temerarios easily sold out the Coliseum, and now, on a bill with Pancho Barraza, Los Terribles del Norte, Los Askis and Chavos Dun Dun, they're poised to do the same. The arena fills with hundreds of homesick dishwashers, construction workers, teachers, lawyers, housewives and cooks, who have each shelled out $40 to sway with the melody, bounce to the beat, savor a taste of Mexico. Dark-eyed women in miniskirts, red velvet gowns, stiletto heels and skin-tight jeans. Cologne-soaked men in white tejano hats, Our Lady of Guadalupe shirts, pegged jeans and turquoise ostrich-skin boots. Gold chains. Gold watches. Gold rings. Gold teeth. Beer. Cigarette smoke. Laughter. All riding a torrent of Spanish.
Even amid all the glitter, a man and woman stand out. He wears a tailored black suit, she an iridescent evening dress. They are an unlikely pair: a onetime street kid and a choir singer; meat cutter and an F-16 inspector; a cumbia fan and a ranchera devotee. Yet together, Federico and Olga Galindo have come to dominate Denver's Spanish-language concert scene. They bring the bands, and the bands bring the people. They are wealthy, controversial and powerful, the Latin versions of rock promoter Barry Fey. In the red-hot market of regional-Mexican music, they are royalty -- the king and queen most people have never heard of.
Nobody has it made. You always start at the bottom. And there's always a ladder to climb. -- Olga Galindo
In northern Mexico, people don't just listen to music. They dance. They sing. They swoon. In Chihuahua, Sonora, Coahuila, Baja California, Durango and Nuevo León, music is more than lyrics, melodies and rhythms. It's an integral part of their birthdays, weddings, quinceañeras, funerals. It's the sound of their lives.
Every year, more and more people cross the border looking for work. And when they do, they bring their music with them. Conjunto, meaning group or ensemble, a polka-like sound featuring button accordions, twelve-string bajo sexto guitars and drums. Norteño, a rural cousin of conjunto, but often laced with the poetic narrative of corridos. Tejano, the Spanish word for Texan, a traditionally-based big-city sound modernized with synthesizers and electric guitars and made famous by Selena. Banda, with its big and boisterous ensembles of tubas and trumpets. Cumbia, marked by tropical, hip-swiveling rhythms. Mariachi, the classic arrangement of horns, violins, guitars and choruses.
This is music of the factory worker and the farmer, the not-too-distant relative of folk and country-and-Western in the United States.
But Mexican music is also attracting younger, first-generation immigrants who have rediscovered their roots through narco-corridos, a gangsta-rap equivalent that applies traditional sounds and styles to heroic tales of drug-running and other exploits. In some families, it's not unusual to find teenagers with Eminem and Los Tigres del Norte on the same mixed CD.
Today, the music of the border is labeled "regional Mexican." Marketed primarily to recent immigrants, it's the hottest Spanish-language music in the United States. Last year, regional-Mexican acts accounted for over half of all Latin record sales, earning more than $300 million and outselling tropical, salsa, rock and pop acts combined -- including Ricky Martin and Enrique Iglesias.
Major record labels, including Sony and EMI, have taken note of regional Mexican's popularity, devoting entire divisions to the genre and expanding distribution to stores like Wal-Mart, which regularly stocks the hottest regional-Mexican acts at many of its outlets. A promoters' association that pushed Mexican music for years has gotten official, reorganizing as Promotores Unidos, USA, with annual conventions and a Web site.
In Denver, four radio stations are devoted to the format. Dozens of clubs host dances featuring regional-Mexican music each weekend. The Coliseum features major acts almost monthly. The sounds of Los Tucanes and Conjunto Primavera echo from mercados, taquerías and F-150s all over town.
It's a musical subculture overlooked by most of English-speaking Denver. The concerts and dances are like nothing rock, pop or rap have to offer. They're part senior prom, part rodeo fiesta and part anniversary party, during which entire families take to the floor. While rock-act ticket sales have slid, live Mexican music is growing stronger and shows no signs of stopping.
In Denver, Federico and Olga Galindo stand on top of it all.
On his farm in rural Chihuahua, Antonio Rios had no television and no telephone. But he did have a radio. Two radios, in fact. And when Olga lived with her grandfather as a child, the radio was a constant presence.
"He even went to sleep with the radio on," she recalls. "There was always music."
Olga's father was shot and killed at a fiesta when she was two. After that, her mother moved to El Paso to support the family, and Olga and her five brothers went to live with their grandparents. Antonio became Olga's role model, inspiration and guiding light.
"He was an angel," she says.
Antonio and his wife had little formal education, but they were bright, determined, spiritual people who constantly tried to better themselves and the people around them with dichos like "Plant a good seed, get a good harvest. Plant a bad seed, get a bad harvest."
And they taught by example. Antonio labored from sunrise to sunset practically every day of his life. When he wasn't toiling in fields of beans, corn and apples, he was crafting tables and chairs from wood scraps or arranging groceries inside his tiendita.
"That man never stopped," Olga recalls. "He was always working."
