On a beautiful fall Saturday, I meet Venancio Bermudez in front of Restaurant Santa Cecilia in Mariachi Plaza, where several dozen mariachis are lined up, waiting outside in the hopes of getting a gig. Bermudez is 25, tall and dressed in a way that is clearly modern but with echoes (conscious or not) of some of the traditional charro I see these older mariachis sporting.
We're here to talk about his garage-rock band, The Tracks, who are prepping their first LP and have just released their first single. But we end up talking more about his journey and his home neighborhood of Boyle Heights, perhaps the most politically charged section of Los Angeles, especially these last few years.
“My mom and dad met here in the late ’70s. My dad was a mariachi. He'd wait out here,” he tells me.
Bermudez is first-generation Chicano. His father was a mariachi from Nayarit, his mother a cowgirl from Jalisco. They met in this very plaza before an immigration raid on the square and finally saw each other again at El Mercadito where they both performed several weeks later. Not long after, Bermudez's older sister was born. But for much of his early childhood Bermudez didn't know his dad, who had gone to prison for battering his wife.
As we sit down to two steaming plates of barbacoa, Bermudez explains that his journey has been dictated by a self-taught, DIY sort of spirit. “I started singing in church,” he says. “This guy wasn't singing the song right, and I thought, 'I can sing better than this guy.' So I started singing.” Guitar came next. He grew up in Highland Park and moved to Boyle Heights in middle school, where he'd meet bandmate Felipe Contreras (though he says they weren't friends until much later).
When his dad was released from prison, Bermudez returned to being a mariachi, a house painter and part of a demolition crew. Bermudez would sometimes help his father make ends meet by working alongside him, tearing down old buildings around town. “Sometimes you find things in the rubble. Statues, cats, burnt records. I found this Ritchie Valens record.” But then the recession hit, and his dad fell ill with cancer and died shortly thereafter. The family lost their house and had to move, though they stayed in Boyle Heights.
Bermudez was still in high school when he witnessed his father's death. “My dad just collapsed in the living room. Blood was coming out of his nose,” he recounted to L.A. Taco. “I picked up his head and his eyes closed. It turned out he had cancer, stage four, the worst shit. Right before Christmas he died.”
To help his family scrape by, Bermudez got a gig making tortillas at “a factory on Whittier and Euclid. I did that for three or four years.” He tells me that we're lucky because we got the handmade tortillas to go with our barbacoa. He's a tortilla expert, although his four-year stint at the tortilla factory was a nightmare.
“During the summers it was terrible. There was no ventilation there. Sweat and flour up your nostrils, gets dry, gives you nosebleeds. They really tried giving me a hard time. I'm this kid who has his papers, you know? And you've got immigrants working there going, 'What are you doing here?' They were trying to get rid of me. I was like, 'I don't want to be here. But I have to.'”
After he finally quit that job, his band The Tracks — Contreras, Jesiel Higuera and Jimmy Conde, all young guys from the neighborhood — started to take shape, influenced by the likes of Link Wray, The Cramps and Thee Midniters. “It was something we never really talked about. We just played and found something we liked and went with it,” Bermudez says. At the same time he found a new job as a a lineman — one of those people who climbs on roofs or telephone poles to install or fix your internet, which is a better job, but still not as rewarding as making art as your source of income.
At this point in our meal, violent rain starts coming down, out of nowhere. All of the mariachis scurry in different directions, many of them crowding inside the tiny restaurant we're in.
The subject changes to Boyle Heights' gentrification and the art gallery wars that have dominated local headlines for a while now. “It sucks because my neighbors think I'm part of this gentrification movement. It's because of how I dress. I used to take my van home from work, and they reported me because you can't park an industrial vehicle on the streets here. I get narc'ed on all the time.” He laughs cynically. “I think it's presumptuous. I could say that my dad is a mariachi, but I never boast about that stuff.”
But even though some look at him as some sort of interloper, he thinks the neighborhood will never turn into Silver Lake. “I can't see it. The community is too strong.”
I ask him how the rise of Trump has affected him and the people around him in the neighborhood. “Since my neighbors view me as an outsider, I don't talk to them that much,” he explains. “But when I went to work, this Muslim man — I went to go do his house, and he was just so, so sad. He said, 'Can you believe it?' And all this internment camp bullshit. I was doing a couple jobs for older Japanese people in the South Bay, and they couldn't believe it. They had lived through the internment, and some of them were actually from Boyle Heights.”
He pauses for a long stretch, the rain pissing down outside. “My dad was an immigrant until his death. If he was alive, they'd be looking for him,” he says, sighing. “I'm kind of happy he's not alive anymore to worry about it.”
Despite his father's troubled history and long absence from his life, Bermudez is proud of him. “You should hear my dad's 45. It's a very dramatic ballad with strings, classical guitars. He sang on it. He would pretend to play guitar, all for show. He was deep in the scene. He would hang out with Juan Gabriel and a lot of the comedians of that day. My dad was forgotten. He was a completely changed man after prison, after he beat my mom. One of my earliest memories of my childhood was [them] taking my dad away. It's weird growing up without a dad, man.
“My mom is still alive, still singing,” he adds, gratefully. He still lives with her, just a few blocks from Mariachi Plaza. “She's always whistling. It drives me nuts. I love her. Me and my brother take care of her.”
For now, while they wait for their album to come out in 2017, you can catch The Tracks playing the L.A. DIY circuit, which consists of a lot of backyard parties and other hole-in-the-wall venues. The night after our interview, they're playing a benefit for one of their superfans, a guy nicknamed Grills, who had just died of cancer. Despite the frigid, wet weather, it was one of their best shows, Bermudez later tells me, beaming with pride. “It was so packed. We gave them a hell of a show. They must've raised over $1,000.”
The Tracks' first LP is due out this spring. In the meantime, you can catch them opening for Dios at the Echo on Friday, Dec. 16. Follow them on Bandcamp and Facebook for info on other upcoming dates and releases.