Editor’s Note: This article is the second in a four-part series about artists and art movements in Los Angeles and it was made possible by a grant provided by the Sam Francis Foundation.
LOS ANGELES — In 1977, all-female punk band the Bags, led by Alice Armendariz (aka Alice Bag), was interviewed by the zine Slash. The Bags conducted the interview with brown paper bags over their heads. Even in print, the interviewer’s irritation is palpable. “Are you ugly?” the interviewer goads, then with frustration, “Will you ever take off the bags?” The Bags reply, “Yeah, when we reach the point that it does not matter anymore.”
The Bags’s refusal to be defined is a metaphor for Chicanx punk in Los Angeles. Their call to action sets the groundwork for how Chicanx artists used music, performance, and visual art to express their dissent of racism, urban decay, global capitalism, Reaganomics, gender violence, and xenophobia. We won’t stop the questioning of racial and gender inequality, the Bags seem to assert, until it stops being necessary to do so.
In his 1979 book Subculture: The Meaning of Style, Dick Hebdige insists that subcultures are not just defined by their products, but by the process of their becoming. Product, as in the nihilistic and performative pessimism of the Bags, Vaginal Davis, and Nervous Gender. Process, as in the conditions in Los Angeles that necessitated the Chicanx punk movement of the late 1970s and early 1980s.
1977 was a middle-child year for a molting Los Angeles, caught between the youth activism of the 1960s East LA school walkouts (in which Chicano students protested against discrimination in their schools, and lack of culturally relevant curricula), the rise of the Chicano Movement, and the mounting poverty, unemployment, and racial discrimination that marked the 1980s Reagan years. Working-class youth of color contended with a new reality, one in which their worlds were simultaneously becoming large and smaller due to the effects of global capitalism. Young punks awakened to subcultural movements happening in Latin America, connecting their parallel struggles against nationalism and poverty. As a result of mass privatization and its subsequent foreign trade policies, Los Angeles de-industrialized overnight, disproportionately putting African American and Latinx laborers out of work. Chicanx punks responded to this local waning of resources and widening of global capitalism by creating their own sonic universe, one that held room for multiculturalism and its contradictions.
Tropics of Desire author Jose Quiroga ascribes radical power to invisibility. In describing a 1993 Pride parade in Buenos Aires in which marchers wore masks, he writes, “The space of the mask goes beyond the certainties of assumed identities; it aims, on the contrary, to blur them.” Though a short-lived practice in the band’s history, the Bags’s commitment to wearing their paper bags in the Slash interview thwarted any assumptions about their gender, cultural, or racial identities.
These tactics are a result of many Chicana punks’ lived experiences being excluded from the cultural and gender movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Both Alice Bag and Teresa Covarrubias of the Brat have spoken publicly about turning to punk because their feminist stances were rejected by the greater Latinx community and their cultural identity was dismissed within mainstream, white feminism. As Michelle Habell-Pallán writes in her 2005 essay “Soy Punkera y Que?”, “each [woman] was attracted to the punk subculture because it was a place where she could reimagine the world she lived in; it was a place where she could see herself as an empowered subject.” Chicana punks re-imagined punk as a possible utopia, bending its aesthetics to meet their aims.
As Quiroga writes, if subjugated populations don’t fight back — if they reach a “truce” with their subjugators — they risk selling their identities. Vaginal Davis, front-woman for LA bands resisted any truce through defiant humor and social critique. An inter-sex multimedia artist from South Central LA born to a Black Creole mother and Mexican Jewish father (a result of a one-time encounter at a Ray Charles concert), Vaginal Davis’s life and evolution as an artist is the stuff of LA legend. Naming herself after activist Angela Davis, Vaginal’s music, performance, zine-making, spoken word, and videos interrogate fixed notions of identity.