Antonio kept his grandchildren busy, too. When they weren't in school, Olga and her brothers worked around the house and in the fields, waking before dawn on cold spring mornings to pile firewood into steel drums so the fruit blossoms wouldn't freeze. At seven, Olga slid behind the counter of her grandparents' store, mindful of Antonio's instructions: Make sure customers pay, and never lend money.
At the end of the day, Antonio often would sit with friends and spin tales about ghosts, buried treasure and Pancho Villa. Sometimes he'd throw back his head and sing. Music was his way of relaxing, reliving the old days, connecting to his people.
In 1975, Olga's mother moved her children north to Colorado -- to Johnstown and then Longmont. The transition was hard, but the children drew strength from each other. Olga's mother and brothers took jobs at a turkey-processing plant, while Olga attended school and worked at a record store. In 1982, Olga became a citizen.
Like Antonio's house, the family home in Longmont was filled with music. The radio was tuned to Denver's KBNO morning, noon and night. Olga sang in the church choir, listened to records by her favorite ranchera bands, and attended the occasional dance. When she did, her brothers watched her like a hawk. The only girl in the family, she had a strict curfew -- and the few times she blew it, her brothers wouldn't speak to her for a week. But Olga wasn't very interested in a social life. She was holding down two jobs -- as an IBM quality-control inspector and an interpreter for a bail-bonds company -- and hoped to study law.
One night in September 1983, a friend asked her to go to a club in Denver called Los Panchos. Olga had just left work and didn't have a chance to change clothes, but when her brothers extended her curfew, she agreed.
At Los Panchos, Olga sat in her gray business suit, enjoying the music and declining all offers to dance. Her friend was excited: She'd just seen a man she had a crush on, a tall man with a strong jaw, broad shoulders and a full head of black hair. But Olga didn't pay any attention to him.
Suddenly, she heard a deep voice over her shoulder.
Federico Galindo grew up fast. As a young man alone on the streets of Mexico, he had no good influences to speak of, no safety net and no room for error. When he needed guidance, he looked to one place and one place only.
"Myself," he says. "I had to believe in me, that's it."
Federico was born on Christmas Eve 1956 in Durango, the second of nine kids. His father, who farmed a few plots of corn, beans and peppers, left the family when Federico was ten. His mother and grandmother were strong and resilient women who did what they could, but when he hit thirteen, Federico went to work, first in the fields and then in a paper-bag factory in Monterrey.
"We had to eat," he says simply.
At fifteen, Federico left for Tijuana, taking dreams of California with him. He slept in a bus station, survived by his wits, and eventually met another young man who'd ventured north alone. One night they climbed a hill overlooking the border and prepared to make their break. But before they reached the fence, they were confronted by a pack of bandits, who demanded money.
Federico ran. He ran all night long through sand, cactus and rock. The bandits pursued the boys for miles before Federico and his exhausted companion finally made it back to Tijuana. There, at the bus terminal, Federico developed a plan: He'd scan the new arrivals for people headed to California, then introduce them to a street courier at $10 a pop.
In this way, Federico survived.
Eventually, he offered the coyote a proposition: If he delivered thirty clients, would the courier take him across for free? The coyote grinned. He had made plenty of money with the lanky teenager and had been impressed by his street smarts, entrepreneurial instincts and cojones. So without paying a cent, Federico traveled to Los Angeles and then Fresno, where he picked grapes, plums and peaches until his fingers ached and his skin itched. He remained a farmworker until the Immigration and Naturalization Service plucked him from the fields three years later and deported him. Federico visited his mother for a while, then headed to Juarez and crossed the Rio Grande with another friend.
"I have a lot of guts," Federico says. "I do have that."
At nineteen, Federico arrived in Denver with pocket change and a ragged pair of shoes. He made friends, established contacts and found work at a meat-processing plant. He married twice and had two sons. And eventually, like so many others before him, he found the nightclubs that catered to the Mexican market, where he danced to cumbia and banda and settled back with songs from the border.
As long as Mexicans have lived in Denver, there has been Mexican music here. But one man brought it out of the living rooms, back yards and bars and put it on the airwaves. During Francisco "Paco" Sanchez's 25 years in Denver, he established the blueprint for Spanish-language radio, concerts and clubs.
An immigrant from Guadalajara, Sanchez had studied medicine in Mexico City but set aside his anatomy texts for another love: promotions. As a youth, he'd traveled the countryside as a juggler and musician, pitching a tent, selling tickets, then performing himself. He arrived here in 1948 by way of California, hoping to promote Los Angeles showman Lalo Guerrero and his orchestra. But Sanchez soon discovered that few avenues of promotion existed in Denver, which didn't even have a Spanish-language radio station. So Sanchez stepped into the booth and launched Colorado's first Latin show with a half-hour slot on KTLN.
By 1954, his program had become so popular that Sanchez opened his own station. Broadcasting from his east Denver home, he launched KFSC, the state's first Spanish-language radio outlet. In the booth, flapping his arms, cracking jokes and dispensing advice like "Give wings to your imagination," he became a powerful voice.
"People really listened to him," says Carmen Beall, a friend and colleague. "He was just so funny and so gracious. He caught your attention immediately. I'd go down Larimer, past all the bakeries, and they'd all have their radios on."
