Album Review: ‘Despertar’ by Ratas En Zelo

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Ratas En Zelo released their debut album Despertar nearly three years ago, and it’s been a regular staple on my punk playlist. However, I will admit that I haven’t sat down and listened to the album in its entirety, distraction-free, since 2018. Sure, the songs will occasionally pop up, shuffled amongst the other blistering punk tracks blasting in the background while I’m working, driving, or cooking.

But when I learned that they were going on a short tour of Texas this February, I scrambled to see if they had put out any new material that spurred on this handful of shows. To my delight and dismay, Ratas En Zelo are working on a new album, but no tracks have been released yet. In anticipation, I re-visited Despertar, being sure to give the album the attention it deserves.

Ratas En Zelo first caught my ear not just because they are an all-Latina punk band—with members hailing from El Salvador, Peru, and New York City—that ditches angular, razor-sharp distorted guitars for an accordion, but also that they refer to themselves as an Oi! band. What is incredible about the band is they have co-opted a genre that has a lurid history of bands who used this style of punk to espouse nationalism, xenophobia, and racism and turned it on its head. Ratas En Zelo’s Oi! stylings use the fury, energy, and catchy courses of the genre to critique blind patriotism, anti-immigrant sentiment, police violence, and machismo.

The New York City-based all-Latina punk band Ratas en Zelo

The album opens up with the title track, which sets the tone of the album, musically and lyrically. Hiromy’s accordion starts the song, unaccompanied, letting you know this isn’t your typical punk album. She is then joined by Kate on bass and María on drums, creating the punk beat. After a couple of measures, Yadee joins in with the chant of “Oi!” that has become both a requirement and a cliché of the genre. The track’s stomping rhythm and bass tone would be right at home on a Blitz or Cockney Rejects album, with the accordion chords making the track seem both familiar and unique to fans of the genre.

Lyrically, Yadee establishes the band’s intentions of making punk their own:

Oh, la marcha de nuestra era empieza para siempre
¡No puedes pararnos!
Oi! Oi! Oi!
El Oi! es consciencia

Cover art for ‘Despertar’ (2018)

Oi! and punk spoke to the malaise of post-World War II British working-class youth who felt alienated and marginalized by Thatcherism. As Robert Martínez notes, “Punk as a social platform created the opportunity for alternative histories to be told of local, national, and even international events—there were no barriers of political status or official news outlets to get the word out.”

Ratas En Zelo carve out their own interpretation of the genre, adding to punk’s legacy of representing the alternative histories by addressing the experiences of Latinx people in the U.S., documenting their oppression, and calling for unity to end it.

Over the course of the album, the band invokes and inverts common tropes of the Oi! genre. In seeming response to heralded Oi! anthems like England Belongs to Me” by the influential British band Cock Sparrer, “Mi País es Mi Planeta” doesn’t situate unity and pride in patriotism but instead challenges the ways borders dictate who belongs and who doesn’t. Yadee shouts: “No hay nación, somos habitantes de esta tierra/ Y no hemos venido a pagar tus deudas.”

Taking aim at ICE, the band collectively shouts: “Esta es mi ciudad, esta es mi tierra,” establishing that they refuse to have their existence circumscribed by immigration documents or birthright citizenship. This is their land.

The Ratas don’t just target ICE, they also demand an end to police brutality in “Policía,” a mid-tempo rocker with a polka flair that is as much a song as it is a call to action. Detailing the dangers of Latinx people interacting with law enforcement, Yadee describes, “Policías en la calle acosando a mi ciudad/ Policías en la escuela con armas de matar.” After detailing the consistent threat and surveillance of the NYPD, she demands: “Queremos libertad/ Queremos un mundo en paz/ Sin armas de matar.”

As calls for police reform continue, “Policía” holds its weight as an anthem that envisions a world where there are no longer disproportionate numbers of women and people of color that suffer from police violence operating with impunity.

Social justice and the need for systemic changes permeate Despertar, but don’t think that the Ratas don’t have a fun side. “Fútbol Juligan” is an ode to the highs and lows of being a fútbol (soccer, for us Americans) fanatic, where depending on whether their team is victorious or the loser, these women are ready to “llorar y reír.” This track is a nice nod to other songs of fútbol fandom prevalent in the Oi! canon, such as “Football Violence” by Skin Deep, though Ratas En Zelo don’t glorify rioting or getting into fights over the sport.

Vete, Vete” is a great punk break-up song, with Yadee exchanging her usually shouted vocals for a more melodic croon at the beginning, reminiscing that she “estaba enamorada/ locamente ilusionada” by her former lover. The song then erupts into a full-on punk rager where she gets out all of her anger and frustration over being betrayed, tossing every insult she can pack into the last 30 seconds of the track:

Vete, vete lejos
Pinche toro enfermo
Hijueputa timador
A la mierda puto cabrón
Vete lejos
Lejos, lejos
Vete de aquí

Seemingly taking a page out of Latino punk icons Los Crudos’ playbook, the album ends with the Ratas’ only song in English, just in case the gringos didn’t have the forethought to punch the lyrics into Google Translate. “Revolution” functions almost as a reprise of “Despertar,” with Hiromy’s accordion chords driving the song and Yadee warning us that society is “Brainwashing you, let’s fight back,” and reminding us that “We need to change the world/ We need to find our voice/ The time is rapidly changing/ We got to make it better,” before the band chants “Revolution Oi!/ It’s time to change the world,” ending the album. 

Despertar proves that punk isn’t dead, and that it isn’t just the realm of angsty, suburban, white men. Ratas En Zelo show how dangerous punk can be when marginalized groups latch onto it, make it their own, and shove it down the world’s throat. And while Despertar is only eight tracks and just a hair over 20 minutes in length, the choruses, the accordion riffs, and the lyrics will stay with you long after.

The result is a visceral yet bouncy, angry but upbeat album that reminds us of the ideals that punk was founded on: confronting an unjust society that feeds on exploitation. What’s more is that you can dance to these tracks, too, reminding us that we shouldn’t forget to have fun while bringing down the system.

Alexander Lalama is an Assistant Professor of English at Bradley University. Born and raised in the Inland Empire, California, he studied literature at Claremont Graduate University and spent several years working in Rhode Island and Massachusetts before settling in the Midwest. His interests lie in outsider subcultures such as punks, goths, metalheads, nerds, and brujo/a/xs. He can be often be found listening to punk records or reading while drinking copious amounts of coffee.

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