Category Archives: Race/Identity

Latino Heritage Month/What’s Up With White People Singing De Colores?

In America, we get these months to celebrate ethnic heritage, among other things (dogs, pizza, ice cream). Schools and libraries often create very meaningful programming around these months, but sometimes these celebrations feel like a tourist’s view of a culture. If you didn’t know, we are currently in the midst of Hispanic/Latino Heritage month, a month of Latin American people’s focused literature in libraries, public TV programming, and Latino Heritage month commercials sponsored by Coca-Cola or the NFL. 

Since I write about Mexicans all the time, it’s Latino Heritage month all year long on this blog, but as always, I do have a little story to tell. 

I wouldn’t say I dread Latino Heritage Month, and I recognize the opportunities (even for me) that the month presents, but I think many Latinos have mixed feelings about why a month to celebrate Latino heritage is necessary in the first place. 

About two years ago, I was invited to a reading in San Francisco as a featured reader, me and another Xicano author. As soon as I walked in the door with my Mexican born husband, someone told us someone was going to play music, and that they’d be singing in Spanish, “De Colores,” and would we please sing along. Moments later, someone began practicing their Spanish on my husband. Later, as I listened to others invited to read, I realized there was a theme, one that had not quite been communicated to me. Each poet who read, one after another read about humble migrants, cultural misunderstandings, brown people who who worked the land, picked our food, and one reader pretended to be John Steinbeck and read from “Harvest Gypsies.” I began to wonder if those who invited me to read thought I was or had been a migrant worker, and then they sang “De Colores.” I’m surprised that my husband, who was already agitated, didn’t get up and walk out of the place.  Our two friends who came to the event with us watched wide-eyed as the seen unfolded around us, a group of well-meaning older hippie poets, swaying as they sang, begging us to join in. 

Later at home over the course of several days, I tried to work out what had happened, why it had happened, and it brought up all sorts of feelings about related experiences that I tried to capture in “What’s Up With White People Singing De Colores,” a piece that has offended/hurt/worried a few friends because it struck a nerve, but also, I guess, because “De Colores” is such a beloved song.

What’s Up With White People Singing De Colores?

What’s up with white people singing De Colores? Do they know it’s a children’s song? Do they know how embarrassing it is for us to sit and listen? Yes, we do know the words. Doesn’t everyone? And no we don’t want to join in.

We don’t want to kiri kiri ki like roosters or to listen to you do it. We don’t want to hear you sing using all the wrong vowels sounds, and we don’t care if the song was sung by Cesar Chavez and the American Farm Workers Movement. Yes, we knew that already.

And we don’t care if you love our culture, all the flavors and colors. We don’t care if you think we are the hardest working people in America. We don’t care if you think we’re the laziest. We are those things and everything in between. We know you love Mexican food. Who doesn’t? We know it’s your favorite. Mexican food is like pizza – it’s everyone’s favorite.

We also don’t care if you’re learning Spanish. Some of us don’t speak it either. Assimilation beat it out of us, beat it out of our parents. But you want a prize for taking a Spanish class, the one where you learned to say pio pio pio pi. Please don’t practice your Spanish on us either. If we’re fluent, we don’t want to hear you proudly mangle every other word, and if we’re not, we don’t want to have to pretend we’re better at it rather than explain because you made an assumption. We’d rather carry on a conversation like we did cuando podiamos ser amigos.

What’s up with white people singing De Colores? Do they know how predictable it is and how grating? It’s like old people saying “bling” or white girls with dread locks. And we don’t care if you celebrate Dia de Los Muertos or make tamales for Christmas. We’ve been buying advent calendars and watching A Charlie Brown Christmas all our lives. We’re glad to see you finally adopt and appreciate some of our ways, but now you want our approval too!

What’s up with white people thinking that we’re stuck in time? Do you think we sit around singing folk songs all the day? Did you know that some of us like death metal, Morrisey, Joni Mitchell (who, btw, never recorded De Colores) Bhangra, The Clash (even though they sang in terrible Spanish too), and Kate Bush?

What’s up with white people singing De Colores? No, we don’t want to join in. Sure, it’s a step up from “La Cucaracha,” “La Bamba,” or “El Jarabe Tapatio,” which you call the Mexican Hat Dance, but is there no other song to represent us, and why just one song?

Yes, De Colores is all about colors and unity, and yes, I get the song makes you feel good about embracing diversity, finally, and multiculturalism, but it’s never as easy as one song, not for us.

