Notes on Mexican Rock

Through the Lens of El Chopo

By Humberto Delgado

Photographer Carin Zissis captures the style and flair of rock concert fans who go to El Chopo to listen to music and to buy CDs, albums, musical instruments and other merchandise. 

Since the 1960s, there’s been a booming underground rock scene in Mexico. It defines itself as countercultural, but not in absolute opposition to the mainstream—although sometimes it indeed is. Rather, the underground rock scene developed to seek inclusion in the midst of political and economic backwardness. It was and still is also a way of resisting the strict yet worn imposition of official values carried out by the state since the Mexican Revolution.

Rock, like other social phenomena, includes “simulations of social interactions,” as Laura Martínez Hernández, following Néstor García Canclini, points out in Music and Alternative Culture (p. 29). In this way, the Mexican underground rock scene—beyond its musical quality which is much criticized by specialists like Hugo García Michel—needs to be looked at as a parallel construction of  the Mexican identity, this time, however, one that is elaborated from the periphery. The stories told by rockeros make them visible, and in the process manage to show what the status quo promotes and what it renders invisible and even causes to disappear. The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), a hegemonic party that has controlled Mexico’s political system for many decades, produces and successfully imposes an unambiguous construction of a national identity of a country that has left behind the era of social injustice for a new age of development. The still current triumphalist discourse generated by those in power suffered its first great rupture in the 1960s, when the first economic crises began to affect large sectors of the population. People began to react to the political erosion and the consequent and increasingly authoritarian and censorial attitudes of a party that could no longer sustain the illusion of being an agent for democracy and social equity. 

The first years of rock in Mexico demonstrated the capacity of the power structures of the authoritarian state and media to control and manage culture. Facing the inevitable advent of rock and roll, the system responded not so much by rejecting but by absorbing it and taking away any dissident undertones. Among other strategies for exerting cultural—and with it, political—control, the PRI systematically created a media strategy in which the decision was not to nationalize the media, but to give it over to entrepreneurs who had ties to the government. In this way, in 1955, precisely during the birth of rock and roll, the first—and for many years, the only—private television company, Telesistema Mexicano (which would later be called Televisa, and whose owner named himself a soldier of the PRI in a polemical interview), was established. The television station, whose scope gradually extended to all sorts of musical shows, radio stations and movie productions, acted during the first years of the rock phenomenon as a filter that let in those aspects of the new musical movement that aligned with the official interests of the time, in this way getting rock to lose its subversive capacity and become a model of the modernity it was entering. Including this musical novelty was even considered a gesture of democratic acceptance of the new phenomenon that some conservatives accused of being a foreign threat to the national identity. The system, however, was prepared to neutralize these and other attacks. The Mexican media managed to control the phenomenon during its first years, making space for politically correct musical groups and singers, who then turned into soap opera and sitcom stars. Covers and bands that were noticeably copied from bands in the United States—even in their skin tones— dominated in this initial period. The Teen Tops, the Locos del Ritmo or the Rebeldes del Rock allowed Mexican youth at the end of the 50s and beginnings of the 60s to get the eternal adolescent sensation of the modern and the different with a light touch of rebellion. The initial mainstream strategy continued during the following decades. It was only well into the 80s, when the underground movement was unstoppable, that transnational record companies first attempted to promote artists under the slogan  “Rock in your language,” selecting groups that were more or less independent yet still followed the same old initial model: white artists who catered to the apolitical middle class, with fundamentally romantic songs and rhythms that were more sophisticated yet still very close to pop. 

The audience listening to this rock concert in El Chopo are fans who often carry backpacks with used CDs they sell or trade for other CDs and concert admission. Photo by Carin Zissis.

Nevertheless, this type of commercial rather than musical policy never satisfied a generation of youth who began to understand that rock was a transversal phenomenon that went beyond what the national media allowed. Thus a musical scene emerged, mainly in the outlying neighborhoods of large urban areas like Guadalajara, Monterrey, Tijuana or Mexico City, which was subsequently attacked for decades by classist and nationalist critics who disqualified it and shut all doors to this sort of music. This second reworking of rock in the 60s left behind the covers sung in Spanish and proposed new lyrics that were often sung in English as a way of returning to the origins and separating itself from the rock that dominated radio and television stations. A vast number of groups emerged; some of them did not hide their political militancy while they adapted and Mexicanized rock. Their names said it all—as direct allusions to the Mexican Revolution—showing that the appropriation of the national promoted the revolutionary myth along with the PRI:  La Decena Trágica (The Tragic Ten Days), División del Norte (Division of the North), and especially, La Revolución de Emiliano Zapata (The Revolution of Emiliano Zapata). This last group’s story is as sad as it is symptomatic of what happens in Mexico. Their song, “Nasty Sex” (1970), had reached beyond Mexican borders and acquired a certain prestige, but in the end the system asphyxiated their impetus and  impeded their economic survival, for which they sold their rock soul for the romantic ballad.

