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.

Reason: Are you generally optimistic or pessimistic about Hispanic immigration in America?

Perez: Optimistic. Mexican-American people have progressed. There's a Mexican American mayor here in Los Angeles. There are BMWs parked in the driveways of homes in East L.A. Kids have gone off to college and become lawyers and teachers and doctors and professionals. So, yeah, it's not like you can throw this kind of blanket statement over our whole culture and say we're just a bunch of people that are over here sapping the life out of America—the kind of thing your Lou Dobbses of the world would like to project.

So I'm optimistic. But it's also just fatiguing to know that there's people out there still with that Lou Dobbs mindset—the idea that we don't belong here. Well, we were invited here, you know, we were invited here to supplement the workforce during World War II.

Reason: The new album is really moody, almost dark in places. You say the immigration debate is fatiguing. But has it made you cynical?

Perez: I don't think I'm cynical. Though I've always projected hope in my work, I have to admit, this one is a little desperate. Because of that, I spoke with David [Hidalgo, the band's lead singer] when this thing started to reveal itself. I've been writing songs with him for 35 years. I told him, "These are the words that are going to come out of your mouth. Are you okay with them?" He said, "This is what we need to do right now."

I don't want to project hopelessness or despair. Yeah, it's dark. It's moody. But when you put it on, I don't think people feel that this is a hopeless narrative. It's just the story we need to tell right now.

reason: I think there's a blues analogy here. You're writing about troubling topics, and the overall mood is gloomy. But the vibe the listener takes away is uplifting.

Perez: Yeah. "The Valley" is a good example of that, where people are traveling to a new place. It's kind of frightening. You're in a new place, a place that's completely unfamiliar to you. But there's also this exalting sense of discovery and possibility.

Reason: There's always a debate in new immigrant classes about assimilation versus heritage, particularly between generations. Your music evokes that gap in a lot of ways. You've had some crossover success, but you don't neatly fit into any genre.

Perez: We grew up just like any other kids growing up in the U.S. We were influenced by rock radio. Sure, there was Mexican music played in the house, but we just wanted to homogenize with everybody else. We wanted to play rock 'n' roll. We wanted to listen to rock 'n' roll. We wanted to leave the Mexican music home with our parents.

But after we'd been musicians for awhile, we rediscovered Mexican music. It wasn't a popular move for teenage boys by any means. We didn't do it for any kind of shock value or anything like that. We just did it because it felt right.

Reason: Do you think your music has a different appeal for your Spanish-speaking audience than for your English-speaking audience?

Perez: I have to admit that we've been kind of a tough sell for our own people. We sort of miss both the parents and the kids. First-generation Mexican nationals living in the U.S. want to preserve their culture from Mexico. They want to keep things just one way. We don't go over real well with Spanish-speaking people here in the U.S. because they can get the real deal. They have Spanish-language radio. They can buy CDs from rock bands and folk bands who sing solely in Spanish.

We're hugely respected by Mexican-American kids, the second and third generations, maybe to a fault. They kind of put us on pedestal for veneration. But at the same time, I don't think they actually listen to our music. They listen to whatever is current and contemporary and exciting for them. I don't blame them for that. I think we've just gotten to a point where we've become heroes to Mexican-Americans for what we've accomplished. And I'm grateful for that. But I don't know that our music is particularly popular with the younger Mexican-Americans.

Reason: The music business and its demographics have changed a lot since you started recording. The U.S. obviously now has a much larger Hispanic population. Globalization has created a world market for all sorts of music. And the Internet, movies, and television have created a really cosmopolitan music consumer. Has all of that affected the way you write and record and market your music?

Perez: Technology has hugely affected this business. The way we access music has changed incredibly. The old machine that drove the business is antiquated. Of course, record companies are still trying to hang on to that old rusty machine that doesn't work anymore.

I remember when a recording contract was the holy grail for a young band. Today, many young bands don't even want to get signed. They think, "Why should I sign myself away for seven years when I could just do this myself?" So things have changed a lot.

But this band has always kind of lived on the outside of it all, so it's been really easy for us to change. We haven't clung to any formula or structure. I mean, we decided to reinvent ourselves as a Mexican folkloric band as teenagers. That was unheard of. We did that for close to 10 years, and then we crossed the river and started playing punk rock clubs. So this band has never had a linear path.

Reason: That seems like such an interesting combination—Los Lobos opening for punk bands. Did it have any influence on your music?

Perez: Well, we certainly weren't doing 3-chord guitar assaults back then like the hardcore punk rock groups. We just did what we did. We'd go up to those clubs and we were just so juiced up from all the adrenalin that we would just play harder and faster. New music grew out of all of that. The new wave movement. Then the roots revival. That was just a good scene for us.

We never felt out of place. We met The Blasters, and they invited us to open for them [in 1980.] That's now a legendary show. We opened for The Blasters at the Whisky A Go Go. The Blasters were so hot back then, as was [punk band] X and just about everybody else on [the Los Angeles-
based record label] Slash. At first they wondered who the hell we were, and where we came from. But eventually we were welcomed into that whole community.

Reason: Los Lobos' first hit was 1984's "Will the Wolf Survive?" Twenty-five years later, it sounds like that's still an open-ended question for you.

Perez: Yeah, yeah, it is. It is. A lot of times we just feel like we're just kind of outside of everything. For the sake of survival, we've created our own universe, our own world. But the difference between our world and the worlds that other people create is that there aren't walls and fences that are patrolled to keep everybody out. In our world, there's no gates and no walls. There's no barbed wire. Our world is wide open for everyone to come and join. It's been a journey for us, and everybody's invited to become passengers on it.

Radley Balko is a senior editor for reason.

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