Later, Sanchez formed the Good Americans Organization (GAO), which helped build low-income and senior housing, as well as a dance hall at 47th Avenue and Lipan Street. Before he died in 1973, Sanchez also brought major Mexican bands to town, opened a Spanish-language cinema, founded a bank and served for three years as a state representative.
"Everything started with him," Beall says. "The first radio station. The first ballroom. The first theater. Before him, people thought mariachi meant food. He was a genius."
Sanchez's legacy took root in nightclubs, places like La Fiesta, La Bamba, American Inn, El Gato Negro and Joe's Buffet. Among the most popular was the New Mexico Inn, owned by Joaquin Murrietta, who left an imprint of his own.
Murrietta grew up in Cerro, New Mexico, the son of a shepherd. When he was six, his father died, and he and his siblings were raised by an aunt. During the Depression, the children wandered from home to home, seeking meals.
"My dad knew what it was like to do without," says his youngest daughter, Jeannette Murrietta. "And he never forgot."
In 1948, after serving in the Pacific during World War II, making bombs at Los Alamos National Laboratory and digging coal, Murrietta moved to Colorado. He worked as a janitor at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal and as a fireman at the Denver Federal Center before opening the first of three taverns. Murrietta and his wife loved Al Hurricane, Tiny Morrie, Vicente Fernandez, Antonio Aguilar and anything with an accordion. They listened to KFSC -- which later became KBNO -- and attended dances at the GAO.
Seeing the demand and sensing a business opportunity, Murrietta traveled to Juarez and became one of the first club owners to book bands, such as Los Populares, Clem Garcia and Baldo Ramirez. But, like Sanchez, Murrietta wasn't interested in just hosting good times. He wanted to help people, too. He cashed checks for those without accounts, gave job recommendations, prepared citizenship papers.
When Joaquin Murrietta died in February 1984, his funeral was packed.
"I had never seen a funeral like Paco Sanchez's until my dad's," Jeannette Murrietta says. "The procession was well over 200 cars. When he made his money, he took in a lot of people and helped them out. If he saw someone who was down and out, he not only gave them money, but he'd put them up in a room and help them find a job. He touched a lot of people."
In his clubs, men and women from Mexico met, made friends, fell in love.
When Olga returned to the table after her dance with Federico, she found her friend fuming: She'd been dancing with her friend's crush.
No problem, Olga said: She wouldn't date Federico. But Federico was persistent. He called; he visited. Olga wasn't convinced. She told him she wasn't looking for a man, that she wanted to finish school and study law. But Federico said he wouldn't go away. Three months after they met, the couple moved in together.
In 1984, Federico divorced his second wife, and he and Olga relocated to Fort Worth. Olga became an F-16 control-panel inspector for General Dynamics while Federico worked at a meatpacking plant. On September 29, 1985, Olga gave birth to a boy named Frederick. But the economy went south, General Dynamics downsized, and Olga accepted a buyout. Federico, meanwhile, had hurt his back at the plant lifting frozen steaks and received a workers' compensation settlement.
Then Federico got a call from the owner of one of his old Denver watering holes. The man said he'd been thinking about opening a club in Longmont: With $13,000, the Galindos could become partners.
Federico had always loved nightclubs, and Olga thought it sounded like a good opportunity. So in the summer of 1986, they moved to Longmont and invested in the club, El Rey. They poured in more than their initial financial cut. They worked day and night, painting walls, buying furniture, installing fixtures. They spent thousands more on renovation. Since they'd supplied most of the money and labor, they were supposed to get an 80-20 split of the profits, but it never worked out that way.
One night, Olga says, she overheard their partners discussing how they were going to ax the couple after the club became established. Federico and Olga had invested most of the cash, but the liquor-license application wasn't in their name, so their partners thought they'd have little recourse. Hearing this, Olga gathered every receipt she could and complained to authorities, who began an investigation.
Olga and Federico were ousted, anyway, so they opened a Mexican restaurant, Freddie's, named after their son. Their former partners eventually lost El Rey, though, and the couple sold the restaurant and reclaimed the club. But before they could reopen it, they had to invest another $40,000 to repair the interior their former partners had destroyed before skipping town.
When they finally got their dance hall open, they called it Flamingo's.
Federico and Olga were used to hard work, but running a nightclub was as hard as it gets. From the beginning, they'd hoped to feature the ranchera, banda, conjunto and cumbia music they'd heard all their lives, but such bands were hard to come by in rural Colorado. Fans, many of them seasonal migrant workers, were difficult to reach, too. If Federico booked a band and the dance didn't draw the crowds, he still had to pay -- and pay on schedule. In those days, he recalls, deals were made with a word and a handshake. Relationships were vital. Reputation was everything.
Federico and Olga worked the phones, made contacts, tried new music. They also developed a strategy that began paying off: maximum volume, which called for attracting as many customers as possible with a continuous assortment of door discounts, drink specials and contests. They started drawing people from as far away as Greeley and made enough on Saturday nights to keep them afloat during the week.
