From Costa Rica With Love: Chino Espinoza
Mirley Espinoza, known as El Chino, appears quite at home when he shows up in T-shirt and distressed, tailored jeans for his regular Friday night gig at the outlandishly posh Coco Palm Restaurant in Pomona. Patrons shake his hand, waiters pat his shoulder or wave, the club manager touches base with him before he goes on stage.
All this is a long way from Alajuela.
“I came to the U.S. in 1989″ at 21, said Espinoza. “Ever since I got here I started working on salsa music. So I’ve been around for quite a while, playing salsa.”
Even at that time, Espinoza was a veteran singer, having formed part since age 13 of a boy band called Zebra, in the style of Menudo and Back Street Boyz, and playing concerts across Central America.
Espinoza’s father, a percussionist, had already been working for years in the U.S., and he sent word to Chino about a band called the Opa Opa International Orchestra that needed a vocalist. So Chino and his mother packed their bags and moved to Southern California, reuniting the family.
And yet, there was one thing still missing. Espinoza’s girlfriend of two years had stayed behind in Costa Rica. So after two months here, Espinoza returned home and asked her to marry him.
Finally, Espinoza could embark on the new life he’d been envisioning. But coming to the United States proved a musical education for Espinoza, even with the chops he already had as a singer.
“I found out that the music was a little different,” he said. “It was salsa. A different world.”
Back in Costa Rica, what had been in fashion at the time he left was Mexican music, cumbia, pop ballads in Spanish, and American music. Chino had been following in the tradition of the romantic ballad singer. But at that time in Los Angeles, salsa was taking off. So he changed his plans, learned the music and hung on.
In 1995, as the frontman for Opa Opa, Espinoza released his first album under the Warner Brothers label. He worked with the band for seven years before deciding to move on. He worked with a few other bands in the L.A. salsa circuit, including Orquesta Son Mayor. In 2000, he was casting about for a next move when his brother suggested they launch their own band together.
“He said, ‘You know what? We have to do our own thing,’” Espinoza said. “So we tried it and it was very, very accepted by the people.”
It wasn’t that difficult to start anew. By the time Cesar and Chino Espinoza started organizing their band, they already had many contacts in the industry.
“Being the lead singer gets you direct contact with the promoters, with the door people, so it wasn’t very hard,” he said. “The first month we were full with work, thank God. After that, we’ve just been very lucky that we’ve been one of the most played bands in L.A.”
Indeed, the band plays two to three dates a week, including the Coco Palm engagement. That isn’t common. Salsa music nationally doesn’t have the popularity that it used to, in part because other types of music, like bachata and reggaetón, have become more popular with younger crowds.
“Salsa music in (New York) and salsa music in Miami, it’s gone,” Espinoza said. “It’s very weird, because Miami has so many Cubans, you would imagine that you would go to Miami and you’d hear all these huge bands. But you can’t … all you find is little bands, four or five musicians. That’s it.”
Where in the past, New York and Miami salsa acts might have made a living touring a regional circuit or playing primarily in those cities, now they find themselves compelled to come to Los Angeles to play, Espinoza said.
“L.A. is the only place that it’s happening, as far as salsa is concerned,” Espinoza said. “Never before have we had so many artists coming from out of town.”
And the out-of-towners travel light: a singer might fly here alone, say, and ask a band like Los Dueños del Son to play backup for him or her. When that happens, Espinoza is happy to cede the stage, especially because they are usually performers Espinoza has been listening to since his early days.
“All I do at that point is direct the band or sing background vocals,” he said. “I’m just another piece in the band.”