"If this really is my last show," says Leonardo Zayas, aka Leo 7, "that's what I want to see: happy faces having a good time, not a lame one."
Rubber Planet's ace timekeeper has been living on borrowed time since his visa expired almost a year ago; in a little over a week, he'll go back to his native Mexico and work on returning to this country legally. And so at the end of what should be a festive weekend celebrating El Grito, Zayas and I are discussing his impending departure and what could very well be his last show with his band this coming Saturday.
The drummer is wistful as he recounts his early days in Colorado. Zayas came here in 1998 on a student visa and attended Ames Community College in Greeley. While there, he acquired a drum kit with his mother's help and found some like-minded musicians. The members of the newly formed group soon realized that in order to make any headway, they had to relocate. So they headed south, and Zayas transferred his credits to Arapahoe Community College in Littleton.
"I was with them for about a year," Zayas remembers. "That band didn't work out. We got a house together, and it just kind of went downhill. I ended up moving out. At the same time, I found Rubber Planet. And that's when everything just totally changed."
Zayas was so consumed by his new band that he ended up taking a semester off to focus on the group, so immersed that he allowed his student status to lapse. "At the time, when I transferred all of my credits and all that stuff, there was a problem," he says. "My advisor forgot to mail all of my information. So it kind of got backed up with all the 9/11 stuff. A lot of the regulations and laws changed. A lot of the paperwork changed. So I had to reapply in-state. I just fell so in love with the band and all the stuff that we were doing, that I totally put it on the back burner and forgot about all that."
Fortunately, regaining his student status was just a matter of filling out the appropriate paperwork. "As long as I was a full-time student," he explains, "I was okay with school and with immigration. So I just kept going to school. At that point, the band started supporting us; all the gigs paid for rent and other things. It was a roller coaster, playing gigs left and right. With Rubber Planet, I played about six gigs in one month; with my old band, I played six gigs in about a year. So it was a big difference. We started touring and started meeting a lot of people. At the same time, we hit MP3.com at number one. Back in the day, MP3.com was a big reference point for a lot of labels. They started e-mailing and calling, and we thought it was going to happen."
The major-label interest waned, but Rubber Planet kept grinding. Over the past few years, the band has amassed a large and boisterous local following, toured the Midwest extensively, recorded two more full-lengths and gone out to L.A., where it recorded demos with Porno for Pyros' Peter DiStefano -- the results of which will be unveiled this Saturday, September 24, at Herman's Hideaway, at a release party for the group's latest effort, Cosmic, a six-song EP.
Although Zayas was aware that he had overstayed his welcome after he finished school last year, he didn't give it much serious consideration until earlier this month, when Rubber Planet won a trip to Mexico in a battle-of-the bands competition. That's when he and his bandmates realized that if he went to Cabo with them, he couldn't come back. Zayas knew it was time to face the music, so he hired an immigration attorney and started making plans to return home to Gomez, Mexico.
"I could stay here," he allows. "But from talking to my attorney, she's like, 'You're already in trouble for staying longer than you were supposed to.' I should've left about a year ago. But because of the band and all the stuff going on -- you never know; some days you think you're going to get signed, and some days you wonder if it's ever going to happen -- I stayed longer. And she's like, 'The immigration department is very lenient as far as students are concerned,' because a lot of students do the same thing. They come here, they stay, they learn and have fun. She said, 'The only possibility for you to come back is if the band and all these people working with you give enough evidence that it's really important for them to have you as part of the group. If you can prove this to immigration, if they approve it, you can come back.' So this is a better chance to make things legal and not have trouble with it in the future. My attorney feels very strongly about it. And she's experienced in this field, so we're just going to let her do her job and see what happens."
While I'm no immigration expert, it would seem a lot easier to just circumvent the process by wedding an American woman. "I have so many girls trying to marry me now," he says with a laugh. "But that's not the right way. If I'm going to get married, I want to marry somebody I'm in love with. To me, it's like using somebody. And really, I just want to play by the rules."
This time, he's determined to follow the proper protocol with immigration officials.
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"It's their job to establish and enforce the law to protect the country," he points out. "To make sure that everyone's here legally. And I just want to go about it the right way, the legal way. So what we're going to do is apply for a work permit, a P-1, which means I'm going to be exclusively working for the band. Basically, we're just going to try to get approval. And once all the paperwork, all the evidence, all the petitions and everything that my lawyer's putting together, once it leaves her office, it's out of her hands. It goes to the immigration department in Nebraska. They'll review everything and decide if they're going to approve it. She said it's about four to six weeks. They're going to call me in Mexico, and then I'll go interview in Monterrey City. And then after that interview, they'll let me know if I can come back or not."
No matter how you slice it, it sounds unnerving.
"I'm nervous about the process," Zayas admits, "but I'm trying to stay positive. I'm hoping for the best but preparing for the worst. It sucks, but I'm taking one day at a time. I've done so much here and made so many friends. My possibilities as far as the music business and other things I want to do -- they're here. My country is the land of non-opportunities. I just don't see myself starting from scratch over there.
"My life now is here," he concludes. "And this band, we're more than just a band, really. These guys are my brothers; they're my family."