By 1968-69, when the term “Mexican-American” gave way to “Chicano,” at least among politically-engaged high school and college students, emerging musicians from East LA and surrounding areas adopted various ways to show solidarity with the movement. The quick and easy option was selecting a Spanish or Native-American name for your group. Three of the better-known examples from the era were Yaqui, a hard-rock band named after an indigenous tribe; Tierra, the Spanish word for “earth,” and El Chicano, a group combining jazz with r’n’b’ that had originally called themselves the VIPs.
El Chicano and Tierra incorporated Latin rhythms and instruments into their overall sound, along with the occasional Spanish lyrics, although few if any of the members of either group spoke the language well. The trend in what was now being referred to as Chicano rock mirrored what was happening on college campuses in California, Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas; the rise of Chicano Studies Departments, with courses being offered in Chicano politics, Chicano literature, and Chicano culture. For musicians who only a few years before had proudly, defiantly embraced American rock and roll and rhythm and blues, in part to rebel against the “old world” ways of their immigrant parents and grandparents, it could be awkward to reverse course and adopt some of those same Mexican and Latin American styles in their own music.
In the early summer of 1970, El Chicano released “Viva Tirado,” an instrumental recorded several years earlier by a black jazz artist from Los Angeles named Gerald Wilson. Eddie Davis, El Chicano’s Anglo manager, who had performed a similar role for Cannibal and the Headhunters and other East LA groups since the early 1960s, thought changing the name of the VIPs to El Chicano was a bad idea. He wanted to avoid the confusion that had prompted Bob Keane to change Richard Valenzuela to Ritchie Valens; plus, the word “Chicano,” implied radicalism and violence, which could alienate not only white consumers, but Mexican-Americans as well.
Yet the mood of the community had changed since 1957. There was no longer tolerance for what could be interpreted as selling out to the white market, even if doing so made sense in purely marketing terms. In 1970, Bob Keane would have been condemned for Anglicizing the name “Richard Valenzuela.” Not that that was any consolation to Eddie Davis, who with the rise of the Chicano movement lost control of the East LA music scene. As he recalled some 20 years later, when the VIPs changed their name to El Chicano, he spent the next several months in a severe depression, rarely leaving his house.
On August 29th, 1970, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputies attacked marchers, and were attacked in return, during the Chicano Moratorium. Though little remembered outside Los Angeles, this event, in which three people died, including Ruben Salazar, a columnist for The Los Angeles Times, at the time brought national attention to the Chicano movement and its issues. It also made Chicano groups enticing to record labels, which have a tendency to see a marketing hook in political protest and criminal behavior, especially in minority communities.
In 1972, Tierra, which would go on to become one of the biggest-selling groups in the history of LA-based Chicano rock and r’n’b, released its first album, called “Tierra.” The group was led by Rudy and Steve Salas, who in the mid-1960s had recorded a few singles for Eddie Davis’s Rampart label as the Salas Brothers. In high school, Steve Salas, the younger brother, had participated in large-scale walkouts to protest rules suspending students for speaking Spanish on campus and substandard conditions in the classroom. Many of the students involved in this effort, including Steve, would go on to become leaders in the Chicano movement during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Steve and Rudy were witnesses when sheriff’s deputies went after demonstrators with batons and tear gas at the Chicano Moratorium.
Unlike Chicano bands such as Thee Midniters, which added politics later, Tierra started with that purpose. On the first, self-titled album, they announced their cultural intentions through rhythms, chord progressions, musical arrangements, and instrumentation and imagery that simultaneously evoked progressive rock and Latin traditions. Along with Santana, 500 miles to the north, Tierra created an American/Latin rock hybrid, which outside of “La Bamba,” “Chicano Power,” and “Viva Tirado,” had been represented only by particular songs to that point. Within a few years, Los Lobos would launch an entire career dedicated to weaving between, and in and out of, American rock and roll, blues, and country rock, and various Mexican, Central, and South American musical forms.
At the end of the 1970s, Tierra suspended its political flirtations and reinvented itself as a contemporary rhythm and blues band, garbed in shiny jackets, jewelry, and suits, playing to the growing number of urban professionals of all races who spent their evenings dancing and drinking at trendy clubs in Beverly Hills, Hollywood, and West Los Angeles. Their 1980 cover version of “Together,” a soul ballad recorded a dozen years earlier by a black vocal group from Philadelphia called the Intruders, became a major national hit. Among other perks, the success of “Together” landed Tierra a performance at Carnegie Hall, which had been a longtime dream of Steve and Rudy’s mother, who sat in the front row. In the 32 years since the release of “Together,” Tierra has been marketed as an r’n’b/oldies act exclusively. Despite being asked to do so on occasion, the Salas Brothers have politely declined through the years to perform songs from Tierra’s first album at their gigs. Fans of the group under the age of 45 would have no reason to know that way back when, Tierra was immersed in Chicano politics and culture.
