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But ask Manic to place themselves in the pantheon of socio-political musical activism, and they'll ridicule such analysis.
"When other people try to write social commentary about us, like say that 'My Homeboy Is a Joto' [their scabrous take on DI's "Johnny's Got a Problem"] is a commentary about homophobia in Mexican communities, I just laugh," says rhythm guitarist Maurice Torres. "Everyone tries to be so political and righteous for the cause. It's just a funny song!"
The band are sitting in the well-kept Fountain Valley house of drummer Ruben Rivera. Framed concert posters line the walls, along with "Rivera" written in papel picado, the arabesque paper-cut decorations most frequently seen during Dia de los Muertos. Lujan arrives late from his job as a foreman with the International Longshoremen of the World Union; bassist Warren Renfrow and Gaborno aren't around because they're still at work, as a crane operator and concrete inspector, respectively. At one point, Rivera's son comes home from a Little League game, tow-headed and happy.
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"In Mexican culture, you can either go with Cesar Chávez or go with Cheech and Chong," says Lujan. "We went with Cheech."
Perhaps they're not as political as people want them to be. But as a reflection of who they are—Mexicans who grew up in Orange County during the 1970s and '80s, who had one foot in the barrio and another in the mosh pit, working-class stiffs who made it without selling out who they were—they're the ultimate embodiment of what it means to be brown and down in Orange County, a place where too many still look down on the brown.
"We altered the punk scene," says Gaborno. "We made it more okay for Mexicans and whites to have an equally good time."
"They were one of the people who taught you it was cool to be Mexican," says Joe Escalante, longtime bassist for the Vandals and a Mexican punk himself. "I always knew it was cool, but they taught other people that."
The band members reflect the rainbow that is the Mexican-American experience. One of Soto's grandparents was from Guanajuato. Singer Efrem Schultz's father was an illegal immigrant; Renfrow's family is Californio; Torres' familia comes from Brownsville, Texas; Rivera's parents were of Yaqui and Mexican extraction. Lujan and Gaborno are New Mexicans. Soto, Schultz and Renfrow grew up in and around Fullerton; Rivera and Torres hail from Fountain Valley, Gaborno from Westminster, and Lujan from San Pedro.
And they all exhibit roles that anyone familiar with Mexicans in Southern California will immediately recognize. Rivera and Torres are as even-keeled as Chicanos from Montebello; Renfrow is the kindly uncle, while Lujan—who sports a magnificent salt-and-pepper goatee out of Lowrider Magazine pencil drawings and has a gravelly voice that sounds similar to a concrete mixer but is always cracking jokes—is the crazy tío, which is also his stage name. Schultz, the youngest member of the band, is all smiles and enthusiasm; Soto, the one person who makes his living full-time from music, is all business. And Gaborno, one of the most charismatic front men in OC music history, is the curandero, the witch man tasked with saving crowds from becoming PC pendejos and reminding them to laugh.
From these varied backgrounds and personalities arose two common threads: They grew up punk, and they grew up Mexican. And they were proud of both because each subset was one and the same to them.
"The punk rockers and the eses just hung out together—we were the outcasts," Gaborno remembers of growing up in the 1980s near Westminster's West 13 barrio. "The eses in the hood were way cooler than the jocks. Jocks would drive by and call you a punker and a cholo in the same breath. But the punkers were more accepting of Mexicans. It was as if they thought, 'You guys are as nutsy as us. And it's all right.'"
"Being punks, you were outcasts," Rivera adds. "If you saw another punk, the catch-phrase even there was 'Where you from?,' like cholos. But being punks with Mexicans—they didn't know what to do with us. One time, I was with some girl, and some cholo wanted to get at me because he didn't know who I was. The girl was like, 'No, no, don't ask Ruben where he claims—he's from the white part of town!'"
"All the Mexican kids are misfits," says Schultz. "OC's an uptight place to be a Mexican. Punks in those days were the only ones who understood us."
The seven became tuned into one another by the early 1990s, weaving in and out of more bands than they can remember (the bigger names include the Adolescents, Agent Orange, Cadillac Tramps, Joyride, Grabbers, Los Infernos). Orange County music was about to break out nationally via Sublime and Social Distortion, and soon-to-be titans such as No Doubt and the Offpsring were playing the same gigs as the guys' bands. As day jobs, Soto and Gaborno worked at the warehouse of Doctor Dream Records, the legendary Orange indie label; to pass the day, they shot the shit about their childhood, cracking up at how their punk and Mexican lives were becoming intertwined. More Mexicans in la naranja were starting punk bands; meanwhile, the OC punk and surf scenes had adopted barrio fashion—Dickies and Ben Davis khaki pants, Pendletons and wraparound shades, even lowriders—as their own. To celebrate this mestizaje, Soto joked they should do a Freddy Fender cover band.