In 1988, Robert Lopez had a vision during an Elvis Presley–inspired folk-art exhibition in Los Angeles. He would become something that the world had never imagined: the first Chicano Elvis impersonator. He combined his talents as a musician and his love for Mexican kitsch to became El Vez (a brilliant pun that also translates to "The Time").
Lopez got his start while still in high school as a guitar player and founding member of the Zeros during the first wave of Los Angeles punk rock. They released the single "Wimp" backed with "Don't Push Me Around" on Bomp! Records in 1977. Soon after, Lopez defected and joined the infamously art-damaged Catholic Discipline, led by Slash magazine editor Claude Bessy, until that band's demise in 1980. Lopez started another group called the Boneheads and reunited with the Zeros during most of the 1980s until deciding to become what People magazine called "Elvis con salsa."
Lopez isn't just an impersonator, he's a socially relevant parody, translating Elvis classics (and a selection of other artists' classics) into Mexican culture. His version of "Suspicious Minds" is retitled "Immigration Times" and changes the paranoid jealousy theme of the original to the story of a Mexican immigrant attempting to enter the United States: "I'm caught in a trap, I can't walk out, because my foot's caught in this border fence. Why can't you see, Statue of Liberty? I am your homeless, tired, and weary." These lyrics aren't only funny, they jab at America's claims of multiculturalism and its contradicting closed borders.
While researching this story, I was surprised at how much academic writing had been devoted to El Vez and his popularity. In the book Latina/o Communications Studies, author Bernadette Marie Calafell, PhD, admits that she has a love/hate relationship with Lopez's place in society. While she considers herself a fan, she's uncomfortable with Lopez using a symbol like Elvis Presley to gain a platform to speak his mind. Carolina Gonzalez, a writer for Frontera magazine, paraphrased Lopez as saying that he saw himself as an entertainer with subversive intent. Lopez also noted that he's interested to see what it takes to get people "interested in the revolution" while avoiding the place where revolutionary ideas simply become "guerrilla chic." I wrote an e-mail to Lopez through a link on the El Vez website and was delighted when he replied at 1:30 a.m. I sent some questions, which he returned at 3:45 a.m.
Since 1988, El Vez has made an impressive mark on the music industry, playing shows all over the world and opening for Morrissey, David Bowie, Carlos Santana, and the B-52s. He's released dozens of LPs and singles. The Smithsonian owns one of his tear-away gold-lamé suits. He's played Sasquatch! at the Gorge, and this Monday, he's playing at Bumbershoot. It's no surprise that he plays the Seattle area often; he relocated here from Southern California in 2001. Lopez is also a stage actor, and he decided on Seattle because of its art and theater community. Since his arrival, he's become involved with Teatro ZinZanni, where his roles include "actor, script writer, music writer, assistant director, costume wearer, and troublemaker." He added, "Seattle is part of the northern migration of Latinos."
El Vez doesn't tour as much as he used to, but there are still changes to his routine and socially relevant bits included in the act when he does. "'Quetzalcoatl,' my version of 'Heartbreak Hotel,' takes on new meaning this year with the coming of the end of the world via the Mayan calendar. Since this is my EL VEZ 4 PREZ show, it stands to reason you should 'Vote El Vez!' What do you got to lose?" Lopez still considers himself an Elvis fan but admits that he doesn't listen to Elvis's music very often. "It's all programmed in my head. I guess my ears perk when I hear an alternate version or an outtake."
At Bumbershoot, Lopez is looking forward to Elvistravaganza, an all-about-Elvis visual arts spectacle curated by Marlow Harris and Jo David, which will include a traveling Elvis museum and Elvis karaoke for festivalgoers. He also admits to loving Mudhoney. When asked what his favorite thing to eat at a music festival is, he responded, "Perhaps a roasted ear of corn."
As Phil Ochs once said, "If there's any hope for America, it lies in revolution. If there's any hope for revolution, it lies in Elvis Presley becoming Che Guevara." At this point, El Vez seems about as close as we're going to get.