Monday, February 26, 2018

Mexican Metalheads, Pilsen Punx & Little Village Hardcore: DIY Music & Chicago's southwest side

Ska band Bombflower performs at Slob City, a DIY house venue in Little Village

Photo by Heriberto Gallegos of Glegoz Photography

My relationship with “Do It Yourself” (DIY) music communities is one that spans about six years and a variety of different musical genres. When I lived in Aurora, a suburb about 30 miles west of Chicago, I began getting involved in DIY punk, pop punk, and rock shows across the suburbs when I was 14 years old. I would attend punk and metal shows in the city whenever I was able to catch a ride with older friends who had access to cars. The disparity between the suburban and city music scenes was immense. The suburban pop punk scene was comprised of predominantly white men in their mid-20’s, and white women ranging from the ages of 15-24. My initial perceptions of the Chicago DIY scene were that the city had more DIY spaces, a greater variety of bands, and a more diverse and welcoming crowd than the suburbs. After moving to Chicago in the summer of 2016, I began regularly attending DIY punk, metal, and hardcore shows. The majority of the shows I attended were hosted at spaces on the city’s southwest side in neighborhoods that are predominantly Hispanic/Latinx, such as Pilsen, Little Village, and McKinley Park.

The racial composition of these DIY shows is usually about 60-70 percent Hispanic/Latinx, 30-40 percent white, and about 10 percent African American, Asian, or other races. While it would make sense that shows hosted in Hispanic neighborhoods would draw a large Hispanic crowd, it seemed impossible that all of Chicago’s Hispanic/Latinx punks and metalheads resided in the Lower West Side. After forming social connections with many Hispanic/Latinx people in the DIY scene, I learned that while some of them did live in Lower West Side neighborhoods, many of them did not. This prompted me to research two separate, but interrelated questions: why, and how, are Chicago’s Hispanic neighborhoods harboring successful DIY punk, metal, and hardcore communities? Secondly, why are so many Hispanics/Latinx people in Chicago drawn to these genres of music?
Hardcore band Through N Through performs at Slob City

Photo by Eddy Garcia

After closely observing a mixed genre DIY show in Pilsen, interviewing fans and musicians, and collecting demographic data from 14 people active in Chicago’s DIY scene, three main factors emerged that could explain why DIY punk, metal, and hardcore shows are flourishing in Chicago’s southwest Hispanic/Latinx neighborhoods. Geographic location, the neighborhood dynamics of low-income, minority communities, and the cultural expectations that many Hispanic/Latinx households place on their children appear to be the three strongest factors in creating Chicago’s thriving DIY punk, metal, and hardcore scenes.

On January 28th,  2018, I observed a show at a popular DIY venue in Pilsen known as the Fallout, located at the intersection of Cermak Ave., Ashland Ave., and Blue Island Ave. The event included seven bands; one ska punk, three punk, and three metal; five DJ sets, and seven artist booths. The show drew a large crowd of over 150 people, and approximately 60 percent of those people were Hispanic/Latinx, even though five of the seven bands were predominantly, or completely, white. The rest of the crowd was approximately 30-35 percent white and five to 10 percent Asian or African American.
Fans watch skaters at a DIY Skate Show at the Fallout

Photo by Heriberto Gallegos of Glegoz Photography

Geographic location is of utmost importance in determining the success of a DIY show. Many shows on the Lower West Side are easily accessible by Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) buses and trains. For example, patrons wishing to attend a show at the Fallout can get dropped at the corner by the Cermak (21) bus, which runs east and west through Cicero, a largely Hispanic working-class suburb, and Little Village, a largely Hispanic Chicago neighborhood. The Fallout is also accessible by the Ashland (9) bus, which runs north and south, and is a 10 to 15-minute walk from the 18th St. pink line, which runs southwest from Chicago’s downtown Loop.

