Mi Gente: Latin Punk in the United States and Beyond

By Carly Tagen-Dye

Alice Bag of The Bags
Alice Bag, The Bags (CC: Melanie Nissen)

There’s much to say about Latin music, which encapsulates everything from Tejano to cumbia to Garifuna. Latin punk music, however, is a category all its own. Whether in the United States or in Latin American countries, its reach and history are in dire need of some spotlight. Punk is a discernible descendent of rock‘n’roll. While a subculture formed for young music fans in the United States during the early half of the 20th century, Latin American rock was rising steadily alongside it. Groups like Fórmula V, who were branded as the Spanish Monkees, and Mexico’s Los Dug Dug’s were popular in their respective countries.

In the ‘50s and ‘60s, bands like Question Mark and the Mysterians became a first within their genre, when American boy bands were primarily Black and white. The group, whose song “96 Tears” was a 1966 #1 Billboard hit, hailed from migrant families in Michigan and Texas. Lead singer Rudy Martinez specifically chose the band name so they could have radio play in a variety of places, and not be branded solely as Latino.


The Zeroes
The Zeros (CC: Vive Le Rock)

Perhaps the first “official” US Latin punk band was The Zeros. Formed in California in 1976, where a booming punk scene would later emerge, the group was often likened to The Ramones, and lead singer Robert Lopez to “El Vez” or “The Mexican Elvis.” Ricocheting drums and staticky guitar encompassed their music, with Lopez’s warbly voice an instrument in itself. The Zeros played gigs across the state, accompanying bands like the Germs and the Weirdos, and went on to tackle staple Los Angeles venues like the Starwood and Whisky a Go Go.

The rise of LA Latin punk is primarily attributed to the large Hispanic communities in the city. Bands like Odd Squad, who didn’t consider themselves defined by their identity, focused on merging with the mainstream, while Latin artists could be found in groups like Black Flag (original frontman Ron Reyes was Puerto Rican) and The Bags. Dubbed a Chicana punk legend, the band’s lead singer Alice Bag was nicknamed “Violence Girl,” and is considered a founder of hardcore music as we know it today. Her screams are signature; a primal wailing call to anyone with frustrations to release. In a way, punk subculture became a home for many Hispanic kids who felt alienated within their homes.


Los Illegals
Los Illegals, 1984 (CC: Dazed)

In the ‘80s, Latin bands and artists around East LA created their neighborhood spaces. A local nun named Sister Karen Boccalero founded Self Help Graphics, a community arts center for Chicanx artists to showcase their work. The band Los Illegals later founded Club Vex within its halls. Club Vex was a safe environment for Latin punk bands to play, and welcomed people from all backgrounds. Groups like The Brat, a Chicanx punk ensemble, and The Plugz, who melded punk with Latin music, frequently played there.

In addition to advancing community spaces, Los Illegals used their songs to talk about the struggles Hispanic immigrants faced in Los Angeles. They blended punk with traditional Mexican folk music, and incorporated Spanish and English in their lyrics, bringing attention to everything from exploitative working conditions to deportation. Their song “El-Lay” alludes to the arrest of lead singer Willie Hernon’s undocumented stepfather, the lyrics, “¿Este es el precio que pagamos cuando llegamos a este lado?,” asking, loosely, “is this the price we pay when we come to this side?”

These bands also mirrored an ongoing punk boom in Latin America, where prominent scenes emerged in Peru, Colombia, and Argentina. The rise of the cassette made music more accessible, and punk resonated with kids living in countries with intense political turmoil. When hardcore punk exploded in the ‘90s, many listeners took inspiration from this scene, headed by groups like Narcosis. Los Crudos’ lead singer Martin Sorrondeguy, a self-described queer Uruguayan raised in Illinois, who credits South American bands for helping him find his voice.

Los Crudos also addressed political issues that targeted the Hispanic community, though highlighting these topics presented new problems. Latin punk bands were often discriminated against within the scene, as many punk peers upheld white nationalist values or were not interested in Latin issues. A Hispanic presence in general raised eyebrows. Alejandro Escovedo, a former member of bands like The Nuns and Rank and File, recalls instances where venues denied him entrance, assuming he was a kitchen worker or bartender.


Downtown Boys (CC: Bandcamp)

Today, Latin punk scenes around the country are still fighting to make the genre as inclusive and representative as possible. LA’s Futura, whose name is a play on the masculine “futuro” (the Spanish word for future), symbolizes a new era where femmes are at the front. Downtown Boys, a queer Latin punk band, are constantly questioning power dynamics, and encourage their audiences to both enjoy their music and rethink their privilege.

Present day punk spaces, reminiscent of Club Vex, are also emerging. Chicago’s Benny Hernandez, lead singer of Rumores, helped organize the first Latin punk festival in 2006, in an attempt to highlight bands that have often been pushed to the side. Latin Punk Fest, where bands from North and South America performed, debuted in New York in 2018. Both festivals bridged barriers by incorporating punk from around the world, making it clear that the genre is not going away, anywhere, any time soon.

As punk continues to progress, it’s important to note that it’s an ever-evolving genre and subculture. Acknowledging both its diversity and roots is crucial for its growth. Alice Bag, perhaps, summed up this sentiment best: “The most important thing to know is that punk was not invented by white males...punk was created by women, people of color, and queers, and without all of us, it would be nothing.”

 
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