Liz Alarcón: Maribel, have you ever been embarrassed about the music you like?
Maribel Quezada Smith: Yeah, especially growing up in the United States as an immigrant. I could never listen to my música en español like Mana and Shakira, which I loved. I never felt like I could listen to that with my friends from school. And then with my friends, I discovered hip hop and I would never listen to hip hop around my parents cause I was embarrassed. I didn’t think they would get it, and they would probably be a little freaked out by some of the wording. So yeah, I always felt like I was boxed in to what I could listen to in certain scenarios.
Liz Alarcón: I know what you mean. It’s kinda like some genres of music were not made for you, right?
Maribel Quezada Smith: Yeah, even like country sometimes I feel like I’m not allowed to say that I like. But I actually do really enjoy some country music.
Liz Alarcón: It’s like we’re in between two worlds, as we often are as Latinos, right? It’s like sometimes we really love our music and have people we can’t share it with and our friends can’t relate. But then sometimes it’s our parents that can’t relate. And we talk a lot about this on the Pulso team. We have a staffer who is really into EDM for example. And his parents didn’t get it. It’s kind of like as Latinos we’re boxed in, but obviously we don’t have to only like salsa and reggaeton.
Maribel Quezada Smith: And this is exactly what today’s story is about. Producer Yesica Balderrama also shares our experience. As a Latina who loved punk music, she always had a hard time finding her place, until she discovered a whole underground Latino punk scene hiding in New York City. And she takes us on a journey to the heart of it.
Yesica Balderrama: This past spring I went to a punk rock show in Bushwick, Brooklyn at the Market Hotel. It took place on the second floor of an old brick building. A little disco ball hung at the center of the ceiling in the small room. The stage lights focused on a modest wooden floored stage in front of windows that overlooked the J train platform. It smelled strongly of sweat and almost everyone wore studded black leather jackets. There was a DJ booth at the front and vendor tables lined the walls. I go to shows like this a lot but here something felt very different and I couldn’t quite tell what. I have been going to concerts since I was 15. Nothing else compares for me, live music means being immersed in a pool of sounds and sensations. Time and place cease to exist. I’m one with the crowd. I still remember the first show I ever went to, at South Street Seaport. The New York dolls played outdoors on a cool spring night against the inky backdrop of the Hudson River. As I, a petite fifteen-year old, tiptoed to look over the heads of crowd goers. As I tried not to stand awkwardly at the Market Hotel listening to the band’s play I realized why this show felt so different. This was the first time where the crowd, and the bands, looked like me. The room wasn’t full of only white men dressed in black, but it was full of Latinos & Latinas my age, the bands had spanish names and sang in spanish. I had stumbled into an underground Latino punk scene. So naturally I decided to explore this newfound subculture. The band that made the biggest impression on me that night was Kartel. Kartel is spelled with a, “K” not a “C.” They were the loudest fastest band at the show. I met them a few weeks later at another show they played in Ridgewood at Trans-Pecos. I spoke with them while the singer Lina worked the mixed drinks booth in the backyard. They were clad in leather, studs, piercings, and tattoos and they laughed and joked around with each other as I asked questions. I asked why they chose the name “Kartel.”
Lina Translation: We are the perfect example of migrants because we are all from different places. We present ourselves as, “Kartel” because people here associate our countries with drug trafficking, from Nepal to Colombia, or Mexico. So then we told ourselves if they are going to associate us with cocaine, let them associate that with our music, and that’s why we are Kartel.
Yesica Balderrama: The members are Mario, Lina, Roman, and two Nepalese musicians who declined to interview. Mario plays the guitar and immigrated from Brazil about a decade ago, Lina is the lead singer and came from Bogota, Colombia four years ago, and Roman is the drummer who came from Mexico city fifteen years ago. Ramon is undocumented and that is his alias. They talked about bands that inspired them in their countries to start playing. When I asked them why punk, Lina responded,
Lina Translation: In Colombia we sing more about our reality there, about cops, religion, a bunch of stuff. But the reality here is different. We can talk about what happens to us day-to-day here. The majority of us are immigrants. We have bonded a lot. So punk helps us come together to tell our stories from different points of view. We all have immigration stories.
Yesica Balderrama: Kartel is one of the most well known bands in the Latino punk scene on the east coast. Everyone else I spoke to seemed to know who they were, though this didn’t seem to get to their heads at all. I asked them why they came to America. They all looked at one another waiting for the other to reply. Finally, Lina spoke:
Lina Translation: It’s to get away from something? Fortunately, the punk scene here has made it possible to accomplish the things we have done. Work, everyone works, in cooking, construction, bars…etc. We have a supportive community. It’s been interesting to meet many people from so many places and to create a family.
