For proof of how artistic director Linda Ronstadt and her collaborators at the Mariachi and Mexican Heritage Festival—a.k.a. Viva Fest—are continuing to reinvent the concept of the mariachi festival this year, look no further than the Sept. 23 concert at the SJSU Event Center.

Billed as “The Sound of East L.A. Meets the Kings of Latin Swing,” and featuring Los Lobos and the Spanish Harlem Orchestra, the event mashes up Latin rock and salsa—a combination not likely to be found on many, if any, other mariachi-fest stages.

For Spanish Harlem Orchestra co-founder Oscar Hernandez, there’s a bit of irony in being invited to a festival celebrating Mexican heritage. The Grammy-winning group has traveled the world spreading the gospel of salsa, but they are sometimes met with skepticism in Latin America and other Spanish-speaking countries. As Hernandez was reminded while doing a recent interview in Colombia, the confusion always starts with: Why is their name in English?

“I had to explain. It’s important that people realize that Spanish Harlem translated is the barrio,” recalls Hernandez. “It was an extremely important place for the cultural development of Latinos in the city of New York in the ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s. Still to this day, but mainly in those eras. So the name Spanish Harlem Orchestra has an important meaning to us and what we’re about. Cause I’m Latino and I’m fluent in Spanish—I’m what they call Nuyorican. I take a lot of pride in where I come from and what I’m about. That also has a lot to do with the music. It’s a concept that I’ve had to explain to people in Latin American countries, because they don’t always understand.”

Hernandez brings that New Yorker pride to his vision of salsa music, a sound that came out of the Cuban son form, but is claimed by many cultures.

“No doubt about it, there’s been great music of this style that’s developed in other places, especially in Puerto Rico, obviously. The initial beginnings of this music was Cuba. But the signature sound of what salsa is basically comes from New York,” he asserts. “There’s a certain energy, there’s a certain vibe, there’s a certain melting-pot element that is the fabric of what this music is about. That’s undeniable.”

The Spanish Harlem Orchestra bring that melting-pot element to their sound, but the title of their fourth and most recent album, Viva La Tradicion, speaks volumes about the mission of the group.

“It’s basically honoring the tradition of this music, which is another thing that we’re about,” says Hernandez. “When you do a record, you kind of rack your brain thinking of a title. And sometimes it’s staring you in the face, it’s right there. It was simple and very appropriate, and something people could relate to: ‘Long live the tradition.’”

With all of their albums critically acclaimed and nominated for Grammys (with two winning), Orchestra of Spanish Harlem’s mix of original songs and new arrangements of salsa classics has made them in many eyes a standard-bearer of the sound. It’s an honor—and a responsibility—Hernandez wholeheartedly embraces.

“We’ve built a pretty good reputation for taking no prisoners with the music, especially live,” he says. “I’m pretty clear on what I want to bring to the table musically these days. It comes with experience. I’ve done it with all the best, I’ve done it with the worst as well. I’ve learned from everybody, doing it for so many years. When I walk away from the studio, I don’t care what anybody tells me, as long as I absolutely love what I’m hearing.”

One place the group has overcome initial doubts is Mexico, where they’ve now developed a following among salsa fans. “It’s not mainstream commercial, but we can go there and fill up a place that holds two or three thousand people,” says Hernandez. “I love Mexico, I think it’s a country with so much heart. It’s very near and dear to me that we have certain common bonds. I love Mexican music, and I am a big fan of mariachi music when it’s played well.”

And while some might find their pairing with Los Lobos bizarre, he argues that there are shared musical values that many people might overlook. And if that’s not the point of the Mariachi and Mexican Heritage Festival’s radical approach, then what is?

“You can make a case that it makes a really great pairing, because fans of Los Lobos I trust are fans of good music, and their palette extends beyond just listening to Los Lobos,” he says. “That can be said about Spanish Harlem Orchestra, too.”

Spanish Harlem Orchestra, Los Lobos and Tito Puente Jr.
Friday, 8pm; $25 and up
SJSU Event Center
For full fest info,