Cover Story: This is Grupo Frontera

This is Grupo Frontera
They rose from Rio Grande Valley quinceañeras to sold-out arenas worldwide in less than two years. With their next album, Jugando Que No Pasa Nada, they’re aiming even higher.
Photographer Maya Fuhr

This is Grupo Frontera”>

A few years ago, a cattle rancher and a wedding photographer in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley approached a local car dealership finance manager to ask if he’d like to join a band and gig at quinceañeras on weekends.

The band’s guitarist, Alberto “Beto” Acosta, was working full-time shooting weddings, birthdays, pregnancy reveals, and quinceañeras. The idea was that they could offer a package deal to prospective clients: Acosta would take photos, then he’d strap on a bajo quinto and, along with Juan Javier Cantú, a nimble accordion player and vocalist, and Julian Peña Jr., an energetic percussionist and hype man, they’d get crowds moving to covers of classics by Ramón Ayala, Duelo, and other icons of música Mexicana.

Then one of Grupo Frontera’s songs — a joyous cover of Colombian pop band Morat’s song “No Se Va” — went mega-viral on TikTok, when a couple in Chihuahua, Mexico, danced to it together in lockstep. It rocketed into the Billboard Hot 100 charts, where it hovered for nearly five months and peaked at No. 57. A few months later, the band traveled across their home state to play shows, first in Houston and then several weeks later up at Rodeo West in Dallas, to find massive crowds singing the lyrics to “No Se Va” back to them.

Acosta takes his phone out of his pocket and pulls up a video of the Houston concert to show me the energy reverberating in the room that night. I can barely discern the guys’ voices from the din of people screaming the song’s chorus: “Quédate otra vez / Quédate toda la noche.” (Stay again, stay all night).

Shortly after those shows, Peña made a life-altering decision. “I called Juan and Beto and I was like, ‘Dude I put in my two weeks,’” he recalls between rips of a coffee-flavored electronic vape. “And both of them were like, ‘What!? What’s wrong with you bro, what the hell?’” As Peña saw it, either he could do music full-time or continue his 9 to 5.

Cantú and Acosta were wary — “It was the first song we’d had that hit,” Acosta says of “No Se Va” — but soon every member of Grupo Frontera had followed Peña’s lead and left their day jobs. Acosta put down his camera, Cantú hung up his hat (though you still might see him wearing one on stage), Guerrero put on hold the trucking company he owned, and Solís, who made fences for a gated community, put down his hammer. Brian Ortega, who’d joined the band temporarily as bass player and traveled in from Houston, moved to the Valley and joined permanently.

Their gamble paid off. Now Grupo Frontera is selling out arenas all over the world; collaborating with Shakira, Grupo Firme, and Peso Pluma; and taking their influence way beyond the Valley and TikTok. Their songs have been nominated for VMAs, and they took home a Latin Grammy last year for their Bad Bunny collaboration “Un x100to,” a song that has nearly 750 million views on YouTube. They’ve been nominated for 11 Latin American Music Awards this year, including Album of the Year for their debut, El Comienzo.

Though they’ve gatecrashed the zeitgeist, they’re hardly riding TikTok micro-trends or indulging in passing fads. Everything they release is rooted in traditional musicianship and emotive songwriting. “They know how much to play and not overplay on the songs, which is something that not every musician knows how to do,” says Edgar Barrera, a Grammy-winning songwriter and frequent collaborator of Grupo Frontera’s who also works with Shakira and Maluma, among others.

imageThis is Grupo Frontera”>

Grupo Frontera’s newest album, Jugando Que No Pasa Nada — announced today and out this spring — is a boundary-pushing next step primed to catapult them further into stardom. Their signature cumbias urbanas remain at the core of their sound, but the new songs see the band taking those traditions and putting inventive spins on them, experimenting with genres as varied as electronica and country. “We have R&B, bachata, all these different things,” Solís says of the new album, reclining on a plush pink couch. That’s intentional, he says, so people “can find their beat, in our album, with their cultural language.”

