How the Wolves Survive

Los Lobos' Louie Perez on immigration, cultural mixing, and his band's new album

The Mexican-American rock band Los Lobos—Spanish for “the Wolves”—has always claimed it isn’t trying to document the immigrant experience, at least until their most recent album, The Town and the City (Hollywood/Mammoth). But the group’s career has in many ways traced the arc of Hispanic immigration in the second half of the 20th century, especially the tension between assimilation and maintaining a strong ethnic heritage.

Los Lobos was officially born in East L.A. in 1973, when a group of second-generation Chicano friends—Louie Perez, David Hidalgo, Conrad Lozano, and Cesar Rosas—decided to form a band. For five years, Los Lobos played dive bars, community centers, and anywhere else in the neighborhood they could get a gig. After releasing an independent LP in 1978, Los Lobos signed with the indie label and punk incubator Slash Records, an odd fit for the Tex-Mex jam band.

The musicians next found themselves opening for punk acts across Southern California. The audiences were at first confused, and sometimes hostile, but the band quickly developed a devoted critical and fan following based on its eclectic sound and epic live performances. They also picked up their fifth member. Keyboardist, saxophonist, and producer Steve Berlin was playing with the legendary punk band the Blasters in the early 1980s. He was fascinated by this foursome of folk artists playing the punk clubs, which he would later describe in liner notes to a Los Lobos live album as “like finding a tribe of Indians living under a freeway underpass.” Berlin started to jam with the group on stage, and gradually came on as a full-fledged member.

Los Lobos’ first full-length LP released on a major label was 1984’s How Will the Wolf Survive? The title song, along with the ballad “A Matter of Time,” offered moving, affecting portraits of illegal immigrant life in America just as immigration was becoming a major issue during the Reagan years. But those tracks were set between dance songs, love songs, and pop-savvy appeals to a crossover audience. Los Lobos has since won three Grammy awards, recorded several hit singles (including their cover of Richie Valens’ “La Bamba,” which hit No. 1 in 1987), and garnered widespread critical acclaim (if not overwhelming commercial success).

Over the next 25 years, Los Lobos would continue the pattern of alternately embracing, escaping, and mongrelizing its Hispanic heritage, at times marrying traditional Mexican influences with American blues, jazz, country, and rock. They followed the widespread commercial success of “La Bamba” with La Pistola y el Corazón, an acoustic album of Mexican folk songs recorded entirely in Spanish. Their biggest critical success was 1992’s Kiko, a striking experimental departure from anything the band had previously recorded. Kiko’s spare arrangements featured quirky, textured loops and studio gimmickry from famed producer Mitchell Froom. The odd hybrid of superb musicianship and significant studio manipulation won lavish praise from music critics but sold poorly, peaking at 143 on the Billboard albums chart.

The next 10 years brought more of the same: new risks and experimentation (1996’s punk- and avant garde–infused Colossal Head), appeals to a mainstream audience (1999’s straight-ahead rock ’n’ roll album This Time), and allegiance to the band’s Hispanic roots (2002’s Good Morning Aztlán). Again, the parallels between the band’s career and the immigrant experience—the tension between assimilation and heritage, the themes of risk, entrepreneurship, and community—are inescapable.

The Town and the City is a more straightforward look at immigration in America. The band’s main lyricist, Louie Perez, returned to his old East L.A. neighborhood for inspiration, and came up with a moody, introspective album written entirely in first-person that documents the arc of the Mexican immigrant in America.

The opening track, “The Valley,” finds the immigrant reflecting on his ancestors while contemplating leaving home. “The Road to Gila Bend” traces the perilous journey across the border (“Saw a church along the way/a place to hide, to kneel and pray/help me make it one more day/Can they see me running?/Do they know I’m running?”). By the closing track, “The Town,” the immigrant—or perhaps his child or grandchild—is firmly settled in America. But the song is appropriately ambiguous. He seems settled and secure, but still anxious, still unsure; he shuts his eyes and once again reflects on his roots.

The tracks in between find Perez and his bandmates, now all in their early 50s, chronicling the highs and lows of immigrant life in America, from love, celebration, and family to substance abuse, poverty, the challenges of parenthood, and mortality. As with most Los Lobos albums, critics have heaped praise on The Town and the City, and deservedly so. In addition to the intimate, timely subject matter and the musical virtuosity, the album’s production creates a gritty, atmospheric soundscape that captures the gap between immigrant aspirations and realities, and conveys the dark mood our increasingly vitriolic arguments over immigrants has cast on their optimism.

In January, Senior Editor Radley Balko interviewed Perez about the album, the band, and his perspective on the immigration debate.

Reason: The Town and the City is very personal. Did the current debate over immigration have anything to do with the intimate, human face you put on the issue?

Louie Perez: Well, I can’t ignore it. I don’t think anyone can not be affected by it. Of course, Mexican-American people are more sensitive to it, but you just turn on the news at 11, I don’t care where you live, you’re going to know about what’s going on.

I didn’t set out for the record to be about immigration, but it started to go into that direction. I always go back to my neighborhood when I write songs, and in this case it was tempered by what was going on in the news. I was also thinking of the sacrifices my parents made when they came to the U.S. and the fact that if they hadn’t crossed the border, I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you. I wouldn’t have a career. I wouldn’t have Grammys. I wouldn’t have all these things that have happened in the spirit of the American dream.

Reason: How much of the album is a direct reflection of your conversations with your parents about their experience crossing the border? How much is more a composite of other immigrants you’ve talked to?

Perez: I think it’s more of a composite, informed by things that I saw growing up in my neighborhood. The album’s about sitting on a beige rug in front of the TV and watching Father Knows Best—looking at the ideal American family and then looking over my shoulder and seeing that mismatched furniture. Noticing that my dad certainly wasn’t carrying a briefcase and wearing a suit. He was wearing cover-alls with yellow paint speckles all over them. TV seemed like a fantasy world, something that existed somewhere else. Our lives were nothing like the life that a lot of those shows presented.

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