‘Tokyo: Living La Vida Lowrider’ by Luis J. Rodríguez

luisnewA row of bald-headed, broad-shouldered young men stand together in the middle of a small smoky dance club called Sound Base. They wear well pressed Dickies pants, Locs (wrap-around shades), extra-long flannel shirts or long cotton athletic shirts in black and gray. A few had T-shirts with images of lowrider cars as well as cholas and cholos. In the club’s parking lot, adjacent to a lumberyard, several lowered 1950s and 1960s Detroit-built cars display airbrushed murals and shiny chrome, the one exception being a caramel brown 1941 Chevy truck.

Click here for POCHO’s review of Lowriting, from which this special sneak preview is excerpted.

On the stage are two members of Quetzal, one of East Los Angeles’ most popular bands: Quetzal Flores and his long-time companion, Martha Gonzalez. Flores strums a jarana, a traditional stringed instrument from the Mexican Gulf port state of Veracruz. Gonzalez is seated astride a cajon, also used extensively in the Son Jarocho tradition of that state, and thumps with her hands and fingers a driving cadenced beat as she sings in Spanish and English, words heavily tinged with Mexican/Xicano cultural and political significance.

DJ dGomez (David Gomez) of Monte Carlo 76, another East L.A. musical group, stands over the turntables. Well-known Xicano street favorites — from the 1960s to the present — emanate from the speakers, including El Chicano’s Viva Tirado, the Village Callers’ Hector, Slowrider’s Sandoval y Teixeira, and WAR’s Cisco Kid. Later that evening, English-language poetry laced with calo, the street slang of L.A.’s Mexican streets, and Spanish, echoes across the densely-filled hall. Even famed harmonica player Tex Nakamura, formerly of the L.A.-based band WAR, guest plays another jarana during Quetzal and Martha’s set.

This could have been Boyle Heights, Highland Park, or Montebello. It could have been any place in Los Angeles or California for that matter. This music, this style, this way of life is mostly California-based and bred. It’s called Xicano — a clearly defined musical, cultural, and social stance that is also unabashedly anti-racist, anti-exploitation, anti-oppression while indigenous-rooted, intellectually grounded, and linked to the social movements that arose out of the Mexican barrios, migrant camps, and factories in the United States during the last century, particularly at the height of the Civil Rights struggle.

However, this concert and reading didn’t happen in East Los Angeles or East San Jose — it took place in an industrial, mostly isolated, section of Chiba, about two hours’ drive outside of Tokyo.

In Japan.

Tokyo is exactly how I imagined it: lights, sounds, shops, orderly, clean. It is massive, daunting, the largest metropolitan area in the world. A hard city to enter, to understand. To embrace. And despite a large number of tourists it’s extremely culturally cohesive. Not like New York City or Los Angeles with their renowned variety of voices, faces, and colors. Yet in sections, the city can be absorbed, appreciated. Re-imagined.

Tokyo is also a world-class city, incorporating various social expressions and phenomena while also innovating them. In Tokyo you feel the ancient and the modern.

Mind you, I’ve been to many cities and countries over the past 30 years as a lecturer, journalist and poet. Places all over the United States as well as in Europe, Canada, Mexico, Central America, Puerto Rico, and South America. While many of these cities are picturesque and vibrant, I’ve also visited soot-covered, trash-strewn locations with gaping poverty (starting with those in the United States). Some of these were tragic (New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina or San Salvador after the Civil War); others had intense character and energy (like San Francisco or Mexico City).

In Tokyo so much comes at you at once, including tons of advertisements. So many products to sell. This city is the epitome of modern technological commercialization. Most people I saw on the street were in business suits. Yet Tokyo is also a city of books, of poets, of artists, of restaurants. The landscape of glass and steel seems void of actual nature, yet I found truly serene and well-manicured green spaces. In the streets and clubs there are songs, dance, theater, and a sea of languages. I danced one night at a salsa club in Roppongi, mingling with Peruvians, Brazilians, and many Japanese.

I came to Tokyo in November of 2006 to interview and follow Shin Miyata, then 44, an independent record producer who has brought East L.A. and other Xicano music to Japan through Barrio Gold Records/Music Camp, Inc. I also arrived during Miyata’s promotional tour for Quetzal and Martha, accompanied by Gomez. Besides Sound Base in Chiba, we ended at the Tower Records/Shibuya and the Bird Cafe in Shimokitazawa, Setagaya-ku where the house rocked with Son Jarocho, political songs and Xicano oldies. I was honored to read my poetry accompanied by jaranas and even Tex’s harmonica.