What’s up with white people singing De Colores? You can stop anytime.

 

 

 

The First Rule of Punk: A Book Review (of sorts)

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I got Celia C. Pérez’s The First Rule of Punk  less than 24-hours ago, and I read it in two sittings, finishing this afternoon, crying over the climax at a table in my neighborhood café.

I have never wanted to hold a book in my hand more than my own book The Spitboy Rule, until I learned about First Rule of Punk. The First Rule of Punk is a middle grade novel. I learned about it from Bustle online in February. It got a lot of early buzz months before its scheduled release, I think, because a book about a punk rock Xicana in middle school in the era of Trump gives dems, leftists, feminists, book nerds, zinsters, ex-zinsters, librarians, Xicanas, punx, ex-punx, punk parents, and perimenopunxs hope.

I also cried when I read this summary of it: “There are no shortcuts to surviving your first day at a new school—you can’t fix it with duct tape like you would your Chuck Taylors. On Day One, twelve-year-old Malú (María Luisa, if you want to annoy her) inadvertently upsets Posada Middle School’s queen bee, violates the school’s dress code with her punk rock look, and disappoints her college-professor mom in the process. Her dad, who now lives a thousand miles away, says things will get better as long as she remembers the first rule of punk: be yourself.”

On February 28, I wrote this on the Spitboy Rule Facebook page: “This book looks awesome and like the middle grade version the The Spitboy Rule!” Twenty people shared the Bustle link straight away, the post reached over 35000 views, and I got excited and reached out to the author on Twitter.

She responded with this tweet:

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I was smitten right away and we began following each other on Twitter and Instagram, and we recently became friends on Facebook where she promised to send me an advance copy of the book when she got them. Not too long after, I began seeing people post copy of their books, their advance copies (probably straight from the publisher or a conference), and I began obsessively checking my mailbox. I haven’t checked my mailbox so religiously since I was single and had a crush on my Puerto Rican neighbor who I eventually learned was engaged to be married (but that’s a whole other story!).

Yesterday, I checked my mailbox, hoping to find some stickers that I ordered, and out popped a recycled manila envelope, book-shaped, and with Celia’s name and address. I tried to open the envelope carefully, so as not to rip the book, but I was excited. Out flew the book, a FRP book mark, a FRP button, and two Sherman Alexie zines!

“Move,” I told my 15 year-old son who was sitting on my spot under the reading lamp on the couch. “Don’t anyone bother me until dinner time.”

I turned the bright yellow book over in my hands, looking for things you can’t see in picture of the book online. I saw pan dulce, a sugar skull, an anarchy symbol, and a quetzal wearing a Walkman.

I read the back cover, and then I took a deep breath, and opened the book to Chapter 1.   I cried twice in the first fifteen chapters, once because I was touched, and the first time because I simply could not contain my joy over the existence of a book written about a girl like me. I am 47 years old, 48 in October, and not once in my life have I read a book (fiction) about someone so much like me. There are books by Xicanas about Xicanas who have had many of the same experiences and feelings that I have had, like Teresa in Ana Castillo’s Mixquahuala Letters. Still, last winter on Facebook, it was a thing to change your profile photo to a character from a children’s book character who was most like you, and I wanted to play along, but found I couldn’t think of any character who was like me or who I identified with. I posted a photo of Speedy Gonzales. It was all I could come up with and I wanted to make a point, but it was the first time that I realized that something seemingly trivial on Facebook could make me feel so sad.

Growing up, Speedy Gonzales was literally the only children’s character who was anything like me. Kids at school used to scream, “Arriba, rriba, andale, andale,” when I walked by.

But now, at nearly 50 years-old, I have Malù, but most importantly, kids all over America get to have Malù too – brown kids, comic book or zine nerds, punk or rock music fans (since electronic/digitized music has taken over the airwaves),  budding activists, kids who break the school dress code, tough girls, and unladylike girls who want to pour drinks over the school mean girl’s head (I actually did pour beer over a trendy girls head at a party, which Malù would never do because she doesn’t drink beer).

