All You See In Me Is Death: The Importance of Latina Feminist Rock Bands

Post Author: Tatiana Tenreyro

Growing up in Puerto Rico as a teenage feminist misfit, I didn’t have many iconic rock figures to look up to, or at least any of my gender. At the peak of my teen angst, Kurt Cobain was my everything. I played Nevermind in my mother’s car every day after school during my freshman year of high school and connected on a weird level that I hadn’t with any artist before. After watching About a Son, I felt like I finally could relate to someone who made me feel less weird on an island where I certainly felt like an outsider. The Pixies were also a large part of my early teenage years. Finding out that Frank Black wrote some of the best tracks from Come On Pilgrim and Surfer Rosa about his experience being an exchange student at Universidad de Puerto Rico (UPR) made me loathe a bit less being stuck on an island where the predominant genre was reggaeton.

After mostly looking up to male frontmen in rock bands, this finally changed during my late teenage years, when I discovered bands like Vivian Girls, Best Coast, Rilo Kiley, and Garbage, who were all open about identifying as feminists. That might not seem like much, but for an island girl who was often told that being a feminist was something to be ashamed of and felt alone in male-centered world of indie rock, they were enough.

These bands’ lyrics about dealing with boy issues, not belonging to the crowd, and the overall shittiness of life resonated with my teenage self, yet all of them were white American women who didn’t have to deal with the many stigmas that Latinas such as myself experience, such as being seen as uneducated women and being at a higher risk of experiencing sexual abuse for our ethnicity. I didn’t even know any feminist Latin bands or artists. Sure, Selena was the Tejano Queen of my childhood, but her music didn’t hook me personally. I needed Latinas in rock to look up to who challenged the status quo and spoke out about oppression within a patriarchal culture.

I needed Latinas in rock to look up to who challenged the status quo and spoke out about oppression within a patriarchal culture.

I stumbled upon Le Butcherettes during my freshman year of college after seeing frontwoman Teri Gender Bender (real name: Teresa Suárez) perform as her side project Bosnian Rainbows with At The Drive-In and Mars Volta’s Omar Rodríguez López. I was overjoyed to see a Latina woman onstage alongside another influential figure in rock from my island. A friend who went with me to the show told me that in Teri’s other band, Le Butcherettes, she’d dump pig’s blood on herself and wear a bloody apron to symbolize the oppression of women. I was sold.

If anything, Le Butcherettes are more outspoken about their feminist ideologies than most of their feminist-identifying rock contemporaries. Their first studio album, Sin Sin Sin, changed everything for me. Finding out about Le Butcherettes coincided with the year where I experienced the most sexism and discrimination as a Latina, as it was my first year living in the States after moving to Baltimore for college. At the time, there weren’t any bands that I could relate to discussing what it is like to be a Latina within a country where you are seen as an outsider and judged for your ethnicity.

On Sin Sin Sin, Teri addressed the hypocrisy that Americans express towards Latinos, especially in her song “Bang!”, where she sings, “George Bush and McCain talking over Mexico / Next thing you see is their army banning serenata,” which meant a lot to me as a Latina. It was even more empowering to hear someone sing about sexual assault in “Tonight” and “Dress Off” after experiencing sexual assault. Instead of letting my experience bring me down, listening to Le Butcherettes reminded me of what I’ve survived through.

Teri has continued to share her feminist ideologies in her two albums following Sin Sin Sin, especially in her recently released album, A Raw Youth, with songs like “They Fuck You Over”, which she wrote about being fucked over as a female frontwoman in Guadalajara, and “Sold Less Than Gold”, a powerful track about young sex slaves. Despite collaborating with big names like John Frusciante, Iggy Pop, and Henry Rollins, touring with Faith No More and Melvins, and having Omar Rodríguez López as a producer/mentor throughout her career, Le Butcherettes are missing from the conversation whenever contemporary feminist bands and artists are mentioned.

Garage rock band Las Ultrasónicas were Le Butcherettes’ predecessors, forming in Mexico during the late ’90s at the end of the riot grrrl movement. Although they aren’t as well-known outside of Mexico, their album Yo Fui una Adolescente Terrosatánica helped create a place for women in the underground Mexican punk scene. Their songs are in Spanish, yet their music is influenced by bands like English female-fronted garage band The Headcoatees, who inspired their song “Vente En Mi Boca”, their own version of The Headcoatees’ “Come Into My Mouth”.

Their lyrics openly called out men on their sexism, with songs like “Que Grosero”, where they expose an ex-boyfriend as a slut-shaming jerk. The song’s video drives the point home even more, featuring a gaggle of practically naked men kissing the band as they perform onstage, as Las Ultrasónicas remain the only fully-clothed people in the video, ending with the band devouring the men and resting upon their piled-up bloody bodies.

