When Alicia Armendariz was in high school in the 1970s, she dressed up like Elton John in a talent show and sang Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting. It was the East L.A. resident’s first time on stage, her classmates cheered her on, and Armendariz did everything she could to look like a rock star.
“I got such a rush that I decided I wanted to take my interaction with music beyond fandom,” recalls Armendariz, who idolized Elton John to the point that she wanted to marry him (this was before “Elton,” as she still fondly calls him, had come out of the closet). “I wanted to create music and communicate with the world.”
Armendariz has been connecting with audiences ever since. Tired of people calling her “Alisha” or “Alishia,” she adopted the pseudonym “Alice” and added “Bag” instead of her family name after she became the lead singer for The Bags, one of the first female-majority punk rock bands whose members wore brown grocery paper bags over their heads during their first headlining show in Hollywood in 1977 and who went on to star in the 1981 L.A. punk rock documentary film, The Decline of Western Civilization.
Last month, Bag, now 53 years old and still punk-rocking, regaled a small audience at Occidental College with her furious singing. But she wasn’t giving a concert. She was there at the invitation of Richard Mora, a professor of sociology and Latino/a & Latin American Studies at Oxy, to discuss her recently published memoir.
Titled “Violence Girl: East L.A. Rage to Hollywood Stage—A Chicana Punk Story,” the memoir describes in gripping detail how a first-generation Mexican-American girl from an East L.A. barrio participated in the free-range birth of the 1970s punk rock movement.
The 381-page paperback is also an intriguing account of how Bag, who lived in Glassell Park and Mount Washington for much of the 1990s before moving to Arizona, overcame the childhood trauma of dealing with an extremely abusive father.
A construction worker, Bag’s father was un machote—“a man who prided himself on being tough, strong and self-reliant,” she writes in her book. He was also "a monster" who frequently and brutally beat his wife, a stay-at-home émigré from Mexico who never fought back or complained to authorities, even after she eventually became a teachers’ aide in a local elementary school.
“When you’re a kid in that kind of [violent] environment you feel powerless—you don’t have a voice,” said Bag, who grew up in a section of East L.A. called Belvedere, near the Calvary Cemetery, not far from the 710 and 5 freeways.
Although he “went through life like a cocked and loaded gun,” Bag writes of her father, he loved his daughter deeply. He gave Bag a title: La Reina del mundo y de otras partes—The Queen of the World and Other Places.
“The feeling of wanting my mother to stand up for herself, and realizing that I was a woman and that I, too, probably didn’t have that strength, was happening throughout my childhood,” Bag said during a recent interview to Eagle Rock Patch at Occidental College. “I just didn’t know that it was called feminism—the urge to want to fight back.”
Bag found her voice by singing for punk bands that included The Castration Squad, Cholita and Stay at Home Bomb. She not only inspired other female punk musicians but an entire generation of women. Many of them are notable Latinas such as Eagle Rock resident Thelma Meléndez de Santa Ana, superintendent of the Santa Ana Unified School District, who served as U.S. assistant secretary for K-12 education in the Obama administration from 2009 to 2011.
“The first time I got on stage with a punk band, all this pent up rage that was festering inside me had a release,” Bag said. “It all kind of exploded—I started becoming aggressive and violent on stage. I was venting, basically. In a way the whole punk experience was a kind of therapy for me.”
Her reputation for stage violence is captured in “Violence Girl,” a song that the guitarist of The Bags wrote. “For some reason it became ‘Violence Girl’ instead of ‘Violent Girl,’ recalled Bags, explaining that the moniker seemed like a natural fit for her book’s title.
Bag’s book began as a blog that she started writing in the early 2000s and which gained a considerable following. (The blog still exists—minus the portions included in her book.) The idea for a blog came from her husband, who works in the hotel industry in Phoenix, AZ, and who encouraged her to write about her remarkable life.
“I’m not a writer—how am I going to write a book?” she initially told her husband, according to a 2011 interview on YouTube. “I’ve been blogging for a long time but I never thought I was a writer—I just thought I was putting my ideas down.”
