With the Name of the Warrior

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.”

He took the name.

* * *

Out of prison and armed with a stockpile of knowledge, 18-year-old Yaoh set out to conquer minds with the only weapon he had: a karaoke machine.

Before his imprisonment, Yaoh was part of a rap group at Costa Mesa High called Twice the Flavor. While his partner held fast to the standard West Coast mantra of bitches and money, Yaoh—influenced by the serious East Coast rhymes of KRS-1, Grandmaster Flash and Run DMC—offered lyrics repudiating hedonism. He'd found his politics in prison, his voice in hip-hop.

“Hip-hop is a big influence on how people live,” he says. “After I was released, I understood it to be vehicle for people to learn.”

He started rapping at various Chicano teach-ins and hip-hop shows, gaining fans with his unique combination of spoken word and lightning-quick raps, as well as his subject matter—denouncing genocide, embracing a love of history, and urging Chicanos to better themselves through education.

But Yaoh didn't receive much exposure outside of hip-hop circles and Chicano activists until joining the Taco Bell boycott campaign earlier this year. At mostly punk benefit shows, Yaoh rapped alongside the acts that would form the core of Orange County's Chicano punk movement. And after encountering the same groups and seeing the success they were having in spreading the word about the boycott, Yaoh urged them to combine resources and ideologies.

“I remember seeing a video of Public Enemy sometime after I got out of jail,” he says. “I was surprised, seeing a bunch of kids marching like troops. The last time I saw kids marching was for the military in El Salvador. It freaked me out. But when I found out why they were marching—to empower themselves and stay out of trouble—I liked the idea. With so many Orange County groups in the same cause, we decided to do something like that.”

* * *

“We” is Icnocuicatl Promotions, which Yaoh operates out of Suite 205 in that unremarkable Tustin office complex. This is the meeting place of the Orange County Revolutionary Collective, the Atlachinolli Front and the Centro Cultural de Anahuac, groups with the expressed goal of giving voice to Orange County Chicanos—especially the artists. Through Yaoh's initiative, there's talk of a studio, a record label, a better venue. The first compilation of the scene is already out. It needs no title: the tracks state exactly what Orange County Chicano punk is about. Yaoh contributed three tracks, including the gloomy “Life Is Not for You.”

“I once asked a boy what he wanted to do in life, and he said he wanted to go to jail so he could be with his brother,” Yaoh says. “So I wrote that song in his memory. I don't know what happened to him.”

Nowadays, Yaoh performs mostly at punk shows; afterward, kids praise his Chicano-positive message even if they're not Chicano and rarely listen to hip-hop. He welcomes personal fame, but says he has his eyes on a bigger goal: the salvation of people who were once as ignorant as he was.

“I want to find more people to fund,” he says. “I see a lot of kids. If they just used their talents to learn about their history, there wouldn't be as many problems in the Chicano community. I was worse off then, being ignorant, than now, armed with all this knowledge. Learning about my past is the only reason I'm alive.”

As Yaoh says this, he's flipping through Rebel Radio: The Story of El Salvador's Radio Venceremos, a book documenting the legendary clandestine station that played an influential role in the Salvadoran rebels' struggle for liberty. He looks out the one window of his unremarkable office space, noticing some punks walking down the street. He smiles at the connection there, history in his hands and kids in his sights. It's the only war he ever wanted to be a part of.

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