I was standing in the taco line when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned my head away from the sizzling meat and smoking tortillas and behind me was a man in his early twenties. He asked me what I was doing in Monterrey, why did I travel there, and wasn’t I scared? I told him I came because I loved Mexico and wanted to hear local rock bands. I told him I wasn’t scared, even though just a few days before a couple of college students were killed in a gunfight between soldiers and drug traffickers in the city.
This was just over a month ago, on the dusty grounds of an abandoned drive-in movie theater, the Autocinema Las Torres, in Monterrey, Mexico. The music festival MtyMx was underway, featuring bands from Monterrey and other parts of Mexico in addition to dozens of acts from the United States and beyond. It was a global party, a do-it-yourself (DIY) celebration of independent music and open borders.
But this wasn’t just a music festival. It bore no resemblance to the corporate behemoths Coachella or Lollapalooza. Rather, it was an exercise in cultural connectivity. Promoter and festival organizer Todd Patrick organized MtyMx because he believes in cross-cultural pollination and in the uniting power of music. He said he wanted to change the way people think about Mexico.
Patrick is at the epicenter of the New York City DIY music scene. The shows he organizes are for all ages, free from corporate branding and thrive on the belief that music wants to be, and therefore should be, accessible.
By bringing this scene to Monterrey, Patrick said he hoped to challenge American stereotypes about Mexico, while giving some exposure to bands “south of the border who don’t get the respect they deserve just because they’re on the wrong side of an imaginary line.”
“One of the goals was to get these bands appreciated,” he said, sitting in his apartment in Long Island City, Queens, a couple of weeks after the festival. “To have them all play on equal footing.”
By organizing the festival directly after the South by Southwest (SXSW) music festival in Austin, Texas, which attracts thousands of bands each year, Patrick was arguing that Mexico, and the very modern city of Monterrey, were viable places for American bands to play music.
Unfortunately, drug-related violence from western Mexico spread east to Monterrey just days before MtyMx was to kick off. Tension escalated in the city and in Austin, where many of the American bands scheduled to play were awaiting transport. Bus drivers and bands cancelled.
Patrick’s desire to show that Mexico is not the scary place portrayed in the media may have failed to some degree because of bad timing and economic realities.
A reporter from Monterrey who attended MtyMx, Juan Antonio Zertuche, said when the students were killed in Monterrey, Mexicans were also afraid to attend.
“We have not seen anything like that (the killing of students.) This happened just a couple days before MtyMx,” he said. “The target (audience) of MtyMx is students, so yes, many of them were afraid to go out that weekend.”
For Adrian Ruiz of the Monterrey band Los Llamarada, which played MtyMx, the fact that some Americans showed up despite the unrest meant a lot.
“It made me forget about the violence for a while,” he said.
But the bands that did make it to Monterrey from the US had only good things to say.
One band that played multiple times at the three-day festival was New York rap trio Das Racist. A self-described “multi-culti” group, Das Racist is perhaps a metaphor for what MtyMx could be: an incubator of ideas, the mixing of different cultures and races.
“Any large-scale cultural exchange is going to be interesting,” said one member Himanshu Suri, who grew up in Queens in an immigrant family. “It was an amazing experience, chilling with people from Mexico and bonding with them.”
Another band, the all female Coathangers from Atlanta, Georgia, said they wanted to support Patrick’s “vision.”
“It was different than most fests because it was DIY. There weren’t corporate sponsors advertising everywhere,” said Candice Jones. “It also seemed like everyone who made it to the show was really excited and hungry for music.”
Professor Victor Hugo Viesca of California State University, who studies Los Angeles Chicano culture and music, said a festival like MtyMx could help break down barriers.
“Music can be a utopia,” said Professor Viesca. “If there is any place that people will forget stereotypes or their fear of one another, it’s in music.”
That may be why many fans and artists made the trip to MtyMx. Although there were only approximately 300 people in attendance each day (the goal was for 1,000), those who were there felt connected to one another, likely because they had respect for one another.
The young man who tapped me on my shoulder, Oscar Aguilar, said he was “grateful” that Americans wanted to come to Mexico and hear Mexican bands.
Patrick said that Mexicans approached him who were so happy they were in tears.
“A lot of Mexicans are ashamed of Mexico, they’re ashamed because they’ve been taught by the US that they’re secondary,” he said. “They’re the butts of jokes in this country, and most of it, let’s face it, is flat-out racist.”
“They see a future for their country,” he said. “A more sophisticated world image.”
He added that Americans who attended the festival had a “transcendent experience.”
The underground rock scene in Mexico has been flourishing for years, said Viesca, who was born in Mexico but grew up in Los Angeles. But what Patrick is aiming to do is different, he added.
“Except for big touring arena groups, there hasn’t been a link between rock and roll in the US and in Mexico,” he said. “By promoting these bands, especially young bands . . . it shows there is creativity coming out of Mexico right now. This helps promote the knowledge of a rock scene that people don’t know about.”
Sagan of Los Llamarada agreed.
“Before this festival . . . we hadn’t had the chance of seeing so many current indie bands in the same place without them having to be MTV stars or something,” he said.
Viesca stressed, however, the “unfortunate reality” that Mexico is a dangerous country for many people, because of drug trafficking, but also because of poverty.
“This festival is sort of a microcosm,” he said. “Even though Mexico and the US should be affiliated,” and more closely connected, they aren’t.
Patrick and like-minded individuals have their work cut out for them. But if time and experience signifies anything, it’s that change comes in many forms, and always eventually. Patrick is already planning a second festival in Monterrey, which will focus on metal and hard-core music, a genre that is huge in both Mexico and the US.
It’s the best way to bring people together, he said.
“Music is something that crosses language barriers and borders.”