Music News

Izcalli's Miguel and Brenda Avina haven't forgotten their Mexican roots

Determination and rock and roll run in the Avina blood.

Maybe it's a consequence of tight times and hard luck, the way families in poverty leaning on each other just to survive brings them a little closer together. Maybe it's that relentless optimism of chasing the American dream that immigrants to the States can appreciate the way those of us who grew up taking it for granted can't.

Siblings Brenda and Miguel Avina, who make up the string section of Izcalli, were born just outside of Mexico City, in the community for which their band is named. "People kept asking us, 'What does Izcalli mean?'" says Miguel. "I just got tired of saying, 'Well that's the town I grew up in,' so I looked up the meaning."

As it turns out, it's the Nahuatl word for 'rebirth.' "I was like, wow," Miguel enthuses, "that's awesome."

And fitting, since he and Brenda have gone through rebirth — or at least between two completely different worlds — a few times in their lives. The Avinas first immigrated to the States when Miguel was six and Brenda was three, because of "poverty," Miguel explains. "It's really hard to live down there."

After a few years of saving up here, the family went back to Izcalli. "We wanted to go back," says Brenda, who hardly remembered Mexico at the time of the move. "It was weird seeing everything so different and everybody so poor. I guess, as a kid, that didn't really matter, because we were — economically, we were okay."

But after a few years, the money ran out. Work was tough to come by, and the family was just scraping by. "It just sucks to struggle that way," declares Miguel. "And there's no end to the tunnel. You know, everybody else is struggling, too." The kids asked to move back to Aurora.

"My dad did it for us," Miguel recalls. "He sold all his gear — he had a studio in Mexico — sold everything he had left, because he had been selling stuff all along to keep us afloat, and we moved back."

It was about this time that Miguel started getting interested in music, formed a band and roped his younger sister into playing bass. The band didn't last long, but soon after its dissolution, Miguel got recruited to play guitar in his dad's band, El Cro.

"At the peak of the whole El Cro thing, it was awesome," he recalls. "I was really into it."

But after a couple of years, Miguel started Izcalli, and soon after, he left El Cro to focus on his new band. "I had to do my own thing," he explains — though El Cro is still going: "My dad is just that way. He's not going to give up if someone can't make it; he'll just get someone else to do it."

Izcalli featured Miguel as singer, songwriter and guitarist, with two hand percussionists. After a few lineup changes, the band eventually solidified, with Brenda again being tapped to play bass and one of the original percussionists returning on the kit. The band released its first record, Pintas en Pasteles ("Paintings in Pastels"), in September 2007.

Shortly before the release of Pintas, two days before a show at the Gothic Theatre, the drummer announced that he was going to Ciudad Juárez instead. Much like his dad, Miguel wasn't going to let someone not showing up stop him: He got on the phone and found someone to take the drummer's place.

"I had three days to learn the songs," recalls Mario Gonzalez, the new timekeeper.

"Two," corrects Brenda.

Gonzalez ended up taking over on drums and touring with Izcalli behind Pintas. Two years later, the band is getting ready to release a new record, Despiertame ("Wake Me Up"), at a private show at the Walnut Room this weekend. Miguel opted to rent the room for the night rather than book through the venue, so that he could charge whatever he wanted for admission (he plans to charge $20). "Our fans will pay $20 to see our CD release," he says. Cocky, perhaps, but supported by experience: The band charged the same amount at its last CD-release party, for which Miguel rented out the Hard Rock Cafe.

The new record is a clear diversion from Pintas. For one thing, it rocks a lot harder. Where Pintas is mostly ballads and lovelorn pining — a result of the songs having been written for acoustic guitar — Despiertame is driving rock and aggression. Miguel credits his time with El Cro, an old-school hard-rock band, with moving him in a more forceful direction. At El Cro shows, "it was like people jumping and dancing and moving around," he says. "And all of a sudden I'm playing with Izcalli, and people are maybe moving around, but not quite like I'm used to."

Also apparent in the crunching guitars and blues-based riffs is the influence of Miguel's beloved Led Zeppelin, and the band adheres to a pretty classic-rock songwriting ethic in general, with broad swaths of Skynyrd and Ted Nugent in its palette. But if the wailing guitars on Despiertame bear the distant influence of the blues of the American South, they're equally influenced by sounds from south of the border.

"When we started Izcalli...our songs were really Latin-based. I think that's been a good foundation for what we've built now," Miguel offers. And although the new record features less of the banda sonically, it's more Latin in at least one way: All of the lyrics are in Spanish. This is partly because Miguel wrote the lyrics after the music was written, and English lyrics just didn't seem to fit, he says. But the band also acknowledges that the Spanish sets it apart. "People in Spanish appreciate us," Miguel points out. "But it seems like the people that don't understand what we're saying appreciate us even more."

"I guess people don't expect to hear a Spanish rock band," Gonzales adds. "I think we get a better reaction because people don't expect us to be any good."

For better or worse, the Latin riffs and Spanish lyrics are more than a gimmick. "I think kind of unconsciously," Miguel says, "we just have that imprint of our Latin heritage."

It's a heritage all three members share. While the Avinas' birthplace inspired the band's moniker, Gonzalez came from Morelia, Michoacán, when he was six, though his legal status has kept him from ever going back, even to visit.

"Right now I have a permit to be here," he notes, "but it's not a work permit. You know, I can't really do anything with it but just be here."

Miguel laughs. "It's like a prerequisite for being in the band," he interjects. The Avinas decline to discuss their legal status at this point, but "it just adds to the struggle," Miguel allows.

Even though all three say they miss Mexico sometimes, they like it here, too. "When you're there, you miss here," says Miguel. "McDonald's and Burger King and all that stuff. And when you're here, you hate that shit, and then you miss eating tacos, and like... " he says, pausing for a moment, perhaps thinking of some other food he misses as Brenda jumps in and finishes for him with something a bit more poignant than hamburgers versus tacos.

"Family," she says.

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Jef Otte
Contact: Jef Otte