During my freshman year at USC, my roommate and I scoured the internet for cheap concerts. As two East Coast transplants in Los Angeles, we were excited to explore the local music scene while hopefully skirting Ticketmaster fees and crowded venues.
After combing through Reddit and Instagram, we found the perfect place: The Smell. With only a $5 admission fee for a full night of music, we eagerly attended a Saturday night concert at the venue in early September 2019. Little did we know The Smell would become one of our favorite spots in L.A. and a staple weekend outing for the rest of the semester.
The Smell isn’t the typical music venue. It’s located Downtown in a nondescript back alley next to a dumpster. The double doors of the punk club open up to a dark space with intricate murals and graffiti decorating its brick walls. But what surprised me even more than the atmosphere of the venue was the predominantly Latinx audience.
Growing up in Baltimore, white acts and fans dominated the majority of the punk scene. But moving to L.A., with Latinx people making up nearly half of the population, this exposed me to the rich (and often overlooked) history of Latinx punk bands and their contributions to the genre.
Historically, the punk scene has been associated with white men. While there’s no denying that the popularity of bands like The Ramones, The Clash and The Sex Pistols was driven in part by the frustrations of the white working class in the ’70s, the overall image of punk music has been whitewashed.
Los Saicos, which formed in Lima, Peru in 1966, is widely considered one of the pioneering bands in punk music. The band put out songs with a raw, garage sound 10 years before punk took off in the United Kingdom and New York City, with some critics even crediting the group with inventing the genre. But frontman Erwin Flores, who helped write the group’s nihilistic lyrics for songs like “Demolición,” considered them a “predecessor to punk,” in a 2013 interview with Noisey.
But during the heyday of punk in the ’70s and early ’80s, Latinx bands in East L.A. began adopting their own DIY punk aesthetic. The center of the Latinx punk rock scene was at The Vex, a small club started by local Latinx bands eager to carve out a space for themselves. Bands such as The Zeros, who were known as the “Mexican Ramones,” The Plugz and The Brat played at the venue as well as backyard shows and other private parties.
These bands inspired a generation of Latinx rockers to sing about the plight of Chicanos (typically in Spanglish) and confronted stereotypes about their community. Jesus Velo, bass player for Los Illegals, said in an interview with Remezcla in 2016 that Latinx punk in the ’80s stemmed from frustration with inequality rather than outside punk influences like the Sex Pistols.
“We didn’t go home to our bedrooms after playing punk shows and jumping up and down and spitting beer at each other. We came home to the barrio and you heard gunshots,” Velo said.
But a vital part of East L.A.’s Latinx punk explosion was Alice Bag. While many consider people such as Patti Smith, Joan Jett and Kathleen Hanna to represent the pinnacle of women punk rockers, Bag deftly challenged machismo culture in the Latinx punk scene. Wearing pink dresses and heavy Chola makeup, her feminine appearance starkly contrasted her frenzied onstage performances. Bag’s unapologetic aggression alongside her embrace of femininity is an essential part of punk history and a pioneering force in the Riot grrrl movement.
While many elitist white rock critics have declared punk dead, it is very much alive in L.A. The scene now revolves primarily around challenging ideas of heteronormativity and misogyny in the Latinx community as well as contending with xenophobia and often grim socioeconomic realities. Although the coronavirus has put shows at places such as The Smell and backyard concerts on hold, the Latinx punk rock scene is sure to survive and evolve with its dedicated and innovative contemporaries.
Maria Eberhart is a sophomore writing about Latinx pop culture. Her column, “For Your Consideration,” ran every other Thursday.