Sex-positivity is hardly a novel feminist concept in music, but Las Ultrasónicas did it in a country with a strongly patriarchal culture, with the 16th highest rate of sexual and domestic violence towards women in the world. The decisions of women’s bodies are as enforced by the government and the laws are even stricter than in the States, taking away women’s agency over their own bodies. In their song “I’m Fucking Pregnant”, they sing about a guy not wanting to use protection and lying after saying he wouldn’t come inside them, causing them to end up pregnant. Instead of resorting to self-blame and accepting motherhood, they place the blame on the guy and declare that there is no way in hell they are having a baby, singing “I’m fucking pregnant y no lo tendré” (“I’m fucking pregnant and I won’t have it”).

There are plenty of songs about abortion by white American feminist musicians, from Amanda Palmer’s “Oasis” to Hole’s “Mrs. Jones”, but having a band from a country with even stricter laws openly saying that they won’t let anything stop them from terminating a pregnancy is extremely powerful, but you won’t find it in most big music publications’ lists of the top most powerful songs about abortion.

Although Las Ultrasónicas disbanded more than a decade ago, bassist Jessy Bulbo is now a solo artist who maintains those feminist themes in her music. Jessy embodies the sex positivity and body positivity that she expressed in Las Ultrasónicas, yet does it in her own way. With an outlandish style reminiscent of Amanda Palmer and a combination of pop, salsa, and bachata, Jessy breaks away from her previous association with Mexican garage rock and widens the template for feminism in Latin music. Her lyrics may be less in your face that Las Ultrasónicas’, but they are no less strong. In the stand-out single, “Maldito”, from her debut album Saga Mama, she calls out her male partner for sexism, in their relationship, pointing out the double standards of his behavior—he gets easily jealous when he sees her talking to other men, yet he doesn’t want to commit to her.

On Bulbo’s latest album Changemonium, on the track “No Es Pa Tanto”, she sings about the hardships of relationships and the importance of respecting your partner instead of enforcing arbitrary restrictions in the relationship dynamic. Jessy Bulbo is one of Mexico’s most popular indie rock artists, yet hasn’t received as much recognition in the US. Her use of solely Spanish lyrics limits her possibilities of reaching international fame, yet she remains a vital and necessary artist, worth more than the attention she receives from outside Mexico.

Other Latin indie artists who do sing primarily in English have been gaining more international attention during the last five years or so, though Las Kellies, an Argentinian rock band, reached international listeners with their debut album Kellies, featuring mostly songs in English, along with some in Spanish, Portuguese, and even French. Kellies had a more traditional garage rock sound that is reminiscent of The Coathangers with songs like “Scotch Whiskey” and “Hit It Off”; Las Kellies were also likened to The Slits and Delta 5. Instead of challenging oppression directly and politically like Le Butcherettes and Las Ultrasónicas did, Las Kellies focus on sharing their feelings in their lyrics in a way that similar to Vivian Girls and Best Coast.

Their version of ESG’s “Erase You” reifies girl power, as they sing “I’m going to show you I’m a woman” while discussing ending a relationship with a guy who doesn’t treat them well, as does “Typical Bitch”, where they reclaim “bitch” as an empowering term, a woman who won’t give up and won’t let anyone stop her from achieving what she wants. Las Kellies formed after realizing that there weren’t many female-fronted bands in Argentina’s music scene and decided to do it on their own terms. Their decision to mostly sing in English helped them make their way to the UK and US and they have a new album coming out this year, yet it wasn’t enough to fully expand their fan base and receive the type of attention that Spain’s Hinds have received during the past two years.

Hinds are one of the very few Hispanic bands staking out a present-day place for Hispanic women in popular indie rock. Before even releasing their debut album, they received plenty of attention from critics who lauded them as instrumental in shaping the future of indie rock. While they’ve been very successful, Hinds weren’t devoid of criticism from critics from their country, who felt that they were ashamed of their Hispanic roots and choosing to sing in English to appear more American. Hinds’ feminism is expressed in a similar way to Las Kellies’; they want to show women are just as capable as men in music, a quiet yet significant statement in a male-dominated scene.

It’s no secret that rock still isn’t as inclusive as it should be. When we think of female rock artists, the ones who are typically discussed are white American women whose oppression is limited. I used to think that there weren’t many Latino feminist bands out there, but there are—they’re just not given as much space and recognition, especially in an American media-centered pop culture scene. It’s crucial for still more diverse Latino rock voices to be heard.