Los Angeles

Las Cafeteras: Crossing Genres to Become Agents of Change

In partnership with 18th Street Arts Center
18th Street Arts Center is an artists' residency program that provokes public dialogue through contemporary art-making.

By Pilar Tompkins Rivas

In July 2006, the South Central Farm, a thriving urban farm and community garden in the industrial corridor along South Alameda, was bulldozed as its farmers and supporters staged protests and acts of civil disobedience in efforts to save the land from being razed. The events that summer came after a two-year battle that included closed-door negotiations over the land between the City of Los Angeles and the representative of a private investment firm, a subsequent legal face-off between the investor and the newly organized farmers, and a public awareness campaign rooted in immigrant rights, urban land use, sustainable living and class warfare.

As organizers and activists held watch over the farm leading up to the forced evacuation, dance and music factored heavily into their activities and actions. Hip Hop and spoken word met Danza Azteca and the Mexican folk music genre Son Jarocho, hailing from the gulf-coastal state of Veracruz. Not only did Zack de la Rocha from Rage Against the Machine perform there with Son de Madera, a prominent Son Jarocho group from Mexico, but young activists also began to pick up and explore these cultural forms within the context of a movement of resistance, an effort to empower disenfranchised groups, and the concerted steps of community building.

Las Cafeteras | Photo: Piero F. Giunti.

The South Central Farmers' struggle planted seeds for new sorts of cultural manifestations. Addressing the issue of land use, Lauren Bon's "Not a Cornfield" (2005) project emerged, which eventually evolved into the hybrid laboratory/research/exhibition space Farmlab, and then Metabolic Studio, a collective of eco-art minded practitioners. An Oscar-nominated documentary film, "The Garden" directed by Scott Hamilton Kennedy, was released in 2008 telling the story of the farm and its people. And in the realm of music, young activists furthered their introduction to Son Jarocho by teaching each other how to play the instruments utilized in the genre, embracing the style's mixed heritage that reflects the intermingling of Indigenous, Spanish and African peoples in colonial Mexico. Led by activist Angela Flores, who had been learning the form and playing at the South Central Farm with other musicians, a group began to coalesce through workshops conducted at the El Sereno community space, Eastside Cafe, itself a platform for multi-disciplinary exploration and experimentation, and social justice.

Empowering each other to learn music and infuse this folk tradition with influences and storytelling that reflected their own experiences, the participants eventually formed what is now the group Las Cafeteras. "We always say that we didn't find the music, the music found us. Las Cafeteras was not born from a group of musically trained artists, we were born out of a community struggle," the band says. Member Annette Torres describes their genesis: "Angela agreed to teach a group of us what she knew of Son Jarocho in a sort of each-one-teach-one, or DIY approach. I think we took it as a way to explore connections to our Mexican heritage and the power of the music to build community, tell stories from our communities, and create a more convivial and communal space. Son Jarocho has a built-in tradition of the fandango, a sort of community celebration and jam session where everyone, including the audience, is a participant."

Las Cafeteras | Photo: Piero F. Giunti.

The group has received wide press attention, including an appearance on NPR's "All Things Considered", and has just released an album titled It's Time. While mainstream success is burgeoning, Las Cafeteras is grounded in a performance philosophy that makes them unconventional as a young musical group. During their live shows they interact with the audience in a dialogical fashion and their lyrics incorporate tangible social messaging that reflects their backgrounds as activists. Frequently, the group takes pubic engagement a step further. At the South L.A. People's Power Festival this summer, an event aimed at promoting civic engagement, Las Cafetera's presence became the nexus around which local organizers and band members could draw attendees into critical discussions, register them to vote, and invite them to participate in ongoing initiatives that affect their community. This fall around the election, the group staged a social media campaign inviting fans, artists, educators and children to share their ideas and concerns around the notion of "If I Was President." During their CD release tour, the group did an exchange with Juntos, an immigrant rights group in Philadelphia, performing for them, listening to the stories of those that they support, and later connecting with the organization when they visited Los Angeles.

It is not surprising, then, that band member Daniel French finds himself in his first year enrolled in Otis College of Art and Design's MFA in Public Practice program, housed at 18th Street Arts Center. In addition to his work with Las Cafeteras, French acts, writes and teaches theater. "I'm in the Public Practice program to expand and deepen my practice. I'm using my time at Otis as a laboratory exploring how sound, performance, and video can be used in public space to reveal and shift power dynamics and structures, spark dialog, and create convivial space. I'm really interested in how public art practice can play strategic and powerful roles in transforming a community, and how that practice can integrate information and partner with specific groups already working in the community," says French.

Las Cafeteras | Photo: Piero F. Giunti.

Las Cafeteras is trans-disciplinary in that it mixes community organizing with music. French intends to extend his participation in the group and their methodologies for cultural production into new avenues in the visual arts. French states, "I'm really inspired by the work of folks like Marc Bamuthi Joseph's "Life is Living" project, Tania Brugera's "Immigrant Movement Intercational," and the ritualistic performance art of Guillermo Gomez-Peña. I'll actually be working with a cadre of Bay Area artists on a night of interventions at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, which Bamuthi is a part of convening. So I'm taking a lot of notes of the curatorial, performance, and public practices of artists and looking for inspiration and opportunities to integrate them into my work."

Las Cafeteras | Photo: Piero F. Giunti.

French's interests reflect an interplay between art, music and activism that has had a long trajectory within the Mexican American community in L.A. Beginning in the late 1960s, the first Chicano art gallery in the city, Goez Art Studios and Gallery, led by brothers Joe Gonzalez, a sometime Mariachi singer, and "Don Juan" Johnny Gonzalez, who led bands in the golden era of 1960s Chicano Rock and Roll, developed architectural and public art proposals and projects intended to empower and beautify the East Los Angeles community. Willie Herrón, a painter, muralist and member of the Chicano collective Asco, was the front man for the prominent punk band Los Illegals through the 1980s. Beginning in the early 1990s, and in part galvanized by the Zapatista movement that resonated strongly with Chicanos in Los Angeles, an era of musical groups incorporating social justice themes drew from rap, world beats and rock, producing work infused with political messaging, such as Rage Against the Machine and Ozomatli.

Las Cafeteras is adding a new chapter to this history of activism meets music meets art, re-branding it as a mix of Mexican folk and American genres. On the surface, Hip Hop and Jarocho might not seem to work, but they do. It's a marriage of storytelling forms completely appropriate for a millennial generation who respond to all of their contemporary influences and who are heavily invested in the idea of community, driven by issues such as the Dream Act and immigration reform. Of their goals with the project, Las Cafeteras says, "We want folks, in particular youth, to see us and say, 'If they can do that, then so can I,' and use whatever medium they want to become agents of change."

Las Cafeteras | Photo: Piero F. Giunti.

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About the Author

Pilar Tompkins Rivas is Director of Residency Programs at 18th Street Arts Center in Santa Monica. She has served as arts project coordinator at the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center, curator of the Claremont Museum of Art and ...
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