Chicago’s SXE Community Part 2: Why We’re Here

The previous installment of Chicago SXE, “How We Got Here”, explored the “paths” that members of Chicago’s straight edge community have traveled on their journey to claiming straight edge. The three main paths explored were 1) having previous problematic substance use, 2) modeling positive behavior from a role model who exemplified straight edge values and 3) having a negative influence in their life that steered them away from using drugs or alcohol.

 Despite their various backgrounds, ages, and ethnicities, the one unifying factor among all the sxe participants I interviewed was a strong connection to music; specifically, punk and hardcore music. This installment will analyze the connection that exists among Chicago sxe music fans while also attempting to answer one question: Why do sxe fans remain a constant presence in a music scene that allows, if not encourages, drinking and substance use?

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Straight edge band Decline performs at Chitown Futbol in Pilsen // Photo by Brian Santostefano Photography

During Decline’s set at ChiTown Futbol, a non-sxe event space in Pilsen, Nick Ayala, 20, looked at the beer in my hand and laughed. “You know, it’s pretty funny that someone who’s interviewing straight edge people would be drinking a beer at this show,” he teased me. I pretended to offer him some of my PBR tall boy in response, joking that “you can’t knock it until you try it, right?” My response was in reference to something Ayala had said during our conversation earlier that night. He told me that many of his peers, and even his mother, had insisted that he couldn’t claim straight edge until he “experimented” more with drinking and substance use.

If you have not read part one of this series or are unfamiliar with straight edge in general, individuals that claim straight edge (sxe) do not drink alcohol, take drugs, smoke cigarettes or use other intoxicating substances. In addition to these core values, many sxers also advocate for safe, monogamous sex. They may eat vegetarian or vegan diets, or they may have strong religious ties. People who claim edge do not classify themselves as sober; many view straight edge as a lifestyle that surpasses sobriety. Because of their choice to refuse substance use in a music subculture that is regarded for its heavy drinking and drug use, many sxe fans and musicians must find their own niche in the punk and hardcore scenes.

I am not a person who claims straight edge, so I wanted to talk with as many Chicago sxers as I could to gain a better understanding of their choice to claim edge, as well as the difficulties and highlights of their experiences being sxe in a music scene that readily accepts drinking and drug use.

“To me, straight edge is a lifestyle,”said John Ramos, 21, a fan of punk and hardcore music who has claimed straight edge for over eight years. “It is still being able to enjoy the destructive nature of punk rock without the need of destroying yourself.”

Punk rock is a musical subculture that uses shock value and youth rebellion to separate itself from the rest of society. Because of the music’s reckless and chaotic nature, is only natural that drinking and drug use would be acceptable practices within punk and metal communities. Substance use is not unusual in many music scenes, so a drug-free lifestyle among punk, metal, and hardcore fans can be understood as a form of rebellion against the subculture’s values.

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A rowdy circle pit at a ska and punk rock show in Little Village // Photo by Leslie Cruz

Ramos states that his personal rebellion lies in rebelling against the norms of punk subculture.

“Kids naturally rebel. We did all the things our parents told us not to,” said Ramos. “We started playing loud and fast because we wanted to be different…it was always to rebel. We all took it a different way. To some of us it was drugs and alcohol, to get back for all the times our elders told us we couldn’t. Some turned to sxe to try and become better than we thought our elders were.”

As Ramos stated, the straight edge lifestyle can be understood as a form of rebellion that comes from within the punk subculture. Because sxe fans are just as much a part of punk and hardcore communities as non-sxe fans, they are not outsiders who reject the values of a music community, yet enjoy the music; they are insiders who are present at local shows because they are drawn to the music, regardless of the destructive culture that may surround it. However, many sxe people gain a poor, undeserved reputation as being fans who view themselves as more righteous than their counterparts who choose to engage in substance use. During my interviews with members of Chicago’s sxe community, I asked about this sxe stereotype. Each person refuted it, and stated that their decision to claim edge was strictly a personal one.

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Garza Jr. of Through N Through at Royalfest 2018 in Lansing, IL // Photo by K.B. Imaging

“I’m not saying that people shouldn’t drink, but if you have a problem you should definitely try to find help and you’ll realize that when you’re drunk, the whole time there’s so many things you’re missing out on. You’re missing out on life,” said Ruben Garza Jr, vocalist of Through N Through, who has claimed edge for three years.

