DATELINE: January, 1994. Mexico D.F. >>> Chiapas
Ed. Note: A previous version of this article was published in The Austin Chronicle, Vol. XIII, No. 23, Feb. 11, 1994. We proudly bring it back here as a special three part series exclusively for Brooklyn & Boyle readers. We dedicate this New Year reload of a lost article—perhaps intentionally scrubbed—to Rogelio Gómez (1966 - 2013), rockero, productor, guitarrista Ansioso de primera e “impulsor de muchas veces ignorado Rock Subterráneo Mexicano...” RIP/QEPD.
The Metro Chabacano is already bustling at 6:30 a.m. This subway station somewhere near the center of the largest city in the world is where I’ve gotten off in search of Maestro Andrés Segura, Jefe or Capitán of the Concheros, dancers who preserve Aztec ceremonial dance traditions. Maestro Segura is highly regarded as a naturalist healer and a spiritual guide. I’ve come to ask for his blessing before heading to Chiapas.
Things have already started going sideways because the Lollapalooza-style concert in Mexico City I’d intended to cover has been postponed until February. I figure the blessing can only help. I leave my bags at Maestro Segura’s in care of his friend. Andrés has had to be away overnight for a healing ceremony someone with an ill relative has requested and is due back later, says the older man named Pablo who’s house-sitting for Segura. Outside, it is cold and grey. A damp, foggy haze blankets the world as the rising sun struggles feebly to penetrate the dim sky. Pablo is kind enough to prepare me a warm herb tea sweetened with maguey cactus honey.
Austin is far behind. The rebel uprising in Chiapas tugs at me with a revolutionary fervor. The rebels are called Zapatistas. Zapata happens to be one of my childhood heroes. I’m old enough to remember the Chicano Movement, as my activist older siblings turned me on early, and heroic icon Zapata figured as prominently therein as Che Guevara. Since the outdoor alt-rock concert originally scheduled for January 9 has been tabled for a while, I’ve romantically opted to risk making my way south. Chiapas is remote, Mexico’s southernmost state. But first I’ll spend a day or so in “la capital,” or “el D.F.,” an abbreviation for “Distrito Federal,” or Federal District which I’ve also heard twisted into “el defectuoso,” or “el defectivo…” Defective. A derogatory way to describe life in Mexico City.
The indigenous peasant revolution in Chiapas is only a week old. I wonder if the conflict won’t already have blown over by the time I get there. But only six hours before my bus from Matamoros pulled into the Central del Norte bus terminal, a car bomb had exploded in the Plaza Universidad parking garage. After heading up and out to the street to get my bearings and gird myself for the brisk half hour walk to the small apartment the Maestro maintains in the city I’d realized how badly I needed to pee and hurried back into the station to find a lavatory. I’d seen, first-hand, the tension on the faces of the municipal policemen assigned to the subway system who’d quickly moved to block my path—hands on their holstered guns—before my urgent quest for a urinal could take me into a staff-only section of the underground station. Access denied. I’d settled for secluded relief outside the station before tackling the surface street hike through a clammy morning fog that had brought me here.
Unencumbered by a suitcase and a duffel bag, warmed by the cup of tea served with Mexican pastries, I feel the sleepless 14-hour, overnight bus ride from the border and the lonely walk in a daunting, unfamiliar city receding. A backpack with a couple of books, a journal, a 35mm camera, and a change of clothes should be enough to get me through the day. Besides, my friend Rogelio Gómez and his lady love are on their way to pick me up for a breakfast at Sanborn’s. He’s my connection to the Mexican alt-rock explosion I planned to write about to begin with.
Gómez, 27, plays guitar with Ansia (Anxious), a sort of Mexican Ministry/Stone Temple Pilots synthesis, fusing richly textured metal and industrial musical styles with brooding, Gothic vocals. Angst-charged lyrics written around love, sex, identity and the yearning for true freedom prod and push at the boundaries of a society where the Catholic Church, a corrupt government and Televisa, a virtual media monopoly, conspire as an unholy trinity espousing oppressive conformism. Gómez is psyched about ¿Quieres Más? (Want More?) the new Ansia record, their second on Discos Rockotitlán, an indie label spin-off from the legendary Mexico City venue of the same name.
Recorded in August, 1993, the album was produced by Dino Lee and engineered at Arlyn Studios by Stuart Sullivan in Austin, Texas. And it represents a break-neck trajectory for the members of the rock group, one that began in 1990 when they emerged as the victors of Rockotitlán’s inaugural nation-wide “Battle of the Bands,” earning them a record deal and the release of their first full-length album.
“Dino wanted us to send the tapes to Los Angeles for mastering. But Jack Endino came to Mexico to produce a record for Guillotina [Guillotine), and he mastered it for us while he was here, so it sounds pretty chido (cool),” he explains over eggs, waffles and carne asada at a place that might as well be an IHOP or Denny’s. After, we drive to Coyoacán, an area in the southern part of the city where “la banda” hangs out. It’s also near the mall where the car bomb was detonated. “La banda” is a term for anyone who assumes a counter-cultural attitude and is naturally predisposed to rock & roll. I’ll spend the night at Gómez’s family home in Pedregal, about fifteen minutes away from Coyoacán, according to him.
