Mexico City’s Urban Tribes Go on the Warpath Against EMOS

Mexico City.

“Que Se Mueran Los Emos!” (“That The Emos Should Die!”) the “punketos” howled and the bottles began to fly. One young man with an astonishing Mohawk whipped off his studded belt. Many of the youthful aggressors covered their faces with anti-Emo tee shirts that unaccountably featured slogans in English.

Halfway up a lamppost as the near-riot unfolded outside the Chopo “tianguis” or bazaar where Mexico City’s urban tribes have gathered on Saturday mornings for 28 years, a ten year-old kid flashed a finger and spat on the Emos below cringing behind a phalanx of police and mindlessly chanting their own name–“Emo! Emo!”–over and over again.

Who are these mysterious Emos and why have they been so violently excluded from the ranks of an urban tribalism that knits the city’s counter-culture youth into a loose federation of “punketos” (punks, both anarcho and otherwise), “darketos” (darks), “Goticos” (Goths), “skatos” (lovers of ska music), “metaleros” (ditto heavy metal), “ipoperos” (hiphoppers) and “cholos” (gangbangers), amongst other colorful “bandas”?

The Emos, vernacular for “Emotivos”, are purportedly susceptible to emotional outbursts although the prevalent emotion they display seems to be a profound melancholy–Emos worry their parents by sometimes describing themselves as “bi-polar.” Compared to their ferociously coiffed adversaries, the Emotivos appear to be a pretty punchless bunch. Many are very young–12 to 14 years–and dress androgynously in tube pants, muted colors. and “tennis” (sneakers.) Like punketos, the distinguishing feature that separates them from the pack is their hairstyle: a hank of lank hair tumbling over one eye–“El Fleco.”

Emos habitat is in comfortable middle and upper middle class neighborhoods like Coyoacan and the Condesa and their musical tastes are one notch above “fresa” (literally “strawberry”, a pejorative)–pop punk, post hardcore, and alternative rock. During the altercation outside the Chopo bazaar, several Emos grasped hand-written signs that read “I’m an Emo and so what?”

Seeking to explain why the Emos had been so roughly ejected from the Saturday tianguis, punkster Daniel R., 20, offered this assessment: “the Emos don’t stand for anything. They don’t have a philosophy or an ideology. They are not a tribe–they’re just a style.” But did that very unthreatening style justify the violence? “Actually, I think the Emos want to be beat up”

The anti-Emo pogram broke into the headlines last month (March) in the right-wing central Mexican city of Queretero when suspected Emos congregating in a downtown plaza were set upon by hundreds of punks, cholos, and related tendencies. The attack was reportedly instigated by a nameless 17 year-old who posted irate Internet messages crudely critiquing Emo dress and tastes in music. But the anti-Emos main gripe seemed to be that the Emotivos were always depressed. “If they’re so depressed why don’t they just kill themselves?” the instigator asked.

Spread anonymously on the Internet, the anti-Emo putsch soon became national phenomena. 80 anti-Emos were rounded up by police in the northern city of Durango. Anti-Emo demonstrations were staged in the states of Puebla, Jalisco, and Sinaloa. There are reportedly over a hundred anti-Emo videos now posted on YouTube including one entitled “How To Kill An Emo.”

The wave of intolerance touched Mexico City March 14 with a nasty scuffle on the plaza of the Insurgentes metro stop, a popular Emo hangout. With punks in pursuit, the “Granaderos”–Mexico City’s Swat Squad–had to step in to protect the Emo kids from certain massacre. To add a surreal tint to the proceedings, a flock of Hari Krishnas who often work the subway plaza, drummed and chanted as the melee swirled around them.

In order to stay alive, the Emos have had to find allies and at least one faction of Darketos have come to their defense. At a post-Chopo peace rally, a not-so-young young man who identified himself as “Morrigan” recalled how ten years ago, the “darkis” had to battle identical intolerance and accused the anti-Emos of being “poseur” punks who persecute Emos because they like to fight and not because they share punk “ideology.” “The anti-Emo tee shirts are the new swastikas,” Morrigan harangued the mostly Emo young gathered in a central city park. “Tolerencia!” the kids yelled back in unison. “Tolerance!”

An Emos team-up with the Darketos could lower the temperature of this contretemps between the urban tribes. The Darks, devotees of the night, have an “alliance of the obscure” with the Goticos, romantics in love with the notion of death, whose emblematic Charles Addams Neo-Vampira dress, replete with chains and ankhs and velvet cloaks, require a substantial investment in identity.

The roots of today’s urban tribes can be traced back to the “Chavas Bandas”, the legendary working class barrio youth gangs that first sprang to prominence in the rock and roll ’60s and ’70s here. Indeed, some of today’s tribalists are the sons and daughters of old chavas bandas gangbangers, says Pablo Jasso, a longtime observer of the urban counterculture.

