I have to recruit Floyd to carry the projector the three long blocks between my car and Mission Records, tearing him away from the game on the television above the bar. (I have about three muscles and the sum of these is not enough for the task at hand.) Sean had called from work to ask me to come by the Maximumrocknroll compound and pick up the equipment for the screening; and as Floyd cheerfully hoists the projector out of the trunk, I’m wondering how the kids will take to the punk rock pedagogy to come.
But the Mission Records screening is a rare occasion. For once, for the first time in a long while, I feel comfortable with my punk rock surroundings. A dark, somewhat dank back room, furnished with ratty couches and much-scrawled walls? Perfect. With the store space quickly filling up for the show, Martin arrives and we weigh the options: VCR or projector? Shower curtain or–? The boy behind the counter is helpful and solicitous; he rummages in the back room and excavates from a seeming junk heap a working screen, jury-rigs the sound with a series of cords and power strips. The room fills with punk and indie kids settling on flat cushions and concrete floors in this, a communal living room, in front of the blank white screen.
Mas Alla de Los Gritos / Beyond the Screams is a half-hour video documentary about Chicano/Latino participation in U.S. punk and hardcore, a statement which hardly begins to encapsulate the project begun here. Bracketed by the early East L.A. punk scene (featuring too-short interviews with Alice Armendariz from The Bags and Teresa Covarrubias from The Brat) and ’90s U.S. hardcore, Martin Sorrondeguy traces the historical trajectory of Chicano/Latino punk rock and more, its always-emergent body politic, with brilliant skill.
In voice-over (as boys in a pit mosh in slow motion), Martin outlines the premise of Mas Alla: “The Latino punk scene in the early ’90s really exploded because all of a sudden we had a hell of a lot to sing about. What started happening politically in the U.S. pissed us off so much, and we were feeling targeted and we were feeling cornered as a community that we began writing songs about it.”
As such, Mas Alla is incredibly moving and effective, and on a number of levels immediate and far-reaching. Well-edited interviews, stills and show footage make for a dense but riveting thirty-minute record of Chicano/Latino participation in punk rock, indexed here as a culturally vital and politicized counterpublic, a kind of punk rock “teaching machine.” Members from Subsistencia, Kontra Attaque, Bread and Circuits, Los Crudos and Huasipungo discuss the political nature of their everyday lives and art, the implications of singing in Spanish and dialoguing at shows, and the mechanisms of both survival and insurgency. Newsreel clips of border patrol and police brutality are made that much more harrowing by Revolucion X’s snarl-delivered cynicism, the words scrolling across a funereal black screen: “Killing Mexicans is too much fun!” Latin American dictatorships, NAFTA, a slew of anti-immigrant measures fuel the gut-level rage and critical impetus; corresponding resistance movements inform this unabashedly leftist analysis of punk as passionate politics. With all the revisionist timelines of punk rock being published, this is an important recovery and contextualization of otherwise hidden histories and unacknowledged influences. The result is a collective self-portrait of art as activism with transnational ramifications and impressive vision.
But while Mas Alla posits punk rock as a potentially transcendent subculture from which radical politics easily find root and emerge, I’m not so sure. No, check that: I’m positive. Punk rock is not, after all, a “neutral” space and rebellion not a “neutral” quality; it is weighted with ideological underpinnings, cumulative histories and certain modes of operation and valuation, all of which bear close interrogation. The political connections made in the video, I think, have less to do with an inherent punk rock sensibility and more to do with the articulate, impassioned individuals making those connections. That is, and it has to be asked: what is it about punk rock that requires an intervention like Mas Alla in the first place?
Or as Michelle Christine Gonzales wryly notes in Mas Alla: “People in the punk scene are notorious for saying ‘racism sucks,’ but when it comes down to having friends of color, it’s cool until they open their big mouths. There are desirable people of color and there are undesirable people of color, and if you’re too brown or too down, then you’re going to piss somebody off or make somebody uncomfortable.”
