Even a travelling sisterhood needs a headquarters. That’s the purpose La Concha, a Boyle Heights community center covered by a rocky façade and guarded by a scarlet gate, serves for Ovarian Psycos bicycle brigade. La Concha is an apt name for the Ovas’ ground zero. The word means shell in Spanish. It’s also a briny euphemism for what’s between a woman’s legs, and the Ovas encourage the women of East Los Angeles and beyond to slide their conchas onto bike seats and go. Onlookers watch the pack coast down First Street, fly across tagged bridges, and sail past auto repair shops with hand-painted signs. Motorists and pedestrians watch the full moon bathe the army of sisters, moms, rebel daughters, and wives wearing helmets, braids, and pigtails. On beach cruisers, road bikes, and wrecks, the Ovas undo. They are decolonizing their neighborhoods one pedal pump at a time.
Christmas lights, political flyers, and stencils reminiscent of José Guadalupe Posada’s prints festoon La Concha’s walls, giving the place a punk woman cave feel. Ovas can be found clustered around the space’s folding table, dialoguing, strategizing, and voting on brigade business. The Ovas function as a collective and they offer La Concha to folks hosting events in sync with their mission/vision. Their handbook describes this as feminism shot through with “indigena understanding and an urban/hood mentality,” and Ova-approved happenings include an eating disorder support group tailored to women of color as well as the Chingonadas open mic.
By describing their pack as a brigade, the Ovas become infantry. They cast themselves as warriors reclaiming public space from those who fail to share it or engage in transactional respect. Those fiercely in need of schooling include catcallers shouting, “Hey, mami!” gentrifiers shilling artisanal stupidity, and motorists panicking at the sight of brown women flexing in the passing lane. The Ovas core membership numbers fourteen, and Joss, a core member, describes the danger her community feels by simply stepping onto East LA sidewalks, “This year, two girls were found murdered in Debs Park. It’s getting intense for us in the streets. These types of things are happening all hours of the day. Our community is feeling the pressure and taking a stand.”
While the Ovas dedicate rides to cultural and political themes, they also dedicate rides to people. This autumn, they dedicated a ride to Briana Nicole Gallegos and Gabriela Calzada, the teens killed in Debs Park. Their rides aren’t only a sight to behold. They translate spectacle into sound. Ovas, some wearing bandanas outlaw-style, only allowing a peek at their eyes, chant, “Whose streets? Our streets!” and, in 2012, this dynamism and bravado grabbed the attention of two feminist filmmakers.
Director Kate Trumbull-LaValle turned her collaborator, Joanna Sokolowski, on to the Ovas after learning of them while she worked as an associate producer on No Más Bebés, a documentary exploring the Madrigal v. Quilligan sterilization case. “[Director] Renee Tajima-Peña mentioned them as community outreach partners who could spread the word about the film,” says Trumbull-LaValle. “Renee said, ‘The Ovarian Psycos could have a ride for the movie,’ and my mouth dropped open. Ovarian Pscyos? What?! I was confused and excited and intrigued by the name.” She called Sokolowski and they proceeded to pore over every image, article, and Facebook post they could find relating to the brigade. The pair had been looking for a story to inspire a film and they knew that in the Ovas, they had found their pearl.
“I’ve always been interested in immigration,” says Trumbull LaValle, who was raised in San Diego by a Mexican-American mother. “I have an affinity for stories about Latinas in the United States. Also, it excited me to see women of color feminists using a bike as an organizing tool. We thought this story would be an important addition to a national conversation about what feminism is and what it should look like.”
Initially, Sokolowski and Trumbull-LaValle set out to create a super-heroine story that measured up to the Ovas’ slogan: “Ovaries so big we don’t need no balls.” However, their focus took a turn towards the brigade’s behind-the-scenes lives where everyday struggles of single motherhood, student life, career, and community activism provided dramatic grist. Sokolowski says, “We formed the core of the film around three women who generously shared their stories with us. We filmed very intimate aspects of their lives, joys and disappointments, and we never had any idea that we would build the kind of relationships that would take us into these women’s homes and bedrooms.” The pair screened The Ovarian Psycos, which spotlights three Ovas--founder Xela de la X, street artist Andi Xoch, and new recruit Evie--this March at the SXSW film festival.
