Since I had pale skin, no accent, and my only interests were Star Wars, Weird Al and Nintendo, the kids I grew up with had no idea I was half Mexican. Unless I told them. And really, as a child growing up in Modesto, a then largely white town in California’s San Joaquin Valley, why would I do that? No, for a number of reasons, I learned it was easier to simply keep my mouth shut and observe.
But that got old real fast, and eventually my bottled anger needed an outlet. Which brings me to one of my favorite songs about Los Angeles, Rage Against the Machine’s “People of the Sun” (audio / video). The song that kicks off Rage’s sophomore album Evil Empire (1996) begins with one of Tom Morello’s most unusual guitar riffs (created by scraping the A and E strings with an Allen wrench) and is followed by singer Zack de la Rocha’s opening lyrics:
Since fifteen hundred and sixteen
Minds attacked and overseen
Now crawl amidst the ruins
Of this empty dream
With their borders and boots
On top of us
Pulling knobs on the floor
Of their toxic metropolis
Now, hold on a second, you’re thinking. 1516? Wasn’t Los Angeles founded in 1781?
Okay, technically, this song isn’t solely about Los Angeles. And no, I’m not trying to pull a fast one here. There are indeed lyrics that specifically point to the Zoot Suit Riots, one of our city’s darker historical chapters:
Our past blastin’ on through the verses
Brigades of taxi cabs
Rollin’ Broadway like hearses
Troops stripping zoots
Shots of red mist
Sailor’s blood on the deck
Come sistah, resist
From the era of terror
Check this photo lens
Now the City of Angels
Does the ethnic cleanse
But in “People of the Sun,” Rage Against the Machine presents Los Angeles as simply one battleground of a larger war being waged against the indigenous population of the region. A theme which the band re-explored and expanded on greatly in their follow-up album The Battle of Los Angeles (1999).
Looking back 480 years, the date of 1516 actually references the reconnaissance expeditions to the Yucatan and the Gulf of Mexico ordered by Diego Velásquez de Cuellar, the Spanish governor of Cuba. Their mission? To find new land and new sources of slave labor. In one of its best (and most playful) lyrical moments, “People of the Sun” references this slavery:
That the whip
Snapped ya back
Ya spine cracked
Oh, I’m the Marlboro man
Velásquez’ expeditions proved promising enough that he commissioned conquistador Hernán Cortés to explore the area. Cortés defiantly turned this exploration into his own personal mission to conquer the Aztec empire and claim Mexico for Spain. Three years after landing on the mainland, Cortés and his army, along with an alliance of non-Aztec indigenous tribes and an outbreak of smallpox, achieved just that.
It’s no secret that Zack de la Rocha was heavily influenced by the Zapatista movement in Chiapas, Mexico, of 1994, whose arrival on the scene coincided with the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the removal of Article 27, Section VII of the Mexican Constitution, which had guaranteed land reparations to indigenous people throughout Mexico. The band essentially adopted the Zapatista Army of National Liberation’s red star flag as their visual identity. They even referenced the flag in The Battle of Los Angeles‘ “War Within a Breath”:
Rise through the jungle mist
Clenched to smash power so cancerous
Black flag and a red star
A rising sun loomin’ over Los Angeles
Now, I’d be lying if I claimed I understood all the song’s subtext when it first came out. Hell, a lot of it I only learned about in the last few years. But I distinctly remember feeling disgusted when, shortly after arriving in Los Angeles to attend UCLA, the state narrowly passed Proposition 187, the blatantly xenophobic “Save our State” initiative, which, before being shot down as unconstitutional, sought to bar illegal immigrants from social benefits like health care and public education and attempted to turn teachers, doctors and other civil servants into informants for the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
In that type of atmosphere, hearing “People of the Sun” on KROQ was oddly comforting. It meant that even if I wasn’t at home in my own skin, somebody else was — or desperately wanted to be — and they weren’t afraid to scream it.
This entry is part of the Songs About Los Angeles series.
Image: Rage Against the Machine on the JumboTron at Coachella 2007. Photos by Mike Winder.