Interview: L.A.’s Chicano Batman take global approach to Tropicália

Chicano Batman | photo courtesy of the artist
Chicano Batman | photo courtesy of the artist

Designed by Cesar Chavez and his brother Richard in 1962, the logo of the United Farm Workers became a potent symbol for the burgeoning Chicano rights movement, taking the eagle symbol from the Mexican flag and patterning its stairstep wings after an inverted Aztec pyramid. A little less than fifty years later, a singer, guitarist, and organist in East L.A. made a few slight alterations to that logo, bringing it to a sharp point at the bottom and replacing the eagle’s head with a familiar pointy-eared bat’s head, bringing together the un-parallel worlds of the UFW and DC Comics.

The new symbol stands for Chicano Batman, and if the Los Angeles four-piece doesn’t exactly fight for farm workers’ rights or battle criminals by night, their throwback blend of R&B, Tropicália and psychedelia does provide its own kind of uplift. “The idea of it is that underrepresented people can be superheroes in their own right,” says guitarist Carlos Arevalo. “There’s people out here in L.A. that are working hard every day to provide for their family, and that’s a superhero to us.”

The name of the band, which will perform at Fleisher Art Memorial on Monday, came from another sketch by frontman Bardo Martinez, this one depicting the superhero himself. “Bardo was at a party one day doodling,” recalls Arevalo, “and he drew a Latino Batman character with a little mustache, where the cape and mask was actually a flannel shirt like you would see a cholo in L.A. wear, and he called it Chicano Batman.”

The name initially became a pseudonym for Martinez’s solo work, but he soon gathered bassist Eduardo Arenas and drummer Gabriel Villa to form an actual band, releasing their self-titled debut in 2009. Arevalo joined two years later to fill out the band’s sound and allow Martinez to devote his attention to the organ.

That instrumentation is key to capturing the retro sound that Martinez envisioned for Chicano Batman. The music on the band’s recently-released second full-length album. Cycles of Existential Rhyme, combine the influences of American soul artists like Brenton Wood and the Delfonics with Latin-American soul groups of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, including Los Angeles Negros and Los Pasteles Verdes; and the Tropicália sound of Brazilian artists like Caetano Veloso and Os Mutantes.

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