Why you should care

Because Chicano and cholo cultures are finally getting their 15 minutes of fame.

As a Mexican immigrant growing up in San Diego’s infamous Sherman Heights, Rafael Reyes was as immersed in gang culture as he was in music. So when his two-man band, Prayers, was asked to perform in San Jose — Norteño territory — his fellow gang members warned him that it might be dangerous to show up for the gig. But Reyes was resolute in the belief that his music, an unlikely mix of Mexican-American metal and dark Euro aesthetics that he dubbed “cholo goth,” transcended turf wars. Sure enough, the rival gang gave the band temporary immunity out of a shared Mexican heritage and a love for Prayers’ music.

Since then, the cultural fluidity of our digital era not only has spread Reyes’ barrio-born, synth-infused cholo-goth sound to clubs from Mexico City to Tokyo, but it also has inspired a low-key street style which is more relaxed than Prayers’ high-energy music. The hybridization Reyes embodies has made him an overnight folk hero for the marginalized. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a criminal or a police officer,” Reyes tells OZY via text message. “It doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor; it doesn’t matter if you’re a prostitute or a nun. If you’re Mexican, you’re Mexican, and you understand the struggle for the roots of our culture.”

It doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor … if you’re Mexican, you’re Mexican, and you understand the struggle for the roots of our culture.

Rafael Reyes, musician

Known onstage as Leafar Seyer (his name spelled backward), Reyes got jumped into the Sherman 27th Street Grant Hill Park gang when he was 13. He looks the gangbanger part — Ray-Bans, buzz cut, wife-beater black T, gang tats crawling from his beltline across his torso and up his arms and neck, a crucifix dangling from an ear. … In 2010 he served six months in prison for assault, a hitch that earned him two strikes under California’s draconian three-strikes law. Another serious, violent felony conviction, and Reyes could face life in prison.

As an outlet for the violence that surrounded him in the neighborhood where he lives to this day, Reyes first turned to writing, then art, then music. The homies in the Heights were into hip-hop. But, always true to himself, Reyes found inspiration instead in industrial and death rock, especially the early goth band Joy Division and the New Wave synth trio Depeche Mode. In 2013, at age 38, he joined forces with Dave Parley, a beat-master from Tijuana, to form the duo Prayers. After releasing an album (SD Killwave) and an EP (Gothic Summer), the band caught a break when the legendary British rock band Cult tapped Prayers to open for them on four California dates in 2014.

Since then, Prayers’ music has gained popularity exponentially. And, more recently, Reyes’ cholo-goth street style has been making its way into fashion blogs and Pinterest boards. Mesh jerseys, hoodies and baggy shorts adorned with cholo calligraphy, switchblades and barbed wire have started to pop up in boutique shops and storefronts around the globe. Cholo style is nothing new, but Reyes’ brand has been key to popularizing the aesthetic. Defiant in the face of SoCal lowrider machismo, the Prayers’ frontman applies his makeup to provoke others’ anxieties and to define what he sees as the inherent duality of the cholo — part Mexican (Aztec) Indian, as heard in the Prayers’ song “Mexica,” and part Chicano American.

Meanwhile, in Mexico City, the NAAFI record label and arts collective is introducing the cholo-goth aesthetic to a wider Latin American audience, creating a border-transcending exchange of queerness and hybridity that encourages people to be themselves in all their wonderful weirdness. “NAAFI’s events are meeting places where people feel like they can be happy together, especially people who feel different in many ways and just want to be who they are,” NAAFI director, DJ and co-founder Tomás Davó tells OZY from Mexico City.

Davó is quick to point out that NAAFI doesn’t identify specifically with cholo goth or any other style, but the movements share values that center around transcending stereotypes. As the first cholo goth, Reyes had to fight to express his identity — literally. But now that he’s popularized a seemingly impossible mash-up of two cultures — barrio machismo and Euro androgyny — he’s created an opportunity for young people who might feel marginalized or different to express themselves, and that’s the power of cholo goth beyond the music and the fashion. “What we have created is unbreakable,” says Reyes.

But can cholo goth survive commercialization and appropriation? “The essence of our music isn’t going to be devalued by who listens to it,” Reyes says. “That’s some fascist shit to exclude people because of creed or socioeconomic status.” Someone from Paris or Seoul can identify with cholo goth or NAAFI street style as much as anyone in Los Angeles or Mexico City, says Davó. Of course, not everyone agrees with the cultural free-for-all, and multiple controversies have surrounded the appropriation of cholo culture, from lowriders in Tokyo to the infamous chola-Victorian Givenchy show in 2015, which some experts saw as unapologetic pillaging.

Cholo goth and NAAFI represent different “tribes” with similar interests, says DJ Alberto Bustamante, another original member of the NAAFI crew. There is an overt resistance to patriarchy in Reyes’ black lipstick and NAAFI’s roster of sex-bending DJs and all-inclusive parties. Cities give rise to unique forms of dissent reflected in the clothes, language and sounds of interconnected movements where artists build safe places for new generations of outsiders through sweat and — in the case of Reyes — blood.

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