Over the past two years, I feel fortunate to have been invited to several universities where Violence Girl - East LA Rage to Hollywood Stage, A Chicana Punk Story is being used in courses with topics ranging from Literature to Music, to Chicano/a Studies, Gender Studies and beyond. One question I am frequently asked is how I see my Chicana identity. It’s a question that doesn’t lend itself to a short answer and I feel that it’s important enough for me to take time explaining.
For as long as I can remember, I have been interested in social justice but I got off to a rocky start on my road to forming a Chicana identity when I perceived negativity towards my odd, unpolished glam-rock style from members of the Chicano organization at my high school. All during my late teens and early twenties, I called myself a Mexican-American rather than a Chicana because I believed that term was reserved for people in Chicano organizations like MeCHa and I believed those organizations were biased against people who looked like weirdos. Punk empowered me in all kinds of ways: it gave me the confidence to claim my Chicana identity, to define it in my own terms and to refuse anyone the power to exclude me.
I never took any Chicano Studies classes until I was in college. My Chicana identity was formed primarily from experiencing events where I felt that Mexicans and/or Mexican-Americans were included and represented, events like the Chicano Moratorium which I attended as a child, the grape boycott and the walk-outs at local schools in East L.A. These historic events all affected me and made an impression on me. I was just a kid but I knew in a very simplistic way that it was people like me standing up for people like me. I was attracted to the cause but I didn’t feel welcome in the club, so I have never been part of any Chicano organization but that doesn’t mean I’m not a Chicana.
I see my Chicana identity as a celebration of both my Mexican and American heritages as well as an honest appraisal of the sociopolitical practices of these two societies and their influence on Chican@ society. Both sides of my heritage have values and traditions which are beautiful but sometimes flawed. Mexican and American societies are both guilty of sexism, classism, racism, and homophobia and they both need fixing. I refuse to romanticize them or choose one culture over another.
Ethnicity is not all that forges identity, my personal identity can stretch to be large and inclusive or shrink to be small, focused and specific. In my broader identity I am a component and an active member of the living organism that is the universe and in my smaller, more refined identity, I function as a Chicana, feminist, bisexual, punk rocker. My personal identity is rich and multifaceted - different aspects surface in different situations. When I’m discriminated against as a woman, my feminist identity rushes to the forefront; when people try to negate the place of Mexicans while teaching or discussing American history, the Chicana side of me will raise an indignant voice and demand to be included and when anyone, anywhere in the world is mistreated, the punk side of me that feels empowered to shape my world is ready to stand as an ally. Most of the time I’m just me: an individual, a human being only partially conscious of the ways in which people see me or the expectations they might place upon this particular configuration of atoms. I see myself as limitless, so the labels are strictly to facilitate specific functions for a limited amount of time.
When I first started performing, I remember looking out into the audience. Usually, there were lights near the front of the stage illuminating me and the other band members. As my gaze moved further back into the audience, the room darkened. I could make out the people in the front rows clearly enough to read their faces and feel their energy but beyond that, the room faded to infinite blackness and in my mind, that blackness might as well have been a view of the vast reaches of the universe. From my perch on the stage, I felt incredibly powerful as my performance elicited dancing, jumping and bursts of emotion from the concert goers. We were exchanging energy, refueling, tapping into something much bigger than any one person. I felt fully connected not just to the people in the room but to the entire universe.
Punk rock as religious experience: go ahead and laugh, I know it sounds crazy. Connecting with others on that level made me understand my power not just as an individual but as part of a community. So while it’s important to know who we are, it’s also important to know that we are so much more than labels can convey. We are conduits for ideas, we are agents of change.
Bitch: In Violence Girl, you write about witnessing domestic violence in your parents’ relationship, and then experiencing it in a romantic relationship. What did you hope to convey about domestic violence by documenting these relationships?
Alice Bag: I think two things: that you can survive it. and that it’s not something that can be accepted in a relationship. I don’t think my mother should have stayed in that relationship. And I don’t think she should have told me that she stayed because she was trying to hold the marriage together for my sake. Those things made me angry. I feel·that if you’re in that situation or if someone is telling you that, you gotta call them on their bullshit. It’s one thing when someone attacks you and you leave, it’s another thing when you keep coming back. At that point you need to analyze your own role in it.
And I don’t know if all that comes through in the book. but I realized that because I was around it as a child, I really internalized it. When I got in a band and was able to release all of this rage, it had already done damage to me. It surfaced when I found myself hitting my boyfriend in a very similar way to how my father had hit my mother. It was shocking to me that somehow this really ugly trait manifested in me.
I just want people to be aware that when you grow up around that, sometimes it’s in you and you have to figure out a way to address it and check yourself. Make sure you’re not going to end up in a situation where you play either role. You can’t have a healthy psyche if you’re either abusing someone or allowing yourself to be abused.
There are so many ways people can heal themselves. Some people find it through talking to a friend or reading, others need therapy and some people find it through spirituality. Do whatever it is that makes you feel like you can find your center and figure out whether you’re on the path to where you want to be.”
“When I was younger, I didn’t understand where my feelings of anger and violence were coming from and I didn’t know how to deal with them. Luckily, punk came along and gave me an outlet. Through punk performance, I could vent and forge the raw emotion that was bubbling up inside of me into something creative rather than destructive. Beyond that, I think punk is really empowering in the long term because it encourages self-determination and challenges the status quo. As part of the punk community, I came away with the feeling that if we were able to create a movement that continually changes the course of art and music, then we can create a movement that changes the world in many other ways. That is enormously empowering.”—
Speaker Series/Concert Series California State University, Los Angeles Music Recital Hall Friday, January 24th **All Events Are Free and Open to the Public**
“Chicanas in the East L.A. Music Scene” Panel/Concert Featuring: Alice Bag, Teresa Covarrubias, Lysa Flores, Martha Gonzales performing as ChiChi (CHIcanas CHIngonas)
1-2:45 p.m. Panel: “Chicanas in the East L.A. Music Scene” Featuring musicians Alice Bag of the Bags, Martha Gonzales of Quetzal, Lysa Flores, and Professor Michelle Habell-Pallan (see bios below). This panel showcases the story of the women who rock and forged a place for women’s voices in LA punk music scenes of the 1970s and 1980s and the subsequent starring role of Chicanas in the East LA music scene of the 1990s and 2000s up to the present. As active musicians today these mujeres are sembrando future sounds and scenes. An evening concert will follow later that evening.
7:30-10pm Concert: “Chicanas in the East L.A. Music Scene” In a historic collaboration, three generations of Chicana musicians come together to celebrate and acknowledge the central role of women in the making of the East Los Angeles sound. Alice Bag of the influential punk band the Bags, Teresa Covarrubias lead singer of the Brat—one of the first Chican@ punk bands, and Martha Gonzales of the break out East L.A. band Quetzal join forces and perform together for the first time on stage at the CSULA Music Hall. They will be backed up by an all–female band that will include Gloria Estrada, guitarist for La Santa Cecilia, percussionist Caitlin Moss, and Vaneza Calderón on bass. Opening the night will be Lysa Flores, another famed Chicana musician from East L.A., in a collaboration with East LA Taiko for a ground breaking experimentation of Chicana Rock and Japanese Taiko.