Interview with Juan Luna-AvinSeptember 10, 2015
Juan Luna-Avin is like an encyclopedia of punk rock in Mexico City. I first learned of him as the baby-faced author of a giant painted map, a jagged sand-colored timeline of punk bands in Mexico City. The painting was in a show at Southern Exposure; each band was represented by a miniature cartoon portrait with the beginning and end dates of the band. In 2011, I met Luna-Avin and asked him to propose a work for a show I was curating called Bruce Conner and the Primal Scene of Punk Rock. His idea was a semi-abstract diorama full of pipes and conduits, inspired by the clever adaptations of Mexican bands from impoverished neighborhoods: they would invade businesses after hours and steal electricity from the generators to power the shows—the ultimate DIY. The interview below combines two email exchanges that followed Luna-Avin’s reference to the creation of punk rock in Mexico City.
Steven Wolf: So, this is a classic story of how disenfranchised youth coalesce around a scene that allows them to express themselves politically and socially through fashion and music. And this scene is on the outskirts of the city, the no-man’s-land, much as it did in the US and the UK, where punks found cheap housing or squats. Ultimately punk spreads throughout Mexico City, evolving into the rich and complex musical history that you have documented with your map. But the story begins differently, with the spark that lit the fuse coming, to a certain extent, from apocalyptic movies from Hollywood and international cinema.
Juan Luna-Avin: In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Mexico was ruled by a repressive, conservative regime. Unemployment was high and approximately 70 percent of the population was under the age of thirty. The government made sure to entertain the masses even as it couldn’t meet their basic needs. Movie theaters could be found everywhere. Access to films provided a source of culture as well as new perspectives on existence in the city.
Very few punk cultural references had been imported to Mexico at the time, but one of the most important was the 1979 film, The Warriors. The movie was originally banned because of fears it would promote antisocial behavior, but it became so popular that the government eventually allowed it to be screened. Disenfranchised youth embraced the idea of forming a new society, organizing themselves as tribes, and taking over the city. They discovered new meaning for their existence and were empowered by the film’s visual elements. It became a blueprint for the punk movement.
This movie resonated with youths because they had never seen anything like that before and because violence was involved. They soon realized that they could organize on their own and function as a community on the fringe. Looking back, it’s humorous to see the look and fashion of those films being emulated in real life.
SW: It almost sounds like a cargo cult. What bands or audiences made use of images, names, clothes, or story lines from that movie?
JLA: Between 1979 and 1982, youth gangs became a citywide phenomenon and could be found in every neighborhood. The media portrayed them as destructive social terrorists. The city’s mayor went after them, authorizing police to chase and persecute them like criminals. The gangs were just trying to find something constructive to do but were misunderstood from the beginning.
Some youths went on to form rock bands that adopted the styles portrayed in the film, including the wearing of leather vests. They included Rompecabezas, Britanics, Rebelde Punk (the original iteration of Rebel’d Punk), and Yap’s. A number of band names were inspired by the names of the movie’s fictional gangs.
About 1983, a number of gangs in Mexico City became youth groups that organized to help improve their neighborhoods. They advocated for issues such as drinkable water and asked local governments to provide them with spaces for activities. These venues would later become important for bands.
SW: Paint a picture of the neighborhoods in which punk shows happened. How did the bands communicate with their audiences?
JLA: The young people who rebelled had little to no education. They lived on the city’s outskirts, which lacked jobs and electricity so dangerous illegal wiring was common. The real punk movement came from these poor neighborhoods, where existence was precarious.
The punk-music movement did take a while to develop. Instruments and equipment like public-address (PA) systems were hard to find and were commonly used for parades, community events, political rallies, and cumbia or Mexican-ballad concerts.
Punk shows were improvised in unorthodox venues like auto shops, community centers, and empty lots. Bands mostly played after hours and on borrowed equipment. Some of the first punk bands played at Salon Golden, a community center, and Fronton de Bucareli, a fitness center. To avoid police detection, they communicated changes to venues by telephone or people would hitchhike or take a bus to various neighborhoods to inform others.
Punk recordings began to appear about 1983 and reflected the intensity of a city that was under the watchful eyes of the government. The scene fed off police harassment (this went on until the early 1990s). The scale of the city allowed punk to absorb the chaos and spread throughout various parts. In order to see the bands, you had to chase them around.
For example, in 1987 I remember a punk-music festival that was by invitation only and you needed a password to gain entry. The festival changed venue at the last minute because the police were already there, waiting. The new venue was across the city, and the bands didn’t start playing until 3 a.m.
Punk was considered a nuisance, even an act of vandalism, by authorities. It was a form of youth rebellion for the participants and wasn’t considered a movement until the 1990s when intellectuals, historians, and sociologists recognized it as such.