Bag’s writing has a strong, compelling narrative. After a brief snapshot of herself in her element—en mi mero mole—on stage, she plunges into her family background. In a chapter titled “The Pit Bull Takes a Bride,” she introduces us to her father, Manuel Armenderiz. “Alternately cuddly and ferocious,” with “a strong jaw line that locked into place, like a pit bull, he “always considered himself a Mexican; not a Mexican-American, not Chicano.”
Every day, writes Bag, her father would ask her: "Quien te quiere mucho?" (Who loves you a lot?). Yet he was “a dark sensei” from whom she learned about the “deep, dark, ugly side of mankind … passing on his knowledge through transmission to an acolyte—me.”
In one of the memoir's most heart-rending chapters, Bag’s father is crippled by diabetes, his toes amputated because of spreading gangerene. The author describes how she confronted her bed-ridden father as she tried to break through “an invisible barrier that kept us from really communicating” about “the violence he’d wrecked on our household” during her childhood:
“Dad, I wanted to talk to you about some stuff,” I said, not knowing where or how to begin.
“What is it?” He immediately stopped staring at the shadows on the wall and turned to look at me.
I was like an actor frozen with stage fright, forgetting her lines. His eyes were like spotlights, bearing down on me. I took a deep breath.
“It’s about when you used to hit Mom.” The words hung in the air for what seemed like an eternity.
“When I used to hit Mom?” He looked at me blankly. “What are you talking about?”
A locked door inside of me suddenly opened and a torrent of memories and words spilled out, one after the other.
“When you hit her, you tried to strangle her, you punched her and dragged her, and spit on her, and kicked her. … I’m talking about when you beat her with the belt buckle and tore open her scalp … and then kicked her some more when she couldn’t get up. That’s what I’m talking about, Papi!”
I was carried away in a flood of emotion, tears, snot, nausea. I stopped only because I couldn’t talk anymore. My vocal cords cramped tight like a muscle clenching shut, flood gates trying to stop the words that needed to be screamed and launched like angry missiles, words that had lived in me, infecting my body and soul like the gangrene in my father’s feet. My father stared at me like I was a stranger. I wished he would hold me and tell me he was sorry, but instead he sat up on his bed and said just three words.
“That never happened.”
When Bag discussed her memoir at Oxy in October, many people had questions about how someone who witnessed such vicious domestic violence could possibly cope with it. “A lot of times it’s very personal—people making peace with their own family members,” Bag explained.
One young woman in the audience said she was trying to forgive her father, and was curious about the steps that Bag went through during her own forgiveness process. “I told her that forgiveness is about freeing yourself from the other person’s influence on you,” Bag said, adding: “When you are connected to a negative feeling toward someone, you’re drawing on your own negativity to keep that relationship going. If you let it go and refuse to connect, then you heal yourself.”
Over the years, Bag has learned how to channel her rage. “Rage is just energy—fuel that you can direct in a creative way,” she said. “It’s a lot better to get up on stage and yell, Dance with me, Motherf---er than it is to take a gun and shoot somebody.”
What you can’t do about rage, Bag said, is swallow it. “You can’t stuff it in—you have to find a creative way to let it come out—because it will come out.”
Bag attributes her father's violence at least partly to social dynamics. "When a man feels powerless in society, he looks for who he can be powerful over," she said. "And the person who's within easy reach is often a woman, who, in turn, is seen in society as less powerful than the man."
Bag misses being in L.A. and was happy to be back for a brief visit from Arizona. “This is my neighborhood,” she said of the Eagle Rock area. “I used to take ballroom dancing at Ballroom Blitz. I remember going to the Eagle Theater back when it was a theater instead of a church.”
The drastic changes in the neighborhood, especially along the boulevards, have not escaped Bag. “I noticed there was a Fresh & Easy where another supermarket used to be,” she said. “That was kind of exciting.”