Actually the chavas bandas did not fight each other as often as they fought the Mexico City police when the cops would try and break up impromptu street dances and confiscate the sound equipment of the “sonaderos.” Above all, the chavas bandas were “rock-and-rolleros”, a music that has now devolved into countless sub genres with which each of the contemporary tribes identifies.

In one sense, Jasso figures, the anti-Emo surge is generational with the older punks et al defending their turf from the next generation coming up. Nonetheless, in the logic of the street, the newcomers must do battle to win respect and the Emos are passive and do not fight back. Their reliance on police protection (with which city authorities had cursed them) during the Chopo brouhaha was one flashpoint for the cop-hating punks’ frontal attack.

Gay bashing also flashes its ugly head in the bashing of the Emos–the Emotivos often complain of being called “maricones” (faggots) by their persecutors. Members of the gay and lesbian community accompanied the Emos to the Chopo with small rainbow flags. “Even in our own homes, we are called maricones,” bitterly complains “El Ganja”, interviewed with his “ruca” (girlfriend) “Zoe” by the daily La Jornada youth reporter Cesar Arellano. “We are not maricones or Salvatruchas (a particularly violent Central American youth gang),” El Ganja insisted. “We don’t want to take over anything. We just want our own space to be who we are.”

Underlying the hostilities between the Emos and rival urban tribes is the class divide which yawns wide in Mexico City. The Emos spring from the loins of affluent families and are often enrolled in private schools and the high school system of the National Autonomous University (UNAM) in a country where only 17 per cent of young people will have a chance to go to college. The UNAM rejects 100,000 would-be students a year.

Kids with no education or employment options have a lot of time on their hands to get into trouble. Every year, a million young people enter the job market in an economy that creates only half that number of jobs. According to one UNAM study, three out of every ten young persons in the 15 to 29 year age range will head north to the U.S.–but now with the border virtually sealed, that safety valve has been shut down.

The pressure on the young is intense. One out of every three Mexican kids grows up in poverty. Young people between the ages of 15 and 29 account for a third of the prisoners in Mexico City lock-ups. Arrests of 12 and 13 year-olds have boomed 73 per cent in the past ten years. In the 14 months since Marcelo Ebrard has been mayor of the capital, 6520 young people have been arrested, about a third of the total busts. Violence is pandemic. Homicide is the second cause of youth deaths (accidents are first.) Suicide is third.

Despite their stylized depression, there have been no known Emo suicides–although some Emos deliberately cut their wrists as a form of body decoration. Most young Emos don’t even know of the suicide of Ian Curtis, lead singer with Joy Division, a favorite Emo band, says UNAM sociologist Hector Castillo, a drummer himself, who has interviewed members of the tribe/style,

Still, the Emos’ melancholic demeanor excites child psychologists who see early warning signs all over the place. The suicide motif has been drummed up by primetime trash TV “investigations”. Televisa is particularly attracted to Anorexia. The sensationalism draws a stern warning from National Autonomous University emeritus psychology professor Ileana Petra, citing the examples of two ten year-olds who separately hanged themselves after seeing TV news reports about teen-age suicides.

According to Dr. Petra, teen-age suicide is under-reported by as much as 40 per cent. The youngest pre-teen suicide victim she has counted was only eight. Most teen-age suicides are boys and the preferred mode of departure is hanging. Studies done by Mexico City health authorities reveal that an average 25 to 30 teen-age suicides have been recorded each year since 2000, around 12 per cent of the total suicides in the capital.

Urban tribalism is one survival mechanism for young people who crave an identity in a megalopolis of 23 million citizens. Yet despite their overwhelming numbers–the average age of a Mexican is 19 years–young people get little attention until they make trouble.

Despite their marginalization, the urban tribes have created a thriving counterculture that sets the youth musical agenda and generates lots of filthy capitalist lucre. For nearly 30 years, the Chopo tianguis has commerced in every new avatar of rock from Mexican metal to mariachi punk. Dozens of improvised stands sell cds and vinyl, skulls and bleached bones, incense, herbal elevants, crucifixes and ankhs, black lipstick and antique clothing for the dress-up set. Piercing parlors now dot the city’s public markets and alternative hair stylists fashion homemade Mohawks for those who want to join the tribe.

So which urban tribe do you belong to, a U.S. reporter old enough to be his great grandfather asked an unpierced kid with a goofy grin after the Emo rally? “Me? I suppose I’m a Mexica (Aztec),” the kid beamed shyly.

JOHN ROSS is in Mexico City, preparing to begin work on “El Monstruo”, a new book about–what else? Mexico City. He can be reached at





JOHN ROSS’s El Monstruo – Dread & Redemption in Mexico City is now available at your local independent bookseller. Ross is plotting a monster book tour in 2010 – readers should direct possible venues to