Rockabilly Festival Showcases Latino/a Cultural History

While the distinctly rhythmic combination of blues and country
music of the 1950s blared through the speakers, people with pin-up curls and greased
pompadours sauntered in Converse through the Pitzer College mounds on Saturday, March 29 for the seventh annual Latino Student Union (LSU) Rockabilly Festival. A portmanteau of
“rock ‘n’ roll” and “hillbilly,” rockabilly has been integral to the history of Latinos in Southern California.

Although they were not involved in the festival’s inception, the LSU has since taken ownership of it, according to Pitzer political studies and Chicano studies professor Adrian Pantoja. The group’s goal each year is to use the festival to expose the Claremont Colleges to this less recognized aspect of Southern Californian
culture and history.

To demonstrate the diversity of
Mexican American music and culture, the lineup included DJ Mad Matt, The Buzz
Jumpers, Los Bandits, Jonny Come Lately, Moonlight Trio, and Vicky Tafoya and
the Big Beat; exemplifying the rockabilly spirit, quite a few of the bands featured a massive double bass and smooth ’50s clothing and hair.

Beneath their tents, vendors from all over the Southern
California community lined up all along the periphery of the mounds talking
with their friends and family while selling rollerblade rentals, stickers,
graphic tees, Mexican cupcakes from Viva Los Cupcakes, aprons, pins, juices, and

Katie Rivers PZ ’16, who heads the festival’s public relations,
described the importance of the rockabilly event as an avenue of
expression for the Chicano community. People from the surrounding communities participate in the festival as vendors, musicians, and contributors to the car shows.

“It’s really important especially to the Chicano community … [as] a way to assert your agency through the Mexicano and Chicano
culture, to kind of be rebellious,” Rivers said.

“It’s a nice way
to express everything that the Chicano community has been
through,” she added.

Pantoja has been involved with the music festival since its inception
in 2008.

That year, the Pomona College theater department was putting on a
production of Zoot Suit, celebrating the lifestyle and culture of
Mexican Americans in 1950s Los Angeles. Maria Torres, the dean of students for Chicano/Latino student affairs, wanted
to incorporate the Zoot Suit theme—which included classic car models and a distinct speech and style—into celebrations for Cesar Chavez Day, so Pantoja, who had always wanted to organize a car show at Pitzer, jumped at the
chance to put on a rockabilly-themed car show, inspired by the low-riding car culture he still sees in LA today.

“What contemporary Chicanos, Mexican Americans, and other
Latinos have done is they fused the world of the zoot suiters of the 1940s with
the world of hot-rodding and the rockabillies of the 1950s, and have made it
their own,” Pantoja said. “I was a part of the rockabilly and classic
car culture scene. What you see on the mounds today are elements that fuse all
those things, so the music sounds of the 1940s and 1950s and of country

While Rockabilly offered a vintage country sound, it also
featured a variety of Mexican American music. Artwork, T-shirts, candles, and
other merchandise celebrating Mexican American culture were displayed in booths
placed within the mounds, including colorful “calaveras,” or representations of human skulls, and Day of the Dead

“In a lot of ways, the festival is a celebration of
contemporary Mexican American culture as represented or as a product of the Los
Angeles scene, so it’s a fusion of different cultures coming together to
produce what you see on the mounds,” Pantoja said. “The first reason
I started this music festival was to show the 5C community that we could put
together a large music festival that celebrates our community, our culture, our

Over the years, the festival has become increasingly
recognized at Pitzer and outside of the 5Cs; at Saturday’s festival,
many families with young children and visitors outside of the 5Cs covered the mounds.

a passionate proponent of the festival, Pantoja is glad that such an important part of Southern Californian history and culture is being celebrated
within the Claremont “bubble.” 

“Part of that presence of being in Southern California is
having a large Mexican American and Latino presence, but also a cultural fusion
of different groups and different ethnicities,” Pantoja said. “Each
one contributes to what it means to be in Los Angeles today.”

Pantoja hopes that Mexican American and Latino culture will be
more included in future 5C discussions of Southern Californian

“My goal is to
see a better representation of diversity of minorities at these elite
institutions,” he said. 

As the 5Cs see more discussions of Mexican American and Latino cultures, the LSU is committed to an inclusive Rockabilly Festival. Pantoja said that the fact that the event is organized by members of the Latino and Chicano community helps build this inclusive atmosphere.

“This is coming from the community,” Pantoja said. “The
community is going to welcome you.”

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