Pupusas: Where Rock and Roll and Salvadoran Cuisine Intersect
 

I hadn’t wanted to admit this before now, as I’m a little embarrassed about the whole thing, but for around 10 months at the very end of the 1970s, I was a (disguised) member of a Los Angeles punk band, The American Lesion. 

The band had begun a few years before as Preen, a typical preening Hollywood hair metal outfit in leopard print spandex jeans, big hair, and, you know, attitude, which manifested itself in behaving on stage as though the mere thought of us got gals sopping, and acting as though we were doing the audience a huge favour by having shown up. The guitarist played lots of 16th note triplets at the top of his fretboard while making the sort of face most commonly glimpsed while enjoying conferred oral sex. The singer imitated Robert Plant imitating a piglet in agony. We thought we’d ticked all the boxes, but even audiences in polyester didn’t seem to cotton to us. 

We changed our name and approach the week Never Mind the Bollocks Here’s the Sex Pistols entered the Billboard sales chart at No. 3. We played everything 50 percent faster than before, and gave ourselves fancifully repulsive names. The singer became Dennis Diarrhea, the guitarist — a recent refugee from El Salvador (where ABBA was very popular) — Billy Ulcerous. I opted for Johnny Truculent, with which both Dennis and Billy were displeased because truculent is a big word known only to the erudite, and erudition was much valued in punk circles, or even rectangles. 

 

We tried to compenssate for not having a genuine psychopath in the group by becoming addicted to heroin, and by trying to be more disgusting than our rivals on the circuit. Billy’s uncle owned an outhouse-pumping business, and we tried to get him to spray our audiences with the contents of one of his truck’s tanks while we performed, but he was pretty sure he’d get in trouble with The Board of Health, and refused. The punks seemed to sense our inauthenticity, and by the spring of 1980, having read somewhere that 100 percent of the population of Los Angeles was going to be Latino by 2016, changed our name to Los Hombres (Spanish for the men), and learned a repertoire of Santana and Julio Iglesias numbers. The problem was that we mispronounced hombres in the way most American do — as AHM-brayz (rather than the correct OHM-brayz). Hambre is Spanish for hunger, and our audience took to pelting us with pupusas and empanadas de leche as we played, much as British teenagers had pelted The Beatles with jelly beans in the 1960s, and spat on such punk pioneers as The Clash a decade and a half later. Dennis suffered second degree burns when one over-zealous fan hurled a bowlful of steaming sopa de pata at him at our show at El Monte Legion Stadium. 

As our reputation grew, we started seeing in our audiences record company talent scouts who’d read the same article about demographic trends that we’d read, and we were invited to come confer with the powerful manager Saul Scheinbaum in his swank Century City penthouse office overlooking the smog. He beamed at us as his former Miss Universe runner-up receptionist showed us into his office, and urged us to call him Shiny, as no less than Madonna and Sonny & Cher did. That accomplished, he got on his intercom and told Miss Universe to “send ‘em in,” whereupon we found ourselves surrounded by charming young women with attractive figures. But some of us were married, and others of us were gay, though we didn’t know at the time. The two we later found out were gay claimed to have headaches, and we left Century City without having signed anything. Which turned out to be a good thing because Scheinbaum was later discovered to be less than forthright. 

by John Mendelssohn