Another problem that many sxers, especially young sxe fans, told me they face is being accepted within their social groups that are not comprised of exclusively straight edge friends. While most sxers I spoke with told me that their friends and family were supportive of their decision to claim edge, many expressed that even within their support systems there was some disconnect with the way their non-sxe friends perceived them in relation to the rest of the music scene.

“My friends won’t invite me out sometimes because they feel that I wouldn’t want to go out and drink, said Louie Flores, 26, bassist of Habitats. “But that’s not the case; I’m still down to go out and socialize.”

In addition to misunderstanding, some people are downright critical of sxers’ choice to live a drug-free lifestyle. Their criticisms can come in the form of peer pressure, rude jokes, or exclusion.

“I’ve definitely had to deal with the peer pressure aspect. ‘C’mon take a hit, take a sip,’” said Ayala. “I don’t think I’ve necessarily lost friends due to being sxe, but I feel like I’ve missed out on certain social aspects. Even with my band. Everyone in the bands I’m in, for the most part, they all smoke and drink and I don’t. So at the end of a practice or the end of a show, when they say, ‘let’s go drink or let’s go smoke,’ I say ‘alright, I’ll be here watching everybody’s waters.’”

All of the people I spoke with told me that the difficulties they faced when deciding to claim edge were outweighed by the mental clarity, close friends, and a new outlook on life they gained after choosing to live drug-free. While a few sxers reported that they lost friends once they claimed edge, they all stated that the friends they lost only paved the way for new, stronger friendships. Finding community in a small network of sxe fans also provided them with newfound mentors.

“The first edge kid I met after high school was Through N Through’s Ruben [Garza Jr.], and while not being really good friends, I always support their music when I can. He does a bunch for the local scene and honestly [he] doesn’t get enough credit,” said Ramos. Something I found notable was that Ramos looked up to Garza Jr. as a role model, even though Ramos, who is six years younger than Garza Jr. has claimed edge for over twice as many years as Garza Jr. has.

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Flores records with his band, Habitats // Photo courtesy of Habitats

In addition to gaining positive role models, some people I interviewed also reported redefining old friendships to adapt their new way of straight edge living. Flores and Garza Jr. are longtime friends that grew up in Little Village. Garza Jr. laughed as he told me how he used to tease Flores for choosing to avoid drugs and alcohol. However, when Garza Jr. got sober and began to consider claiming edge, Flores was supportive and able to offer him advice from a sxe perspective.

“Louie [Flores] was someone who was really there for me. He let me know the hard parts of [sxe]. He told me how it was going to happen; who would be into it, who was going to doubt me. My band members were very supportive. They threw their jokes here and there but they were very supportive,” said Garza Jr. “I lost a lot of friends who were like ‘you’re not drunk, why should I talk to you?’”

All of the people I spoke with expressed that claiming edge was a personal choice; none of them condemned their friends, family, or acquaintances that chose to engage in substance use. However, many of them told me they found intoxicated behavior to be annoying or boring. These statements caused me to wonder why sxe fans continued to attend non-sxe shows that are heavily permeated with people who drink or use drugs.

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Hardcore punk band 2Minute Minor performs at Chitow Futbol // Photo by Brian Santostefano Photography

“What keeps me here is the fact that most of the people I’ve surrounded myself with, and most of the people I see at shows, they have control. I have all these people I can converse with and share a fun time with the music. It would be different if I went to a show and everyone was blackout drunk. I wouldn’t show up at all. But there’s people who don’t drink and people who only drink a little bit,” said Ayala.

This made sense to me, but I had a follow up question for Ayala that will be explored in depth in Part 3 of this series. Even though he found solace in the fact that not all hardcore, punk and metal fans choose to drink or become overly intoxicated, wouldn’t it be easier to go to strictly sxe shows? Wouldn’t it help to eliminate the drunk, unruly behavior he finds annoying if he attended shows of a different genre once in a while? In short: what is it about hardcore music that makes Ayala and many other sxe fans stick around the behavior they dislike?

“I think one of the biggest themes in hardcore is pride,” said Ayala. “And the fact that these straight edge [hardcore] bands take pride in who they are and the fact that they’re straight edge helps…make it more predominant and in your face.”

How do a small number of sxe bands and musicians function in Chicago’s large punk and hardcore scene? Must they always separate and brand themselves as straight edge hardcore bands, or can they seamlessly fit into Chicago’s DIY music communities?

The final installment of Chicago’s SXE Community will explore Chicago straight edge bands, as well as non-sxe bands that feature sxe members. In this last segment, Locals Only will attempt to answer the highly controversial question that often baffles sxe and non-sxe people alike: Can you separate hardcore music and straight edge living?

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