Since you probably haven’t yet read the book, you might be wondering now what else it’s about, but I don’t want to spoil it for you. I will say that Malù makes zines and is keen on lists, like the one on the back cover. You might also be wondering how I’m like Malù besides the Xicana punk connection. Here’s my list:

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Thank you Celia C. Pérez for writing a book about someone like me, for making it happen in my lifetime, and for giving me a character to use in my profile pic next time I need a children’s book character to identify with, for making us visible – you’re my hero.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lowrider Legacy

 

If it weren’t for cruising, car culture, and Whittier boulevard in East LA, I wouldn’t be alive. At seventeen, my mom was an East LA ruca, dating a part-time delinquente, Michael Cruz, who skipped school and cruised the boulevard, hung around Chronies, a hotdog and burger joint, and avoided the Lincoln Heights area because it wasn’t his territory. Mom went to school most of the time. She was even there during the walkouts, the day many of the Garfield high kids got locked inside by school officials. Some who got out were battered by police.

Like a lot of Chicano kids back then, Mom’s heart wasn’t in school. School was a prison, a place that that didn’t teach you anything about yourself or your own history, a place that made you feel bad for having brown skin, for speaking Spanish, a place that didn’t allow Latino kids to use the bathroom during lunchtime for fear of vandalism and fights. It’s no wonder the streets, cruising, and cars represented freedom.

It was on those streets where they would, for better or for worse, define themselves: Chicanos, pachucos, vatos locos, soto street, city terrace. Mom and Michael weren’t in a gang, but they lived in Boyle Heights; that was their territory. Their families had crossed the border to make their lives in America, only for their children to close the borders around them. Cruising Whittier, put them at risk for getting to close to other territories, and fights, and violence, but cruising the strip and hanging around Chronies was also a social experience away from teachers, and parents, and rules, some that only applied to them because they were Chicanos and to no one else. So in response, they carved out a piece of freedom and made more rules at the same time, a sort of futile using the master’s tools approach to their discontent. Writer Audre Lorde said that you can’t use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house, wise advice, but still the kind that young people, especially car loving, street-smart kids disregard because they think they know better.

Eventually, too much cutting school and cruising, got mom kicked out of school, which didn’t much matter to her because Michael wasn’t there and she was in love. Mom was in the kind of love that caused sixteen year olds to jump out their bedroom windows at night, the kind of love that caused sixteen year olds to steal their fathers’ Oldsmobile, and forget to put on the hand break, parking it on one of those Boyle Heights hills, where it rolled away and into the neighbor’s fence, the ones who sold drugs, who didn’t want any trouble, so they let it slide. Mom was in the kind of love that got her pregnant at seventeen by a guy with a quick temper and a Napoleon complex. Cruising should have meant freedom for my mom, but instead it meant a shotgun wedding in a knee length white dress, that sort of hid her growing belly, long enough to smile and pretend she was sure it would all work out, even when she knew it wouldn’t. Michael may have had a job and a Mustang, but he would hurt her and she would have to set herself free.

And so goes my lowrider legacy. I rode home from the hospital in Michael’s Mustang, down Whittier from General Hospital, only they weren’t cruising anymore. I had stolen their youth, and Mom and Michael were on a crash course to divorce. Still, I have to honor my East LA-vida loca-Whittier Boulevard-cruising legacy because it set me on the road toward real freedom ever since.

**Originally published in Joaquin Magazine

Making Up with Punk Rock

This summer, as I spend most of my time working furiously on my novel, I will be reposting some of my favorite pieces.

About this piece, when I told her a version of this story, Alice Bag, said, “You really broke up with punk rock didn’t you.” I realized then that I ought to write it down. This piece was originally published  July 16, 2016 on my PM Press blog

In 1998, I broke up with punk rock. It was not a good boyfriend. It liked fucking me, but it wouldn’t introduce me to its mom, worried she’d notice that I wasn’t just punk rock, but that I was something else too, something/someone it didn’t quite understand. I feared I had aged out too. Standing around at 924 Gilman hurt my feet, the cold, hard cement floor. All the young people, seeming to get younger, as I got older didn’t bother me. I quite like young people. I gave birth to one, and I teach at a community college.

I broke up with punk rock, but it appears I’m back, having never really left at all. Still, I feel I have some explaining to do.

For me, punk rock was always about participation. I starting listening to punk at thirteen, was in a band, Bitch Fight, by the age of fifteen, and in 1987, by the age of seventeen, I had moved to San Francisco with Bitch Fight, and we began playing shows with bands like MDC, Operation Ivy, Frightwig, and Crimpshrine. When Bitch Fight broke up a year and a half later, I did a stint in Kamala and the Karnivores, and started Spitboy. After Spitboy broke up in 1997, Karin (guitar), Dominique (bass guitar), and I stayed together, and formed Instant Girl, a band we knew that would be short lived because Dominique was headed to Yale to study architecture. No longer hungry to continue participating in this way, I figured I should finish school too, and I got myself accepted, and a large scholarship, to Mills College. I wanted to study creative writing and English. My feet hurt from standing around on cement in my job of fifteen years as a preschool, and Gilman, and my back from hauling around drums all those years. My band days were over, and I was fine with that. I had said a lot through the band, made a contribution, traveled the world. I wanted to study. I wanted to write. I got married too – I felt like traitor, but I was happy.

