That's Right, We're That Spic Band
A Journey into the Pilsen and Little Village Latino Punk Scene

George B. Sanchez





Los Crudos at the Fireside Bowl inChicago, circa 1997
photo © Toby Morris www.tobymorris.com

It’s Tuesday night on 23rd street, not far from the border of Pilsen and Little Village. Neighbors and friends squat on porches outside their homes and apartments, clutching cold cans of beer and soda, and gossiping in hushed Spanish. Porch lights and street lamps cast shadows onto the street as the shouts of children echo through the alley ways. The night is relaxed, but it’s by no means still. Beyond these efforts to unwind from another day and behind the battered baby blue doors of the abandoned Ayutla sports and social club comes the muffled sound of drums, distorted guitars, and a chorus of screams. Through the front door, up a filthy flight of stairs, and into the empty ballroom stands a crowd of no more than thirty punks, many of whom are Latino.

Everyone is huddled in an arc around the four-piece punk rock band Non Fiction Noise, who is set up near the rear of the hall. The Mexican-American group is covering a Los Crudos song and nearly everyone is singing along. The chorus is a battery of asesinos!—assassins— repeated six times, an easy enough chant even for non Spanish-speakers. Shaved heads and liberty spikes bob in unison to the music. Anton Zaleski, who runs a local record label, is moving back and forth near the drum set, dancing in contorted convulsions of arm spasms and loose knees that buckle in and out. A mob of kids converge on the man holding the microphone, surround him and howling the chorus together. In the middle of it all, wearing pegged jeans, a tight black t-shirt, and Adidas sambas, sits Junior Delgado, who keeps the beat on a borrowed drum set. From behind the cymbals, he eyes the scene with an intense focus. In a sense, this is his home.

Less than twenty four hours later, Delgado sits attentive but easy in Café Jumping Bean, looking out of the front window onto 18th street. He is struggling to explain last night’s scene and more explicitly, what it means for him, a 20-year-old Mexican-American, to be a punk. In the colorful Café, there’s no chorus to back him up. A typically quiet and reserved young man, he begins slowly, and a bit nervous, to answer this question.
“Punk to me…is a way out of culture and our fucking mentality of our parents,” says Delgado, born and raised in Pilsen although his parents are from Guerrero, Mexico. “They’re raised one way and just their mentality is fucked up. [Punk] just brings you out—you’re just introduced to so many other things. It’s like a totally new, different world, a new way to view things.”

Chicago’s Pilsen and Little Village neighborhood’s are home to a burgeoning Latino punk scene. An anti-authoritarian subculture starkly at odds with the ideals and values of the traditionally conservative, Catholic, immigrant community, punk is one of few avenues for these ‘hoods Latino youth grappling with the familiar adolescent struggle of forging personal identity. While their status as first generation sons and daughters of immigrants uniquely defines who they are, it is punk and punk rock’s political message and accepting sense of community that attracts Latino youth more commonly expected to be a part of hip hop and electronic dance scenes. Far below the radar of major recording labels and still regarded as a novelty within a mostly white, rock n’ roll-based counter culture, Pilsen/Little Village punk is coming up, and in light of its Do-It-Yourself philosophy, they’re not waiting for anyone to offer them a stage or even a helping hand: the kids are doing it on their own.

“When you talk about punk and Chicago, you better fuckin’ talk about Pilsen and the whole Southside Scene,” says Martin Sorrondeguy of the Pilsen-based hardcore band Los Crudos. “—because this is where a lot of the shit has been happening for years.”

Punk rock is hardly a familiar sound within the working class community Junior Delgado grew up in. Strolling down 18th Street in Pilsen or 26th Street in Little Village, the most commonly heard forms of music are Cumbias, Norteñas, Rancheras, Rock en Español, and Rap. Listening to all the Spanish-speaking radio stations that can be heard in these Latino barrios, you’ll be hard pressed to come across any punk rock. Maybe you’ll find a Rock en Español song with a faster beat or more aggressive tone. But Rock en Español—on average more melodic, accessible, and slickly produced—is still a far cry from Spanish punk rock. There is one exception: 90.5 FM and Benny Hernandez’s Thursday night show, Radio Desorden.

