Suenos Music Festival
Suenos Music Festival drew thousands of young Chicagoans downtown to Grant Park, and they brought with them accessories and trends from around the globe. This group of friends made a sign that translates to 'If lost, come dance with me.' Courtney Penzato for WBEZ

Summer festival season in Chicago kicks off with reggaetón and ‘Latino joy’

The thousands who attended the inaugural Sueños Music Festival in Grant Park checked their safety concerns at the gate.

Suenos Music Festival drew thousands of young Chicagoans downtown to Grant Park, and they brought with them accessories and trends from around the globe. This group of friends made a sign that translates to 'If lost, come dance with me.' Courtney Penzato for WBEZ
Suenos Music Festival
Suenos Music Festival drew thousands of young Chicagoans downtown to Grant Park, and they brought with them accessories and trends from around the globe. This group of friends made a sign that translates to 'If lost, come dance with me.' Courtney Penzato for WBEZ

Summer festival season in Chicago kicks off with reggaetón and ‘Latino joy’

The thousands who attended the inaugural Sueños Music Festival in Grant Park checked their safety concerns at the gate.

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After being “stuck inside” due to the COVID-19 pandemic for the better part of two years, Lili Martinez, 20, decided it was time to seize summer and bought a ticket to her first-ever music festival.

Sueños, a first of its kind Latino music festival organized by the presenters behind Lollapalooza and Baja Beach Fest, lured Martinez out of the house with its lineup of urban reggaeton stars, from Columbian rapper J Balvin – who headlined Lollapalooza in 2019 – to Puerto Rican artists Ozuna and Farruko. For Martinez, a Chicago native whose parents are from Mexico, listening to Latin music helps her feel connected to her roots.

Suenos Music Festival
Music artist Eix engages the crowd at the Suenos Music Festival on May 28, 2022, in Grant Park. Courtney Penzato for WBEZ

“Because I live in America, and my parents are from Mexico, it’s kind of like, ‘Oh, you’re not Mexican enough or you’re not American enough,’” she said. “It just lets me connect with where I’m from.”

Sueños, which kicked off Chicago’s festival season this past weekend in Grant Park, drew a crowd of thousands of young Latino adults who, like Martinez, were there to proudly and loudly celebrate a chance to be in the cultural majority for the weekend.

Suenos
Jorge Rico-Giron, 20, and Pablo Castillo of Spain, 21, proudly hold flags. Courtney Penzato for WBEZ

Some said they weighed concerns about COVID risks and downtown safety when deciding to attend the Grant Park fest but, ultimately, the pull of their Latino pride won out. Many wore it boldly, accessorizing typical festival wear – crop tops, face glitter, long manicured nails that were works of art – with distinctly Latin accents: from Selena-style bell bottoms to cowboy hats, boots, and draped flags representing Mexico, Spain, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic, among other nations.

Suenos Music Festival
Karla Vergara, 30, shows off her nails. Long, manicured nails were among the festival’s style trends. Courtney Penzato for WBEZ

“We decided this is our summer,” Martinez said. “We want to have fun and make the best of it.”

Maya Rodriguez and Jocelyne Munoz, both 26, said they took inspiration from Mexican-American 1990s style when they coordinated their Sueños outfits. Rodriguez wore a red paisley bandanna-print bandeau top with black bike shorts, while Munoz wore the inverse: bandanna-print shorts with a black top. Both sported jean jackets. Rodriguez said Sueños is likely the only festival she’ll attend this summer; even with tickets starting at $199, it felt like both a worthwhile way to spend money and a COVID risk worth taking.

“Being outdoors I think honestly helps a little bit more for me,” she said. She also felt more comfortable being in a not-too-crowded area near the food vendors. “It’s bound to happen, you try to minimize as many risks, but something like this, celebration-wise, is a little bit more worth the risk.”

Suenos Music Festival
Maya Rodriguez, left, and Jocelyne Munoz, both 26, took inspiration from Mexican-American 1990s style when they coordinated their Sueños outfits. Courtney Penzato for WBEZ

Danny Morales, a Mexican-American 25-year-old who moved to Noble Square last year from Waukegan, didn’t attend for any one particular act. “This is the first reggaeton festival in Chicago so I needed to be here for that,” he said. “I’m just here to support my people, we deserve it” – though he had a critique that the festival only spanned from Buckingham Fountain to the 11th Street bridge.

“It’s a little upsetting that it’s like a little portion of the park, compared to Lollapalooza that’s the whole park.”

