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Behind the Scenes at New York’s Latino Punk Festival

on August 05, 2015, 12:00am

Component is a section of Aux.Out. for one-off pieces, special editorials, and lost orphans of the music discussion. Today, Chris Kissel speaks with the founder of the Latino Punk Festival in New York City and explores ideas of inclusion within the punk scene that the festival celebrates.

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New York City’s Latino Punk Fest is as much a festival in the traditional sense — multiple days of music, an invitation to take a break from life, bands packed in by the half-hour — as it is the opposite of everything corporate music festivals have become. There are no big headliners, no merch tents, no sponsors. There’s just a stage, a few microphones, enough floor space for a brutal pit, and, if you’re lucky, room to sell your homemade T-shirts and cassettes.

This year’s fest takes place August 7th through the 9th at venues including 538 Johnson, one of Brooklyn’s tried-and-true DIY spaces. Bands will come from Mexico and Canada and Salt Lake City, piled in vans, counting their pennies. When they arrive, they’ll play blistering 30-minute sets, screaming lyrics in Spanish about violence, rape, anarchy, and issues that unite these bands in particular, like workers’ rights, immigration, and racism. The crowd, mostly but not all Latino, will be filled with punks, some sporting big, beautiful mohawks and dangling piercings, some just wearing a scowl and an old T-shirt. Some will ride the bus in from Weehawken, New Jersey, and some will carpool from Mexico.

“This festival is a big help to the Latino punk band scene,” Klever Medina, guitarist for Lakras, tells me. Lakras played the festival last year and are playing again this year. Medina, 38, immigrated to the US from Ecuador 16 years ago.

“Some of the bands are from Colombia, Peru, Chile, Brazil, Mexico,” he says. “The festival gives them the opportunity to come to the US and play.”

Last year’s Latino Punk Fest was, in my experience, a lot of fun — a big, drunken get-together among a couple hundred friends who shared music that was special to them. Music they all co-owned, in a way, that no sponsor could co-opt; music that, due in no small part to its deafening volume, no mainstream could tear away from them.

Aldo and Olya

Aldo Hidalgo organizes the festival. A 34-year-old who also works as a supervisor at a Tommy Hilfiger in Elizabeth, New Jersey, he does it with help and encouragement from Olya Liiratai, his girlfriend, a 25-year-old veterinary technician who lives in Brooklyn and studies mental health at Hunter College. Together, they booked all 32 bands, only a third of which are based in New York or New Jersey. Six of the bands are coming from outside the country. There aren’t any sponsors as a matter of DIY principle, so Hidalgo puts on benefit shows leading up to the fest, collecting donations so he can pay the bands.

Despite the growing number of Latino punk bands in New York, few punks in the city’s large scene go out of their way to see them. The festival aims to grow and reinforce the local scene while giving these Latino bands a bigger audience for their music.

I met Hidalgo and Liiratai on a Saturday morning in Manhattan’s East Village across the street from the vet hospital where Liiratai works. Hidalgo wore a black Subhumans T-shirt and a deflated mohawk that drooped over his head. He spoke softly, but got excited when he talked about the scene and the first punk bands he loved. Liiratai, who grew up in Moscow, was quiet, too, and loves punk like it’s her entire world. They both regarded the Latino punk scene with a kind of sanctity.

Liiratai pushed Hidalgo to put on this second installment of the festival. He organized last year’s festival with some friends, but this year, thinking about time and money, he hesitated. But Liiratai insisted.

“This is a community,” she says. “It is a subgenre of its own. The bands sing in Spanish, and they sing about things that are important to them.”

While there have been Latino punk festivals in Los Angeles and San Antonio before, Hidalgo’s event is the first to try to unite Latino punks in New York. “We are learning through what we are doing,” he tells me. “Last year, I did a few things I might not be doing this year. It’s a learning process.”

I can only view the fest as an outsider. I’m not a part of the punk scene, I’m not Latino, and I’m not a first-generation immigrant, unlike everyone I talk to about the fest. What drew me in last year was the promise of something important. These were bands who’d come from all over the world to sing about things as crucial as life and death. It held the promise of something beyond a summer buzz — the fostering of community, a call to action, an international dialogue, even an affirmation of human rights. It was put on by a few people motivated only by their passion for the music and its message. I was sure, without even understanding what the bands were singing about, that the scene represented music and community and meaning tied together in a way that was completely unfabricated.

So it felt weird and sad later when Hidalgo basically kicked me out.

