The 12th annual Native American Music Awards takes place in upstate New York tonight. Los Angeles band Aztlan Underground is nominated in four categories. Its artistic growth has contributed to that recognition.
That growth began in Sylmar. That's where 45-year-old Rene Orozco, the son of Mexican immigrants, grew up among working class whites. Mid-1980s punk rock bands such as Crass and Southern Death Cult pulled him out of the gang he joined as a teenager.
"What they did was they would put out records, they would have lyrics that are obviously conscious and have analysis about authority and about true democracy," Orozco said. "But they would also have little pamphlets where they would discuss authors, people like Emma Goldman, Peter Kropotkin."
Some of those punk bands opened his eyes to North American Indian ideology. Orozco’s father – who was usually reticent to talk about his own "mestizo," or "mixed" heritage – sat his son down after seeing a poster of Sitting Bull in his son's room.
"And he’s all, ‘No sabias que nosotros somos indios.’ In other words, 'didn’t you know we’re natives?' And I almost felt like crying. 'What?' He’s all, ‘That’s why we’re brown!’ 'What?'" he said.
Rene Orozco adopted the indigenous name Yaotl Mazahua. Then in 1990, after he earned a bachelor's in cultural anthropology from Cal State Northridge, he and two friends founded Aztlan Underground. The band mixed hip hop, indigenous consciousness and identity politics.
"I was very nationalist, kind of old school to me, Chicano sensibilities, because the old school Chicano movement was, Aztlan, the stolen states of the U.S., they stole Mexico, gotta take it back," he said.
The band played at the large East L.A. Chicano Moratorium commemoration that year; after that, performance requests from college student groups flooded in. Those were heavy times. 1992 would mark the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the new world and activist groups across the United States planned protests. Aztlan Underground provided the soundtrack with songs such as "My Blood is Red."
The band’s second CD in 2001 was a tribute to the uprising of indigenous people in the Mexican state of Chiapas seven years earlier. The group trekked to Chiapas to offer its help and received unexpected orders from the movement’s leader Subcommandante Marcos. "Go back to your neighborhoods," he told them, "and continue your activism."
"If you’re a teacher teach, if you’re a poet, write poetry, if you do music, write music, and everything is a bridge to a better world." That world, Yaotl and his band members came to realize, would be one in which Chicanos, whites and everyone else would coexist through love and respect for the environment.
Their latest CD, eight years in the making, continues to combine dark rock, indigenous drums and flutes with lyrics that – in true punk rock tradition – lash out against overreaching authority. The song "Moztlitta" is a first for the group. It's sung entirely in Nahuatl, the Aztec language. It and the album convey a hopeful message that people can overcome ethnic differences and heal the earth.
In two decades of performing, Yaotl says, he’s seen how these indigenous ideals have become common among Mexican-Americans. "Before, it was like, I would say, ‘Man, did you know we’re indigenous?’ ‘What, I’m no pinche indio, man I’m not an Indian, man, I’m Mexican!’ I’m like, ‘What does Mexican mean? Mexican comes from Nahuatl, Mexica, man.' ‘No man, whatever man, you’re crazy, put your feather on.’ They would trip out. And then now, ‘Yeah, yeah, my sister’s name is Citlali.’ It’s normal now, you know," he said.
Another sign of changing times, he says, is that North American Indian groups are beginning to embrace Mexican-Americans who claim indigenous roots. Aztlan Underground notes a case in point: its four nominations at tonight’s Native American Music Awards. The four members of the group are set to perform at the ceremony in Niagara Falls, New York.