East L.A. Punk
Home to the largest population of Mexicans in a non-Mexican city, Los Angeles historically segregated it to the eastern half of the city, largely reserving West L.A. for the Hollywood and Beverly Hills elite. This cultural stratification helped fuel interesting trends and a diverse musical heritage that included the unique Chicano punk scene considered a genre all its own, East L.A. punk.
While American punk music emerged after the “British Invasion” of the late 1960s and '70s, disenfranchised Mexican American youth, along with other outcasts, in the late 1970s rejected overblown record production and created a stripped-down sound. This outsider scene valued raw creative expression over musical skill. The line between musicians and audience blurred from one day to the next as fans started their own bands. Often politically charged, their music was tense, fast and aggressive. In Hollywood, The Zeros, The Plugz, The Bags, and Nervous Gender smashed all expectations of what Mexican American youth should look and sound like.
California emerged as a hub of American punk music with L.A. considered as the most hardcore. In the mid-to-late 1970s, two distinct yet concurrent scenes arose in Los Angeles County: the Hollywood scene -- not the fantasy film version but a city dominated by post-industrial poverty -- and the East L.A. scene -- 12 miles to the east and fermenting its punk scene about a year later. Though two distinct punk scenes existed, they were not hermetically sealed. Crossing between the two scenes did occur and Chicanas influenced them both. However, those crossing were not without tension. Who could cross and under what conditions were questions that remained unresolved.
A prime example proved to be the first L.A.-based punk woman lead singer, Alice Bag. Born Alicia Armendariz to Mexican immigrants who lived in East L.A., she emerged in the '70s Hollywood punk scene. Her furious screams would define the aggressive vocal style of the time. Rising over distorted electric guitar and sped up bass and drums, her voice created a thick dissonant texture -- a trademark of the early punk sound that echoed L.A. tension.
While nearly all attention and fame focused on bands out of Hollywood, the vibrant punk scene in East L.A. grew. It gave us Los Illegals, East. L.A.'s politically-charged diplomats and founders of the infamous Club Vex; The Brat, an all-female group led by Teresa Covarrubias who wrote socially-conscious lyrics against Mexican American oppression; The Plugz, D-I-Y punks who founded Plugz Records and later Fatima Records and went on to play with Bob Dylan on The David Letterman Show; and The Cruzados, a later incarnation of The Plugz who garnered praise from musicians and critics alike.
While East L.A. nurtured Chicano and Chicana punks, the city’s racial stratification with undercurrents of prejudice continued against even U.S.-born Mexicans. The bands could not get signed performing in East L.A., which had no big venues and mostly consisted of backyard shows that would get shut down early by police. In order to be noticed a band typically had to come out of the West L.A. touring circuit, a paradox because almost all of the famous venues would not allow Chicano East L.A. punks to play.
Los Illegals frontman, Willie Herron, recalls that he “wanted to bring people from the West Side to see groups from the East Side." With help from radical Catholic nun, Sister Karen Boccalero, he started a weekly punk club out of the church’s Catholic Youth building (also known as Self Help Graphics). They called it Club Vex and it became the only punk venue in East L.A. Club Vex unleashed bands that voiced the inequities of barrio-living -- The Brat, Los Illegals, The Undertakers, and the Odd Squad meshed ska, corrido and mod beats with driving guitars and outrageous fashion.
By the 1990s Café Troy and the Peace and Justice Center refueled an eclectic mix of retro-futurist Chicano bands united by their do-it-yourself philosophy. Photographer Sean Carrillo asserts that the East L.A. punk scene accomplished “what few cultural movements before had been able to do: it attracted all people from all over town to see Latino bands, and it brought musicians from all over the city to… the heart of East L.A.”
Today, East L.A. Punk’s legacy endures, although it continues to be marginalized as less valid than the West L.A. scene. However, the original East L.A. scene is now largely, and rightfully, recognized as a large part of the founding roots of the now-famous '70s and '80s California punk music scene.