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Photo: Virginia Turbett/Getty
Photo: Virginia Turbett/Getty

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Growing Up as a Latina Punk

Music gave me the freedom to be who I wanted to be —€” even if life at home did not

I still remember an essay assignment I got when I was 14: Write a story about Greek mythology. As usual, I didn't follow the rules. Instead, I created my own myth — based on punk. I was listening to bands like Iggy Pop and the Stooges, Green Day, and H20, and as I wrote my story, the lyrics to H20's "Guilty by Association" ran through my head: "Sometimes I felt like an outcast, trying to talk my friends out of trouble / Tried to be a positive role model, but I got caught up in the rumble."

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The story featured a god named Conformity and a goddess named Non-Conformity (because apparently at 14, subtlety was not my strong point). Using a mythological frame, I told the origin story of anarchy and punk rock. My writing tutor liked it, and asked me if I had ever written about music before. After quizzing me about my favorite punk bands, he gave me my first assignment: to cover the local Petaluma-based punk band Tsunami Bomb at their next concert.

Tsunami Bomb was a quirky, slasher-obsessed, pop-punk band with creepy keyboards and sweet-meets-fierce female vocals. They sang about ghosts and graveyards, sampled voiceovers from horror movies, and gave their songs names like "Rotting Vampire Eyeballs." They also covered songs from The Rocky Horror Picture Show and, far from taking themselves seriously, would cackle onstage, camp it up, and allow their audience to have fun.

In punk, women were allowed to scream.

Seeing my name on the guest list and watching them perform, it was the first time I didn't feel like an outcast, like I didn't belong. The lead singer, Agent M, took the stage, a purple streak in her hair and safety pins holding together the sides of her tank top as she yelled into the mic. I saw something I had never seen before: a woman who wasn't on the sidelines but instead was front and center. In music, women were allowed to scream.

Why is my English so bad? My mother would ask me, sitting at her desk, on her third draft of an essay for her community college class. Why can't I learn how to write? When will I get better?

My mother was from Mexico City, and though she had gone to private schools and generally had a privileged life there, in the United States, she had to start from scratch. Her mother, my grandmother, had left her alcoholic husband and come to the states with three kids; as a teenager, my mother worked to help support the family. A few years later, she met my father, a white American, at Pier 39 in San Francisco, where she sold belt buckles and my father sold hot dogs. They married within a year, and had me two years after that. My father became a postman, and my mother worked retail.

But my mother wanted more for herself, and decided to go to college. She struggled with her English as a Second Language classes (which didn't count toward a degree, but were required anyway) and would stare miserably at the computer screen, sure that she would fail once again.

Since my father worked 60-hour weeks, I was tasked with editing her papers. It was a responsibility I didn't want, and I would often snap at her when she couldn't type my corrections quickly enough.

Please Michelle, help me. She'd beg, her eyes puffy, her mascara streaming down her face.

At the time, all I felt was anger — anger at being put in this position, anger that my mother couldn't get a decent job, anger that my mother felt so badly about herself, anger that I couldn't seem to do much to help.

So what did I do with this adolescent enlightenment, this painful realization? I turned the other way. Or rather, I turned to my saving grace: music.

I was amazed to see talented, strong women, not relegated to the background as my mother so often was.

The Phoenix Theater was a former opera house turned punk venue, off the Victorian-lined streets of downtown Petaluma. Many found the lines of punks snaking outside the theater and screaming "fuck you" affectionately to each other to be intimidating. I found it inviting. It was a place I liked to call home.

Inside, there were gutter punks, ska kids, skaters, straight-edge dudes, rockabilly girls, and emo teens, dressed in torn-up jeans with different shades of Skittle-colored hair. It was a place in which we loners could admit to ourselves: I don't fit in anywhere but here.

At the Phoenix, bands would sell their limited edition, signed CDs or 45s, and we would stand in line for the privilege of paying for their music. In DIY punk culture, there was no separation between fans and the band, so we got the opportunity to meet and befriend our favorite musicians. It made us feel like we were one of them.

When I went to the Phoenix, all my favorite bands were fronted by women. I was amazed to see them: talented, strong women, not relegated to the background as my mother so often was. Pop-punk bands like Tsunami Bomb, Luckie Strike, and Save Ferris would take the stage, and I would dance like a fucking idiot, without a shred of teenaged self-consciousness.

At local hardcore shows, I'd throw myself into the pits and feel a release while the crowd pushed and sweated on each other, landing in heaping, overlapping piles. Then everyone would help each other stand up and disentangle their arms and legs.

