Agua de Rosas: A Night of Roses, Reggaeton, and Reclaiming our Agency
It started in the winter of 2018. Two Milwaukee artists, Gabriela Riveros (myself) and Julio Cordova spent a chilly afternoon in late January driving around the Southside, walking in and out of salons, grocery stores and down busy intersections with a tape gun and colorful flyers. In that present moment it’s bitterly cold with polluted ice and snow that has sat for so long you forget what summer is like. But we didn’t mind because we were in the midst of creating an indoor paradise that promised tequila cocktails, a dance floor with a canopy of roses and tinsel, and a non stop dembow beat.
About a week later, we discovered that our flyers were being stolen so we went back to flyer a second time. Our flyers had two versions-an illustrated Puerto Rican man and Mexican woman, a pair, illustrated with sweat, roses and fire, ready for a night of travesuras. We took it as a compliment that our flyers have walked off, it meant our vibe was right. People like seeing themselves reflected in art. As a designer and illustrator, we wanted our first party to resonate with the people we wanted to show up for--young Latinx and other folks of color, especially queer-identifying, who now had an alternative option to the downtown “Latin night” for their reggaeton fix. Un perreo with a romantic name: Agua de Rosas.
When figuring out where to manifest Agua de Rosas, we knew location was everything-- we needed proximity to the south side to make our party easily accessible to our community. We made a connection with Cactus Club in Bayview, and since then, Agua has been exclusively held there--save for the times we’ve played sets at other events as guests. Kelsey Kauffman, owner of Cactus Club, has embraced us wholeheartedly and we are forever grateful for having a place there--it’s a unique venue that is artist centered and provides space for creative expression and empowerment. I remember going to Cactus to prepare for that first night feeling absolutely exhilarated. I and my best friend, artist Anika Kowalik, spent hours decorating the back room, another important element of the party that we aesthetic-driven artists planned. Since the party was named after rose water, we hung garlands of roses with strings of lights above the dance floor and stage. When we finished decorating we were in awe at the little bit of magic that transformed the space. Every time we go in to decorate, it feels like a ritual.
The first ever Agua de Rosas fell on a snowy evening of Friday, February 9th (which I remember because it coincidentally fell on my birthday). We had no idea if all of our flyering and online promotion would pay off, and then we became increasingly concerned over the snow fall. Despite our worries, we were very excited for the unknown.
What we didn’t expect was a packed club all night long.
We were blown away at the reception of Agua de Rosas. The reaction to our creation added fuel to our fire. It confirmed that other people in Milwaukee were like Julio and I--looking for a space to express ourselves freely, to own agency of our bodies, gender, and sexuality, and celebrate reggaeton while also reclaiming it from mainstream culture, whitewashing, and machismo.
Our party was inspired by similar alternative perreos found in larger cities like New York and LA. We felt as though there was no event like it that had appeared in Milwaukee beforehand (that we know of). Latinx centered venues felt few and far in-between, especially with the threat of gentrification taking place in our neighborhoods like Walker’s Point. It felt as if there was no space for us, and if there was, our party’s aesthetic “didn’t fit in.” We did not want to become another “Latin Night.” This was specific, an experimental perreo, a counterculture created out of off-beat Latin music. Genres get deconstructed and mixed together--old school reggaeton with new, neo perreo, Spanish trap, dembow, moombahton, cumbia and whatever other amazing nuanced material coming from places like Mexico City or Buenos Aires. For both of us, Agua has also been a type of party where we can highlight the often overlooked history of reggaeton, a genre born as an adaptation of Spanish dancehall created by Black Panamians, as well as featuring it’s unjustly obscured artists--mostly Afro-Latinx, women, and queer artists.
Agua de Rosas has always been an interdisciplinary process and collaboration between Julio and myself. We share our resources, inspirations, and skill sets (for instance, he’s my DJ-sensei). We collaborate on all levels-from brainstorming concepts to working together on the visuals for flyers and online graphics. Getting the signature aesthetic of Agua de Rosas is very important to us. It’s an artist led party that benefited our artist careers. One of the best parts of owning an event is that it challenges us to expand our creative horizons beyond our chosen fields of graphic design and illustration, and pulling off an event that requires so many different variations of creating lets us flex our new skills. Every Agua also gives us a chance to dive into different inspirations when creating the promotional look and “branded” material- drawing from inspirations like the aesthetic of 90s and early 2000s reggaeton mixtapes that Julio recalls, the Lil Homies stickers we used to get from the quarter machines in El Rey, anime, street art, and more all through the filter of our combined design and art style.
Since launching Agua de Rosas, we’ve had guests like Bay Area singer La Favi, Milwaukeean and New York based artist DJ MORENXXX, Co-creator of Chicago’s queer and tropical party TRQPITECA, DJ CQQCHIFRUIT, and most recently in our virtual series-neo perreo artist Mi$$il, from Paraguay based in Mexico City. We always make a point to work with gente from all over, using our diverse cultural backgrounds and connections as an advantage. One of our main goals is to bring more diverse talent to Milwaukee while opening doors and making connections with rising Latinx artists.
Latinx identity, especially in Milwaukee, is not a monolith, and neither is our music. We approach Agua de Rosas as a way of acknowledging the intersection of our identities and our roots through the underground waves of pan-Latin American music. It’s also an escape, a space carved out for those of us who often feel uncomfortable or unsafe at majority white and cis hetero-occupied venues in Milwaukee. We party together to resist, to unite, and to transform what it means to be Latinx in the midwest.
We day dream about being back in a club, but for now, Agua de Rosas continues as a virtual event series. Be sure to follow us on social media for updates! Check out our perreo-ready mixes on Soundcloud.
About the author:
Gabriela Riveros (pronouns she/her) is a Paraguayan-American illustrator whose work revolves around multi-cultural identities, history, and mythology. Storytelling is an integral part of Riveros' work. She is based in Milwaukee and graduated from MIAD in 2016 with a BFA in Illustration. She is currently a full time product-development artist and freelancer. She is the co-creator and a DJ of event Agua de Rosas.