SW: Was the visual language of punk flyers different in Mexico City?
JLA: Photocopy machines were uncommon so making flyers was pricey. Visual references for early Mexican punk flyers and zines mostly came from the US West Coast movement and the Spanish movement. They were characterized by aggressive hand-drawn images and text and anarcho-punk idealism.
SW: In addition to movies, there had to have been other ways that kids got the punk message. How long did it take before fanzines, fashion magazines, and underground channels for distributing recorded music from England and the US come about?
JLA: Pirated tapes coincided with the appearance of El Chopo flea market, which was founded in 1980. This marketplace brought together people interested in the counterculture: young punks and merchants who made trips to the US and brought back records, magazines, and shirts. When I visited El Chopo for the first time in 1988 at the age of fifteen, I noticed that vendors sold nice bootleg copies, not original albums. Record labels in Mexico had released certain important albums such as Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life, but many seminal recordings were only available as counterfeits.
SW: Can you discuss the music that the government endorsed and the rock and roll that it repressed?
JLA: Back in the 1970s, the rock scene dried up as many venues closed. The government saw anywhere young people expressed themselves as a threat. Some bands even changed their sounds to conform to the dry, sanitized music that was prevalent at the time. Rock went way underground to escape government repression.
Government-endorsed music had typical expressions, like “I love you,” “Hold my hand,” or “Why are you sad?” Most mainstream music in the late 1970s and early 1980s had these themes but with different rhythms, beats, and singers. What intrigues me is that the music industry had amazing potential in the 1960s, but it was repressed for political reasons. While music was safe in terms of message and arrangement, the production level was competent, with professional musicians and state-of-the-art equipment. The infrastructure was in place (for example, the RCA studio in Mexico City was extraordinary), but there was a lack of risk taking and a failure to challenge the status quo until the late 1980s.
I once had a conversation with a friend about the Tex-Mex baladas group, Los Bondadosos. We were looking at footage from a 1980 performance: the keyboard player had a Moog synthesizer (the same one that Gary Numan’s Tubeway Army had), but he failed to use it for anything interesting; he only played simple melodies. We speculated whether he ever had the urge to experiment and, if not, whether he thought it was just too problematic to pursue.
I think there has always been an interest in experimentation, but the barriers were distribution and government control. There was a music publication called Conecte that I picked up in 1987, and it featured a musician named Aristeo who did compositions inspired by John Cage. Since then, I haven’t been able to find more information about him and nobody seems to know who he is. My only evidence is this copy of Conecte.
SW: In the US, punk rock really changed the form and sound of rock music in general: stripping it down, speeding it up, and doing away with ego-driven clichés like the big guitar solo. How does that compare with Mexican punk?
JLA: The US punk movement was more about experimentation and pushing barriers of originality as artists were searching for new sounds and new ways of reinventing themselves. The Mexican music scene had a moment in the early 1970s when it combined an R & B sound with big band, rock, and psychedelia, but it went away quickly due to the lack of financial success for the musicians and the political repression. Disco gained popularity, but no musical boundaries were pushed. It was a discouraging time to be a musician, and we went through a dry spell between 1974 and 1982, when bands gave up creativity for survival.
SW: In the US, DIY culture came about as a reaction to corporate consumerism, but I can’t imagine the same thing is true for Mexico City, where people were used to doing things themselves.
JLA: In Mexico, punk and DIY culture weren’t seen as reactions to corporate consumerism. There was an interest in self-realization and political concerns that included nuclear holocausts. Some of the cues came from anarcho-punk, similar to the Washington, DC scene. Especially in the late 1980s, Mexican punk had more in common with groups like Minor Threat than the Sex Pistols or the Clash. It was a hardcore sound with a social agenda.
Born in Mexico City, Juan Luna-Avin is a multi-disciplinary artist whose work examines individual and collective identities through the lens of youth cultures and rock n’ roll music. His projects reflect an interest in mythology, music history, memory, low-fi technology, and informal economies. His work has been shown at such venues as Thomas Welton Art Gallery (Stanford University), San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Queen’s Nails Projects, Casa del Lago (Mexico City), and Ceroinspiracion (Quito, Ecuador). Since 2004, he has been a member of Club Unicornio, a San Francisco-based collective of artists-DJs who play underground, kitschy, and experimental music from Latin America. They have performed locally and nationally, including for the UCLA Hammer Museum’s “Also I Like to Rock” summer series. He holds an MFA in Art Practice from Stanford University and a BFA in Painting from the San Francisco Art Institute, where he was an Osher Scholar. Awards include a Suzanne Baruch Lewis MFA Grant (2010) and a McNamara Family Creative Arts Grant from the Hispanic Scholarship Fund (2009). He is currently a Lecturer in the Visual and Public Art department at California State University, Monterey Bay.