Grupo Frontera’s ascent has coincided with an explosion of música Mexicana over the last few years that’s touched every part of the globe. A catchall for a wealth of subgenres spanning corridos to norteño to banda Sinaloense and other musical movements, regional Mexican music — a reference to the distinct areas of Mexico where each of these genres originated — is being reinterpreted by a new generation of musicians including Peso Pluma, Junior H, Eslabon Armado, and DannyLux. In Grupo Frontera’s case, they’ve infused cumbias urbanas with beats and other contemporary flourishes. In 2016, when the Grammys removed the ranchera category from its honors because a dearth of bands had been nominated for it, this would have seemed inconceivable.

“I don’t think it was classified as regional because we’re from a small region, but I think it’s because of the subgenres,” Barrera says. “Our music is global. Now you have artists like Bad Bunny hopping on our genres — the biggest artists in the world. We’re making a huge movement.”

imageThis is Grupo Frontera”>

imageThis is Grupo Frontera”>

When I ask Grupo Frontera if they’ve had time to digest everything that’s happened in just two years — and it really hasn’t even been two full years since “No Se Va” was released — I get the impression that they’re still trying to sit with the way the accolades and opportunities keep arriving at such a relentless clip. They seem stunned. “People always ask us: ‘Oh, you’re living the dream? How does that feel?’ I mean, it feels great,” Solís says. “But I don’t really know how to answer your question. You get me? Because everything’s moving really fast. I’m trying to move with the light.”

On this warm Sunday in Los Angeles — Oscars Sunday, as it turns out — Grupo Frontera has descended into a loft space downtown. They hadn’t had time for much on the West Coast, save for grabbing some tacos (consensus: not the same as the tacos they’re used to back home) and a little walking around before arriving at their FADER cover shoot. The guys try on a flurry of sparkling sweater vests, puffy loafers, mesh shirts, and Hot Topic-esque leather pants, jamming to songs by Carin León and other contemporaries of theirs while snacking on Red Vines and chips.

“You look fucking fire,” Solís tells Ortega when he busts out in a beige and blue matching suit and jacket from behind a curtain. The band members crack wise and trade barbs while Guerrero brushes the back of Acosta’s hair between snaps. Cantú sneakily throws up bunny ears behind Ortega’s head in one shot.

Tonight the band is flying home to the Rio Grande Valley for a brief respite before a two-week tour of South America in the lead-up to their new album. All six of Grupo Frontera’s members grew up in the region, a place they describe as follows: “There’s a highway that’s been under construction for, like, 40 years,” Solís says. According to Peña, there’s a rug store in town that’s been advertising its wares as “on the final sale, for, like, 15 years.” There’s a big offroading culture in the area, given that there’s so much space to do it; Peña jokes that there are roughly “two buildings” where they live.

“Skyscrapers,” Ortega deadpans, adjusting a chain that glitters with tiny butterflies.

“Our music is global. Now you have artists like Bad Bunny hopping on our genres — the biggest artists in the world. We’re making a huge movement.”

Conversation turns to where the Valley begins and ends, exactly. “To me, personally, the Valley ends at Mercedes,” Cantú observes. The guys start talking over each other, jostling over the sofa to hear each other speak. “I think it’s more ranches, and when you’re closer to McAllen it’s more city life,” Guerrero offers. “Es todo el condado de Hidalgo,” Solís rebuts. He starts gently razzing Ortega, who’s from Harlingen, not too far from Edinburg and McAllen, the two cities in the Valley where most of Grupo Frontera’s members grew up. “Have you ever seen those scenes in Breaking Bad when they cross the border and it turns yellow?” Solís asks the group. “That’s how I feel when I get into Harlingen.” The guys start chortling.

Every member of the band grew up crossing the U.S.-Mexico border weekly to see family. “Since I was born, my parents would take us to our rancho every weekend,” Solís says. “Like, half my life has been there and half over here.