And so is it too much to ask for, punk kids respectfully engaging an important intervention like Mas Alla is –? The Mission Records screening feels good; afterward, there is some discussion, much praise, and an update on dangerous youth crime bills, the struggle to establish a local queer youth shelter, and future benefit shows and rallies. It feels like how I wish punk rock would, all the time. But the night before at the Gilman screening, the band following the video began tuning as the last of the credits were rolling across Arwen’s shower curtain, nailed to the wall, leaving no room for discussion. Did you get that? Too anxious to rock out, white boys climbed on stage and curtailed the possibility of dialogue with their noisy feedback and chord progressions. Had they been waiting for the end sequence, impatient and bored? How many others, too, arms crossed and unmoved? Smoking cigarettes on the sidewalk outside, Bianca and Chandra tell me they heard muttering, a few snickers, and make bitter comments about white people.
To be truthful, it might be too late to save me. Or more, too late to save punk rock for me.
I still have what I consider to be punk-rock reflex. I take unambiguous pleasure in xerox machines, raucous vocals, house shows and more; I can’t begin to explain the why or how of it. It baffles and amazes friends and sometimes even me, in my more critical moments. So at the same time punk rock is not a home, nor is it a space from which I might take a stand.
That is, my identification is precarious, partial and proceeds at pace with my simultaneous deprogramming. (It’s true, I talk myself out of it all the time.) I’m always one step away from walking out, like I did before. Once, when a straight, white punk boy wrote a song about wanting to rape me or now, thinking about this. And it is not a coincidence but a small part of a far-flung pattern that on the zinesters list-serv, a white girl with a zine and a mail order wants to know what’s wrong with “white pride,” and argues black nationalism is “just like Hitler.” Worse, others agree and want to know, too, why people of color are always making whites “feel bad.” (These missives invade the safety of my living room by way of my computer, and I can only feel as if I have been broken into.) And why would I want to be in a space in which such “opinions” are so blithely engaged, as if I didn’t get enough of it everywhere else in the world that I need to argue too, in this more intimate space I once held so much closer?
Thumbing through my cache of punk rock propaganda reminds me why I became an expatriate in the first place, why I continue to hold it at arm’s length. Nor is this simply a comment on race, as if I could even imagine race as a discrete category apart from others, like cans in a cupboard (my usual analogy). There is an unmistakable continuum I could trace, like a spiderweb or a breadcrumb trail, winding (or blanketing, maybe) across the landscape of punk rock cultural and political production. “Disco is for blacks and homosexuals,” a 1979 fanzine sneers; maybe it’s no accident that it was called Final Solution. “The United Negro College Fund is a sublime absurdity,” lambasts a Hitlist magazine columnist in this new year, and I remember that the same writer once argued feminists were too. There are the presumptuous disavowals of both racism (“punk is anti-racist”) and race (“there is no race but the human race”), familiar reformulations repeated when gender or class or sexuality or borders are invoked. And once swastikas were worn as accessories, could the iconic manipulation of Third World suffering for record sleeves and gatefolds be far behind? (In this sense, punk rock follows in the tradition of the white European avant-garde and its foundational myth of originality and refusal of accountability, but that’s a whole other story.) Indie rock girls ask why gays and lesbians want “special rights,” punk boys rape or beat girlfriends and acquaintances, and in between there are the innumerable insults, the slips of tongues, and the violent gestures.
And it need not be an extreme example. Recently I interviewed Iraya Robles and Gary Fembot from the defunct queer-pop quartet Sta-Prest, nesting in my living room to dialogue about punk, performance, pop and politics; they arrive armed with a pair of leather pants (for me) and a tape recorder (Mark took his on tour). The Sta-Prest cadre has always been particularly astute when deconstructing liberal cultural politics, and Iraya makes with the stinging one-liners, her special skill. A queer Filipina mestiza with political consciousness tucked into her jumpsuit pockets, she makes a deprecating gesture and quips, “Beck ‘discovered’ mutations only a few years ago, I’ve been a mutation all my life.” (I nod and giggle wickedly.) Gary describes doing the “white on white,” the name they’ve given to a tactic of white accountability and consciousness-raising. I ask for a scenario and he gives me the simultaneously incredulous and frustrated stare that is so Gary and says, with force, “It’s not okay for a white boy to pretend to channel a black slave picking okra in a field.”