Since Ritchie Valens, Mexican-American/Chicano performers from Southern California have displayed considerable breadth in their listening habits and choice of influences. Not only do they have a genetic disposition toward Latin sounds and styles, but they also listen closely to funk, blues, soul, folk, punk, post-punk (the adoration of Chicano fans for Morrissey’s operatic-like ballads of sexually-confused, Irish-Catholic angst is a story all its own) and experimental art rock from England and the Continent. Chicano listeners simply ignored the rigid racial categories that became part of pop music after the arrival of the Beatles to America in 1964, reflected in soul-oriented radio stations that all but banned music by white performers from their playlists, or later in the decade, FM stations that featured album cuts aimed at the typical hippie/stoner. The formerly young, white, college-educated critics who to this day talk about how the Western world swooned for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band immediately after its release in June 1967 conveniently forget that you wouldn’t have heard “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” blasting from a record store in Watts. On other hand, Rolling Stone, which debuted in the fall of 1967 and employed many of those same critics, didn’t feature major stories on James Brown in its early years, even though he was the most important soul and funk artist of the time, with a massive and devoted following in urban communities from Los Angeles to Boston.
Yet since the music business – radio, record labels, and the news media – did not recognize a separate Latin audience, except for Latin artists, Chicano fans of Anglo-American and African-American popular music could define their own tastes, without being directed to particular styles and performers by outside, cynical market forces. A prime example is Willie Herron, co-leader of a Chicano punk band of the 1980s called Los Illegals, who cites as two of his main influences James Brown and Van der Graaf Generator, an English progressive rock band formed in 1967.
Another is Los Lobos, who as individual teen-agers in the 1960s were huge fans of the Beatles, Rolling Stones, the San Francisco bands, and Motown, and then, after forming the group around 1972, both performed and carefully studied acoustic folk music from various regions of Mexico and Central America. Still, what the members of Los Lobos regarded as the marked decline in the quality of rock music during the mid-1970s made it much easier for them to launch their project their way. They were appalled by the many of the top groups of the era, such as Journey, REO Speedwagon, and Boston; particularly the overlong, indulgent guitar solos, pretentious lyrics, hyper-intense vocals, and bombastic stadium shows. If this was the present and future of rock, Los Lobos wanted nothing to do with it, as performers or fans.
But they changed their minds once they heard the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Ramones, the Germs and other groups that were classified as punk and New Wave in 1976-77. They were excited by punk rock for many of the same reasons as bored white teen-agers in West Covina or Van Nuys; it returned excitement, energy, and authenticity to a once-noble form of music. Rock and roll wasn’t dead after all, just as it wasn’t dead at the end of 1963, a few weeks before the Beatles flew into New York City. It had only seemed that way at the time.
One night in the late 1970s, at a Mexican restaurant somewhere in Orange County, where they had a regular gig, Los Lobos decided without any advance warning to perform amplified, electric rock in English for their second set. The audience was not pleased; they had come to hear acoustic folk songs in Spanish, as advertised. But in the spirit of punk rock and Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival in ’65, Los Lobos took the attitude that if these fans didn’t like it, too bad for them. The group could always recruit new fans, just as Dylan did when we went electric.
Los Lobos is known around the world for their ability to traverse a range of musical styles, recording albums of music primarily in Spanish, albums of music primarily in English, and albums alternating between the two languages. They have fans who don’t speak a word of Spanish, and fans who don’t speak a word of English. In 1987, Los Lobos recorded cover versions of several of the most popular songs by Ritchie Valens, including “Donna,” “La Bamba,” and “Come On, Let’s Go,” for the soundtrack of the biopic of Valens’s short life, also called “La Bamba.” As a result, they became popular in parts of the country where there were few Chicanos. The band members have said that the exposure from “La Bamba” could have provided them with a comfortable, lucrative career playing glorified oldies shows, like one of those “Las Vegas acts,” as a band member put it. Los Lobos not only rejected that option before it was formally presented to them, they deliberately recorded their next album, La Pistola y El Corazon (1989), entirely in Spanish, which alienated some of the white audience that had been attracted to the band because of the film “La Bamba.”
Through the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, few Chicanas were involved in the making of Chicano rock and roll. The exception was a group called the Sisters — Erzi Arvizu, Rosella Arvizu, and Mary Arvizu – which had a small local hit with a cover version of the r’n’b ballad “Gee Baby Gee” in 1964, at the height of the “girl group” craze in pop music. In their matching dresses and on-stage choreography, the Sisters emulated the Supremes, which had had several Top 10 records that same year. But the Sisters only lasted a year or so, and never had a follow up record of even minor consequence after “Gee Baby Gee.” At the end of the 1960s, Erzi joined El Chicano as lead singer; she was the only female contributor to the scene during the rise of Latin-influenced, political music. It would take the social, cultural, and musical influence of punk at the end of the 1970s to empower women to enter the once male-dominated genre of Chicano rock.