Sundays also meant church, where most of the group’s members started playing music. Ortega started out playing piano at his family’s church, and Guerrero took up drums at church and hasn’t played another instrument since. “I’m faithful to that instrument,” he says.

Though they didn’t attend the same churches, “I know we heard the same music,” Ortega says. “That’s for sure.” Peña, whose seen his father and uncle play in bands and has been accustomed to being onstage since he was three years old, also cut his teeth playing in church bands.

Acosta is a rock guy through and through — a Red Hot Chili Peppers fan whose love of music grew out of riffing on the electric guitar. Raised near Monterrey and then McAllen, Cantú played the flute in school, and then took up trombone in junior high. “Mary had a bom bom bom,” he goes, playing an air trombone. Later, a cousin lent Cantú an accordion. It was missing three buttons, but he started tinkering with it and learned to play via YouTube.

imageThis is Grupo Frontera”>

imageThis is Grupo Frontera”>

imageThis is Grupo Frontera”>

One way or another, almost every member of Grupo Frontera realized as a young man that he had a natural aptitude for performing in front of people. While playing in the drumline, Guerrero knew that he enjoyed “the challenge of remembering the steps” despite the thrum of his heart, and those nerves, in his ears.

But the same can’t be said for Solís, the group’s lead singer. He’s been singing since childhood, and he learned to play the accordion by ear, but public performance didn’t come naturally. “I was a really shy kid,” he says. His father would sometimes hire a band to play at family reunions and carne asadas, and “he would tell the group: ‘Do you guys know this song? My son wants to play the accordion,’” Solís says, shuddering.

Debilitating shyness aside, Solís possessed a preternatural sense that he was destined for fame. When he was a sophomore in high school, he told his mother he was going to be a star. “I don’t know if it’s gonna be YouTube, TikTok, music. But I feel like I’m gonna be famous,” he remembers saying. “And she told me: ‘I believe you. I just want you to graduate high school, and you can do whatever you want after.’ I graduated high school. And I kid you not, one year later I got into Grupo Frontera.”

“When I first heard him, I thought it was like an older guy, like a 40-year-old guy singing,” Barrera says of Solís’s voice. “And then I meet this kid who’s 19 years old, singing with so much power.”

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While his voice resounded throughout theaters and then arenas, the timid Solís was trying to adjust to having a stage presence in real time. “I would be so nervous that I used to go up with a guitar, even if I wasn’t playing,” he says. Some of his bandmates would have to give him pep talks to amp him up before shows. They’d say: “‘You’re a freakin’ star, you have to move around with the crowd, you have to dance!’” Solís recalls. These days, he moves around with conviction. He even looks like he’s having a good time.

“He’s one concert away from crowd-surfing,” Cantú says, beaming.

“I’m like five shows away from taking off my shirt,” Solís quips.

“We’re going to do a Red Hot Chili Peppers tribute,” Acosta says, in reference to Anthony Kiedis’ proclivity for going bare-chested on stage.

Peña jumps in: “Like Jacob from Twilight!”

One afternoon in late March 2022, Grupo Frontera played a gig in the Valley — the opening of a new tire shop in McAllen. After the show, the owner said the tire shop called his brother-in-law, a songwriter named Edgar Barrera, and raved about the band he’d hired to play at his store.

A hitmaker who had grown up between McAllen and Miguel Alemán, Mexico, Barrera had been looking to find a local act from his hometown to support with his new label BorderKid. “I just wanted to wait for the right time and build myself into the music industry, have a career first as a songwriter and a producer before taking that step,” Barrera says. Grupo Frontera started making noise in the Valley in early 2022 with “La Ladrona,” but hadn’t quite become a global hit yet. Then, later that year, “No Se Va” became a viral sensation. “When I heard ’No Se Va,’ I was like: ‘Dude, I actually like this,’” Barrera remembers thinking.