I tally the evidence like calculus; it gets to be too much to ignore, overwhelming. It takes something like Mas Alla to pull me out of the muck, even if just for a little while, long enough to catch my breath before wading back into the fray. And I do have punk rock allies and I respect and appreciate enormously all their efforts to turn the tide, to argue for a more radically democratic subcultural space than what we’ve got now. Still, many have left punk rock somewhere in the dust and detritus, Iraya and Gary included, and who can blame them? For their political and personal integrity, I am infinitely grateful. (Thank you.)
Punk rock proves to be as contentious a cultural, political and social sphere as any other, including a national one. As such, punk rock is not an exception to the rule, to the so-called “mainstream,” and neither are punk rockers. This (and I gesture widely) is yet another pop-culture battlefield on which struggles for power and meaning are fought, hardly an “alternative” but a subsidiary or more, a parallel public.
And neither do I feel community here: I used to believe but I don’t any longer. After all, “community” is a double-edged sword, a formation dependent on a clear-cut perimeter, borders that can be defended and enforced. In a sense, a community operates with qualifications for inclusion and more, criteria for exclusion; so my relationship with punk rock is not like yours: we are not all “punk” the same and some punks are more equal than others.
Revisiting Bikini Kill zine, some things feel far too familiar: “And see, I have come to the conclusion that we are banging our heads against a big wall. We are trying to find that magic word that will change their minds, make them see. We are trying to fit through the doors of a clubhouse that is smelly and gross inside anyways. We only want in cuz we’ve been taught to want it. We change ourselves to fit, alter what we say, how we say it, just hoping, hoping they will change their rules.”
(And the rules have not changed, last time I checked the book.)
It’s not just a matter of demographics; or as Sta-Prest might have it, “Let’s be friendly with our friends / I hardly know anyone who reflects / the population in my head.” It’s not that simple. Discourses focused on exclusion often push for “inclusion” as a solution, but meanwhile recruitment or “discovery” (“Look, there’s a person of color!”) is hardly an adequate response. Or as South Asian feminist theorist Chandra Mohanty argues, “The central issue is not one of merely acknowledging difference,” but how and which differences are recognized and engaged.
Does my presence necessarily or automatically critique punk rock hegemony? Did the presence of women in punk rock mean that riot grrrl did not fundamentally tear at the social fabric of unquestioned masculinity and privilege in punk? Does the fact of Latino or Asian American or black or queer participation within the span of punk rock history negate the mountainous evidence of racisms and homophobia? (Answer to all of the above: NO.) Without downplaying the complex acrobatics of identifying, what are the terms and logic of inclusion? What do I have to look like, act like, speak like, in order that I might become one of the gang? Or consider: do you read my presence as a reaffirmation (to your relief) of your punk rock (and Americanist) bootstrap ideology of exceptionalism and self-made individuals? “Oh, she’s different than the others.” (That’s not my idea of a compliment.)
Iraya and I have gone over this before, a million times and even across thousands of miles. And while I continue to believe that the ways we took punk rock and translated it through our experiences and politics as colored queer girls had legitimacy, resonance, and meaning, our identification with punk rock was (is) an incomplete circuit. There is still the contradiction and the loss we experienced in translation, and what could make up for that?
So honestly, I’m tired of “discovering” myself in punk rock, over and over. It gets me nowhere. There is a difference between affirming an identity within punk rock parameters (“I’m a queer Asian girl and punk rock! You can do it too!”) and thinking critically about the allowances and limitations of one’s mobility through the world, and I’d rather the latter. The first gets too slippery, too unwieldy when uncomplicated, and the second allows me to wonder about power and hegemony and social and psychic space. Does it matter that I might be rare or does it matter more that I want to destroy punk rock?
There is something to the riot grrrl formula that still appeals, that needs reproducing, again and again. That is, if punk rock is not a “safe space” for me, why should it be for you?