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Any discussion about the growing popularity of rock en español in the United States has to include not just musicians but also immigrants—pioneering Mexico City expatriates, to be exact. The music took hold in this country largely because of the efforts of chilangos (as Mexico City natives are called) who brought along with their immigrant dreams tons of records that sowed the seeds for an underground explosion. The chilango connection thus explains why one of the first rock en español acts to achieve fame in the U.S. was Mexico City's Maldita Vecindad.
But you can forgive the founding padres y madres of the movement for their nepotism. La Maldita was a necessary opening act for rock en español in the United States, since its Molotov cocktail of Latin American rhythms, punk, and tongue-in-cheek-yet-serious politics was the perfect mix to make the genre appealing to non-Latinos. Twelve years after the group's U.S. introduction, and even after other bands have eclipsed them in critical and financial success, Maldita is still the group with which to deflower neophytes to the anarchic promise—and fun—of rock en español.
The quintet—singer Roco, bassist Aldo, drummer Pacho, and guitarists El Pato and Sax—originated out of the rubble of a huge catastrophe: the 1985 Mexico City earthquake that shook one of the world's largest metropolis to its swampy core. The band's entire name—Maldita Vecindad y Los Hijos del Quinto Patio—is an ode to these disastrous origins, translating into "Damned Neighborhood and the Sons of the Quinto Patio" (a notorious colonia in Mexico City). Maldita played benefit concerts to raise money for quake victims where they would inspire their suffering audiences by blasting a government that offered no relief to those who needed it most.
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Maldita's political lyrics raised some eyebrows, but what grabbed people's attention more was a musical style that's now common but at the time was unheard of: rock with español. Where most Latin American rock bands during the '60s and '70s ditched their native rhythms to ape the music and style of North American bands, Maldita instead incorporated Latin rhythms with punk and ska backbeats. In fact, if you consider rock en español to be American rock flooded with Latin rhythms and songs of political and urban (rather than personal) despair, then Maldita can be considered the first true rock en español act.
Word about Maldita soon spread—along with a flurry of bootleg concert tapes—and the band began building a cult following in the States, becoming the first Latin alternative group to play with a major American act when they opened a string of Jane's Addiction dates in the early '90s. Maldita haven't looked back since, always adding newer sounds to their massive repertoire while not losing sight of rock's true purpose: rebel against the status quo, but have fun while you're doing it, cabrón!
This approach is best experienced live, where Roco acts like a Marxist jester by taking a snide approach to the serious lyrics that run contrary to their music. For instance, "Mojado" ("Wetback") tells the wrenching story of an immigrant who dies trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border in search of a better life. The lyrics are incredibly depressing and inspire people to flip off la migra (at the very least) the next time they pass through the San Clemente INS station. But you'd never guess there was such a political overtone to the song if you didn't know Spanish, since backing the harrowing tale is an addicting cumbia beat. Never has human pain been articulated so sardonically.
Although now considered elder statesmen on the rock en español scene, Maldita still work hard at furthering their cause of progressive fun, recently remaking Los Tigres del Norte's ominous "El Circo" on the recent Tigres rock en español tribute album into a calliope-sounding condemnation of the corrupt Institutional Revolutionary Party. And Maldita still love to thumb their noses at a Mexican elite that never quite forgave their infamous TV appearance several years ago, when the band trashed a studio before a national audience. With Maldita, the promise of rock en español is born anew with each angry lyric, always backed by the dance rhythms of the oppressed.
Maldita Vecindad play at JC Fandango, 1086 N. State College Blvd., Anaheim, (714) 758-1057; www.jcf.com. Mon., 8 p.m. $20. 16+.