by René Kladzyk, El Paso Matters
August 13, 2020
In the past several weeks, El Paso’s music and arts scene has experienced a rapid and radical transformation, as large numbers of survivors have spoken out publicly about widespread sexual assault and a culture of abuse within the El Paso creative community, with ripple effects contributing to the downfall of a California record label.
Two different local collectives have formed: one in support of survivors of abuse, and another to help abusers take action to hold themselves accountable.
What began as a small number of women posting personal accounts of abuse on Instagram soon multiplied, when others who had been victimized by the same people saw the posts, causing increasing numbers of survivors to come forward. Prominent members of beloved El Paso bands, chefs of highly esteemed local restaurants, and popular DJs have all been among the people outed as having perpetrated abusive behavior.
Some people accused of being abusers have disputed allegations of misconduct, while others have issued public statements acknowledging that the accusations were truthful, and others haven’t said anything at all, deleting their social media accounts or going silent.
An ad hoc coalition soon formed, named Chingonxs for Change (CXC). This new group created an anonymous Instagram account to give survivors a forum for sharing personal stories of abuse.
“Supporting all survivors in the El Paso music/art scene in direct response to the perpetuation of its machista, predatory, bullshit,” reads the Instagram bio of the group, which seeks not just to help individual survivors, but also to undermine what it sees as a culture of abuse in the El Paso scene, in which abusers are enabled and propped up by other community members who are aware of their predatory behavior.
“Because I came forward with my story, I ended up meeting two more people that (my abuser) assaulted. If I didn’t have the platform or venue to do that and feel safe enough to come out with my story, I would have never known that there are so many more people like me. (Chingonxs for Change) allowed me to find people to heal with, as well as have some solace in knowing that we as a community have rallied together to out people who have been abusers, serial abusers especially,” said one member of CXC, who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation from her abuser.
A second coalition also is in the process of forming in response to this movement. Colloquially referred to as “The Dude’s Group,” and still without an official name, this new collective of (mostly) men has been created with the express purpose of helping abusers to take meaningful actions toward accountability. The two collectives are in dialogue with one another as both strategize long term plans for creating a safer music and arts scene in El Paso.
Yet another anonymous instagram account, @welp_915, was created shortly after the CXC instagram page went up, and shares accounts by service industry workers of misconduct, harassment, and abuse at El Paso restaurants.
This article draws from interviews with members of these nascent coalitions and with others who are involved with the El Paso creative community.
It’s important that I acknowledge that I am not a neutral party in this story. The reporting contained herein is, in part, informed by my own lived experiences. I am a working musician and am a member of the community that this movement affects. I have maintained friendships, played shows with, and collaborated with people who have been outed as abusers, and with people who have come forward as survivors of abuse. I also have experienced these dynamics in music scenes throughout the country as a touring musician, and have long been an advocate for music industry reform, particularly as it relates to inclusivity and safe spaces.
A ripple becomes a wave, becomes a tsunami
In mid-July, several El Pasoans posted accounts of abuse on their personal Instagram pages, some directed at members of popular El Paso bands. Chingonxs for Change posted its first anonymous account of abuse on July 17.
Some abusers outed by El Pasoans were musicians on Burger Records, a hugely popular record label based in Fullerton, California. On July 18, another anonymous Instagram account was created for sharing stories of sexual abuse, named @lured_by_burger_records. That account went viral, as survivors came forward en masse to detail abusive behavior by men in Burger Records bands, and patterns of abuse-enabling by the label itself.
By July 22, Burger Records announced it would shut down entirely, after scrapping initial plans to rebrand the label in order to address a “culture of toxic masculinity.”
The impact of the Burger Records shut-down reverberated throughout the international music community, with prominent artists on other labels coming forward to acknowledge past abusive behavior, to demand change, and to call out the enabling of abuse among music industry leaders.
Within El Paso, what began as a sweeping movement to call out abuse among prominent members of El Paso’s creative community has now shifted toward long-term planning for transforming local culture, in order to promote safer spaces, accountability among abusers, and restorative justice.
An El Paso Police Department spokesperson said any criminal investigation into misconduct allegations would require a complaint by a victim, rather than a social media post. He said if a complaint is made, police can’t identify victims or suspects while an investigation is pending. However, much of the principles guiding both coalitions are geared toward forms of justice that do not involve punitive or carceral approaches to accountability.
El Paso music scene: A culture of abuse?
For Mona Gender, front person of El Paso band The Genders, the local music scene has been a place for them to heal and reckon with past trauma from abuse they experienced growing up. Gender uses they/them pronouns, though prefers to avoid labels for their gender identity.
“I care about the music scene, it’s my outlet. It’s my outlet from trauma — from sexual and physical abuse. With the music that I create with my band, everything that I need to process, I do that through my lyrics. So for me the music scene was a safe place, and it breaks my heart to know that this is going on at a place where I feel safe from that kind of behavior,” Gender said. They did not personally witness sexual abuse, and emphasized how much love and mutual support they witnessed at local venues.
“Just because I didn’t see much of that with my own eyes doesn’t mean it’s not there. Yes, bars are to socialize, and a lot of the mentality of the male gender that’s been inbred in them for centuries now is to pick up women,” Gender said.
Another El Paso musician, who asked not to be identified because she wasn’t ready to come forward publicly with her story, said that she experienced grooming and sexual coercion from a young age within the El Paso music scene.
