Las Cafeteras Band Picture With Denise Carlos in Center

I WAS THERE: Tour is Cancelled But COVID-19 Won’t Stop L.A.’s Las Cafeteras

My name is Denise Carlos. I was born in Monterey Park, California, and raised in southeast L.A. in Huntington Park and Bell. And my parents are both immigrants from Mexico. I was in my living room in my pajamas, probably watching Netflix when I read that e-mail from our manager saying our tour was canceled. The first thing that comes to my head, right, is how am I going to pay rent? The second is, who am I now? 

So Las Cafeteras is a group of friends who got together in the early 2000s as folks who wanted to make a change in our communities of L.A. and were offered this gift of music, of Son Jarocho, in the space called the East Side Cafe, which is in Northeast LA. 

Eventually, we took to the streets and would go to marches and sing throughout the marches. Then we went South by Southwest. We've played the Montreal Jazz Fest. The Hollywood Bowl has been one of the biggest places. The Lincoln Center, also, in New York. To be able to travel with this music and to really hopefully honor where we come from and our ancestors and our stories and our lineage is really a privilege for us. 

This tour was important because it was the tour where we were going to invite people to  civil action. We're going to have people go out and vote. And if they can't, they're going to understand why they can be community leaders. So when we got that e-mail saying, you know, New York is canceled and Boston is canceled… Who am I now? You know, if I can't make these connections with these communities, how do we spread this message and how do we have these conversations? 

Quarantine has really hit all of us hard in a different way. 

I've had really hard days where I cannot get that creative flow to move, where I don't feel inspired to write a song. But at the same time, I'm taken aback by how our society is being challenged to change and be uncomfortable. Everything that's happening now in L.A.  during quarantine around Black Lives Matter, around the DACA decision, around the LGBTQIA act upholding civil rights in the work space. All of this is very real. And so that inspires me to write the stories of today. 

LAS CAFETERAS SONG: And the only way to know how far we can go is if we put our power together, like this, like this…

Things feel like they're falling apart. But in the falling apart there’s an opportunity to harvest and tend to the wounds of the heart of this country. And so the artist will utilize whatever moment in time that can be traumatic and that can be disastrous and make something beautiful out of it. 

And so I think Las Cafeteras, we're not pausing. We're just shifting. 

“Things feel like they’re falling apart. But the artist will utilize whatever moment in time that can be traumatic and make something beautiful out of it.”

When Las Cafeteras’ singer Denise Carlos got the call that their upcoming tour was cancelled, she felt lost. Suddenly, she found herself in the same situation as thirty million others: out of a job and wondering how to pay the rent. It was also a stinging blow to Carlos and her fellow musicians, who formed the band in 2006 while working as community organizers in East Los Angeles. 

The 2020 tour would’ve taken the group across the country and exposed new audiences to the sounds of son jarocho music. The members planned to take advantage of being on the road and encourage voting registration during what they saw as a critical election year. With a global pandemic derailing the band’s plans and its community activism, Carlos found herself grappling with how to keep the music alive and stay focused while living in lockdown. 


About the Series

"I WAS THERE" is about telling a great story. This series of first-person accounts breaks current and historical events down to human scale, carefully taking the viewer behind some of Southern California’s biggest headlines.

Production team

Executive Producer: Karen Foshay 

Producers: Tori Edgar, Denise Chan & Michael Ray 

Photographers: Trevor Jackson, Karen Foshay

Editor/Graphics: Michael Ray, Andy Viner

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