Teresa Covarrubias and Alice Armendariz, who called herself Alice Bag, leader of a band called the Bags, were figures of considerable importance in the thriving Los Angeles punk scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Neither of their groups (Teresa was lead singer of the Brat) left behind much of a recording history; one EP for the Brat and one album for the Bags. But this was typical; with the exception of the Clash and to some extent the Ramones, punk was hardly a hit-making factory. The Sex Pistols are the most influential group in the entire history of rock and roll with a mere one LP to their credit. The politics of punk, whether inherent or interpreted by outsiders, who in some cases had no idea what they were talking about, is a mix of left and right. In England, punk in its political incarnation represented an angry response to a brutal class system that essentially condemned the children of working class or unemployed parents to that same bleak fate. Anger at economic injustice is generally regarded as a left-wing concern, addressed with fiscal policies associated with liberalism. But at the same time, some punk bands in England and the United States adopted fascist and even Nazi symbols and rhetoric, which cannot just be dismissed as a desire to shock. If anything, the favorable references to fascism became a kind of offensive cliché.
For women, however, punk was not only a liberating force in popular music, but an equal opportunity employer. By consciously eschewing the traditional norms of feminine and masculine beauty, punk afforded aspiring, talented female performers the chance to pursue their goals without surrendering their souls. Because even men with spiky hair and piercings are still men, the punk scene was not free of sexism, especially in the after-hours pursuit of bedmates by band members, but it was much more enlightened than anything else in rock at the time.
Covarrubias and Alice Bag have often noted that in their pursuit of careers in music they not only had to contend with the sexism of rock, but also traditional ideas around the proper role of Mexican women. In taking their fashion – or anti-fashion – and musical cues from small clubs in dingy neighborhoods of East Hollywood, these women helped shatter an especially restrictive ethnic stereotype and make it easier for the next generation of Chicana performers such as Martha and Claudia Gonzalez and Lysa Flores to proceed on their own terms.
The Brat performed regularly at the Vex, a venue in East Los Angeles launched by the unlikeliest impresario in punk history, a nun by the name of Sister Karen Boccalero. Sister Karen, as she was known to the Chicano punk crowd, intended the space as a way to keep teen-agers off of the streets and away from trouble. As long as it served that purpose, she didn’t care if the Vex provided an outlet for artists that had a penchant for radical politics, anti-social behavior, and excessively loud rock played at excessively high speeds. Along with the Brat, such seminal Chicano punk bands as the Stains, the Plugz, and Los Illegals were regulars at the Vex.
In the 1990s, the word “Chicano” fell into disuse with the media, replaced by “Latino,” which more accurately described the range of immigrants from the “Latin world” now moving to Southern California. The Chicano generation of the 1960s had become a minority within their community, outnumbered by recent arrivals from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and, to a lesser extent, Honduras and Nicaragua. The newcomers had a significant impact on pop culture in Southern California, including the rise and subsequent popularity of Rock En Espanol, which didn’t exist as a separate category before. Some Chicano performers are contemptuous of the genre, seeing it as little more than the blatant copying of Anglo-American rock set to Spanish lyrics. Objective critics tend to be kinder, praising the music of many of the groups and celebrating the global cultural diversity they represent.
Today, the increasing and overdue attention paid to America’s Latino population is reflective of the recognition that it’s the fastest-growing minority group of the 21st century, and could be an outright majority by the 22nd. A growing population suggests a growing market, which has raised the financial expectations of the music industry. The goal is no longer to sign Latino acts as a curiosity, or to take a chance on something different, but to find the next Jennifer Lopez or Ricky Martin.
Considering that Southern California has more people of Mexican descent than any other part of the United States, there is every reason to think that that person or group could come from East Los Angeles, Pacoima, El Monte, or La Puente. Whether it happens, East LA and its environs have already sustained an indigenous, continuous music scene since the middle of the 1950s. From Ritchie Valens through Quetzal, the Romancers through Lysa Flores, Chicano performers built their own city on rock and roll.
Tom Waldman is co-author with David Reyes of “Land of a Thousand Dances: Chicano Rock ‘n’ Roll from Southern California“, published by University of New Mexico Press in 1998, 2nd edition, 2009. The book was the basis for the one-hour documentary “Chicano Rock! The Sounds of East LA,” broadcast nationally on PBS in December 2008. A musical about Cannibal and the Headhunters and the night they opened for the Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl is currently being developed
All photos courtesy of the David Reyes Collection.