Proximity to the CTA is crucial to the success of DIY shows because patrons come from all over the city. Of the 14 people I surveyed, 12 identified themselves as either Hispanic, Mexican, Latinx, or a combination of the three. Four of those 12 lived on the North side, three lived in Cicero, three lived in Humboldt Park, and two lived in the Lower West Side. Accessible, cost-effective transportation plays an important role in the DIY scene because it allows teenagers with meager disposable incomes and low-income people who may not have cars to easily get to and from a show.
Skyscrapers of downtown Chicago seen from 18th & Damen in Pilsen

Photo by Nikki Roberts

Other aspects related to the geography of neighborhoods, such as the variation in property values, shape successful DIY music communities. On the North side, there are seldom empty lots or buildings because property values are much higher than on the city’s South and West sides. Higher property values mean that empty space is quickly snatched up by real estate developers and retailers because land can be flipped for profit; lower property values on the South side mean smaller returns for real estate developers. This lack of property investment manifests itself as vacant lots, abandoned storefronts, and empty warehouses. These spaces are often turned into thriving DIY venues for local music and art, thus creating an “underground” network of venues on Chicago’s South and Lower West sides.

A neighborhood’s community-police relationship and crime rates are other factors that allow Hispanic communities to foster successful DIY communities. For an underground scene that functions by hosting events at illegitimate venues, the relationship between the venue’s neighborhood and the police determines if a show will thrive or be shut down by law enforcement. During an interview with Lupe Espinoza, a 21-year-old Hispanic woman from Bridgeport who has been promoting DIY shows for over three years, Espinoza argued that “the shows are better on the South side…because the neighborhoods are ‘ghetto’ enough to not get cops coming by all the time.” Indeed, it would seem the Chicago Police Department (CPD) officers stationed in Pilsen may have more to worry about than an unregulated DIY show; in 2017, there were 590 counts of assault, 478 counts of theft, and there have been two shootings just one month in to 2018. A lack of concern from CPD allows chaotic, rowdy DIY shows to flourish on the city’s southwest side.

Chicago’s Lower West Side is supportive of DIY music communities because its access to transportation, property values, and police officers create an environment that not only allows, but also turns a blind eye to, chaotic DIY shows. However, even though the Lower West Side is predominantly Hispanic, this still does not explain why Hispanic/Latinx people are drawn to these sub-genres of rock music.

Punk band Death of Self performs at La Bodega,
a DIY skate space in Little Village

Photo by Yasmine Esparza

When conducting interviews with fans and musicians in Chicago’s DIY punk, metal, and hardcore scenes, the Hispanic/Latinx people I spoke to all talked about similar dynamics that drew them to shows on the southwest side that weren’t solely about the sound and style of the music itself. The most influential factors that emerged through these interviews were income levels, histories of violence and oppression, and family expectations and values.

Nine of the 14 people I surveyed reported their annual incomes. Of these nine, five reported annual incomes of less than $30,000, and the average annual income of the nine people was $38, 571.        Punk’s bare bones, DIY attitude makes it more accessible for people with fewer resources. The show at the Fallout had a cover charge of just $8. While this was a bit pricier than most DIY shows, it was certainly cheaper than a cover charge at an established venue.

In an interview with Salvador Martinez, a 21-year-old Hispanic male from Cicero and the vocalist of local hardcore band XEUTHANIZEDX, Martinez argued that the genres of punk and metal are more accepting of people from working class and low-income backgrounds than other genres of music.

“With punk and metal, you don't have to have the most elegant shit.  So that’s why I feel more lower income kids could identify with it.  Rap could be more about flexing and living a crazy life that not a lot of people can relate to…punk bands are aggressive and more politically oriented; a lot of the poorer people can relate,” said Martinez.

Martinez performs with XEUTHANIZEDX
at Toastamania: Halloween Havok at the Fallout

Photo by LEAP Photography

The minimalism of Chicago’s punk, metal, and hardcore scenes explains why many low-income Hispanic/Latinx people are attracted to DIY shows. However, if this is accepted to be true, one thing I struggled to understand was why the same phenomenon isn’t occurring in lower income African American communities. Where are the black punk scenes in Bronzeville? Why aren’t there DIY metal or hardcore shows in Garfield Park?

