How A San Antonio Rocker Helped Bring Bell Garden’s 1980s Punk Scene To Life For ‘Adobe Punk’
After indie rocker Nina Diaz left her native San Antonio for Los Angeles, she discovered the local theater community that would go on to create Adobe Punk, a play about three young punk musicians squatting in a vacant adobe house in the working-class community of Bell Gardens.
The show, set in the early 1980s, was co-created by playwright and director Theresa Chavez and her son Gabriel Garza. Diaz co-wrote the songs with Chavez.
The two met on a 2019 production ofEvangeline, the Queen of Make-Believe, which Chavez co-wrote and directed. Diaz played in the show’s band.
That play followed 1968’s East L.A. high school walkouts and featured music by local rock legends Los Lobos. It was Diaz’s first time working on a play since second grade, and she said she fell in love with theater company About Productions and the way it gives voice to Latin artists.
When she heard Adobe Punk was in the works, the resonance with her own story had her hyped. She likened the project’s vibe to that of one of her favorite movies, SLC Punk.
“In my mind, I was thinking, ‘Please ask me to be part of it in some way. It’s so up my alley. Please, please, please, please, please.’ But I didn’t have the confidence yet to say, ‘Hey, if I can be involved in any way,’” Diaz said.
A Working Class SoCal Story
Diaz, now 34, performed with punk band Girl In A Coma in the 2000s and 2010s, but she eventually quit the band, got sober, and began to follow her solo rock star dreams.
Though she’s not from around here, Diaz said she knows more about California than San Antonio, and she connects with the world of Bell Gardens and the working class environment depicted in the play.
“It felt like this is a part of me in some way,” Diaz said.
Her father, her grandfather, “everybody worked in the fields,” she said, “so I can understand when you’re breaking your back to earn nothing.”
Diaz struggled creatively while living in L.A., writing just three new songs, because she was consumed by her day job and other personal issues. But she used the time to collect personal experiences to have something to write about.
“I just listened to anything, and took in the stories, and made space for what it was all about,” she said.
Diaz moved back to San Antonio shortly before the pandemic, but the experience stayed with her.
“I love who I am in Los Angeles,” she said. “I made roots there. I made friends there, I made family there.”
Finding A “Kindred Spirit”
It was in the summer of 2021, well into the coronavirus pandemic, that Chavez contacted Diaz about getting involved. Chavez asked her to write music to go with Chavez’s lyrics. While Diaz tried to play it cool, she said yes right away.
“I have a horrible poker face,” she said.
Diaz connected with the way Chavez and Garza talked about the show, likening it to how she herself talks about an album or a song.
“You can tell the difference between somebody that’s talking about something because, ‘Oh, this is going to give me a peg up in the industry,’” Diaz said. “It felt like, ‘This is a passion of mine.’ Of course we want to make a living out of what we do, but there didn’t seem [to be] any malicious strings attached to this creative process.”
Diaz said it was unusual for her to find someone she connected with so well.
“Usually, you’re like, ‘OK, this is nice, but I know I’m never going to work with you again,’” Diaz said. “With Theresa, I’m like, ‘We’re gonna form a band’ … beyond Adobe Punk.”
The two had a similar approach to their work, “which sometimes might not seem the most stable to a lot of people,” she said, “but we get it done. We get it done with passion, with power. And I felt like I found a kindred spirit, of ‘I’m not crazy to work like this.’”
Healing While Finding Her Old Punk Rock Mindset
According to Diaz, co-writing this show’s songs put her back in the mindset of her Girl In A Coma years.
“I was writing some pretty cool stuff at 13, 14 years old,” Diaz said. She was hard on herself at the time, but now she tells herself, “‘You’re a good writer, you know what you’re doing. Just stop stopping yourself.’”
Diaz said she found it both refreshing and cathartic to put herself back in that mindset. She said she’s still healing and learning to forgive herself after some traumatic experiences in her teens and early 20s.
“Sometimes, if the most traumatic thing happens during that time, you’re forever that age in a weird way,” Diaz said. “So I felt some sort of connection to these characters, especially as they’re trying to find themselves. That’s the time, right? Where do I fit? What do I do?”
Diaz said she knew when she was young that she wanted music to be her life, but she wasn’t sure where it would lead.
“The fact that these characters were still trying to figure out what are they going to do, but they know they have a passion, I felt like I could get something out of it,” she said.
Diaz also used composing for Adobe Punk as a stress relief from working on her second solo album, which she recently completed (it’s set for release this summer). It’s her first time engineering and recording an album herself. She’s also taking classes online with the L.A. Film School to continue growing her skills as an engineer — she recently set up her own home studio and production company, with a goal of supporting women in San Antonio who want to become engineers.
Creating The Sound Of Adobe Punk
Chavez continued writing straight into the middle of the rehearsal process, working with Diaz to create the show’s sound. Diaz would record demos, getting notes back from Chavez along the way.
For Diaz, the show was a chance to put some of her recent musical development to use. She had made money during much of the pandemic by recording cover songs in a wide variety of styles for people on the Internet, which she described as “online busking.” Beyond punk, she’d do songs by Taylor Swift and Selena Gomez. The experience was like going to music school for her.
This show was also Diaz’s first time starting with lyrics and adding the music, rather than riffing musically and finding the lyrics from there. As she and Chavez worked, Diaz would help tweak the lyrics to fit the music or pull in a line from elsewhere in the play.
Diaz said she wants the experience of going to see Adobe Punk to be like live screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show or the show Hedwig and the Angry Inch, with audiences yelling and fully participating.
Adobe Punk’s songs are catchy, Diaz promises, thanks both to her music and Chavez’s lyrics. She said she hopes the songs get released outside the show.
Meanwhile, the actors who play the members of Adobe Punk’s Bell System have formed an actual band, and they might even play some of their own live shows.
Diaz had the chance to play with them at a benefit show, providing vocals while they backed her up. It took her back to that second grade theater production. In that show, she was supposed to hold up signs with the days of the week on them, but she accidentally held them upside-down. As a second grader, the audience found it adorable. Years later, in Adobe Punk, they put up their own sign for Bell System — and they, too, managed to put it up backwards.
“I loved it,” Diaz said.
You can see the final shows of this run ofAdobe Punk through this Sunday. There are hopes of mounting a future production in Bell Gardens, and if that happens, Diaz said she wants to go back to see it there — and visit the community while she’s at it.
Editor’s note: Theresa Chavez is married to KPCC/LAist’s Oscar Garza. Garza was not involved in the assigning or editing of this story.