Joss, who has been with the Ovas since their inception, recalls the night the brigade met at de la X’s home to go on their maiden ride. “It was really cool to see a bunch of women come together,” she says. “Not everyone was a cyclist. We came with beer and we had a good time getting to know one another and we were talking about what Ovarian Psycos could become and how our bikes could be our weapons and Xela took off not really holding onto her handlebars. She lost control and cracked her skull.” Joss quips, “We call that ride the Luna Death Ride since Xela almost died.”
Joss chuckles at this Luna lore, but the trauma was so sobering that all rides are now sober events, and while some women felt deterred by Xela’s injury, overcoming feminine stereotypes, especially ones that deem women too delicate to ride, is the Ova’s backbone. Joss explains, “We have been taught for a long time to take care of our bodies because they are fragile. We shouldn’t have anything between our legs, [even a bicycle] because you could damage your goods or you won’t be a virgin anymore.” Joss’s mother never learned how to ride a bike because her grandfather wouldn’t allow it. She stresses, “My mom forced my ass to learn.” Joss is thankful for her mother’s insistence and says, “As I see women riding, it’s very empowering. When I ride, I feel like I’m doing something right for myself and for my community.”
Joan Zamora, another core member, explains the importance of monthly nighttime rides, called Luna Rides, as women only events. “Men have always had fraternities,” she says. “Even when they get married, they still hang out with their friends. Women don’t do that. They separate themselves from other women. There’s a lot of healing that happens when you make and keep friendships outside your family. There’s mental health in sisterhood.” A, a core member and lead cycling instructor, adds, “You hear a lot of [girls says], ‘I hang out with the boys.’ Why is that? We think critically about that.” While women’s spaces have fallen out of vogue in many feminist circles, the Luna Rides and the sense of sisterhood they build connects the Ovas with herstoric practices and traditions ranging from consciousness-raising groups of the 1970s to indigenous American matriarchies to Take Back the Night protests. The Ovas unite these herstories into one explosive street force.
The Ovas also provide an antidote, albeit on wheels, to manspreading. Joss explains that there has been push back, “Some men say we’re sexist and man haters. They create their own rides and call them the Brovarian Psycos. There’s all kinds of hate.” Like skateboarding, cycling has a reputation as a testosterone driven subculture, but such responses haven’t discouraged women from joining and staying in the brigade. A says, “We need solidarity and its hard to find. [Before joining,] I felt very isolated from women. Organizing with mujeres and being with mujeres who want change is healing. I want other women to experience what I feel. Doing it on a bike is amazing.” For Ovas, riding with other women spells freedom. Worries about putting up a face or a front dissolve. A rider’s high replaces anxiety. A no-rider-left-behind ethos solidifies the brigade’s creation of sisterhood.
When it comes to their politics, the Ovas value being checked. Trans women have pressed the Ovas to think critically about the gender politics of their rides and language. A stresses, “As folks who check others’ privilege, check ours, too. As cisgender women, we have the privilege of not being questioned. Check us. This is a collective effort.” Joss adds, “Trans women brought it to our attention that we were being exclusive…with the word ovarian. So, we made a conscious decision to create a safe space for trans women and other female identified energies.” To underscore that womanhood transcends biology, Joan adds, “We’re not checking for ovaries at the rides.”
Although the Ovas are a bicycle brigade, much of their organizing and revolutionary work takes place through the art of conversation. The group values succinct and difficult dialogue and Joss notes, “We like it when we’re given information on how to fix [our mistakes], not just talked shit at.” Trumbull-LaValle and Sokolowski learned this and allowed such dialoguing to transform them during the filmmaking process. “Our strongest relationship is with Xela,” says Trumbull-LaValle. “At first, she said she would have preferred brown women or neighborhood women to make the story and from the get go, there was a conversation. We often questioned, ‘Do we have a right to tell this story and how do we tell it in a way that is authentic?’” Ultimately, the filmmakers lived up to de la X’s scrutiny. They describe the creation of the documentary as a participatory experience.
The Ova way is spreading. Similar brigades are emerging in Southern California and in rural places, like the Menstrual Cycles in the Central Valley. It seems that the Ovas have created a user-friendly blueprint for the use of bicycles as weapons and organizing tools. Joss can trace the trajectory of how cycling changed and radicalized her, first using a bicycle only because her car had broken down. “I didn’t realize I was doing a revolutionary thing,” she says. “I didn’t realize it til my family was like, dude, get a car.” Now, Joss sees herself as a woman with a mission eager to share that mission with other women.