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11753659 10152792547411706 2542373472854231367 n Behind the Scenes at New Yorks Latino Punk Festival

Twenty years ago, Aldo Hidalgo was a teenager in Paterson, New Jersey.

An immigrant from Lima, Peru, he says he landed in Jersey wearing a mohawk. I can’t imagine him looking much different than he does today.

A few years earlier, his father, he says, resigned from the Peruvian military to avoid the political violence plaguing the country. He found a job at a Paterson leather jacket factory and saved the money to bring his family over, one by one.

Shortly after Hidalgo arrived in Jersey, he walked into an inner city high school, mohawk up and skateboard tucked under his arm. One day, he says, two kids attacked him, pushing him into the lockers. One of them, cocking back for a punch, asked him why he dressed like a “white boy wannabe.”

Hidalgo says he hit the kid in the face with his skateboard.

“I grew up on the streets,” Hidalgo says. “When I reacted like that, it wasn’t because I was punk. It was because that’s how we reacted in Lima.”

He says it got him suspended, not to mention the respect of the Latino gangs at his school. But he still looked and acted like a misfit.

“When you’re a teenager, always on your Walkman listening to hardcore punk, you feel like nobody is like you,” he says. “You’re basically in high school by yourself.”

On trips home to Peru, Hidalgo picked up tapes from ’80s Peruvian bands like Ataque Frontal and Kaos. They sang about the political violence that prompted Hidalgo’s father to move to Paterson.

Hidalgo convinced friends who were more into hip-hop and grunge to start a punk band. They called themselves No Abuse and started playing bars in Jersey. But it wasn’t until he discovered Huasipungo that he realized bands were playing punk in Spanish within a few miles of home.

“The first time I saw Huasipungo play, I realized there are Latino punk bands going on here in New York,” he says. “I thought, ‘This is what I want to do, this is what I want to be, these are the people I want to hang out with.’

“We got connected with Huasipungo, and we had our first gig in New York City with them, here in Manhattan, in Chinatown. I don’t remember where it was. But it was a really good show. I was like, ‘Wow, this is the scene I was waiting for.’ When we were playing in Jersey, we used to play in bars, with other types of bands, and no one was listening. And here, we felt the connection.”

Huasipungo are pioneers of Latino punk in the US. They sing with pure rage about the inequalities of life here. “Slaves for factories six to six/ ‘They don’t speak English’/ ‘They should,’ you say/ ‘To serve us much better,’” they sing on “Slaves”, off their 1991 debut EP. Their lyrics felt personal to kids like Hidalgo, who were alone and alienated, their heads filled with their own harrowing immigration stories.

“All Latino punk bands sing about those things,” says Hidalgo. “It’s something that unites us.”

After Hidalgo finished high school, he bopped around a few community colleges, made a go at pre-med at a school in Puerto Rico, dropped out, and settled into life in northern New Jersey. At the same time, he played with No Abuse and another band, Kantuta, named after a political massacre that occurred in Peru in 1992.

He says he’s about to start a nursing program at Kingsborough Community College after the summer. In the meantime, he gets a kick out of how clueless his coworkers at Tommy Hilfiger are about how he spends his off time.

“I dress differently when I’m there. We’ll have a conversation about music, and I’ll say, ‘Oh, I play drums,’ and they’ll ask, ‘Oh, what type of music do you play?’ and I’ll say, ‘I play punk,’ and they say, ‘Oh, really?’ I told them I was doing this fest, and they said, ‘Oh, really? Are you a promoter?’” Hidalgo laughs. “And I said, ‘No, I’m not a promoter.’”

His focus is on building and reinforcing the scene. “Everybody tries to help, and that’s what’s good about it,” Hidalgo says. “Bands are always asking, ‘What can I do? Can I help you clean the floor? Can we help set up?’ Everybody wants to be a part.”

Hidalgo and Liiratai have read comments on Facebook calling the festival out for excluding non-Latino bands. “I’ve been going to both scenes for nine years, and all those so-called white bands, they never attend a Latino punk band’s show,” Liiratai says. Liiratai isn’t Latina, but she’s punk — she plays with a band called Dischaka.

I’m neither Latino nor punk, and when I went to the festival last year, I didn’t feel excluded — though, not knowing Spanish or the code of the punk subculture, I didn’t fully grasp what was going on around me. But I didn’t expect to. The show wasn’t for me; it was for the kids who felt the music speaking to them.

“We try to be very open,” Hidalgo says. “We’re not trying to show them how a DIY scene has to be. But the festival is a different vibe. If you come from Latin America, the way you sing and the way you behave is different.”