As Barrera saw it, Grupo Frontera had keyed into something unique: The regional Mexican band’s covers were decidedly not regional Mexican mainstays. “Instead of doing the obvious covers that everybody does over there in McAllen, or everybody does at weddings, the guys are doing covers that nobody else was doing,” Barrera says. “Nobody was doing a cover of Morat at the moment. Nobody was doing a cover of Juanes at the moment. It was just the guys doing that.” Barrera, who’d been sitting on a few songs he’d written for other artists, had an idea: “What if I give these guys my songs that are more urban-driven? What if they did that in norteño?”

“One way or another, you’re gonna sing our songs because you’ve been through it, or you’re going through it, or you’re going to go through it.”

Still, when Barrera first met with the band, at a Starbucks in McAllen, he tried to temper their expectations. It would be challenging, if not impossible, to follow the massive “No Se Va” with another smash. “The first thing that I told them was that having a hit is the easiest thing you can do in the music industry,” Barrera says. “Lightning striking twice in the same spot is very, very, very hard.” Instead, he proposed that their strategy center on having fun and pursuing the songs that felt right for them.

The first song Grupo Frontera and Barrera worked on together, a collaboration with Mexican multihyphenate star Carin León called “Que Vuelvas,” was released on December 9, 2022. It became a hit. A week later Grupo Frontera unveiled “Bebe Dame,” a song with Fuerza Regida that the bands recorded in a single take. That one debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 chart — another hit. Grupo Frontera had, improbably, notched three hit singles in less than a year.

“It surprised me that it didn’t take that long for the band to be considered as not only a one-hit wonder,” says Barrera. But he has a theory as to why that is. “We weren’t looking for that hit. I told them, ‘We can’t focus on trying to look for a song that sounds like “No Se Va,” because that’s not going to happen.’ And it just so happened in the same year that every song the guys were putting out was connecting.” One reason for música Mexicana’s astonishing global popularity might be that first and second-generation Latinos are more visibly — and proudly — fusing genres that draw from their cultural background and pop music, hip-hop, and other genres they may have experienced living in the United States, displaying the multifacetedness of their identities.

Even with these back-to-back successes, the band faced a steep learning curve with the whims of the music industry. “In this day and age in music, if you don’t release music [constantly] you’re gonna die down,” Solís says. “Someone told us that before, if you released an album you’re good for the year. Then, if you released a song you were good for two [or] three months. Now? You release a song, and in a few weeks you release another song.” There were still haters in their YouTube comments telling the band that, despite having three hits, they were one-hit wonders.

But when they started touring more aggressively — and “Un x100to” went nuclear — the tone started to shift, they say. Peña remembers reading the comments under their videos after that: “‘These guys are great, they deserve it. They’ve been doing all this work all year round and all this and that…’ That’s when we started being like, ‘Okay, you know what, we’re starting to win people’s love. They’re starting to understand us.’”

That connection partially stems from the way all six members of Grupo Frontera and Barrera share a psychic understanding from growing up in the same part of the world. “We speak the same language,” says Cantú of working with Barrera. In working with other songwriters over the years, Barrera says that he’s had “to sometimes camouflage myself and be like [other artists] to fit in.” With Grupo Frontera, “I feel that I am myself,” he says. “We have the same… As we say in Spanish, ‘tenemos la misma cura.’ We have the same sayings, the same jokes. We share a lot of similarities in everything in the way we grew up, the way we were raised, the places where we used to go as kids.”

Stories the band tells Barrera also have a way of cropping up in songs he writes for them. “It’s like he analyzes us,” Acosta says. For instance, last year Grupo Frontera was nominated for the Best Latin VMA for “Un x100to.” But a confluence of unfortunate mishaps — including a delayed flight and a three-hour traffic jam — meant they missed the vast majority of the ceremony in New Jersey. (They lost out to Anitta, who won for “Funk Rave.”) The band recounted the missed flight story to Barrera, and “then the next song he sent us had all those things in them,” Solís says. “What a coinkydink, brother!” You can hear a snippet of the VMA story immortalized in the lyrics for “Quédate Bebé,” one of the new album’s singles, with the mention of “los tiquetes que compré pa Nueva York” (the tickets that I bought for New York).