Mario Translation: I work to send money to my dad and mom. Things we couldn’t do in Brazil because of money.
Yesica Balderrama: Mario is from a favela in Brazil where people have a monthly average income of $170 according to Rio on Watch. The small neighborhoods are often crime ridden. The bands in the niche Latino Punk scene have day jobs– they work to support themselves and sometimes their families in one of the most expensive cities in the world. Despite this, they still find time to make and play music. In this Latino Punk scene, there are many musicians who have been playing for over a decade. While the bands know each other, they receive little recognition outside of their own circle. Eduardo is a band member of Askeados and La Milagrosa. He is thirty-six years old and started playing guitar in middle school when he was thirteen. He identifies as Afro-Latino and moved from Puerto Rico about seven years ago. Like the members from Kartel, Eduardo shared his experiences about how his interest in punk began in his home country. He talked about the scene in Puerto Rico. He also recalled a heavy Spanish influence in punk music.
Eduardo Translation: I mostly listened to bands from Spain. Back then I didn’t know English. I found out about punk from a cassette by Puerto Rican band, “Lo Podrido.” I liked their sound, then my curiosity grew. I realized they sang about what mattered to me. I continued searching for live punk music until I found a place that played shows on Saturdays. It was a small community. There were only four to five bands I would say, and about forty to fifty people is the most that you saw at the shows.
Yesica Balderrama: Eduardo’s story sounded similar to mine. As a teenager I had to scour the internet to find the music I liked since punk isn’t something you are usually exposed to when growing up Latino. You definitely don’t hear it at quinceaneras, bautizos, or any type of parties. I downloaded songs from Limewire of questionable audio quality and with hilarious incorrect titles. I found dozens of musicians, like The Ramones, Blondie, and Patti Smith, and then Bikini Kill, Fugazi, the Descendants, X, and the Bad Brains. That night at Bushwick I met Mari, who is now a lawyer and organized shows in that same venue back in 2002. At first, Mari was embarrassed to disclose how long she had been part of the NYC scene. She was one year shy of turning 40 and still knew Latinos who played punk in the area. Since I had just discovered the scene, I asked her what it was like twenty years ago.
Eduardo Translation: Punk talked about things that happened to me. That inspired me to write my first songs. I grabbed a guitar I didn’t know how to play and tried to imitate those bands– the few bands I had listened to. They sang about people who felt marginalized and I felt like that. It wasn’t like commercial music that only talked about love, dancing, or other happy sentiments.
Yesica Balderrama: Punk gave Eduardo an outlet to make music about the injustices he saw. He found a family in others with similar life experiences– those who were also raised by a single parent and had an interest in social justice.
Eduardo Translation: The music doesn’t have any rules. If you make commercial music you have to make sure it appeals to many people so it sells. We do not have that pressure, we can talk about whatever we want. I see young people are starting to go to the shows. I want them to not feel discouraged, I want them to grab a notebook and write what they want, and learn how to play the guitar.
Yesica Balderrama: Eduardo was raised in a working class neighborhood. His father was an addict who was not a part of his life. Part of what made him feel alienated was his Afro-Latinidad. He talked about being Black in Puerto Rico versus being Black in America.
Eduardo Translation: I listened to songs about how society treated people of color like me differently, and how it’s much harder for people like me to progress. I felt prejudice from people in Puerto Rico, but it was here where I truly learned prejudice. I saw people of color were treated unfairly. They were called names. I saw people, not only people of color, but people that were against the undocumented. And I had not seen that before.
Yesica Balderrama: That night I also met Mari, who is now a lawyer and organized shows in Bushwick back in 2002. At first, Mari was embarrassed to disclose how long she had been part of the NYC scene. She is one year shy of turning 40 and still knows Latinos who played punk in the area. Since I had just discovered the scene, I asked her what it was like twenty years ago.
Mari: Back in the day, when I was in high school, I would have to go to Queens to go to an alternative show. There weren’t regular shows for our scene. In Manhattan at that point, there was ABC NO Rio, CBGBs, and all that stuff. There were people of color there, but they were still white dominant. Which is why I think it was cool to open up a space that was actually made by and created for people of color in this scene.
Yesica Balderrama: Mari witnessed the genre of punk evolve into what it is now.
Mari: Back then, there were scarce parties and now they’re everywhere. There’s more places to go now, more genres that have been mixed. I don’t know, like Mexican music or indigenous music, or African music mixed with punk. It’s beautiful, right? And the music that’s come out is a mix of the cultures that make up New York city and the punk cultures happen to be very colorful.
