When I first dreamt up this FAN CLUB column, I originally thought I would ideally use this space to talk to interesting friends and acquaintances about their fandom. But FAN CLUB is still new, dear readers! And for the time being, I will still often use it to explore my own personal fandom, because that's where my most immediate curiosity lies. I don’t know if anything I write here will do any justice to Victoria Ruiz, front person and frequent lyricist for two different Providence bands: Downtown Boys and Malportado Kids. She's a truly powerful and spellbinding performer. I can honestly say I've never really seen anything or anyone like her on stage. What's perhaps even more astounding to me is the kind of good vibes Victoria always radiates offstage as well, as an artist, activist, community organizer, and general inspiration. We're pretty good friends and it's still a mystery to me where she's harvesting this relentless energy from. In any case, we had a chance to speak via email about mass incarceration, performance aesthetic, immigration reform, and the cosmology of interpersonal relationships.
Katie: First, tell me who you are and where you live. And tell me about your job! Your job is very interesting to me!
Victoria: My name is Victoria Marie Ruiz and I live in Providence, Rhode Island. I am originally from San Jose, California. I moved out to the Beast Coast for school in New York. I do not have any family on the East Coast, but have made a lot of friends that have created a great magnetic field of art, struggle, and community.
I was raised by my mom and my grandma in a Mexican American household in California. Sometimes I feel like my age tells so little about me because I jumped around different orbitals of being a geeky math and science poster child for affirmative action programs to being a punk singer and propagandist. It doesn't make sense most of the times, but I wouldn't take it any other way.
I work at the Rhode Island Public Defender as a social worker. My job is basically to come up with reasons why people should not go to prison or why they should get out of prison. I got really interested in this work after learning and experiencing how racist the criminal justice system truly is. I loathe policing tactics and find them to be products of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and U.S. American imperialism and empire. The drug war has demonized people of color and created an imagination for police to target the liberties of people of color and to use mass incarceration as an answer.
In Rhode Island, one in 28 men have been or are on probation, parole, or are incarcerated. This is crazy! I learned about criminal public defense for the poor and realized that the RI Public Defender was doing tight work, such as legislative change, anti-racial profiling legislation, and diversion programming for clients (keeping people out of prison). My first interaction with the Public Defender was working with them on organizing against the collaboration between immigration enforcement and local police. This has deported millions of people of color who were forced to come to the United States by racist and classist foreign capitalist foreign policy to begin with!!!!
I had no idea you were a math and science geek! Can you tell me where your interest in social justice came from? Did it just feel like a natural response to the demented reality of everyday life, or was there some kind of "moment" or person who turned on the light bulb for you?
It's funny. It is really hard for me to respond to questions like this. Social justice is not really an interest to me; it is more just like something that is on my mind and in my heart all the time. I didn't really come from a family that had a strong analysis of justice and oppression. It was just our everyday life. This can often make it difficult, when I find myself in spaces with people who did have a more outward "light bulb," like studying social justice movements, student activism, or a profession entry way into all. There wasn't even a specific experience. It was just the constant "living on a different planet" feeling.
I often felt like I was always trying to prove that I could hang with the kids that were good at school, the punks (mostly white), or the student organizers, but then I also wanted to live and fight for my political Chicana (redundant, I know) identity. I think that being in Downtown Boys and Malportado Kids has really helped me to do this. Our bands exist because we want to use music and create moments with people to inspire and motivate us all to confront issues of racism, classism, queer phobia, police brutality, capitalism, and masculinity in our community. All of our songs are in direct response to institutionalized injustices. Individually, we are all connected to various issues in our community.
Joe and I became friends while working in a hotel that is currently fighting for a fair process for workers to organize for their rights. We use shows as opportunities to announce actions and get petitions signed. Additionally, our band is vocally and directly against police brutality and policing tactics that are aimed at people of color and immigrants. We have played various fundraiser shows for groups in Providence and New Haven that organize around these issues. We do not question that these issues exist and we do not make excuses for injustice! We also use show posters as opportunities for propaganda and to include anti-police messages and images.
Everywhere we go we chill and talk to people about local political climate and always try to mention any direct action opportunities or raise issues that we hear people talking about that we care about. We use any show as a space of collective power of the people against the hegemony of the capitalist police state! These things are important and under attack!!! We must be youth that constantly educate each other and take power!
