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From Lydia Mendoza To Fea: Latinas And American Music

by Denise Sullivan

Fea (L-R: Letty Martinez, Jenn Alva, Phanie Diaz, Aaron Magana)

Fea (L-R: Letty Martinez, Jenn Alva, Phanie Diaz, Aaron Magana)

 

These days, the sound of Latinas making music in San Antonio is less inspired by the region’s famous Tex-Mex sound or Selena, than it is by the roar of punk rock. Fea, with its name that translates as “ugly female,” is an unapologetically queer, feminist band that plays classic pop punk and has earned kudos from some of punk’s biggest names. Signed to Joan Jett’s Blackheart Records, Fea’s self-titled debut was co-produced by Laura Jane Grace, Alice Bag, and Laurie Barbero (Babes in Toyland), and received the thumbs-up from punk’s own grandfather Iggy Pop. Check the speed, agility, and wordplay of their multi-lingual feminist anthem, “Feminazi.”

Band members Jenn Alva and Phanie Diaz had previously collaborated as Girl in Coma. Named as an homage to the Smiths song, “Girlfriend in a Coma,” the band was committed to a label-free, indie rock  identity, and was disinclined to making political statements. As Fea, joined by Letty Martinez and Aaron Magana, the band is more outspoken according to the needs of present day realities. “It’s now, not only are we a band, but we are on a mission,” says Diaz via email. “To be queer, a minority and a female in America is not wrong…It shouldn’t have to be labeled, oh that ‘queer band’ or that ‘girl band’ or that ‘Mexican band.’…we have to continue to show that even though we are these things, it’s not a negative thing!”

All four of the band members were born in Texas, surrounded by the influences of Mexican music – Tejano and conjunto – as well as English language sounds, “From the Beatles to Bikini Kill, the Descendents, etc….We are able to draw from all influences to create a sound. Texas is a great melting pot of music,” says Diaz. This weekend Fea plays a string of dates at home in the Lone Star state with Alice Bag, a Latina punk legend in her own right. Born Alicia Amendariz, Bag was one of the pioneers of LA punk rock: As co-founder and lead singer of the Bags, she fronted the fierce mixed gender band as an expression of anti-oppression, with lyrics to match. Bag has stayed in the game as a musician, an activist and author of two memoirs, Violence Girl: A Chicana Punk Story, and Pipe Bomb For The Soul, about time spent in Nicaragua.

The roots of Latinas rocking the USA date back to the earliest era of phonograph recording. Lydia Mendoza, born in 1916 in Houston, Texas, lived most of her life in San Antonio. One of eight children in a family of itinerant musicians, the group travelled the US/Mexico border regions, entertaining migrant workers while receiving their share of hassles from la migra.

“At that time, Americans viewed Mexicans as a sub-culture and treated them like that,” says Mendoza’s grandson, Roger Hernandez in American Epic, the new documentary exploring the roots of American recording, screening this month on PBS. Casting its eye on the blending of musical styles and cultures that makes our country’s music distinctly American, Mendoza’s story sets in motion the complicated journey for female singer-songwriters in the 20th Century and marks the way forward for Latina performers.

Mendoza continued to record and perform in her middle and later years (chronicled in the Les Blank film, Chulas Fronteras) and was awarded the National Medal of Honor by President Clinton. She died in 2007 and a special edition postage stamp was issued with her image in 2013. Mendoza’s now beloved and most famous work, “Mal Hombre,” recorded and released in 1934, is an intense burst of song, packed with deep emotion.

Latinos have contributed to rock ‘n’roll and its culture since its dawn, from Richie Valens and Santana to San Antonio’s own Sir Douglas Quintet. In California, as in Texas, there is no shortage of Spanish-speaking musicians with ties to Mexico or other ports of call from Central and South America to the islands of Cuba, Puerto Rico or Dominican Republic. The roots of Latinos in punk date to year one of the ’70s California sound when San Diego’s the Zeros and LA’s the Plugz where on it from the get go; even the more traditional roots rock of East LA’s Los Lobos got associated with the scene because they recorded independently and gigged on the punk circuit. Each generation of Latino rockers are branches from the same tree, whether punk rock drummer Michelle Cruz Gonzales of Oakland’s Spitboy, or the more traditional sounding Marisol Hernandez, AKA La Marisoul of the LA-based, La Santa Cecilia. Named for the patron saint of music, La Santa Cecilia shares influences not only from rock and Latin America, but from the entire world of sound. Award-winning and beloved on the festival circuit, La Santa Cecilia’s latest Amar Y Vivir, is an audio/visual journey through Mexico with a group of like-minded músicos.

“Mexican American artists continue to make impacts and open doors just like Lydia did,” says Fea’s co-founder, Phanie Diaz. “We also continue to educate the next generation of artists of our heritage…and expose them to artists they may not have heard of just as the musicians before us have.” Fea take seriously their job rocking the house while demonstrating the true meaning of waging peace and equality in this moment of national disharmony. “As we continue our venture on the road, we see people of all backgrounds united in the crowd over a shared love of music,” says Diaz. “If our part is to make music to create that unity, then so be it.”

 

Alice Bag and Fea

June 15, San Antonio, TX  Bang Bang Bar

June 16, McAllen, TX  Yerberia Cultura

June 17, Houston, TX  Walter’s Downtown

June 18, Austin, TX  Barracuda

 

La Santa Cecilia

June 24, Toronto, CAN  Pride Toronto

July 3, Bogota, Colombia  Rock al parque

July 15, Vancouver, CAN  Vancouver Folk Music Festival

July 26, Edmonds, WA  Edmonds Center for the Arts 

Aug 11, Denver, CO  Velorama Festival

Aug 12, Edmonton, CAN  Edmonton Folk Festival 

Sep 17, Hollywood, CA  Hollywood Bowl

Denise Sullivan 7Denise Sullivan is a California-based author of books on music including Keep on Pushing:  Black Power Music From Blues to Hip HopThe White Stripes:  Sweethearts of the Blues and Shaman’s Blues:  The Art and Influences Behind Jim Morrison and the Doors. Follow her @4DeniseSullivan and at her blog.



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