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August 9-15, 2006

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San Jose Spic Core Fest

Photographs by Felipe Buitrago

Wassup Rockers

MACLA's 'San Jose Spic Core Fest' has kick-started a budding Latino punk-rock movement locally. All over the country, a fast, loud and political music movement is demanding: 'En Espanol!'

By George Sanchez


The noise on South First Street—the constant hum of traffic, the cars and trucks speeding through the twilight—cannot suppress the sound. Approaching the Movimiento de Arte y Cultura Latino Americana, or MACLA, the signs of a teen punk rock show seem familiar, and yet different. Mostly Latino punks lean up against the walls outside or hang around in nearby parking lots. They are dressed nearly the same: tight black jeans, pegged work pants or cut-off shorts, Chuck Taylor tennis shoes and faded T-shirts. Some bob their heads to the beat; others just stare off into space, lost in a teenage day dream.

Stepping up off the concrete, through the building's entrance and into the small sound space, the floor tom hits the chest and guitar notes pierce the ear. Drums and bass compete to be heard over feedback from a guitar amplifier. The air is sticky with heat and perspiration.

It's San Jo Spic Core Fest, MACLA's first all-Spanish-language punk rock show. No one can remember another show of this kind in San Jose. Of the five bands scheduled to play, one is from east San Jose and one is from Fremont. Another is from Watsonville, a small farm community about 45 minutes to the south. The headlining acts, Mugre and Sin Orden, hail from Los Angeles and Chicago—major cities hundreds of miles apart and hundreds of miles from San Jose.

From any perspective, the whole scene might seem odd. The language, spoken and screamed, is Spanish. The music is fast, loud punk rock. The setting is MACLA, just outside of downtown San Jose.

But what's really remarkable is that this is not an isolated incident. Across the nation, there is an underground Latino, Spanish-language punk scene, and this is San Jose's first glimpse of how far and wide the sound and the fury are spreading. The show could be any Latino punk show in any town: San Francisco, Salinas, Watsonville, Chicago or Los Angeles. But in San Jose, the scene is still very young.

Nonetheless, the bonds of an underground community are clear. Bands share equipment, help load in, clean up the space after the show and later load out together. There is no backstage, so members move freely through the crowd, like anyone else, making new friends along the way. And at the end of the night, empty floor space in someone's house or apartment will make for a bed for those on tour and driving out the following morning.

Inside the show, the kids, looking like their compatriots on the street, stand around or lean against the black painted walls. All are staring forward at the young singer from Chicago. Sin Orden, a four piece punk rock group, is set up on the floor where there is no separation between band and observer.

The singer bellows into a microphone run through a 250-watt amp. Despite what should otherwise be a powerful amplifier, his voice is obscured by the noise from the band. Together, in Spanish, the crowd screams the final coda to "La Mentira de Los Cielos," from Sin Orden's rare seven-inch record released independently several years ago.

Though the lyrics are aimed at organized religion, the last two lines have significance outside of their intended philosophical purpose. Together, the mob howls: "Solo tu puedes cambiar. Solo tu puedes alterar," which translates in English to "only you can change, only you can change it."

Meno Masacre

Louder! Faster!: Meno Masacre. lead singer of San Jose's Masacre.

Metal Masacre

San Jose has only a handful of Spanish-language, Latino punk bands, most of which have formed within the last year. One of those is Masacre, who play quick, thrash-type punk rock. The lyrics are screamed in a high pitch by Manuel Santana.

Like many at the MACLA show, Santana, 23, is soft-spoken when he's not fronting the band. The lead singer of the only east San Jose band on the bill has chipmunk cheeks and big round eyes; the sole obvious expression of counterculture is a small tuft of pink hair on the back of his head that slightly juts out of his Afro-puff hair cut. Otherwise he dresses like any other urban resident. At the show, it's dark pants and a brown T-shirt with "Mexika Tiahui" written across the back. The words are Nahuatl, an Aztec dialect, for "keep moving forward and keep strong."