Little by little, Federico booked bigger bands at Flamingo's, including a fledgling romántica group named Los Temerarios. Eventually, he even scheduled dances at Denver's Mammoth Events Center, the massive old building on East Colfax Avenue that Cuban entrepreneurs Manuel and Magaly Fernandez had bought in 1986.
At the time, the city's Spanish-language music scene was in transition. After Paco Sanchez's death, a promoter named Luis Enriquez had booked Mexican dances in Denver. When he left, the Fernandezes and their Latino USA company stepped in, scheduling ballroom dances featuring salsa and tropical performers such as the Miami Sound Machine. Bolivian-born Zee Ferrufino, who owned a furniture store and record-distribution business, got involved, too: His Latino Promotions brought regional-Mexican artists to places like McNichols Arena, Currigan Hall and even Mammoth.
Federico contends that neither the Fernandezes nor Ferrufino had realized the potential of regional-Mexican dances until he booked them at Mammoth. But Ferrufino remembers things differently. "No, no," he says. "Way before he brought anything, I was already bringing Vicente Fernandez and Los Tigres del Norte here. I was the first one."
While the regional-Mexican music scene was growing, Flamingo's itself was suffering growing pains. In September 1987, one of the club's security guards was accused of smacking a patron in the face with a baton, then macing the injured man and another customer. That same month, Flamingo's employees were charged with serving alcohol to four minors, including the twenty-year-old bride, during a wedding reception. In February 1988, the club's liquor license was suspended for three days.
And things got worse.
Federico's older brother, Jesus, ran El Papagallo Azteca nightclub at 4700 Lipan Street, on the site of Paco Sanchez's GAO dance hall. The elder Galindo was also a major drug dealer.
In February 1990, Jesus was busted in El Paso and labeled the mastermind of a ring smuggling forty kilograms of cocaine per month, according to newspaper accounts. Authorities seized about $1 million in cash and property, including an estate fronting an El Paso golf course, five racehorses, eleven cars, gold jewelry and coins. During an undercover operation spearheaded by the FBI, Jesus had given agents $175,000 in a briefcase, asking them for help laundering the cash.
Olga and Federico denied any involvement in Jesus's drug business. In fact, Federico says, at the time of Jesus's arrest, the brothers hadn't spoken in four years: They'd had a falling out over early difficulties with Flamingo's, and the rift had never healed.
"We were no way connected to him," Olga says. "We worked hard for our money. We didn't even talk to him back then. He did a lot of harm to us and our business. And we did not approve of what he was doing."
Still, law-enforcement authorities placed them under surveillance, Olga says. After Jesus told federal agents that he'd helped the couple buy their home, officials slapped a sticker on the window claiming it as police property.
"I used to go to the park with my son and see people watching us with binoculars," recalls Olga, who says Jesus had no financial involvement with the house. "Whenever I left, someone followed me."
Olga and Federico were never charged with a crime; they were never even questioned by authorities. Finally, their attorney told police, "If you don't have any proof, leave them alone." And eventually they did.
"They even called to apologize," Olga remembers. "They told me, 'Why don't you go and remove the sticker from your window?' and I said, 'You remove it. You're the ones who put it up there. You take it down.'"
The couple was having trouble at Flamingo's, too.
In October 1990, licensing authorities said the club had exceeded its 299-person capacity with two dances that attracted up to 1,800 patrons. Olga accused the authorities of discrimination. There was no way 1,800 people could fit into the club, she said, and even if they could, no one had ever told her about the 299-person limit.
By the end of 1990, the Galindos had had enough. They sold Flamingo's and moved to Nebraska.
The next summer, they opened a restaurant named El Rancho in the town of Giltner, where they settled down, made friends and enjoyed the rural atmosphere.
Sixteen months later, a fire gutted the restaurant and the adjacent home where the Galindos were living.
The blaze was a freak accident, according to Olga. Before heading to Longmont to visit relatives, Olga, who was then eight months pregnant, lowered the heat on one of the restaurant's two furnaces. While they were out of town, the furnace malfunctioned and exploded.
The insurance company didn't buy it and refused to pay damages. The Galindos sued. While their case dragged on -- they never did get any money on their claim -- they moved into a trailer home and began cleaning houses to pay the bills. On January 15, 1993, Olga gave birth to a daughter, Alexa. Four months later, Olga and Federico got married.
Out of the blue, Olga took a phone call from a brother back in Colorado. A Thornton businessman had been trying to reach them. The man had a proposition, her brother said: Would she and Federico be interested in managing a nightclub?
Santana's was a squat rectangle in a strip mall at 900 East 88th Avenue in Thornton. Originally a bowling alley, over the years it had been transformed into everything from a Top 40 bar to a jazz club. And it showed. When the Galindos walked through the club in mid-1993, they found stained carpets, dirty walls, scuffed furniture.
"When you saw it, it made you want to cry," Olga recalls.
The owner had been trying to rejuvenate the club for years and had even approached the Galindos in the late '80s. Then, as now, they wasn't interested in managing the club -- but they were interested in buying it.
Although the owner balked at first, Olga and Federico not only convinced him to change his mind, but he let them put $10,000 down on the $80,000 club and pay off the rest with $10,000 monthly installments.
