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From the parking lot of the Black Hole, an arcade in a Little Village strip mall, it seemed like an ordinary Saturday night. Guys cruised by in cars, kids zoomed past on bikes, couples walked in the street. The only sign that anything unusual was taking place was the three boys and a girl, covered in zits and Amebix patches, hitting up people for spare change, trying to scrounge together enough money to pay the arcade’s $10 cover charge. The girl was trying to sell a filthy, wadded-up dreadlock the size of a fist, displayed on a napkin on which she’d scrawled $500 o.b.o. These may have been the first white punk kids with the balls to panhandle on 26th Street.

More than 400 kids and adults were gathered inside the arcade for the second night of Southkore, the first Latino punk festival ever held in America. Put on two weekends ago, it featured 20 bands playing punk and hardcore en espanol, including a surprise Friday-night reunion of the influential south-side band Los Crudos. Some audience members had come from just down the block, others from as far away as Nicaragua. Latino kids outnumbered whites ten to one, but in the glow of the black lights on the ceiling everyone was the same color: jaundiced. The walls were covered in cartoon Day-Glo murals and next to the stage a bank of TVs showed a scene from Santa Sangre with a guy having his penis burned off. When music wasn’t playing the room was filled with the din of arcade games and conversations in Spanish.

Southkore is a south-side collective that books shows and runs its own record label and distribution network. Benny Hernandez, one of the founders and a festival organizer, says it started in 1999 after the breakup of Los Crudos, whose popularity among traditional hardcore fans had temporarily opened doors for other Spanish-speaking groups. “After Crudos broke up, none of us were getting opportunities to play on the north side,” he says. “So we had to make things happen for ourselves, here.” The collective was anchored by bands like Eske, Sin Orden, I Attack, and Tras de Nada, and though the idea of hosting an international fest had been discussed for years, the ball didn’t get rolling until 2005. “We didn’t have the money to put it together, and we had to save to make it happen,” Hernandez says. “There were some Spanish rock promoters who offered to help us put it together, but that would have meant corporate sponsorship and radio stations advertising it, and we’re a DIY operation.”

Drawing on contacts he’d made through Southkore’s distribution channels, Hernandez began reaching out to bands all over the U.S. and Puerto Rico, and word spread. “When we contacted Juventud Crasa, who’re from Puerto Rico, they wrote back and suggested we contact La Armada Roja, who’re actually the first punk band ever from the Dominican Republic.” Even after the lineup was confirmed he kept hearing from bands all over the world, and he says he already has commitments for next year’s festival. “We approached a bunch of different kinds of bands, but most of the ones that could do it were all hardcore,” he says. “Next year is more about showcasing Latino DIY bands of all kinds.

“One of the most important things to come out of the festival is the networking,” says Hernandez. “Now that all these bands have met each other, made connections, made friends, they can book tours nationally and play with each other.” He doesn’t think Latinos have ever truly been accepted in the white punk scene, where solidarity and connections are often taken for granted. “White punks are OK with Latinos as tokens, but the minute you want to be counted, forget it. I think we made a lot of them uncomfortable by doing this, and I think that’s wonderful. It’s important for them to get the opportunity to go to a festival where not a single song is in their language. It gives them a chance to understand, one that they may not get otherwise.”

Within the Latino community being punk has often carried a cultural stigma. Martin Sorrendeguy, singer for Los Crudos and Limp Wrist, and whose documentary on the Latino punk scene, Beyond the Screams, played as part of a Saturday-afternoon Southkore film screening at Meztli gallery, says when he was growing up punk was viewed “very much as a white thing. If you were into punk you were seen as trying to assimilate–you were trying to be white.” Hernandez, the 30-year-old son of Mexican immigrants, says the scene is viewed as a threat to cultural traditions. “Having a band like Condenada play,” he says, referring to the local all-female quartet, “seeing all those Latinas up front, singing along, it really means something when you have grown up in a traditional, patriarchal Mexican home.”

But one of Saturday night’s headliners, the Puerto Rican band Tropiezo, playfully showed it was possible to use Latino punk to bridge the gaps between the different cultures it straddles. Before their set the band played a ten-minute mash-up over the PA that incorporated salsa and cumbia hits with sound bites from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, goofy Univision shows, and a sample of a soccer announcer yelling “Gooooaaaallll!” Several couples, black clad and well tattooed, broke out in effortless and precise salsa dances, only to join everyone else in the pit when the band started, pogoing and throwing elbows. Midway through the set Tropiezo’s singer, who, like his bandmates, was wearing a campesino hat, tore off his shirt to reveal a classic Bad Brains T-shirt with a lightning bolt striking the dome of the U.S. Capitol.

“The bands that played the festival, their angst is real,” says Hernandez. “In some of the bands half the people are unemployed, they’re dealing with friends being shot, some of them are living in poverty. Some have members who’re here illegally and we had to think about whether to even announce them, because just three weeks ago there were immigration raids up and down 26th Street. Even the bands that aren’t overtly political, every single one of them is being touched by immigration and what’s happening politically. And in the face of that–for all of us to come together, to have all these bands sing in Spanish, for us to celebrate our culture together–it’s true protest music.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.