“Good evening Pilsen, esto es Radio Desorden,” announces Hernandez, speaking in a mix of Spanish and English, a hallmark of first generation children of Spanish speaking immigrants. Hernandez is host of the only bilingual punk and hardcore show on 90.5 FM. Radio Desorden, broadcasting at a mere 74 watts, has become a beacon for the Pilsen and Little Village Punk Scene. Despite being in its infancy, the 8 to 9:30 pm show is a regular radio event for local punks, consistently attracting fans and band members from the Pilsen/Little Village scene.
“I think neighborhoods and where one comes from are very powerful things,” says Megan Wells, the singer for the bilingual hardcore band Reacción. “People feed off each other—‘hey, I can do that,’ they see someone on stage, ‘Hey, I can do that, they’re saying this, I can say that.’”

The Pilsen and Little Village scene is a small, tight knit group of folks propelled by the inspiration of those around them, who have found refuge in the same sound and philosophy. But for all the punk rock bands in the area, there is no regular, legitimate spot to play. Basements, attics, community spaces, and abandoned buildings make up the punk rock venues in the area and the burn out rate for each spot tends to be about three months. Either cops break up the party or neighbors and residents tire of the noise.

“Having the Swayzee [a nickname for the Ayutla building] is probably the most stable D-I-Y space we’ve had in a while,” says Chris Cabay, who currently plays guitar in No Slogan. According to Cabay, Chicago’s lack of available venues for punk is historic. “Chicago’s been about never having stable places to play. The probably only stable spot was the [Cabaret] Metro in the 80s.”

Therefore Radio Desorden is the only constant and reliable space to find punk rock in Pilsen and Little Village. Judging by the amount of punks and band members who stop by the weekly broadcast, the importance of Radio Desorden becomes quickly obvious.

Sitting behind the console in 90.5 FM’s main broadcast studio, Benny Hernandez reaches from his seat and pushes the eject button on one of the studio’s compact disc players. The player opens and Hernandez picks out the CD— Latin America in Decline, a compilation featuring punk and hardcore bands from all over Central and South America. Putting the compilation aside, Hernandez pulls a CDR from its jewel case, loads the disc in the CD player, and sets the machine for track number two. Meanwhile the music of Sin Dios—a Spanish Anarcho-punk band—streams through the studio monitors, singing—in Spanish—about the Spanish Civil War. When “1936 (Un Pueblo en Arma)” finishes, the CDR begins to play. It’s “I-Attack” by the eponymous local punk rock band.

A single kick drum rolls out the beat, followed by the staggered pop of a snare drum. The beat is subdued, though there’s a tension to it. A bass guitar plays a simple, three note melody that, like the drum beat, is restrained. Robert Villanueva’s gruff voice begins to howl lyrics he penned. His slight drawl, reminiscent of Southern California Skate punk icon Dwayne Peters, muffles the words, but the lyrics are, for the moment, discernable: “Dancing for gold/go do what you’re told/start your own fire/burn up the place.” Villanueva uses his voice like his band mates use their instruments—forceful and aggressive. An electric guitar starts to squeal in feedback. The noise is manipulated to rise and fall in pitch and quickly crescendos into a distorted rhythm that follows the bass guitar melody. Villanueva growls the chorus “I attack/I attack/I attack/I attaaaack/Taakeeen it back.”

“I totally, totally, see a parallel to what we’re doing right now to the whole late seventies, early eighties Southern California scene,” says Radio Desorden host Benny Hernandez. “We have just as much to say, just as much talent, but I fear it’s not going to get recorded because of a lack of money.”

In the early eighties, there were only a few Southside punk bands. Groups like the Dead Steel Mills and the Kremlins that, outside their neighborhoods, have long since been abandoned to the dustbin of history. Though Chicago is today recognized as the home of pogo punk rockers Screeching Weasel, the nationally distributed ‘zine Punk Planet, Victory Records and emo heartthrobs Alkaline Trio, Chicago’s place in early North American punk rock history is little more than a blip on the national screen.

A small assortment of bands—mostly white and mostly from the Northside—made up Chicago’s punk rock scene in the 1980s in places like the Cabaret Metro, the Cubbie Bear and the Igloo. Only a few acts from that time are still recognized, if remembered at all. The Effigies, Pegboy, Bhopal Stiffs, Big Black, and Articles of Faith attracted a strong local following with their innovative and exciting sounds, while the cult status of Naked Raygun eventually became the marker of success for punk rock bands in Chicago.

