Six years ago, some of Victoria Ruiz’s friends and her mother flew from San Jose, California to Providence, Rhode Island to watch her perform as frontwoman of the punk band Downtown Boys for the first time. Ruiz was overwhelmed. She had performed in musical theatre before as a child, but this was different. During the first song, Ruiz—who is asthmatic—had trouble breathing; she didn’t know how to manage her energy or vocal chords. She made it through the show with a throbbing headache—but despite the discomfort, she still felt like she belonged onstage. Little did she know that, thanks in part to her stage presence and her commitment to making music for the downtrodden, Downtown Boys would quickly become one of the most important voices redefining punk rock.
Today, Downtown Boys’ euphoric, saxophone-fueled shows feel therapeutic for Latinx fans and anyone who may belong to a marginalized group. Ruiz takes on a role that emulates a preacher, spreading the gospel of the importance of acceptance, respect, love, and tolerance. It’s powerful to see a Latina take command of the room, to see the audience members stand in awe and react to the message that Ruiz goes to great pains to deliver: that we have to start paying attention to the issues facing our society today.
Ruiz’s speeches have now become a staple at the band’s shows, although they weren’t originally meant to be a permanent part of performances. Ruiz started doing them when the band played basement shows and didn’t necessarily have access to the best sound systems. Shouting into the microphone, she would tell the crowd what the songs were about in case they couldn’t hear or understand the lyrics.
Getting their message across hasn’t always been easy for Downtown Boys. Two years ago, the first time the band was written about in Pitchfork, a white male writer noted:
“My Spanish is shot, but I figure Victoria Ruiz is meant to be understood better through her energy than her words anyway, with the possible exception of ‘Monstro’s’ refrain ‘She’s brown! She’s smart! She’s brown! She’s smart!’ As well said as a saxophone.”
The band, which is mostly made up of Latinx members (with the exception of guitarist Joey La Neve DeFrancesco and saxophonist Joe DeGeorge), expressed their disappointment with the review in a Facebook post, noting that the lyrics are easily accessible and that the writer could have figured out what the song is about if he tried. Since then, Pitchfork has improved the way their critics discuss Downtown Boys’ music, but the disconnect between white writers and Spanish lyrics shows just how much the band has fought to be respected and listened to.
“Monstro” is now one of their most popular songs; it’s an anthem for defying discrimination and celebrating being a woman of color. In other words, their work is paying off.
Music for all the brown girls out there
On their new album, Cost of Living, the band’s first for Sub Pop, Downtown Boys bring yet another feminist anthem for Latinas on the track “Somos Chulas (No Somos Pendejas)”. At SXSW this year, whenever Ruiz performed the song, often to an audience filled with Chicanas and Latinas just like her, I noticed how important this representation was.
Pendeja, a feminine noun for “idiot,” is a word that carries a lot of weight for Latinas. It’s one my mother says when she reminds me that I should never let anyone take advantage of me, especially when it comes to my career: “No seas pendeja.” A pendeja is someone who lets people walk over her, use her to their advantage, and end up with nothing. In the context of the song, it’s used as a way of showing that Latinas who don’t fit the superficial, white-washed mold are still valuable and “chulas” (Spanish for cute). They are worthy of attention and admiration. Hearing Ruiz shout these words—and eventually, singing them onstage with her and the band—was one of the most empowering things I’ve experienced.
When discussing the song with me months after SXSW, Ruiz notes that many interviewers often don’t ask about that particular song because it’s in Spanish, but that it remains extremely important to her and her fans. “It’s wild; it’s bigger now to the public,” she says. She adds that she hopes it will force more people to learn about its background and relate to a feeling she and other Latinas have felt since birth. “Now people have to freaking read about it or learn about [the song’s meaning]. All of these white men who thought they only got to review your electronic music, or thought that they only had to think about punk being about protest chants have to grapple with [its meaning].”
Ruiz has inspired countless Latinas who need someone to look up to, during a time when they’re still outliers in the punk scene. She recalls a fan she met at a show in New York, who went to hug her and started crying. Ruiz tells me: “She said ‘I am a woman of color who really believes in music and believes in what you’re doing. I’m starting a band and my family just doesn’t understand; they don’t really care. I’m just doing this because of you. I’m doing this because of our ancestry and our history.’”
And although there’s still a lack of Latinx bands in punk—as well as bands formed by people of color who go on to achieve mainstream popularity—Ruiz notes that visibility is slowly increasing. “We’re finally being taken a little more seriously,” she says. She mentions the experimental band Algiers, who recently put out a new album, The Underside of Power, on Matador Records, and how they seem to be leading the way for bands fronted by a person of color. “I think that album…” Ruiz begins. “It’s a text for urgency, for relevancy, and for catharsis, and they’re kind of leading and spearheading a new wave of history right now for musicians.”
A history of organizing
Ruiz’s interest in activism began early in her life, years before she joined Downtown Boys. She grew up in a community in San Jose largely made up of other immigrants: Mexican, Vietnamese, and Filipino people, as well as “pochos” and “pochas” (second- and third-generation Mexican immigrants who grow up with a more Americanized culture). “Growing up, there were bartenders named after Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta,” Ruiz tells me over the phone one day. She notes the contrast with her current hometown in Rhode Island where “a lot of the streets are named after slave owners.”