"On the East Side, there's Threat to the System. There's False Unity—Unidad Falsa. I recently started hearing about bands that keep coming out," Santana says, explaining the infancy of the scene. "At first it was us and Threat to the System. Now it's Unidad Falsa, Tamales Que Mados, Estas Puto. I heard this band from Los Banos and San Jose. All these bands are starting to come out and connect with us. Every show we play on the East Side, more bands start popping up."

Music doesn't exist in a vacuum. Nearly every genre and subgenre was spawned as a reaction to a social or musical movement. Punk Rock is no different, going all the way back to American proto-punks the New York Dolls and Iggy and the Stooges—whose stripped down rock & roll was a reaction to '70s prog-rock—and early English punk rock's lyrical response to Thatcherism and poverty.

When asked about the recent emergence of a Spanish-language punk rock scene in San Jose's Latino community, Santana chalks it up to the latest wave of anti-immigrant, anti-Latino sentiment that has swept the country. During the show, he makes note of House Bill 4437, the border protection, anti-terrorism and illegal immigration control act of 2005, which, had it passed the Senate, would have made criminals of many of these kids and their families for simply lacking a piece of government-approved paper.

The Minutemen, an Arizona-based group of mostly white vigilantes that flocked to the border at the beginning of the summer with the support of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, are another group that is mentioned and mocked by kids here. It's ironic how, years before, that name to this crowd would have brought to mind one of the most original and innovative punk bands to come out of Southern California.

"I think it started happening because of all the laws that have been attempted to be passed, and the media scapegoating the immigrant community for a bunch of problems that is happening because of a bunch of stupid laws Bush is trying to put out," says Santana.

In fact, on his band's MySpace.com blog, Santana writes, "Masacre is a band which came about from three things: our love of Thrash, and my love and interest in the Mexican and South American cultures and finally the explosion of racist attacks against my people in the USA."

Punk of Color

Within the Spanish-language punk scene, there's a positive cultural reinforcement and support network which might not otherwise be expected, especially in a genre that's typically seen as white music.

"I wanted to show the English-speaking bands that we can thrash and we're interested in it and we don't have to lose our cultural identity to be a part of the scene," Santana says. "But also it was to prove, to show people who weren't really comfortable with their parents' culture, their grandparents' culture, that it's OK, that the shame that American society puts on us for speaking Spanish or our parents speaking Spanish was totally unnecessary. I know a lot of people that like Masacre that don't know what our lyrics mean, that don't speak Spanish. They're third-generation Mexican, maybe even sixth-generation, and they like it. A lot of the reason they say they like it is because we're in Spanish. If we were in English, they probably wouldn't like us."

Most teens drawn to punk rock, to begin with, are attracted to its spirit of rebellion and nonconformity. While punk rock's roots are in the English language, many Latino punks aren't willing to surrender their ethnic identity or tongue to simply fit. By doing so, they carve out a social space for themselves, while firmly remaining nobody's darlings: neither conformists to traditional Latino culture nor English-speaking punks. However, unlike the generation of Latino punks before, there are other social signposts of a new acceptance, or at least marketability, of Latino culture within the United States. New niches exist in popular music, like reggaeton, that are Latino enclaves, but that simply doesn't appeal to everyone in the Latino community.

The issues affecting the daily lives of these young people straddling two cultures, of language and cultural pride vs. assimilation, is addressed through the language of punk. As part of Independence High School's class of 2001, where he says it was easy to get lost in the crowd, Santana first got into bands now considered American punk classics: Dead Kennedys, Black Flag and the Circle Jerks. But unlike the punk rock scene of the past, Santana, like his cohorts, had the Internet to connect him to bands he otherwise would never have heard of locally; namely Los Crudos, who played their last show in Chicago at least a year before Santana graduated from Independence.

