“Until I was like 15 or 16 I only listened to classical music,” says Julieta Venegas, who at 27 is one of Mexico’s few female rock stars. “I was mostly into modern Russian composers like Khachaturian and Rachmaninoff, who were really intense. And Satie, which is simple.”

In high school in Tijuana, Venegas, who’d studied piano since she was nine, started playing rock when some friends needed a keyboard player. “For me it was a whole different way of going into music,” she says. “It was like, ‘Wow, you improvise, you play in concerts, you have fans, you write songs.’ And that’s how I started singing too, because [the band] said, ‘We need a vocalist–maybe it’ll be you.’ It wasn’t like I had this great voice. It was kind of like, ‘There’s no one else to do it.'”

Now Venegas’s rhythmic incantations of her subtle, poetic lyrics–presented in a definitively alt-rock manner–can be heard on radio stations all over Mexico. For that she’s garnered attention as one of a small group of women making headway in the traditionally machos-only field of rock en espa–ol.

“In Latin America rock ‘n’ roll has always been composed by men and performed by men,” says Ely Guerra, 26, who joined Venegas and the all-female techno-pop band Aurora y la Academia early this year for a national tour dubbed De Diva Voz (“In the Diva’s Voice”), a sort of scaled-down Mexican Lilith Fair. “But right now for women it’s not only in music, it’s in all professions that we are taking places we couldn’t take before. Right now Julieta and other people like Aurora and me, we are having a little bit of luck because people want to know about women’s work, and people are paying attention to what women can do.”

In August Guerra and Venegas were pictured on the cover of Time magazine’s Latin American edition for a story called “Era of the Rockera.” Guerra, who broke into the big time last year with her album Pa’ morirse de amor (“To Die for Love”) after ten years as a backup singer, says the De Diva Voz tour gave them a lot of exposure. “The media was very interested in our work. It was like, ‘Women are doing something.'”

Whether it’s Guerra showing off her voice on a rocked-up version of the traditional ballad “Jœrame” (“Swear to Me”) or the poignant violin, piano, and clarinet phrases in Venegas’s compositions, the rockeras are adding their own touch to the rock-en-espa–ol repertoire. Venegas’s accordion–which she picked up just before leaving Tijuana for Mexico City (“I just started playing it, like, ‘Oh, well, it’s easy and it’s kind of like the piano'”)–weaves in and out of the lyrics, which are imbued with an understated feminism. In “De mis pasos” (“From My Steps”) she sings, “I won’t turn off the wind / That pushes me / That takes me away from you” and “I learn from my steps / I understand by walking.”

“We express ourselves very differently than men do,” says Guerra. “The way we write our songs and the way we sing and the way we perform in concert–I believe there is a difference. Women and men are always communicating in different words, with different physical and mental movements.”

De Diva Voz, which played mainly at universities throughout Mexico, ended in the spring. But when the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum’s recently acquired radio station, Radio Arte (90.5 FM), was looking for an act to bring for the museum’s fifth annual Sor Juana Festival, which honors the 17th-century Mexican woman who joined a convent to pursue her love of knowledge, De Diva Voz seemed an obvious choice. “Sor Juana chose to become a nun so she could continue doing what she loved to do,” says Yolanda Rodriguez, Radio Arte’s general manager. “I think these three women, being women, people have a perception of how their music should sound. Everything around them dictates what they should sound like or what they should do, but in rock en espa–ol it’s wonderful that you have women coming out and saying, ‘I want to do this. This is what I want to sound like.’ I think Sor Juana had that same spirit.”

The all-ages concert will be the U.S. premiere for De Diva Voz and the Chicago debut for Venegas, Guerra, and Aurora y la Academia. It’s Sunday at 7 at the House of Blues, 329 N. Dearborn. Call 312-559-1212 or 312-923-2000 for tickets, which are $30, or 312-738-1503 for information. –Linda Lutton

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Ely Guerra photo courtesy EMI Music Mexico; Julieta Venegas photo couresy BMG Music; Aurora y la Academia photo courtesy Polygram Latino.