Downtown Boys' Victoria Ruiz on Writing Chicana Protest-Punk Anthems

Frontwoman talks politicizing the personal on new 'Cost of Living' LP produced by Fugazi's Guy Picciotto

Downtown Boys frontwoman Victoria Ruiz discusses how she's making the personal public on the protest-punk band's new Sub Pop LP. Credit: Farrah Skeiky

At the moment, it can seem nearly impossible to avoid talking about Trump, especially when discussing America's most exciting punk band, Downtown Boys. But since well before 45's reign, this Providence outfit has been merging social activism with a riveting bilingual sound. 

"It's been assumed that we're doing this because of [the current presidential administration] and its not true," says Victoria Ruiz, the band's outspoken frontwoman, over the phone. "We just want people to walk away with something that they can connect to, even if that connection is a new question."

Downtown Boys started in 2011 as the brainchild of guitarist Joey DeFrancesco, who wrote songs about labor conditions at the Renaissance Hotel in Providence, where he and Ruiz were both employed. The singer admits she wasn't part of the original lineup: "I was their number-one fan, always in the front," she laughs. "He was really speaking to worker power, about alienation and I connected with that." They found an ideological and collaborative kinship and Downtown Boys, as they're known today, were born. 

"Ever since I joined the band I knew I had to think about how the future we want, and the reality we have," she explains of the band's political motivations. "It was always a feeling of responsibility to each other." Fittingly, their debut LP, released in 2015, would be titled Full Communism.

For Ruiz, who identifies as Chicana, her background powers the music she performs. "I know that a lot of the people that are close to me had to deal with never feeling enough: never feeling Latinx enough, never feeling American enough," she explains. "That's very personal, but I know my experience couldn't have happened if I wasn't part of this greater collective ancestry and future," she explains, underlining the impetus behind the cut "I'm Enough (I Want More)," from the band's latest LP, Cost of Living

The album is Downtown Boys' first for legendary indie imprint Sub Pop, and was produced by D.C. hardcore legend Guy Picciotto of Fugazi. "Alison Wolfe from [D.C. punk icons] Bratmobile emailed him for us. He said no," Ruiz says with a laugh. "I emailed him and pretended that he didn't say no yet, like, 'We need you there, even if it's for a day.' It was definitely an appeal."

The record opens with "A Wall," where Ruiz chants with guttural authority, blending repetitive sounds: "A wall is just a wall/And nothing more at all." Far beyond an obvious criticism of an unrealized Trump campaign promise is a reflection on societal borders that already exist – in the form of white privilege and institutionalized racism. 

Overall, the band gives Ruiz a chance to explore her ancestry and history in the hopes that it will resonate with others. "It's [about] trying to really figure out my agency and the group's agency," she explains, "And trying to make clear that our music intersects the personal and the public."

She asserts that agency most strongly on the Spanish-sung track "Somos Chulas (No Somos Pendejas)," which explores the space between anger and action. "They're songs that get at this thing that's so deep and so personal because it is a collective experience," Ruiz says. "If you've been held back or been oppressed by forces around you, taking away options from you, taking away [your future], we can demand all those back. As long as there is at least one future to believe in, I think there is positivity there."