“I’ve always loved music, and I knew what I wanted to do at a very young age. I knew I wanted to play music. It’s very difficult to grow up and want to practice something that you’ve loved your whole life, only to find out that it’s not a welcoming space for you,” she said.
This musician has played in bands in El Paso since she was in her early teens, and as a teenager was targeted by men in their mid-20s who were prominent local musicians, in what eventually developed into sexual relationships that she identifies as coercive and abusive.
“I don’t think (the El Paso music scene) has ever been a safe space for women,” she said, describing patterns of abuse that she witnessed. “People did not attempt to hold themselves accountable for their own harm before this happened. Whether it was because they caused harm to somebody or enabled somebody else.”
Internationally, the #metoo movement caused wave after wave of sexual misconduct allegations to come to light in 2017 and 2018, prompting the downfall of numerous prominent and powerful men. Yet some media outlets have questioned why that moment of reckoning hasn’t had a stronger impact on the music industry, and some musicians have argued that abuse and sexism continue to run rampant among music industry circles.
The El Paso musician expressed frustration and sadness that it took this long for this moment of awakening to happen here in El Paso. “Things should never have to get to a point where a bunch of people are sharing their stories to be heard, for all of us to start questioning what we’re doing wrong and how we’re repeating cycles of harm,” she said.
For Mona Gender, the time to change is now. “People need to speak up. I promise you, you’ll feel so much better. You’re going to be able to share and help. Whatever side you’re on. Whether you’re an abuser or a victim,” Gender said.
What does accountability look like in El Paso?
For Chingonxs for Change and the unnamed “Dude’s Group,” the first step of acknowledging abuse is the beginning of a longer process for seeking accountability and transformative justice.
“I’m a practical person. I don’t think everyone should be thrown in jail and forgotten. I think people just need to be held accountable, and that is how we can move forward,” said Candice Marlene, a member of Chingonxs for Change.Candice Marlene
Marlene, now 28 years old, has been associated with the El Paso music and arts scene since she was 14. She said that the El Paso music scene has “absolutely” been male-dominated for as long as she has been a part of it, though is quick to emphasize that abuse is not always male on female, and that women can be abusers too.
“We’ve all been in that situation where you see a woman be completely incapacitated and alone and vulnerable. And I’ve seen it, I’ve been that girl before. I think that most of the time, a lot of people are just not affected by it anymore, it’s kind of the new normal. And it shouldn’t be the new normal. That’s why this whole movement has blown up so much, because it’s been normalized for so long, to not say something, or not be the person to take it upon yourself to make sure this other person in a vulnerable state is safe,” said Marlene.
She said the concept of accountability is simple. “It’s just taking responsibility for your actions. That’s all it is. It’s not that hard of a concept, although for some reason people just don’t get it.”
The member of CXC who asked not to be identified said accountability can be trickier to understand in practice. “Accountability is a person being aware of their abusive behavior, acknowledging it and doing authentic change, whether it be seeking mental health resources or attending anger management, showing that they genuinely want to change their behavior.” This member expressed hope that abusers who read the testimonies of survivors coming forward would be moved to reconsider their actions.
Holding yourself accountable
An organizer of the as-yet unnamed “Dude’s Group” asked not to be identified because he does not want to center the conversation around himself. “The person that does the harm must hold themselves accountable, and they’re the only people who can do it. Transformative justice is the acknowledgement that there is no binary between victims and people who cause harm. It’s a spectrum,” he said.
This man said that the collective he is organizing, which is largely being run by men, will eventually become an online platform offering resources and support for harm-doers to hold themselves accountable, including workshops, sex education and information about consent and healthy relationships, and more.
Like in the Chingonxs for Change group, he said this group will also be structured around anonymity. “This platform needs to be anonymous, so we can remove the element of shame. We believe shame gets in the way of acknowledging many of these issues. It’s a similar model to what Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous has done. In this online platform, harm-doers would be able to support each other throughout this process and facilitators would be able to help them by providing tools for how to transform themselves.”
The member of Chingonxs for Change said that anonymity is a key tool in bringing abuse to light. She said that, for CXC, the cloak of anonymity has helped survivors to come forward who may have otherwise feared legal or interpersonal retaliation from their abusers.
She said that Chingonxs for Change has changed since it was initially formed, in order to develop a long-term plan for building a safer community. As of right now, CXC is a non-hierarchical group which uses both Facebook and Instagram for public-facing information, and uses an encrypted app for communicating securely with each other. She said that the collective has multiple working groups, including groups focused on establishment accountability, restorative justice, legal concerns, and more.
“It’s a place for survivors to share stories and obtain resources and just know in the whole scheme of things that they’re not alone,” she said. “Knowing that you’re not alone is a huge part of that, that other people share your experiences. It’s like mutual misery bringing about mutual healing.”
Marlene believes that this movement has the capacity to grow even more. “It’s big. I don’t know if I’m ready for all that exposure yet, but even if I’m not, I know I have the support of an army behind me. I value every single member in (Chingonxs for Change), and I just want (people) to come together in that same sense, outside of the group as well. We should all feel supported, we should all protect each other. Because you’re a human being, you’re a miracle of life, so you have a voice, you have a purpose. And you need to be accountable when you’re wrong too.”
If you are interested in getting involved in Chingonxs for Change, you can reach out to their Facebook group. If you are interested in getting involved in the unnamed group offering accountability resources for abusers, you can email [email protected]