Iconic East LA Punk Band Los Illegals on Why Chicano Punk Is an Act of Resistance

Los Illegals in 1984 at The Zoo.

On the first day of my AP English class in high school, I came across a flyer that I’d passed countless times and never noticed. It featured an eagle with a stick of dynamite in its mouth, and in prominent letters, it read “Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (MEChA).” The flyer reminded me of the posters advertising my favorite punk shows. Conveniently, the MEChA meeting was taking place at the junior college next door. I folded up the flyer, put it in my backpack, and thought, “Maybe I will finally find my people.”

Years later, I find myself talking to Jesus Velo, the bass player of the infamous Chicano punk band Los Illegals, about the organization. He believes that mainstream Latin music and activist groups like MEChA have lost their way.

MEChA was once a group that joined farmworkers and protested for their rights, and later, in the 60s and 70s, helped stage student walkouts. The group was also at the forefront of supporting the advent of intersectionality, and members of MEChA marched in solidarity with black and indigenous activist movements.

I will not whitewash MEChA’s radical legacy, but a powerful past does not make up for a complacent present. When I attended MEChA meetings at my local junior college, it was at a time when I desperately needed to find like-minded people. Instead, I found a group where male-identified activists led meetings and rarely allowed others to talk. I found a group enamored with the ideal of the “noble Aztecs” with no reference to their brutal rule of enslavement. I found a group reduced to telling young brown Americans that they were beautiful, without a hard look at the oppressive, classist, sexist, and tangled history that makes each of us Chicano.

Los Illegals in 1981.
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I did not find my people.

“We have wonderful, great musicians like Quetzal or Santa Cecilia, or even Las Cafeteras. Great players, but they’re just fucking wasting their lives with their Tio Taco dance that they do for everyone,” Velo says.

We can look at our culture with a critical eye and create a culture that we are proud to call our own.

While I agree with Velo, it is hard for me to stomach his criticism of Santa Cecilia. As a music writer, I always think of what voices get covered in mainstream media and what voices do not. What bands have I had to fight to cover, and what bands was I expected to cover? It feels wrong to throw salt on groups that are rarely written about in mainstream media, and although flawed, are just trying to be commercially viable.

Yet I have to ask myself: am I symptom of the disease he’s describing? Am I turning a blind eye to the problems in my culture, and am I unwilling to engage in criticism?

Velo condemns bands that caricature Latino culture. To him, we stop growing when we stop challenging our culture and give them exactly what they want.

“They’re going to play sweet songs and loving songs, and great little solos, and not really make a point. And of course, they’re all going to get Grammys for it. And therein lies the problem. We have…voluntarily deported ourselves into a segregated culture, just by adhering and believing in all of that bullshit that MEChA started to let creep in from Mexico, the dominant culture.”

Velo is getting at the role that the audience plays in shaping culture, and the role of the artist. Who drives cultural shifts? He believes in challenging the idea that the only ways to be financially successful as musicians are to perform for the white gaze or recycle music that makes Latinos “comfortable.” He dismisses the idea that Latino musicians need to conform to what a Latino “should sound like.” Instead, he makes music that confronts stereotypes.

When discussing how Los Illegals battled industry pressures to play into stereotypes, Jesus says, “We began this campaign to dislike art that is like, ‘Every frickin’ mural on every fourth block has to have some kind of Aztec with a feather on it.’ Aztec with a feather wasn’t my reality; it wasn’t their reality either.”

“So we started doing things that [fit] our reality. And punk came not because we wanted to be like the Sex Pistols, not because we like Siouxsie and the Banshees, but it came because we lived in the real world of punk. We didn’t go home to our bedrooms after playing punk shows and jumping up and down and spitting beer at each other. We came home to the barrio and you heard gunshots. So it fits so well, so Los Illegals are [hybrid] – ‘Los’ [in Spanish] and ‘Illegals’ in English, which the Mexicans gave us shit for. ‘What’s with this? You don’t like saying it all in Spanish.’ It was like, give us like a fucking break!”

Latino or Chicano punk culture is intrinsically an act of resistance, aimed at carving out punk territory separate from Mexico. Chicano punk was and is a response to what it means to be “a good Latino.” It is the reclaiming of an identity.

Latino or Chicano punk culture is intrinsically an act of resistance.

Velo came up in the Los Angeles activist and punk rock scene in the 70s and 80s with his lifelong friend and Los Illegals bandmate Willie Herrón. Both Velo and Herrón are biracial and self-identified Chicanos. Herrón was and still is a visual artist and muralist, one of the founding members of the Asco art collective, and his work paid homage to labor leaders like Dolores Huerta and honored Mexican-American history.

With the help of two nuns from the Order of Saint Francis, Los Illegals formed The Vex in the early 80s, one of the first punk rock clubs in Los Angeles that was inclusive of bands performing in Spanish. Club Vex also was one of the first clubs where audiences from the east and west side met, and through music, the scene became less divided.

For their part, Los Illegals sang in Spanglish, which challenged their Mexican and American audiences. Even after achieving success and notoriety in the Los Angeles punk rock scene, Los Illegals sometimes felt they weren’t Mexican or American enough for either group.

Describing Los Illegals’ first tour in Mexico, Velo says, “We were doing really well. We were at a major label. We were one of the first groups to go down there since Carlos Santana.”

Los Illegals in 1984.
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“We’re going to Mexico and we’re going to play great, and try to impress how much we love our old country. Everything we are pissed off about, it’s going to be over from now on, we’re going to be brothers in arms, and we get there, and the first questions that the press asks us is, ‘Okay you Chicanos, what do you have as a culture that we didn’t already give you?’ Why don’t you just take a hot poker and shove it up my ass? That’s how it felt to be asked that question.”

Any second-generation Latino knows this story well. Not only do you find yourself in the interstices, you must spurn or support the notion that everything that you have or have created for yourself does not belong to you. Los Illegals called bullshit on this line of thinking, and to this day, encourage their fellow Chicanos and Latinos to do the same.

“Our continual goal is to destroy every succeeding generation of patronizing Latino American groups,” says Velo. “Those groups always ‘calm up’ when we enter the room and we are like the ‘ugly reality’ police walking in holding up mirrors citing the tale of the Emperor’s New Clothes.”

When you hold a mirror to your music and your culture, what do you see? Los Illegals invites us to remake our image, to embrace scrutiny, and to use art and music as a form of resistance. Pandering is a choice that we don’t have to make. We are better than that. We don’t have to do the “Tio Taco” dance. Like the Chicano punks before us, we can look at our culture with a critical eye and create a culture that we are proud to call our own.