From Punk to Proud / by Tess Cagle

Originally published in Texas Monthly on April 5, 2016. 

In Hispanic culture, a yerberia is a traditional medicinal store that sells herbal remedies, candles, religious artifacts, charms, and books—basically anything to help heal a customer. Roughly thirty variations of these small shops, often heavily decorated with photos of various saints or the Virgin Mary, thrive in McAllen. In July 2015, a new business cropped up alongside the yerberias congesting downtown McAllen called Yerberia Cultura. It, too, is a space for healing, but its remedy is unlike any traditional form of herbs: it’s music.

Yerberia Cultura, which is actually a cultural arts space and venue, has become the headquarters for McAllen’s ever-growing music scene and serves as the new home of Galax Z Fair, McAllen’s alternative music festival that celebrated its fifth year on March 12. Venue partner and festival founder Patrick Garcia says he hoped to add to McAllen’s cultural narrative while also providing a therapeutic space for locals. “A yerberia is something that I’ve always grown up around, being from Brownsville,” Garcia says. “I just feel like it’s an element of the South Texas cultural landscape. It’s a place that’s associated with feeling, a place that’s associated with memories and a lot of religious connotations.” But it’s been a long journey to Yerberia Cultura, a gift that Garcia has given a place that was once largely separated from the outside music world.

You could say that the Rio Grande Valley exists within its own bubble. The area, which boasts cities just a few miles north of the Texas-Mexico border, has its own unique culture that has been heavily influenced by many of the locals’ Hispanic roots. It’s a place where Tejano beats thrive, and country music mixes with its Chicano neighbors. This rich culture comes with complex perspectives; although many celebrate the Tejano culture, a younger generation is feeling the growing pains of a society that still struggles to adopt “mainstream” America, all the while wanting to stay true to their heritage.

That often drives younger residents of the Rio Grande Valley to heavy genres such as punk as a means of expression. Historically a politically driven genre, punk simultaneously provides young Valley musicians an outlet to voice their anger and a way to better connect to the rest of the nation. Thanks to the Internet and local promoters like Garcia, Valley punks are more connected and better heard by the rest of world. And spaces like Yerberia Cultura are giving them the opportunity to be louder than ever.

Punk is nothing new to the Rio Grande Valley. The Steroids emerged from McAllen in 1979, but it wasn’t until the mid-eighties that a real community began to form. This group of punks found a home in quinceañera halls and rental spaces like the Sun Palace, located on Trenton and Closner in Edinburg. Still, up until the late nineties, there was never a concrete way to preserve that musical tradition. There was a notion of reinvention time and time again: a scene would exist, fade out, and then a new scene would emerge with little knowledge of their predecessors’ existence. But the prevalence of the Internet helped create a permanent archive of Valley punk music. Early websites such as MP3.com allowed artists to upload and share their music. Message boards and websites such as LiveJournal could host documented evidence of the scene.

The scene in the nineties also grew from an on-campus organization at the University of Texas–Pan American called the Covenant of Imagination, which threw shows around a circle pit located on the Edinburg campus. This group eventually evolved into an organization not affiliated with the school called the Union. Charlie Vela, an original member of the Union, says it was his first understanding that there was a scene in McAllen. “It had substance and was more than just an idea, it took place in certain locations and it had certain people that were fixtures of it,” Vela describes. “It was a subculture that fostered those ideas.” Like similar narratives of punk in the Valley, the original founders of the Union eventually grew up and left, but members such as Vela and Garcia used the experience to keep the music going. “I feel really fortunate that that’s how the scene happened to be when I came into it, because it’s encouraged giving back and it’s encouraged building an infrastructure to help other bands and trying to foster continuity to where maybe the next group doesn’t have to start over,” Vela says.

