Last month, just before Thanksgiving, a ten-year-old girl named Alexandra Martinez walked through downtown Corpus Christi’s Hot Tamale Fest with her mom and sister, looking for a music stage. She was petite, with long, straight hair parted on the side, and she carried, over her shoulder, a royal blue bass nearly as long as she was tall. A sticker on the bass said “Little Miss Latina,” a reference to one of her pastimes, the local pageant. Her other passion was emblazoned on a t-shirt under a blue denim jacket, but just enough so everyone could read: Chicas Rock.
“My first band name was the Lightning Stars, then the Formula,” she explained. She had been with the girls’ music school Chicas Rock for three years, first on drums, then bass. The bands didn’t always have names for themselves, but on occasion, in the summertime, they got creative. She even had a nickname. “They call me Cutie,” she explained. She showed off some of her jacket buttons. A rainbow. A lightning bolt. One that she’d made herself, using green marker, read, “I Love My Grandma.”
Martinez found her stage. There, Chicas Rock founder Cecy Treviño, a thirtysomething woman with high cheekbones, red-tinted hair, and pink lipstick, drew her charges around her to go over their sets, moving her finger down a list of songs that ranged from A-ha’s eighties synth-pop hit “Take On Me” to Metallica’s “Enter Sandman.” “Ok, who is going to play bass on this one?” she asked, looking around the circle for volunteers.
Treviño herself is a bassist and singer who moved from Monterrey, Mexico in 2003 to record her all-girl cumbia-rock band La Conquista at Selena’s father Abraham Quintanilla’s Q-Zone Records. Whenever she played around town, she’d be approached by girls of all ages who wanted to know how she started. She was happy to advise them, but she wanted to do more than just that. So she checked out a few girls’ rock school programs in Austin and Portland, eventually volunteering in Austin’s Girls Rock camp, and then she brought the idea back to Corpus. She started the Chicas Rock program six years ago out of a building she owned downtown with her husband, the electronic cumbia DJ “El Dusty” Oliveira.
The goal was to create an environment where girls could express themselves. “Kids are mean in school sometimes,” she said, “and we get a lot of girls here who are a little shy or they’re not popular in school. Here, they get a place to shine.”
And while Treviño wasn’t thinking six years ago that she might eventually play a role in creating the next great female star to come out of Corpus, Chicas Rock has become a kind of music incubator. Once a summer-only camp with only a handful of girls ages five to seventeen, the school expanded to after-school programs with nearly forty girls practicing twice a week in a new space on the south side of town, closer to where many of the girls’ families live. Many of the girls now play multiple instruments—and play them well.
The level of the girls’ success caught Treviño by surprise. “I didn’t know they were going to turn into a band or do these shows,” she said. “That wasn’t really what we were expecting, but people started requesting Chicas performances at their events.”
These days, she sets up shows for the girls almost every weekend—city festivals like the Que Bueno Taco Fest and Buccaneer Days parades—and takes students under her wing and around town, introducing them to Tejano groups like Erick y su Grupo Massore, local rock groups like the Spazmatics, and punk acts like San Antonio’s Fea and Piñata Protest.
Her project comes at an interesting time of creative ventures for Corpus Christi. Downtown apartments have drawn new energy to the city. New spots like BUS (the Bar Under the Sun), located in the old Greyhound station, are repurposing old spaces. Galleries like K Space Contemporary are helping initiate new murals around town. Where cool people used to move away, Treviño said, now they stay. “We’re all trying to do the same thing, which is grow the music and art and help the new generations,” she said.
The Hot Tamale Fest itself was an example of that investment. Last year, Tamale Fest helped fundraise for Chicas Rock, and this year, Chicas Rock was performing to help the festival with another local cause: purchasing new uniforms for the mariachi players in the schools.
While Treviño convened with the girls—and folklórico dancers finished their set—one girl walked up to another and fist-bumped her, hard. “OW!” the recipient said, laughing. “I was not expecting that.”
Some of the girls had music in their blood. “My dad’s a music producer,” said one. “My dad plays the bass,” said another. “None of my parents did it, but my great uncle Skippy, he did,” said another.
Though Alexandra and her older sister Elisabeth, age 13, did not come from a musical family, they considered such pedigrees irrelevant. As Alexandra played bass to “Zombie” by the Cranberries, her sister chatted backstage. “One of my favorite songs we play is ‘I Hate Myself for Loving You,’ by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts,” she said, “There’s also some Nirvana songs we play that are really good.”
When Elisabeth took the stage, the group introduced “Smells Like Teen Spirit” with a chant: “When I say ‘chicas,’ you say ‘rock’! Chicas!”
“Rock!” the crowd responded.
On the sidewalk, arms folded, Alexandra and Elisabeth’s mother Tanya stood watching. “Even with schoolwork, they still practice two days out of the week, and they’re tired but they love it,” she said. “Everything else they complain about except for this.”
She smiled proudly. “My three-year-old says she wants to be a Chica.”