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Escasos Recursos

I left the coffee shop exhilarated about Hidalgo and Liiratai’s project, an event that builds a community, that gives alienated kids an outlet, that gives a voice to the voiceless. That’s what I’d always felt punk was: as much community as music, a subculture that embraces misfits. Latino punk brings a more urgent, political element to that, a way to use that strong community to push for equality.

The bands who are actually involved in the festival complicated the picture a bit.

Suly Arvelo plays drums in Lakras, whose first show was at last year’s Latino Punk Fest. She says it felt good to play in front of an audience that understood what she was saying.

“We have played shows where we were the only Latino band, and it does feel weird because they don’t understand what we’re saying,” Arvelo says. “Latino Punk Fest is a place where anyone can come together.”

Arvelo is 25 and works as a veterinary technician. She moved to New Jersey from Puerto Rico when she was 15 and lives in New Brunswick. She says at last year’s fest, she overheard a guy in another band talking about Lakras. “They said, ‘Oh, they have a girl drummer. They’re probably gonna suck.’”

Arvelo encounters a lot of this kind of misogyny, even within the scene. “As a female musician, a lot of guys are really disrespectful to girls who were in bands,” she says. “Some people think they can talk to you however they want.”

Arvelo said she’s looking forward to the fest so she can see bands from all over the world. I reached out to one of those bands, the Bogota-based Lupus, via email. They’re playing the festival for the first time. Lupus has a chugging, almost metal sound and bleak, dystopian lyrics. On “Crematorio”, they sing (in Spanish), “You’ve been born defeated and already made earth/ We are the shadow of some fleeting moment/ Goodbye, cursed life.” I asked them if they feel like punk gives a voice to the voiceless.

“In a place like Colombia,” they wrote back, “where the concept of choice is a total illusion, not even punk or any other art manifestation can give voice to anyone. That’s why people used to take grenades and blow up themselves into some social health institution trying to get heard. We can safely say that as a family, as a herd, we built our own homeland where we can take our own decisions, where we’re never gonna be voiceless, keeping ourselves away of the never-ending stress of hope.”

For Lupus, it seems, punk is less of a way to organize and raise their voices than to escape a brutally exclusive mainstream. It allows them to express their rage in a closed-off environment. It’s a resigned, nihilistic gesture. It takes the anger of punk and, driven by hopelessness, turns it inward.

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Flykills

The New York City punk activist Esneider says he wants to turn the anger outward. Esneider, who goes by his first name, started Huasipungo, the band that captured the attention of young Aldo Hidalgo, in 1989. To a large degree, the history of Spanish-sung punk in the United States starts with Huasipungo.

Esneider’s story is a lot like Hidalgo’s. When he was in high school in Colombia, Esneider belonged to the local fringe music scene, which at the time was more metal than punk.

“Nobody had instruments, nobody had money, and the police would come and teargas the shows,” he says. “There was a lot of drugs, a guerrilla war, a civil war. It was hard. There was a lot of violence. I wound up leaving the country.”

Esneider jumped the US border and was promptly arrested by the immigration police. But he jumped bail and ended up in New York City. For the next 14 years, he worked and played shows while avoiding deportation, until the government gave him the chance to become documented. “These are the kinds of things I talk about when I write, because this is my experience,” he says.

Esneider started volunteering at ABC No Rio, New York’s longtime DIY hub, out of frustration with the local punk scene, which was racist and homophobic. He met a few other Latinos, and they started a band. “We’ll sing mostly in Spanish,” they decided, “and we’ll talk about who we are,” Esneider says. “Punk is about singing about who we are and where we come from and what we feel. So we sang about being immigrants.”

Things hit a turning point when Esneider met Martin Sorrondeguy and his band Los Crudos. What Huasipungo had been doing in New York, Los Crudos were doing in Chicago — singing in Spanish and inspiring Latino kids to start their own bands.

maxresdefault1 Behind the Scenes at New Yorks Latino Punk Festival

Huasipungo did a split 7-inch with Los Crudos in 1993 and joined them on a tour across the US, Huasipungo’s first. “We started meeting these kids who were isolated, for whom punk was very important, punk was an amazing voice, but punk didn’t represent them completely,” Esneider says. “All of a sudden, here we are, singing about things they could relate to.”

One of those kids was Aldo Hidalgo. Huasipungo was the band that inspired Hidalgo to try to make an impact with punk. Huasipungo and Hidalgo’s band, No Abuse, played the Chinatown show together, and they recorded a split.

