By Raymond R. Beltrán
This nascent surge of Chicano music that surrounds border towns like San Diego defies all caricatured images of Latin culture, especially in a reactionary epoch designated as the “Latin Boom” which departmentalizes Spanish speakers into those that dig J-Lo, those that shake their bon bon with Ricky, and those who can’t wait to see what Christina Aguilera’s going to wear next.
Nonetheless, a recent Califaztlán-founded musical group, Acteal, has incorporated influences ranging from spiritual/political reggae singer Bob Marley and ska-defining groups like Sublime to influences like local band Revelations and jazz musician Wynton Marsalis in order to synthesize a sound that not even they themselves can classify.
“We didn’t start music to go big,” says Acteal bass player Rodolfo del Borño. “We’d be lying to ourselves if we did, but if you put a group of musicians together in one place, something’s going to happen.”
Something happened. This group of teenagers and early twenty-somethings came together in high school like most bands, but has evolved into an honorary favorite among South Bay Chicano youth as well as barrio activists.
The group adopted its name in remembrance of the Acteal Massacre of December 22, 1997, when Mexican officials infiltrated village of Acteal, Chiapas that is currently under the care and protection of the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN). Forty-two people were gunned down in this disenfranchised Mayan community, which consisted of mainly women and children.
“It represents the injustices that go on in Mexico, and not only Mexico but throughout the world,” comments Acteal manager and songwriter Israel Ortiz about the root of the group’s name. “Also, [it represents] the indigenous people, and how they’re seen as the [African Americans] are seen in the United States, an Indio y nada más.”
Having performed at many events organized by the Raza Right’s Coalition, Acteal, a group of one musical entity with many influential particles, stresses that the root of its foundation are in just being Chicanos living an everyday life. Because of this, the music is directed towards a very universal audience. Del Borño says that even though Acteal supports the ideals of activists they play for, they’re “not going to get lost into the theme of being a political band.”
Within the group’s solid, eleven-song repertoire, pieces like “Chica Interesada” plead for a young pobretón’s recognition from a woman who is driven by money. A poor young man is infatuated with a beautiful young woman who doesn’t notice him because he’s poor. He follows her day and night, but with their ideals so separate from each other, it’s futile. Even though it’s an up-tempo love song, it’s evident, in between the lines, what’s important to the musicians and what’s not. “Por no tener dinero, tu no quieres ya pelarme/ No pierdo la esperanza de que te fijes en mi,/ Soy pobre, pero se como hacerte feliz.”
Other songs like “Operativo Guardian” reflect the profound understanding of survival in being Chicano and living in a time of Operation Gatekeeper. “Si me hechas pa tras yo vuelvo a intentar/ …,” sings the Los Angeles-born back up guitarist and lead vocalist Esteban Cardoso. “Cuantas muertes has causado ya?/ … No seré una victima más de ese operativo mortal.” The voice emanating through this short ballad is one of struggle and defiance to an agency, the Border Patrol, which constantly inflicts inhumane ways of treating the Mexican community. The lyrics to many songs can be very heart felt to the listener, yet very seditious in intent, making the production of Acteal’s work prematurely sophisticated for the amount of time they’ve been performing.
Having the beat of many ska sounds and reggae alike, Acteal has also incorporated into itself somewhat of a brass band sound, reflecting the early era of jazz. In doing so, they have created a sound that can traverse from one genre of music and time to another, in one piece. The brass section of this contemporary Chicano ensemble is played by trumpeter Bryan Constantino, trombonist Carlos Rogelio Sotelo, saxophonist Frankie Martinez, and with Cuernavaca-native Octavio Villa on the drums, they keep a strong following among the South Bay-Barrio Logan community. And at almost every Acteal performance, there is sure to be that same thirty-person following: dressed in black, in a trance, roaming in circles, and in a state of their own.
The topics fostered by Acteal keep them grounded as everyday people and are usually sought out in improvisational jam sessions among the group alone, and Spanish is the key language with these guys. “We think in Spanish, so our songs are in Spanish,” says Del Borño. They had previously produced songs in English, although the group agrees that those were not up to par with the others. So, don’t expect an American cross over performance any time soon.
“We can’t define us right now,” says Del Borño. “The main influences are Latin [based], reggae, ska, and we just jam out, but we all do our own thing individually, even classical and heavy metal.”
According to lead guitarist Luis “Archie” Razo from the Mexican state of Tetelco Tlahuac, success is achieved on another level of understanding than the current, popular “Latin Boom” counter-artists aspire to be on. It doesn’t involve capital or fame. “We just want people to listen to our music and understand our lyrics,” says Razo.
The band members all agree that before fame and money could ever take control as it has with many others, they always strive to give each other the respect they deserve as musicians as well as good friends. Even though Acteal has yet to even put an album together, they openly solidified their loyalty to one another as brothers before band members, and the young, proud manager Ortiz says that the group is constantly defining their genre of music and “growing into what Acteal really is.”
“We don’t have to worry about feuds,” says manager Ortiz. “We respect each other’s lives and don’t cross certain lines. With other bands there’s pendejades with girlfriends and all that. We don’t have that.”
Recently, Acteal has played venues in Tijuana, Ensenada, Los Angeles, Phoenix, and has performed at San Diego events like Chicano Park Day and anti-border marches as well as places like Club Caribe and Rio Nilo. The group has a gig at the progressively established Che Café at the University of California, San Diego on Saturday, November 8. The show begins at 8 p.m., and the event is open to all ages.
“We want people to understand the music,” says Acteal trumpet player Bryan Cons-tantino. “As long as we get our point of awareness across, that’s cool with me. Some people just go ‘cause they want to mosh, some like the music, some like the band members, but I just want them to understand the lyrics how they are, that’s all.”