“We Are Not Wanted Here”: A look at the forces behind the Pilsen/Little Village hardcore scene

Word on the street is that punk is dead. Or, at the very least, it’s difficult to sustain when the dominant subculture is crippled by po-mo pretensions. At its purest, there’s nothing ironic about punk rock–it’s sixty seconds of an abrasive wall of frustration. It’s the creation of dedicated, creative, and passionate communities who often act as surrogate families for each other.

But alas: as everyone knows, punk has become a bloated, mass-marketed shell of what it should be. No longer taken seriously, it’s been popularly stripped of substance by the suburban, snarky, and overwhelmingly white teens who simply use it as an alternative dress code to the Abercrombie legions. But if you venture inward from the world of the suburbs, you will discover a surprisingly thriving scene in our own neighborhood (sort of). Beyond the gentrified artist lofts and ubiquitous taquerías, Pilsen and Little Village are home to one of the most influential hardcore punk scenes in the world, notable for the intensely radical politics of the bands and the equally intense dedication of their fans. Similarly unusual is the fact that the vast majority of those involved are Latino, infringing on historically white territory.

Of course, this was not always the case. In 1987, the son of Uruguayan immigrants booked the first punk show in Pilsen with Chicago punk legends the Bhopal Stiffs, Ozz Fish Experience, and Generation Waste. The show was small, as was Pilsen’s punk community at the time, but organizer Martin Sorrondeguy would rapidly become a catalyst to change that. He was to be the frontman of the band that would create the legend of Pilsen hardcore, Los Crudos. During his youth, there was no punk whatsoever in Pilsen: “Because of the cultural and ethnic makeup of Pilsen, it didn’t lend itself to punk,” says Sorrondeguy. “It’s something that seemed like it existed more in white areas, more suburban areas of the city. It was the sort of thing where if I saw some kid who looked remotely punk, we would run to catch up to him and ask ‘Are you into punk?’ We were just starving for other people. And over time we formed this community of twenty or so kids.”

The small community became more concrete with the birth of Los Crudos. The nascent community of punks always had to trek to the North Side to be able to participate in the culture, but what they ended up discovering was disheartening. “I had always thought that punk was a really political thing, but once I started getting out there and realizing that ‘Man, these people really don’t give a shit about anything,’” says Sorrondeguy. “I realized that this isn’t me. I wanted to be more active and do things that I thought were important to address. I got to the point where I decided, you know what? I want to do a band, and I want to do it with people who are really into it and talk about us and the neighborhood and what we’re dealing with here because I don’t identify with this greater, more suburbanized punk thing. It wasn’t speaking to me and it wasn’t about me.” He proposed the idea to several other kids who already had a band going and they agreed. At first, Los Crudos was more of an idea or a concept–a punk rock mouthpiece of the Pilsen neighborhood was unthinkable, and it was thought that no one outside the neighborhood would care about it. But as they began to play more shows, “People really embraced it. We had an amazing response within the neighborhood from the get-go, but then we started to get letters from people from other parts of the country saying, ‘Hey, we heard about your band,’ and we were like ‘What?’ Then it started to blow up completely.”

Los Crudos lit across the lily-white field of American hardcore like a wildfire, capturing the imaginations and destroying the comfort zones of fans who had likely never even met big-city sons of immigrants before, much less encountered a radical viewpoint like theirs. What Los Crudos had to offer that was distinctive from other “political” bands was that their politics were not merely empty rhetoric: they were born from living from political experience that are was inherently political and simply telling their story. Along with other early Pilsen bands like Youth Against and Arma Contra Arma, they filled punk’s emptiness with something vital that revived its relevance. This sparked the creation of a more solidified scene in Pilsen and a “second wave” of punk still going on today. One of the figureheads of the Second Wave is Carlos Ruiz, who is in Sin Orden and was in one of the few straight-edge bands in the area, Reacción. The first and second waves share certain characteristics that indicate some of the forces that create these bands and the issues they address.

For one, a decision was made to sing in Spanish. Unlike similar bands from South America and Spain, Spanish is not necessarily the language of daily life for these musicians–oftentimes, their English is considerably better than their Spanish, which they’ve never studied academically and maintain only via conversation at home and in the streets. But singing in Spanish is action against the fact that they may not know it as well as English–the circumstances creating that turn of events are political, as is the decision to sing in Spanish. “I know where I went to elementary school,” says Sorrondeguy. “They made a conscious effort to make kids who spoke Spanish feel that it was wrong, and I carried that with me for so many years. It was a very unnatural thing to do. [Singing in Spanish] was my way of rebelling against it–we were told we shouldn’t speak Spanish, so we’re saying, ‘Fuck you, we’re going to speak Spanish.’” Not only was it a political statement, but the act of constructing songs in Spanish was a part of the learning process for band members. Mistakes were not uncommon and are the subject of teasing, but Sorrondeguy responds that “It’s part of who we are. It’s a part of re-learning and reclaiming what’s ours.” Ruiz relates a similar sentiment regarding Sin Orden’s choice to sing in Spanish: “When you’re growing up, you’re supposed to assimilate–you’re not supposed to speak Spanish. [Los Crudos] brought more of a cultural consciousness to us, making us ask ourselves, ‘Why have we put aside our culture and our language?’ It made us look towards our family and our culture, and look inside of us to see who we really are.” The cultural affinity flips the nihilism-without-borders aspect of most punk rock. Ruiz rejects the pretensions towards progressivism of many white punk rockers who say, “Oh, we’re all the same, we’re all human beings, we’re all punks, we’re all anarchists. There should be no racial divide.” According to Ruiz, “That’s just another way out of it. It’s the inability to accept us [Latino punks] as different. We come from a rich culture and history, and they’re not like us, and it’s fine … we’re all different, and it’s fine. People think punk is all about anti-racism, but people still have their inner racism inside of themselves. Shit still happens.”

The self-motivated nature of punk offers a medium through which young Latinos can engage with the world around them: the world that has seemed to be against them from the start and does not offer them a whole lot of options. Ruiz says, “Growing up in the city like this, you’re just pissed … all the time. You gotta get home before the gangs come out and you get shot or it’s curfew and you get arrested. The way you’re growing up, you’re either gonna be a gang-banger or something else, and that something else is punk for a lot of people. The whole DIY aspect of it is what got us motivated. We’re told you can’t do anything unless you go to college, unless you get good grades … you can’t be anybody unless you make good money. Seeing the records and the artwork and the homemade shirts … it’s like, wow, cool … we were able to make our own records and our own artwork and people like that because it gives you a sign of hope. It’s saying, ‘I may not be living in the best situation, but I can produce this and I can do something with myself.’ It’s very empowering.” According to Sorrondeguy, he has met several kids in the scene with “their fathers in jail, their whole family in the gangs, and they’re so happy that their son is into this rock thing because it means he’s not a cholo, a gangster.” There is a pervading sense that “we are the people who are not wanted here. We’re the illegals, the ones who are not able to grasp English fast enough, the people who drink too much,” and through punk, these youths are creating a space where they are wanted and where they can nourish each other. For some, it’s a way of finding work and places to stay despite their illegal status. And for everyone, “The emotion of rage and screaming is so powerful,” says Ruiz. The situations that breed their attraction to punk rock are so vastly different from those of most punks that it gives the genre a whole new meaning and purpose. It is anger at the unfair initial circumstances of their lives transformed into creativity and community; it is a source of power and self-respect. The corpse of punk walks again around 18th St.–at least for those who care enough to make it happen.

For more information about the bands mentioned in the article, visit http://www.myspace.com/loscrudos and http://www.myspace.com/sinorden.