By Adam Lovinus
By Lilledeshan Bose
By Gabriel San Roman
By Rachel Mattice
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Daniel Kohn
By Nate Jackson
By Mike Seeley
The guitar strap ate into Steve Soto's shoulder as he stood with his hands up, seconds away from a hail of bullets ripping him apart.
It was Cinco de Mayo, 1999, at the Foothill Club in Signal Hill. Soto, the guitar legend whose bands Agent Orange and the Adolescents helped to define OC's punk scene, had just minutes earlier torn through a set with his side project, Manic Hispanic. The group of friends were like him, two-time outcasts in Orange County who grew up as a minority within a minority: punks in a Mexican community, Mexicans in a punk community. Although only 6 years old and a part-time indulgence for everyone involved, Manic Hispanic were already punker's punks, their take on classics—next-to-no change in the musical structures, but with lyrics satirically transformed to reflect their Chicano upbringing, performed while dressed as though on a casting call for American Me—delighting audiences across Southern California and beyond.
But no amount of goofball goodwill was going to get Soto and his band mates out of this mess. Right before the show, Foothill staff told Manic Hispanic lead singer Mike "Gabby" Gaborno—most famously of the Cadillac Tramps, exuding vato loco style with his buttoned-up Pendleton, mad-dogger sunglasses, wifebeater, fedora, lilting voice, teardrop tattoo and Folsom jeans—to not smoke onstage, as was his custom. Gaborno's response? He opened up his flannel shirt to reveal a gun tucked into his waistband, scaring the nanny-staters off.
3503 S. Harbor Blvd.
Santa Ana, CA 92704
Category: Music Venues
Region: Santa Ana
The show went on. The crowd, a mix of whites and Mexicans of all ages, social classes and punk familiarity, moshed to refried hits such as "Barrio Land" (a take on the Clash's "Garage Land") and X's "Los Angeles," now a tale of a Chicana leaving East LA by "crossing the Orange County line," the classic lyric "Every Mexican that gave her lotta shit" reappropriated as a point of pride. When fans weren't slamming into one another, they laughed at the interaction between Gaborno and his carnales, full of in-jokes for punks and Mexicans and especially Mexican punks alike. At one point, Foothill staff tried to flag down singer Sonny Lujan, asking if he knew if Gaborno was still packing; Lujan couldn't hear over the roar of the crowd and thought they wanted them to wrap up the gig. "Three more songs!" he pleaded.
And then the lights went out.
The Signal Hill Police Department had cut the power. Outside, a SWAT team readied to raid the place; a Long Beach police helicopter swooped above, its spotlight straight on the Foothill. Someone had called 911 about Gaborno's gun.
The cops stormed the venue and ordered everyone out except Manic Hispanic and their crew. The group had stopped midsong, frozen in their positions. It was fine for a couple of minutes, but the weight of Soto's Telecaster hanging from his body was proving too much as the cops moved from Mexican to Mexican, demanding to know who had the gat.
"No one knew what the cops were talking about," says Soto, laughing at the memory. "I looked at one of the officers, trying to be nice. So I look at him, nod down to my Telecaster, and say as nice as possible, 'Officer, I've got this guitar . . .'"
"If you move," the cop yelled back at Soto, "I'll fucking shoot you."
The police eventually cuffed Manic and their friends and gave them a full pat-down—still no gun. They didn't find Lujan's knife, which he had forgotten to put away after a day working at the docks in Long Beach. And they never found the gun, either: Gaborno had thrown away the water pistol before the show, never telling anyone he had brought one in the first place. This crucial detail didn't emerge until about an hour later, after he finally realized what the fuss was about and 'fessed up.
The police were disgusted. "I could've shot one of you guys over a toy gun," one spat out in disgust as he left the scene.
Manic Hispanic have howled about the moment ever since.
Even a few days after the raid, the Foothill fiasco had entered local lore: the Weekly wrote that people were denying the police raid even happened, that "the show is now destined to be relegated to the bin of embellished nostalgia. If you weren't there, tell all your friends you were" [Rebecca Schoenkopf's "Extreme Madness," May 13, 1999]. But more than a decade later, on the eve of their 20th-anniversary show, the remaining members of Manic Hispanic, now all adults with children, mortgages and, well, adult lives, laugh at that memory.
"They wanted us to pay the bill for the SWAT, for the cops, for everyone," says bassist Warren Renfrow. "Yeah, right!"
It was, like them, one big comedy of mistaken identity that underscores their status as OC's greatest cult band ever—and our finest Mexicans, period.
* * *
If you ask a loco (like me) who wants to ascribe political motivation to everything, I'd say Manic Hispanic are one of the most subversive expressions of Mexican identity in American culture. I'd maintain that Manic are the finest chinga tu madre to racist Orange County of them all. I'd tie the group to a proud tradition of Mexican musical tricksters, from El Piporro to El Vez, Tintan to Cheech and Chong, Cantinflas to Culture Clash. I'd describe "The INS Took My Novia Away" (their homage to the Ramones' "The KKK Took My Baby Away) as their attack against the county's anti-Mexican policies and note that their pronunciation of Santa Ana as "SanTana" shows their understanding of regional argot. I'd say that "Brown Man in O.C. Jail," based on the Clash's "White Man (in Hammersmith Palais)," is as searing an indictment of our county's brutal jail system as Moxley's exposés. Why, I would rank Manic Hispanic alongside the Pyramid of the Sun and the Sonora dog among Mexico's crowning achievements, even better than the Mayan calendar.