In addition to our show posters, we do take a lot of time and energy in promoting images and visuals that are attempts at political education about institutionalized problems. We have used projections of police brutality, marches, and exaggerated and metaphoric images like burning cop cars to draw light to things that are happening on our streets ALL THE TIME. We also enjoy using cop siren lights and banners with our name to help our shows have more aesthetic elements that are related to what we are talking about. I often wear an old room service uniform from the hotel that Joe and I worked at, as a salute that we stand in solidarity with all of our working class and immigrant brothers and sisters.
It is important to recognize that we are a bilingual band because Norlan, our drummer, and I, are both Latino, but also because the Latino community is crucial to the United States of America, the history of punk music, and to the future struggle for liberation and justice. We live in a country that has used foreign policies to force people from other countries to the colonized and imperial lands of the United States of America, to work for lower wages, to be discriminated against by the police, to be deported by immigration officials, and to be stigmatized as a non-white group of people. We are here to say "NO," to this status quo and to call out these systems of oppression. We sing in English and Spanish because it is a political decision. The USA does not have to be an English speaking country, and USA punk does not have to be English speaking. When we look at the community organizing and protest culture in the USA and throughout the world we hear chants in Spanish, we see signs in Spanish, and we are touched by people who communicate in Spanish. We are bilingual with the intention to speak to as many people as possible.
I think I am angry and ready to make positive change. I believe that we make positive change.
Honestly, this is what I love about being around you. Watching you onstage or talking to you via email or just hanging out or whatever. You're really one of the most inspiring people I know! Do you guys ever have conversations about the band's aesthetic? Like, the first time I saw you guys I remember you and Joey were wearing the most bad ass purple eye makeup and it was smeared all over your faces. And that coupled with the siren and your huge yellow banner, it feels like you guys REALLY take up your space when you perform. Do you ever have band conversations about aesthetics? Or is a lot of your style just born out of necessity and what makes sense to you?
WHOA! This is very cool that YOU notice this about us. Firstly, not many people mention this stuff and I don't know why. Secondly, we often talk about how that show we played together and you took da pix with the disposable, that was when you decided to take a chance on us...
[editor’s note: Katie’s label Sister Polygon has released music by Downtown Boys.]
I think it is because even though we are still pretty dirty sounding, we use small incisions in a space to cut a really tight shape. Some people are down and others aren't. We do feel like our style is born out of necessity, but that necessity totally changes sometimes. Also, we have yet to figure out exactly what we want and need as time goes on. I think that banners have always been important as propaganda and as tradition in punk bands. I actually helped paint the first Downtown Boys banner, before I was in the band. It was the background of the Sicilian flag. Sicily has a longtime worker class and anarchist history.
We see every performance as creating a moment, a space. It is visual art as much as a sonic boom. We want to try and live towards that. We also want to break out of binaries of gender and expectations in general. While I want to fight oppression in reality, we believe in a futurism. I think of that commentary on restaurant worker uniforms. Sun Ra and the Zapatistas have influenced a lot of our band's aesthetic. Our sirens and police documentation projections really helped us to seriously back up a lot of what we were saying with images. It was an opportunity to create political propaganda that was clear and direct. When so much of what I see is US imperialist propaganda about bodies, communities, and places or deconstructionist or nihilistic images that are really hard to understand outside of the individual making them, it was really an opportunity to research and study how people have documented the police and the police state. In many ways it cleaned out my eyes and thoughts about images as protest. Our projections were a humble attempt and bringing that into the punk public sphere more.
We don't really discuss these things as a band, which is weird. When one of us has an idea, we just kind of go for it. Norlan has been wearing a bandana that covers his mouth when he plays, similar to the Zapatista or anarchist face mask... I don't really know what that is about, but I think it is funny how no one really asks, we just know that's what's up. And I think it's crazy that I can dress super feminine and it means something because of our music, or I can dress with a button up and look like a "boy," and it means something because of our music. And both things that it might/might not mean, I'm totally down with.
It's really funny to me, you saying that I "took a chance on you"-- I didn't really have a choice, you guys were like the best band I could remember seeing. If anything you took a chance on me. We didn't even know each other and you might've just been like "who is this weird person with a camera going wild at our show." Do you feel like you relate to people and make friends on an intuitive level? Like it just feels right or wrong? Do you trust yourself in that way?
I do think I relate to people on an intuitive and sometimes cosmological level. It feels right because of shared experiences, because of related space or vibes, and I really try to give everyone I meet a chance to be friends, because I would love the same opportunity. I think that it is tough to make friends though, because then we create community, and we are accountable to one another in that. I think the nuclear family has torn us apart. We’ve got to treat everyone as a member of a collective. We are way too few to be divided by dads.