Much later, when Hidalgo put on last year’s Latino Punk Fest, Huasipungo played. But Esneider said he’s not playing Latino Punk Fest this year.

“It has potential, and it’s a great idea and Aldo’s doing a fantastic job organizing it,” he says. “But I don’t agree with a lot of the things that are happening with it.”

Esneider thinks the festival should be more inclusive to bands that aren’t Latino, and he says it doesn’t exactly mesh with his old-school DIY ideals.

“I’m an old, radical punk, you know? We only play all-ages shows, and we only do DIY. I’d rather not play bars if possible,” he says. “There has to be a bunch of people who are going to say, ‘Why are we playing these bars with bouncers that are beating up punk kids when we can do our own shows?’”

For Esneider, punk is nothing if not collective and DIY. “We live in a fucked-up, dehumanizing society that wants to take everything out of us,” he says. “And we want to say that we belong to each other. And we’re all crazy. We don’t end up in this scene because we’re well-balanced individuals. We end up in this scene because we are fucked up. So we look at each other and say, ‘You’re as dysfunctional as me. We are a community.'”

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Disidencia Subversiva 2

I was surprised by Hidalgo’s reaction when I told him I’d talked to Esneider.

I had called him to give him the chance to respond to Esneider’s criticisms. I thought it was a good chance to talk to him about some of his logistical decisions for the festival. Hidalgo was quick to dismiss Esneider’s criticisms — he didn’t want to lend them any credence, so he didn’t want to respond.

But he was also angry at me. Not angry that I’d talked to Esneider, but angry that I was going to include his words in the article — angry that I was going to give him the chance to damage the scene.

“If you paint our scene in a bad light, I won’t tolerate it,” he told me flatly over the phone.

I told him I wanted to be fair, and that I thought Esneider’s comments would be worth including because of his influence. It was, after all, Hidalgo who turned me on to Huasipungo in the first place. Couldn’t I be a little suspicious that just the thought of including Esneider’s opinions made Hidalgo angry?

“No, I’m protecting the scene,” he said. He hadn’t wanted to talk to me for the article in the first place, he said, but after I badgered him a bit, he did. “You seemed like a trustworthy person,” he said. And here I was, threatening to give credibility to the first person who came along with an insult. From that standpoint, I understood his anger.

“I don’t want to see you at the festival,” he told me. My heart fell a little. I told him I hoped he’d reconsider. “We are punk,” he said. I, of course, was not. We said goodbye.

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Earlier in the summer, when Hidalgo and I were on better terms, I went to one of his Latino Punk Fest benefits at Don Pedro’s, a Brooklyn bar that will also host the fest. Hidalgo and Liiratai were both there, and we greeted each other happily. After a little while, Liiratai, wiped from a long day at the vet clinic, went out to the car to sleep.

Hidalgo should have been sleeping, too. He had to wake up at five and drive back down to Elizabeth so he could get to work. Plus, he was still booking bands for the fest and getting requests from bands who wanted to play. He looked exhausted, but he moshed along and shouted into the microphone along with the bands.

It all felt DIY enough to me. The bartenders, posted in the room up front, looked a little annoyed, but they left the punks alone. The bouncer, past middle age and weeble-shaped, didn’t look like he wanted to beat anyone up. And the bands that played — like Escasos Recursos, a shout-along ska punk band, and Flykills, who had a different, offbeat sound — weren’t exclusively Latino.

I thought about something then that I’d thought about 10 years ago, when I was a suburban wannabe punk — punk is a weird, complicated word. It’s a word nobody has ownership over, so everybody gets to decide what it means. It’s a word that wants to include everybody and nobody at the same time.

I thought of Lupus, who live in a place that renders them voiceless, and for whom punk was a way of burning everything to the ground and starting again down below. For someone like Esneider, punk is uncompromising — rigid, radical, a dying way of life. For Hidalgo, I felt, it was a kind of sworn oath — a group of friends knit tight, who picked each other up when they were down, who gave each other a voice. A group so important to its members that it can’t be compromised by anything.

I watched a band called Disidencia Subversiva play their set, powering through a snapped guitar string. Before one of their last songs, their singer looked out at the crowd. “If you don’t speak Spanish, I’m sorry,” he said.

He spotted me. “I can tell you don’t speak Spanish,” he said. I shrugged and said, “Maybe a little.” He shrugged, too. The band launched into another one.

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Chris Kissel is a writer and host of a radio program in Brooklyn. He tweets.

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