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AMP: Alice Bag's Chicana Punk Story Hits Home

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By Kamren Curiel
As a little kid in the 80s, I grew up idolizing my older teenage cousins who really got to live the era. One day they were doing windmills on cardboard boxes in the front yard. The next, they were blasting punk rock from ghetto blasters affixed inside their bedroom windowsill. They exuded teenage angst and I wanted to be a part of the scene. I remember being so excited when I got to borrow a 'Punk's Not Dead' T-shirt to wear to school. I thought I was the ish. When I was finally old enough to explore the punk scene myself, one of my first shows took place at a ditching party (organized disobedience at its finest) in the backyard of a house in East L.A. There's something about moshing and headbanging that just melts the stress away.

It wasn't until I heard about the book, Violence Girl: East L.A. Rage to Hollywood Stage, A Chicana Punk Story, that I started digging deeper for punk's local roots. Come to find out, L.A.'s first female punk lead singer was a Latina born Alicia Armendariz to parents who immigrated to East L.A. from Mexico. Alicia became Alice Bag (Alice was name given to her by an ethnocentric second grade teacher circa 1963) and became front woman and founder of The Bags, one of the first punk rock bands to emerge from L.A. in 1977. Her primal screams, which unconsciously channeled the ranchera her dad listened to, would come to define the 1970s West Coast punk sound.

In 1979, The Bags released their first singles, "Survive" and "Babylonian Gorgon," on the short-lived Dangerhouse Records label. "We Don't Need The English" followed on the Yes L.A. punk compilation released by the same label. After Bags cofounder, Patricia Rainone, left the band in 1980 the group came out in Penelope Spheeris' punk rock documentary, The Decline of Western Civilization, which also featured The Germs, Black Flag, Catholic Discipline, and X.

Alice's story is unique to those who don't equate Mexican Americans with punk rock, but as someone who grew up in L.A., the subculture heavily influenced my own rebellious youth. A good read on the history of East L.A. punk can be found in the soon-to-be traveling Smithsonian exhibition 'American Sabor: Latinos in U.S. Popular Music.' I'm in the midst of reading Alice's book, a memoir that begins with a heated Bags performance where she took a swing at a disgruntled audience member who flipped off the band, then shifts into war stories of growing up with an extremely abusive father. I'm hooked!

Through a series of short stories with such titles as "Summers in Juarez" and "Beauty School Dropout," Alice takes you back to L.A.'s racist past--being reprimanded by teachers for speaking Spanish in school--and finally the feeling of empowerment brought on by the Chicano Moratorium in 1970. The idea to write the book came about when multimedia artist and activist, Raquel Gutierrez, interviewed Alice for the first full-length play, The Barber of East L.A., produced by her sketch ensemble Butchlalis de Panochtitlan. Directed by renowned Chicano performance artist and MacArthur Fellow, Luis Alfaro, the play explores L.A.'s queer communities of color during the Chicano rights movement, which united to speak out against the Vietnam War, the killing of Ruben Salazar and, eventually, the election of Ronald Reagan.

I have the honor of moderating a talk by Alice, who's now a teacher, at a Women in Media Network event this week. I can't wait to delve deeper into her book and swap East L.A. stories. Word on the street  is she'll be performing an intimate set with Angie Garcia and Lysa Flores. If you're shopping for a new read, pick up a copy of Violence Girl: East L.A. Rage to Hollywood Stage, A Chicana Punk Story. You'll be taken back in no time.

Kamren Curiel is a Digital Media Editor at Voto Latino and freelance writer for Remezcla and MTV Iggy. Her column, AMP (Art Music Politics), profiles artists and musicians that are dedicated to a cause.