I was surprised at the crowds that came to listen to us — including my poems. They genuinely appreciated our presence. In fact, it felt cool to be Xicano, Mexika/Azteca, to be from the urban barrios of Los Angeles.

In Japan, I met with lowrider car aficionados, cholo-attired radio Djs, and young Hip Hop/Xicano clothing store owners. Xicano culture has a foothold here, not large, but significant. Lowrider Japan Magazine at the time had around 70,000 readers.

The Xicano culture is rooted in the Mexican people — those who lived in the U.S. Southwest before the United States took more than half of Mexico’s territory after the U.S. invasion of Mexico in 1846 to 1848. The many Mexican migrants who came in subsequent waves from Mexico across more than 150 years after that also shaped this culture.

The first big wave was during the 1910 Mexican Revolution in which a million refugees created the first barrios of L.A. and other Southwestern and Midwestern cities. Some of their children became Pachucos, the so-called zootsuit gangsters that eventually evolved into the cholos, emulated by poor African Americans, Whites, Cambodians, Salvadorans, Armenians, and others who’ve landed in L.A. in search of a better life.

Much of our struggle as Xicanos is to be seen forwhat we are — indigenous, not Mexican or American, yet willing to defend both when needed. Xicanos have been in all major U.S. wars, including winning more congressional medals of valor than any other ethnic group during World War II. But most of our fighting here has been against racism, against bad schools, against the lack of decent jobs, and against terrible housing.

Today the United States has an estimated 30 million Xicanos and others of Mexican descent. Of the 12 million undocumented immigrants here, more than 60 percent are from Mexico.

As a Xicano, I understand the Japanese need to find its own creative center, its own cultural and economic pulse, away from the influence of U.S. capitalist power and finance. To choose its own past and destiny. Choice is important for Xicanos as well. We are trying to achieve the same, even after several generations of being inside the belly of the United States as estranged and often second-class citizens. We reclaim our heritage beyond the Spanish conquest (where others Latinos tend to start) all the way to the Native peoples of the Americas — their teachings, rituals and history — to claim the whole continent. We draw from a time when there were no borders and therefore no demarcation of who belongs here and who doesn’t. We have a fatherland and a motherland.

In time, many Xicanos created their own way of talking, dressing, acting. While much of this is in the barrio-based street gang culture, most of it is not. In Japan, I met people who seemed to appreciate this expression. To honor it. To make it theirs. The lowrider cars I saw came directly from the streets of Los Angeles — they had to be real, from the source-land of Lowrider Nation. Xicanos chose not to totally assimilate the often hollow and bland American culture, while at the same time enriching it with our art, speech, clothing, and style.

As a Xicano I found a connection, an affection — a sense that Xicanos are important in Japan. The Japanese know the power of their choices. But they also seem to gather in the world, not as an isolated and patronizing people, but truly enraptured with unique and wholly alive cultures such as Xicano.

They understand that being Xicano is both a necessity and a choice.

In the United States where I was born and will remain until I die, I fight for a better land, country, culture, and economy. I fight for Xicanos to be recognized and respected, but also for anyone else to have the same — as far as I’m concerned, we all belong here, even when some of us (like African Americans) were brought as slaves and others (like the Spanish or English) came as conquerors. But something has to change — so that we are equal, fully entitled to the rights of any human being, and properly treated under the law and in the hearts of the people.

My experience in Japan is that, at least at the level of culture, Xicanos can find home even in such a faraway land. This should be a right for everyone, especially in a world where being uprooted and homeless seems to be the poignant feature of our time.

If I can stand next to a lowered 1940s Ford truck with magnesium rims in Tokyo, something I could have done in East L.A., and still feel the same sensation of joy that such a car can bring in both countries, then I know — it’s time for borders to come down.

Of course, this is a controversial subject. There are concerns about trade and home markets and so-called terrorism scaring most developed countries to close in on themselves. But we have seen how our divisions by race, by nation, by religion, and even by gangs have lead mostly to fear and violence. I imagine a world with no borders, but also where people can be their own special kind of human expressions, not homogenized, but truly unique and driven by their own innate purposes and dreams.

Ari gato Japan. Thanks. Or as we say in Nahuatl lazocamati — or in Spanish gracias. Thanks for being open to me as a Xicano and poet. And for letting me know and savor your own magnificent culture and heritage. Tokyo Rifa as we say in the barrios of East Los, meaning this place lives, demands respect, cannot be erased.

Con Safos,


UPDATE OCTOBER 11, 2014: Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has named Rodriguez the city’s new Poet Laureate.