Chicana Women Claim Their Rightful Place In Punk
The building guitar riff thunders into the listless crowd of mostly white dudes dressed in patched-up leather jackets. Urged by the onlookers’ growing anxiety to channel angst into dancing, the band picks up speed as lead singer Alice Bag enters into a high-pitch scream that hurls the anxious punks into a complete frenzy. Convulsing on stage and teetering in stilettos, Bag knocks down kids who’ve jumped up to dance next to her, holding her own in front of the packed club. For two furious minutes, the agitated crowd in Los Angeles’s The Fleetwood club pummels in chaos along to the screeching vocals of a Xicana frontwoman in a pink dress.
Such was The Bags’ performance in Penelope Spheeris’s punk documentary The Decline of Western Civilization, filmed in 1980. Emerging in Los Angeles in 1977, The Bags was comprised of Pat Morrison on bass (who left the band prior to the recording of Decline), Craig Lee and Rob Ritter on guitar, Terry Graham on drums, and Alicia Armendariz, also known as Alice Bag, as the frontwoman. Although the documentary wasn’t released until 1981, by which time the band had disbanded and some members had gone to play in bands like The Gun Club and The Damned, Alice Bag’s fiery performance and screeching vocals solidified her place in L.A.’s early punk scene. This self-assured, fierce style would follow her for a “self guided audio adventure” marked by feminism and an ever-evolving sound that has spanned over 35 years.
As co-founder of one of the first wave punk bands to form in Los Angeles in the ’70s, Bag was at the forefront of the thriving punk scene growing in Hollywood. A Mexican-American, Bag was born and raised just a few miles away in East Los Angeles, a community that birthed the Chicano movement of the ‘60s.
In her memoir, Violence Girl: East L.A. Rage to Hollywood Stage, A Chicana Punk Story, Bag describes her coming of age in the predominately Mexican and Xicano community. She points in particular to how witnessing domestic violence at home shaped her youth and eventually her feminism. Violence was normalized in her childhood home. Seeing her father abuse her mother and finding no creative outlet in her Americanized schooling, Bag’s hunger for catharsis, particularly through music, drove her to find a creative community.
After seeing the rise of punk in Hollywood, Bag decided to form a band with friends in 1977. At the time, Bag was one of the only Xicanas at the forefront of the bourgeoning punk scene.
On a global level, women have been present in punk scenes for decades. In her memoir, Bag recalls the diversity of the late ’70s, when women and queer people of color were present at those early shows in L.A. And the long list of women punk bands (The Slits, Patti Smith, Wendy O, Blondie, Babes In Toyland, L7, Siouxsie and the Banshees, X-Ray Spex) proves the point that women have always been there. But when it comes to the recognition of the contributions of women to the genre, especially women of color, it just doesn’t exist.
According to a vast majority of people, punk is the singular creation of white dudes, while women have had to fight for space and recognition.
The continuing contributions of Xicanas and women of color in punk remains invisible and absent in much of the documentation of the emergence of punk in America. Today, while Xicanas like Spitboy’s Michelle Cruz Gonzales and Alice Bag publish memoirs and journalists begin to map out black Riot Grrls experience in the ’90s, women of color are organizing to create safe spaces to celebrate their love of punk.
Fast forward almost 40 years after The Bag’s first show, and witness a crowd of hundreds of queer, trans, and feminist Xicanas and people of color pile into a small venue in Boyle Heights for Xicana Punk Night. Inside La Conxa, an autonomous community center and safe space managed by the Ovarian Psycos, genderqueer punk band Trap Girl rips into their song “Dead Men Don’t Rape.” A general sense of frustration at rape culture fills the room: Women of color punks stand side by side, taking space in defiance of community displacement, racism, and patriarchy.
Gloria Lucas, founder of the Boyle Heights-based Nalgona Positivity Pride, a Xicana-Brown-Indigenous collective focused on decolonizing body positivity and eating disorder awareness, began organizing the annual Xicana Punk Night a few years ago. A self-described “chubby warrior, DIY punx educator, and eating disorder survivor,” Lucas began organizing the all-ages event in collaboration with other grassroots collective to raise money for programming and to highlight all womxn of color in the punk music scene.
