A couple of months ago the New York Times published an article about the “new L.A. Latino punk scene,” as if they had just discovered that Latinos didn’t just go to salsa dancing clubs. Of course, Latinos have been part of the scene since punk came to town, Alice Bag being the perfect example.
What follows is an article I worked on for my writing magazine non fiction class, which is was an elective for my journalism major. It is about the punk and ska scenes in South East Los Angeles in the early 2000s. I never published it before, but I turned it in to my professor on October 2001. I may have published a version of it in Spanish for Al Borde but I don’t recall with accuracy. I have edited it to incorporate two versions of it which Rock Archivo L.A. (aka Jorge Leal) found on his virtual attic and sent it back to me.
Full disclosure: A lot of the people I talked to became my friends and even relatives (some of the members of the band called Teenage Wasteland are cousins of my husband, who I met through Schizm singer and show promoter Baltazar Rodriguez, but that’s another story).
South gate to punk
A loud and jarring strum of the guitar crashes into the four walls as the lights go off and the few in the audience turn their heads to the stage. It’s the first act and only a few friends will whistle or scream, the rest of the crowd are the ones who got an early ride and clap with little amusement. The band starts to play and soon the four amplifiers emit the harmony or lack of it. The volume is hardly ever loud enough but the room is small and the people are more interested in pushing their bodies against each other as they lift their feet and their elbows going round and round in a circle or what is most commonly known as mosh pit.
Drive around South Gate or Lynwood and in between streets named Kansas and Missouri you might find backyard gigs, halls full of moshing kids, friends in a band and songs in Spanish and English, two languages in the same world where punk is the sound that unites them.
It’s a Saturday night like any other at club Our House, the usual crowd and the usual bands, although Balthazar Rodriguez who books the shows says he tries to bring in new acts from time to time. The small club could have very well been a house before it became the local hang out for punk rockers less than a year ago. Set on a street corner with a backyard that serves as the parking lot (although only bands usually park there since there are only six spots) with its back entrance as the main entrance, the club has no bar but the desk beside the entrance where they charge the five dollars cover usually offers some sodas for 50 cents. Inside a brown couch and an orange chair are the only seats, both of which could have been picked up from the street given their wear and tear.
The black lights make the small stars around the room vibrate and shine, the kind children and teens use on their rooms. Some posters in white also illuminate but the stage has no special lights, only the glare of the lights across the hall which leads to the bathrooms shines on the band.
Among the darkness it is hard to discern the young faces, on and off stage. Mostly dressed in black, with Left Alone and Dead Kennedys shirts as well as other local and famous bands. It’s a typical punk show in a small place with the usual mohawks and bright hair colors, the patches, pins and rips on the jackets, the metal bracelets and belts. The only difference is the color of their skin and their height, brown and not as tall as other punk rockers on average American suburban towns. Their last names are Ramirez, Lopez or Martinez and they attend high school or work on local factories and stores just like their parents. They live in South Gate, Compton, East Los Angeles or Lynwood where Our House is located.
South Gate for example, used to be predominately white twenty years ago, but is now filled with Mexican Americans, signs in Spanish and street vendors selling chicharrones, or fried pork. It is still a blue collar town, most families rent houses that rarely have big lawns or backyard pools. Instead, the backyards are used for carne asada –BBQs with thin beef steaks instead of burgers and hot dogs, coronas instead of budweiser- and occasional gigs where kids attend for 3 bucks.
Even though carne asada and punk seem distant to each other, the cultures intertwine in a feeling of alienation. Strangely as it may sound, the words Chicano and punk may have more to do with each other because, as Rodriguez puts it, “it has always been music for the oppressed and the frustrated. And if you look at the social environment that we live in, the reality is that a lot of us, including our parents, they wake everyday to jobs that they fucking hate just to make it.”
The socio-economic landscape of South Gate and surrounding cities is composed of working class Latino families who are employed on factories and car dealerships. Previously, this southern part of L.A. County was populated with white working class, but as bigger factories starting shutting down and Latinos started moving in, the faces changed.
In an article for the Los Angeles Times, Sam Quinones wrote the city was founded in 1923 “and for its first 60 years was a white, working-class suburb.” For a time, Latino families couldn’t live there. “It also was home to race discrimination; Latinos couldn’t buy homes in the better areas of the city.”
The South Gate punk scene started on backyard gigs, but as cops started to shut them down more frequently and neighbors became less tolerant, opening a club was the only answer. For now, Our House is the only open place. “All the punk rock shows were in backyards and that was it,” Rodriguez states, “Then the Bullocks opened up on Alameda and 41st St. and it was a cool club where punk rock bands played, anybody could play there.” After the club closed due to management problems, kids started promoting shows at halls and youth centers. Rodriguez followed and so did Alex from Warning Productions who established the American Legion but soon closed and then Our House opened on July of last year, promoted by One Shot Records, a small label from South Gate which Rodriguez collaborates in.