“I was always too gay for the punks and too punk for the gays,” Davis told Cyrus Grace Dunham in a 2015 New Yorker interview. Davis was crowned the queen of “terrorist drag” by queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz, who wrote of the artist, “Davis’s political drag is about creating an uneasiness in desire, which works to confound and subvert the social fabric… performing the nation’s internal terrors around race, gender, and sexuality.” Raised between the Jordan Downs projects in Watts and the Ramona Gardens Projects in East LA, Davis entered her creative practice with eyes wide open to the utopian fallacy of Los Angeles. “When you’re born there, you see through it,” the now Berlin-based artist told Muñoz in a 2012 interview, “It’s one of the most segregated cities.”
Nervous Gender, known for their hybrid performance art concerts, leaned into the social chaos and uncertainty of living in Los Angeles. Creating situations of sonic dissonance and audiovisual discomfort, Nervous Gender simulated the very restrictive conditions — urban displacement and decay, racial discrimination, and homophobia — that spawned Chicanx punk. In his essay “‘People Think We’re Weird ’Cause We’re Queer’: Art Meets Punk in Los Angeles,” Colin Gunckel describes a performance in which Nervous Gender donned all-white outfits and doused their audience in white light to produce a “blinding visual counterpoint to the aural assault.” One could interpret the piece as wiping the audience — and themselves — clean with this aesthetic “assault.”
The sensory shock of Nervous Gender’s performances served as both political statement and cathartic release. Keenly aware of the growing conditions of systematic oppression in Los Angeles, Chicanx punks like Nervous Gender looked for modes of liberation through the performance of freedom. These “perform-antics,” as described in Performing the US Latino and Latina Borderlands, served to temporarily exorcise punks of color from their frustration and racial melancholy.
LA punk band Los Illegals connected the systematic oppression they witnessed in LA’s streets to the rising political repression in Latin America. Los Illegals was founded in 1979 by vocalist and keyboardist Willie Herrón, also a member of the arts collective Asco, and activist and bassist Jesus Velo. Ostracized by white Hollywood glam and punk scenes, Herrón and Velo struck a deal with two Franciscan nuns to start a music space in East LA, Club Vex. Backed by community arts space Self Help Graphics, the Vex became known for showcasing nuanced modes of Chicanx creativity, hosting bands like the Undertakers, Stains, the Bags, and the Brat.
Los Illegals compared the everyday social conditions that Chicanxs faced to inequality and dictatorship in Latin America. “[W]e started watching what other Latino kids were doing in other parts of Latin America,” Velo told KCET, “and they were pretty much stuck in a fit too. Nowhere to go.” Bilingual songs like “El Lay,” which describes the plight of immigrants in LA, tether the concerns of punk to global, anti-Imperialist struggles, exposing them as pieces of the same capitalist machinery. Other songs like “We Don’t Need a Tan” position Chicanx culture as integral to LA identity formation: “We’ve been here forever. We paid for this town.”
Many of these groups (in particular Alice Bag and Los Illegals) are still active, and the influence of LA Chicanx punk lives on. New bands like Causa and Futura take on Chicanx punk’s legacy of social critique. Los Angeles photographer Amina Cruz documents radical spaces like Club sCUM, a monthly East LA queer punk party organized by Rudy Bleu and Hex Ray which in many ways picks up where Club Vex left off. Committed to kinship, sCUM has featured performers and artists such as Rafa Esparza, Guadalupe Rosales, San Cha, and Sebastian Hernández, and organized queer youth workshops in zine-making, photography, DJing, and drag. Similar to Los Illegals, Cruz highlights transcontinental connections among subcultures by also photographing punk scenes from Colombia to Mexico.
These efforts pushed Latinx art beyond oversimplified calls for solidarity or a glorified homogenous past, and into generative strategies of pessimism that spoke to the urgency and desperation of the times. Chicanx punk also presented a blueprint for community-making through the arts while understanding that these spaces of kinship are continuously in flux. This fluidity of belonging speaks to a particular diasporic entitlement — the right to be both from here and from there, forever re-mapping cultural location.
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The Bags weren’t all-female… there were two women (Alice and Patricia) and only Alice was Latinx.
These truths will destroy the narrative!!
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