Admittedly, Hernandez wasn’t a punk then. He was too young—and Pilsen and Little Village were relatively untouched by punk rock.
“In my neighborhood, you fell into three categories,” explains Hernandez, who grew up in Little Village, though he now lives in North Washington Park. “You were a party crew kid, a gang banger, or a new waver.”
Hernandez was a New Waver. According to the DJ, New Wavers were a Southside Chicago phenomenon that lasted from the very tail end of British New Wave—1985—to about 1993. New Wavers were teenagers who clung to the gothic sounds of Siouxsie Sioux, the moody melodrama of Morrissey and the Smiths, and Wax Trax. The music spoke to feelings of alienation, which were accented by attire and attitude. Dark clothes, eye liner, long hair, makeup, and t-shirts pledging allegiance to British acts like New Order or the Cure were the New Wavers’ uniform. For Hernandez, it all began with a mix tape in 1984, when he says his uncle, who was an engineering student at the University of Illinois at Champaign, Urbana, returned from school.

“He was one of the few guys to make it out of the neighborhood and go to college,” says Hernandez. “He came back and he made me this tape with a bunch of music—these records by Depeche Mode, the Cure, Pet Shop Boys, and Dead or Alive, shit that, back then, was alternative or college rock.”

A few years after Hernandez was turned on to New Wave, a photography student at Colombia College organized the first punk show in Pilsen. A young Uruguayan, who had immigrated to the United States with his family at the age of two, Martin Sorrondeguy had been going to shows in Chicago’s Northside for years. But he wanted to see a show in his neighborhood, Pilsen,—so he organized one. In 1987, Sorrondeguy, organized a small show featuring Bhopal Stiffs, Ozz Fish Experience, and Generation Waste, at Casa Aztlán, a community center on south Racine. As far as Sorrondeguy can remember, over three hundred people from within and without the community packed the space, marking the beginning of the Pilsen and Little Village punk experience.

“There were no bands from the neighborhood,” remembers Sorrondeguy. “There was nothing from the neighborhood, so I asked bands to come to the neighborhood and it was cool, because people came from everywhere, but there was a lot of Latino kids there—alternative, other punk kids, and it was the first time I saw people come around that I never knew were into punk.”

Sitting on a couch at the Ayutla compound, much neglected social and sports club on 23rd Street in Pilsen, Manny Gomez is at ease with the evening. Tonight’s show, which wasn’t even supposed to be here, has just concluded. The bands—No Slogan, Get it Away, Non Fiction Noise and an out of town group, Robot has Werewolf Hand—are packing up the remaining gear, hauling it down the flight of stairs and loading their cars.
Gomez says the Pilsen and Little Village punk scene was a surprising find. The twenty-year-old line cook at Marshall Fields remembers going to his first show a couple years back—not long after Pilsen’s second wave of punk broke. It was an attic show, he says, near 21st Street, off the Blue Line. The line up was Sin Orden, Tras De Nada, and Youth Against. Gomez, who plays guitar for Reacción, remembers watching his future band mate, Carlos Ruiz, sing for Sin Orden. When he saw Ruiz and Sin Orden, his conceptions about punk began to crumble.

“It was real bad ass to hear all these Latinos—I mean, for the most part, I always thought punk was a white thing—but it was completely different and I started to see music as a way to get points across,” remembers Gomez, who says at the time he was mostly listening to hip hop. While he still listens to hip hop, Gomez says he doesn’t find the same community message and the same politics in hip hop as he does in punk rock.

For Gomez, punk rock is a way to address the problems he faces in his daily life as a Latino. He credits punk with the beginning of his political consciousness. Along with his Reacción band mates, Gomez helped organize an anti-war rally down 18th street a few weeks after the United States army invaded Iraq. Punk, says Gomez, is about finding your voice.
“You see your parents work shitty jobs. When you’re a kid, you see the police pull a group of you and you friends over because they think you’re in a gang even though you’re not,” says Gomez. “The youth have a lot to say about what’s going on, what’s going on in our neighborhood and what’s going on globally.”

