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You're Not Alone, Girl: Choosing Creativity at the Inaugural Southeast L.A. Art Walk

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"We know there are limitless talents in our beautiful Southeast L.A., but those talents need a platform, and this is another avenue [for] the community interaction [...] we seek [...]." --Southeast Los Angeles Colectivo art walk press release

Atlantic and Gage

A spray-painted mural of Cantinflas greeted visitors to the corner of Atlantic and Gage Avenue on August 2. But this wasn't any ordinary Cantinflas. While the artist included the comic legend's signature mustache and red kerchief, the figure was also throwing an L.A. sign with his fingers, wearing a Dodgers cap, and behind him the downtown sky was depicted in purples and oranges. The mural represented the community hosting the event, blending a tradition of creativity with current forms for a new art movement.

While the first-ever Southeast L.A. Art Walk in Bell took nine weeks to plan, the event was a long time in coming. A main stage built for the event sat next to a building with barbed-wire. In the same aerosol Cantinflas portrait was a police helicopter hovering over the buildings. The celebration and its visitors likely did not flinch at the inclusion of the chopper; people were busy walking the half-mile to businesses on Atlantic Boulevard all the way to Slauson Avenue.

This art walk took so long to come into being because there are so many other things with which families in southeast L.A. are concerned. A few blocks away lies the Exide factory in Vernon that has lined the soil with lead for decades; the children getting their faces painted were a mile or so from the 710 freeway that Caltrans is expanding without discussing the full environmental impact its construction will have on the thousands of nearby residents. Despite all of these conditions, young organizers and artists staged a very successful celebration of the arts and creativity.

To me, the event affirmed the power of self-determination. By creating and acknowledging beauty, as organizers and visitors, we acted in resistance to the conditions under which we live as working class people of color. The art walk was an act of renaming of the space where we live.

"One of the effects we wanted the art walk to have was to establish that we DO have an arts culture in the southeast," said Damaris Pereda, SELA Colectivo co-founder. "When people think of our neighborhoods, it is common to think of corruption, low-income neighborhoods, and a place people drive by, not necessarily go to."

Bell High School students and photographers | Photo: Vickie Vertiz
Bell High School students and photographers | Photo: Vickie Vertiz

The booths hosted a collection of people I'd been waiting my whole life to see in the southeast: Seite Books from East Los Angeles, Ovarian Psycos Bicycle Brigade, Encuentro Latino Art Gallery, Esperanza Urban Garden, Autonomous Communities for Reproductive and Abortion Support (ACRAS), Girls Rock or Chicas Rockeras, among many others. The main stage featured punk bands, film makers, dancers, and individual artists selling their illustrations and paintings. Luckily, the volunteers at SELA Colectivo could wait no longer, and just as lucky, they had support.

"The city was really happy to help us get the right permits," said Adilene Lopez Valenzuela, media representative for the SELA Art Walk. "They're excited to help us again. Even people from South Gate approached us about doing an art walk there."

The temperature was in the 90s but attendants jammed the booths across from a shuttered car dealership: families, couples, groups of friends dressed in black with bangs obscuring an eye, and a handful of seniors. People came out in the hundreds to see art and hear music, to support their kids, brothers and sisters, and neighbors. I'm the one in the family who drags everyone to art shows, from the Geffen to the Huntington Library, and thankfully, this time we didn't have to go far to enjoy multiple art forms.

I was so excited about the event that when I saw the Ovarian Psycos booth, I started confessing all kinds of things.

"Growing up I felt alone a lot," I told a member at a table full of flyers for their Clitoral Mass ride happening soon. She had maroon-colored hair, bangs, and wing-tipped eyeliner. "I only knew a handful other kids who liked art, who wanted to go to poetry readings, but there was nowhere to go around here."

"I hear you," said Andi Xoch, who grew up in Lincoln Heights. "But you're not alone, girl. Common, let's take this picture."

I took a photo of Andi and two of the other members, even posing with them for one where we threw signs in the shape of ovaries, like an upside down "ok" on the pelvis (except I was holding mine too high up; go figure).