"He was very skeptical," Olga recalls. "He wanted to sell it outright. He kept saying, 'You guys are never going to make it.' I used to visit him every day and negotiate: 'Give us a chance. Give us a chance.' And he did."
The only problem was, the Galindos didn't have $10,000. So they maxed their credit cards, used money Olga had inherited from her grandparents, and got a loan from the man who rented their home in Longmont.
Still, when Federico surveyed the 1,000-person club, he was apprehensive. "It was too big," he says. "I didn't think we could fill it."
Olga always saw its potential. "I knew we could do it," she says. "I just knew."
In November 1993, La Fantasia nightclub held its first dance and almost sold out. Within six months, the Galindos had not only paid off the club, but took care of other debts, as well. Using their maximum-volume strategy from Flamingo's, they featured contests and drink and door specials. "Right away, we had people," Federico says.
Their timing was perfect.
As the economy rebounded, immigrants from northern Mexico had flooded the Front Range. The Spanish-language music market was growing by leaps and bounds. Zee Ferrufino, who'd left concert promotions in 1988 for personal reasons and bought KBNO radio. By then, KCUV and KJME also featured regional Mexican formats. The Fernandezes, who started managing KCUV in 1992 (and bought it in 1996), were booking headliners such as Los Bukis, Bronco and Los Tigres del Norte into Mammoth, drawing fans from as far away as Wyoming, Kansas and Nebraska.
La Fantasia enjoyed the boom.
Early on, Olga and Federico say, they wanted customers to know they were interested in more than just money. They remembered how hard it was adjusting to a new country. Recalling the generosity of Paco Sanchez and Joaquin Murrietta, they hoped to model La Fantasia after those clubs, where Mexican immigrants found a helping hand as well as a good time.
"To have long-term relationships, you have to get involved with people," Olga says. "With the club, if someone has a problem, we want them to come to us and we'll try to help. That's important to us. If you don't remember who you are and where you came from, how are you going to know where you're going? If we forget our roots and who we are, then it's not worth it to even live."
Despite the couple's good intentions, the Thornton authorities didn't exactly embrace the club, Olga remembers. Police relations were frosty. In December 1993, authorities discovered discrepancies in the couple's liquor-license application: Federico had neglected to mention an INS jail stint in Texas in 1984 for transporting illegal immigrants with Jesus. (Federico didn't know about his brother's plans and had simply been along for the ride, Olga says, adding that he was never found guilty.) The couple had also left out the Flamingo's 1988 liquor-license suspension. And their birthdays were incorrect, too, Detective Paul Reffitt noted.
The Galindos say those omissions were the result of miscommunications with their elderly attorney, who admitted his mistakes to the licensing board. The Galindos corrected the application.
But the problems continued. La Fantasia's liquor license was briefly suspended in March 1997 and again that August after the club served minors. Employees were also accused of serving liquor to drunk patrons and failing to clean graffiti in a timely manner.
Mistakes were made, Olga admits. But there's a cultural component to Mexican dances that authorities often overlook. When dances are held at La Fantasia, they become community events, attended by parents and young adults alike. As long as the events are supervised and monitored, many parents have no problem letting their older children see their favorite bands.
"And people don't just come for the music, either," Olga explains. "They come to find friends, to relax, to get advice about the rules here, and to forget about everything else that's happening in their lives. For a lot of people, it's a therapy thing."
To placate authorities, the Galindos hired security guards and educated employees about licensing requirements. They also sought advice from the police as to how to reduce complaints and improve neighborhood relations.
Even so, in the spring of 1999, when La Fantasia's license came up for renewal, police recommended against it. The club had a "pattern of fights, violent activity and disorderly conduct," they said. In 1998, officers had gone on 133 calls to La Fantasia, for everything from assault to disorderly conduct to sexual assault to auto theft to domestic violence. In the first four months of 1999, the police had already been sent to the club 52 times.
"The police department believes this bar has operated in a way which adversely affects the public health and safety," concluded Detective Reffitt.
Neighbors, meanwhile, complained about speeding, the "occasional gunshot" and the echo of "something that sounds like native drums that go on forever."
"It's hell when they get the patrons involved and join in," one 54-year-old woman wrote. "It confuses the heck out of my pups, and the dogs in the neighborhood."
They were victims of location, the Galindos responded. La Fantasia stood near a tavern, two liquor stores and a 7-Eleven. Customers from those businesses often passed through their property and caused trouble. La Fantasia's security guards quieted most of the disturbances, but they had to call police anyway.
"The law can hurt you both ways," Olga says. "You're supposed to call and report trouble. But if you call too many times, you wind up with problems yourself."
The Galindos fenced their property and built a separate room for underage patrons. In August 1999, over the objections of police, La Fantasia's license was renewed. Since then, says Reffitt, "It's been very quiet. We have had no excessive calls for service."
While the Galindos maintained a truce with Thornton, they were looking beyond La Fantasia.
As the market for regional-Mexican music grew, the Fernandezes had proved reluctant to grow with it. Bands grumbled when fans were turned away after Mammoth's 3,500-person capacity was reached; they thought they were losing potential customers. Fans complained about acts that never showed.