I asked these questions to Jose Casas, a Latino male from Little Village, who now resides in Cicero, Illinois. Casas is the guitarist and one of the founders of Los Crudos, perhaps Chicago’s best-known Hispanic/Latinx punk rock group. When Los Crudos was formed in 1991, Casas said that there was a flourishing hip hop and house music scene, but a DIY punk scene was virtually non-existent in Pilsen and Little Village. To him, punk rock was a way to empower himself and to gain self-respect; it was a way to communicate and express the pain and oppression that he, his family, and his fellow band members experienced as people of color, through music.
Los Crudos performs at 924 Gilman in Berkley, CA
Casas is pictured on far left

Photo by East Bay Express

 “African Americans are Americans. [Latin Americans] yeah, we’re not black, but we’re not white…Latin punks, Mexican metalheads...they go towards metal, towards punk, instead of writing political ethnic music [from] their own backgrounds: rancheras,    cumbias. That was asked to me and confronted to me a lot when I first started my band. ‘Why you playing that white boy music?’ Not from my parents, but from other people thatwere in my peer group who were studying to be professionals. They said, ‘if you’re going to be fighting that cultural battle, then why you playing that white boy music?’ Because we’re American. Because it’s also our rebellion,” said Casas.

When Los Crudos began playing shows on the southwest side, Casas reported that the racial composition of DIY shows was “50 percent white and 50 percent other races.” One thing that set Los Crudos apart from other punk bands was their lyrics. In a musical genre dominated by white Americans, Crudos only writes and performs their lyrics in Spanish. Casas explained that this was a subtle rebellion; the band partially assimilated to American society by playing “white boy music,” but retained their culture by performing music in their native language. Casas explained that, to him, this was only fitting. Some topics, such as pain, corrupt politics, and teenage confusion, could only be expressed properly in Spanish, a language that invokes feelings of comfort for him.

The ability to utilize the genres of punk, metal, and hardcore as a form of expression and rebellion was also a reoccurring theme throughout my interviewing process. Espinoza, the woman from Bridgeport, told me that “Hispanics go through so much struggle that they actually use music as a form of expression, which calls for better moshing and better
Ska band The Land before Tim provokes a
"wall of death" mosh pit at the Fallout

Photo by LEAP Photography

 As many punks and metalheads will argue, aggressive moshing is considered an acceptable outlet for releasing the stress and anger that is built up inside them; anger that often comes from systematic and personal oppression. Espinoza’s assertion that Latinx/Hispanic people have “better moshing” may stem from the fact that these ethnic groups that have been opressed and marginalized during their entire history of immigration and migration to the United States, which may cause them to feel more anger and act aggressively in mosh pits at local shows.

To Casas and Espinoza, punk and metal can be viewed as vessels for rebellion, not just against oppression, but also against family expectations. Only three of the 12 Hispanic/Latinx people to take my survey reported having religious affiliations; of these three, 67 percent were Christian or Roman Catholic. Espinoza explained that in traditional Hispanic Catholic households, punk rock is considered a more acceptable form of rebellion for young people than criminal or violent behavior. Espinoza’s statement also touches on why she believes DIY communities are more popular for rebellious Hispanics than for other rebellious young people of color, such as African Americans.  

            “Within black households, being a ‘rocker’ is way more frowned upon than in Mexican households. Mexicans wanna rebel against their usually Catholic traditional family, so they turn to rock or gangs. It’s half and half.”

The conclusions I presented came from extensive field research, interviews with Hispanic/Latinx people, and demographic survey data. However, it is important to recognize that many other factors not mentioned in this analysis can also shape successful DIY music communities. Additionally, the conclusions I drew from my interviews may only be representative of the people I spoke to; other Hispanic/Latinx people may cite different, or even oppositional, reasons for attending DIY shows and enjoying rock music.

Many factors contribute to whether a DIY show will be successful, what kind of crowd it will draw, and whether a show will be a one-off exception or expand into a flourishing community. From my research, I believe that geographic and neighborhood influences, such as proximity to transportation, the emergence of potential DIY spaces, and police relationships, determine if a community is fit to host DIY shows and if they will be easily accessible to the DIY community. Cultural and societal factors, such as income levels, family norms, and racial oppression, may draw many Hispanic/Latinx people to subgenres of rock music. When these two groups of circumstances align, as they often do in Chicago’s Hispanic/Latinx southwest neighborhoods, the result is thriving DIY punk, metal, and hardcore communities.

1 comment:

  1. Forgot about the Cathedral Cafe by Farragut. There was a rock and heavy metal scene there back in 2006 when I went to high school. It really gave young folks a sense of community and a space to call our own.