Illustration by Aubrey Nolan
This piece appears in AdHoc Issue 23.
Life is complicated, and so are the Downtown Boys. Like the roses that adorn the cover of their latest album, Cost of Living, their genre-exploding punk sound embraces beauty and crudeness, softness and thorniness. On stage, frontwoman Victoria Ruiz seethes about capitalist exploitation and white supremacy while speaking vulnerably about her experiences as a woman of color—sometimes all in one breath.
The Providence four-piece’s thunderous new album bolsters these revolutionary messages with a new sonic clarity, one that sets blistering guitar riffage and Ruiz’s condemnations of the Trump administration front and center. Ahead of their upcoming show on November 17 at Brooklyn Bazaar, Ruiz spoke to AdHoc about the gendered and racialized labor of resistance, as well as the challenges of inhabiting a musical space that commingles English and Spanish language lyrics, punk and Mexican tejano music.
AdHoc: Downtown Boys is getting quite a bit of press around the new album. How has all the attention altered your approach to recording and releasing music?
For a lot of us, this was our first rock band like this. So after six years, we’re gonna be a little bit more refined. We wanted to break away from being typed solely as a punk band; we have always felt like we’re part of many genres, and not fully part of any genre. We also think about [creating] a sound that opens the accessibility to the music.
We’ve always been influenced by Sun Ra Arkestra, a lot of Tejano music, and Mexican music—a sort of elegant chaos. And I think we seek people who are looking for that elegant chaos—and a message, and a space that you can’t quickly define [using] labels that you already know.
Clearly, we’re in it because we believe in the people who believe in us and are part of a bigger community and collective power. We’re committed to proclaiming our messages of protest and crystallizing our dissent. Still, I think our growing platform has both motivated and challenged our message and what we believe in. When the message gets too set in stone, we try to transform it and find a new dimension [within] it.
Would you say that press coverage tends to help or hinder the process of getting those messages out there?
That’s a tough question. As a Chicana frontperson of the band, I’m under a pretty thick microscope, and people wonder how and why I “get to be” where I am. It can help a lot when people support us and are public about that—especially if [you’re a person] or an institution that’s trusted by a lot of people. We’ve got a lot of people who only know about the band because they read about it in Rolling Stone or their friend’s zine, or because Tom Morello made an Instagram post about it. You get people who are like, “There’s no other way I’d find your band.” That’s crazy.
And it speaks to how genres really work against access to music. Think about it: our parents could go to a record shop and flip through records. You had to go and be your own pirate to find music. But now, with streaming services, you have to know what to type into the search bar. So it’s really, really hard to find new music and people. When you live in this society, where everything is this segregated, it’s really hard to get anything out to people. Building a community is how you get any message out, including music.
What kind of extra labor—emotional, intellectual, or physical—do you feel is expected from you as a female musician of color?
I think that there are lot of expectations that are put on me that men don’t receive, and that white women don’t receive. I think that there’s this huge demand for me to be this frontperson, but also to be in the back, pushing this band along. Because I’m a woman, because I’m brown, there are a lot of expectations that I get from the audience, from journalists, from my own bandmates. I think there’s this idea that, because I have this position in the band, I somehow have access to more resources or more information than other people do. These types of expectations are something that I don’t see white people getting in the same way. Oftentimes, when you see white people say some of the things I do, they get praised, they get put on a pedestal. They don’t get asked to then be the free therapist or the free social worker or the free psychic worker for the scene.
Over the past six years, I’ve had to deal with that a lot, and it’s very frustrating. I saw my mom, my dad, and my grandma deal with it, too. I see women of color do that all the time, as well as non-binary and gender-nonconforming people. And so, you have this uphill battle where you are a brown, thick, femme frontperson, and your professional and your private—the circles of your Venn diagram—people push them to overlap. You’re constantly resisting having some kind of space that doesn’t touch, but your agency can get kind of usurped. That’s been one of the uphill battles, but it’s made me want to stand closer to the fire and be in this band even more, because I know that there are a lot of people in the world dealing with this experience.
You switch between English and Spanish in your songs. How do the two languages differ in terms of what you can express?
There’s a word—pocha—that describes people who were born in the United States but are seen as Latinx and are always on both sides of the border: you’re never brown enough, but you’re never white enough. As pochas, we have the opportunity to know both sides of a lot of things and learn from them. The singing that is on the record is definitely inspired by all different kinds of music and all different kinds of heroes, ranging from Selena to [Black Panther leader and activist] Fred Hampton. I’ll learn how they used their tone and intonation, and that will inspire the way that I sing.
There’s all different genres and people and timeframes, and I [try to approach music] like a time machine: you can go into different times in history and pull from the soil there and create your own part of the world. It may seem confused, but there is actually intention.
A lot of the Spanish words are pocha Spanish, words that are kind of made up. The switching between English and Spanish is a way to normalize both languages—especially Spanish, because it is one of our National Languages, and tens of millions of people here speak it, and it shouldn’t be anything to be exocticized.
You have flower tattoos, and Cost of Living’s gorgeous album cover extends this floral theme. What about flowers appeals to you?
I wasn’t in the first iteration of Downtown Boys—I was just the number-one fan. The original Downtown Boys logo [drew inspiration from] the Virgen de Guadalupe, which has the roses, [though] it replaced the Virgen with the Union Shield.
Roses—and all flowers—are very spiritual to me. I was raised Catholic, and have become more in-tune with my Mexican religious history and ancestry. Roses are really important, and people use them in ceremony and ritual all the time. They’ve always been a part of symbolizing life and death. My tattoos are for my godmother, or my nina—a constant reminder for me. Roses can be really open and soft, but then you’ve got these thorns that can protect you, or the ones you love, or what you believe in.
I designed the concept of the art for the record, and the hands are the Hands of Justice. You’ll see the symbol in a lot of old art that symbolizes justice, and the roses represent that duality—that soft, delicate, very deep nature, as well as that thorn, that “I-need-to-protect” nature. [It’s] the idea that the state isn’t gonna protect many of us, that systems of power or institutional powers are here to repress a lot of us. We need to protect each other, and [it’s] the idea that both anger and joy, beauty and ugliness, need to be held within one vessel.
On “Somos Chulas (No Somos Pendejas),” you remind the listener that, despite the disappointments of the current presidency, it is still possible to “join fingers,” banding together to confront power. How does your music address this need for physical resistance? How do your “lips bite,” to borrow a phrase from the song?
I think that lyric was getting at the ability to work through despair and work through when you’re teetering on that line before hopelessness—and you’ve got to summon all that desire, all of what you do have. When you cause problems in a way that restores power to the people, that’s going to threaten white supremacy. And when white supremacy gets threatened, that means more than people with torches being threatened. That means that a lot of the people around us and we ourselves are threatened; we’ve all been colonized over and over again, and we’re going to have to unlearn so much in order to be free. Kendrick Lamar has a line where he says, “I can’t fake humble just 'cause your ass is insecure.” I think we were trying to say that to the values of white supremacy and toxic masculinity.
Finding the ability to believe in yourself, to know that it’s okay to be imperfect, is so important. Having to do these things and hold these contradictions is actually a part of what needs to happen so that we don’t give into any dogmatic principles. Because we clearly haven’t figured things out; we haven’t won. We’re constantly having to rework and refigure. Even if your teeth—the ones that were meant to bite—are taken from you, bite with your lips.