It was also an extension of her commitment to honoring the voices and art of brown women. “In general, women don’t really get recognized enough, but brown women hardly ever get celebrated for their achievements. What better than to celebrate the contributions and art of brown muxeres? Why not honor each other instead of waiting for the big man to recognize us?”
In an interview with The Establishment, Bag explains that when she first started as The Bags’ lead singer, she didn’t immediately recognize the impact her role would have in inspiring future generations of women of color in punk.
She learned about her impact only after her time with The Bags, explaining that before her, no one who looked like her occupied the roles she was already filling.
“I think the feeling of being on stage and having your voice heard is something that needed to be modeled. We didn’t have a lot of strong Chicanas on stages playing music at the time I was growing up. So my message wasn’t one that was sought out, it was one that happened on its own.”
After leaving The Bags and continuing on to school, Bag’s love of music inspired her to collaborate with other women in bands like Castration Squad, The Cambridge Apostles, and Cholita! The Female Menudo. Another band Bag became involved with in the ’90s was feminist folk group Las Tres. The band was formed with two other Xicanas from East L.A., Teresa Covarrubias and Angela Vogel. All came from a punk background to form a Mexican trio-style band.
An important theme of Las Tres was denouncing domestic violence:
“One of the songs that I wrote was ‘Happy Accident’ and it was about a woman who killed her abusive husband. And I remember that many people connected to that particular song. And I think that it’s been something that needed to have a voice. I think people didn’t feel like anyone was talking about it, it was the dirty little secret.”
Throughout her career, Bag has led many musical projects with other women of color and she says she’s always inspired by young women who lead projects of their own. “I’m really excited when I see Xicana women in powerful positions making change and taking control of their surroundings,”says Bag.
“Sometimes maybe it’s going to take a different form than what I did but I don’t care, I really don’t care. Maybe it will be a different style, or a different political point of view; as long as I see women involved, I’m happy.”
Community-building has also been very important to the artist, who believes feminist solidarity coupled with creative expressions helps women exchange ideas in the name of social change. “I think that really is community building, when you are able to take your fellow Xicanas and have a conversation and build community, build strength, and build common ground, and make change together,” says Bag.
“That’s powerful. You know, there’s an old feminist saying, from the ’60s that says, ‘Sisterhood is powerful.’ I like to borrow that and say ‘La hermanidad es el poder.’ And we have that already. Because we’re fighters, we are used to having to fight for social justice.”
Bag’s uninhibited stage persona earned her the name “Violence Girl,” but decades later Xicana and women of color punks look up to her for much more than her onstage angst. For punks like Susy Riot, Bag represents an obligation to express, denounce, and perform in direct response to their realities as Xicanas living in LA.
As a Xicana punk scholar, zinester, and lead singer of Las Sangronas y El Cabron, a Chican@/Riot Grrrl/ Hardcore Punk band from Highland Park, Susy Riot has followed Alice Bag’s work for years and is a big fan of the themed music playlists, podcasts, and women in punk interviews Bag has made available on her site over the years:
“I feel that her story speaks to other Chicanas’ experiences across generations, especially in regards to alienation and/or isolation one might feel even in one’s own community growing up, the impact violence can have in one’s perspective of self, and the rage that grows from all of this that punk allows one to vent. Bag’s story inspired me to think about my own immersion in punk and how newer generations of Chicanas and Latinas in punk are creating herstories of punk.”
Riot is currently working on her doctoral research on Xicana punk, specifically regarding the formation of Chicana punk subjectivities, mode of consciousness, and cultural histories. Always connected to Latinx punk scenes, Riot says that activism continues to fuel Xicanas in punk.
“Some of the aspects of Xicana punk that I would identify as the most important is the role of feminism, community activism, and the creative ways in which Chicana/o cultural aesthetics and sensibilities, are merged musically and stylistically with punk.”
Bag, herself, is nowhere near done with modern renderings of the genre. On June 24, she released her self-titled solo debut album, a socially-charged LP that touches on domestic violence, consent, and food justice. Her record release party is set for July 2 at The Echo in L.A. The energetic artist, who has inspired hundreds of women of color to express and heal through punk and music in general, is forward-looking as she enters yet another chapter of her musical career.
She adds: “I’m so excited about it! It’s weird because I haven’t really been a lead singer in a long, long time, probably at least 25 years. So I’m a little bit nervous but super excited and I’m ready. I feel like I can’t wait for it.”