OK maybe this is a touchy subject but can you tell me that story about playing the Halloween party, and you talked to the guy dressed like a Nazi? You told me this story over the summer...
The story about playing the Halloween party is really tough because a lot of things happened that night, including physical action, that I was not behind and I had to deal with the consequences because I am an outgoing, friendly, forward, and direct front person. It is super complex and not really what my art or my music is directly about to be perfectly honest.
Basically, an ignorant and, in my opinion, nihilistic white cis-gendered male was dressed as a Nazi. I called him out and said that it was not a costume but a trigger of hate and racism. This was a few days before Halloween. I was asked to leave the party by a white cis-gendered woman dressed as "Chiquita banana." Needless to say this situation was ridiculous and so long as NAFTA and mass incarceration exist I don't really want to let it take power from me.
Then on Halloween, we played a cover show and this same Nazi-dressed dude showed up again. I wanted to refuse to play the show, but instead our band decided that we would say something about it during our set. We had a super positive set and kick ass chants about love, justice, and not being an attention-grabbing and ignorant artist. The dude actually took off the swastikas!
But then, two folks punched the dude and everyone got pissed off and we lost a lot of friends for a while because it was a tough situation. It sucked. It all sucked. Racism, imperialism, and capitalism are there. This situation is not to be put in the same ballpark though as those sitting in prison, those stop and frisked because of the color of their skin, or those without a family and people to love them because of unjust shit. I really don't want to make it seem like it is in the same vein as this other stuff, because it's not. People not dressing as Nazis, just like a desegregated cup of coffee will never make up for the past 450 years of chattel slavery, colonial imperialism of former Azatlan, or the current U.S. criminal justice system.
Not to get all intense on you, but I have to say it: I think you are probably the strongest, and most generous performer that I know of, personally. I don't know what kind of inner resources you do or don't have, but it is truly otherworldly what you bring to people when you are on stage. Who are some artists who inspire you most? This could be performers or writers or just weird people you see in town, just tell me who is giving you this energy.
Yeah, I believe a lot in cosmic energy. I think that we are way too early in time to not be wildly connected.
Artists that have influenced me include Selena Quintanilla, the Chicana singer who I think was part of a Latino futurist movement. She really made brown girls like me believe that we could be ourselves and be crazy. My favorite song by her is “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom.” She had a very crazy aesthetic that I really appreciated because it wasn't like anything we learn from Whitness' media. She was also much darker than a lot of Mexican America singers that become famous in the United States.
I also really look to Patti Smith, Kathleen Hanna, and Joy D of Crass. They really have taught me a lot about what it means to be a singer, to be an energy, to be a force. I’m tired of people saying, "oh so you don't play an instrument, you sing." It's like, "yeah, good job Captain Obvious." I also really look up to Ian Svenonius. He has managed to use a little, old, mean, and powerful though often silly thing called the English Language to be a powerhouse of political propaganda to create a space for everyone to feel some sort of involvement and inclusion. I can get down about the Nation of Ulysses or Chain and the Gang with a punk, a hippie, a museum person, an old rocker, a lil bro, or a pro Palestine homie. I also love that he has been a front person in all these sick bands. It's like, "YUP I KNOW HOW TO DO THIS, SO LET ME DO THIS AND LET THAT PERSON PLAY THE GUITAR AND THAT PERSON PLAY THE DRUMS AND LET US ROCK!"
My grandma, my mom, Frida Kahlo, Malcom X, Dolores Huerta, and the ladies in the band x1955x are also constantly in my mind, my heart, and the things that I do. My grandma, who actually speaks perfect English and Spanish but is completely illiterate, would make music tapes for holidays. It was like her way to express love to me and my little cousin. When "Selena" the movie came out, me and my little cousin watched that thing until the VHS got worn out and I think my grandma just bought another copy. She made us tapes that we would listen to constantly at home and in the car of Selena and other Mexican music. All I wanted to do was be in a band, make art, and stick up for the pueblo, the people. She really helped me do that. It's crazy because I find her in a lot of other people that have been my ally or my companion in smashing the gender binary, racism, and classism, and helping the brown freaks hold the mic and ride the wave of music, art, magic, questioning, the unknown, whatever we want to call it.
Energy cannot be created nor destroyed, just moved around. How are we going to move it?
DOWNTOWN BOYS play Smash It Dead Fest on Friday, March 28 at the Cambridge YMCA.