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What Punk Music Owes To Its Lesser Known Latino Roots

The singer who goes by Alice Bag, eyes closed, flings her purple-dyed hair back on stage as she holds a mic in her right hand, with a drummer behind her and more musicians to the right. She is wearing a powder blue outfit.
Alice Bag, still rocking in 2018 at L.A.'s Zebulon club, decades after her influential punk band The Bags left a huge impression.
(Alyson Camus/Courtesy Alice Bag)
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Mentions of “punk rock” can bring to mind the Sex Pistols and the Ramones, leather jackets in cooler London and New York climates. But the youthful fire of punk burned early on in Southern California, Mexico and other Latino communities across the world.

The new eight-part Audible podcast series, Punk In Translation: Latinx Origins, traces punk’s history back to its lesser-known and more diverse roots.

One of the earliest examples of proto-punk in the series is Question Mark and the Mysterians, a group of Mexican American teens from Michigan with raw vocals and garage rock stylings. They broke through with the 1966 hit, “96 Tears,” long before the punk revolution took hold of the music world — the song went to number one on the Billboard Hot 100.

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“They were able to come up with this sound and create music that I find very fresh still,” said Punk In Translation host and former punk group member Ceci Bastida, who grew up in Tijuana and now lives in L.A.

Bastida began playing with the punk band that became Tijuana No! when she was just 15 years old, the group playing music inspired by bands such as the Clash and Black Flag, until disbanding after a decade.

It might not be obvious right away, but what connects punk and Latino experiences, according to Bastida, is the ethos of doing things your own way. “You’re not supposed to fit in with anybody [in punk],” Bastida said. “People are going to respond to you, and you’re going to be honest and unique.”

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Hollywood’s Punk Origins

Singer Alice Bag, lead singer of late ‘70s punk band the Bags, grew up in East Los Angeles, taking guitar lessons starting at 16. She told Bastida that when she saw a Latino band playing pop-punk in 1977, it was the first time she’d seen rockers who looked like her. She gravitated to Hollywood, where the punk scene was unfolding.

Singer Alice Bag holds a microphone, with a snarl on her face.
Alice Bag at the Hong Kong Cafe.
(Louis Jacinto/Courtesy of Alice Bag)

“It didn’t really matter where you were from, or if you were gay — nothing mattered, everybody was welcome,” Bastida said. “And that seemed to me like an ideal place to create.”

The Hollywood of the era, even more rundown and unglamorous than it may seem today, had cheap rents that allowed an artistic scene to flourish, rocker John Doe of L.A. punk band X says on the podcast. Bag lived in the infamously filthy Canterbury Apartments, alongside members of bands such as the Go-Gos, playing shows at places that included a punk venue in the basement of the nearby Pussycat porn theater.

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The Bags were short-lived, releasing just one record and breaking up a couple years after they formed. But they became hugely influential through both their music and their style aesthetic — Salvation Army dresses over ripped fishnets, with chola-inspired dark eyeliner.

Alice's lead vocals included a primal shriek that became a signature of Hollywood punk. That influence was distinctly felt in the riot grrrl movement of the 1990s, with women-led punk acts embracing both femininity and strength while calling out sexism.

Latino Teens And Pachuco Punk

East L.A’s Los Lobos also drew inspiration from the city’s punk scene, the band’s Louie Perez told Bastida. Los Lobos played punk shows early on, before punk’s sound became specifically defined by elements such as distorted guitar. The area’s Latino community had long had its own proto-punk cultures, including pachucos and cholos — Perez described his band as “pachuco punk,” playing speeded-up versions of traditional Mexican songs.

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A black and white photo of a man with a passionate look on his face, playing guitar, with a drummer behind him, with a mural on the wall behind.
Generacion Suicida plays La Miroiterie, Paris in 2013.
(xkidx
/
via Flickr Creative Commons )

One of the younger punk acts Bastida interviewed were the members of Generación Suicida, based out of South L.A., who’ve been playing together since 2010.

“They were in their 20s and living in this community that a lot of people think of as an area that’s dangerous, or full of violence,” Bastida said. "They’re showing the world how it’s just like any other community filled with families, with love, with art.”

As the group developed, they’d get bands touring the area to come to their neighborhoods, playing backyard parties and connecting with new audiences. That led to Generación Suicida's music having influence outside just South L.A., as well as getting them invites to take their music on the road — they’d support and tour with other bands and be asked to perform in other cities.

“They’re older than I was when they started — they had their record store, they had it all figured out,” Bastida said.

While labels tried to sign them, the band decided to stay independent and do things their way, which Bastida said she respected a lot. Generación Suicida remains on the road regularly.

Finding Forgotten Punk Roots 

Bastida learned about punk’s Latino roots herself through hosting the podcast. When she came up alongside her Tijuana No bandmates, she didn’t know about those early influences.

“I didn’t really hear much about these Latino/Chicano punk bands,” Bastida said. “Back then, unless you were on the radio — mainstream radio — you didn’t really know much about them.”

She used punk to help figure out who she was as she was growing up, learning from her bandmates about everything from music to social justice.

Bastida started as an interview subject, but the show’s producers put forward the idea of her becoming the host after interviewing her in both Spanish and English. They were looking for a bilingual woman with a connection to the music, and Bastida fit the bill.

The entire Punk In Translation podcast is available in both English and Spanish.

“It was tricky. I obviously speak English, but I feel more comfortable in Spanish,” Bastida said. “I had to have somebody help me out and guide me, because I pronounce things better in Spanish than in English.”

While a lot of the artists are Latino, they didn’t always speak Spanish either. It made getting what was in those interviews across in both languages more difficult, but making the effort has made the project more accessible.

The Industry’s Latino Box

It’s taken Bastida time to find her own place, while getting the music industry to understand just what her thing is exactly. She first moved to L.A. about 16 years ago, which was also when she began writing music as a solo artist.

“My music, if you listen to it, it doesn’t necessarily sound Mexican,” Bastida said. “People would say, OK, I like the music, but you sing in Spanish. They didn’t really know where to put me.”

She hated always being put into a box by record labels and booking agents.

“I grew up in Mexico and I listened to music that was in English, and I didn’t have an issue with it,” Bastida said. “Why would people have such an issue with the fact that I sing in Spanish?”

Industry gatekeepers were frustrated, as the fact that she wasn’t doing ranchera or mariachi music meant they couldn’t put her in the “world music” category.

“I would love for people to like [my music] and connect with it just the same way that I connected with David Bowie, when I didn’t understand everything he was saying,” Bastida said.

She’s been encouraged by crossover artists in recent years, with language not being a barrier for acts such as Bad Bunny and BTS being played on mainstream pop radio. Now she wants to see it happen in more genres.

Bastida hopes that listeners to the show take away a greater knowledge of music history and, when they connect with an artist, their personal history as well.

“I would love for people to understand that American music is also Latino music,” Bastida said.

Punk in Translation: Latinx Origins (produced by Fresh Produce Media) is out now.

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