Loud, Proud, Punk and Brown
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."
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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."
What's happening now is a reaction by a culture too long submerged that's been building for centuries, something brought to fruition over the past decade in a formidable underground music movement. Maybe you haven't heard about it; though Latino Punk spans two hemispheres, it flies under the radar of the dominant media. It stays off marketing surveys, thanks to its disdain for the corporate music establishment. It's quiet until you get up close. And then it's mad about almost everything—from state-sponsored terrorism at the hands of soldiers and cops to the risk of deportation for getting caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.
You'll know them when you hear them: kids who sing in the languages they speak in their homes, not in their schools; who celebrate rather than ignore their heritage; who rail against racism/sexism/classism/imperialism and a host of other social ills; who tear down borders both literal and metaphorical and push for a realization of punk's graying promise—to tip the social and musical establishment upside-down.
This is something old and something new, and just because someone is singing in Spanish doesn't mean you can call it rock en español.
"There's always gonna be rockers, but the rock scene wasn't talking about the things that were really pertinent to us," says Sorrondeguy. "We're punks—there's a huge difference. Punks are the ones who are supposed to stand up and kick things over. Some people call it a subculture; some people call it a counterculture. And when you become part of a counterculture, that's dangerous."
You could say it started, like so many other important things, with boredom. Brain-numbing, heart-rupturing, soul-sucking boredom—the kind of boredom that blankets much of the world, from Buenos Aires to Buena Park, the kind of boredom that comes from not fitting in, from having nowhere to go and nothing to do in a society that sees you—a kid, a teenager, a Latino—as a ticking time bomb, a nuisance at best, and maybe a serious threat.
And you could say it started with alienation, with anger, with the realization that the political mechanisms that define the place you live in are something like a gun at your back, but you need some boredom in there, too. Because that kind of boredom demands a reaction. For Sorrondeguy, the reaction was punk.
This was in the early '90s, when being Latino or immigrant (terms that were interchangeable in the popular imagination) was something like an existential criminal act—at least in California, with propositions like 21, 209, 227 and the notorious 187 gnawing away at the rights of nonwhites. Not coincidentally, this is when the Latino punk scene came into its own. And this is when Sorrondeguy put together Los Crudos, somewhere in the basement of a home in Pilsen, the Chicago barrio where he grew up. Los Crudos were very much a product of their environment—an artist friend once told Sorrondeguy she could hear the El trains in Crudos' chugging drumbeats. But somehow, they'd tapped into something global. And the first step was the language they sang in.
"All our lives we were told, 'Don't speak Spanish; speak English,' 'Do this; don't do that'—just these really strict rules," Sorrondeguy reflects. "But we wanted to communicate with other kids and with people in our neighborhood about things that were affecting us because there was a lot of crazy shit going on. I thought, 'Okay, I have pen pals through punk. I'll just send out a tape.'"
His band put a match to ample generations of fuel: when Sorrondeguy describes the reaction, the metaphor he chooses is a bomb. "It just kind of blew up unexpectedly," he says with a smile. "'Boom!'"
You can still hear the echoes: Crudos roared through a lattice of borders to play ferocious shows for roiling crowds of kids in Europe and South America. Some of those kids sang along with words they could only have learned through diligent study of lyrics sheets and a Spanish-to-everything dictionary. So what if they'd grown up Polish, German, Czech or even generic American? Crudos made a connection. "We were speaking a language that a lot of people understood," Sorrondeguy says.
And then they started getting letters—from border towns, from barrios, from Mexico, from Brazil and beyond—from kids who'd lived the lyrics Sorrondeguy wrote half a hemisphere away, who'd started punk bands all on their own and now jumped at the opportunity to make a connection. They drew inspiration from the way Crudos connected so intimately both to their own community and to an audience who knew them only from scratchy vinyl singles, an audience that wanted to transcend borders the same way this band from Chicago had. They'd say, "'We want to do what you guys are doing,'" Sorrondeguy remembers, "'and we want to play with you.'
"For once, a band was coming from the U.S. that was aware that people existed on the other side," he says. "We were finding a common ground, saying fuck all that society bullshit that separates people for different reasons.
"Resistance is the meeting point for Latinos and punks," he concludes. "Resistance, reaction, unrest—that's what Latin America and punk are about."
And it makes sense: Latin America is the location—not just geographical, but psychological and social as well—of what may be the longest undeclared war in history, from indigenous, bloody empires to conquistadors, fascists and the CIA. Out of the rubble of savagery, battle, torture and the disappeared has emerged a rich musical tradition of resistance. It varies from country to country: the corrido of Mexico spreading news of the victories of Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata during the Mexican Revolution; the Caribbean canción nueva (New Song Movement), which incorporated messages of ethnic solidarity in the face of Anglo discrimination alongside salsa beats during the '70s; the young Argentine rockeros who risked death to speak the truth during their country's Dirty War.
And now, as Crudos found when they left the U.S. to meet the kids who'd written those letters, there was a new way to resist: punk.
Sorrondeguy hasn't heard of over the Counter Intelligence, but it's not because he isn't paying attention. Partly it's because he's still getting used to Orange County: taking a boom box bursting with blistering international hardcore to the beach wasn't as relaxing as he'd expected. "It doesn't feel like it works here," he laughs. "With the beautiful water and all this shit, where does it fit?" And partly it's because there are so many bands—new and scattered and tearing along the same wavelength that Crudos and their compatriots were tuned in to, from East LA to South America—that he couldn't keep track of them all.
Crudos broke up in 1998 after an emotional—not emo, thank you—final Chicago show, but the Latino punk movement moves on, with kids worldwide networking and communicating, playing the same music for the same reasons in whatever language they claim as their own. And Sorrondeguy's moving too: after capturing the scene in a too-short video documentary on a generation of Latino punk called "Mas Alla de los Gritos" ("Beyond the Screams"), he's heading in a new direction. His latest band, Limpwrist, is set to go on tour to support their—maybe America's, maybe even the world's—first album of pummeling gay straightedge hardcore. It's perfectly natural, of course: there are borders yet that need to be erased.
"Some people were like, 'We don't like Crudos anymore; Crudos used to be good,'" Sorrondeguy says. "And I guess they meant when I was in the closet. People give you this kind of thing—'You're a fag; you can't be valid'—and it's interesting who it came from. I think it has to do with the whole machismo thing in Latino culture, which is such a dated concept. It's like, 'You're still on that? I thought we dealt with that years ago!'"
Crudos was never a single-issue band, Sorrondeguy says. Their band was their lives, and in life, everything ties together. "If I love a man, what's it to you?" he sang on one of Crudos' albums; during this upcoming tour, Limpwrist will play with bands like East LA's Kontrattaque. He likes the idea of challenging preconceptions and prejudices, of holding up a mirror and making people examine themselves: once it was through Los Crudos; now it isn't. But it's always been punk.
"I'm really down for supporting people's struggles, whatever they may be," he says. "The making noise, the little sparks are important to me. I'm into many different things, and to me, when it all comes together in a burst of expression, that's fucking right on. That's where it's at. When it happens, I'm moved by that. Having a purpose, having substance behind what you're doing, that's what I wanted with Crudos. And that's what I always wanted to do."
Limpwrist performs with Kontrattaque, Find Him and Kill Him, Youth Riot, and Colostomy Bag at Koo's Art Café, 1505 N. Main St., Santa Ana, (714) 648-0937; www.koos.org. Sun., 7:30 p.m. $6. All ages.
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