Punk and the Seamstress | KCET
Punk and the Seamstress
In Partnership with the South El Monte Arts Posse
"East of East" is a series of original essays about people, things, and places in South El Monte and El Monte. The material traces the arrival and departures of ethnic groups, the rise and decline of political movements, the creation of youth cultures, and the use and manipulation of the built environment. These essays challenge us to think about the place of SEM/EM in the history of Los Angeles, California, and Mexico.
I started "going punk" in 8th grade at Kranz Jr. High School back in 1990. At first I didn't know what to make of the music. I was still wearing those polo shirts with a tiger on the breast popular with the cholos, combing my hair back, and listening to Metallica, go figure. The feedback and noise that filled my ears was something new yet subversive. It seemed timeless and relevant. It was definitely not the hair band sound that prevailed on the airwaves or the gangsta rap starting to get popular at the time. Danny, my cousin George's friend, brought us all together. Danny was a tall lanky kid with a sense of humor, incredible charm, and most importantly, parents who let him throw gigs in his back yard.
Before I knew it, I was part of a group of youth whose older brothers and sisters passed on new wave, skate, and punk rock to their younger siblings. We listened to Subhumans, the Misfits, the Exploited, Bad Religion, Minor Threat, Black Flag, and the Dead Kennedys on beat up cassettes re-recorded from their original release. Bad Religion's melodic choruses and lyrics caught my attention. Against the Grain was released back in November of 1990 and it had become punk rock's underground triumph. I listened to that tape on my fake Walkman through blown out headphones over and over again.
The words rang clear amid the distorted guitars -- though I have to admit I barely understood the words and found myself pulling out the dictionary more than once or twice to decipher the meaning. I had finally found a way to interpret what my experience had been as someone who felt like an outsider to the Saved By the Bell make-believe world on television.
My friends and I rented the only copy of "The Decline of Western Civilization" at the Blockbuster on the corner of Garvey Avenue and Valley Boulevard. As I watched it, I felt like I was part of something that had meaning behind it. It wasn't just mohawks and tattoos, there was rebellion behind it. The other most influential band for me at the time was the peace anarchist band Crass. I remember listening to the Feeding of the 5000. That album blew my mind and shattered every perception I was brought up with from class to religion.
Punk music gave meaning to the things that were out of our control in our lives. It provided a serious socio-political analysis of our reality. Deep within both of these interpretations was the inevitable violence that existed in El Monte. No one knew how to talk things out except through aggression. It felt like there was a reason for it, like a last stand against invisible forces penetrating through every aspect of our lives. There were reasons for our poverty. I suddenly found that there was something of value to be discovered within every band and every song and it also helped explain why the cycle of oppression repeated itself in our lives.
In high school, I took refuge from the monotony by spending my time struggling to get into college prep courses and listening to punk. The backyard gigs were exciting. Punks from all shapes and sizes, mohawks, leather jackets, Doc Martens with somewhat of a cholo twist. The smell of Clove cigarettes and cheap beer still lingers on my mind. We watched bands like Non-Tolerance, Anti-Social, Schleprock, Y.A.P.O, the Death Mickies, X-O Toxins, and Beeker's Army. I was inspired and thought, "I can play this stuff too." It wasn't long before my friend Hector Casillas, Johnny Montejano, Manny Andrade and I started our own band. Johnny and I both bought the Mr. Entertainment guitar/amp specials from the Montebello Mall. The first guitar I ever owned was a no name GTX and a Peavey amplifier with built in distortion. My first guitar burned to a crisp through a freak accident in my friend Hector's brother in law's truck. He was fixing some crossed wires on the GTX and decided to change his distributor cap on his engine at the same time. The wires on the distributor cap were crossed and the truck blew up while he was driving on the freeway. His brother in law survived, my guitar wasn't so lucky.
Manny left the band, so I convinced my mom to buy me a bass guitar. We became the Unwanted and later, the Indigents. We kept changing names because every time I read Maximum Rock n' Roll, I'd see that someone with our name had put out an E.P. We didn't have what you would call quality instruments. The wail of distortion and feedback became a wall of sound to the rattle of second hand drums and barely audible bass. We made a whole lot of noise before we got any better, but the experience taught me that I could play music without formal education.
