Los Lobos are truly a Mexican and American band. A sonic feast of Mexican acoustic music traditions blended later with large helpings of R&B, rock, and soul. Los Lobos have been writing and performing together for over three decades, a partnership that began back at Garfield High, in East L.A. I spoke to longtime Lobos songwriter, Louie Pérez, about the band’s neighborhood roots.
Louie Pérez: We grew up in a really traditional Mexican American neighborhood. I lived in across the street from the Catholic church, there was a corner store, there was a tortilleria on the corner, a tamale place around from that corner, of course a liquor store and a barber shop. That’s what made East L.A. so insolated, because we had everything we needed. We didn’t have Starbucks or anything like that. I grew up listening to Mexican music, my mom played it. She listened to the rancheras and on Saturdays watched the Cal Worthington country music marathons on television. When I was tall enough to reach the knob on the radio, then I discovered choice. That’s when I discovered radio back when you could listen to James Brown and Jimi Hendrix and the Yardbirds in the same ten minutes. We don’t play music that is expected to come from four guys from East L.A. Not even the parents, it was like the whole barrio, all of East L.A. was wondering what the heck is going on with these guys. Load up the band and go across the L.A. River into the new territory, and at the time, punk rock was happening. We came into the door of the musical world through punk rock, and when we did that, it was-
Nick Spitzer: There were questions.
LP: Well they figured, “Well next time we see them, Louie’s gonna have a blue mohawk, what’s the deal here?” But it was great, it was good for us, I think at one point we created kind of a bridge between East L.A. and Los Angeles on the other side of the river.
NS: We also caught up with band member Cesar Rosas, the only member of Los Lobos born in Mexico.
Cesar Rosas: Well, you know I used to live in the desert from the time I was born until nine years old. The only music I knew was what we call norteño music, which is the Mexican polka style accordion. That’s where I came from, and then when I came to the US, all of a sudden it was 1962. I was thrown right into rock ‘n’ roll, you know, Chuck Berry and everything. I remember the first things I ever saw at the theater were Elvis Presley movies. I was going, “Wow man, who the hell is this guy?” And then of course I was there when the Beatles first came to American, you know, the Ed Sullivan Show, so I grew up with all of that. Then I got into like James Brown, Aretha, all the R&B stuff, you know. I grew up also with the little transistor radios, you know, so I grew up with all the cool stuff that ever happened in the history of rock ‘n’ roll, you know, the Beach Boys, Beatles, the Rolling Stones.
NS: Well I was looking back at “Just Another Band from East L.A.” which I think todo está en español, it’s a mix of sones and rancheras and corridos.
CR: We started Los Lobos as that, you know, we were young rockers and we decided to put together a band that was dedicated to the Mexican folk music and the traditions that was really against all the threat that was going on, you know.
NS: That’s brave to me, in my way of thinking.
CR: It was pretty crazy, you know.
NS: Did you feel then a political point of view making the music and being out as Los Lobos?
CR: Well we always felt that way, we felt that there was a need for us to bring back some of the culture. That’s the whole reason why we were doing it, we didn’t get up into lines, and we didn’t wave the flags, but we thought we could do it with music.
To hear the full program, tune in Saturdays at 7 and Sundays at 6 on WWNO, or listen at americanroutes.org.