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The Chulita Vinyl Club Spins a Safe Space for Music and Identity

The Chulita Vinyl Club | César Cervantes
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When Claudia Saenz first dreamt up the idea of the Chulita Vinyl Club during her commutes between San Antonio and Austin, she wasn’t trying to start a movement. “There were female DJs around, but I just felt there was a need for a platform for vinyl-loving girls that wanted to DJ," she explains. Saenz, who now lives in San Jose, included herself in those ranks: she was an avid vinyl collector but wanted to play her records in public. Given how few women she saw behind the DJ booth, she figured there’d be others like her. She had no idea how true that was. 

The Chulita Vinyl Club (Liz Rosales, Linda Tovar, Roseli Martinez, MaryAnn Aguirre and Karina Ramirez) | César Cervantes
The Chulita Vinyl Club (Liz Rosales, Linda Tovar, Roseli Martinez, MaryAnn Aguirre and Karina Ramirez) | César Cervantes

DJ crews date back at least as far as the 1970s. At that time, more affordable audio equipment helped spread DJing to the masses. Joining up with other DJs offered practical advantages — heavy speakers and crates of records don’t just move themselves — but mostly, DJ groups provided both social interaction and a shared identity and sense of purpose, not unlike a sports team. It’s easy to think of DJs as being solitary — it’s how they’re depicted in mass media — but in real life, most DJs form strong bonds with other DJs; it’s how they learn about records, find gigs, learning mixing techniques, etc. With Saenz’s idea for the Chulita Vinyl Club, she was tapping into a woefully underserved community of potential enthusiasts: Latinas. 

Saenz started CVC in Austin in the winter of 2014 and the response to their early parties was overwhelming. Women who had attended or simply heard of the first few events asked permission to form their own chapters. San Antonio formed their own Chulita Vinyl Club. Then the Rio Grande Valley. Then the Club found fans in California, with chapters forming in the Bay Area, San Diego, Santa Ana and naturally, Los Angeles. 

Chulita Vinyl Club founder Claudia Saenz | Mariana Gonzales
Chulita Vinyl Club founder Claudia Saenz | Mariana Gonzales

“I first read about [CVC] online and immediately…felt a connection, like, ‘Oh my god! I relate to this!’” recalls Roseli Martinez, one of the women who helped found CVC’s L.A. chapter a little over a year ago. Much like Saenz, Martinez simply floated the idea out on social media and immediately had people responding. 

One of those included Tovar. “I had been following Roseli [Martinez] for some time because she’s also a writer and an artist,” Aguirre explains, adding that she wrote Martinez to ask, “can I intern? I don't know anything about turntables. I own a few records, but I'm also really skilled in social media and event planning and producing and hosting. And Roseli was really kind. She was just like, ‘Girl! Just show up!’” And thus was born the L.A. chapter. 

The Chulita Vinyl Club is informal in its organization; they don’t have a parliamentarian running meetings via Robert’s Rules or anything. Linda Tovar, another L.A. member, explains that when they meet, “we share our collections, put on a record and talk. Or we bring food and have a little potluck.” However, the import of these interactions is anything but casual. 

The Los Angeles chapter recently celebrated their one year anniversary in late spring at The Airliner in Lincoln Heights. On the back patio, vendors sold everything from handmade lighter covers to silkscreened t-shirts to, of course, records. Inside the club, old school train cases were filled with 7” singles and Aguirre, Martinez, Tovar and other chapter members spun for a packed audience that danced — and occasionally conga-lined — to everything from classic ‘70s funk to ‘90s dance hall to ‘60s psychedelic Peruvian cover songs.

Individual women DJs have always been in the mix — no pun intended — but despite over 40 years of DJ culture, there have rarely been platforms for women, least of all of color, to talk about records, learn to mix, and importantly, play gigs. Tovar shares that she used to be far more self-conscious at parties, especially if she was the lone woman of color, but after this past year with CVC, “I feel empowered and a lot closer to the music that I'm playing because I've been digging and discovering new sounds and exploring different ways to play them.” 

“It's not too often that you see a queer, first-generation, woman of color on the turntables,” adds Martinez. For her, CVC has opened doors to “infiltrate institutions that otherwise wouldn't take a second look at us,” such as museums and other, more traditional cultural spaces.

The fact that most — though not exclusively all — the members of the CVC chapters are Latina isn’t incidental either. “There's a saying that can be found [printed] on almost every record: ‘El Disco Es Cultura,’ which means, ‘The Disc is Culture,” Tovar points out. Playing records she says, “is a way of keeping in touch with the past, with your roots.” Tovar, whose grandfather is still in El Salvador, mentions some of the records she has that used to belong to him: “these records survived the civil war in El Salvador and it's empowering to have it in your hands and to have it be so tangible, so close to home, a piece of history.” 

At this point, the Chulita Vinyl Club has already grown far beyond Saenz's original vision. "It's not my own anymore; I am not Chulita Vinyl Club,” she says. Instead, the club’s direction is in the hands of its members. For the L.A. chapter, starting off into Year Two, Tovar hopes to see more crossover with the city’s vibrant art community: “I definitely want to get more involved with community events or art spaces and hosting workshops [for] people of color and queer people. We want to cultivate more spaces for ourselves and for those people that are interested in exploring what vinyl culture means, and then having them find their own relationship through that.” 

Those possible impacts aren’t limited to the local either. Martinez thinks that just as the CVC caught fire in Texas and California, there’s no reason it can’t spread to other cities. “I can't even tell you how many times people message me and they're like, ‘I wish this existed where I was,’” she says. Martinez thinks what Chulita Vinyl Club offers, at the core, is a space that feels safe to explore, where women can feel “comfortable to get up there or maybe pursue collecting more seriously, or whatever. Or just feel like you can share your favorite song with someone. Something as simple as that.”

Top Image: Chulita Vinyl Club | César Cervantes

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