The Generation with a Thorn in Its Side: Chican@ Youth and Morissey by Abigail J. Amabisca
From L.A. to Phoenix, and Albuquerque to Corpus Christi—Cinco de Mayo is no longer “Cinco de Mayo” but Cinco de Morrissey. Don’t believe me? Check your hashtags, mijo. Search #MozdeMayo or #CincodeMorrissey and you’ll find the internet is littered with photos of the ex-Smiths lead singer set to the backdrop of serapes and the Mexican flag. You’ll find Instagram photos and Tumblr sites filled with pompadours and forlorn looks. You’ll even find a podcast from NPR’s Alt Latino show, celebrating this newfound holiday. Por qué? Well, that’s a good question. How does an Irish man from Manchester with no Latino blood get incorporated into such a holiday?
I can tell you this, it’s not random. Part cheeky, it’s a nod to the fact that Cinco de Mayo isn’t necessarily a holiday most Mexicans celebrate, other than it being an occasion for reduced priced tacos and tequila shots. Which, hey, isn’t such a big deal since some of us prefer whiskey. Regardless, the unofficial renaming of Cinco de Mayo to “Cinco de Morrissey” is actually a way of reclaiming a day that has been largely appropriated by American audiences in much the same way that St. Patty’s day has been for the Irish. The holiday in and of itself means very little to those with actual ancestry. Cinco de Morrissey, however, is a sassy way of saying, “come on vatos, let’s celebrate something that’s actually celebrated by Mexicans.” It’s both ironic and completely sincere—which can be said for much of the relationship between Mexicans and Morrissey.
Search “Morrissey” on the popular e-commerce website Etsy, and you’ll find Morrissey’s presence tows the line of deity…quite literally. The first page of results alone produces five different prayer candles from different merchants stating things like “Saint Morrissey: Friend of Animals.” Search #MexicansforMorrissey and you’ll find pages of Tweets, various Instagram posts, and Tumblr sites dedicated to this Moz fandom. Watch the DVD Morrissey: 25 Live—a filmed concert of the March 2013 intimate show performed at Hollywood High School in Los Angeles—and you’ll find the first words Morrissey speaks in the entire film, as well as to the audience, are: “¡Viva México!”
Surf YouTube and you will find pages of videos of Chican@s covering and reinventing Morrissey and Smiths songs. But this isn’t a trend just made possible by the internet. Long before YouTube became the digital mecca of fandom, LA was kicking it hard with the Morrissey/Smiths love. Since the 1990s, EastLos has actually had quite the Morrissey/Smiths cover band scene, and it’s only gotten stronger in the last ten years, spreading across the country. Mariachi Manchester does mariachi reinventions of Smiths and Morrissey songs. Los Esmiths travels around Southern California, Arizona, and Texas playing various clubs and Morrissey lookalike contests and maintains a cult following. Sheilas Take A Bow is an all-girl Chicana cover band whose singer is actually a professor currently writing a book exploring the mysterious fandom between Mexicans and Morrissey, slated for release next year. And Mexrrissey is a super group comprised of famous Mexican composers and rock idols, such as Mexico-City based DJ and producer Camilo Lara, and Sergio Mendoza of Calexico and Orkesta Mendoza fame. And for those who like to take their love to a more personal level, there are even regular Smiths/Morrissey karaoke nights to sing dejectedly with flowers or rip off your own shirts to. But who exactly is fueling this fandom?
Morrissey’s Chican@ fanbase, particularly its resurgence among second and third-generation youth, has been a long-held mystery in the music community, but an undeniable one nonetheless. Maybe it’s so surprising given the Smith’s history and the large disconnect between their success in the UK and the US. While all four studio albums—The Smiths; Meat is Murder; The Queen Is Dead; and Strangeways, Here We come—held either the #1 or #2 peak chart positions in the UK, they struggled to break into the top 100 albums in the US (only The Queen Is Dead managed to hit #70, and Strangeways, Here We Come managed to reach #55). But when you look at the context of the band—is it really so strange?