Punk rock has a way of making you feel like a traitor when you decide to grow up a little, go to college, get married. At least it did back then, but after years of dating men in the scene who liked to pretend they didn’t have families, didn’t come from somewhere, let alone introduce me to their parents, I married a Mexican. I had finally been true to myself.

Photo by Ilona Sturm

For about ten years, when I was in my thirties, nursing my son, going to graduate school, I hardly ever mentioned to anyone that I had been in a band that traveled the US, Europe, New Zealand, Australia, and Japan.  A band that put out records, did radio interviews, and for fanzines, a band that got fan mail. I didn’t want to be another boring adult talking about her glory days. Everyone wants to be rock star. Everyone wants to write a book too, but as a wise professor once said, you can’t, especially the later, standing around at parties talking about it. The cool thing about punk rock is that you actually start a band by standing around talking about it. That’s how bands start. Someone says let’s start a band, you think of some cool names, you decide who’s going to play what, you learn to play your instrument if you don’t know how already, and you write your first song. It’s what attracts people to punk rock in the first place – you don’t need to go to Mills College or Yale to do it.

While some people get into punk rock because they just want to fuck shit up, many of us call punk home because of its access to radical politics and people who hold them, people who question authority, people who question their own thoughts, people who read books, and attend demonstrations, and now discuss white privilege, people who don’t believe we should give up our basic privacy rights to protect ourselves from actual, or  so-called terrorism, people who aren’t afraid to call themselves feminists. And it’s         for all these things that I’m back, lending my voice, participating, now, in the best way I know how. 

Dear Bean: On Being A Second Wave Woman in Punk

Dear Bean,    mg-bean-claudia2

You recently asked me which women in punk that I looked up to when I was first starting out playing drums in punk bands, and I have a confession to make. Aside from the women who were my friends, the women who I was playing music with, the answer is none. In some ways, because there were so few women playing punk rock music, we felt like we were the only ones. We named our band Bitch Fight because we were women and because we were young and we fought a lot over petty things, but we didn’t always want to be referred to as a girl band, and while we were excited to be feature in MRR in 1989, we were a bit disappointed to be in the Women’s Issue. We had a range of mixed feelings about what we were doing because of the messages being sent to us from the scene, messages that made it clear that women in music were just a novelty, and we wanted to be more than that. At the same time, we like many other women in the scene, bought into the idea that punk and punk ethos was defined by men. We didn’t exactly want to be one of the boys, but we also didn’t want a label that we knew was used to downplay our importance in the scene, or to only play girl band night at Gilman.

I developed a love for music and a desire to become a musician at a very early age, learning to play the flute in third grade. I loved Linda Ronstadt, Joni Mitchell, and later the Go Go’s. In my early teens, I, for obvious reasons, became fascinated by Poly Styrene of the X-Ray Spex and Annabella Lewin of Bow Wow Wow. It was a downer, though, to discover a band like X-Ray Spex after they were already broken up. In fact, it seemed like all the first wave punk bands with women in them were all broken up. For this reason, my punk idols became men: Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Jello Biafra, DH Peligro, Dave Dictor, save one woman, Lynn Perko of the Dicks, a voluptuous blonde, who beat her drums and sweated so ferociously, I was hardly ever able to tear my eyes away from her each time I saw The Dicks play. I also looked up to bands like The Clash, Dead Kennedys, MDC, and the Dicks because of their overt political lyrics.

I never, however, in those early years, looked up to Alice Bag. It pains me to say this. I loved the idea of the Zeros, the Xicano punk band from Chula Vista. When I  learned of them, I wished I had never left LA and had been old enough to see them play, but Alice scared me. I first learned of her, like so many of us did, when I first saw Decline of Western Civilization, a movie in which so many others in bands featured in the filmed were interviewed when Alice was not. All those interviewed came off as dangerously self-destructive, and there was Alice, dominating the stage with her ages-old, indigenous power, her short hair a fuck you to Mexican and Mexican-American parents everywhere. Combined with the deranged depiction of punk and Alice’s intensity, I became afraid of punk, and women in punk, because I wasn’t sure I could match such power, was up for it, or could handle the responsibility, the responsibility that came with defying dominant culture, female gender roles, Mexican-American culture, American standards of beauty, and a multitude of social mores all at the same time.

