In his teens Hector Rangel was a veritable bohemian. He studied at a Mexican prep school, taking classes in ethics, philosophy, logic, statistics, and calculus. He helped set up dance performances and art openings. He enjoyed reading, particularly Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha and Steppenwolf. He listened to punk rock — maligned as "devil's music" in his pueblo — and went to shows at the Mexico City flea market El Tianguis Cultura del Chopo. At age seventeen, he joined the Mexican army in hope of getting a scholarship for college. He couldn't foresee that two years later he would wind up working menial jobs in East Oakland, and trying to go it alone.
Rangel's parents immigrated to the United States in 1999, leaving his four younger brothers home alone. When Rangel got the news, he abandoned his army post and caught a flight to Oakland, where his parents were staying. "My idea was always like any other immigrant: 'I'm gonna go back,'" Rangel said. But after his parents repatriated to Mexico, Rangel settled in the US on his own. He enrolled in classes at Laney College and began working a string of part-time jobs — in bakeries, at a fish market, and later as an attendant for people with disabilities. Within a few months Rangel was proficient in English. A couple years later, he married an American woman and began raising a family. Rangel thought that if he could somehow import Mexico's bohemian scene into his new Oakland neighborhood — which suffered from a dearth of community centers and Spanish-language bookstores — he could really acclimate.
Such was the impetus for Libros Arte y Cultura, the bookstore and cultural center he started in 2005. It's now located in a large building on International Boulevard that also houses a health clinic and discount clothing store, along with such related organizations as Grupo Maya and Central Legal de la Raza. For two years Rangel bankrolled the project himself, supplying a book collection that now includes books by Hesse and García Lorca, along with photography manuals, vegetarian cookbooks, Spanish-language dictionaries, and copies of the Popol Vuh (i.e., the Mayan Bible). He brought a group of local artists to this year's Latino Community Foundation Annual Gala in San Francisco, so that they could rub elbows with curators and gallery owners. "They paint houses, do remodeling, do construction work," Rangel explained. "That leaves them with no time and they don't have the network to move their art around."
Rangel insists his story is not unique, and that virtually every immigrant he's encountered has some kind of dramatic testimonial about coming to the US knowing little-to-no English, and having to work low-wage jobs. Over the years he's found many like-minded collaborators, especially with the recent influx of artists who were priced out of San Francisco's Mission District. One of them was Camille Taiara, a former Guardian reporter who hosted Latin music shows on two pirate radio stations, and once used the name "La Viuda Negra" — derived from the first Latino girl gang in East LA — as a radio handle. Taiara fronts the psychobilly rock band Los Difuntos alongside her bass-player boyfriend, Xavier Llamos, who grew up in Peru and gravitated to Lima's punk scene during the '80s.
For several years Los Difuntos had been throwing Taco 'n Roll punk shows at the Taqueria Vallarta in San Francisco's Mission District, where they shared bills with local punk-ska outfit La Plebe and electro-goth group the Vanishing. They wanted to recreate the event in Fruitvale. Rangel was stoked.
All they needed was the space, which at first presented a slight challenge. (Launching a rowdy punk show in a clean, carpeted bookstore didn't seem like such a hot idea, after all.) Then Llamos and Rangel got the idea of holding it in the parking garage next door. Taiara thought it was brilliant. "It's this tradition of trying to do these things in nontraditional places, like the taqueria," she explained. "You wind up with an unconventional mix of people. It's barrio." The organizers sent out a few memos and got permission from the building's landlords and other tenants. They invited several other bands to perform, including Richmond's Matarata, local Filipino punk outfit Eskapo, and Watsonville bands Outrage and Pop Bottle Bombers. They posted fliers on International Boulevard "There were all kinds of different people that were like, 'What the hell is this? Five bucks for something with Latinos? Oh, okay,'" said Taiara. "Pretty soon you have half of Mexico City in there."
The show, dubbed Una Noche de Punk en Español, went down on a muggy Saturday night in April. Unconventional as it was, the parking garage looked and felt like an iconic punk-rock space. Its architecture made everything seem more visceral, partly because the walls seemed to be pressing in, and partly because the cement floors wouldn't absorb any sound. Fluorescent lights cast an oily, iridescent glow on people's skin and on the hoods of cars. The organizers set up a makeshift stage and DJ booth by running extension cords to an outlet in the bathroom. Llamos and Rangel manned the door while Taiara sold soda and tamales de pollo.
By 8:30 p.m. people started piling in — a mixed-gender, mostly Latino crowd of punk rockers with skateboards and wool Guatemalan purses. The bands played everything from screamo to world thrash to sped-up murder ballads, often in odd meters or with unusual harmonies thrown in. Their songs were concise, punchy, and economical, delivered as action-packed two-minute statements. After Eskapo closed out the night, audience members burst into a rousing cry of "Otra!" which the group didn't seem to understand. "Play 'em all again!" someone translated.
The show was successful enough that Taiara and Rangel want to throw another one just like it, though they have other plans in the works — including a performing arts festival in May. Rangel currently works fifty to sixty hours a week and seems indefatigable. He has an endless list of ideas, including art classes, Spanish-language book fairs, and live KPFA broadcasts featuring regular people from Fruitvale ("We want to bring some frutero from out there with his cart, to just come in and talk about his day"). The work has taken its financial toll on Rangel, but he remains committed to it — at least for the next several years. "I'm not at the point in my life where I'm concerned with what I make," said the 27-year-old organizer. "I'm more concerned with what I do."
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