A frequent frustration of mine, as a listener who grew up on the pretty boy pop stylings of Enrique Iglesias and Ricky Martin and came of age in the golden era of reggaeton, is the degree to which today’s algorithmic streaming services struggle to parse “Latin” music. Ask Spotify for a radio station based on, say, a hip-hop group from Nuevo Léon, and you might well wind up being served a jarring mix of sultry Cuban boleros, folk vocals from Veracruz, and the latest Bad Bunny banger. It seems, sometimes, as though the robots have been trained to believe that every track in Spanish is of the same ilk.

Nowhere does the algo suffer more of late, though, then when attempting to untangle regional Mexican music, that umbrella genre that encompasses everything from brassy banda to classic norteño to new-on-the-scene megastars such as Peso Pluma and Yahritza y Su Esencia and Fuerza Regida, which are playing with and modernizing the form by injecting it with elements of hip-hop and trap. I suspect that’s why, when the lineup for Besame Mucho Austin, an offshoot of a Los Angeles–based music festival that made its Texas debut this past weekend at the Circuit of the Americas, hit the internet last October, fans of Mexican music (myself included) lost their minds.

The variety was astounding: four stages would be devoted to rock, pop, banda, and “las clásicas.” There would be performers to appeal to all ages, from the 78-year-old norteño legend Ramón Ayala to the mid-aughts pop duo HA*ASH to Edinburg’s chart-topping Grupo Frontera. In a country where Spanish-language music can feel as though it still exists on the fringes despite its increasingly global popularity—and in a state where the Spanish language still feels marginalized, despite that Hispanic Texans, as of 2023, outnumber non-Hispanic whites—a day-long festival that could attract artists from the ska-inspired Café Tacvba to the quinceañera line dance staple Caballo Dorado felt almost too good to be true. “Do I wear cowboy attire for Cardenales de Nuevo Leon or my double Lacoste for Reik or full leather for El Tri?” a friend texted me as the lineup announcement made the rounds.

Tickets (at least $275 a pop for general admission; as much as $950 for VIP) sold out almost immediately, long before any schedules or maps or venue logistics were confirmed. Which, in hindsight, was probably a decent indication of how things were likely to go on that front. By the time I arrived at COTA on Saturday, parking was hectic, and the box office line was, by one staffer’s estimate, about an hour long. The venue is notoriously bereft of shade, and it seemed the festival organizers didn’t anticipate quite how toasty it can get in Texas in early March. At 80 degrees and change, sweat came on fast and water ran short faster. Crowds were tightly packed, and sound issues, including bleed across the four stages, led to some gripes from listeners and performers alike.

Besame Mucho Festival Austin
Calaveras and papel picado decorating the picnic tent. Alicia Maria Meier
Besame Mucho Festival Austin
Concertgoers enjoying Mägo de Oz at the Rockero stage. Alicia Maria Meier

The atmosphere was nonetheless jolly in the high sun. The conundrum of how to style oneself appropriately for all four stages was plainly evident: festivalgoers paraded by in a mishmash of punkish corsets and ripped denim, classic pearl-snaps and worn boots, and the pink-and-sequins cowgirl look that I tend to think of as “Austin bachelorette.” Sponsored areas hawked Jarritos and Don Julio, and folks lounged and snapped selfies in tents bedecked in papel picado and papier-mâché calaveras. Very little of the surrounding chatter was in English, and as I made conversation, it was clear that the bulk of attendees had traveled north for this, from San Antonio, South Texas, El Paso, and as far as Monterrey.

Six Texas bands performed at Besame, among them A.B. Quintanilla’s Kumbia Kings, from Corpus Christi; San Antonio’s Grupo Metal; and Los Rieleros del Norte, who hail from Ojinaga, just across the Rio Grande from Presidio, but are now based in El Paso. But the most anticipated act of the day, by the account of nearly everyone I spoke to, was Grupo Frontera—this outfit from the Valley that had taken the sounds of another generation, the sounds many young Texans grew up hearing their parents play, and made them cool again. As the group’s 9 p.m. set approached, the classics stage became a mob scene. The crowd lit up as the band filed out in sleek black Western wear and kicked off the set with a brief preview of an upcoming single collaboration with Shakira, “(Entre Paréntesis).”

It became clear fast that the audio problems that had plagued much of the day were an acute issue for Frontera—the speakers behind the soundboard were malfunctioning, and only the bass was carrying to the back. Boos and chants of “Súbele!” (“Turn it up!”) ensued, and some folks abandoned the audience. But a greater number stuck through what became an emotional set. Before me, a young mom bounced a toddler in headphones on her knee to “un x100to,” Frontera’s megahit featuring Bad Bunny. An older couple danced in a tight embrace to the band’s collab with Yahritza, “Frágil.” Listeners filtering out after Frontera’s encore expressed frustration with the glitches, yes. But as I spoke with attendees after the festival wound down, none of the day’s snafus had left much of an impact.

Edward Castillo, whose Austin-based marketing firm facilitated brand partnerships for the event, attended Besame with generations of his family. His mom, he said, wanted him to accompany her to see tejano legend Bobby Pulido, and he wanted to share Frontera with her. “Austin’s Hispanic population has gotten smaller,” he said, “and sometimes it feels like we’re left out of these things. We’re traveling south to see these kinds of acts. It was exciting to have it here, to have folks come up and see what we’re capable of. I grew up here, and I’ve never seen that many Mexican people in Austin all having fun together. I think it was a pretty historic thing.”

One of those travelers, from El Paso, was Albert Arellano, who attended with his nephews. “The acts that I was most excited to see were on the Las Clásicas stage, which were mostly artists that were really popular during the seventies, eighties, and nineties,” he said. “Seeing these legendary artists live with my two nephews was so special. Most of the crowd was in the twenty-to-thirty-year-old range. It was pretty cool to see that this inspiring regional Mexican music continues to grow in popularity with future generations. As a community, we all sang, danced, cheered, and cried. I will never forget this day.”

I’ve frequently wondered, amid the resurgence of regional Mexican, what exactly it is about the old, sentimental instrumentation that’s suddenly working again for listeners at this moment in time, myself enthusiastically among them. Nostalgia is the easy answer. But the scene at Besame Mucho, chaotic as it sometimes was, was a reminder that perhaps the more compelling force is belonging. This musical style is one among a handful of signifiers that defines the U.S.-Mexico border, from Tijuana to Brownsville, from Monterrey to San Antonio, as a single cultural region. It offers connection, across communities and generations, in a world that feels increasingly bereft thereof. I hope the event returns to Texas next year—with clearer sound and far more bottled water.