Coyoacán’s central plaza is paved with round, smooth volcanic stones and full of lush vegetation that imbues the Colonial-era architectural design with a subtle pre-Columbian spirit. When the die-hard “mechudo” (long-haired) rocker informs me that Plaza Coyoacán, in addition to being just two blocks from where his girlfriend Priscilla, a 19-year-old marketing student and fashion model, lives, is also where the February concert will be held, I’m not surprised. The cooperative label showcase that will feature six bands from the Rockotitlán roster and six from another indie label has been pushed back until after the official Ansia record release party on February 8th.
Coyocán has a reputation for being home to a thriving art and intellectual community. Artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera once shared a home nearby. Leon Trotsky’s old place is now a museum. I marvel at the cobblestone roads, churches, theatres and outdoor markets. The Plaza, by mid-afternoon, easily resembles the Haight in San Francisco or the East Village in Manhattan. However, there are about ten times as many young people here, many watching a group of “danzantes” (dancers) in traditional Aztec ceremonial regalia repeating sacred, pre-Conquest dances around a drum also made in the manner of those used by the ancients.
Later, in the car, Gómez hands me a copy of the new Ansia CD, still wrapped in cellophane. I feel a pleasant twitch of surprise when I notice my name on the inside jacket among the acknowledgments. On the CD cover image, he stands in the background wearing shades and a vest. I shake my head and look away to hide a flush of unexpected emotion. Ansia, as the first underground alt-rock outfit from anywhere in Latin America ever invited to play at South by Southwest (SXSW), had topped a list of acts “to see” I’d written for the Chronicle. Producer and musician Dino Lee had attended their SXSW show and that had led to their collaboration. Rogelio, looking back at me through the rear view mirror, notices my embarrased silence.
“Güey (Bro’), you were there from the beginning. You hooked us up with a producer, drove us all over Austin, turned us on to great Tex-Mex restaurants,” Gómez says, adding that after we run Priscilla home so she can study for an exam, we’ll make our way to El Chopo. “That’s where most of the metal-heads, punks and Goth-rockers hang out on Saturday. It’s not far from the Metro stop where you arrived.” On the way to Priscilla’s, he pops a demo he’s producing for La Concepción de la Luna (The Moon’s Conception), a winner at a recent battle of the bands showdown, into the tape deck. The sound is reminiscent of early Jane’s Addiction. Gómez jokes about how the group has gotten harder with each successive gig. Priscilla, riding shotgun, turns toward me and grimaces playfully. “The demo makes them sound a lot better than they really are,” she says with no guile or malice. Before I take the front passenger seat she apologizes for having to bail so soon, offers a hug, says its nice to finally meet the guy “la banda,” literally, Gómez and his bandmates, have been talking about for months.
El Chopo vibrates. It is, essentially, the undeclared rock swap meet on steroids. Punks with tattoos and pink hair do business with kids in flannel and Doc Martens with shaven heads. A healthy pirate industry blends comfortably with legit music industry product and the subsidiary fashion and accessory economy. Both legal and pirate CDs, cassettes, videotapes and albums trade hands furiously. Hardcore meets thrash meets death metal meets reggae meets grunge. Gómez walks me through and is very low key about his growing celebrity, as gracious and warm with strangers who greet him like a long-lost family member as he is with those he truly knows.
He greets a strapping young dude in an undershirt and suspenders who sports a tattoo of the iconic Misfits skull logo on his upper right arm. He hawks an eclectic array of LPs, CDs, cassettes and VHS video at a booth. When I nod hello, he responds with a short “They call me Misfit.” Sizing me up with one look, he reaches down under the table and extracts a used but mint condition vinyl sountrack from Kubrick’s classic film, A Clockwork Orange. Released in 1972, it’s a steal at 100 pesos, about $33.00 dollars.
“One of my favorite movies,” I say to him. “The soundtrack is heavy on the Beethoven, if memory serves me right. But I’m traveling on budget right now.” Turning to Gómez, I ask, “How did he do that?! How did he know?” Shaking his head, Rogelio shrugs his shoulders and starts to go for his wallet, silently offering to front me the money if I really want the record. Misfit, amused, waits until I politely decline, then clicks his tongue behind his teeth. Tilting his head to the side and back a little, his eyebrows going up like two cartoon question marks, he twirls the album deftly, hold it aloft with the middle fingers of each hand at opposite corners. Breaking into a broad smile that belies his punk rock rude boy look, he winks an eye and makes sure I get one last good look at the record before putting it away.
My host—and welcome tour guide—thereafter blends into the crowd of roughly 200 that has assembled before a small outdoor stage in the middle of rock & roll flea market to catch live sets by a slew of unknown punk and metal bands. About 4 p.m. we head toward to the small apartment near the Metro Chabacano station to pick up my luggage. Fortunately for me, Andrés Segura is home. He reluctantly offers a blessing but advises against my going to Chiapas. It’s dangerous, he warns. The natives of mostly Mayan descent are angry, and I don’t look very Mexican, much less indigenous, he says bluntly.
The government reports that about a hundred people have been killed. Church estimates put the number at over 400. The recent car bomb is evidence that the violence is spreading rapidly throughout Mexico. I hear radio reports detailing the destruction of electrical towers in the northern part of the country. A host of opposition political organizations express public sympathy for the insurrection in Chiapas. Bomb threats materialize from out of nowhere. It seems as if the entire country is on the verge of civil war. And here I am, getting the low-down on Mexican rock & roll.
“Are you sure you still want to go to Chiapas?” Gómez echoes. He’s concerned, but he wants me to do what I feel I have to do. To be continued… Part II: Revolution & Return.
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