Loud, Proud, Punk and Brown

Martin Sorrondeguy helps push punk past its borders

Photo by Nick ShawIt's a cold Thursday night at Anaheim's Chain Reaction. The club is filled with Latino teenagers, and they're getting restless: it's almost 10:30 on a school night, and they have to get home soon. But their parents are going to have to wait—nobody's leaving until their hometown heroes come onstage. Finally, Over the Counter Intelligence (nicknamed OTC) arrives: four Santa Ana college students with Zapatista imagery spattered across their guitars and drum kit. The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks were barely 10 days ago, but that's apparently no reason to turn down the rhetoric—or the amplifiers.

OTC hits first, hard and fast with "¡Ya Basta!" (Enough's Enough!), an homage to Mexico's insurgent Zapatistas. They produce an incendiary set, with topics bouncing from anti-capitalism (drawing on the works of Dr. Seuss) to police brutality. In the breathless spaces between songs, they're pushing philosophy, not merchandise. They bring up the Taco Bell boycott campaign, with which they're actively involved. They condemn the hypocrisy of the U.S. border policy. Finally, they toss into the crowd books by Noam Chomsky and other progressives. The kids dive after the literature as zealously as they slam into one another during OTC's songs; Chain Reaction's bouncers stop the intellectual mosh pits on various occasions.

And when it seems the band can't burn any brighter, the audience ignites. While OTC rip through a tune about the evils of the Bush II/Cheney regime, someone in the audience shouts, "Fuck George Bush!" It's a suddenly catchy slogan that meshes perfectly with the beat and the general atmosphere. The band starts chanting "Fuck George Bush!" too, and soon the entire club is filled with high school kids punching through the current atmosphere of claustrophobic patriotism to something a little . . . well . . . revolutionary?

"We nearly got banned from the club for leading that chant," drummer Jose "Mansun" Reyes says afterward. "But fuck it: we're not scared of telling the truth."

But a lot of people might be scared to listen. In Orange County, OTC is something of an anomaly: not simply Latino kids playing punk music, but a band that is part of a movement—whether they know it or not—tagged "Latino punk," a reaction both to sub-cultural complacency and right-wing political attacks. In a lot of ways, it's an alternative to what's called alternative, an aligning of punk's rebel vigor with an explicitly political agenda, translated into the culture of the oppressed.

The problem is that Latino kids aren't supposed to be into punk. As bassist Rafael Ramos explains, they're supposed to listen to rap, to slick and sold-out rock en español, to anything but funny-haired white-people music. To society, they'd be two- (in the case of women, three-) time losers: punk and Latino. To the more ignorant sectors of the punk community, they're the brown-skinned kids who never shut up about Che, the demonic migra and the indigenous. To their parents and peers, they're outcasts: sometimes called maricones for wearing outlandish hairstyles or sporting piercings and tattoos, dragged kicking and screaming to family reunions only to be shunned by their chúntaro and cholo relatives, their Latin American identity both uniting and dividing them. They're loud, proud, punk and brown. And that makes a lot of people uncomfortable.

"There's a misconception in both Latino and white culture that Latinos can't rock," Ramos says. "People tell us to stick to rap, to something that's more 'real.'"

Sorrondeguy: "Resistance, reaction,
unrest—that's what Latin America
and punk are about."
Photo by Chris Ziegler

But when punk started, no one was supposed to be into it—that's what made it so powerful. You're breaking the rules. Crossing the borders. Making people angry—and making them think. That's why you're supposed to get into punk in the first place. And that's why for kids throughout the Latino world, punk rock is as real as it gets.

Martin Sorrondeguy could tell you a lot of stories about Latinos and punk rock. On the breezy patio outside the modest Santa Ana half-house he and his boyfriend now call home, he'll talk to you about arguing down a phalanx of Nazis at a show in St. Louis. Or about playing music loudly enough to drown out the roar of INS choppers in San Ysidro. Or about looking down the barrel of a patrullero's gun somewhere in the mountains while on a tour of Mexico.

And then he'll ask if you'd like more tea. He's a very gracious host, a great conversationalist. And he's even more effective when he screams.

For seven action-packed years, Sorrondeguy fronted Los Crudos, a furious Chicago-based hardcore band that might (as we peek back into the blur of history) have been one of the flagships for the movement we'll call Latino punk. Except that to say so would probably embarrass him. Sorrondeguy is not a person who dwells on the past.

"If people say we were one of the most important bands of the '90s, it's like, take it how you want," he'll explain quickly. "There were a bunch of us. We were all working together. And I think Los Crudos—like many other bands who did what they did—had really important things to say. I like that, and I think that was great. But it's 2001. Let's keep the energy going. I'm about what's happening now."

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