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Punk en Español

The heavily Hispanic roots — and present — of Houston's punk scene

Hispanics have helped shape punk rock since the Zeros and the Bags fomented a brown shade of musical resistance in the late 1970s. Years earlier, though, garage rockers paved the path, sending tunes like "Jump Jive and Harmonize," an East L.A. slab of teenage cool by Cramps fave Thee Midnighters oozing with lowrider authenticity, onto the airwaves. For every scrawny white kid discovering the empowering ethos of Do It Yourself, a kid in the barrio was doing it old-school — rasquache, "making do" — just like Pachucos and Mexican mods in the 1960s.

Texas, meanwhile, produced a near-perfect trifecta of Hispanic-operated punk clubs: Raul's in Austin, Tacoland in San Antonio and The Island in Houston. Not long after came the Axiom, one of Houston's premier alt-rock venues, started by J.R. Delgado.

"When I started going to The Island, Houston was going through some heavy racial tension between Hispanics and authorities, like the Moody Park riots, the result of Joe Torres being found in the bayou with handcuffs, which Really Red wrote the song 'Teaching You The Fear' about," Delgado says. "I found out the owners were Hispanic, but again, that didn't come to mind — the Hispanic/non-Hispanic thing. The Island just didn't feel that way. It was a melting pot, with blacks, Hispanics, gays, glitter-rock, avant-garde and artist types. It was an avenue, a venue, for freedom of expression — angst-ful expression, which I've felt most of my life."

Impressed by local stalwarts Legionnaire's Disease, Delgado co-founded the Derailers, who played with pummeling Los Angeles punk pioneers Black Flag (whose singer Dez Cadena is another punk Hispanic of note). Yet, as Delgado frames it, that "wasn't some sort of issue of consciousness."

When Delgado joined with G.E. (Dennis) Mendez, from the band Killerwatz, in the Discharge-inspired hardcore outfit Doomsday Massacre, being Hispanic was a non-issue too. He later joined Party Owls and Sugar Shack, but the Axiom was the mecca of his making.

"What was great about the Axiom, which I felt I carried from The Island, was that inclusiveness," Delgado says fondly. "Everyone was welcome. It was a family feel. People used to tell me that."

Juan Embil, a Cuban from Deer Park, might have loved Bad Religion's Suffer album in the mid-1990s, but a punk-rock T-shirt didn't buy him a pass into that city's exclusive, nearly all-white punk culture; on the other hand, the Mexican high-school kids and certain family members berated him daily as well, telling him to stop being a "coconut," to be proud of La Raza.

They considered his punk mode of dress a sign of closet homosexuality — a serious allegation in Hispanic culture — and on a few occasions, threatened to "beat the white" out of him. Kids like Embil often navigate between communities, form micro-­communities with others who fit no cookie-cutter identity — such as black punks — or become islands unto themselves.

Instead of opposing white culture, MyDolls singer Trish Herrera's family aimed at assimilation. "They made me white, shop in a mall and speak English," she says. "I was brown, full of shame and drowned it with alcohol, then shopped at thrift stores and ripped up my clothes and safety pinned it back together. Did the brown shame whip my ass? Yes, it did.

"But I arose free from the addictions and tried to learn Spanish," Herrera adds. "Now I speak broken Spanish. It's hard when you live in Texas and ignorant white people say, 'I've got me a Mexz-can girl to clean my house or I've got me a Mexz-can to do my yard.' I learned to speak up and defend my Latina family."

When pressed to comment on punk's multiculturalism, she responds, "Punk was the inclusive family. Not like hippies, all love and peace and drugs, but fucking angry as hell, sick of it. And I fit right in and still do. The only difference is without drugs and alcohol I have the clarity to really say it loud now, louder than ever, yet quietly sneak over the fence and take over as well."

"Punk has always been inclusive. I mean if it's about railing against oppression, who better to speak out than those who experience oppression from generation to generation," argues MyDolls drummer George Reyes. He believes the voices of each Latin-music generation, from Sam the Sham's "Wooly Bully" to Carlos Santana's Abraxas, search for an "identity amongst the dominant culture."

"Punk is no different," Reyes continues. "My experience has drawn on native roots and culture to blend the expression. When we were composing 'As Strange as Mine,' I definitely was thinking of Trish's dad and the Latin music he and others made famous in the '50s and '60s. The use of timbales and rototoms are just a few of the Latin influences that make the song rock."

Reyes's input suggests that punk music is an amalgam, a piecing together of various influences drawn from each player's background, and not a template blindly borrowed from the Clash and cohorts.

Rosa Guerrero, a writer, DJ, record-label owner and local scene mentor, acknowledges that rank-and-file fans of grindcore and metal might be heavily Hispanic too, but she's not certain there's any common thread beyond language. She suggests disparate Latin identities — first generation/second generation, Mexican/Cuban, etc. — often become submerged into a punk melting pot.

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