Los Illegals, formed in 1979, were an instrumental Chicano band in the vibrant punk scene of the early '80s in East Los Angeles, California. Founded by principal songwriter, lead vocalist and keyboardist Willie Herron (a local muralist), Los Illegals were a politically-charged band with attitude that spotlighted the lives of undocumented workers through music.
Featuring Jesus Helo (a social activist) on bass, guitarist brothers Manuel and Tony Valdez, and Bill Reyes on drums, the Chicano punk band’s songs focused on themes of immigration, poverty, gang violence and cultural difference -- all issues they confronted daily as residents of L.A.’s Eastside where the city’s minorities lived a world away from the glamourous neighborhoods of Hollywood and Beverly Hills in West Los Angeles.
Starting out as a new Chicano act on the Eastside was not easy. A lack of professional venues - most shows consisted of backyard parties that would be shut down early by the police - and opportunities to get attention - music producers and managers did not look to East L.A. for their acts, focusing their respect and attention on the west side of town - resulted in frustration for Los Illegals and other local bands. Because of this, Herron, with the help of radical Catholic nun Sister Karen Bocalero, opened Club Vex in a local church’s Catholic Youth Organization Hall. On two Thursdays a month, Club Vex would be a place for East L.A.’s punk bands, mostly Chicano acts, to perform. Los Illegals and The Brat were mainstays at Club Vex and both were initially noticed there by promoters and other L.A. bands who invited the Eastside Chicanos to play in venues on the more lucrative Westside circuit. Eventually, Los Illegals earned a deal with A&M Records and Mick Ronson, a former guitarist for David Bowie, one of Herron’s music idols, produced their 1983 debut, Internal Exile.
The release of their first record garnered Los Illegals attention outside of L.A. for the first time and they embarked on a southwest tour. Facing prejudice -- against their music and their cultural heritage -- Los Illegals continued to perform, sometimes while being showered with debris by an angry audience, as in one famous San Francisco show. Although parting ways with A&M during the recording of their follow-up album, Burning Youth, which was never released, Los Illegals continued to tour and record through the end of the century, releasing the album Concrete Blonde y Los Illegals with L.A. alternative rock band Concrete Blonde in 1997.
Despite never achieving national fame or contemporary recognition, Los Illegals are now considered one of the most important East L.A. bands of the 1980s. Herron’s Club Vex and his politically-intelligent songwriting, as well as the band’s tough attitude and proud Mexican American heritage, made them an influential Chicano act and an enduring part of the rich Eastside L.A. music history, re-branding the pejorative term “illegals” into a badge of ethnic pride.