The Rebirth of Casa de la Raza, the Old and New Home for Hardcore and Punk
by Alison Meeder
The evening of July 8 was the kind of night that evoked the words “summer vacation” — full of potential, a canvas for adolescent memories in the making. It was clear, warm, and perfect for an outdoor concert. At a venue on Santa Barbara’s lower Eastside, a little more than 100 teenagers and twenty-somethings took in the night air and a showcase of six different bands. The scenario wasn’t so out of the ordinary, but the “kids” in question weren’t your typical jocks or cheerleaders. Sporting black leather, spiked jewelry, and an assortment of facial piercings, these kids weren’t the fresh-faced masses on MTV’s TRL. These were the punks and this was a concert of metal and hardcore.
Headlining was the deafening metal trio Akimbo. Just before their set, the teenage crowd fell silent in anticipation. Then, another kind of music wafted in from the next room — mariachi. In the venue’s main hall, a quinceañera was being held. Sound disjointed? Not when the venue in question is revealed as Casa de la Raza, Santa Barbara’s Latino community center. Though many Santa Barbarans know that Casa plays a key role in Chicano activism, fewer realize that, in the early 1980s, Casa was central to another Southern California movement: the hardcore punk scene.
Punk rock first appeared in New York during the late 1970s, but by the mid 1980s, a second, more aggressive coming emerged from Southern California. The art-school tendencies of East Coast bands such as Television and the Talking Heads was replaced by surf-infused, hyper-masculinity courtesy of Black Flag and TSOL, both of which defined the genre frequently on Casa’s stage. The center’s Chicano vibe might not have been “punk” on the surface, but it was affordable and one of the only places willing to host such events.
Thanks in large part to a Goldenvoice promoter named Kevin Lyman, nearly every noteworthy California punk act of the era (and several East Coasters as well) graced Casa’s stage. This punk renaissance may not have won fans among parents and law enforcement, but for restless teens, it was a revelation. Even for those of legal drinking age, State Street frat bars were not an option. All-ages punk shows at Casa were home.
Like other Southern California venues, Casa’s star faded as the punk scene evolved. Promoters grew tired of the clashes between fans and police and shows slowly stopped getting booked. Better known punk acts went commercial and moved on to larger concert halls. Lyman, who helped shape Casa’s musical legacy, is now responsible for masterminding the Van’s Warped Tour, a highly successful punk music festival now in its 12th year.
In the mid ’90s, Casa closed its doors entirely to undergo renovations. Teens began attending concerts at The Living Room in Goleta, where the combo of indie rock bands and zero tolerance for drugs and booze made the venue a teen haven on Friday and Saturday nights. But after several changes in location and continued financial strain, The Living Room closed for good in 2003.
The years since have been a dark age for Santa Barbara’s young and restless. The Alpine Skate Park in Ventura hosts concerts, but Ventura can be a long way to go when you’re counting on your parents for a ride. The Hard to Find Showspace in Goleta also offers an occasional silver lining, but generally hosts about one show a month — an eternity in summer vacation time.
So how did angst rock return to the Casa? Early in 2006, an organizer of all-ages concerts named Aaron Belchere was looking for a new venue. A lifelong devotee to punk and hardcore who grew up in Oxnard, Belchere knew Casa’s history and decided to see if they would consider reviving the punk rock legacy.
“I got thinking about the venue because I had seen all these old Goldenvoice flyers for events at Casa de la Raza,” explained Belchere. “I knew the history and it was near my house, so I just barged in with a decent attitude.”
When Belchere inquired, the recently appointed Facilities Manager Eduardo Gonzales decided to give the all-ages concerts a chance. Gonzales reasoned that Casa was a community center, and that Santa Barbara teens were in need of assistance, even if they weren’t exclusively of Latino origins.
“I grew up skateboarding and attending punk shows in Santa Barbara, so I knew about the scene,” said Gonzalez. “Just because the kids coming to these shows aren’t Latino doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have the same experience.”
It might sound like a stretch to call Santa Barbara’s overwhelmingly white and affluent teens disadvantaged, but consider this: including the Daniel Bryant Center, the county’s Teen Court program, and other similar projects, there are currently more than a dozen drug and alcohol diversion programs in Santa Barbara aimed at teenagers. Yet there are currently only two venues that provide all-ages concerts: Casa de la Raza and The Hard to Find Showspace. While there’s no simple cause-and-effect argument, it’s hard to deny the fact that Santa Barbara spends a great deal of time and effort rehabilitating youth offenders, but not so much energy providing teens with quality alternatives to drugs and alcohol.
For now though, there’s some hope. To date, the summer’s punk and hardcore shows have drawn between 50 and 200 attendees, with only one report of possible vandalism. Beneath their studded belts and pierced faces, the kids in attendance aren’t out to do harm. And if punk rockers can exist in harmony with the Latin roots of Casa, then maybe it’s time for someone to consider a similar venue for more commercial bands that have even broader appeal. After all, punk bands are booked until the end of summer at Casa, but there was only one Ashlee Simpson show at the Bowl.
4•1•1 Casa de la Raza (601 E. Montecito St.) hosts Autokinoton, Heavy Artillery, and Dry Rot on August 3; and Crucial Section, Playing Enemy, and Stress Builds Character on August 8. For a complete schedule of shows through October, call 965-8581 or visit myspace.com/santabarbarashows.