The Smiths have had a hold on lovelorn, jilted youth since 1982. Entering the scene on the tail end of the rebelliously conscious and throaty punk movement of the 70’s, the melodic, indie pop movement of the 80’s—largely being more in touch with the emotional self, the melancholy, and the seemingly apathetic—was a natural, reactive progression. This is what The Smiths excelled in and made them so popular, but it is also specifically what makes Morrissey such an enigmatic individual and performer. So when Morrissey parted ways with The Smiths and moved to LA for over six years, Morrissey founded a new following.
Morrissey’s magnetic presence, fluid sexuality, classic “greaser” style, and emotional transparency oddly lines up with much of what Chican@s grew up with—whether in the tragic lyricism of traditional rancheras and mariachi music, the pension for celebrating death and embracing both joy and melancholy in holidays such as Día de los Muertos, or the pains and hardships of biculturalism (something Morrissey explores in his song “Irish Blood, English Heart”)—Morrissey feels like the distant voice of home.
So how does a generation largely born after The Smith’s demise get to be such huge Morrissey fans? Primos. At least that’s what René Rosales tells me over Skype. René is 29, from Glendale, AZ and is Mexican-American. The two of us grew up together, attending the same elementary school and high school, and living a few blocks down the street from each other ever since first grade. We haven’t seen each other in over ten years, but we’ve been recently trading “likes” of various Chicano and Smiths/Morrissey-related posts on Facebook. When he signs on to Skype, he looks like the same youthful kid I grew up with—polite and friendly, with a huge grin, but now he’s in his work clothes, in his new home he shares with his wife, and he speaks with a calm, confident air that doesn’t command so much as win over a certain amount of respect. Even when René shushes the dog barking in the house somewhere off-screen, silence quickly follows.
When I ask René if he can remember the first time he heard The Smiths, he sits back in his seat and runs his fingers through his freshly buzzed head—it’s the end of May and the temperatures in Phoenix have already hit 105°F. He hums a little bit before deciding, “Elementary school, I guess.”
My eyebrows raise. Out of every Moz fan that I know, the earliest exposure I have heard of was junior high, but for most it was high school or even college. Most late 80s babies (the true 90s children of the world) that I grew up with would have to contend with the fact that their first album was something terrible by Sugar Ray or Sublime, or if they were lucky enough to have much cooler older brothers and sisters, something by Brandy or Boyz II Men. Elementary school exposure to The Smiths just seems unfair, especially as I reflect on the first album I ever purchased—a month’s worth of chores saved up for a Donna Lewis album filled with skippable songs minus the single popalicious one-hit-wonder “I Love You Always Forever.” I shake my head. “Damn,” I say, “they were starting you young. How did that happen?”
He smiles. “My cousin, Fern. He’s older you know? He grew up with them, and pretty much turned our whole family. He played me my first song.” But René wasn’t in love the first time he heard them. “It was gradual for me. They were always in the background you know, I had heard a few songs in elementary school, and I knew of them, but it wasn’t until high school that I really got into them.” This seems more reasonable to me. Something about singing “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” before getting your first pimple just feels like you’re somehow cheating adolescence and the natural order of things.
When I ask René to describe The Smiths’ music, he struggles to get started. He lowers his head so that behind him all I see are a flood of crosses on his walls, and he slowly starts in with the basics. “Well, they’re an English band—but not your typical English band, not like The Beatles or anything.” Then he lifts his head and looks off to the side a little, and tries to move beyond definitions. “They sing songs that touch the heart—feel good songs.”
This catches my attention.
For a band with song titles that range from “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” and “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me,” to “The Boy With The Thorn In His Side” and “I Know It’s Over,” to “Cemetery Gates” and “Girlfriend In A Coma”—feel good is rarely used as a descriptor. Yet, René makes a compelling point. Feel good does not always mean happy, and morbid doesn’t always mean sad. René points to The Smith’s song “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out.”
