Monthly Archives: February 2013

Claming It: What I Learned From Punk Rock Anthropologist Aaron Cometbus — Con Safos

ImageAaron Elliott, Mr. Cometbus, told me that that my band Bitch Fight should stop saying we were from San Francisco and say we were from Tuolumne instead. I was eighteen and Aaron Elliott, the drummer of Crimpshine  and East Bay scenester was my boyfriend. Aaron was the rare guy who thought it was cool to date a girl drummer, someone like him, but not, all at the same time. I was taken with his long-armed, pointy-kneed, awkward drumming style, full lips, and bleach blond hair, and I let him pursue me until I was ready to break up with the mysterious, oft-distant, stage-hand boyfriend who said he was Italian, even though his mom and sister looked distinctly Mexican. Aaron liked my brown skin and thought it was cool that I was from a small town, a fact that Bitch Fight hoped to put behind us, and we weren’t really from Tuolumne once Elka Zolot jointed the band.

I had moved to San Francisco  from Tuolumne in 1987, just two weeks after I graduated, left town with my band mates Nicole Lopez and Sue Ann Carney, seeking to make a name for the band we started in high school and to attend City College. The band, Bitch Fight, was appropriately named for our constant bickering, petty jealousies, and our gender, as there were not many women playing punk rock, and we knew that, and felt it was worth pointing out.

Having grown up in Berkeley, Aaron Elliot had a sort of a romantic or idealized notion of what it meant to grow up in small town, and he never tried  to understand why the Tuolumne Bitch Fight girls didn’t want to claim it. He was right that it made us different,  made us who we were even, but there were plenty of things he did not understand. He definitely did not understand, and I didn’t know how to explain to him what it was like to be a minority, a person of color in a small town, a place that had tried to grind me down.

Sure, Aaron was different too, nerdy, awkward, and punk rock, but the punk rock part, that was just an attitude, ripped jeans, and weird shit tied to his wrists, things he could take off. And his attitude represented a major flaw common in the Bay Area punk scene. People of color in punk were often viewed as the white versions of who we really were. My last name was Gonzales, but I didn’t speak with an accent, the black kids in the scene didn’t act “ghetto,” and” scenesters like Eric Yee  didn’t substitute an ‘L’ sound for an ‘R’ sound, all facts that were commented on with the following “compliment” — you’re the whitest Mexican/Black guy/Asian that I’ve ever met (shout out to Kendon Smith).

And while I wasn’t at all able to articulate my feelings, my annoyance with Aaron’s opinion about what I should claim and how, I did know that growing up brown in a sea of whiteness, on welfare, being poor, the instability, and the shame, that it was all still too close. But I get it now, what Aaron meant about thinking Nicole, Sue, and I should claim Tuolumne even though he never tried  to understand why we didn’t want to.

But Aaron Elliot’s directive about what I should claim, no matter how misdirected and naive it was at the time is something I never forgot. Long after I stopped reading his love letters, hoping to run into him somewhere unexpectedly, listening to Crimpshrine, and long after playing drums and writing lyrics for Spitboy and Instant-Girl, touring Europe, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, and the United States twice, going back to college, getting married, and having a son, Aaron’s ideas about my small town made some sense to me.

Ten years after Instant-Girl, Spitboy’s offshoot band, played its last show, and once settled into my tenure track teaching position, I wrote two personal essays about growing up in Tuolumne. I wrote “Blondes Have More Fun,” and “Queen of Chlorine” and then Aaron’s words came to me. He had wanted Bitch Fight to claim Tuolumne, and we never did, but there I was writing a somewhat humorous memoir about the most painful, trying, and agonizing years of my life, and the town I sort of pretended I wasn’t from for so long — there I was claiming it.

This entry was posted in Punk Rock, Race/Identity and tagged Aaron Cometbus, Aaron Elliott, Bitch Fight, Blondes Have More Fun, Combetbus, Crimpshrine, Instant-Girl, Pretty Bold For A Mexican Girl, Queen of Cholorine, San Francisco Bay Area Punk Scene, , Tuolumne on by .


My son and his friend do their homework together on Tuesdays. A couple of weeks ago they were in the dining room pulling their notebooks from their backpacks and settling in. I was in the kitchen preparing a snack. I tried not be alarmed when I realized they were discussing racial slurs.
“Ricer,” my son’s friend Alex, the son of my husband’s oldest friend in America, and fellow Mexican national said, “why do they call them that?”

“I guess it’s because they eat so much rice,” my son said back. They were both chuckling the way eleven year olds do when something that they know shouldn’t be funny makes them laugh.

I listened more before intervening with some annoying worried parent reaction. It seemed they were talking about something they heard in school.

I carried a bowl of chips and string cheese into the dining room.

“It’s like the word beaner,” I said.

“Oh, yeah, Beaner, that’s what they call us,” Alex said.

“Because we eat so many beans. Luis laughed more confidently this time.

“Oh,” Alex said, “I always thought it was because we wear so many beanie hats.”

Both my husband and Alex’s dad are bald or balding and they both wear beanie hats just like many Mexican men in America do or like vato locos in the movies.

All three of us doubled over with laughter.

In his innocent but analytical way, Alex concluded that it made more sense that Mexicans are sometimes referred to as beaners because we eat a lot of beans. I reminded them how not that long ago, like when my mom was growing up, that such a slur was really hurtful, that it wasn’t a nice thing to call somebody, even though it seems funny now, and even though it’s a slur, like ricer, that has actually been created from fact. Mexicans eat beans; beans are a staple of Mexican cuisine.

“Just don’t call anyone ricer,” I said. “Even if it seems a little funny.”

“What do they call white people,” my son asked.

“Cracker,” I couldn’t help wincing when I said it.

I was thinking gabacho, but I kept it to myself.

“Oh, yeah, cracker,” my son said, “That make sense because they eat crackers and crackers are white.” Of course, my son eats crackers too.

This discussion got me thinking about racial slurs and how they’re created and their impact and how the impact can change over time. It seems, racial slurs can be broken down into a variety of categories, though not neatly. Two categories that I could think of readily are slurs whose sounds are particularly ugly or harsh (I won’t be listing them here; I’ll let you do that in your own head), and there are those racial slurs created from cultural aspects or food. Those created from religious aspects of one’s culture or ethnicity can smack pretty hard, like rag head, but these days those from food, for young people it seems, don’t: beaner, ricer, cracker — so much. Of course then there are those slurs that people of color use toward each other that fall into the food category, words like oreo or apple, words that discourage community members from becoming too white, too distant from the community — those smack hard too.

But whether Alex thought our racial slur, ‘beaner,’ came from food or hats, I know that he and my son, middle-schoolers, are trying to figure it all out, even using the words themselves or repeating racist jokes or references that they’ve seen make others laugh, maybe in order to learn how far they can go since a word like beaner makes them laugh — even if its to laugh a bit uncomfortably. Then I’ve noticed other young people, my students, wince, or stutter, or turn red when saying the word Mexican, as if the word Mexican itself is a racial slur but not Chinese or Japanese. Of course this has to do with  the term illegal and the picture we now get in our heads when we think of an immigrant — the picture of a Mexican looking dude in worn jeans, a thin jacket and a baseball hat standing on a corner somewhere looking for work. Clearly, when a slur has the power to reduce us to comedy and the accurate version of the slur, Mexican, creates a distinct narrow/inaccurate image in our heads, or makes us wince and stutter, we all still have a lot to figure out.