We were in his bedroom watching YouTube at the house he shares with his mother and his son. The liter of cheap merlot was long gone, and since I needed to head back north eventually, I had switched to Garden Herb Triscuits and tamarind candy from the corner store on the other side of the park. I sat in a swivel chair at his desk and Ivan Merma stood behind me, providing a live commentary as I squinted to read the subtitles of Tino Valera's 15 Años de Camino, the documentary of Ivan's borderland punk band, La Merma. It was divided into three videos, and we might have watched them out of order.
It was a situation I found familiar: slugging wine, sharing music, staying up late, talking and swapping and interrupting each other, except death hung over the night and tinted all that we said and drank. Like good punk rock, though, it gave what we did a sense of affirmation and defiance.
"My amigo that passed away today, he taught us [to be committed to art]. He had this little place [in Nogales, Arizona] where he set up a studio and would invite all the rockers and the artsy guys over—all these people to come and perform. They all played there, got wasted there, got laid there and then everybody just drifted. But they all went and formed new bands, interesting bands."
Ivan's friend had died just hours before I arrived in Nogales. When I walked onto his back patio, he was in the midst of fielding phone calls and texts with other friends dropping by the house to talk it out in person. I half-heartedly offered to reschedule the interview, but Ivan dismissed the idea with a wave and uncorked the bottle.
"A little cheap merlot never hurt anybody. Salud, bienvenidos."
One mile south of the border is the largest nude statue in the world. Its official name translates as "The Monument to Ignorance," though it is commonly known as the "Mono Bichi"—"the naked figure." It depicts a Yaqui warrior slaying a hybrid bat/eagle beast, which represents ignorance. Standing in front of the warrior is another statue, one of Benito Juarez next to the 1857 Federal Constitution. The document is the one that introduced the individual rights of free speech, assembly and freedom of the press. Juarez is pointing to El Norte, but if you follow the phallus of the warrior it will lead you directly to the front door of the practice space where Ivan's band, La Merma, began banging out punk rock over 25 years ago.
"When we first started playing shows they were not very well attended," Ivan said. "Punk rock still was not very popular [here] in the mid '90s. A few shows had more people on stage than off, but we were able to stick it out and stake punk on our side of the border."
Though he lives on the Arizona side, Ivan travels between the two Nogales' constantly, like an eraser smudging the line that separates the cities.
"A lot of people when they cross here, they seldom cross back. But I'm always over there. My band is over there, we practice over there, most of our gigs are over there. My life is 50/50, back and forth."
Ivan first crossed into Arizona with his family when he was 6 years old. At that time, he had "a fairly interesting and stagnant upbringing," though it was full of dynamics that he would appreciate later on, he says. His father pushed him to pursue baseball, and Ivan spent vacations waking up at 5 a.m. to field hard grounders. He eventually rebelled, like all good punks are wont to do.
"Baseball has always been very big here. For us, in this part of town, it was like escaping the gulag. I had to negotiate with my father, the jock coach, for a long time. He passed away almost a year ago, and he still believed I could have made a great shortstop."
After breaking the news to his dad and joining forces with his friends under the finger of Juarez, La Merma began touring throughout Sonora, establishing a reputation the old-fashioned way: through tons of shows and word-of-mouth. Though they were, and are a punk band their surroundings seeped into the music and gave it a specific identity.
"Our first demos were recorded back in 1996—a few orginals, some La Polla and Eskorbuto songs—but we were always listening to the old Spanish influences and mixing it with our own border dust in the air."
Obviously, the communities on the border and the art they create take on a whole different meaning within the context of their location and its dynamics. Art doesn't exist in a vacuum: you don't paint abstracts next to the Berlin Wall and not internalize it, and you don't play punk next to La Frontera without forming an opinion.
"I feel I am part of something bigger than just a punk rock band in Nogales. People that have looked for meaning in music can appreciate the border wall and the bullshit it represents. I feel invigorated and inspired by the artists in my community and the new generations who are turning to poetry and punk and performance that drives something new and wild within us...it helps me dance a bit freer."
Acknowledging shared struggle and then transcending it is what the best and truest art (and punk rock) is supposed to do. We, as (primarily anglo) Americans, like to think of our Tucson as a border town, with all of the romance that the designation allows. Yet we have little real knowledge of what it means to live upon that line, to straddle it and to cross it, "legally" or otherwise. Granted, we are separated by 70 miles of physical distance that keeps the reality present, yet abstracted. Not to mention the myriad militarized forces that insure it will never reach our doorsteps. However, this lack of tactile experience shelters us culturally as well: perhaps due to gentrification or the niche-filtering of social media, a majority of our modern gringo punk bands don't even encounter immigrant or sub-cultural communities, much less sing about them. Instead there's a tendency to insulate themselves in a closed-loop of white male privilege or merely espousing the need for more of it.
Punk, as a culture, should by its design serve as a check and a balance to our accepted patina, a voice utilizing many mediums to represent those that the status quo would rather just didn't speak at all.
"I have seen some changes during my time playing with La Merma. I see many bands [with] great gear and a great look, but [who] lack the punk rock scars that only 25-plus years of doing this can do to you. Recognition is nice and all, but there is something more important at the core of what punk means to someone like me. It must be sincere, you can't fuck around with being insincere when it comes to this particular art—or all art for that matter... it will bite you in the ass one day and leave you hollow."