If I just tried to blend in, I thought, it all might be less exhausting, of course, as you may know from reading my book, I was wrong.

There were several bands with women in them, or all female bands, that Bitch Fight and Spitboy played with that I’d like to mention, bands that were not riot grrl bands: Gag Order featured Wendy-O-Matik on vocals; Paxton Quiggly had Bronwyn on vocals too. Blatz featured Anna Joy, and the Gr’ups featured, Danielle Sea, Deb Dupas, and Kamala Parks. The all-female bands include Fright Wig, Tiger Trap, a jangly melodic band, whose drummer I also had a big crush on, Tribe 8, 7 Year Bitch, a metal-tinged outfit from Seattle, and the Trash Women, who featured Bitch Fight’s guitarist, Elka Zolot, and Kamala and the Karnivores, a band that I was actually in for a short amount of time, even getting lucky enough to play on the 7”. I mention the Karnivores because they are a band that was truly ahead of their time (even Mr. Ask Kent thinks so), and because in the spirit of supporting women, they asked me to join them on guitar after Bitch Fight broke up, which had left me depressed and broken. They picked me up, and helped me learn to own my place as a woman in punk, playing mixed gender bills and playing women’s nights, and via their camaraderie and the tongue-in-cheek title of our Lookout Records 7” “Girl Band.”

I am happy to say, being so subsumed in punk, playing in bands, starting at an early age, and meeting and making friends with so many women in the scene, I stopped having idols, and began having allies. And now you, you’re my ally too.

All my love, respect, and admiration,

Michelle

This is My Fucking Country

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MG, her brother and sister, in the country, circa 1979

Link to “This is My Fucking Country” up at hipmama.com

“This is my fucking country,” I said this to some colleagues at work on Friday, November 4. It felt like the thing kind of statement that I should expand into an essay, but I knew that I wasn’t the only one who felt this way. 1001 Black Men artist, Ajuan Mance, wrote on Facebook on election night that she told a friend that she wasn’t going anywhere either, least of all Canada. She said, “With a Black population of something around 2.5 percent and some really wonky race politics, the neighbor to our north is really not happening for me. No matter who is president, I’ll stay right here, continuing the legacy of celebration and resistance established by my ancestors.”  It’s the kind of statement that I would expect from Ajuan, who was my American Literature professor at Mills College. 

I wasn’t planning write anything after the election, even though I knew that I should. I just didn’t think that I could harness all my thoughts and emotions, be articulate/surprisingly articulate (*wink*),  or say anything fresh. But then Ariel sent me a message, and in it were the words “resistance “and “punk,” and I was off. 

I say all this to give credit to my community, my teachers, friends, and all the people whose ideas meld with, inspire, and buoy mine.

Call Me Exotic, I Dare You

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My mom was born in Los Angeles — had me at seventeen

Call me exotic, I dare you

                                                    My dad was born in Los Angeles — beat his wife

                                                    Call me exotic, I dare you

My grandfather was born in Los Angeles — played jazz piano

Call me exotic, I dare you

                                                  My grandma was born in Camarillo, CA — lived her whole 

adult life in Los Angeles and my cousins were cholas

                                                  Call me exotic, I dare you

So, I’m not from South America

Call me exotic, I dare you

                                                  I’m not from Spain

                                                  Call me exotic, I dare you

I’m not from India, either

Call me exotic, I dare you

                                                 I grew up in Tuolumne, California

                                                 Call me exotic, I dare you

I learned most of my Spanish at Diablo Valley College

Call me exotic, I dare you

                                                I love Taco Bell bean burritos

                                                Call me exotic, I dare you

I can’t  salsa, cumbia, or do the tango

Call me exotic, I dare you

                                                I won’t wear a flower in my hair

                                                Call me exotic, I dare you

I don’t sing in Spanish, Nahuatl, or Portuguese

Call me exotic, I dare you.

                                                I play punk rock drums

                                                Call me exotic, I dare you

 I’m a hardcore, ball-busting, bra-burning

carpet-munching, dick-sucking, feminist, perimenopunk

Call me exotic, I dare you.