Mammoth wasn't in great shape, either. The Fernandezes had spent thousands renovating the building, but the acoustics were bad and the bathrooms were worse. Promoters and bands alike clamored for a larger venue, but the Fernandezes were hesitant to provide it. They owned the liquor license at Mammoth, and using their radio station to promote the acts they scheduled there through their own Latino USA promotions company created what they called a "golden triangle," which brought in money from every angle.
Hearing the grumbling from the bands and the fans, Federico and Olga formed their own concert promotions company, Empresa Union, in 1997. With a tight crew of employees, including Tony Guerrero, the former promotions director at KJME who'd brought a few bands to Denver, the Galindos scheduled their first major dance, featuring Los Tucanes, at the 6,000-person Holiday Inn in Aurora. The show sold out easily, proving that Denver's Mexican-music fans would indeed fill larger venues. After more successful dances, the Galindos approached Denver officials regarding the Coliseum, a space that could hold 11,000 people for general concerts and 9,500 for dances.
The city was apprehensive, recalls Rodney Smith, general manager of Denver's Division of Theatres and Arenas. He and his senior staff didn't know much about Mexican music and weren't sure if its mostly blue-collar fans would pay up to $40 a ticket. They didn't know much about the Galindos, either. So Smith asked Jeannette Murrietta, who had begun booking concerts for the city, to sit in on a meeting with Empresa Union.
After Olga and Federico made their pitch, Jeannette tested their musical knowledge by asking which bands Empresa Union intended to bring through Denver. When the couple rattled off a list of top acts, including Los Tucanes, Los Tigres del Norte and Banda El Recodo, she decided the Galindos knew what they were doing -- and told her bosses as much. This was the kind of music that the city's newest residents were hungry to hear. Yet the city remained cautious. To cover the Coliseum's rent, insurance and labor costs, as well as a band's fees and travel expenses, the Galindos were looking at a $50,000 tab. If the tickets didn't sell, they'd be stuck -- and the city might be, too.
They took the gamble, anyway.
The Galindos scheduled Lluvia de Super Grupos, a lineup of artists including Los Tiranos del Norte, Grupo Mojado and Los Angeles Azules, for June 26, 1998, advertising on Spanish-language TV and radio, posting fliers and spreading the word at La Fantasia. They wound up filling about 40 percent of the Coliseum -- not great, but not bad for a first try. It was enough for the city to be interested in trying again.
And the city wasn't the only interested party.
On the night of the Galindos' first Coliseum dance, Cruz Frias, a promoter from Southern California, held his own event -- drawing attention away from the Galindos' dance. And over the next few years, the Galindos say, whenever Empresa Union held an event, Frias booked acts at competing venues. He worked with California's Hauser Entertainment to schedule his own Coliseum events with major artists. One of those, a May 2000 dance featuring ranchera icon Vicente Fernandez, filled the Coliseum to 96 percent capacity.
The Galindos fought back, offering lower ticket prices to their own dances and using their home-court contacts for all they were worth. Their strategy was to snag as many fans as they could. Empresa Union might lose money, but so would its rivals. And if those rivals lose enough, Federico says, "they go away."
The Fernandezes were the first to bow out. In February 1999, the couple sold Mammoth to a company that was subsequently sold to Clear Channel Entertainment. (Clear Channel reopened it as the Fillmore Auditorium.) Not long after, they sold KCUV to Miami's Radio Unica, which changed the format to Spanish-language sports and talk radio. And then the Fernandezes retired to the Sunshine State themselves.
"They deserve a lot of credit," says Roberto "Beto" Gaytan, who started working for the couple in 1992. "They really helped develop a musical movement. They gave exposure and a venue to what had really been a grassroots thing."
By the late 90s, though, it was a big business. And while Frias continued bringing in big acts, Art Cormier, who'd closed his El Fugitivo nightclub in 1997, opened the 7,000-person Los Caporales nightclub in Denver's Regency Hotel, attracting huge weekend crowds.
But the Galindos didn't blink. In 1999, Empresa Union booked three Coliseum dances, including Conjunto Primavera, which drew an 84 percent capacity. In 2000, they promoted nine Coliseum shows, including another Conjunto Primavera night that did 85 percent. In 2001, they booked eight acts and sold out twice.
Gradually, Frias backed off.
After four years, the Galindos were on top.
When people speak about Olga and Federico, they choose their words carefully. They smile, study their fingernails, let the silence linger. In this town, the Galindos have a reputation. Reputations, actually, that shift depending on who's talking.
The Galindos have their admirers, who describe them as generous, dedicated and savvy people living an immigrant rags-to-riches story. But others who decline to let their names appear in print are quick to pass on rumors about drug money and underworld ties -- although they provide no evidence to support those rumors. Federico, they say, is "unpredictable, "volatile," "a real hard guy" whose in-your-face negotiating tactics include rapid-fire profanities and outright threats.
"He demands total compliance," one observer says. "He doesn't just want to do business with you; he wants to own you. He's a big intimidating guy with a jaw like an NFL linebacker who looks like he could clear out a bar by himself. In this business, you usually see portly guys with cervezas and tequila, but Federico is all about cashmere coats, Armani suits and 2002 Cadillac Escalades. He looks like he just walked off the cover of GQ. He's like the godfather of Mexican music."