“When Moz talks about ‘If a double-decker bus crashes into us, to die by your side is such a heavenly way to die’—he’s really talking about love.” René gets lost in his words, unaware he’s been tapping his chest. His finger flattens as if pointing to his heart. “Loving someone so much that you feel your life would still be full even if you died with them that night.” Then he switches gears. “But when he talks about the hard stuff—it’s comforting, like he’s consoling you. Like when you’re a kid and your parents talk to you about death for the first time. When Morrissey sings about breakups and loss, he’s sitting us down and telling us ‘it’s okay, these things happen.’” René leans back in his chair, “He sings about heartbreak, sure. But he also sings about love, going out, not being materialistic, and his friends—life lessons sort of stuff.”
When I press him if this is why he thinks Chican@s are drawn to Morrissey, René nods and starts listing off songs from the 2004 album You Are The Quarry. “He sings songs that hit home. ‘Irish Blood, English Heart’—we know that. Having Mexican blood but being in the US—we know that split. And Hector, from ‘First of the Gang to Die’, those are real life situations. I’ve had friends—“ he corrects himself, “—we’ve had friends, people we’ve lost who’s been that. The first to die.” He means Casper Deluna, a kid we went to school with in junior high who was shot in the neck after getting caught up in a home invasion at sixteen. Or maybe he meant Abby Martinez, a girl we went to school with since seventh grade, who was killed in a car accident a week before high school graduation (and Casper’s girlfriend at the time of his death). Or maybe it’s Britni Harrison—a girl we’ve known since first grade who died at the hand of a drunk driver just months after high school graduation. René doesn’t specify, but it’s understood and well-remembered: our unfortunate “Hectors.”
René takes a breath. “You know what, you should talk to Fern. He’d got things to say about this.” He means Fernando Ortega Jr.
Fernando is René’s infamous primo—the one responsible for carrying the Morrissey/Smiths torch. He’s 34, lives in Phoenix, and has twin four year-old girls—Sophia and Isabella—who dress rockabilly and like to drum in their car seats to the build of “Everyday is Like Sunday.” He’s seen Morrissey six times, traveling as far out as El Paso and Hawaii, and has made regular family get-togethers out of local Los Esmiths concerts, sometimes earning VIP sections at clubs for his party of fifteen. Fernando is a busy man, but makes time to talk to me late one weeknight after putting his girls and two nephews to bed. He agrees to FaceTime, but when I call, the screen is dark and grainy, so that all I can see is his chin and the occasional flare of his cigarette. “I hope you don’t mind,” he says, taking a puff, “it’s dark, but it’s been a long day and I like to smoke.”
Outside, trucks rumble by in the distance as Fernando tells about the first time he heard The Smiths. “I remember clearly. When I was fifteen, I was in East LA visiting family and my girlfriend at the time. I was staying with my cousin and we were driving—he had this ’95 Chevy dually truck. It was bad. All lowered and it had Morrissey stickers on each side of the rear windows. It was this Morrissey mobile for reals. But we were driving and he bumped ‘Still Ill’ and it just got me in my gut and wouldn’t let go. It changed me.”
Unlike René, for Fernando, Morrissey was love at first sight. “I knew the first time I heard it—I just knew that that music belonged to me. It brought together all these parts of myself—the rockabilly culture I grew up with, Chicano rockabilly, marginalization just everything. Morrissey strangely sort of fit all of that. He just made everything come together and make sense for me. And when I came back home to Phoenix that summer I went over to my best friend’s house—he’s not with us now—but we sat in his room and listened to ‘The Last Of The Famous International Playboys’ on this tiny boombox he had and we just freaked out together. At that moment we became like our own little piece of East LA.”
