The song is mellow and bluesy, with that distinct “Eastside oldies” vibe, like something you’d hear on an old Freddy Fender record. But the chorus of this track on the new Ozomatli album is sure to surprise any casual listener: “Gay vatos in love,” the song goes. “Gay vatos in love.”
With it, the iconic fusion band whose sound is seen as representative of multicultural Los Angeles is arguably taking one of its most politically daring steps this year. The track that celebrates same-sex relationships — and also deals with gay violence and denial — is included in the group’s fifth studio record, “Fire Away,” which was released April 20. (In his review, The Times’ Reed Johnson gives the album three out of four stars.)
With its classic sound but sharply gay-friendly message, “Gay Vatos in Love” breaks into uncharted territory that borders on the music industry, politics, sexuality and Latino pop culture. “If the world can’t understand,” the song says. “Stand by your man.” You can listen to an excerpt here. The full-length track is uploaded by a YouTube user here.
Raul Pacheco, one of the band’s lead singers, tells La Plaza that there was “a lot of debate” within the band over how to approach the subject.
How would the fans react? The media? The LGBT community? And what about Latin American and Latino listeners? In those communities, “vato” is generally understood as a term referring to a tough male from a tough neighborhood. “I think the hardest thing was, how do we present this in a way that’s not a joke? And not a hammer either. Pretty much saying what the song says: ‘Do your thing,’ ” Pacheco said.
The band began putting together “Gay Vatos in Love” during the height of the Prop. 8 debate in California and while one of the band’s members, Asdru, was working on writing music for a independent film project about a Mexican American gay gangster.
We met with Pacheco last weekend in Mexico City, outside the entrance gates to the big Vive Latinomusic festival. Ozomatli had just finished playing an early-afternoon set at the festival’s main stage. Although the band didn’t play “Gay Vatos in Love” during this particular show — “Here we need rock, heavy songs, because that’s what these kids want” — Pacheco said the track had been receiving lots of buzz in the media.
They’d played “Gay Vatos in Love” live on several recent tour stops, and the reaction was sometimes mixed, Pacheco said. “It can be polarizing.” So, he added, “we had to find a way to suck people in without giving it away.”
The singer says he now prefaces the song by asking audiences: “Do you believe in love?” The response is almost always enthusiastically affirmative. “People are like, ‘Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!’ And we just start singing.” Pacheco laughed.
Still, the song consistently challenges comfort levels among some listeners, the singer admitted. “I think people get confused, they don’t know where we’re coming from. Some people ask, especially in the Spanish press, ‘Who’s gay in the band?’ So there’s an assumption there.”
(When reporters ask about the sexuality of the band’s membership, Pacheco says he sometimes responds with a purposely blank, “I don’t know.”)
“For us it’s a bigger issue,” Pacheco went on. “We felt that [gay rights] is just another in a long line of underdogs, so I think we connected to it on that level. It was totally natural for us to take that stance.”
But “Gay Vatos in Love” is not just a celebration ballad. The lyrics, as provided by Pacheco, address gays in the closet as well:
Javi and Kike with their girlfriends in the car/
Fronting on Crenshaw, knowing who they are
The track also mentions Angie Zapata, the 18-year-old transgender woman in Colorado who was killed in 2008 by a sexual partner who discovered she was male. Zapata’s killer was convicted last year of murder and a bias-motivated hate crime.
That level of complexity in a studio album cut is what is surprising gay-rights advocates as the track spreads on the Internet. Francisco Dueñas, who organized around LGBT Latino issues with Lambda Legal in Los Angeles, said in an interview that he found it “amazing” that the song was just not celebratory but also “substantative” in dealing with gay issues.
“It’s powerful, a very inspired move on their part,” Dueñas said. “As people of color, as progressives, there are other causes that would be easier for them to take up. Immigration, obviously, housing rights, economic justice. But this song is about just another part of the community that they’re from and that they’re talking about.”
— Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City
Top photo: The members of Ozomatli. Credit: Ozomatli.com. Bottom photo: Raul Pacheco. Credit: La Plaza