The DC Punk Scene Relied on the Local Latinx CommunityRoundup
tags: immigration, music, urban history, Washington DC, popular culture, cultural history, Latino/a history, Punk, Salvadoran Americans, Rock
Mike Amezcua is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Georgetown University and author of Making Mexican Chicago: From Postwar Settlement to the Age of Gentrification.
An old Presbyterian church hall located on a busy northwest intersection of Washington, DC, occupies a special place in the histories of two youth movements of the 1980s. In the church's basement, known then as the Wilson Center, DC’s explosive punk and hardcore music scene found a home for performances by bands such as Minor Threat, State of Alert, The Faith, and more. It was also a community space for a large migration of youth fleeing political violence in El Salvador who used it as a resource and a refuge.
While the space accommodated these two groups — predominantly white punks who hailed from DC's suburbs and semi-suburbs and refugees from war-torn Central America — they existed in the city under very different circumstances and socioeconomic conditions. At the Wilson Center, it was the punks who were the visitors, as the basement had for years been a space for Latinx immigrant autonomy, mutual aid, and youth self-expression.
How this predominantly white youth subculture interacted with the process of Latinx neighborhood building and community making has often been left out of the story of DC’s legendary punk and hardcore scene of the 1980s. In previous decades, the neighborhoods — Adams Morgan, Mount Pleasant, and Columbia Heights — surrounding the church had become anchor points for working-class Black and brown residents who were making do in redlined, disinvested areas. Yet the relatively poor economic conditions of the area’s immigrants, coupled with city neglect, made these neighborhoods optimal spaces for suburban punks to enjoy loud music and violent slam dancing — something that was impossible in more upscale neighborhoods.
It was here that DC’s punk and hardcore scene found a home within community spaces created by and for Latinx immigrants. A barrio community center gave punk rockers a space to congregate and make unruly sounds, but more importantly it lent some authenticity to the scene’s ideals of all-ages music spaces, self-sufficient autonomy, and anti-corporate culture. In short, Latinx immigrants and refugees gave punks a stage for their own movement, a point which has been largely unacknowledged and forgotten to this day.
Those who were around the scene 40 years ago recall that it was the pioneering, all-Black hardcore band the Bad Brains that organized the first show at the Wilson Center, in 1981, with 13 bands. “This was a mind-blowing show for me,” remembers Malcolm Riviera, a transplant from North Carolina who attended the show. He later organized shows there himself, during the early '80s, to showcase the youth-driven scene of fast, angry, and energetic bands.
Almost overnight the tiny scene ascended into a giant burst of multifaceted creativity that altered independent and underground music forever. But as important as it was for the DC scene to find “any place where a racket would be tolerated,” as local hardcore luminary Henry Rollins put it about those early years, punks rarely grappled with what it meant to borrow environments built by Black and brown communities.
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