WORDS BY : GEORGIA RAWSON
“If the police turn up, we jump on stage, play our set as fast as we can, then bail.”
The baron streets of Los Angeles’ Skid Row have been many a location of both urban legends, and a criminal underworld within the ‘City of Angels’. As the driver of the taxi takes a precautionary turn off the curb, minding not to take out a street side cage of chickens in his wake, the enormous scale of the city’s underbelly becomes obvious. We’re 8 miles from the Hollywood Boulevard, Beverley Hills, and the other iconic tourist trap locations that’s been the rising scene of stardom for generations to come. The star shaped plaques are swapped out for heavy shutters covering up questionably legal businesses, the perfectly placed letters of ‘Hollywood’ are replaced by fading street signs, and there’s a feeling of uneasiness as we try to locate the address simply messaged to us by the Rotting Out vocalist, Walter Delgado.
But this is real life. There’s no one to shine the sidewalk stars, or clear away society’s cruelly oppressed ‘undesirables’, the hands and faces of those around us are hardened by years of labour, and as Walter tells us as we walk down the stretch of concrete, “survival.”
On top of the oppression in areas like this you also get the classism and racism, and in LA if you’re punk or a hardcore kid you most likely don’t like the police, because we have a big history of police brutality and corruption
Tonight, Rotting Out will play a last-minute DIY show on the infamous strip in a venue that’s graffitied walls and cautiously approachable floor spots resembles that of a Los Angeles CBGB’s. Walter gathers his fellow band mates, outside of it, telling them that even if on the rare occasion the police do turn up to shut down the show, that they simply ignore it. This mindset towards the authorities takes a moment to digest, with Walter having only just ended an eighteen-month prison sentence just over a year ago it seems unfathomable as to why he would want to walk into more trouble. But this is Los Angeles, and if you’re even briefly familiar with any politically or socially driven pop culture you’ll know why there’s a reason that Compton’s N.W.A had something to say about the men in blue.
“On top of the oppression in areas like this you also get the classism and racism, and in LA if you’re punk or a hardcore kid you most likely don’t like the police, because we have a big history of police brutality and corruption.” Points out Walter. “So that hostility towards police is fuelled by their views on our skin colour, what band we’re in, and for most of them it’s a pay cheque to disrupt the peace and leave.”
Just over thirty years ago Walter took his first steps onto American soil when his then twenty two year old mother, of whom had her son at just the age of 17, had chosen to leave their homeland of Mexico and head to the ‘land of opportunity.’ Walters tells us admirably of how his mother got a job in a sweatshop whilst taking night classes to learn the native tongue, to “increase the prosperity of her family.” However, growing up in the impoverished area of The Projects, a social housing project that was soon overlooked by the government, and thus overrun with gangs and crimes, the realities of Walter’s childhood, and sadly what would become of many Latino communities, quickly began to emerge.
“On the other hand, I have family members who are getting their hands dirty in drugs, violence and gangs. I’m caught between these two things, and growing up you soon realised what side of the Latino communities were glorified, and so the other side, the hard working and laborious side, the stories of families making it, is overlooked.”
They always make Latinos this kind of vigilante. Sure, growing up I thought having a gun was cool. Because that’s all I thought my culture was worth
Only a handful of miles away the Hollywood production studios have taken it upon themselves to consistently portray this tenebrous perspective, romanticizing both the likes of Skid Row and Walter’s childhood neighbourhood as ganglands, soaked in violence and the failure of the citizens who inhabit them. On the 18th February, this year Rotting Out announced their new record, Ronin, with the statement, “a lot of hard work and time went into this, nothing was left behind.” Whilst the just under 25-minute release brags of all the insanely fast tempo tracks, thrash style riffs, and gang vocals that Rotting Out have become renowned for, of which Walter tells us its “fun”, and “has those perfect mosh parts,”, it’s dark lyrical underbelly, almost factually describing these areas, and the experiences from living in them, is far from romanticizing the notion of violence, abuse, and gang culture that took place upon his doorstep.
“They always make Latinos this kind of vigilante. Sure, growing up I thought having a gun was cool.” He confesses. “Because that’s all I thought my culture was worth. You turn on the television and that’s what you see. It’s like you go to a party, and you can be having the most deep and meaningful conversations, and then someone has a fight. The next day the only thing people talk about is the violence.”
These continuous experiences of drug dealers overdosing in parking lots only a few meters from his house, his step-father picking him up from school whilst dozing off from a Heroin overload, and an experience nothing short of horrifying, “we had gone to see if our friend could go to the beach, there was an officer clearing the area, and there we were staring at this girl’s mutilated body, just sort of normalising it,” had just become everyday life.
It would be in 2001 that Walter would realise this wasn’t the only path he had to go down. After continuous years of anxiety, and the consistent thoughts of struggling under his stepfather’s abuse, telling us, “Is he coming home, are we gonna eat? Are we going to another shelter? Is he gonna hit us?”, Walter found himself at a show, and a new form of escapism overtook him. A safe space where violence was not used with malicious intent. For Walter being at that show meant he was not defined by his traumatic childhood experiences, his oppressed place within American society, nor his ethnicity. “I think there’s this weird understanding in hardcore that when the band starts anything goes. It doesn’t matter who is on the stage, who you came with, who your friends are, what you adored, none of that matters for those 20-40 minutes.”
You’re kind of morally desensitized as to what’s right and wrong when it comes to survival. A lot of poor people are just constantly in survival mode.
“That first show was euphoric!” Smiles Walter, his characterised toothless grin beaming. “I got kicked in the face during the first band’s set during a Bad Brains cover, and I was ok with it!”. The story of a first live show changing the lives of musicians is a timeless one, but for Walter it became a part of his DNA. Here was somewhere he could let off that unrelenting anger at his world without the fear of severe consequence.