When they were starting out in the music industry, Vela and Garcia had a do-it-yourself approach. Garcia says he realized early on that if he wanted to play shows, he was going to have to book them himself. Vela, who was a founding member of the self-proclaimed emo, post-punk/hardcore band from the early aughts, December Drive, says the same was true for other aspects of band promotion. “Because we grew up feeling like there were no institutions open to us or available to us, it really motivated us to learn how to do everything ourselves,” Vela says. “This was just the ethos of the scene—you either recorded your own music or you found someone locally who would do it.”

Much as it served as an early historian of sorts for Valley punk, the Internet helped put the the area on the map. Previously, a touring band from McAllen had to get past the checkpoint and journey up to San Antonio—all the while hoping they had enough money to make that first leg of the trip—before the tour had even started. This works both ways; although it’s tough for local bands to leave the Valley to tour, convincing a national touring act to make the trip down to the Valley was a hard sell. Bands from the Midwest, meanwhile, can drive two hours and be in a different state.

Now, a band doesn’t even necessarily need to tour to gain initial exposure. Vela’s December Drive was one of the first Valley bands to successfully tour on a regular basis and form a national fan base, which Vela attributes partly to the fact that they emerged at the same time as MySpace.  “MySpace allowed bands to face outward to the nation or the world. Prior to that, all Internet culture like message boards were all local centered, completely inwardly focused. We did not care about anything beyond the checkpoint,” Vela says. Musicians can collaborate with people from across the country with the Internet, or connect with new fans via music-sharing sites such as Spotify and Bandcamp.

Garcia helped throw his first show when he was nineteen-years-old for December Drive. A few years later, he formed his own band—the Young Maths—and immediately noticed that there was a lack of show promoters in South Texas. In 2008, Garcia graduated from booking local and regional shows to throwing events that brought down national acts, expanding from punk to other genres. “I had this ambition to try and network with bands that were touring, bands that I would listen to all the time. And I said, ‘You know what? What do I have to do to get these bands to just come play in South Texas?’” Garcia recalls. He booked his first act—Cursive, an indie rock band from Omaha, Nebraska with a cult-like following—at the Cine El Rey in downtown McAllen.

In 2010 Garcia started his official show-promoting business, Tiger’s Blood, and organized the first Galax Z Fair. The lineup boasted international acts like Of Montreal, and was a major success. “I never imagined having Of Montreal come down,” Garcia admits. “I don’t think a lot of people did, so it was a smash hit.” That success allowed Garcia to turn Galax Z Fair into a tradition. Still, he says he was unsatisfied with the first lineup of artists. “It didn’t really represent what I totally wanted to do,” Garcia says. “I’d always wanted it to be a bunch of smaller bands, that I felt needed to get to where Of Montreal was.” So the second lineup’s headliners included bands that were much less well-known at the time such as the Cloud Nothings and Mac DeMarco.

Each year has been the same story. This March, the lineup boasted Mr. Twin Sister, Mykki Blanco, Mitski and Downtown Boys—none of which can yet claim the same status as an artist like Of Montreal, but are also on their way to blowing up, just like Mac DeMarco was in 2011. “Every year, because I’ve stayed with that pattern of announcing bands that are smaller, it sort of makes it harder for me to make sure it’s going to happen again next year,” Garcia says. “It’s really difficult to try and share music with people who don’t want to listen to it, but at the end of the day it’s worth it.”

Not only is Garcia giving audiences the experience of international acts in South Texas, but he and other promoters also ensure that local bands are given opportunities to network with and open for these acts. This year at Galax Z Fair, thirteen local bands opened for just eight national acts, a chance that Garcia has been giving local musicians since the festival’s inception. Andres Sanchez, local musician and guitarist for SUPER, recalls opening for Of Montreal at the first Galax Z Fair with his old band Jungle Bodies. “The first Galax Z Fair was very, very nerve-racking, because we were playing on the same stage as the kind of bands that I would read about and put on a pedestal,” Sanchez says. “There’s a certain disconnect when you can’t see these bands regularly live.” That’s a disconnect Garcia hopes to change.

