It’s not salsa or ranchera music – Latino punk rock in the US

Latino musical diversity is much more than indigenous, vernacular and regional music. Explorations of the Latino musical identity have delved into jazz, rock and beyond

Tony Marsico on bass and Tito Larriva of The Plugz playing a show at Al's Bar.
Tony Marsico on bass and Tito Larriva of The Plugz playing a show at Al's Bar.Gary Leonard (Corbis via Getty Images)

Migration and cultural assimilation often involve a search for new identities that reflect the different realities that surround us. The complex, changing, sometimes even contradictory characteristics of the Latino community in the United States are one of the world’s most obvious examples of a cultural diaspora.

As Latino communities in the US assimilate, deep cultural roots slowly give way to more immediate realities, and our way of seeing the world is expressed in new forms of language and learning. Our ways of participating in our culture, like music, also change. It’s fascinating to see how mariachi, cumbia, salsa and son in the United States are so different from the way they are played in their countries of origin.

It’s well known how the Mexican, Cuban, Colombian, Puerto Rican and Argentine diaspora have enriched rock and jazz music. But punk, techno and other types of “Anglo” music are also being embraced and influenced by Latino performers. There’s no doubt that Latino rockers in the US have left an indelible stamp on these genres.

Latinos like Kid Congo Powers, Ritchie Valens, Los Crudos, Suicidal Tendencies, and Question Mark & The Mysterians have influenced countless groups and musical aesthetics. Musicians like Rage Against The Machine, Beck and Cypress Hill would not have achieved such success had it not been for the struggle and discontent expressed in the music of Chicanos, South American rebels and the first punks from Peru, Chile and Cuba. Let’s take a look at some of the pioneers of Latino rock and punk.

Influential Mexican punk rock band, Tijuana No!
Influential Mexican punk rock band, Tijuana No!Al Schaben (Los Angeles Times via Getty Imag)

The Midniters

One of the first Chicano bands from Los Angeles to find success in the 1960s, they started off covering pop standards and later evolved to writing songs like “Chicano Power” and “The Ballad of César Chávez” that embodied a Chicano identity.

Kid Congo Powers

Not many artists from the Latino underground music scene could do it better than Brian Tristan, better known as Kid Congo Powers. Whether in bands like The Gun Club, The Cramps, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, or in various solo projects, the guitarist and singer demonstrated how rock music can acquire a genuine and powerful sound from our cultural roots.

Ozomatli

Salsa, cumbia, political activism, rock and hip hop – California-based Ozomatli ingeniously and seamlessly mixes it all with a dose of ideological conscience into a contemporary Latino identity that stands out in the North American musical mosaic.

The Plugz

Latinos had already made their mark in rock and punk music, but when The Plugz arrived on the scene in the mid-1970s, their wild mix of punk sensibilities and Latino culture influenced countless others to jump into the multicultural musical panorama of the 1980s.

Los Crudos

An all-Latino hardcore punk band from Chicago, the confrontational and overtly political Los Crudos made a statement in the US and beyond even though the lyrics sung by Argentine vocalist Martin Sorrondeguy were often completely unintelligible. Their music addressed the issues faced by Latino minorities in the early 1990s: xenophobia, racism, police brutality, homophobia and segregation.

Question Mark & The Mysterians

Emerging from Bay City, Michigan in the early 1960s, the band is regarded by many as the first group to play “punk rock” in its most primitive form. One of the pioneers of Latin rock, this enigmatic band’s repertoire included “96 Tears,” one of the most covered songs of the 1960s. Original members Larry Borjas, Robert Balderrama, Robert Martinez, Frank Rodriguez and Rudy Martinez are now regarded as one of the most revered cult bands in Latino culture.