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Screaming Our Thoughts: Latinos and Punk Rock

For years, punk rock has been perceived as fast, in-your-face music played by weird-looking white youth. However, since the late 1970s, Chicano and Latino punks have been playing music and getting their own bands together, putting out zines, setting up benefit shows for groups in their communities, releasing records, and changing the face of punk.
If you were to see the much-hyped new documentary movie about the legendary punk band the Sex Pistols, The Filth and the Fury, you'd think punk was a lily-white counterculture. Other punk rock documentaries, such as The Decline of Western Civilization and Another State of Mind, similarly ignore Latino punk bands like The Brat, Los Illegals, The Plugz, and The Zeros.

The punk scene is finally "colorized" by Martin Sorrondeguy's new documentary, Beyond the Screams: A U.S. Latino/Chicano Hardcore/Punk Documentary. Sorrondeguy, lead singer for the now defunct punk band Los Crudos, documents the rise of the early Chicano and Latino punk bands in the 1970s, and follows their proliferation in the 1990s. His aim was to bring together previously "scattered bits and pieces of histories" to challenge the view that punk rock is a homogeneous white subculture and to chronicle what he calls "a subculture within a subculture."

"When we see who is portrayed as punk in books and movies, they are mostly white people," Sorrondeguy says. "What kind of message does that send to young Chicano or Latino punks?" Sorrondeguy considers his 15-year involvement in punk as "more than just playing music." To him, punk music is also a weapon for social change and Beyond the Screams is his latest salvo.

Latino Punk in the 1990s

For years, punk rock has been perceived as fast, in-your-face music played by weird-looking white youth. However, since the late 1970s, Chicano and Latino punks have been playing music and getting their own bands together, putting out zines, setting up benefit shows for groups in their communities, releasing records, and changing the face of punk.

The Latino punk scene grew dramatically in the early 1990s. The notorious racist attacks of that decade -- such as California Propositions 187, 209, 227, and 21 inspired the Chicano and Latino communities, including punks, to rise up to fight, by organizing and by song. These struggles helped to shape a distinct Chicano and Latino punk scene.

"The Latino punk scene in the early 1990s really exploded because all of a sudden we had a hell of a lot to sing about," Sorrondeguy says in his documentary. "What started happening politically in the United States pissed us off so much, and we were feeling so targeted and cornered as a community, that we began to write songs about it."

In the United States, bands like Los Crudos connected the institutionalized racism, such as California Governor Pete Wilson's promotion of anti-immigrant hysteria, to the more subtle racism that was occurring within the punk movement itself. On the international front, the 1994 Zapatista uprising in Mexico inspired Spanish-speaking punk bands -- both in the United States and Latin America -- to see their identity as more than just punk, but also as rooted in their language and culture.

Screaming Thoughts

Lina, a vocalist for the Los Angeles-based punk band Subsistencia, stresses the importance of the "indigenous roots" of their music and lyrics. Formed a few years ago, Subsistencia's lyrics are about what the group sees and lives every day in their communities: repression by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, gang violence, and life in the inner city.

"Why use punk rock as our medium of expression?" asks Lina. "Because through our music, we can express--we can scream--our thoughts and emotions of all the things that are happening in our communities."

For many Chicano and Latino punk bands, being up-front about their politics also differentiates them from more established Rock en español bands such as Maldita Vecindad and Mana. For Sorrondeguy, Rock en español means crass commercialism: marketing, money, and business. "Rock en español is stripped of its danger. The way I interpret it, music has an element of danger and risk-it's a way of taking some type of action. Rock en español is neutralized and safe and I'm just not attracted to that."

Many of the lyrics that Sorrondeguy wrote for Los Crudos were first sung in Spanish at shows in Pilsen, the Latino barrio in Chicago where the band lived. "For us, singing in Spanish was to really be direct with who we were talking to, and if it meant communicating with young people or people in our communities, well, what better language than the one we were all originally raised with," he says.

Besides making music, Sorrondeguy keeps himself busy by running his own record label, Lengua Armada, setting up benefit shows for traveling bands, and documenting the role of Chicanos and Latinos in punk rock through photography and video.

Do-It-Yourself

A central theme in punk -- now often called hardcore -- has been individualism, anti-authoritarianism, and a Do-It-Yourself philosophy that encourages action instead of apathy. In his insightful overview of punk rock and hardcore, The Philosophy of Punk: More Than Noise!, Craig O'Hara gives three possible definitions of what punk might be: "Punk is a youth trend, punk is gut rebellion and change, and punk is a formidable voice of opposition."

Although O'Hara's groundbreaking work attempts to cover the many different scenes within punk, he fails to investigate the role of Chicano, Latino, or other punks of color. In his only comment about race and punk, O'Hara comments, "As punk is now comprised of a clear majority of middle-and service-class whites instead of inner-city working-class whites or minorities, an important action has been to reject their own privileged places in society."

Furthermore, O'Hara does not question whether racism within the punk scene might have discouraged Chicano and Latino bands from getting more involved in punk. By contrast, many Latino punk bands have used their shows to critique white liberal notions of a "colorblind" punk subculture. The Los Crudos song, "That's right motherfuckers, we're that spic band," was written specifically for a person who had called the group a "spic band" at one of their shows.

Safe Spaces in the Punk Scene

Sometimes the need to discuss racism within the punk scene has made white punk rockers defensive. When punks of color demanded a room (a "safe space") to discuss racism within the scene at last year's "More Than Music Festival" in Columbus, Ohio, many white punks criticized them for "self-segregation" and accused them of undermining "unity within the scene." In response, Josh Sanchez, a participant in the people of color discussion group at the festival, told a group of people: "The safe spaces aren't there to keep you out. They're there so we punks of color can be together and learn from one another. We don't get that opportunity that often. What happens with my Mexican family is something you can't understand. Yesterday I went to the minority discussion, and for the first time ever since I've been involved in punk, I sat in a room full of people who did."

The fact that some punks at the festival found the "safe space" troubling is representative of where punk rock has been and where it must go -- even if punks of color have to force these issues into the punk/hardcore movement.

Many Chicano punks, such as Mike Amezcua of the East L.A.-based El Grito Records, have begun to address issues of race and nationality within the punk scene. They've taken the Do-It-Yourself ethic that is central to punk and hardcore and repackaged it to address their concerns. In a 7-inch record compilation that Amezcua put out as a benefit for immigrant rights groups in the Los Angeles area, Amezcua and Danny Echeveria write: "We feel immigration affects all of us in one way or another, but more directly the Latino communities that we grew up and live in. From Los Angeles to New York, Tijuana to Juarez, from the beat downs and harassing of our relatives at the borderlines, to the INS raids at our homes and workplaces. What does this have to do with you? Well, you as an individual can do a big part in this just by educating yourself and looking into the issue."

In addition to dealing with white liberal racism within the punk scene, Chicano and Latino punks must also deal with Latino communities which do not understand punk rock. To address this, Amezcua and others have staged many benefit shows in Pico Union and other Latino neighborhoods in Los Angeles, and given money to local grassroots organizations. Amezcua stresses the need for Chicanos, Latinos, and punks in general to see punk not as "art for art's sake," but as part of a larger movement where art and culture can be at the forefront of progressive social movements.

At the premiere screening of Beyond the Screams at the famous Gilman Street Club in Berkeley, California, Sorrondeguy told the punk kids in the audience to try to find ways to do "political things that might not be narrowly perceived as punk....There are so many things that punk kids could be doing if they really want to make punk a threat again," says Sorrondeguy. "Realizing the diversity within punk can only help punk and hardcore as more than just music, but as a political movement."
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