“At first people were like, Our House? Whose house? It’s a backyard? No it’s a club,” Rodriguez says. The name carries a possessive pronoun, a claim to what belongs to the kids. The club makes little money, but it exists because people show up every weekend. “These kids barely have enough money to come in, they pay with quarters, whatever they have we’ll take it cause it’s about the music. And every month when the bills are due, we’re always end up being short or whatever but as long as we have enough to keep going and I think that’s the way it should be.”
Our House is like a second home for many, they go there when they’re bored, when they have to release negative energy. “I just came cause I was bored,” said Oscar, an 18-year-old who just graduated from South Gate High and now works at K-Mart. Oscar said he didn’t like the bands that particular night because he’s more into punk, “and people dance weird with ska.”
One of the main functions that Our House and backyard gigs fulfill for this disenchanted youth is to serve as an outlet. “People that come to the shows, they’re frustrated, they’re just like me. They work hard; sometimes they feel like if they’re not getting anywhere in life and they come over here and for the two hours that they’re in the pit, that they’re dancing, they release all these negative energy. So next Monday they can go back to their fucked up jobs.”
Alienation and futile emotions are present in songs too. Viernes (Friday) 13, one of South Gate’s most popular band and main generator of record sales for One Shot, has a song called “No sirves para nada” or “You’re Useless,” a song with few lyrics but emphasizing the title and its meaning. Another even more popular song by Viernes 13 called “Bailando con la muerte” or “Dancing with death” makes people enter the mosh pit filling it up to capacity, as much as it may try to expand through the walls.
Perhaps all these feelings create a union, a social scene within Our House, and perhaps the music has something to do with it as well. Even when the music is presented elsewhere, the kids will follow, if they can find a ride. Rodriguez recalls the day when they had show at the Chain Reaction in Orange County, miles away from South Gate and Lynwood. “We passed out flyers and said whoever doesn’t have a ride come down to Our House and we’ll give you a ride over there. So we rented those two 15 seaters and we packed them and we got there with all these kids. I think it is a social scene but I think these kids are also starting to love the music.”
Besides booking shows for the club, Rodriguez is also the singer and bassist of Schizm (a band on the label), and full time student of East L.A. College. For his day job he assists researchers and teachers at a day care center for special children, contrasting with his shaved head and a long bright red beard.
Rodriguez along with Oscar Chavez and two others started the label after meeting at another label that’s now extinct, Limp Shrimp Records. The label has seven bands signed, five of them have released their debut albums, but record sales and profits can’t give anyone a living wage. All four owners of the label have day jobs as well as most members of the bands. “Everybody thinks Oscar and I have a lot of money and we don’t, we’re just like everybody else,” Rodriguez says, sitting down on the carpet of the Our House office, a room down the hall next to the bathrooms, plastered with stickers and colorful posters, an incomplete drum set, a desk, an old computer and instrument cases from bands that have already played or will play that night.
The first and second band have finished playing. For now the crowd goes back outside into the backyard. There are no windows in the club and ventilation is limited. After their sweaty and tired bodies cool down, and the third band gets set up, another circle with various kids of both genders will be created, and someone will pull a girl who is unsure into the mosh pit, someone will fall and get picked up.
Jason and Douglas Castaneda, lead singer and drummer of Teenage Wasteland respectively, were born in Compton but their parents are from Guatemala. “I think Spanish is our language, it’s what brought us here. We as a band think that people like to hear Spanish and English and I like to sing bilingual,” says Jason before he asks whether the interview will be in English or Spanish, and it’s the same question Rodriguez and several other members of bands from around here ask.
The third band is now on stage, it’s La Resistencia. A ska band from South Gate with most of its members from Mexico. All of their songs are in Spanish. “It’s the only language we know,” says Luis Torres the lead singer.
Suspect 7, the band to follow has songs in English and Spanish . Their singer and guitarist Jesse Gallegos is from East L.A. “We just like it, we speak Spanish so why shouldn’t we use it,” Gallegos says just after their set is done and is about to disarm the drum set.
Once the fourth band finishes the lights are off for the last time. Rodriguez cleans up the drops of blood splattered in the floor after someone got hit in the nose while moshing. It’s rare to see blood at Our House but this night was a bit more violent. The McDonald’s parking lot on the other side of Agnes St. where everyone parks will soon be empty again, waiting for the next weekend.