Ruiz says that several of her family members marched with Chavez, an American activist who fought for farm workers’ right to unionize, and has family friends who were part of the Chavez family themselves. Her family influenced Ruiz’s passion for activism—especially her mother, who introduced her to the idea of campaigning. “I definitely learned more about [activism] from my elders and people in my community that were fighting for their own survival.”
After moving to New York to study at Columbia University, Ruiz joined the protest against the university’s expansion in Harlem. She tells me that “the whole movement was run by a lot of people from the Harlem community who found the expansion to be a racist and classist and an extension of Columbia’s extreme white supremacy […] to literally bulldoze 17 acres of West Harlem to expose profit and gain.”
When Ruiz later moved to Providence, she worked in the same hotel as DeFrancesco, where they unionized with other workers for better working conditions. At that time, DeFrancesco was in a marching band called What Cheer? Brigade along with Norlan Olivo, the current drummer in Downtown Boys. The day DeFrancesco decided to quit his job in 2011, he posted a viral video titled “Joey Quits,” in which he confronts his boss and dramatically walks out with his band in tow, playing celebratory music. Ruiz, who at the time did not play music, is shown standing with the band, shouting “Joey quits! Joey quits!” Shortly after that, DeFrancesco asked Ruiz to start a band with him, which later expanded to add Olivo, Mary Regalado, and Joe DeGeorge.
The concept of political awareness is particularly important to Downtown Boys, who use their music to touch on a variety of issues, including sexism, racism, socio-economic concerns, and homophobia. But today their words feel more timely than ever. In August, a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia culminated in the death of counter-protester Heather Heyer and multiple injured victims. President Trump failed to denounce white supremacists during his first press conference on Saturday, August 12, and did not officially do so until two days later, providing white supremacists fuel for their hatred.
Making music in the age of Trump
Downtown Boys have long been discussing topics that have become more prevalent in the national conversation since Donald Trump was elected president—like sexism, immigration, and identity politics. But Ruiz notes that today, their fan base seems to be growing and paying more attention to their message. “I think people feel that our music is a lot timelier because of this administration, and so people who are looking for those moments of catharsis and looking for music in our culture that has a message can find us,” says Ruiz.
Trump’s ascension to the White House reiterated for the band members how important it is to make political music—but Ruiz is careful not to overstate the president’s significance. Racism, classism, and white nationalism in the U.S. did not begin with Trump. “Obviously the Trump administration is a symptom of a greater disease of white supremacy,” she says. “[It’s important to] not give into the neoliberal desire to focus only on this one white supremacist as president and his failures as a human to humanity.”
But this doesn’t mean that Downtown Boys don’t address the Trump administration at all on their new record. On their song “A Wall,” Ruiz chants “A wall is just a wall,” pointing out that Trump’s plans to construct a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border will never resolve the nation’s immigration debate, and that as a society, we must re-examine our role in allowing division and discrimination to even go that far. “If we can provide a different narrative to [our Latino audience]—we are talking about freedom, we are talking about justice, we are talking about mobilization,” says Ruiz, “then hopefully that helps people who are feeling the trauma of the Trump administration and all of his supporters.”
Still, during one of our conversations, Ruiz speaks candidly about the limits of what Downtown Boys can do, and the pressure from fans to be the leader of a movement that will ultimately take off outside the world of music. Sometimes, it can get to be too much. “I think people who have known our music are perhaps putting too much expectation on our music to be this rallying call,” she says. “And I don’t think that’s right because it needs to be a collective effort. We can’t have heroes when it comes to starting this. We all have to collectively be each other’s source of resilience.”
This is an issue that often goes unspoken. When a band that includes members who are not only extremely vocal about issues, but who are also given a huge platform, fans and music writers often put them on a pedestal, expecting the band members to be the change they write songs about, or somehow make it happen faster. But the work can’t just fall on one person. It can’t just fall on one band.
“Obviously I’m not perfect,” Ruiz says. “Obviously I still have to figure things out.” She goes on: “Just because I’m speaking about these things doesn’t mean I know the answer, and so I think we’re giving into white supremacy, we’re giving into colonized sensibility politics by thinking that brown and smart Chicanx people who are speaking about truth and power are also the solution. No individual is the solution.”
Downtown Boys expand on this idea on their song “Promissory Note,” which brings attention to how people of color after often expected to fit within a box and are rejected when they refuse to. When Ruiz and I discuss the song, I ask her what she believes is the biggest misconception tied to Downtown Boys.
“I think the biggest misconception is that we’re willing to light ourselves on fire to keep punk warm, to keep feminism warm, to keep politics warm,” she says. “That because we’re talking about this, that we’re somehow responsible for every level of figuring it out. Applying that responsibility to a band is like, a huge…” She looks for the right word. “That’s only going to lead to being really disappointed.”
Part of Downtown Boys’ growing appeal is the band’s ability to put a finger to what exactly is ailing this country, to name names and call out bad actors and ignite in people a feeling of hope. But what weighs on Ruiz is the fact she knows what her fans really want, and that’s a solution. A way out of this mess. That, she seems to know, will need much more work than a few songs. Music, no matter how good it is, no matter how much it speaks to you, is always a part of something bigger. The responsibility Ruiz feels, one that probably many progressives feel too, is too heavy for just one person or group of people.”Downtown Boys is a band,” she says. “We’re musicians.” Still, one thing is certain: She and the band have gotten this far because they’ve touched on something so very real. President Trump may have awoken everyone else, but Downtown Boys were always here. They’re not going anywhere; they just hope you’ll join them in step.