(Crossposted from Impose Magazine, 6/16/2014)
“Hello, delighted to serve!”
It was three years ago that Victoria Ruiz was ordered to chirp this line like some cultish mantra while employed as a customer service representative at The Renaissance Hotel in Providence. It was there she met her partner in crime, room service extraordinaire and labor organizer Joey De Francesco.
“Part of the whole hotel experience is that [customers] are not supposed to interact with the labor,” says De Francesco. “The front desk was where they put all the more presentable white people. But behind the front desk they would hide everyone else. In the housekeeping manual, they tell the workers, who are 95% Dominican women, that they’re supposed to be invisible. Not actual [people], but some magical ghost that cleans up after you. The hotel is a small microcosm of how larger society works under capitalism.”
Predictably, Ruiz and De Francesco both quit their jobs, in pursuit of organizing hotel workers and eventually minimum wage workers in Providence. De Francesco scored YouTube fame after quitting his hotel job on camera, and with the help of his radical marching band, the What Cheer? Brigade. Together Ruiz and De Francesco would subsequently deploy two of the most explosive acts in the United States: raucous party punk sextet Downtown Boys and the art-cumbia mayhem of Malportado Kids (or, badly-behaved kids).
No longer delighted to serve, Ruiz has other, more colorful mantras she repeats these days. “MI CONCHA NO ES BASTANTE BLANCA PARA TI,” she cried in front of an audience of art aficionados at the Malportado Kids’ recent performance at the Jewish Museum in New York City. Stomping resolutely in front of projected images of Malcolm X and ’90s Tejana legend Selena, Ruiz repeated in Spanish, “My cunt isn’t white enough for you,” as the mostly elderly, white audience winced and covered their ears.
“I never really thought of myself as being able to do anything musical until I saw the What Cheer? Brigade,” says Ruiz, a San Jose native who made the East Coast her home after studying architecture and economics at Columbia University. “In high school history class I once had the option to write a paper or write a song about World War I,” she says, “Of course I picked the song. But while singing it I got carried away and just started…Belting it out. My teacher actually thought I was singing badly on purpose.”
If you were to describe Ruiz’s vocal styling, it wouldn’t exactly be called “singing.” Opening for experimental indie act EMA, the Downtown Boys caused their usual X-Ray Spex-reminiscent ruckus on the stage of Brooklyn’s Rough Trade, as Ruiz shouted out passages from a dog-eared copy of “The Wisdom of Sun Ra.” In a red feather boa, De Francesco shredded on guitar and occasionally translated Ruiz’s declarations in Spanish. A vacant five-foot radius surrounded Ruiz .Two or three people in the audience pogo’d along to the music, while the rest of the crowd anxiously sipped their drinks and blankly stared towards the stage. “Downtown Boys got asked to join EMA on tour after [Erika M. Anderson] watched us on YouTube,” says Ruiz, “She watched a video of us playing in this dingy record store in Wilmantic and just said, I want them.”
[Pictured below: Fred Armisen, Downtown Boys, and myself. Victoria spotted him leaving the show at Rough Trade, grabbed a Downtown Boys EP and chased him down to give it to him. We followed, because of course we did.]
Most punk musicians take shelter within the walls of their own local scenes, preferring to share their insights comfortably among their peers. But as the Wonder Twins of the working class, Ruiz and De Francesco have cultural work to do outside the walls of The Scene. The duo represents the ideological junction at which old school class struggle meets postcolonial feminist rage. “[Our music] is an opportunity to confront the root of the problems between bodies and the things that people experience every day,” says Ruiz. “In Downtown Boys I sing a lot about police, the borders and surveillance, but in Malportado Kids I get to be more personal. I get into the cops that live inside the bodies of those we love. Not the cops with guns and badges.”
Ruiz grew up surrounded by revolutionary imagery, most notably images of labor activist Cesar Chavez. Throughout San Jose you can find his namesakes in schools and streets, his face represented in a number of murals, and his own monument at San Jose State University. “When my aunt told me that people in my mom’s family were Chavez’ water people during his hunger strike, I couldn’t believe it!” Ruiz says, “I didn’t realize my family was so radical!”
“My grandma wanted me to focus on getting an education and a job,” Ruiz continues. “She taught me all about music, but she wanted me to live a better life than she did. My grandpa didn’t even want any of us to learn Spanish. It made me so mad, going to college and meeting white hippies who know better Spanish than me because they did a study abroad program…If they met my family, they’d probably expect to be greeted by a small Indigenous woman who talks about why we should fight. Like, that’s not my mom. My mom goes to Target.”
De Francesco grew up in a working-class Sicilian family in Providence, where he first started working part-time at the age of 15, as a busboy at a Chinese restaurant. “They treated me like shit there,” he says. “And my family was so rigid and Catholic. Political music [became] very important to me… The first CD I bought was Rage Against the Machine. I’m not gonna apologize for liking them. They got a video about Leonard Peltier on MTV!”
Although Downtown Boys is a quintessential punk act for the people—blast beats, tortured cries for justice, and a saxophone thrown in for good measure—Ruiz and DeFrancesco’s appreciation for music runs well beyond the bounds of DIY punk rock purism. After all, without listening to Selena, MIA or Bomba Estereo, the tropical punk fury of Malportado Kids may never have reached the masses of non-punks they’ve inspired at shows. Even with just a computer, a mic and a video projector, their message is still punk as fuck.
“We wanted to try something new besides the garage punk thing,” says DeFrancesco. “It’s taken me some getting used to, but computers really are more economically sustainable these days. It sucks to think of it that way, but you should take your art and your labor seriously. You need to make sure you can sustain it.” “I think punk is a pretty fluid thing that exists on a multidimensional spectrum,” says Ruiz. “Punk can really mean nothing or everything depending on the context we put it in and how we use it. It depends on how the people are interacting with it, viewing it, hearing it, living it. And it all deserves a political and artistic critique!”
“Punk as an aesthetic and individualistic lifestyle means nothing,” says De Francesco. “Punk as an ethics or collectivism, anti-oppression, and action can and should imbue everything from the stage to the picket line, but we have to make it mean that.”
Now a tour guide at Providence’s Slater Mill Museum, De Francesco recently curated Autonomia, a historical art installation that outlines the significance of labor movements past to the late capitalist present. Ruiz affirms queer people of color communities through a zine she distributes on tour called Brown Is Beautiful. Hard at work on an upcoming Malportado Kids DVD as well as a Downtown Boys LP, the power pair will be touring across the United States throughout the month of July. Check out Downtown Boys’ US tour dates below, and keep your eyes peeled for the DVD on BUFU records.
Downtown Boys Tour Dates
06: Oakland, CA @ TBA
07: San Jose, CA @ San Jose Rock Shop w/ Permanent Ruin + more!
08: Riverside, CA @ Blood Orange Infoshop
09: Tijuana, MX @ El Panal
10: Phoenix, AZ @ Trunkspace
11: Las Cruces, NM @ Trainyard
12: Denton, TX @ Macaroni Island
13: Austin, TX @ TBA
14: New Orleans, LA @ The Wherehouse
15: Pensacola, FL @ Open Books
16: Savannah, GA @ Hang Fire Bar
18: Knoxville, TN @ Pilot Light
19: Richmond, VA @ Steady Sounds
20: Boston, MA @ The Sinclair W/ CEREMONY