With the Name of the Warrior

Rapper Yaoh finds his future in his past

Photo by James BunoanThere's an unremarkable little office space in a nondescript industrial park off an even more nondescript back street in Tustin, looks like home to someone's struggling income-tax firm, or an after-hours chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous but, instead, belongs to a 24-year-old rapper named Yaoh, and thanks to his careful administration, this unremarkable little office space is the center of Orange County's Chicano punk movement.

Yaoh was born in 1978 on the eve of a Salvadoran civil war that wouldn't end until 1989, leaving tens of thousands dead and the country in ruins. But his story begins where the story of Orange County's Chicano punk movement really begins, sometime after the leveling of the Aztec empire in 1519. The Spaniards set their swords upon Cuscutlán—a place they'd later, ironically christen El Salvador, "the savior"—and forced Indians from the Valley of Mexico to battle Cuscutlán's inhabitants. After the successful subjugation, these kidnapped mercenaries intermixed with the locals, settling in the capital city of San Salvador in a section now known as la colonia de los Mexicanos: the ghetto of Mexicans.

This is where Yaoh was born. And this is where a primordial tradition of resistance was born as well: during Yaoh's childhood, the colonia hosted some of the fiercest battles of the Salvadoran civil war. "You couldn't live there after a while," he recalls, his always-serious eyes now squirming in remembrance. "People were always disappearing with no explanation. And if you didn't join either the government or the rebels, you'd probably be dead."

He remembers as a child seeing corpses rotting on the street, remembers right-wing death squads storming houses and demanding payoffs from frightened villagers. But mostly, Yaoh remembers the hiding. The Salvadoran military became notorious for kidnapping children to enlist in the war—much as the Spaniards had done 450 years earlier—and whenever the military came to Yaoh's village, someone would signal the parents to hide their children.

"Everyone would go to a store," he says—no bigger than the office where we're talking today, he adds. "And they'd stuff us in a hidden cabinet like sardines. I was confused at the time, but I knew that if I didn't do what I was told . . ."

Yaoh concludes abruptly, "You had to do it."

* * *

Living in El Salvador became too dangerous after his uncle joined the rebels and hid grenades in Yaoh's bedroom. The family joined the immense Salvadoran migration to the United States when he was five, and relocated when he was 13 to a Costa Mesa barrio engulfed in a war between gangs and cops. It would have been tough enough for any poor kid, but Yaoh carried an unbearably light burden: he was historyless. His family refused to talk about the middle-class life they left in El Salvador. His Costa Mesa peers may have felt they had no future; Yaoh had no past, either.

"I thought like any other kid that life wasn't for me," he says. "I was a total juvenile, rebelling against everything people told me was right."

But in 1995, Yaoh met Chicano activist Olin Tezcatlipoca at a powwow in East Los Angeles. He says the subsequent conversation changed his life.

"He found out I was from El Salvador, so he started asking me questions about the country," Yaoh remembers. "He assumed I knew them because that was my birthplace. But I didn't know them. I realized I didn't know anything about myself and felt ashamed. I went home that day and asked my mother why I was never taught these things. She told me that the first time she protested against the war, she was nearly killed. After that, she vowed to never say a thing. She told me, 'That's the past. It wasn't good. You're in the USA. Move on.'"

But Yaoh wanted answers about the never-ending Latin America tragedy. He found them with the Mexica Movement, a Chicano group that teaches pride in all things indigenous. Tezcatlipoca was the founder, and he discovered in Yaoh a passion for knowledge. They continued to nurture his inquisitiveness when Yaoh served six months in jail at 17 on a trumped-up loitering charge.

"While everyone [in prison] was playing cards or watching television, I'd be reading whole books [members of the Mexica Movement] gave me, books about my heritage" he says. "I had never even finished a book cover-to-cover before. Now I was reading about two a week."

One of those books was The Daily Life of the Aztecs, a 1955 book by French archaeologist Jacques Soustelle that's admired by even the most militant Chicanos for its analysis of one of history's most demonized cultures. In reading the book, the imprisoned youth came across the term yaoh—"warrior" in the Nahuatl tongue of the Aztecs.

"The job of a warrior was to take captives," he says. "I liked that idea—only in my case, I wanted to free people from the chains of ignorance that once held me captive. But if I were to take the name [Mexica Movement members relinquish their European name in favor of an Aztec name], I'd have to carry the responsibilities that came with it."

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