El Salvador's Hardcore Scene Is Breaking a Cycle of Violence Without Breaking Its Edge

“Before, every time I heard punk music it was like 'I don't care about the future.' Then I heard Tropiezo and they sang about being rebels—with a cause.”
August 29, 2016, 3:57pm

The video for El Salvador hardcore band Ignition's street anthem “Representando” is a montage of the band playing a small metal bar called Sin Sonido in the nation's capital of San Salvador. The audience members, in a call and response with singer Denis Villatoro, climb on each other's backs to shout “Las Calles! Represento!” In other shots, fans pose together, smile, or simply regard the camera. The straightforward lyrics describe growing up surrounded by hate and destruction, but the song is ultimately about family and friendship. Guitarist Mauricio Lopez says of his band “we sing about living a tough life in a country like this, hanging with your friends and family, and resisting all the shit that surrounds you.”

Lopez is referring in a general way to the challenges of daily life in El Salvador, where the shit that surrounds you includes brutal gang violence. The country's two warring gangs, or maras, MS-13 and Barrio 18, are responsible for most of it. They specialize in extortion but they are increasingly involved in the drug trade. Last year, there were 6,656 homicides in the country. With an average of 24 murders a day, El Salvador currently has highest murder rate in the world.

The reasons for the violence are complex, tying back to El Salvador's bloody civil war, when many Salvadorans fled north to Los Angeles. Salvadoran gangs emerged there, initially to protect Salvadoran neighborhoods. When large numbers of Salvadorans were deported from the US in the 1990s, the gangs took root in El Salvador. Now most poor neighborhoods are controlled by one gang or the other. Many young men encounter pressure to join the gangs, and fear running afoul of them. Young women are also vulnerable to the predations of the gangs in many ways. Anyone can be endangered simple by crossing into the wrong neighborhood.

Joining a gang has its appeal. The maras can provide a sense of belonging and a kind of safety for young people in this country, where so many families have been disrupted by decades of violence—but so can music. In El Salvador the hardcore scene is concentrated in San Salvador where straight edge and youth crew hardcore is a major touchstone. There are plenty of bands playing punk, metal and aggressive music of all kinds, but, for a city of its size, it's home to a fair number of bands indebted to Revelation Records' early output. The fierce positivity and tribalism of hardcore and straight edge culture in particular seems to have a special resonance in the region, where it takes on new significance in a Central American context.

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Joel Rodriguez, guitarist of straight edge band Toma El Riesgo, one of the leading bands in the scene, and co-founder of Solid Foundation records, remembers being attracted to the punk scene as a young teenager, but found aspects of it alienating. He connected with hardcore instantly when he heard Puerto Rican band Tropiezo: “Before, every time I heard punk music it was like 'fuck everyone' and 'I don't care about the future.' Then I heard Tropiezo and they sang about the future and about being rebels – with a cause.”

Toma el Riesgo / Photo by Menly Cortez

Rodriguez is a student and works in a call center. At 27, he's in the age group of young men the gangs target. He has been threatened just for crossing into territory controlled by the 18th Street gang, just outside the gated community where he lives with his family. “For people who are living in these types of neighborhoods or even next to one of them, these people are looking to the hardcore scene as an alternative to living this crazy lifestyle of being in a gang. They're from broken families as well, but they are being more positive about their lives and their attitudes about things that are affecting the country,” Rodriguez says.

Toma El Riesgo adapts the straight-edge sound and attitude to this environment. “Drugs is a huge issue for us here, but violence is worse, so we also try to speak about violence – about the things that we see here. We don't want to make a copy of what Youth of Today was in the 80s. We try to speak about what's affecting our hardcore scene and what's affecting our city. We have one song called “La Raiz de Cambio,” the root of change, where we're basically speaking about that,” Rodriguez explains.

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The scene can be a way for young people to resist and confront El Salvador's problems, but the violence that has so long been a part of life there can be hard to escape, even within the scene itself. The scene got its start around 1997, with a handful of bands such as Maximum Rock 'n' Roll and Firme Decision playing shows at a DIY venue called The Hardcore Café, which hosted Sunday matinees where covers of Agnostic Front and Union 13 songs shook the walls. At first, the scene was too small for there to be much bad blood, but, as it grew, divisions emerged. Kids started to identify more strongly with the crew from their own neighborhood and with their subgenre of choice. Crews became like gangs.