It seemed like everyone was starting a band at the time. I discovered KSPC 88.7 FM by accident. I tuned in religiously through a makeshift antennae made out of coaxial cable connected to my little boom box, and started picking up a show called Rebel Girl Radio. It was the first time I heard Bikini Kill talking about revolution and feminism. The Riot Grrrl movement seemed to resonate for me because I always felt close to my mother's struggle. For me, the airwaves were now filled with local bands and their demos who were playing punk rock just like us here in El Monte.
I wrote what my friends called "political" songs, taking inspiration from the L.A. Times and my English classes. Playing punk filled me with a rush I couldn't quite explain. The backyard gigs were a place where I felt a sense of community. For three bucks, you could see a couple of bands and one of those red cups for the keg. The warm summer nights usually ended with fights breaking out and dirt flying around from all the slam dancing. When someone fell, we picked them up. At one of those gigs, the cops came in and got everyone out to the street in the cul de sac with their guns drawn. They frisked us and claimed we were shooting guns into the air. It was 4th of July and the skyrockets next door were still popping. When we asked why we were being frisked, they put their guns near our ear and said, "Do you know what we get if we shoot you? Two weeks paid vacation." Black Flag's "Revenge" came into my head at that moment: "It's not my imagination, I got a gun on my back." I had never felt so powerless and humiliated.
We played a handful of gigs here and there and as luck would have it, when I couldn't balance school with the band anymore, my friends went on to form No Offense and Tangwich without me. For folks not from that area, they were two bands that would go on to play for many years.
I didn't know it at the time, but I was developing a class-consciousness--to be clear, a consciousness of my mother and family as working class. I felt like an observer watching the sacred lamb work six or seven days out of the week to keep us from homelessness and starvation. My mom spent 17 years of her life making her boss rich. Me, I was lucky enough to go to school to get an education. As an eighth grader, I came to understand that in this world it was very easy to be exploited, and it was a long history of exploitation.
Our history of enduring exploitation started with my grandfather Fidel De La Torre, who was a Bracero back in the 1960's. He traveled up and down California working the fields in various capacities. It was hard seasonal work and he would come and go from Villa Guerrero, Jalisco down in Mexico and back. My grandfather didn't earn much as a bracero, he couldn't unionize and couldn't complain or else he would find himself with a revoked work permit. His hands were those of a guitarist and campesino, rough, weathered and with the ability to bring joy while prone to violence against his own family.
When the Bracero program ended, my mother, Ofelia, decided to follow in his footsteps--though he was not quite a role model--and find opportunity where workers were paid in dollars. She had a premonition in a dream in which she found herself walking from Tijuana to Los Angeles and later recalled it was actually San Ysidro. My mother convinced herself that she was going to go to the United States for a year and make enough money to study in Guadalajara and become a nurse. The idea was to get an education and escape poverty. She came to the U.S. as an undocumented immigrant in the early 1970s and ended up in El Monte with its decaying suburban home exterior, which seemed like a haven at the time.
Not long thereafter, she met my father, who didn't stick around long enough to meet me. My sister came afterwards and her father didn't stay very long either. As the years passed, my mother's dream of becoming a nurse slowly disappeared. Instead, she became a hard worker with dreams and aspirations for her children. My mom worked at Modan Sportswear as a seamstress for as long as I could remember. She chose the factory because the other major sewing factory, Sirena, only had work for nine months out of the year at the time. The factory was first located on Durfee Avenue and then off of Chico Street in South El Monte.
On the weekends and some weeknights, my mother took us to the factory. We'd wake up early in the morning. She'd buy my sister Mayra and I each a donut and a glass of milk for breakfast. The stacks of fabric on the side of the giant factory were where we made our little beds and tried to sleep as the roar of the machines and radio KLOVE blasted through the sound system. We entertained ourselves by pushing each other on wooden carts, making doll clothing and waiting around endlessly until my mother was finished. At the end of the day and on our way back to our roach infested apartment my mom would tell us, "Mi'jo, mi'ja, don't ever work with your hands. Finish your education and don't end up breaking your back like I do for a living." I remember her words as I looked at a band-aid on her index finger covering a puncture from a needle made by the machine.
