It's Halloween weekend in Mexico City, and my friend Mauricio Mendia is preparing for his DJ set at the American Legion. The theme for the night is disco.
As Mauricio sets up for the evening, he introduces me to a tall, skinny gringo my age, with a terrible blonde wig, an offensive red tie, and a suit that looks straight from the Donald Trump Collection. With fake blood dripping down his forehead, he's dressed up as an assassinated Donald Trump, just days before the election. We clink beers, and between the BeeGees and Donna Summer tracks, get to talking about our favorite punk bands.
The Trump impersonator turns out to be Brandon Welchez, lead singer of the New Wave-influenced noise pop group the Crocodiles. Welchez grew up in San Diego on a steady diet of punk, hanging with friends like Rafael Reyes from the cholo goth band Prayers. On one of his band’s first tours, Welchez toured with the drummer Palmolive, from early British punk group the Slits, and described her as his much cooler, musical fairy godmother.
Moments later, Welchez and I walk towards the bar, where I watch AJ Dávila of the infamous Puerto Rican punk band Dávila 666 wrap Welchez up in what can only be described as a cub hug -- he’s way too short to be described as a bear. He greets Welchez with a booming “BABY-SITO,” his term of endearment of choice, and kisses him on the cheek.
In a few months, the pair will be leaving Mexico City together to start a world tour, kicking off in the States. One of their first stops is San Francisco, where on Thursday, Feb. 23, they'll play Bottom of the Hill -- a perfect place for two recovering punks to bring their brand of partying-mixed-with-politics, and to represent Mexico City well.
But these plans were made, of course, before the election -- before any of us could have predicted how the election would affect their their tour, or our country. For that moment at the American Legion, Welchez and Dávila stand next to each other, cracking jokes as Mauricio plays Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough,” and everyone takes it as their cue to hit the dance floor.
The next day, on my way to the record label Discos Panoram to discuss El Futuro, Dávila’s upcoming record, I give the LP a full spin: due out in April, it’s an optimistic shoegaze album that fuses '60s call-and-response vocals, psychedelic horns and distortion, and Fugazi-style guitar riffs with lyrics about heartbreak and an uncertain future. It’s also Dávila’s first solo album, created after he spent nearly a decade in the shock-punk band Dávila 666, then moved onto the post-grunge group AJ Dávila y Terror Amor.
On his own, Dávila has refashioned himself; on El Futuro he is less scrappy punk kid and more Puerto Rican sweetheart with rock 'n’ roll charm.
The office of Discos Panoram feels like the set of a Luis Buñuel surrealist film. There’s a wall made up entirely of opened books, another of solid doors, and then spiral staircases that lead to a rooftop. In the open air, AJ swings his arms open and hugs me like he did Brandon the day before, belting out “BABY-SITA,” and I can’t help but laugh.
Flipping through the album’s liner notes, I ask him about one of my favorite songs, “SS Youth.” I can’t tell if I’ve missed something in the Spanish translation -- if SS means something far less ominous in Mexico? -- or if the grunge-inspired track is actually just dedicated to Sonic Youth. He seig-heils and tells me, “No, it’s about Donald Trump … and what it means to live in a society of likes.”
The words of Junot Díaz spring immediately to mind -- particularly his writing on the rise of fascism, and his lived experience through Latin American dictatorships. “The axis of likability is how dictatorships survive," he once said in an interview with Hilton Als. "Becoming popular is part of what dictatorships hijack to remain in power.”
Similarly, Dávila doesn't tiptoe around his intentions with writing "SS Youth." "
"It’s an allusion to the Nazi youth, and how they did everything that the system told them to do," he says. "Propaganda controlled everything that they did. And now, we think we’re living in a time of freedom, filled with capitalism and and liberty and justice for all, but no, it’s the same. The youth -- instead of inheriting their parents' values -- their new parents are the television and the propaganda that’s all around them. What they see on television or what they hear from a politician, they believe it, and they act accordingly."
In a society of likes, he seems to be saying, it's entirely predictable that a reality star could become president. Though Dávila is from Puerto Rico, he's lived in Chicago and toured the U.S. extensively. The states are his second home, when he’s away from Mexico City, where he currently lives. Even as an ex-pat, he says he can see the creeping wave of fascism in the United States.
Our conversation seems like an omen of the times to come. El Futuro.
Welchez and Dávila met in Mexico City in 2014, at a time when both of them were newly out of serious relationships and were moving away from their past lives. The two became roommates and “surrogate girlfriends” to each other, both looking for closeness in a city they loved but was not their own.
The friends began collaborating musically: you can hear Welchez’s guitar and vocals on Dávila’s album, El Futuro, as well as records that Dávila has produced, including Dani Bander’s post-mariachi record, Malacopa. Touring together came naturally, and they planned a four-week U.S. sweep through 21 cities; an upcoming South American and European Tour is still in the works.
But they couldn’t have anticipated how President Trump’s travel ban would impact those plans.
“In the last few days, everything has kind of shifted, unfortunately,” Welchez tells me by phone, following news of the ban. It’s only been three months since we last saw each other in Mexico City, but with the nonstop news cycle, it feels like three lifetimes.
“We had a band of Mexican musicians and one Venezuelan, and we tried to get work visas but it was super, super expensive, so we thought about having them play here ‘illegally,’” he says of the tour. “But once Trump put that travel ban -- that Muslim ban -- in effect, we started thinking of how it would affect people in Latin America who had visas, travel visas, and we just got scared. Is it really fair to ask these people to risk their ability to come back [to the U.S.]?”
So the Crocodiles and AJ Dávila were left scrambling to find a new band comprised of entirely U.S. citizens, less than a week before their tour started. According to Dávila's publicist, the average cost to get a touring visa for bands from Latin America is $6,000. Considering that the Mexican peso is currently valued at 21 pesos to the American dollar, and that the average yearly salary in Mexico City is $11,000 USD, securing a touring visa to the United States is a huge barrier for many bands from Latin America.
Between barriers to travel, recent immigration crackdowns, renewed ICE raids and the wall controversy, the next four years are sure to be tumultuous for U.S.-Mexico relations. What does it feel like, I ask Welchez, to be living as an American in Mexico City right now?
“Fear, frustration, embarrassment,” he says. “And in a way [I feel] pride, seeing how people are coming together and backing each other up. Non-marginalized people are backing up marginalized people, and that’s really nice to see. In general there’s a lot of fear of what’s going to become of the United States and what’s going to become of the world -- so I feel frustrated and at the same time hopeful that this is the last big hoorah for scumbags, you know? Like when you go to a fireworks display: This is their grand finale.”
Welchez clearly has both a critical mind and a sense of humor -- arguably two fundamentally necessary tools for remaining sane in the present moment.
“We’ve been joking,” says Welchez, “about the ‘party’ we call our lives -- we are going to bring that party on the road and invite everyone to join us.”
And who wouldn’t want to join the party? El Futuro has arrived.
Crocodiles and AJ Davila play with locals Hot Flash Heat Wave and NRVS LVRS on Thursday, Feb. 23, at Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco. Tickets ($15) and more info here.