‘Punk In Translation: Latinx Origins’ Takes Punk History Beyond White Men In Mohawks
Before there was punk, there were Los Saicos. Started by four guys in Lima, Peru, Los Saicos thrashed their way through local venues and cinema matinees in the 1960s, eventually flickering into obscurity almost as quickly as they’d arrived. But they left behind a roster of hits, including “Demolición,” a buzzing maelstrom of a song driven by the guttural screams of lead singer Erwin Flores, whose orders to smash a train station capture the lawlessness of these proto-punk pioneers. Around the same time in Michigan, a bunch of kids born to Mexican migrants formed Question Mark and the Mysterians, and their runaway hit “96 Tears” became the first song by a Mexican-American band to ever top Billboard‘s Hot 100. Mop-topped and enigmatic, they were also the very first act to be described as “punk” in Creem magazine, years before the term became ubiquitous. And in the Seventies, Alice Bag broke down the doors for women in punk as the frontwoman and co-founder of the Los Angeles punk band the Bags.
All of these stories — and more — are packed into the podcast Punk In Translation: Latinx Origins, an Audible original series produced by Fresh Produce Media that challenges stereotypes of punk as “the exclusive territory of white men with mohawks.” Ceci Bastida, a singer and musician who was part of the seminal Mexican ska-punk band Tijuana No!, takes listeners through little-known music histories across eight episodes, produced by the veteran journalist and Nuevo Culture contributor Nuria Net. Along with the journalist and music expert Judy Cantor-Navas, who wrote most of the script, Net and and a team of contributors — among them writer Isabelia Herrera (who has also written for RS) — chased down leads across the country, piecing together new narratives and re-centering punk through the indelible contributions of iconic Latinx punkeros and punkeras.
From the very beginning, the podcast roots itself in conversations about what it means to be Latinx. “If we’re going to about talk about Latinx punk, we have to talk about identity and how Latino identity itself, the notion has evolved and how it’s been expressed through generations,” Net says. The episodes focus primarily on the experiences of Latinx people in the U.S., capturing a range of bicultural approaches to art and self-expression. “Being Latino doesn’t mean you have to play the timbales, or you have to sing in Spanish,” Net continues. “We talk to contemporary punk rockers, like Victoria [Ruiz] from Downtown Boys. In her case, they choose to sing [some songs] in Spanish as a political act, but, again, being Latino isn’t one thing — it’s meant different things through the decades, and we had to respect that and acknowledge it.”
The word “Latinx,” an inclusive, gender-neutral term, is used intentionally, signaling how the producers wanted to highlight queer and LGBTQ experiences during the podcast. One episode features Kid Congo Powers, the guitarist who co-founded the Gun Club and later played with the Cramps and Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds. He discusses how being Chicano and queer were already ways of “bucking the system,” and punk gave him a space to work out aspects of his identity. The podcast team also interviewed Letty Martinez, the lead singer of the brash Chicanx punk band Fea, who identifies as pansexual. Though she grew up in a conservative Mexican family in the Rio Grande Valley, she listened to both Latin pop stars and queercore bands like the Butchies and Team Dresch — and eventually began making defiant, radically minded music in Fea, a name that reclaims the word “ugly” in Spanish and reflects the band’s refusal to conform to what society wants them to be.
Martinez — along with artists such as Alice Bag, Spitboy drummer Michelle Cruz Gonzales, and the drummer Rosie Rex, who played often at CBGB’s — speak to the podcast’s woman-led spirit. Bastida leads the way and even brings her personal stories from Tijuana No!, a band she joined when she was 15 years old. Now, after having looked back at her time with the group, Bastida says she’s come to fully appreciate the work they did and the path they paved, particularly when it came to the sociopolitical issues they tackled in their music. “One of the older members, who passed away, was very political and I learned a lot from him,” she says. “Even when we first started, we would do a lot of shows benefitting organizations that helped migrants in Tijuana or the civil war in El Salvador… Living in Tijuana, we were very impacted by border patrol agents and Mexico’s extreme corruption. We were very much aware of our political surroundings, and I wanted to learn more and be part of these movements I thought were so important.”
Working on the podcast, she found kinship with up-and-coming punk bands and musicians engaged in political activism today. “Art has been very much connected with social-political activism, and as much as I love music that talks about love and other things, I’m always intrigued by bands that touch on these subjects,” she says. “I interviewed Tony Abarca from Generación Suicida, which is a punk band from South Central. He’s this young guy who’s so smart, and hearing him talk about how he’s passionate about making sure people see the beauty in his community was really inspiring.”
And while a new generation is charting new paths, Net says that the artists from past decades also capture a sense of freedom and defiance that fits into today’s zeitgeist. “It’s something that feels very current, of the moment, and super-relevant,” she says. She points out how young many of these artists were, and how committed they were to finding themselves through music. “The fact that most of these kids were in their teens — Bobby [Balderrama of Question Mark and the Mysterians] talks about being 12 years old when they started the band, Alice was also in her teens, Robert Lopez from the Zeros was 16. In a lot of ways, there are also coming-of-age stories: stories of being a teenager and expressing yourself.”