At the Drive-In Turned Me into a Border-Hating Communist
The band's genre-defying punk sound taught me that borders are meant to be broken.
At the Drive-In's guitarist Omar Rodriguez performing. (Photo by Gary A. Livingston/Newsmakers)
As a teenager growing up in El Paso, all I wanted was to get far away from the US-Mexico border. I yearned for what I saw in late 90s movies like American Pie and Cruel Intentions, where white people lived in "modern" cities, went to endless proms, and threw wild house parties that never got shut down by the cops. Of course all of that was far from my existence. I'm the grandson of strong Chihuahuense women, who carved out a living sewing jeans for Levis. My dad was a hardcore fronterizo, who came up in one of El Paso's toughest barrios, ate guisados everyday, and only allowed cumbias and norteño music to play in his car. He was so proud, he even named my brother after the famous mariachi singer Javier Solis. Needless to say, my family didn't understand my reluctance to embrace the duality of Mexican and American culture that was all around me growing up. Of course, that started to change when I discovered At the Drive-In. The El Paso punk band helped me finally appreciate where I came from.
Although I'd heard the band's music before, I didn't really get At the Drive-In until I was about 17. The breakthrough moment happened while I was trying to record an EP with some high school friends in a marijuana- and caguama-littered studio in Sunset Heights. The historic neighbourhood we were in was known for its high density of Chicanx artists and its deep ties to the 1910 Mexican Revolution. But it's also a place where ATDI used to practice and hangout—the band even eulogized the neighbourhood in their song "Porfirio Diaz." My older friend who owned the studio, intent on schooling the mijos on border music history, beckoned me and my bandmates to watch a video of the band's 2001 performance at Australia's Big Day Out music festival.
"No guey, you don't get it!" He yelled at me before pressing play, "These guys were from the border, bro—these guys are like you. They started off in high school too, guey. And they practiced here in Sunset Heights on Porfirio Diaz street. Fíjense cabrones, this is your history!"
Of all the lectures about the border I'd ever been given as a teenager, this was the one that actually got through to me. In the video, ATDI shattered my expectations of what artists could do—especially ones coming out of El Paso who looked and talked like people from my community. The band opens up with a performance of "Arcarsenal," leaping into fits of ecstatic Dionysian madness. After rattling macarenas in a corner, frontman Cedric Bixler violently pulls his lips in all directions, asking us if we've ever tasted skin, while guitarist Omar Rodriguez dances with his ax flung behind his back, returning to the mic to echo the query. And to top it off, Cedric Bixler finished the set by calling out an aggressive, predominately white crowd for watching too much TV and acting like "[typical] white people."
For a marihuano, border-dwelling teenager, this footage was life affirming. For one, these guys were from the border, and more than that, they were Latino dudes who shifted my expectations of what alternative music looked and sounded like. Omar's amp was literally draped in a Puerto Rican flag, and I couldn't help but notice Cedric's cumbia-touched shuffle as he danced across the stage. Later I learned that Cedric Bixler's dad was a Chicano scholar who taught Mexican American studies, and Omar Rodriguez was the son of a music savvy Puerto Rican family. But beyond any of this, for me, their entire approach to music echoed a sense of cultural pride that I could actually relate to.
Although their references to the border might be lost on some, fronterizxs can quickly cue into all of their allusions. Songs like "Ebroglio" invoke El Paso's neighbourhoods, highway exits, and difficult happenings in Ciudad Juárez. The song title "Raschuache" refers to a chicanx practice of transforming something of lower quality into something functional, and even beautiful. And as TrackRecord's Elijah Watson noted earlier this year, songs like "Napoleon Solo," refer to El Paso's musical martyrs and deep punk history.
On a deeper level, At the Drive-In's music also told the story of our home's metamorphosis. Their revolutionary sounds emerged during one of the most tumultuous moments in the history of the US-Mexico borderlands. In 1994, the same year the band released their first EP, Hell Paso, the United States, Mexico, and Canada began implementing the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), streamlining the flow of transnational manufacturing into Mexico's border cities.
These economic policies were mirrored by new waves of xenophobia. As maquiladoras (foreign-owned assembly plants in Mexico) expanded in cities like Juárez, Reynosa, and Tijuana, US politicians also sought to harden the border and stop "illegal" crossings through initiatives entitled "Operation Hold the Line" and "Operation Gatekeeper." These programs further militarized the border, expanded immigration policing, and forced migrants to pursue increasingly dangerous routes to the US.
Likewise, the boom of maquiladoras in the 1990s also coincided with a surge in femicides, sexualized homicides targeting working-class women in Ciudad Juárez. These killings have continued over the past three decades, and although women of all ages and backgrounds have been effected, a significant number of the victims were workers commuting home from long shifts in Juárez's hundreds of foreign-owned manufacturing plants. At the Drive-In directly confronted this phenomenon in their song "Invalid Litter Dept.," with vivid lyrics depicting the "corpses ashes" and the general indifference of the local authorities toward these killings.
It would take years for me to come back to these songs and truly comprehend the violence and pain they delve into as poignant portraits of life along the border. But my exploration of the border didn't end with At the Drive-In. Instead, the band was a gateway for me to discover a history of resistance at the border. The music was a roadmap that lead me to study fronterizo anarchists like Ricardo and Enrique Flores Magón, communist chicana union organizers like Emma Temayuca, the Gorras Blancas's resistance to white settler-colonists in New Mexico, the defiant Texas-based Raza Unida Party... These were all voices that grew from the division of the US-Mexico border and demanded a different world. These were all souls who screamed from the periphery of the American empire, and asked to be more than mano de obra, more than a faceless mass of Mexican labour.
I also gained an appreciation for other artists and musicians who used their work to celebrate and document the border. Today, I adore the Chicanx murals painted by Jesus "Cimi" Alvarado's in Segundo Barrio. I listen to Juárez-based hip-hop group Batallones Femininos' musical confrontations with the ugliness of transnational patriarchy. And I engage with visual artist Zeke Peña's multi-media work, which draws attention to the damage the international boundary has done to the Rio Grande's cultural ecology.
In short, At the Drive-In set me on a path to love, appreciate, believe in, and want to fight for la frontera. Granted, not every teenager from El Paso and Ciudad Juárez loves ATDI, and not all that do ended up wishing they were fronterizo communists from the 1930s. But I'm guilty on both accounts. And at a time when border communities are especially under attack, facing new threats of escalated policing and detention at our already hyper-militarized international boundary, I think we need more art like ATDI's that echoes our indignation.