The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2016

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FEB 2016 Issue


Charlie Morán lives up a dimly lit stairwell in an apartment that is clearly inhabited by a lifelong radical. His door opens to a wall of political pamphlets, newspapers, petitions, and other ephemera from his years of activism. His small living room appears as Leon Trotsky’s might—if Trotsky were a Mexican immigrant living in modern-day gentrified Brooklyn.

Skarroñeros. Photo: Saskia Kahn.

Morán’s band, Skarroñeros, a radical ska/punk band that sings in Spanish, is “family,” and they treat each other as such. Morán, who plays guitar and trombone, led one of this piece’s authors, Ian Marsh, into his small kitchen to take a seat with singer/drummer Ricardo Cruz, aged thirty-one, who had been up on an all-night bender with quasi-Skarroñero Gustavo, who’s been hanging around the band since their first practice. When Ian walked into the practice studio, Cruz wobbled and declared that he was late, despite the fact that Cruz himself had been two hours late to the band’s three hour practice. Gustavo asked drunkenly if Ian was there to play in the band.

Although they often consume alcohol with the vigor of a decadent hair-metal band, politics are essential to Skarroñeros. “We’re the only band, still, to this day, that talks about the unity of black workers and immigrant workers,” Morán said. He also mentioned that they’re the only band (to his knowledge) that has songs about immigrant rights and Mumia Abu-Jamal. One might recall the ’90s band Rage Against the Machine (led by half-Mexican Zach De La Rocha) which discussed these subjects in a large mainstream platform while signed to a major label owned by Sony, a Fortune 500 company. The political ethos of Skarroñeros, however, is found not only in their music, but also in their practice. Revolution is constantly spoken of at their shows, both in their songs and in Morán’s brief diatribes.

The band is structured more as a political commune than as a typical band. Their name is a play on the Spanish word compañero, which roughly translates as “companion” but is widely used in Spanish-speaking egalitarian movements. When a disagreement occurs within the band, a majority-rule vote is held, and the members uphold the decision even if it contradicts the band’s leadership. Lyrics to new songs are discussed before they’re performed, which is unusual in most band dynamics.

Musically, the band is far from professional. At one point, it was comprised of thirteen members all howling in a loose cacophony. The band has since tightened up, both musically and numerically. Still, it often has false starts. Cruz plays too fast at times, and the horn section is occasionally out of tune. But the band more than makes up for its musical shortcomings with the passion of its songs and its loyal fan base, as well as the boldness of its leftist statements.

After sobering up on Hawaiian pizza, Cruz discussed his upbringing in Mexico and Brooklyn and how he became involved in the ska and punk scene. Skarroñeros imported their radicalism from Mexico City, where Cruz and Morán grew up. Now thirty-one, he grew up in Valle de Chalco, a suburb of Mexico City, but went to high school within the city limits, and got involved in punk and ska in the late 1990s. Some of the bands he went to see were in the Pokemon scene, a kind of Mexican emo-skater genre.

Cruz said the genre was “bullshit” (“people were dancing with their fucking Elmo dolls”) although he liked some of the bands marginally associated with it, such as La Tremenda Korte and Tijuana No! From there he got into more political bands, as well as classic first- and second-wave ska bands, like the Skatalites and the Specials.

When he came to New York, at the age of seventeen, he had one goal: to buy a saxophone and start a ska band. While living in Sunset Park, he quickly got distracted, hanging out with Mexican punks and writing graffiti, delaying his dream. After meeting Morán and saxophonist Kirstine Jungkurth at the venerable radical community center ABC No Rio, Cruz started playing the drums, eventually to the point of proficiency; he is proudly self-taught.

As a person with an indigenous background—his family is from the Oaxacan mountains, in southern Mexico—Ricardo felt indigenous people were discriminated against while growing up in Mexico City. This is at least partially what seems to have drawn him to punk and ska. Cruz summed up his attraction to the music in two words: “The rage.”

When we spoke, Cruz was living in what was essentially a large closet in the Swamp, an aptly named DIY venue that held punk and ska shows in a nearly intolerably hot space that closed in July in order to become a recording studio. The Swamp was one of the only places left in New York City where you could still find a room full of sweaty young punks. Even more unusual, a great deal of the crowd was not white. This venue was the unofficial headquarters of the Latino punk and ska scene, shared with Skarroñeros by other bands like Escarioka, Consumata, the Ladrones, and Radio Armada.