Whilst this spawned into a musical career six years later with the formation of Rotting Out, seeing the band tour internationally, and later their post hiatus return to headline festivals such as the golden, illustrious Sound & Fury, California Hardcore’s golden crown, this success didn’t fulfil the vocalist, despite his attempts.
“Everybody does things for their own reason. People get rich sometimes because they hate being poor. I knew kids who were selling drugs in 8th Grade, I knew kids shooting other kids to get into gangs at age 12. You’re kind of morally desensitized as to what’s right and wrong when it comes to survival. A lot of poor people are just constantly in survival mode.” Walter explains as we move towards the events of March 2016.
Whilst the formation of his band, Rotting Out, allowed for Walter to now return that feeling to others in a similar situation, the damage could only be covered up for so long. In 2015 the band announced that they were to end. Logging heads, clashing personalities, and financial struggles were merely just the surface marks for how deeply these wounds had been cutting Walter. “I learnt to be the funny guy, the big charismatic funny guy with the big smile, whether I was the musician ,the poet, the comedian, the band guy, I had to be 1000 things to make sure no one saw who I was, or how I was feeling.” He sighs. “That got exhausting. I accomplished these goals and didn’t feel good enough. I could not be like ‘Oh Walter we did it’, it was ‘like oh I ran 10 miles, but it wasn’t 15 miles’, I was so disconnected from self-love.”
A year after the Rotting Out’s disbandment, 2016 saw Walter’s life had come to a sudden halt. After pleading guilty to third degree felony possession charges after attempting to drive an estimate of 700 pounds of marijuana over the border of the state Walter was sentenced to 18 months in prison. Little did he know this would change his life for good. “I’m a firm believer of not robbing anyone of a hard lesson, whether that’s me, my family, or my friends.” He tells us firmly. “At times that involves suffering, and sometimes it involves mental strain and heartache. Those are the lessons I passionately believe will help people turn around.”
Ten months into his prison sentence America was once more under the power of a new regime, one that would once more heavily victimise above all other minorities, the Hispanic and Latino communities.
“For me whilst I was not what (Donald) Trump was referring to, these cruel stereotypes of rapists and violent gang members, I was in some way what he was referring to. I was an illegal immigrant, who was given some opportunities, didn’t take advantage of them, and was now in prison.” Walter sighs. “It’s embarrassing on my end to be a statistic, but it is frustrating because I am angry with what people think of my people, and yet I’ve become this systematic stereotype. It wasn’t so much anger as it was shame.”
Within days of setting foot into office Donald Trump strongly upheld his policies of deportation, targeting those not just outside, but those also within the system. So expeditious was the actions of his policy that soon Walter’s situation had gone from what already seemed bad to extremely worse. “Because of my drug charge it almost led to me getting deported. ICE was gonna deport me, and you could file to fight it and remove that. I had to come up with enough evidence to prove I was worth the second chance.”
Whilst Walter himself had been sober since the age of 14, the agreement with his lawyer to enter a rehabilitation programme would be beneficial. The programme leader upon hearing about Walter’s experiences as a “product of drug abuse,” invited him to stay, and slowly the wounds for both the abusers and Walter himself began to heal.
“I started to get this idea of where it all stemmed from, their (the abuser’s) childhood, and all these things that led up to the drug abuse, and I never used to think about it all like that. I used to just think my stepdad would get high, and when he got high he would get anger issues and both my mother and I would pay for them.”
“I won’t dwell on the past. I do not care for people saying, ‘oh isn’t he the guy who did this?’
This newfound sense of forgiveness gave more than just clarity as to who Walter’s abuser was, but in a profound way allowed Walter to be thankful about what could have been. “I befriended some of the addicts and asked them a couple more things, and they had similar stories to him, but some people had way more worse things they had done.” He continues. “I wasn’t trying to downplay my abuse, but also the extent as to where it could have gone and was thankful it didn’t go that far. I saved my ass in more than one way through all of this.”
Today Walter is more at peace with himself, one could say someone who made the best out of a bad situation, and from it has gained a new found understanding to look beneath the surface, an inspiring mindset of reserving judgement at first hand. Whilst the writing of Ronin had its moment of “fighting back tears” whilst being penned from the front seat of Walter’s car, this newfound curiosity and deep passion for understanding had also arisen from an unlikely source, one away from the topics discussed on the record.
“When I was in prison, I had that kind of curiosity to look deeper, to go to the source. One of the guys I spoke to often definitely had a swastika on him, and I asked him what was up with that?”. As a man of colour Walter expected to be greeted with grief from the inmate. “He tells me it’s just ‘who he runs with’, and that ‘my people are ok’, and that it was just black people he didn’t like.” But before Walter appears to defend the man he’s affirmative that whilst this man is a bad character, there was reasoning as to how he became that person. “It turned out when I asked him again about it that members of his family were in the Klan. I realised he had never questioned the morals he was raised with, the people as a child who was meant to protect him and love him had this set of morals, and so he had assumed they were ok.”
“This isn’t a guy I’d want to go get a beer with or invite to my wedding.” He assures us. “But you began to realise he had grown and got groomed to become this person. Why? A lot of the times these people just want someone to listen to them, and sometimes it is a bad guy who then tells them what else to think, and so they become the bad guy.”
Nowadays this reserving of judgement is something upheld by Walter, even if those around him seem to do otherwise in the wake of the last few years.
“I won’t dwell on the past. I do not care for people saying, ‘oh isn’t he the guy who did this?’, or any other form of elitism that has spawned from music or straight edge. I care for my own sobriety right now, and where I am right now.” He tells us. “If you stop living in the now it creates this weird conflict.”