How Chicago Built a Rising Latin Music Festival Scene From the Grassroots Up

How Chicago Built a Rising Latin Music Festival Scene From the Grassroots Up

After starting Baja Beach Fest in Rosarito, Mexico in 2018, which captured the ever-growing reggaeton scene with a lineup that included headliners like Bad Bunny, Yandel and Farruko, Aaron Ampudia and Chris Den Uijl were looking to take the concept to a whole new market.  

“Chicago was the target,” says Ampudia over the phone from his home in San Diego. The Midwest city is now home to Sueños, which he and Den Uijl launched in 2022 with a lineup that leaned urban with some regional Mexican in the mix. This year, the two-day festival – headlined by Rauw Alejandro, Peso Pluma and Maluma – is sold out for the first time since launching, with 65,000 expected in downtown Grant Park each day (May 25-26). “Chicago has the infrastructure to host festivals like Lollapalooza, one of the biggest in the country, and the Mexican and Latin market, which we consider the second largest after Southern California. It made sense for us to go after Chicago.”  

Indeed, Chicago, the third largest city in the country with a population of 2.6 million as of July 1, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, has a massive Latin presence that contributes to the diversity of the city. Chicago’s population is about one-third Latino and one in five Chicagoans identify as Mexican, according to an analysis by WBEZ.  


The Ultimate Guide to Festivals Celebrating Latin Music in 2024 (Updating)


Yet for many years, Chicago residents felt they were snubbed from major Latin music events that took place in other big Hispanic markets like Los Angeles or Miami, which is why smaller, community-driven and grassroots events flourished in the summer in public parks located in predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods around the Chicagoland area.

“I think the country sees Chicago as one thing unfortunately and often its violence, and that comes from a lack of experiencing our culture,” says Mo Mami, local DJ and creative director, who has performed at multiple local festivals since launching her DJ career five years ago.  

“Small scale festivals are the kind of festivals that really drive a bigger picture. When you have enough of those showcasing diversity of sounds, the brands that are part of big festivals see that there’s a thirst in the community for something even bigger and it plants the seeds to grow from the block parties to public parks to Grant Park.”  

While a community effort, Ruido Fest was the first “big” Latin festival to take place in Chicago. Produced by local-based production company Metronome, its concept was unique as it catered to a fervid Latin alternative, rock en español fanbase with headliners like Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, Panteón Rococó and Café Tacvba, forging its own path in a reggaeton-dominated world. It kicked off in 2015 in Adams Park (then went on to Union Park) but struggled after the pandemic. Last year’s edition was cancelled and there’s no word about it coming back. “Our main goal was to expand opportunities for Latin artists and fans of Spanish-language music in Chicago in the long term,” the festival then said in a statement. “After almost a decade of work we are proud to have a hand in the tremendous growth of the local Latin scene.”  

While other festivals were inspired by the success of Ruido Fest, many of the ones that emerged right after were short-lived. Lift Off cancelled the second day of its debut edition in 2018, and Los Dells, while not in Chicago but in Wisconsin, billed as the “first major Latin music festival in the Midwest,” lasted three years (2017-2019).  

“Of course, it worries you,” says Ampudia about the risk of launching a Latin festival in Chicago. “But we knew that the Latino culture across the U.S. was underserved of a festival that they could call their own. And there was nothing really that we saw that was in Chicago. That’s where it clicked for us. We need to come out and do it the best way possible, the biggest possible, with the best partners and that’s why we partnered with C3 (who produces Lollapalooza). It’s nerve-wracking but the response has been unbelievable.” 

The success of a Latin music festival in Chicago is “contingent on the lineup, concept, and capacity of the festival,” says Henry Cárdenas, founder of Cárdenas Marketing Network, the biggest indie Latin promoter in the world, who is based out of Chicago. “The co-existence of multiple festivals enriches the city’s cultural landscape, offering more choices and opportunities for both attendees and performers. If each festival continues to innovate, adapt, and engage with its audience effectively, there’s ample room for co-existence and success in Chicago’s dynamic festival scene, which is now drawing larger and more diverse audiences, reflecting the growing influence and appreciation of Latin culture in the city,” he adds. 

A local favorite event, Miche Fest, is also making waves as it prepares to host its biggest edition since launching six years ago. In partnership with indie promoter Zamora Live, the 6th annual Miche Fest will take place in July for the first time in Chicago’s Oakwood Beach with superstar headliners Kali Uchis, Junior H, Luis R Conriquez and Los Ángeles Azules

“Honestly, we just listened to feedback from the fans, those buying tickets,” says Fernando Nieto, co-founder of Miche Fest, who adds that the new alliance with Zamora Live is key to the festival’s growth. “Latinos are very vocal, they’re in our DMs telling us what they like and what they don’t like. The number one comment was that they wanted bigger names. Before there was Sueños, obviously, we were already trying to come up and we saw the demand and we were like ok we need to get bigger. It was a natural progression; we started as a street festival with local talent and look where we are now. This is an event organized by black and brown people from the South Side of Chicago and it makes me proud to see how much we’ve grown.”

Chicago’s ever-evolving yet booming Latin music festival landscape reflects what we’re seeing across the country, with a growing market that now includes the nostalgia-inspired Bésame Mucho in L.A., which this year expanded into Austin, and the debut of Bottle Rock’s La Onda in Napa Valley set for June.

“Latin artists deserve top billing and they can get lost in a lineup like Lollapalooza or Coachella,” adds Karina Gonzalez, VP of touring and development at Zamora Live. “But when there’s a local festival where you can exalt them in that way, it’s pretty cool and it was missing in the market. It’s missing in billings of festivals all over the country so it’s nice to be part of that and elevate the talent that gets lost in the weeds at other festivals.”  

With Ruido Fest out of the picture (for now) and Sueños and Miche Fest as the leading Latin music festivals in the Midwest, it’s very telling of the Latin market today, says Mo Mami. 

“When Ruido was around, it gave an even more expansive look into the diversity of Chicago’s Latin market,” she explains. “Sueños’ lineup features what’s popular on the radio with big names, in Grant Park. And then we have Miche Fest, which is more local, with a mix of banda, reggaeton, cumbia. These are the options we have to experience Spanish music in such a large scale here, which is fine because it’s what’s going to sell, and get the people turned up. It’s nice to have representation one way or another.” 

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