Fueling much of the speculation is Federico's involvement with the influential Mexican music promoters' association, Promotores Unidos, USA. The association has been around for years in one form or another, meeting regularly in places like Las Vegas and Monterrey. The group, critics say, decides who schedules the acts, how much they cost, who gets what percentage. They slice up the territory. "It's all controlled," another observer says.
But whether the music is Mexican or not, the concert-promotions business has always been competitive, full of egos and tales of dirty tricks.
Rob Quinn, general manager of Entravison's three Denver radio affiliates, says Federico's reputation is similar to that of old-school rock promoters "whose bark is so bad you don't want to see their bite.
"Whether you like or dislike the guy, his longevity and success speaks volumes," Quinn says. "His business, owning a nightclub and a concert promotions company, doesn't exactly lend itself to a charm-school background. But he's an expert in the genre. He can tell you within 500 tickets how an event will do. He pays his bills on time; his events proceed in an orderly manner. I say hats off to him."
According to Beto Gaytan, the Galindos "have honestly earned their position."
"He's tough when he has to be tough and cool when he has to be cool," Gaytan says of Federico. "He took a risk. When you take a risk, you either pay the consequences or profit. He profited. He's on top. When you're on top, everyone is out to get you. He defends what he's fought for. He's brought a level of respect."
He's also earned a nickname: La Cuerda, which reflects both his leading role in the scene and his ability to control that scene.
Andres Neidig owns KJME radio, which he founded in 1989 after running a radio station in Pueblo; he was program director for Paco Sanchez's KFSC. Neidig has booked his own successful dances in Denver and has worked with the Galindos for years. "He's a good businessman," Neidig says of Federico. "He has good instincts as a promoter.
"I've always said he's lucky," he adds. "If you go into a casino and you're smart but have no luck, you fail. I believe in luck."
Even Cruz Frias downplays the supposed bad blood between him and the Galindos. Frias remains as interested in Denver as he is in any other city, but instead of competing head to head against the Galindos, they've sometimes worked on shows together.
"We respect each other," Frias says. "It's okay."
The Galindos' track record speaks for itself, according to Rodney Smith, not only with the city, but with musicians as well. Smith and other staffers at Denver's Division of Theatres and Arenas have heard talk of Federico's volatility, but they've never been threatened or intimidated by him. They've never even seen an angry outburst. Although there have been "a few rough spots" over the logistics, Smith says, their overall relationship is good.
"With promoters, sometimes it comes down to who has the best relationship with bands," Smith explains. "It's not just about big money. It's who you know. How you treat people. Whether you're fair and square. It's trust. It's integrity. It doesn't take bands long to figure out who they want to work with."
With every show, the Galindos get better and the city feels more confident about the Spanish-language market. In fact, it hopes to expand its events at the Coliseum. The productions are less elaborate than rock or pop shows. The artists are less egotistical and demanding. And the audiences are more respectful.
"You can see a real love for the music without all the other stuff involved," says Smith. "They are wonderful events."
"They really are responsible for raising Hispanic awareness in Denver," says Jeannette Murrietta. "Everyone is looking at the Coliseum now. The Coliseum seems to be home to the Hispanic community."
The Galindos insist that their success is no mystery. There are no underworld connections, there is no drug money.
They're pursuing the American dream: working hard, raising a family, (which now includes a two-year-old son, Adam). Federico finally became a U.S. citizen in 2000. They're both type-A "people people" who absolutely love the "rush, rush, rush" of the music business, says Olga. When they're not rushing off to Mexico, they're clipping news articles, working the phones, shmoozing bands, listening to music, developing promotional campaigns, varying their dance lineups to attract broader audiences, even debating the size of bumper stickers.
They've had problems, no doubt about it, but they've tried to learn from their experiences and move forward. They respect their customers. They treat their employees like family; some of them are family.
But mostly, they talk to people. On the street. At the club. During dances. After all these years, Federico and Olga still believe in conducting market research the old-fashioned way: by listening to fans.
"People think we came in, opened up and became successful," Olga says. "But it's not like you win the lottery. Everything we've done in the past has been a school for us. When you do well, you save for when you're not doing so well. This business is like a marriage. You have to be committed. Sometimes you only get three hours of sleep. But when you're successful, right away people say you're in the Mafia."
"I don't know why people say that," growls Federico. "I used to work in a meat plant. I work hard. Nobody helped us. People think they know, but they don't."
Promotores Unidos, USA, is a legitimate outfit, says Federico, who sits on the group's board of directors. It's incorporated. It charges membership dues. The individual promoters had dealt with each other for years -- he first got involved when the Galindos had Flamingo's -- and finally decided to formalize the organization out of a simple need to coordinate concerts, eliminate confusion, settle disputes and ensure that big-name tours proceed smoothly from state to state. "It's not illegal," says Federico.
There's a very simple reason why Empresa Union books the big names and why bands like La Fantasia, Federico says: "They make money with us.