Megan Wells, like her bandmate Manny, also saw punk as a white, male subculture, but the Latino example of Pilsen and Little Village opened the doors for her, in turn inspiring her to take up the microphone.
“Punk before, to me, was a very white, male-dominated space, and I didn’t see myself there,” says Wells, who is an English-as-a-Second Language instructor in Rogers Park. “I didn’t see myself participating in that punk, but I do see myself participating in a culture where the underrepresented are allowed to get angry and allowed to have microphones, literally, in their hands and say what they want to say.”

“It excites me,” she continues. “It definitely excites me that young people in general, young people of color, young women, are taking up the torch, saying this music is ours, we can do it too, and we’re going to do it our way.”

In Pilsen, says Marco Quiroz, who sings for Tras De Nada, the city offers little creative or productive outlets for teenagers. So punk rock, he explains, is clearly something to do. Quiroz, who works as a painter at a private hospital and also helps run the Pilsen-based ‘zine Hasta Cuando, says punk lends itself naturally to youthful restlessness.

“There’s a point when you go to the show and all the anger you’ve got, all the frustration, you get it out in the pit, or singing,” he says, reflecting upon his life as a punk. “When you do that, you’re expressing your frustration, but then again it’s a relief, especially if you’re singing something that has meaning and has some kind of message. So I’m releasing this anger, but I’m using this anger to identify myself, to let people know that, let’s beat this stuff, but lets still work on it, lets still talk about it, even though we’re having fun right now.”

Hernandez, whose first punk band Despierta was formed not long after Sin Orden began playing, remembers how his neighborhood reacted to punk.

“Around the neighborhood, you’d be surprised—working class people are so fucking conservative. Again, the majority of Mexican immigrants in this city are from small towns and are devout Catholics;” says Hernandez, whose parents migrated from Michoacán, Mexico. “They look at punks or Goth kids as demonic. It’s funny. A fucking cholo can be hanging out in the church with all these tattoos and a teardrop, but that’s become a norm. But a kid walks in with spiky hair and ‘oh, you’re a freak.’ It’s just—People are still scared of that in neighborhood. People are still very scared of Punk Rock. They think the music is too aggressive, they think it’s too fucking loud, they think it’s too fucking weird. What scares them a lot is the politics of punk rock.”

And that was the case with Hernandez’s parents, who weren’t bothered as much with their son’s new image as they were with his changing attitude.

“But my parents really didn’t start getting freaked out with me until we started clashing with ideas,” continues Hernandez. “My dad didn’t take kindly for me being not masculine enough…in our community, in our family, there’s this big fucking feeling that you’re completely indebted to your parents for the rest of your fucking life for having been born to them and I think that’s fucking bullshit. They tried to control every aspect of you—the way you think, the way you way you dress, the way you act, what you do. I had a lot of ideological differences from my parents and those stem directly from punk rock.”

Anton Zaleski, who runs the small Northside label Underestimated Records and sings for Get It Away, believes the current crop of punk bands in Pilsen and Little Village is the best he has ever seen.

“I just think that the bands are writing betters songs and they’re probably delving a little deeper into the roots of where they’re coming from,” says Zaleski, who pays his bills running an independent printing press. “A lot of people think, Hispanic Hardcore, Latino Hardcore, they think Crudos and that’s it, like that’s the only band there is. Historically, that’s not true.”

Like Hernandez, Zaleski is also currently putting together a compilation featuring recordings from Pilsen and Little Village bands. But the question from the outside still seems perplexing. Why punk? Why Pilsen? To Martin Sorrondeguy, who now lives in Santa Ana, California, the answer is simple.

“I think punk had to. I mean, you’re talking about areas that—Pilsen and Little Village have a lot of fucked up stuff going on right now,” says Sorrondeguy. “There are really very few people who are saying anything about what’s going on in Pilsen and Little Village. There were no musicians really talking about what was happening in these neighborhoods.”

“I think it had to happen because there were kids who were starving for it,” continues Sorrondeguy. “Kids were like, what’s the alternative here? Do we follow the pattern that’s been laid out of kids just getting into gang banging or do we start, do we go somewhere else. It was needed. There had to be other voices.”.

© 2005 El Andar Magazine