Suenos Music Festival Chicago
Festival attendees intently watch the Liverpool vs Madrid soccer game during the festival. Some ticketholders said they would have liked to see more of Grant Park used for the festival. Courtney Penzato for WBEZ

Many attendees were proud of the representation, however belated, of Latin music in Chicago, where Latino residents are the city’s second-largest racial group. Latin music has soared in popularity in recent years, thanks in part to huge crossover acts like the Puerto Rican powerhouse Bad Bunny, whose album El Último Tour Del Mundo was the first all-Spanish album to top the Billboard 200 chart.

Suenos Music Festival
Kayla Mujica, 25, strikes a pose on a colorful seat at the Festival. Courtney Penzato for WBEZ

“We’re at a time that urban and Latin music has been so big, almost bigger than a lot of like American pop music, especially with Bad Bunny,” said Naia Wakai-Torres, 19. “I think this is super important for everybody, we’re just really blowing up right now.”

Wakai-Torres took particular note of all of the colorful, 2000s-era hairstyles—she was one of many sporting butterfly hairclips – and the scarcity of masks. She chose to wear a mask because she said she recently had COVID and wanted to avoid being re-infected.

Suenos Music Festival
Naia Wakai-Torres and Alexandria Molina said they are big fans of reggaeton music. Courtney Penzato for WBEZ

Lupita Salgado, 29, a medical assistant and Chicago native, is well-versed in how serious COVID can be but went maskless. “We’re gonna live with it regardless, I don’t know how long” she said. “So we got to enjoy ourselves too. Life goes on. We just got to live through it. Just like we did with the flu, we can deal with COVID somehow.”

Several attendees said they also had few concerns around safety, believing that the festival’s security measures – which included bag checks and metal detectors – were sufficient. Earlier in the month, 16-year-old Seandell Holliday was shot and killed in nearby Millennium Park, prompting Mayor Lori Lightfoot to add metal detectors and security checkpoints to the park and to ban unaccompanied minors after 6 p.m. from Thursdays through Sundays. The curfew exempts teens who are attending downtown music festivals, though attendees at Sueños had to be 18 to enter.

Suenos Music Festival
Spotted often on festival grounds were concertgoers draped in flags of countries around the world. Courtney Penzato for WBEZ

Maya Rodriguez was satisfied with the safety precautions at the festival. “If anything the violence and issues in Millennium Park at night stem from a lot of different disinvestments in communities,” Rodriguez said. “It’s a bigger issue and a lot more of: what we can do for kids and other neighborhoods.”

Wakai-Torres shared that the increase in mass shootings usually gives her anxiety in big crowds and public spaces. “But honestly I feel very safe,” she said. “I feel really good right now.”

Suenos Music Festival
The all-female Chicago group Mariachi Sirenas performs for an afternoon crowd. Courtney Penzato for WBEZ

Wakai-Torres went to the festival with her longtime friend Alexandra Molina, also 19. Both are summer interns at the Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center, the longest-standing Latino cultural center in Chicago, and attended the festival for free. The cultural center received a $50,000 grant from the festival to help build a new Youth Media Center, among other improvements.

The friends, who are from Humboldt Park, are both huge reggaeton fans. They looked forward to seeing Myke Towers and Ozuna, though brash Dominican rapper Tokischa, one of only three female acts of the weekend, was also a draw. “It was great to see her, an Afro-Latina artist, just doing what she does,” Wakai-Torres said. “There’s not a lot of them that you see in urban Latino music ever. So seeing it here is pretty great.”

Suenos Music Festival
The Dominican rapper Tokischa was one of only a few female artists to play the festival. Courtney Penzato for WBEZ

Festival-goers also rallied around a shared cause – protecting young immigrants who are allowed to live and work in the U.S. through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, commonly referred to as “Dreamers,” from deportation. Alexandria Boutros, 25, who was staffing a booth at the festival for the non-profit youth political organizer Chicago Votes, asked festival-goers to write messages on Post-it notes and share issues they cared about. The DACA program, which a judge ruled unlawful in July 2021, appeared frequently.

Suenos Music Festival
The nonpartisan, nonprofit group Chicago Votes set up a booth and asked festival attendees to write down issues they cared about. Courtney Penzato for WBEZ

“I love to be in a space that people know what Dreamers are, right?” Boutros said. “You have to be directly impacted by that s*** to be like, ‘Hey this is so important.’”

Boutros thought the festival was overall a relaxed, joy-filled experience—definitely more chill than Lollapalooza. “I really love to see so much Latino joy here.”

Kerry Cardoza is a freelance writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter @booksnotboys. Courtney Penzato is a freelance photographer. Follow her on Instagram @thelensbaby23.