"God knows I do the right thing," he says. "I work hard. Let them say what they want."
Consolidation is the trend in radio, and Spanish-language radio is no exception.
Two years ago, the Dallas-based Hispanic Broadcasting Corporation, the nation's largest Spanish-language radio network, purchased KXPK-FM (the Peak), but the Federal Communications Commission disallowed the sale because Clear Channel owned a significant stake in the company. After that, KXPK was purchased by another radio conglomerate, Emmis, which this past February sold it to the Los Angeles-based Entravision Communication Corporation for $47 million.
That raised the number of Entravision's Spanish-language holdings in Colorado to four: It already had two stations in Denver -- KMXA-AM, which plays an oldies regional-Mexican format, and KJMN-FM, which plays romántica -- as well as an outlet in Aspen.
Entravision operates 56 radio stations and thirty television outlets across the U.S. When it first came to Colorado, it hosted focus groups and introduced high-powered sales strategies to what had been a laid-back scene ruled by "a cobweb of alliances," says Entravision's Rob Quinn. "We have a distinct market advantage because we have a sophisticated and proven system."
And Entravision isn't the only corporate giant interested in regional-Mexican music.
In June, Univision Communications Inc., the nation's largest Spanish-language TV network, bought the Hispanic Broadcasting Corporation. Two months before that, Univision had purchased Fonovisa Records, the world's leader in regional Mexican music. Now there's talk of Univision entering the concert business by building Hispanic venues in cities such as Denver and booking its own acts.
Clear Channel, which owns eight radio stations in the Denver area as well as the Fillmore, has also made a few moves into the Mexican market. In April, Clear Channel and Grupo Televisa, the world's largest Spanish-language media company, bought the remaining shares of Chicago's Cardenas-Fernandez & Associates, Inc., the nation's top Hispanic-event producer. In Denver, however, Clear Channel has focused mostly on Latin rock, pop and solo artists such Enrique Iglesias, who has a concert at the Pepsi Center October 25. But some people involved in the local scene think it's only a matter of time before Clear Channel moves into regional-Mexican music.
If and when it does, independents like the Galindos could be shoved to the sidelines.
But if Federico and Olga are concerned, they don't show it. They lounge in their office at La Fantasia sorting mail, fielding phone calls, swatting errant flies. Corporations might conquer Denver and they might not, they say. And if they do, they must first learn the music, the fans and the intricacies of the local market. And even if they do that, there will still be local nightclubs, rodeos and dances.
"If it would happen," Federico says, "it would happen."
The Galindos aren't just waiting to see what happens, either. They've just bought a nightclub in Greeley and the Colorado Music Hall in Colorado Springs, where they had been promoting regional-Mexican events with Nobody in Particular Presents, the prominent Denver promoter. The Albertsons in the Thornton strip mall that holds La Fantasia is expanding, so they'll soon close that club -- perhaps as early as the end of this month -- but they plan to open another club in the area
It will be bigger and better, they say, but the site is a secret until the deal is done. And in the meantime, they'll be working hard to promote concerts (they have three more scheduled for this year) -- harder than ever given the recent economic downturn. Empresa Union may undergo a few unspecified changes, but you can't stop the music.
"Things might be a little different, but better," Olga says. "We're not going anywhere. We'll always be involved."
As midnight arrives at the Coliseum, the dance floor is packed. Los Temerarios are supposed to take the stage any moment, and still a line gathers outside of the box office. For the thousands of men and women here, the night is just beginning.
One couple dances belly to belly beside the stage. She wears his tejano hat, and he warms his hands in her back pockets. They ignore the whistles and jeers and gently sway.
Christina Castaneda gets up to head to the concession line, hesitates, stops. She's waited ten years see Los Temerarios. Now she's reluctant to leave her chair. When someone jokes, "They've canceled!" Christina stomps her spiked heels.
"No!" she laughs. "No!"
Connie Nuñez has been listening to regional-Mexican music since she was three. She's glad to finally be able to see bands like Pancho Barraza and Los Terribles del Norte in a mainstream venue like the Coliseum.
"This music is about romance and love and pain and anything you go through in life, except it's in Spanish," she says. "These concerts are really mellow, too. Not like people think. At the end of the night, this place isn't trashed. People are really respectful. All this used to be underground, but now it's out in the open. And it's about time, too."
Laura Herrera arrived here from Chihuahua three years ago. "These bands are from my country," she says. "I feel like I'm still there when I hear them."
In the box office, Olga stands at a counter, stacking twenties and chatting with VIPs. Federico hovers backstage with his cell phone, making sure everything runs smoothly. And it has. More than 7,000 people have come to the show. For a few hours on a Saturday night, they've brought the men and women from Mexico a little closer to home.
"To us," Olga says, "that's a good feeling."
The arena lights dim. Fog drifts over the dance floor, strobe lights flicker, and Los Temerarios take the stage.
Delia Flores scurries toward the stands with her broom and dustpan just as the band begins one of its signature songs: "Una Lágrima Más" -- one more teardrop.
Delia stands on her tiptoes, bites her lip, places a hand on the shoulder of a bystander. And then, as thousands join in around her, she begins to sing.
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