All of this led to the opening of Yerberia Cultura last summer. Garcia is definitely not the only promoter in McAllen, nor can he even technically be classified as a “punk” promoter, but guys like him are the reason why there is now infrastructure for a thriving music scene in the Valley. Aside from Garcia, other local notable punks making a difference include Vela and Ronnie Garza, who are now working on As I Walk Through the Valley, a documentary in post-production that offers an all-encompassing view of the music scene in South Texas for the first time.

In nearby Brownsville, music and arts space BAM is trying to create a similar scene. BAM, which opened in 2014, is spearheaded by Michelle Serrano and her husband Carlos Solitaire. The organization was founded to serve as an outlet for local artists, with an emphasis on original artwork and music. Serrano says she wants to develop an environment that would show kids in Brownsville that they can be successful and happy in the area.

Serrano spent a few of her formative years in Houston, where she was exposed to the club culture of the early nineties. When she moved to Brownsville, she discovered that the underground culture of the city was heavily dependent on Matamoros, the Mexican city that lies on the border directly across from Brownsville. After high school she moved to Austin, and then returned after college and found that the scene had changed dramatically, with a large increase in local bands playing on campus at the University of Texas–Brownsville. “My theory is that when Mexico got cut off from the world because of the violence and we stopped going to Matamoros, we just stagnated,” Serrano explains. “Everything stagnated and then became new again. Everything was very original and different because everyone was going inward and getting connected through the Internet.”

The Brownsville punk scene has taken a little while longer to plant its roots in the city thanks to its long-time ties to Mexico. “McAllen became better integrated into traditional Western, democratic norms. They assimilated super fast,” Serrano says. “When it came down to Brownsville, we were still so deeply ingrained into this hacienda culture.” Since the inception of BAM, Brownsville and McAllen’s scenes have become better connected for the first time. Despite this newfound alliance and the general growth of Brownsville’s punk culture, Serrano hints that the organization is still not totally supported by the city. In January, the venue was shut down by a the city’s fire marshal when the venue was over capacity, resulting in the city demanding that BAM close its doors until renovations could be made to pass inspections as a venue as opposed to an art gallery. “We get a lot of negative blowback from Brownsville,” Serrano says.

Members in both the Brownsville and McAllen scenes emphasize punk music’s role in helping younger Valley kids assimilate into the dominant American culture. Whereas historically punk music has provided a route for kids to rebel against mainstream culture, it’s provided Valley musicians a way to break into it. “In a way you’re going against dominant Valley culture, or at least how we perceived it as being,” Vela says. “It was a way of assimilating and saying ‘I don’t like Tejano music, I don’t like country music, I like this music from Southern California’ or whatever. It was a way of turning away from where you live and looking outward; asserting your individuality.”

Still, bands have started to sing about their experiences in the Valley. “There’s a lot of younger bands that are coming out that are punk bands with a capital P, in my opinion, that are legitimately doing some very angry, smart and culturally aware stuff,” Garcia says.  “They’re aware of it, they’re aware of these ideas of assimilation, they’re aware of the border situation down here.” For example, one Valley band called Digi Boyz sings about border politics and their frustration with the police state. “Especially now where a lot of bands can upload their music online to a national or international platform, I think they’re aware of that and it’s only benefitting us for them to do those things,” Garcia says. “If outside punks—national punks or even Texas-based punks—are listening to this stuff, they’re not only listening to the bands, they’re listening to the sentiments and anger of a particular cultural region.”

Serrano says that up until now, punk in the Valley has been primarily very angry and very dark, without much direction. “There is no political edge to it, it’s chaos. But you know for anarchy or chaos, there has to be some sort of point where everybody starts to organize,” Serrano says. She says that there has been an increase in bands that are still angry, but with more purpose. “All that despair and negativity is starting to recede and we’re starting to get somewhere. I really feel it has lot to do with that they need a spot. They need a spot that’s open and that will allow it to organically grow.”

Thanks to locals like Serrano and Garcia, they might have found it.

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