‘American Idol’ hometown visit brings Alejandro Aranda, and thousands of fans, to Pomona

by in News

On the streets of his hometown of Pomona, “American Idol” finalist Alejandro Aranda was hailed Thursday by thousands of fans who call themselves Alejomies.

They flocked downtown to cheer on Aranda, a 24-year-old dishwasher whose followers are captivated by not only his voice and guitar playing but by his humble background and regular-guy demeanor. A parade wound through downtown, ending at the historic Fox Theater, where Aranda performed six songs on a stage set up in the street.

“He is definitely America’s sweetheart right now,” Rachel Boell, sales and marketing manager of the Fox, told me the day before. “He has that edge ‘Idol’ needs.”

Things don’t always break Pomona’s way. Had Aranda been eliminated Sunday, the parade and concert planned by “Idol” would have been canceled. Even when he made it, there could have been rain Tuesday, or an asteroid could have struck the city. In Pomona, anything can happen.

But Aranda made it, the skies were clear, the day was warm and everything seemed to go off without a hitch.

  • American Idol finalist Alejandro Aranda, of Pomona, left, rides in a parade for him before performing for his fans outside the Pomona Fox Theater in Pomona on Tuesday, May 14, 2019. (Photo by Jennifer Cappuccio Maher, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

  • Priscilla Hernandez, 18, left, and her sister Liliana, 17, both of Pomona, cheer while waiting for American Idol finalist Alejandro Aranda, of Pomona, outside the Pomona Fox Theater after a parade in his honor in Pomona on Tuesday, May 14, 2019. (Photo by Jennifer Cappuccio Maher, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

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  • The Garey High School Band leads the parade for American Idol finalist Alejandro Aranda, of Pomona, before Aranda performed for his fans outside the Pomona Fox Theater in Pomona on Tuesday, May 14, 2019. (Photo by Jennifer Cappuccio Maher, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

  • Pomona Mayor Tim Sandoval declares it “Alejandro Aranda Day” in honor of American Idol finalist Alejandro Aranda, of Pomona, outside the Pomona Fox Theater after a parade in his honor in Pomona on Tuesday, May 14, 2019. (Photo by Jennifer Cappuccio Maher, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)



“Does it look like anything went wrong today?” Mark Gluba, Pomona’s deputy city manager, said outside the Fox as we waited for the concert with thousands of others. “Everything went right. It’s turned out pretty amazing. There’s a ton of people. I really think we nailed it.”

Businesses downtown posted homemade signs in their windows, some made by students, some by store owners.

“What’s nice is seeing the community come together. We’re a big city, and in a big city you can get lost,” said Paola Vega, co-owner of the downtown coffeehouse Mi Cafecito in the city of 160,000, as she made a poster Tuesday afternoon. “I really feel like Pomonans are proud.”

A parade Tuesday afternoon was led by the Garey High color guard in white sailor suits, followed by the Garey marching band in blue and white, playing T. Rex’s “Bang a Gong.” Aranda rode in a 1964 Chevy Impala convertible — a lowrider, naturally — with a nephew. Aranda waved, smiled and tended to look bashful. But when a man walked up for a fist bump, Aranda cheerfully complied.

More lowriders followed him, including one riding on three wheels.

“They’re getting a taste of Pomona, a taste of Southern California, with these lowriders,” resident Ron Vander Molen told me with a chuckle. “They’ve never seen anything like this on ‘American Idol’ (on hometown visits). They’re usually a bunch of bumpkins out in the country driving tractors.”

Apologies in advance to any bumpkins reading this.

Councilman Rubio Gonzalez, who was in the crowd, reminded me that Pomona was on the national stage last November when resident Mary Ann Borer played on “Jeopardy!” and with Aranda is now on the world stage.

“Pomona is a place for smart people. Pomona is a place for talented musicians,” Gonzalez said. “The people outside Pomona still prejudge us. But the local people know what’s up.”

On the stage, Mayor Tim Sandoval, clad in an Alejandro T-shirt, led the crowd in a sports-like chant: “Ale-jandro, Ale-jandro, Ale-jandro.”

Aranda addressed the crowd briefly, beginning: “Show or no show, this is a community.”

After a break, he was introduced by musician Ben Harper of Claremont as “a once-in-a-generation artist, and he’s from the 909.” Aranda and Harper performed “There Will Be a Light,” the Harper song on which they had duetted on TV. Then Aranda did six of his own songs on guitar and piano.

“This is the first time I’ve been able to play a song longer than a minute and a half,” Aranda joked of TV’s time strictures. He was onstage for 50 minutes.

From his position on the stage, Aranda could look to his right and see O’Donovan’s, one of the venues where he sang at open-mic nights as late as last year.

While little is known about Aranda’s upbringing, he’s known to have performed regularly at open mic nights around downtown from 2016 to 2018, sometimes before only a handful of people.

I had dropped by dba256, another of his regular hangouts, on Monday.

“He’s done open mics here a ton of times before. When I saw he was on ‘American Idol,’ I thought, that’s crazy,” said Destiny Romero, a bartender.

“He was one of the few people who would do originals. Really pretty voice too,” Romero said. “Quiet too. He would keep to himself, perform two songs, then leave.”

Aranda visited the bar Monday afternoon with an “Idol” film crew capturing the fabled “hometown visit” for the finale episode Sunday. “He’s super sweet. You can tell he’s so appreciative of the support he’s receiving,” Romero said.

Aranda was facing elimination Sunday as the Top 5 was cut to Top 3. He performed Elton John’s “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word,” Bob Marley’s “No Woman No Cry” and his own “Blesser,” displaying a newfound confidence on each.

Still, Aranda isn’t the winner yet — not that not winning would hold him back. That will be determined on Sunday’s live finale, which will incorporate footage shot this week in Pomona and in Claremont, where Aranda used to busk on sidewalks for tips and visit the Folk Music Center.

Aranda came to the folk store Tuesday morning, where he reunited with Harper. I was there and will write about that in a couple of days.

Much of the Pomona concert, like the parade, was dictated by “Idol” handlers. One of the crew, off-camera, exhorted the audience at various points to raise their arms, to cheer, to turn on their phone’s flashlight and wave it. All for good TV moments.

“I’m trying to play for you all. They’re trying to make a TV show,” Aranda joked. “(Expletive) that.” You won’t see or hear that on TV, I’m sure.

But Aranda was in good humor throughout. And why not? During his song “10 Years,” people sang along during the chorus: “Remember, remember…” Aranda laughed in delight to have thousands of people singing along with a song that isn’t even on a record yet.

The last time through the chorus, he stepped back from the microphone and let the crowd sing the whole thing, as he laughed again.

“Thanks, Pomona,” Aranda said before leaving the stage. “I love you from the bottom of my heart. Thank you for being here.”

Hey, thank you for being here, man.

David Allen, no one’s idol, writes Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Email dallen@scng.com, phone 909-483-9339, visit insidesocal.com/davidallen, like davidallencolumnist on Facebook and follow @davidallen909 on Twitter.