Monthly Archives: October 2014

Piano, Privilege, and Being Put in My Place


I’ve always admired those stories where some little kid walks up to a piano and starts playing a song by ear, or that one about the child who composed her first song at the age of five. No matter that it was probably a pretty shitty song, I’ve always admired those stories. While many will tell me that he got a late start, my son began playing the piano when he was only seven. He’s thirteen now, but it only occurred to me recently that these stories are about privilege. You don’t just walk up to a piano and start playing a song by ear or composing on the piano at the age of five unless you own one, unless you grew up listening to music, classical or jazz, and not watching reruns of Bonanza on a twelve inch black and white TV.

Once we realized that our son was serious about piano, wasn’t going to give it up after two weeks like he did tot-soccer, we got him one for free. It turns out that privileged folks in the Bay Area give them away to make space in their houses, and other privileged folks pay $200 to have them moved by a piano moving company. That’s right we paid $200 to move a free piano. Moving a piano seems an almost impossible task, but I learned that that all you need is a handmade, twelve by twelve inch wooden dolly with a piece of shag carpet nailed to the top. After rolling it out of the van, the movers put the piano on this wooden dolly, and wheeled it up to our house. The two men, neither of whom was particularly muscular, lifted the piano up the three steps to my house, managed it around the bend at the doorway, and up the last step. The large, dark wood, upright piano with its yellow keys like old chipped teeth fit in just right with our scuffed, deco style dining room table.

Since I grew up in a small town on welfare in a house that looked more like a shack, with its tin roof and make-shift rooms, I never thought I’d own, or even live in house with a dining room and hard wood floors, a house with space for a piano, and I never imagined I’d own a piano, not even a hand-me-down, though I loved the idea of having a child who played one. Growing up Chicana in a hick town, piano seemed unattainable. They cost a lot of money and you couldn’t learn to play piano at school like you could the clarinet or trumpet. I played the flute; borrowed one from the school until my mom could afford to rent-to-own. When I got my flute, I decorated the case with unicorn stickers and carried it to school everyday by the slender leather handle, feeling fancy, and glad that I hadn’t decided to play trombone.

As an adult, I’ve had many wild piano playing fantasies, me playing the theme to Bizet’s “Carmen” in a red dress. I even tried learning to play alongside my son, but I don’t remember wanting to learn when I was young. I know now it’s because Piano was not an option. I suppose that my appreciation for piano, reading, and writing, the finer things in life, can be attributed to my sister’s dad, David. David was one of those crazy geniuses, a man who literally suffered from schizophrenia, a man who played every piano he saw. He wrote poetry too. For some reason, my mom’s friend James Garcia had a piano in his doublewide trailer. Before all the adults drank too much beer and smoked too much pot; before someone got mad and yelled at someone else, David would play the piano, a different song each time. I’d sit on the couch nearby and watch in awe as his fingers glided over the keys to a song he had locked somewhere in his memory. Watching him play, I came to understand that David had grown up differently than we had, a psychologist for a father, new clothes, his own room, and lessons, but he never talked about any of that because none of it made him happy.

And now, in spite of my background, I’m the privileged one. My son has his own room, a drawer full of skinny jeans, guitars, an amp, a piano, and lessons. It’s a strange thing to admit, a bit disorienting after internalizing shame about being Mexican and collecting Welfare, after sharing a room with my brother, and having only one pair of warm tights in winter, but I’d be a fool not to admit it and a fraud. Still, I weird out sometimes, thinking about how different my son’s childhood is from mine, from his father’s dirt floors in Mexico, how we can afford instruments, private lessons, and jazz concerts, the means to support his dream. And because suffering is cool, and having privilege is not, I feel bad sometimes, decadent, for being proud of my son who plays jazz piano instead of punk rock like I did, for owning a home in the Bay Area, and being married, for having all kinds of stability that I never knew growing up. Then sometimes because I’m Mexican, people say things like, “good for you,” when they learn about my success, like I’m a child, and that’s weird too.

My Body is Mine

imgres                 tumblr_n5zioi00AB1tvqu8xo1_500When we released our Mi Cuerpo Es Mio 7”, a riot grrl from Olympia accused Spitboy of cultural appropriation. The riot grrl, I’ll call her Amy, had ties to the Bay Area, and she was white. Maybe she really believed the accusation. Maybe cultural appropriation was a new concept to her, one that she wanted to try out, and felt it applied to us, or maybe she was just pissed off at Spitboy because we had distanced ourselves from her movement. Amy objected to our use of Spanish for the title of our record. She objected to the words “mi cuerpo es mio” which translates to my body is mine – apparently my body was invisible.

Mi Cuerpo Es Mio, Spitboy’s third release, followed our self-titled 7” on Lookout Records, and our full-length LP that came out on Ebullition. Mi Cuerpo Es Mio was an Allied release, and we chose Allied because of our ties, mostly through Karin, with John Yates, and because we had decided that we would not be owned by any one particular record label, especially since like the punk scene itself the punk record labels were run by men. We were of course, grateful for these particular men, but we didn’t want any of them to feel any kind of ownership over us, our music, or our message. I remember Karin framing our approach that way, and it made sense to me after feeling a great deal of embarrassment from comments made during the release of the Kamala and the Karnivores 7” which came out when I was still dating founding partner of Lookout Records, David Hayes. Turns out that Girl Band was just a really good record after all and with a brilliant cover concept that I will take some credit for. In it, each member of Kamala and the Karnivores is depicted with Barbie dolls. We even found a brown skinned Barbie for my doll and an Asian Barbie for Lynda who played guitar.