My mother's boss came in one day snapping his fingers at my mother and he said he needed the work to be completed faster. My mom looked around the floor as he asked her, "Why aren't you responding to me?" She turned to him and said, "I'm looking for the dog you're snapping your fingers to. I'm not a dog. Don't snap your fingers at me." Rebellious at heart, she knew how to keep her dignity even when circumstances were stacked against her. She had given years of her loyalty to the company and knew every machine backwards and forwards, her boss stormed off and slammed the door to his office.
At home we had always taken for granted that my mother was undocumented. She was deported once before in 1974 and we had a detailed plan laid out in case it happened again. My sister and I would go live with my aunt Fidencia should that day come. This was a constant fear in my life. This fear would be exacerbated during the Pete Wilson era of the early 1990s, as the Republican Governor's Proposition 187 reminded us that we did not belong in California. 60% of registered voters agreed. My sister and I were citizens but that hardly seemed to matter at the time.
I was watching two parallel realities play out. On the one hand you had those terrible commercials of immigrants jumping over fences allegedly destroying the great state of California, on the other was my mother's daily toil in the sewing factory. It was the first time I felt like I wasn't an American. I remember I couldn't stand for the flag salute after Prop 187 was passed. My math teacher asked me why and I simply told her, "We're not wanted here. Why would I pledge allegiance to a country that doesn't want me here?" She shook her head and said, "Well, you have to stand anyway." I disagreed and for the rest of the year, the Jehovah's Witness kid and I sat it out in shared protest together every morning.
Thanks to a handful of teachers who believed in me and the Harvey Mudd College Upward Bound program, I made it to college. When I got the thick package from UC Berkeley, I told my mom as soon as she got home and her response was a tired, "That's nice mi'jo, the rice should be done in a little while." She had no clue what that meant.
As graduation drew near, I convinced my mom to let me have a gig at our place for a big send off with all of my friends. We shared an empty lot with two other families down on Elliott Avenue and that was the perfect place to have a hundred people come out to a free show. We made flyers and passed them around to different cities and record stores. Before I knew it, there were hundreds of people to see No Offense, the Shrooms and a couple of other bands I can't even remember. As the gig went into the night, the cops came, a helicopter shined its light and all hell broke loose. Fortunately, there was no violence at this gig and folks went home with a lasting memory of some guy named Polo going off to college.
A year into college, I got a call from my sister and she told me that mom had had a stroke. At 43, all the hard work and stress had finally caught up to her. I went to Oakland and got on the Greyhound midnight express. I finally made it to LAC-USC Medical Center where my mom was still waiting in the emergency room for a bed upstairs. I walked up to her and saw her broken for the first time in my life. Half paralyzed, she looked at me and we both started to cry. I sat next to her and told her it was going to get better and that I was going to quit school and take care of her. She was barely able to speak and she told me, "Mi'jo, you're crazy. You're going back to college to take the opportunity I never had." Those words stuck in my head and all of a sudden I remembered the Prop 187 commercials and the anti-immigrant hatred that consumed every level of society and decided that something needed to change. I took my mother's advice and finished school.
After college, I taught for a few years and eventually landed a job as a labor organizer. This is where I learned that workers had power and where I saw immigrants fighting back for basic rights and a decent wage. I went off to do community organizing and over the years, have managed to take on the issue of immigration reform head on.
Over the course of many years, my mother became a citizen. Though her health problems persist she overcame her paralysis and began living a normal life. Yet the situation for immigrants remains pretty much the same. I think about all the things that brought me where I am today and how my mother's immigrant experience and punk played a big part in that. My outlook, perception and skepticism have sharpened over the years. Still, I've convinced myself that we can unite, organize and fight. I realize now that it takes courage to change our society and now and again the Subhumans still echo in my mind.
Punk's impact and longevity in El Monte continues to be a source for creativity and is deeply rooted in the immigrant experience of youth that sought an alternative to a very dismal reality. I learned a lot through my mother's sacrifices. This was my experience and yet it is echoed in the generation that followed. The music and the scene were neither here, nor there. It was distinct and unique. A style of music some of us embraced and began to create for our own borne out of frustration and anger. It was a chance to make something out of nothing and break every stereotype in the process despite all the things going against us. That same rebellious spirit still lives within me and finds peace of mind in challenging the status quo. Even as uncertain as the future may be, it keeps me hopeful and inspired.
This piece was originally published on Tropics of Meta in April 2014.