By: Christina E. Rodriguez
Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, Guatemala. Rebel Diaz has been all over the world, spreading its word, its truth, through hip-hop and grassroots activism.
Taking their name from the Spanish word rebeldes, Chilean-American brothers Rodrigo “RodStarz” Venegas and Gonzalo “G1” Venegas, with their Puerto Rican “sister” Teresita “Lah Tere” Ayala, emerged from Chicago’s streets to hit New York’s hip-hop activist scene, “spittin’” truth and “layin’” beats that tell stories of their roots, as well as stories of those who go unnoticed all over the world.
Writing lyrics that explore the socio-political situation in Latin America, the immigration debate and police brutality in this country, the members of Rebel Diaz say their youth in Chicago and their experiences inspired their music.
“We grew up in a time when the Chicago hip-hop scene was growing … Just immersing ourselves in the culture; doing graffiti, b-boying,” Rodrigo explained. “The fact that we grew up in Chicago, the majority of our influences musically and culturally are the foundation of what Rebel Diaz is … and politically, too.”
Growing up in Rogers Park on Chicago’s North Side, Rodrigo and Gonzalo are the sons of Chilean exiles and human rights activists. “I remember growing up and going to political meetings supporting Puerto Rican independence that was also supported by the Palestinian community, by the salvadoreños, guatemaltecos, who also had liberation struggles going during that time,” said Rodrigo.
Their father, Mario Venegas, was a member of the Chilean leftist party known as the Movimiento Izquierda Revolucionaria as a student. When Salvador Allende was overthrown on Sept. 11, 1973 and replaced by Gen. Augusto Pinochet, things changed drastically. As a chemistry teacher at the Universidad Católica de Chile, Mario was accused of plotting against the government, teaching students how to build bombs.
“So for them, I was a very dangerous person,” said Mario. “I was kept in confinement for two years and a couple of months.” At 25 years old, he was also tortured and witnessed his peers being tortured.
“It was very hard, but I learned a lot,” said Mario. “I continue in the struggle because I am a survivor.”
“We’re second-generation activists, fighting for social justice,” said Rodrigo. “That military dictatorship lasted for 17 years, until 1989, but the whole history of Latin America is important to … what fuels our work. That’s our history.”
Teresita was raised in the Logan Square and Humboldt Park neighborhoods. As a young activist, she knew the importance of her voice.
“I was involved in ASPIRA and community organizations, which were political, teachnot being afraid to be vocal about it because this community’s pretty loud.”
Teresita met Rodrigo at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. The two found an instant connection and eventually worked together at La Casa, the Latino cultural center on campus.
While there, they began The Blue Room, a place where Latinos and blacks alike could use poetry and spoken word to express themselves. Rodrigo was an emcee and invited Teresita to work and sing with him.
Gonzalo found himself in a different situation. After dropping out of high school, he returned to Chile. “It was kind of a reverse exile for me, to go back to where my parents were forced to leave,” he says. There, he learned to make and produce music, eventually earning a scholarship to New York University.
“I was there for a year before Rod joined me,” he explained. “The first year I was there, I was engaged (in) the school thing and once Rod got there we started making music together.”
Rodrigo, having finished school, took up Gonzalo on his suggestion to move to New York City. Teresita was in New Jersey working as a nanny, teaching Puerto Rican history and Bible study.
“Then, we spent a faithful holiday with Tere in 2004,” said Gonzalo. “She was living in Jersey at the time and she stopped by and we spent the holiday together and we made some music.”
After that, they persuaded her to move to New York. Rodrigo found her work as an education organizer at Mothers on the Move.
While working in the South Bronx at Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice, the three were immersed in their music, which eventually became their full-time job in 2006, eventually opening up the Rebel Diaz Arts Collective in the South Bronx.
Rebel Diaz’s lyrics branch heavily from their everyday life and from what they know.
“We grew up in the solidarity movements of the ’80s and ’90s in Chicago that also produced the first black mayor, Harold Washington, and (Latino community organizer) Rudy Lozano,” explains Rodrigo. “That’s one part, that’s the influence. And two is our reality, growing up here in Chicago as Latino men and as a Latina, or even the experience of going to college and being one Latino student in a classroom of 500.”
Rebel Diaz wants to inform the public and make people aware of injustices.
“[We like] being street journalists, not just from the outside,” Teresita says. “I’m not a privileged kid, it’s not my reality. I know what it’s like to drop off a parent at a Narcotics Anonymous center; I know what it’s like to have your lights cut off. That’s my reality.”
“You leave the neighborhood because you’re afraid you’re going to be nobody just like everybody else and you get caught up in that,” she says. “But we’re really preaching to come back to the ‘hood after that, to create cultural centers and artists’ collectives and any type of space that could give everybody else the resources.”
“We’ve already been documenting through music, but we’re also doing video and multimedia and using that to connect multiple struggles,” added Gonzalo.
They want to share their experiences with citizens around the world, at least those willing to listen to what their hip-hop has to say.
“Our main thing is that hip-hop is the soundtrack to ‘hoods all over the world. Wherever you find poverty, you’re going to find hip-hop,” says Rodrigo. “And we’re just trying to come at it from an urban perspective. There’s a lot of information that needs to be shared and that’s what we’re going to do.”