"My links to punk, at first, was online because the East Side is separated completely," explains Santana. "It's segmented by two freeways, so we don't have contact with the downtown punks or the west side. East San Jose is totally Mexican, a through-and-through immigrant community."

'We're That Spic Band'

One of the most influential hardcore bands of the '90s, Los Crudos was the catalyst for the rise of Spanish-language punk in the United States. The band was based out of Chicago's South Side, a poor, predominantly Latino, Mexican and black area. Fronted by Uruguayan immigrant Martin Sorrondeguy, Los Crudos was one of the first in the American underground to sing almost entirely in Spanish (except for "We're That Spic Band"). Their sound was fast and loud, three guitar chords or less. But the lyrics—reflections on poverty, class, police brutality and identity—were punk in spirit: defiant, confrontational and brutally honest. Most important was the band's principled spirit of independence. They did everything themselves—recording, promoting, booking, touring, silk-screening records and T-shirts. Los Crudos turned down record deals and concerts in massive theaters and clubs in adherence to that principle.

Inspired by Los Crudos, Santana ventured to local punk rock shows, but found the San Jose punk community didn't reflect the city's racial makeup.

"I would go to every show and it would be nothing but English bands and white people," Santana says. "Not in a racist way, but that felt kind of weird. They were kind of pressuring me, subtly, to conform to what they thought was cool, what bands they thought were cool. ... I felt angry. San Jose is predominantly immigrant and for the most part, Mexican. I thought, 'What's going on here? Is it because they're racists, or Mexican people and people who speak Spanish aren't interested in punk? There was something wrong with the scene here before."

But Santana witnessed no alternative until, he says, he saw Eskapo, a Bay Area hardcore band comprised of Filipinos who sang about community and cultural issues in their native tongue.

A Vallejo-based band that lasted from about 1997 to 2005, Eskapo's conscious decision to not sing in English, and to address that in their lyrics, is a lesson that has not been lost on Santana.

In the song "Assimilation," Eskapo wails, in Tagolog, "the betrayal of your mother tongue ...don't be ashamed, who are you to be ashamed, don't be ashamed ...we are not Americans ...this is the language that we speak with foreign name and razor tongue and we will never, ever forget because they destroyed the place we're from!"

"They were in Tagalog, but when I saw someone singing in their own language and not giving up their own cultural identity and being really fucking good—it just blew me away," Santana says. "It was like, 'You know what, why shouldn't there be more bands singing in their own language and speaking the language of their family and their parents?'"

About seven months ago, Santana formed Masacre. Though they've only released a $1 tape-demo, the band has already toured, and through the online and MySpace network Masacre has hooked up with other Spanish punk rock bands, which led to the Spic Core show.

The Glue

But the one person truly responsible for the San Jo Spic Core show is Philip Salcido. A slender Chicano activist originally from Los Angeles, Salcido, 25, was introduced to punk rock through activism, and that spirit continues to guide the shows he organizes. The San Jo Spic Core Fest was a benefit for Mujeres Unidas y Activas, a social advocacy network for Latina immigrants.

There are two advantages that come from benefit shows, he explains. Money is raised for a worthy cause; in this case, $165 for Mujeres Unidas y Activas. Secondly, the benefits provide a space for bands to play, which in turn grows the scene.

"When I first started to do the shows in San Jose, to raise money, a lot of people were super appreciative that a space was made available for local bands to play—for local, sober gatherings to flourish—and that's what is vital to such a grand corporate-run city like San Jose," Salcido explains.

"If someone comes into San Jose, they really can't tell that there's a big, vibrant punk rock scene. There's not fliers everywhere. There aren't so many shows at a venue that's been around forever, like Gilman. But there is a scene here."

Fliers and word of mouth are still key to San Jose's intimate punk scene. Places like MACLA and El Centro Aztlan de Chicomoztoc as well as local, independent music stores are likely to promote shows, but the Internet has become a lifeline for the community as well.