Punk rock taught me that there were places on this planet where your differences made you a stronger, not weaker, person, and other people could appreciate that. Punk gave me the freedom to be who I wanted to be —€” even if life at home did not.

"What do you mean you've never heard of Facundo Cabral?" My friend Danny asked me. He was teasing me because I was in my late twenties and considered myself a music writer, yet wasn't familiar with Argentina's most famous folk singer, poet, and revolutionary.

I began researching the history, music, and art of those who shared my culture.

"I didn't grow up with Spanish music in my house." I said, "As a kid, I only heard music in Spanish at my grandma's house. And that was because I'd beg her to listen to Ricky Martin or Thalia."

"You used to listen to Ricky Martin?" Danny asked me.

"I was nine! You didn't?" We both laughed.

Danny and I both grew up with white fathers and Mexican mothers. As kids, we'd been close to our abuelas, and it was when we were with our mother's family that we spoke Spanish. Ours was broken Spanish, full of wrong tenses and mixed-up nouns, that made it difficult to discuss much of what interested us —€” music, politics, writing — with the non-English-speakers in our respective houses. But we could speak to each other.

We shared parallels not only in our relationships with our parents, but also in our relationships to whiteness. People called us "ethnically ambiguous" and made a guessing game of our nationalities: Lebanese. Jewish. Iranian. White. In many ways, it's what drew us to each other —€” knowing what it was like to belong in neither world. In other ways, it was music that connected us.

Sitting in my little apartment in Oakland, in an uncomfortable wooden chair, Danny's bare feet dangled off it like a modern-day bohemian. The scene was almost laughably clichéd. Boy plays girl song on guitar. Girl falls in love with boy. But, this isn't that story. It's a story of kindred spirits who found each other, if only for a little while.

Danny's hands slid over the frets of his acoustic guitar, and he sang in Spanish:

No soy de aquí, ni soy de allá

No tengo edad, ni porvenir

Y ser feliz es mi color de identidad

I'm not from here ... I'm not from there

I have neither past nor future

And being happy is the color of my identity

Cabral grew up on a farm in Argentina and was illiterate until he was a teenager. When he moved to the city to find work that would support his family, he began reading and writing, and his poetry reflected the dreams of the people from his countryside. But his songs weren't only a celebration of his paisanos, they were also an indictment of the systems of oppression that looked down on country people. We were a long ways away from the Argentina of the '70s, but his song was very much my reality in Oakland in 2014.

Listening to the tough sweetness of Kehlani's voice, it was as though she were communicating to my mother on my behalf.

I'm not from here ... I'm not from there

The song was reading my mind, and I wanted more of it.

I began researching the history, music, and art of those who shared my culture. I read books about the narcos in Mexico and art activism movements in Oaxaca, and took a deep-dive into punk, folk, and hip-hop music from all over Latin America. There was the night Danny and I watched the film Violeta Went to Heaven, about how Chilean artist and musician Violeta Parra recorded the songs of indigenous people and reinterpreted them, adding her own poetry to guitar parts passed on for generations. There was Ana Tijoux, the outspoken French-Chilean artist, who rapped about student protests in Chile and whose songs charismatically mixed genres and influences.

This is how I found my people, and my voice. And for once, I stopped acting as though I had no agency over my story.

I recently shared a piece with my mother that I had written on the singer-songwriter Kehlani. The piece was called, "Why Kehlani Deserves More Than a Grammy." It was about being mixed-race, about having the odds stacked against you, about complicated mother-and-daughter relationships, about finding your imperfect, vulnerable voice.

Riding together in her car, she told me that she loved my piece. She told me that it made her cry. I said, "I have that effect on people."

We laughed together, and she asked me if I could play Kehlani's mixtape for her on the stereo. Listening to the tough sweetness of Kehlani's voice, it was as though she were communicating to my mother on my behalf. I've always loved my mom, even if I've acted like I was ashamed. We listened to the whole mixtape, sitting mostly in silence, and I realized that Kehlani was really speaking for both my mother and me: We both wish we could have been better to each other when I was growing up.

My mother asked me, "Is Kehlani coming to Oakland sometime soon?"

"I think so." I said.

"I would really like it if we could go to that show together," she said.

"I'd like that too."

Michelle Threadgould is a journalist based in Oakland who has written for the New York Observer, Remezcla, and SF Weekly. She covers the intersection between arts, culture, and social justice.


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