The curators of the event were smart to choose feminist author and musician Alicia Armendariz as one of the artists for the event, as a significant geographic chunk of the city served as her own creative canvas. As Alice Bag, her nom du punk, she's left bold chalk marks all over town. For nearly three decades, Armendariz has tweaked and/or defied traditional cultural and gender boundaries in bands such as Castration Squad, Tres, Cholita and Stay At Home Bomb. It was a rich — and loud — journey that began when she co-founded the punk band the Bags in 1977 as an outlet for the displaced teenage Chicana from East L.A. who insisted that her voice be heard amid the sweaty desperation of the Hollywood underground.
Armendariz, 54, grew up in an Eastside that was very traditional, with a very specific Latino-centric sense of community. “I have very good memories of dancing at [legendary East L.A. dance palace] Kennedy Hall and going cruising and listening to Huggy Boy [on the radio],” she remembers. “But I was also listening to rock stations that were playing music that was appealing to different areas of the city.”
Her curiosity and desire to perform led her to Hollywood, the landscape of which was undergoing a revolutionary youthful infusion. Expression through punk felt right to her. “I was a performer. I just had something creative to say and the package that it came in was not something that I had thought about,” Armendariz says. “When I was on stage, I wasn't thinking, ‘I'm a Chicana woman.' I was thinking I have something to say and I want to say it in a creative way.”
She found a home in the diverse new community — on stage, hanging in the clubs and living in her Hollywood apartment, the legendary punk crash pad the Canterbury.
“The place was a dump,” Armendariz says. “There were drug dealers, it was just a very inexpensive little apartment building where the person who ran it didn't care if you had blue or green hair. It was like a little fraternity.”
The Hollywood landscape was intoxicating to a young girl who'd spent her life growing up in insular East L.A.
“I felt like it embraced people who were doing things that were out of the norm who were pushing the envelope.... It was very open about expressing creativity in ways that were not mass-produced,” she says.
Eventually, drugs began to cast an increasingly dark shadow on the scene and Armendariz wasn't immune.
“People that I knew were dying and I didn't want to be one of them,” she says. “Even though I was living in Hollywood, living the punk lifestyle, drinking and doing drugs and doing what everyone else was doing, I also knew I could only go so far before I ended my own life.”
By 1980, as a member of Castration Squad, Armendariz saw the writing on the wall: It was over.
“There were times I'd look out at the audience and think, these people are here to fight each other and get out their aggressions, and not to see the band,” she says. “I thought, this is not what I need to be doing. It wasn't satisfying.”
For the past two decades Armendariz has balanced her life as an artist with that of real life — raising children, traveling to Nicaragua. She wrote a memoir, “Violence Girl,” that jarred loose the bleak snapshots of her youth.
“My father was an abusive man. He abused my mother and I think I suppressed many of those memories,” she says, “and as I started telling my story, I had to scratch very hard to get at them. I remember calling my husband up in tears, ‘I can't write this.' But I felt really good when I wrote it.”
At the Autry, Armendariz says she'll reflect on how her personal urban landscape has shaped her life's journey, and how change in that landscape can be both gradual and sudden. “Different photographs inspired different stories … one of the things that pops out are pictures of Chinatown,” she says. In her youth, it was a place less centered on cultural pride than attracting the tourist dollar. Kitschy wooden cutouts littered the sidewalks of the community. “We have pictures of all of our relatives visiting from Mexico standing behind one of those cutouts. They're not there anymore.”
Her perspective has also been freshly reset thanks to a seven-year stint spent living in Phoenix. When Armendariz moved back to Los Angeles earlier this year, she found a city transformed.
“I was driving down York Boulevard and it was so different. And downtown, I've been taking the Gold Line and going to the dances at Grant Park. I told my daughter to look for a job downtown. If you told me 10 years ago I'd send my kids downtown to look for a job, I thought it might be dangerous, because it was,” she says.
And she adds, “When I think of the landscape, I think of a really dense population and I think of diversity, which is something I was lacking in Phoenix. I missed what I had here, which is a lot of different languages, different foods, different points of view, different religions, different ideologies, it's kind of exciting. It shapes you; it makes you think about your values. It shapes you and you shape it at the same time.”
Where: The Autry in Griffith Park, 4700 Western Heritage Way, Los Angeles
When: Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2013, 6 p.m.
More info: Reservations required. Call (323) 667-2000, Ext. 380, theautry.org
ERIK HIMMELSBACH is a Los Angeles writer.