During my days entrenched in the scene, I never tried to pass for white, but my nickname was Todd and people didn’t always go by there last names. Familial ties were less important than what band you were in, zine you wrote, or city you were from, and a lot of us were from broken or dysfunctional families anyway. If you were in a band, you went by your first name and your last name was the name your band: Todd Spitboy, Adrienne Spitboy, and so on. Before Spitboy, people called me Todd Bitchfight.

Although I looked quite different from the rest of the Spitboy, my ethnicity didn’t often come up in conversation, not in the Bay Area. In the 1990’s, people were still trying to be colorblind, to not see race, or to pretend not to see it, as the case may be. It wasn’t polite to talk about race, and so I didn’t really talk about it, but this one conversation sticks out in my mind:

“What’s your last name?”

We had just played a show and a friend of Karin’s had come to see us play.

“Gonzales,” I said. It was an unusual question.

“Your last name is Gonzales? Are you, um, Mexican?”

“Yeah, I am,” I said.

This was sort of nice – most people usually said, “What are you?”

“How come I didn’t know that before?”

“I don’t know.”

“That’s so weird. I’m sorry,” she said.

“What do you mean?”

“It seems like I should have known that before. I’ve seen you play and Spitboy, you know, you’re a punk band. I never thought about you all being anything other than that.”

“Oh, yeah,” I said.

“I feel bad.” She reached out and touched my knee.

I didn’t know what to say.

“Identity is so important, and I didn’t even see it, see you. I just saw Spitboy.”

“I don’t think that’s uncommon,” I said, “It’s easier just to see the short hair and clothes I guess.”

“Well, I’m not going to do that again,” she said, “It’s not right.”

After so many years of race/class ridicule that I endured growing up in Tuolumne, fitting in was important to me, but fitting into the punk scene the way I did then created a whole other problem. In conforming to the non-conformist punk ways, adhering, mostly, to the punk uniform, I had lost something along the way, and I began to experience rumblings of discontent that I didn’t quite understand. I secretly listened to Linda Ronstadt’s Canciones de Mi Padre and sang along, holding long sad notes to words that, like Ronstadt, I only vaguely understood. I knew that my identity was the root of my confusion and discontent, so I began taking Spanish classes at a local community college when I could fit them in after work.

Learning to speak Spanish had been a life-long dream. As a child, someone had given me a red hardcover Spanish/English dictionary, and, naively, I thought if I read it everyday that I would become bilingual like the rest of my family in East LA. Later, living in the Bay Area and not being able to speak Spanish began messing with my head, made me feel inadequate, like a phony. I sometimes avoided going to the Mission District in San Francisco because while I was working super hard to fit into the punk scene, playing in bands, going to shows, and volunteering at Blacklist, and not always feeling totally accepted or understood, I felt really out of place in the Mission where it seemed like everyone spoke to me in Spanish and looked baffled when I couldn’t respond. Learning to speak my family’s language, even the little that I was able to speak after only a couple of semesters of college Spanish, provided some relief and helped me to come out as a person of color in the punk scene.

I didn’t say all of this out loud when I suggested Mi Cuerpo es Mio as the title for what would become Paula’s last release with the band because I still didn’t really have words to express all that was going on inside me at twenty-five. Later, when I did have the words, they often came out wrong, clumsy, angry, abrasive, and alienating, especially in those last days of Instant-Girl, but I suppose this was part of my process.

Everyone in the band liked the phrase mi cuerpo is mio because of it’s strength in sound and content and because it summed up all that we were about. The syntatical alignment of the masculine ending noun “cuerpo” and pronoun “mio” is what creates the strength in the line and is an aspect of the Spanish language that makes it particularly euphonious and easy to create rhyme. It was also a concept of the language that I understood particularly well, and I when I learned it, I was drawn to the way it created emphasis.

Still, the main reason that I suggested mi cuerpo es mio as the title of the 7” was to acknowledge an aspect of my membership in the band that I felt was missing, an aspect of myself that I felt unable to or insecure about expressing. Blame the scene; blame Tuolumme; blame America. It could have been any number of those things. Probably all of them together were to blame for my locura, for my schizophrenic, or closeted identity.

I hadn’t been at all sure that the Spitwomen would want to name our record “My Body is Mine” in Spanish, but they did, and that felt good, but being criticized by a riot grrrl was a huge blow. It really pissed me off.

Like a lot of people, my first reaction to anything upsetting back then was anger. Anger is a good mask for sadness, so I didn’t understand right away that I wasn’t really mad that that some riot grrl, keen on accusing people of cultural appropriation but who couldn’t recognize a person of color when she was staring one in the face, had attacked the band. I was hurt. I was hurt because people didn’t really see me, and I had let it happen. I had been invisibilized. People in the scene did not see my identity, the core of who I really was, the face and body through which I experienced the world. At shows, I did not register as a Chicana. I was just the drummer of Spitboy, and for some reason, I couldn’t be both.