Photo by Rafael Valle Huezo

“If you were straight edge you couldn't go to a regular hardcore show. If you we're part of one crew, you couldn't go to the show of another crew,” recalls Fran Maravilla, a musician with roots in the hardcore scene. Fights between crews, and between straight edge kids and kids who weren't straight edge, became so routine that no one outside the scene wanted anything to do with hardcore bands. It was a rare dive bar that would book one to play.

Pedro Alfaro, a Salvadoran musician and music producer now based in the D.C. Area, helped found the Hardcore Café and came up in the scene. He reflects on how things got to that point so quickly: “When we were growing up, we came out of this war and I think that permeated the mind of the upcoming scene. The violence that happened in the war got stuck in the DNA of being a teenager in El Salvador. The slam dance was really violent from the beginning and we weren't used to the idea of getting punched and thinking it was just an accident. Our tolerance was pretty much extinguished by 12 years of war. After all those things happened to us, once we got punched, even if it was an accident – the normal Salvadoran kid just broke. It was really easy for fights to break out.”

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Rodriguez remembers things took a bad turn in May of 2007, when he was 18. His earlier band Nuestra Promesa was booked to play their first show with several other bands when a shooting involving to members of the hardcore scene took place outside the venue. He remembers: “Jorge, the singer for my band was singing for this band called Corazón de León. When we heard the shooting and people knocking at the door, his girlfriend at the time started running toward the door because she had friends outside and I just grabbed her and put her on the ground and we just were crawling not to get shot,” he recalls, adding, “I'd say half, if not more of the people who used to go to those shows are not going anymore because of what happened.” Thankfully, no one was hurt and this was the first and only incident involving guns in the scene, but, for many people, it crossed a line.

Photo by Menly Cortez

After that, there were fewer shows and fewer kids at the shows. People were afraid, but Rodriguez believes something good came of that night. Following the incident, he says, attitudes started to change among those who stayed in the scene: “They just understood [violence] wasn't good for the bands or for the people going to the shows.” He first saw evidence of this new awareness at a show the band Nuestra Promesa played with Chilean band En Mi Defensa in 2008. “I remember this show being different. People felt the need to be there and were singing every song from each band that played that night,” he says.

As recently as last year, a young man was stabbed in the eye with a key by another young man at a show, but, Rodriguez has seen things slowly changing for the better. “Before, I used to go to shows and feel like 'something is going to happen.' You actually felt the tension in the air, because you were seeing the people in the pit and seeing that they were actually hitting each other and not by accident. But now it's different,” he insists. The stabbing was an isolated incident and the agressor was not part of the hardcore scene. The important thing is that people within the scene are choosing not to fight among themselves and influencing others to do the same.

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“We talk to each other and we say the hardcore scene is not about this. People outside the scene are fighting each other. We're not going to reproduce the same behavior in the scene because we want to make the scene something different,” Rodriguez says. Now, straight edge bands may have members who don't even identify as straight edge, and bands of different styles can share bills.

Photo by Rafael Valle Huezo

Today, the scene is better than ever according to some who are involved. Attended by around 250 people without incident, Edge Fest was a major turning point, in Rodriguez's eyes. In October of 2015, La Casa Tomada, a collectively run arts center, was able to host Centro America Edge Fest, a hardcore festival showcasing Salvadoran bands such as Ignition and Toma El Riesgo along with bands from across Central America. “Everyone is trying to top that show now,” the guitarist says.

Lopez agrees: “The negative things that have happened in the past have changed people's mindsets about coming together to make sure the hardcore scene survives. For us to play Edge Fest would not have been possible five, seven years ago.” It's not just the absence of violence, he adds, shows are more organized now, bands might even get paid. Most importantly, kids are coming to shows again. “Now, all the new kids who are coming to hardcore shows see the scene as a place to be. They are seeing this unity that wasn't there before. Now, people are so aware that that is a bad thing for the scene that people on all sides will stop a fight if it happens,” says Lopez.

El Salvador's history can be seen as a long chain of cycles of violence dating back to colonial times, with internal conflicts coming to a head again and again. In this context, Maravilla, who helps manage La Casa Tomada, sees this return to unity as a triumph with political ramifications. “They like to be together,” he says of the young members of the scene, “That is very powerful in a society like this. It's not easy to be alone.” For the moment, one cycle of violence has been broken and replaced with something better.

Beverly Bryan is a writer based in Brooklyn. Follow her on Twitter.