Why you should care
Because music can start a revolution.
Every Sunday, the stalls of Tianguis Cultural del Chopo, a flea market in north Mexico City, are filled with punk vinyl records, T-shirts and Doc Martens. In the anarcho-punk corner, badges, pirated records and fanzines are on display, usually on the ground, with the narrow corridors of the market revealing some of the most important faces of the punk revolution. Although this place has changed since the 1980s, when it emerged as the main meeting place for music lovers and activists, it’s still the beating heart of a rebel city.
Punk music may no longer be the avant-garde of political engagement. In the ’80s, though, it played a major role in triggering demands worldwide for social change. The most recognized bands included Americans the Ramones and Iggy and the Stooges, and Brits the Sex Pistols and the Clash, their hard-edged songs and potential to incite riots enjoyed around the globe. One such spot? Mexico City.
… The nobility deceives us and brings monetary embezzlement / The ‘tricolor’ party steals the national heritage …
Massacre 68, ‘Sistema Podrido’
Artists Laureana Toledo and Dr. Lakra, whose work was featured in the 2015 show “Punxdefektuozoz: Work in Progress” at the Wroclaw Contemporary Museum, argue that the Mexican punk genre emerged at the intersection of cultural colonization, thanks to influence from both the U.K. and the U.S., and its mixture with rebellious Mexican pride. The movement led to one of the most powerful calls for social justice of the 20th century.
At first, punk in Mexico City, just like everywhere else, was more about the sound than politics. Early punk bands in Mexico like Size, debuting in 1980, drew inspiration from a broad range of sources, including new wave and rockabilly. Their songs were written and sung in English, sharing the characteristic sexualized glam and tongue-in-cheek style of their American counterparts like the Cramps. The lyrics expressed anger toward an unspecified enemy — the establishment, prudes, parochialism — but the attitude and role of the music changed significantly in September 1985, when two major earthquakes hit Mexico’s capital.
Thanks to the magnitude 8.1 and 7.5 temblors, the city’s skyline of high-rises and new apartment blocks was destroyed. Most of the buildings built between the 1950s and 1970s collapsed, revealing the depth of governmental corruption linked to recent infrastructural investments and the lax enforcement of building codes.
Then, in the aftermath, the government prioritized bringing back telephone lines and electricity to jump-start the economy, rather than providing food and shelter to its citizens. Many people reported that they had to bribe police officers to get help recovering loved ones’ bodies from the rubble. This indifference and abuse of power led to the rise of social resistance that found its support and expression in punk.
Ana Punk, a member of the punk band Virginidad Sacudida and a co-founder of fanzines Cambio Radical, Fuerza Positiva and Amor y Rabia, which helped disseminate news and political opinions, remembers the period well. She and her friends dropped the pose of rebels without a cause and got politically and socially engaged. Their frustration with the government could be heard in the songs of the era’s punk bands — groups like Atoxxxico, Solución Mortal and Presionados. Massacre 68, a band named after the bloody pacification of the 1968 student protests, sang of the powerful system, or sistema podrido, in 1989: “The nobility deceives us and brings monetary embezzlement / The ‘tricolor’ party steals the national heritage / The bureaucracy spends, foreign debt continues to grow and poverty continues to spread / Decline of the government and its already rotten system.”
This song and so many others performed by punk bands played a crucial role in spreading the news about current events and sentiments in Mexico in the aftermath of the 1985 quakes. Another way was via the dissemination of punk fanzines — printed on the same cheap machines as fliers advertising lucha libre wrestlers — and exchanged every weekend at Tianguis Cultural del Chopo. Some of the zines were sent as far as Poland, resonating with those pushing for solidarity against political oppression. The exchange was mutual. Mexico City, thanks to its resistance and self-organization, became a prime example of the strength, hope and despair expressed at the height of the punk movement.
Today, these unlikely heroes of Tianguis Cultural del Chopo are being brought to the attention of broader audiences again thanks to the upcoming film by Laureana Toledo and Dr. Lakra. Their long-forgotten narratives, passion for life, beliefs and authentic social engagement are proving a welcome inspiration in these times of renewed political divide around the globe.