East LA's Concert Venues Tell the Story of 1960s Mexican-American Youth Culture

Posted on: September 16th, 2010 by Guest Writer

Written by Daniel Kramer

The Salas Brothers perform at Macarthur Park on August 21, 2010.

The Salas Brothers perform at Macarthur Park on August 21, 2010.

The music that wafted through the early-evening air of Macarthur Park on August 21, 2010, came straight out of an “oldies” station. Everyone in the park sang and danced along to the rhythm of the Salas Brothers, a group that had its start as adolescents from East Los Angeles in the 1960s. Though the crowd was mostly Baby Boomers, including my parents, the concert gave this 22 year old a chance to witness firsthand the power of collective memory and history within the Latino community.

This year marks the 200th anniversary of Mexico’s independence from Spain, the 100th anniversary of the start of the Mexican Revolution, and the 40th anniversary of the National Chicano Moratorium - so the Salas Brothers concert provided an important, albeit non-traditional, preface to a month dedicated to Latino heritage.

The Salas Brothers were a part of the East Los Angeles music scene of the 1960s that consisted of young Mexican-American bands developing a unique musical style that combined R&B, rock & roll, soul, salsa, and traditional Mexican music. This style began with the success of Ritchie Valens and later bands such as Cannibal and the Headhunters and Thee Midniters who also received national recognition.

Although this style was popular for only a few years, it left an indelible mark on the Mexican-American youths who grew up listening to this music. It also created an important sense of place at concert venues where this music was heard. As a summer intern for the Los Angeles Conservancy, I have been able to not only research this music from 1960s East LA, but also to learn and rediscover the old concert venues that provided the space to experience this unique method of cultural expression. (See the Google map of the 1960s East LA Music Scene.) The Conservancy sponsored, in cooperation with the Levitt Foundation, the Salas Brothers concert in Macarthur Park in order to celebrate the end of its initiative called “The Sixties Turn 50” which highlighted 1960s architecture in and around Los Angeles.

Many of the concert venues themselves were not hallmarks of 1960s architecture, but their period of significance was primarily the 1960s. Some of the buildings, like the Paramount and Montebello Ballrooms which opened in the 1920s, had originally been Big Band venues. The El Monte American Legion Stadium was home to legendary “oldies but goodies” DJ Art Laboe-sponsored concerts but had been demolished. Some of these sites were also far away from East LA, including Pomona’s demolished Rainbow Gardens and Fullerton’s Rhythm Room. Some venues were simple union halls, like the Big and Little Union Halls and others were schools like the St. Alphonsus School Auditorium.

The former CYO building that is now Self Help Graphics. (Photo: LA Conservancy)

The former CYO building that is now Self Help Graphics. (Photo: LA Conservancy)

The East LA music scene was nurtured by teenage dances, and these took place at almost any available location, even local parks and community centers. One such community center was the Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) hall, which presently houses the famous Self Help Graphics and Arts. The Conservancy is seeking to have this building nominated as a historic landmark because of its importance as a space that has historically been used as cultural center and a means for the community to express itself.

Although buildings like the CYO hall may not be architecturally significant or what have been traditionally preserved, they still deserve to be in the discussion. Their significance to the largely Mexican American community of East LA warrants this. The 1960s East LA music scene was an important period of cultural expression for an often underserved community, and the community centers and concert venues that nourished it should be recognized.

Daniel Kramer, a recent graduate of Stanford University, is an intern at the Los Angeles Conservancy.

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