Fernando tells me about the huge role Morrissey has played in his life—how he’s responsible for all the big and the small events—from falling in love with the mother of his children, to surviving the split, to making new friends, and even for the weekly arrangements he would make to stay up late with his boys, kicking back beers and giving fresh fades in his kitchen to anyone who wanted one while listening to “Hairdresser On Fire.” And now, Morrissey lives on in his children. “They’re on fire for him,” he says. So it’s no wonder, when I ask him if there’s anything he doesn’t like about Morrissey, that all I hear is silence. When Fernando finally says something, all he can manage to repeat is, “No. No, no, no, no.” For a minute and half he struggles to articulate why, it’s clear he’s uncomfortable, and unwilling to speak any ill will against Morrissey. “The music just means that much to me” he says. The three canceled shows he had tickets for? He’s okay with it—after all, Morrissey was suffering from cancer at the time. The staunch veganism? He respects that, he personally loves meat but he respects that. The sexual fluidity? He’s down with that, too—he has friends that Morrissey is a personal comfort to for that reason. Nothing bothers or makes Fernando uncomfortable about Morrissey. Simply put, “No. That guy has saved my life many times. I owe him.”
“Tell me a little bit about that” I say, and the conversation comes full circle—to death, and loss, and Morrissey being comforting.
“One of the biggest saves,” Fernando says, “is with my best friend I told you about. The one with the little boombox? He was my right-hand man, the one that knew all my deepest, darkest secrets. He even looked a little like James Dean, you know?” Fernando laughs, “We were always into rockabilly looks, so that whole James Dean, Morrissey thing just really worked out for him. Anyways, when we were about twenty years old, he was a bystander in a shooting—and he became a quadriplegic for about nine months.” Fernando pauses and takes a drag. “So I’d go visit him, you know? Four to five times a week, sometimes everyday if I could. I’d just sit there in rehab with him and we’d listen to Morrissey and The Smiths, and just talk and bullshit. But I lost him,” he says. “He couldn’t survive it. He ended up just passing away. So it was just the worst time ever, you know? I had never felt such a huge loss in my life. But Morrissey was there. Like, anytime I wanted to feel close to my friend, or to remember him I’d just put a song on, and all these memories and great moments of our lives—they were all to The Smiths and Moz. So they’d just come flooding back. Sometimes, still, I’ll just play him songs—mostly ‘There’s a Light That Never Goes Out’ because he’s my friend and that’s what he is to me—he’s the light that’ll never go out. So it’s sad, yeah, but it’s not really sad, “ he says. “It’s comforting.”
Somehow, I know exactly what he means, and I want to tell him about the prayer candles on Etsy, and the first time I heard Morrissey, and then the first time I actually heard Morrissey, how Moz helped me feel okay to be “other” and “in between”—between cultures, between emotions, between religion, and politics, and thoughts on sexuality. And how sometimes when I’m homesick, I surf YouTube and watch the video for “My Love Life” just to see Moz cruising down Van Buren Street and to see the Phoenix skyline again. I want to tell him about how even now, Moz helps me survive being a young, broken, sensitive Irish/Chicana girl—and how he continues to make me feel that, contrary to popular opinion, all of that could somehow be an art and a gift. And how even though sometimes it’s sad, it’s really not. It’s comforting and—dare I say it?—feelgood. But I don’t say a thing, we just continue to gush over favorite lyrics and Morrissey stories because in a sense I already know he knows—like René, and the millions of other Chican@ and Latin@ fans out there—about the thorns in our sides, and the words that witness them, and the love, friends, heartbreak and late nights that make us hijos and hijas of Morrissey.
Abigail J. Amabisca is a desert soul, born and raised in the heart of Arizona, where she earned a BA in English: Creative Writing from Arizona State University and developed a passion for helping others pick up the pen--interning with ASU's PEN Project and Florence Prison education program. She is currently a third-year MFA Fiction candidate at Oregon State University and OSU Fishtrap Intern. Her writing often explores characters from the fringe, the complications of identity, Mexican-American culture, and pop culture. Her writing has previously been published in Literary Orphans and Canyon Voices.