Yesica Balderrama: I’ve always felt dismayed by the lack of diversity in punk, and in some ways that made it difficult for me to connect, Since there aren’t many people like me, Latinos or other marginalized folks. Gary is also a Latino punk show organizer and musician who moved from NYC to Philly a few years ago. He noticed this from the beginning of his career, and is working to change that. He and his friends organized the “Latino Punk Festival,” which hosts monthly events with vendors, activities, and live music. For each event they have a theme to celebrate Latino culture– whether it’s Colombia, Ecuador, or Argentina.
Gary: I’ve been in the punk rock scene for almost 20 years now, touring all around the world. Basically like the bottom line is, metal and punk is pretty much just this suburban white guy thing. Whether you’re in South America, Central America or in Europe, you’re still, unfortunately from a global perspective, like you’re still kind of having to cater to those people. Right? So like people always think, especially Latinos, they think well we gotta sing in English.
Yesica Balderrama: Gary identifies as Ecuadorian from indigenous descent. He and his band members from Quelebras combine their traditional music, such as cumbia, folk, and afro-latino with punk to create their own blend.
Gary: Like we had started this project as far as like the festival, but then we even started our own. We play psychedelic cumbia and that’s becoming popular again in America. We wanted to do our own version of what we think is the most punk. Let’s throw a Latin punk band with native dance and like let’s throw in some radical queer shit. The spirit of what we are trying to do is not to see who’s dressing in the most studded jackets. We’re here to show you that we are the resistance. We as a people would not be here without the fight and the struggle. That kind of radical punk spirit.
Yesica Balderrama: Gary’s indigenous background inspired him with the idea to “decolonize” punk. This is representative of a larger social movement taking place among Latinos who are reclaiming their cultural indigenous ancestry. I’m a Mexican undocumented immigrant with DACA. I have Nahua ancestry from my maternal grandparents. They were some of the few Nahuatl speakers left in our hometown. We talked about how we wanted to see more people like ourselves represented in the genre and at shows.
Gary: But like I said, it’s predominantly a white Anglo type of thing. Things started changing in America leading up to the pandemic. It’s important for us with Latin Punk Fest to remind folks that, at the end of the day, it’s about anti-racism, it’s about anti-capitalism, it’s about anti-colonialism. These are all the same basic things that everybody’s screaming about in their streets right now. The narrative is that we are taking the torch now and saying, here’s what we wanna see. More women, more trans, more queer punk stuff.
Yesica Balderrama: Like me, Sebastian is also undocumented. Sebastian came here from Mexico twenty-two years ago and has been a part of the Latino punk scene in NYC for over ten years. I wanted to know what the scene was like when he started. Not having citizenship impacts every area of your life: your psyche, your way of living and thinking. I asked what role this played in his work.
Sebastian Translation: The songs are a form of protest but they are based on my personal experiences, about things that can happen to every person, like losing a loved one, our brothers who die crossing the border, and things like that. We are lucky to be here, but many don’t make it across the border.
Yesica Balderrama: Sebastian is a member of the band Askeados. In Spanish it means, “disgusted.” They chose that name to describe how they felt about politics in America. He writes song lyrics and plays guitar.
Sebastian Translation: The punk scene goes back years. There weren’t Latino bands back then like there are today. There were few Latino bands, maybe two or three.
Yesica Balderrama: Sebastian’s experience deeply resonated with me. I could relate to eurocentric punk when it spoke about larger themes of life such as love and politics, but not when it came to experiences of Latino culture. Punk started as a way to express political concerns back in the 60s and 70s. For Latinos immigration, assimilation, the struggle for democracy, and indigenous rights are central topics that presently affect our communities.
Sebastian Translation: The topic of immigration is for those of us who left our home countries. We miss the families we left behind.
Yesica Balderrama: Sebastian talked about punk being a form of “protest” against the injustices our communities face in Latin America and the United States. He works long hours to be able to make a living.
Sebastian Translation: Here life is back and forth between work and home. We love when the weekend comes– we can get together for band practice, to express what we feel and think musically. That’s why we chose punk. It’s a music genre with a lot of honesty.
Yesica Balderrama: Speaking to all of these band members and attending these shows brought me closer to my community. I heard our stories represented in a way I had not heard before. I saw another side of punk I didn’t know existed. I saw what punk could be if there was more diversity and representation in it– the new genres of music that evolved and were created to reconcile our cultures within a historically eurocentric space of music. Kartel, Demencia Alkolika, Askeados, and others continue to work hard to carve a space for Latinos in punk. Don’t get me wrong, past and current mainstream punk music is great, I just want to hear our cultures represented. The next time a petite 15 year old Latina is tiptoeing over the crowd to get a glimpse of her favorite band, I want her to see someone who looks like her, so she knows that there is a space there for her too.