Quetzal Flores and Martha Gonzalez were away from L.A. for almost six years — one in Mexico, four and a half in Seattle — before returning in 2012. They barely recognized the place.
“We did CicLAvia and I was like, ‘Whoa, what happened to downtown?’” says Gonzalez, laughing in the living room of their Alhambra house. “We’re bicycling through and all these clubs and these buildings fixed up … It’s a mix of being really proud of being from L.A. and being sort of like, ‘Wait a minute, where are all the people who used to live here?’”
Flores and Gonzalez front Quetzal, a Chicano rock band of the sort that settles for calling itself a Chicano rock band because what they actually are is much more complicated. They’ve performed hybrid versions of son jarocho, ranchera, salsa — with more than a little Cuban, African and American rock ladled in for good measure.
The group coalesced around Flores back in 1994. In the 20-year interim they’ve released six albums, changed their line-up roughly a dozen times and won a Grammy for their 2012 release Imaginaries. Today marks their 20th anniversary, which they’re celebrating this Saturday with a free concert at Grand Performances in California Plaza.
Quetzal has always been adamant about their status as an L.A. — specifically, an East L.A. — band. Their latest album, Quetzanimales, takes that to an almost literal degree: Every song is built around Los Angeles’ inhabitants. The four-legged kind.
“The thing about a concept album is that it needs a concept,” Gonzalez explains. “Our bass player brought up Led Zeppelin’s animal album … We thought of it in terms of Los Panchos — most of their records [revolve] around their natural world. It made a kind of sense for us.”
The natural world of Quetzal is less floral than that of Los Panchos, the famous trío romántico of the 1950s. Quetzanimales is filled with odes to spiders, wolves, ants, pigeons — not gray doves, but city pigeons, “the greasy, messed-up, club-footed kind.”
“We talk about squirrels in relation to hoarders,” says Gonzalez. “Coyotes in relation to gentrification, and the encroachment of civilized urban sprawl. This album talks about the beauty we have, even as some people see us as being disenfranchised.”
That disenfranchisement is on Quetzal’s mind — and has been, really, for years. Raised in a family of social activists, founder Quetzal Flores makes no secret that music is, for him, a form of social justice. And Gonzalez, an Assistant Professor of Chicano/a Latino/a Studies at Scripps College, agrees.
“Our lyrics have always been preoccupied with accountability to community,” she says. “Our music has been used to teach in classrooms. College professors write about our music. An elementary school teacher recently used ‘Estoy Aquí' to get her students to think about Boyle Heights, to really see, to look around, to notice the beauty of Mariachi Plaza and El Mercado and the tortas. Kids are beginning to look at their environment as an asset.
“When we think about how our music was used as a teaching tool, as a way of getting communities to reflect … I think that has been our greatest legacy.”
Quetzal plays Grand Performances free summer concerts at California Plaza in downtown L.A. this Sat., July 19 at 8 p.m.