Notably, MySpace.com, the bane of nervous parents everywhere and a quick story for overzealous television reporters out to alarm instead of inform, is a key networking asset. But the Latino, Spanish-speaking punk scene is still small enough where nearly everyone knows everyone.

For example, explains Masacre's Santana, while the band was on a national tour, they were sure they would mostly be playing to white, English-only audiences. But in Boston, a city where they knew no one, a Latino by the name of Lucho heard Masacre was coming to town. Though he had never met them, he made sure to welcome the San Jose group.

"Lucho came in the door. He said, 'I heard you guys were coming. I heard you guys were Latinos. I came to say what's up,'" Santana says. Lucho helped set up a show for the band in New York, he adds. "But still, that's crazy, because we go all the way to Boston and we find one guy, Lucho. He connects us with New York. Basically that means we're coast to coast."

Santana's sentiment also sums up how the show in San Jose came together.

A phone call from one Latino punk in Chicago to another in Watsonville quickly made its way to Santana and Salcido, who set up the show.

On tour this summer after reuniting, Sin Orden is directly influenced by Los Crudos and part of the second wave of Spanish-speaking Latino punks from Chicago's South Side. The band recently played the biggest Latino punk rock festival in the country, Southkore Fest II, in Chicago, along with Outraged!, a Watsonville-based punk rock band that has been making waves nationally by touring and releasing seven-inch records with punk and thrash bands from outside the United States.

Tommy Aguilar is the booking manager at MACLA. Like Santana, he hails from a multigenerational family with roots in San Jose and says the show is no different than anything else at MACLA.

"I think it's the coolest thing to be able to do, to allow something like this to happen," he explains. "Where are they going to go? What are they going to do? I don't know any other spots in San Jose. That's a huge issue in our community and that's what MACLA's about: what is the community need for space. Let's provide it."

Elizabeth Ortega of La Grita

Mask of Sanity: Elizabeth Ortega of Fremont's La Grita.

Going Nationwide

What happened in San Jose the night of Spic Core Fest may have been unique to this city, but it's emblematic of a national movement. Young Latinos are gathering in small venues across the country to hear fast, loud punk rock. Together, everyone sings along in Spanish to lyrics about their lives and experiences: discrimination, discontent, abuse and identity. The sentiment is universal, but the language and expression is specific. And despite a divide of miles from scene to scene, a network of support is strengthening.

For Elizabeth Ortega, the 21-year-old singer for Fremont's La Grita, the scene stems from something very simple: the basic need to communicate.

"This is a way of us expressing ourselves," says Ortega, standing outside MACLA after the show has concluded and the space cleaned up.

Born in Guadalajara, Jalisco, she says her family traveled all over California before putting roots down in Fremont.

But the inspiration to form a band came while she was in Mexico, where Spanish punk rock is hardly an anomaly.

"My brother and I were in Mexico," Ortega says. "We came back. We were always talking about putting a band together. Just go and have fun and start something good. We wanted to do it in Spanish porque no hay muchas bandas that are in Spanish and have a woman."

Though her eyes are slyly concealed by her close-cropped hair, which is banded over by a pink bandana, she makes a conscious effort to make eye contact as she speaks. She notes that when her band plays, she tends to cover her face with her hands and keep her back to the audience, out of nervousness, she explains. Ortega says she needs overcome that fear. Her lyrics are strong and defiant and she wants that come across in performance as well.

A strong female presence in the scene, she explains, was foundation to La Grita's creation. Ortega is alluding to one of the problems that have trailed punk rock since its inception nearly 30 years ago: despite its egalitarian posturing, the role of women has remained rather marginal, even in comparison to mainstream, corporate rock. Her words echo punk's do-it-yourself spirit and its eternal equation that it takes just one rock to start a riot.

"I want more girls to come. I want more girls to sera en una banda y no tienen miedo [be in a band and don't be scared]. If I can do it, anybody can do it."


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