These and other underground Mexican groups, plus the global and local contexts of the turbulent 60s, created the surge of a youthful social phenomenon known as the Onda, which went beyond rock but cannot be understood without it. Those involved in the Onda, called jipitecas (a mix of hippie and Aztec) became one of the first youth-centered urban and suburban configurations that, beginning in the 80s, formed part of the Mexican scene. In a book essential for the understanding of Mexican culture in the 20th century, Lost Love, Carlos Monsiváis cannot resist dedicating a large chapter to the subject where he writes: “The Onda is the first movement of contemporary Mexico that refuses institutional conceptions from non-political positions and, with eloquence, reveals to us the extinction of a cultural hegemony. The jipitecas anticipate and sum up a process: in rejecting nationalism, they resolve, without major theoretical effort, the construction of options. The first aim is the mocking of Unappealable Social Goals, the objectives for which their fathers have lived. The monopoly on the perception of reality is mocked” (p. 235, emphasis his). Monsiváis here points out what is perhaps the principal contribution of the Mexican underground rock movement extending beyond the Onda: its capacity to create a sort of mirror that reflects a distinct and disillusioned image of the country, one that contradicts the political and media discourse, not by directly denouncing it as protest music, cinema or militant literature does, but by creating a meta-narrative in which previously hidden social entities become the protagonists, including the creative subjects themselves who promote themselves as the model for the downfall of the system. The figure of the Gramscian subordinate emerges once more, just as other local archetypes had in the past, like the low-class boor (or churl) featured in Roger Bartra’s classic text, The Cage of Melancholy. The rocker takes various elements from the figure of the churl, among them a new sense of popular and local language: “Ya chole, chango, chilango.” (“Hey dude, stop it!”).  Mexican rock also constructs a Mexico City not represented by other artists: a city of rats, housing projects, bank robberies and stray dogs mowed down recklessly by cars, but also a city with neighborhood beauty queens, student cantinas and subway stations where urban life takes place.  

       Photo by Carin Zissis.

Perhaps the only organized rock movement in the country emerged in Mexico City beginning in the 80s. The Rupestre Movement started not only as a counter-offensive against mainstream music, but also in contrast to Cuban nueva trova and Andean music that was dominant primarily among the middle class youth in universities, who found a new continental form of resistance in the Hispanic American identity of the 70s. A great many young people did not feel represented in this expression and called for a more direct and more local music that diverged from the melodic sweetness of Cuba’s Silvio, or the national folklore of Mexicans such as Óscar Chávez or The Folkloristas, or the radical militancy of León Chávez Teixero. The Rupestres created their own spaces, organized concerts and promoted artists. They even wrote a manifesto that showcased the subordinate figure, now adapted to Mexico City’s urban culture: “It isn’t that the rupestres have escaped from the old Museum of Natural Sciences, nor from the Museum of Anthropology; neither have they come from the hidden hills in a truck full of chickens and beans. This is simply about everyone who isn’t very handsome, doesn’t have a tenor voice, doesn’t compose like the heights of aesthetic knowledge, or (even worse) doesn’t have the sophisticated electronic equipment and crazy effects that impress the first scatterbrain who hears it” (excerpt from the Rupestre Manifesto). The Rupestres don’t appeal to either political or social labels, it’s enough for them to show the disillusionment of a generation that has left behind the rural world of the mid-20th century, entering into a Mexican modernity that has no hope of social ascent, but is willing to fight the creative fight to occupy a space in it. 

After more than three decades of emerging, and despite being lauded by homages and documentaries about them (one has just come out on YouTube: Rupestre, the Documentary), the members of this movement are practically unknown by the majority of the Mexican population, which implies that their marginal condition still prevails. Among them, one iconic figure stands out—perhaps the only one in the history of Mexican rock. This is Rodrigo González, also known as Rockdrigo or the Prophet of the Cactus, both nicknames he invented. September 2015 marked the 30th anniversary of his death in the 1985 earthquake, which ended the Rupestre movement. However, with a first album that he himself produced and sold (Hurbanistorias, 1985), and others posthumously created from loose recordings, Rodrigo is still being heard and valued by a sector of the population beyond Mexico City, as seen in the 2013 documentary, Who Is Dayani Cristal? in which Central American immigrants aboard the train known as The Beast sing one of his songs from memory even better than Gael García Bernal did. 

Like Rockdrigo, the Mexican underground rock movement has been able to organize and manage its own marketing and distribution during times when globalization and the free market were absent. The Rupestre movement rests on the support of the National Autonomous University (UNAM) and other spaces funded by, yet independent from, the state, like Education Radio. At UNAM, the Rupestres find modest support from the Chopo Museum, which organizes concerts and disseminates their music. In 1980, the Chopo Museum began to allow a music street market by the same name to flourish in front of its premises, but when the market began to become highly popular and expand, it moved to a street close to the enormous PRI headquarters, a surreal vision of the official and the countercultural convening in one point in Mexico City. The Chopo street market did not get started thanks to the democratic opening of the party in power, but rather in spite of its opposition. The vendors who sell here, today rockero grandfathers in T-shirts and white beards, began to offer music that was impossible to obtain elsewhere in the 80s. Their success has been such that the street market has become a space of tolerance where the police cannot intervene, under the condition that the vendors will be responsible for security, a responsibility carried out with even greater success than the authorities have had, resulting in a safe space that is entirely devoted to the sale of music (yes, much of it pirated, but how else would one acquire a German heavy metal album in Mexico in the 80s?). There, one can also find booksellers, movie stands, tattoo artists, musical instruments and other paraphernalia related to rock. Its fame has brought artists and intellectuals who give concerts or participate in a variety of activities to support and promote the market. 

As the reader may deduce from these notes, Mexican rock is a political endeavor without directly trying to be one. Its simple discourse based on binary opposites has allowed for the idea of an alternative country, not for the purpose of following the sometimes naïve rock utopias, but to refuse the idea of a single path for the construction of national identity during a time when no one  shouted as loud as they did, even though few listened. Its musicians’ initiatives used creativity to break the country’s media and marketing monopoly bubbles, which was no small feat during the years in which social repression and censorship reigned with no social networks to denounce them. Today, with a new authoritarian temptation in Mexico, a return to these Rupestres is advisable.

Humberto Delgado, a Mexico City native, studied Latin American literature at UAEM and film studies at CUEC/UNAM, where he also taught film editing. He is currently finishing his doctorate in the Harvard Department of Romance Languages and Literatures with a thesis on the artistic representations of the Zócalo.