“I like that [Cuco’s music] is not aggressive, it’s soft-natured,” says 19-year-old Samuel Gonzalez.
But rather than taking a deliberately anti-machista stance, Cuco attributes his romantic affinities to a long musical lineage of romanticas, citing his love of Los Panchos, Los Dandys, Los Tres Aces as strong musical influences. “There’s a lot of machismo, so it’s cool to be hella cheesy, expressing. But there’s always been romantic music,” says Cuco. Romantic ballads have a long history in Chicanx music on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border that goes back at least half a century.
Though most American music critics and mainstream audiences have accessed him through indie rock backchannels and recognize his viral popularity, they aren’t equipped to properly locate Cuco, his music or his fans. Cuco requires more expansive frames of reference that extend beyond the U.S. and a more dexterous musical vocabulary. These are areas where Chicanx audiences have proven to be more sophisticated.
For Chicanxs, bilingualism is a way of life, even for those that don’t speak Spanish. It’s in the food and in the air, in the backyard kickbacks or Sunday afternoon carne asadas at the park while listening to all the favorite jams. Tias be blasting Jenni Rivera, and tios lean back to Lighter Shade of Brown’s “On a Sunday Afternoon.” Moms nurse beers while sighing to Los Solitarios and dads get old school and classy with trio music of Los Panchos. Your musical repertoire is fed by your entire extended family.
Indeed, Cuco’s use of language is organic, connected to daily life. “I’m not being bilingual cuz I wanna be cool. It’s just natural. It’s like when your mom says, ‘Quieres un caldito.’” That’s what’s up. Like lime on chicharrones or Tapatio in cup o noodles. When you know, you know. And Cuco knows you want it, so he serves up the romanticas, the comfort food of Chicano music.
The 1970s were the golden age of romantic grupero music, when bands such as Los Pasteles Verdes, Los Solitarios, Los Babys, and even very early Bukis were getting real wild with the synthezier. Cuco certainly evokes this style, though with less of the tragic, less adult undertones, which is more a-la-Chicano-Batman geared to an older crowd. Cuco echoes more of the earlier bubble gum pop of Leo Dan, Palito Ortega and Leonardo Favio, and Enrique Guzman’s refrito rock or rocanrol.
This is how you get ready to become a Cuco fan without knowing it. Its not a mystery or a freak accident. Cuco fandom is a part of a continuum of Chicano culture that is generations deep. In so many ways, this young, Chicanx audience has been primed, in all its variations, for the arrival of Cuco. It’s a serendipitous meeting that was bound to happen and in long intervals, already has with artists like Ritchie Valens (aka Ricardo Valenzuela) and other more under-the-radar Chicanos.
In between these figures are vast swaths of no visible representation of brown folks in music. Think of all the generations of Chicanas and Chicanos that went without a Cuco of their own. In fact, I wish I’d had a Cuco in the late 90s. While there was a kind of Chicano cultural renaissance taking place at the time, it was geographically tethered to L.A.’s Eastside, beyond my reach and the reach of many young car-less Chicanas/os in a car-centric city.
Yet Cuco reaches all, slipping through social media and music-streaming algorithms. He arrives to your house as an unexpected but welcome guest. He introduces himself in the manner of all glowing, heart-shaped filters through Twitter, Spotify, Youtube suggested music since you liked BLANK. You forgot what you were listening to in the first place. There are many roads that lead to Cuco. It may have been Lil Rob or Mazzy Star.
For a 17-year-old concert goer, it was her cousin who made her listen to Cuco before getting in the car to drive up the 99 from Visalia on a Monday. Though she’s 17 years, she is a senior and isn’t that what senior year is all about anyway? So fuck it. Plus, when’s the last time someone like Cuco came to Fresno. No one ever comes to Fresno! Or that’s what they say.
Cuco came in on the indie rock route, a channel of rock’s underground crowded by many versions of the same skinny white boy on a guitar, sensitive and self-deprecating, sardonic. Something I-don’t-know-what going on with his hair that girls and some genuinely sensitive boys find super enticing. But here comes Cuco, cruising on the chill vibes that white boys try so desperately hard to cultivate.
Cuco fans, it turns out, are hardcore chill. So hardcore chill they can spontaneously, unintendedly stir into a crowded mosh pit of chill jubilation. Swaying bodies so enraptured in chill, in joyous recitation of lyrics, that their momentum teeters at the edge of control. Unlike a typical moshpit, where bodies can fling out of orbit, or a cheekbone can unexpectedly run into a set of bony knuckles or (heaven forbid) a pair of glasses gets knocked of one’s face, Cuco fans reel it in before things get unchill. No glasses were knocked off any faces. Because Cuco wears glasses, and an affront to any glasses is an affront to Cuco.
There’s a brief moment at the concert when the crowd consents to a different current of energy, upon Cuco’s request. Cuco introduces his “homie from home,” the rapper with the deep rapping voice in “Summertime, High Time,” in which he raps about the summertime charm of getting drunk on the back of the trunk. He interjects the song’s relaxed vibe to pump up the crowd with a more muscular one. Fans know what to do, they know how to gesture hip hop, they recognize the familiar masculinity embodied within it. (I recognize it, too, which is why though I recognize what’s supposed to be summertime romance, there’s a voice inside of me that wants to warn all these young ladies in the house: Don’t do it, girl! Put that tropical-flavored wine cooler down and run when “homie from home” tells you “let me get a taste don’t run.”)
However, in truth, Cuco’s fans are here to feel things. A young man next to me hardly opens his eyes during the entire show, as he hugs himself, singing every word loudly along with the crowd, but mainly to himself. He was all up in his emotions, and that was okay.
Cuco is bubble gum, flavored in sunny, sweet tones that old folks often refer to as simpler, more innocent times. But history, like youth, is never innocent or simple. Young people have never been exempt from the horrors of their time, the constant violence of history. If anything, they have been the blood offered to feed the gory appetites of nations. And yet, there is love. And yet, there is joy.
Cuco’s show in Fresno was the first he played since the mass shooting at the Florida High School, where 17 students were killed by a former student. Only four days since the shooting, Strummer’s was filled to capacity with the joyous bodies of young people, mostly teenagers the same age as both the victims and the shooter. And yet, instead of hiding from harm, or taking refuge in times when elected officials refuse to offer them protection, they come here. Despite the not-so-distant memory of Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, they gather. They dance, they sing, they make out, they think about the weed they left in the car. Story of the ages; this is nothing new.
Cuco waves the Mexican flag over the crowd when a week earlier ICE raided the outskirts of Fresno on a tour of its own across California—payback for the state’s defiance in declaring sanctuary for undocumented immigrants. The crowd explodes as Cuco wordlessly waves the flag again, like a blessing, a rallying call to action. Everyone understands. The guy next to me unwraps his arms from his body to offer them to Cuco, to the flag, to everyone. That’s why we’re all here. Even me. To be together. What beauty, what a blessing indeed.
Carribean Fragoza is a writer and artist from South El Monte, CA. She has published fiction and poetry in publications such as Palabra Literary Magazine, Emohippus, BOMB Magazine, and Huizache Magazine. Her arts/culture reviews and essays have been published in national and international magazines such as Letras Libres, Culture Strike, Los Angeles Review of Books, Terremoto, LA Weekly, and Tropics of Meta. She is a graduate of UCLA and CalArts’ MFA Writing Program. She is founder and co-director of the South El Monte Art Posse (SEMAP), a multi-disciplinary arts collective.