Chicanos have played a defining role in punk rock since its inception. In fact, Michigan's ? and the Mysterians are a strong contender for the first band to be labeled “punk rock.” A little closer to home, East Los's Cannibal and the Headhunters were part of the first wave of 1960s garage punk. The band scored an early hit with “Land of a Thousand Dances,” the first with the “na na na na na na” refrain. But once punk proper hit with all its safety pins and mohawks, L.A. was home to two rival punk scenes: One in Hollyweird, another in East Los.
Unlike the Hollywood punk scene, extensively covered in the book We Got The Neutron Bomb: The Untold Story of L.A. Punk, the Chicano punk scene has largely gone unreported even today. However, Scion's iQ Project Museum is attempting to address the untold story of East L.A. punk.
Bands like X and an early version of The Go-Gos hung their hats at Hollywood's Masque club. But the Chicano punk rock scene of East L.A. revolved around the Vex. A project of Self Help Graphics (still active and hosting Chicano powerviolence standard bearers Despise You on April 6), The Vex provided a platform for bands like The Plugz, The Brat and The Zeros, who were known as the “Mexican Ramones” and featured a young El Vez. Backyard shows and private parties with other popular venues for Eastside Los Angeles punk.
Los Angeles Chicano punk was about more than just brown skin. The bands displayed a consciousness of La Raza in words, sounds and images. Unlike Hollywood, this scene wore Chicano identity on their sleeves, incorporating Spanish lyrics, Mexican imagery and mariachi influences into the music. Los Illegals refused to display hackneyed Mexican imagery like velvet Elvis paintings, preferring instead a more authentic, street-level public persona as punk rock pachucos.
There was no Berlin Wall between Hollywood and East Los. Once a firm bridge was built between the two scenes, however, the writing was on the wall. X headlined 1980's “Punk Prom,” which brought the two divergent scenes in close contact at long last.
Now the predominantly white scene of Hollywood knew about The Vex, with bands eagerly lining up to play the newest hot spot in the Los Angeles punk scene. Soon after, a riot at a Black Flag show destroyed the venue, both physically and logistically.
The Chicano punk scene continued on, however. The Plugz eventually morphed into Cruzados, while Los Illegals continue to play today and The Zeros occasionally reunite when Robert Lopez isn't doing his El Vez thing. For its part, East Los Angeles is home to a vibrant underground punk rock scene of backyard shows not too different from those held in East Los 30 years ago.
While mariachi and Tejano influences have fallen out of favor, Spanish lyrics and a strong sense of Chicano identity never go out of style — nor does having an ear to the street. In a world where punk rock has been thoroughly commoditized and packaged for safe consumption, the early Chicano punk scene of Los Angeles provides a template for those seeking an edgier punk with more than a hint of danger.