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The Conquest

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Come on, girls. You’re late!†yells manager Abraham Quintanilla, attempting to move the five women of La Conquista, an up-and-coming cumbia pop group, out of the tour bus and onto the stage at Austin’s Auditorium Shores. The young women plead for one more minute as they solidify their stage personas with hair spray and mascara.

La Conquista is here to play at South by Southwest (SXSW), opening for one of Mexico’s biggest rock acts, El Tri. The lineup is unorthodox, to say the least, featuring the twenty-something women of La Conquista, the vintage rockers of El Tri, and the stylish musicians of a Norteño band called Los Terribles del Norte, who are resplendent in tight, purple satin Western suits and black cowboy hats. The bands have nothing in common, other than the fact that they all call Mexico home.

As La Conquista takes the stage, a crowd of women and young girls moves to the front. (A notable exception is the slightly tipsy man who thrusts a turkey leg in the air in time to the catchy cumbia beat when the women launch into their first song.)

La Conquista was formed in 1997 by two sisters from Monterrey, Mexico—Marcela “Machy†and Monica de la Garza—along with bassist Cecilia “Cecy†Treviño. They have since been joined by Diandra Flores on backup vocals and Cynthia Rangel on keyboards.

On their first two albums, the women of La Conquista fought to convey an edgy street look. But misguided record execs dressed them in hokey Western outfits in an effort to market them as a Norteño band. “They didn’t get what we were all about,†says Monica, the band’s accordion player. “Urban cumbia is what we like and what we identify with.â€

Urban cumbia, a combination of up-tempo accordion-driven melodies mixed with reggae and hip-hop backbeats, is growing in popularity in Monterrey. Fans of the music are sometimes called colombianos in homage to the country of origin of cumbia music. The women of La Conquista have fully embraced a decidedly urban aesthetic with flaming hair colors, piercings, and showy hip-hop inspired gear. On stage at SXSW, the group breaks into a funky hip hop and cumbia single, “La Chica Conquista,†that has been heavily rotating on Latin MTV and radio stations on both sides of the border. In the song written by the de la Garza sisters and bassist Treviño, Machy appropriates the bragging machismo of rap music:

When I go to a club I don’t have to wait in line/When I hit the dance floor I don’t ever stop/my friends ask me what they have to do to become a conquista girl/so everybody will watch them too.

As the women of La Conquista tear up the stage with their girl-power anthem, the men in back of the audience start to push their way to the front to check out the group. Monica sings and plays the accordion while Machy breaks into a guitar solo and Cecy lays down a solid bass rhythm.

“We have been underestimated many times before,†says Monica de la Garza. “People think we don’t play our instruments but we play very well.†There are a good number of female musical acts in Latin America, but Monica insists that La Conquista is the only cumbia group she knows of where all of the women play their own instruments. “Right now we are in a very male territory but we hope to open the door for other women to start cumbia bands,†she says. “We have a lot of young girls who come to our shows and we want to be an example to them.â€

The group’s manager has big plans for them. If the name “Abraham Quintanilla†sounds familiar, it should. Quintanilla, who signed La Conquista with his Q-Productions last year, is the father of Selena, the famous Tejano singer who was killed by her fan club founder in 1995. La Conquista recorded their most recent CD, Venciendo, in his Corpus Christi studio (where son AB Quintanilla of the award-winning Kumbia Kings, also records). Venciendo has a little bit of something for everybody from Tejano ballads (a la Selena) to hip-hop cumbia. The finest tracks are the ones written by the band—“La Chica Conquista†and “Yo Se,â€â€”songs that allow the band to play with attitude.

The women of La Conquista are currently working on the singles for their next CD with Q-Productions. “We have to do the work to make it happen,†says Quintanilla. “We want the top for them, what every group wants, what Selena had.†Quintantilla is back in a familiar role; he displays a stern, and distinctly fatherly pride in the group’s growing success. He wants them to first concentrate on becoming big in the United States, then on taking their music to Mexico and the rest of Latin America—much as Selena did in the 1990s. Just before playing at SXSW in Austin, the group played in Miami, to thousands of fans at the huge Calle Ocho street festival. “They received a huge write up with their picture in the Miami Herald,†Quintanilla boasts.

On their next album, says Machy, the group wants to take their music further out on an edge, with more hip hop and reggae. She’d also like to sport dreadlocks, but explains that Quintanilla would never allow it. “Yo quiero!†(I want to!) she shouts with mock indignation, then becomes more serious.

“We want to have music in our lives as long as we can,†she says. “We want to go all the way to the top.â€

Melissa Sattley is a writer in Austin.