“In his interviews, and he’s said to us, when [Barrera] writes a song he puts himself in the shoes of the artist,” Solís says. “Him being from where we are, I think it just makes it a lot easier. So when we tell them stuff that’s going on in that week, really on that day, in that month…”

“He identifies,” Peña adds.

“I always try to write songs, or try to co-write songs with the artists, that help them express what they’re going through at the moment,” Barrera says. That involves listening to their stories, like the ones Solís tells him about “ups and downs in his relationships” or a breakup. The other five members of Grupo Frontera are married, but their songs, as Peña describes it, tend to revolve around either “love, [being] in love or out of love.”

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In this way, the band’s songs aren’t that unlike the rich lineage of cumbias Mexicanas that preceded them, which often spoke of heartbreak through forms like snail mail. In Grupo Frontera’s songs, broken hearts and romantic rendezvous are viewed through the vantage point of social media, with song lyrics that touch on sending DMs, receiving surprising text messages, and reining themselves in from making ill-advised late-night phone calls.

“One way or another, you’re gonna sing our songs because you’ve been through it, or you’re going through it,” Peña says. “Or you’re going to go through it.”

Solís grins, revealing several tiny jewels glinting on one of his canines. “And you’re gonna dance to it.”

Back in L.A., I meet up again with the band at an upscale Mexican restaurant with a clubby atmosphere. The guys are in unwinding mode (their publicist, who took their phones away during the initial interview, has returned them). Solís is scrolling through videos while Peña glances at photos from last night’s Oscars parties. Guerrero, seated next to me, watches a live Monterrey v. Mazatlán soccer game on his phone.

We order rounds of guacamole and esquites dusted with Flamin’ Hot Cheetos for the table. Most everyone gets individual cuts of meat, while some opt for lobster mac and cheese. Acosta, who’s been keeping to himself in one corner, swiftly orders an entrée and is already quietly eating dessert by the time everyone else is getting their main courses. Then, he peaces out and says his goodbyes as the rest of the band razzes him.

After the meal, Grupo Frontera head to Burbank for a quick go-karting session before catching their late-night flight back to the Valley. This brisk schedule notwithstanding, they tell me that they’re consciously trying to make their tours less of a vexing whirlwind than they were in the past. “We feel like we toured 366 days last year,” Peña says. When they toured South America in 2023, they did a breakneck nine dates, across various countries, in 10 days. This time around, while touring ahead of their new album, they’re taking their time — they’ve got five dates over two weeks in the likes of Buenos Aires, and they plan to eat, sightsee, and hang out with friends.

They’re trying to more consciously enjoy these moments. But there’s a point where bodies just give out. Last year, a video of an exhausted, sick Solís made the rounds — his voice simply was not working onstage. “I was just feeling really sad,” he says. “I was like, ‘Bro, we’re doing all these concerts that people paid to come see, and they’re not getting what they want to hear, what they should be hearing.” During that nonstop era of touring, at a show where they performed at 3 a.m., Cantú admits that once he briefly fell asleep onstage.

But the band seems invigorated these days by the new songs, which harness their upward momentum and penchant for trying new things. These emerge in unexpected ways: When I first heard a stream of their new album, the propulsive opening notes of “Desquite,” a collaboration with Argentinian artist Nicki Nicole, threw me so much that I thought I’d mistakenly opened another tab on my phone at first. Cantú seems thrilled to hear this. “This album feels really fresh,” Cantú says, in between bites of queso fundido. “It’s super diverse, which is what all of us like.” It also sees them taking on even more collaborations with the likes of Christian Nodal (“Ya Pedo Quién Sabe”), as well as more left-field features from the likes of Maluma and Morat — yes, that Morat.