Ovarian Psycos Maryann Aguirre, Alejandra Ocasio, Andi Xoch | Photo: Vickie Vertiz
Ovarian Psycos Maryann Aguirre, Alejandra Ocasio, Andi Xoch | Photo: Vickie Vertiz

A few steps from them was a group of Bell High School Students who pulled me aside to explain their gallery of pinhole photographs.

"We took this box and sealed it tight," said the student whose hair tips were dyed red. There were two young men next to her also holding their pinhole cameras, simultaneously showing me how it worked as their classmate talked. "We taped light-sensitive paper to the inside," she continued, "Then we opened the aperture to capture the image."

They were selling their photos or taking donations, so I happily contributed to their project. It turns out they were students of Cynthia Herrera, the photographer and community artist featured in the first essay in this series.

We made our way to Sunday's Best Thrift Shop, where SELA screened three short films in a back room surrounded by racks of vintage Hawaiian shirts and circle skirts. The organizers purposefully avoided large corporations to support local businesses like Paleteria Limon, the Neighborhood Bike Shop, and Ernie's Computer Repair, among many others.

The art forms ranged from deejays playing at car dealerships, while a block away a young man of about sixteen played folk songs on an acoustic guitar in front of the bike shop. Artists showed their screen prints, photographs, sculptures, and jewelry inside businesses like Taqueria Noa Noa, bringing in customers to sleepy businesses in numbers they wouldn't normally see until the winter holidays.

"We hope to avoid this becoming a commercialized event," added Pereda. "We started this [...] in a very grassroots way [...], always including people from this community in the planning, execution, and participation of it."

The art walk also featured workshops, everything from civil rights with Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), to urban gardening with Esperanza Urban Garden volunteers. The Esperanza staff even handed out tiny tomato plants and offered compost worms to passersby. Mom declined the offer.

"Yo pa que quiero lombrices?" She made a joke about tape worms you'd only get if you spoke Spanish. I explained how they'd make her compost more rich but she wasn't interested. Her garden was doing just fine, she said.

Love your community

The SELA Colectivo booth sold T-shirts, water, and gave out maps. Their black board read, "Love your community." Under that the sign asked, "What do you want to see in your community?" People wrote things like, "More LGBT spaces," "Affordable housing," "More art." They made a map where visitors could pin where they were visiting from across the southeast, from Vernon to South Gate, but folks also came out from places as far away as Riverside.

Love Your Community board with comments | Photo Vickie Vertiz
Love Your Community board with comments | Photo Vickie Vertiz

The open mic got started at six and featured an intergenerational cast, from a SELA organizer's mothers who recited a poem, to a duo of young men in bow ties who did a cover of Everly Brothers songs. Before them, Thee Commons screamed their lyrics in English and Spanish into the mic and made the crowd bop their heads.

"The lady at the paleteria said her business was packed all day," said Eric Contreras, SELA Co-founder. "She even asked me if we were going to have it every month. I was like, señora, it took us nine weeks to organize this one, give us a chance!" Eric is the young man who hosts the Alivio open mic out of his parents' house, featured on KCET and the Los Angeles Times this April.

"We're so happy, but really exhausted," said Adilene Lopez Valenzuela, media representative for the art walk, who is also from Bell Gardens. Standing off to the side of the main stage we gloated about how packed the whole thing had been.

"It took a while," she said. "Now that it's so full, it's kind of surreal."

The art walk was atypical for these kinds of events I've attended where people walk around ignoring the art, drinking from paper bags, and celebrating how cool they think they are.

"Look at all this art!" yelled Dorenyse Diaz, the open mic emcee whose mother had also read a poem. "This is not about gentrification," she added. "Our people make art -- just look at all these people!"

She was right. The art walk was about celebrating home, about choosing joy and celebration over limitation, giving value to everyone's contributions instead of that of a few.

"We don't have a[nother] date yet," said Pereda. "But based on what we saw and experienced [that] weekend, we know it won't be the last."

SELA Colectivo | Photo Ana K. Garcia
SELA Colectivo | Photo Ana K. Garcia

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