While Cruz is the band’s Energizer bunny, Morán is its anchor. Over six feet tall, with a stocky build, he would be imposing if not for the near-constant smile on his face and his genial nature. At forty-one, he’s older than the rest of the band (except for his older brother César, who plays bass), and has taken on the role of music teacher to nearly anyone who has any interest in playing with them. Indeed, many players in the Latino ska and punk scene have come up through the band. At one early house show, Morán could be seen in the living room with a pitch pipe, tuning the horn section like a high-school bandleader.

“I wanted to show the whole world that immigrant workers can play their instruments,” he said. Morán wants the focus of the band to be the horn section, because playing horns is “fucking hard” and “requires dedication.” By having a band full of working-class immigrants playing difficult instruments, he feels that they’ll show people that immigrants can have the self-reliance to accomplish something great. Morán, like Cruz, is from Mexico City. He came to the States when he was fifteen, first living in Southern California for five years—a time he described as “wasted”—before moving to New York.

His family has a deep history of radicalism. Morán described his father as “a bit of a shady character” and a “Stalinist” who was a member of the Mexican Communist Party and was exiled to the Soviet Union from 1959 to 1967. Morán originally came to the States because the Mexican federal police were after his father, the details of which he declined to discuss. Although he was originally informed by his father’s politics, he feels that his brother essentially raised him, and inspired him to get into music. Morán has reformed, somewhat: he’s now a Trotskyist, and a member, along with Cruz and Jungkurth, of the Internationalist Group, a Trotskyist organization with a small but active contingent at the City University of New York.

While the differences between various Marxist ideologies may seem arcane to the layman, Cruz, Morán, and Jungkurth describe theirs in plain enough terms: a belief that only the working class can lead a revolution against capitalism, and that the struggle for the overthrow of capitalism must be international. Skarroñeros’s views on this matter are perhaps best summed up by one of their few lyrics in English—“Black, Latino, Asian, and White, workers of the world unite!”

Fittingly, the band draws its members from several nations. It has a member who isn’t Latino, Clayton Costelloe, a Brooklyn-born-and-raised Irish-Italian union worker who plays the alto saxophone. Jungkurth was born in Guatemala but was adopted into a Brooklyn family with a Dutch background. She got involved in the hardcore and punk scene while growing up locally, originally in the hardcore band Smegma. She and Cruz dated for four years (when Jungkurth told me this, Morán’s response was, “You guys broke up?”), but still remain close friends and band members. Although the band in its current state seems to be fairly congenial, its communal structure has, at times, caused tensions between members. “We’ve lost a lot of battles,”
Morán said.

On one occasion Morán wanted to kick a member out of the band for posting on Facebook a photo of a patch with a spread eagle woman in bondage-style clothing. Some members thought it was sexist, but the rest of the band outvoted them. Morán was outraged, but abided by the decision; the offending member left the band shortly after.

Morán often says, “We’re serious about our politics.” Sure enough, the band seems willing to physically defend their political leanings, as evidenced by a melée on the streets of Williamsburg that broke out at an Inspector 7 (a ska band from the ’90s with Latino members) show last year. Over a dozen Latino punks ended up fighting with a couple of men at the show, one of whom was described as a “fascist.” The scene ended up spilling out into the street, the punks fighting the two men with chairs from the club, a tense moment rarely found at New York City’s (mostly white, apolitical) rock shows. Ironically, the alleged fascist’s name was Stalin. His brother unfortunately got beaten up simply for defending him. Stalin’s brother later apologized to Cruz, and still attends Skarroñeros shows.

“We don’t really want to fight with fascists, it’s not good for the scene,” Morán said.

Cruz, on the other hand, seemed to want to revel in the glory. “We kicked their fucking asses, man,” he said triumphantly.

Fights are atypical, as most Skarroñeros shows have a feeling of camaraderie, with the crowd shouting along to political chants that the band leads. In the age we live in, there is a wide gap between activists and contemporary musicians, who rarely aspire to anything other than playing for bar patrons and maybe selling a few albums. Punk rock’s most angry voices at this point are gray-haired moms and dads who appear in documentaries and go on reunion tours.

Skarroñeros’s version of punk rock is a deadly serious one. Morán and Cruz’s experience as immigrants have taught them to approach the music from a radical leftist perspective, more devoted and severe than the average kid complacently picking up instruments and exploring basic rock music tropes. While bands like the Clash and the Dead Kennedys make political statements, Skarroñeros are a political statement.


Ian Marsh

IAN MARSH is a freelance writer and a native Brooklynite who currently resides in New Orleans.

Jamie Frey

JAMIE FREY is a writer born and raised in Kensington, Brooklyn, who also sings and plays guitar in the band NO ICE.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2016

All Issues