“Every carnita asada, every Christmas, everything, we’re still karaokeing to the same style of music. Just now we added the Frontera songs because everybody wants to sing them once we’re there… and they don’t understand that we don’t!”

Even with the excitement of touring ahead, and promoting a new album that will likely be a soundtrack to the summer, Grupo Frontera relish being home just as much. Solís waxes poetic about going out to “cruise nights” in the Valley — where people meet up with their tricked-out trucks and sound system in parking lots and chill while listening to music. At home, the guys also pull light-hearted pranks on one another. Cantú, who has an impish air about him, lives next door to Ortega. One morning, Ortega woke up to music outside. It was Cantú, who’d decided to roll out of bed and serenade his friend outside of his window with an accordion ditty.

They still have no intention of leaving their communities. “We would never move from the Valley, because the Valley’s small,” says Solís. “We’ve been here [in L.A.], Miami, Houston. There’s so much more traffic; the world moves faster.”

Cantú nods. “En McAllen, it moves slow,” he says. “Más como laid back.”

Beyond the pace, proximity to their loved ones has also kept them in the Valley. “It feels, like, warm,” Cantú adds. “They’re there. No somos de la cultura de ‘let’s move out.’”

Guerrero looks up from the soccer match he’s watching: “Every one of us, we’re happy with our families there.”

Even though their lives have changed over the last few years, some things have stayed the same. “Every carnita asada, every Christmas, everything, we’re still karaoking to the same style of music,” says Peña. “Just now we added the Frontera songs because everybody wants to sing them once we’re there… and they don’t understand that we don’t!”

For now, they’re happy to zip from the Valley all over the world to keep going even further with their sound. Recently the band released a song with Colombian legend Shakira, which happened fortuitously when she was recording songs with Barrera in Malibu for her new album Las Mujeres Ya No Lloran. Grupo Frontera happened to be shopping in West Hollywood at the time, and Barrera called them, asking if they could drive out to Malibu in the next half-hour to record with him and Shakira. “Stuff like that happens with me and [Grupo Frontera] and we don’t plan anything,” laughs Barrera. “That’s a problem. And that’s a blessing. Because we don’t expect anything and we just play everything by ear and everything by instinct, and that’s the way we work.”

That session, which resulted in the musicians’ collaborative song “Entre Paréntesis,” stayed with Barrera. “I can’t believe I’m here with a band from McAllen, that does regional Mexican music, that’s from my hometown, that they’re my friends,” he says. “We’re all together working with the biggest artists in the world. It’s one of those ‘pinch me’ moments that’s huge for our community. It’s huge for our culture.”

imageThis is Grupo Frontera”>

imageThis is Grupo Frontera”>

Grupo Frontera seems similarly floored by every step, every gig, every nuance they’ve experienced that’s gotten them to where they are at this moment. Peña tells me that after the initial success of “No Se Va,” the band played Citibanamex in Monterrey — a city that’s a proving ground for regional Mexican music. Back then, they’d been dismayed to hear that some locals had dismissed them as merely “los que copiaban a Morat’’ (the ones who copied Morat). That accusation hit them hard.

A year later, Grupo Frontera came back to Monterrey. That time they sold out the much-bigger Arena Monterrey, with a capacity of over 17,000 people. Twice. “For us, all of us that grew up there, Arena Monterrey… That was big because that’s where we all went to see the biggest artists that we can think of,” says Peña. The disbelief is palpable in his voice.

The 2023 shows they did at Arena Monterrey were momentous for a different reason: It had been practically a year to the day since Peña had made the call to leave his job, to take a chance on himself and his bandmates. It’s taken him and his friends, born and brought up in a constellation of cities and towns that dot the expanse of South Texas, towards futures more extraordinary than they ever could have imagined.

Jugando Que No Pasa Nada is out this spring.