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Cumbiatón, a Safe Space for L.A.'s Queer and Latinx Communities, Grows Virtually

Cubiaton 2 Year Anniversary_1.jpeg
Performer Angela performs as Selena at the Womxn of Cumbia event March 6, 2020. | Paolo J. Riveros/Cumbiatón
The Cumbiatón collective is finding new creative ways to connect to undocumented immigrant and queer communities through its virtual dance parties.
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At the start of L.A.'s stay-at-home orders last March, the team behind Cumbiatón — an inclusive dance party for intergenerational Latinx immigrants, the queer community and womxn — were nimble. Its cofounder Zacil Pech (aka DJ Sizzle Fantastic) knew that with venues closed and their gigs cancelled, they would have to quickly adapt to a new reality and move their programming to the virtual space.

Within a week, they had already set up DJ sets centered around cumbia and reggaeton music on Instagram Live, something they consistently continued to do for the next eight months. They recently expanded to Twitch's live streaming platform as well.

"It was very telling during COVID because we started seeing that people were not only just tuning in live just to tune in," said Pech, 31. "No, they were commenting, like, 'Hey, how've you been? … Do you want me to go get you a drink?' They were creating this space as if they were at Cumbiatón. [They'd say things like,] 'The bathroom line is really long, but I am holding the space for you if somebody wants to come in,' where it created that sense of community, that in a time when we were so disconnected from each other, people found the way to connect back to each other, even virtually."

DJ Sizzle Fantastic performs in a room lit in green light.
DJ Sizzle Fantastic performs at a Cumbiatón event September 27, 2019 in partnership with Arrebato, a space centering trans and gender nonconforming queer Black and brown womxn and femmes. | Paolo J. Riveros

Regular Cumbiatón attendees, Kevin Garcia, 29, and his parents Carlos, 57, and Martha, 54, have been fans of its virtual programming during the pandemic. "We still attend it because Sizzle will do her Cumbiatón livestream on Instagram," Kevin Garcia said. "[We'll] tune in [on like] a Friday at 10 o'clock and connect it to the Apple TV. We get the juice where we can."

A year into this online format, the Cumbiatón collective, which is composed of undocumented and DACAmented members of the immigrant youth movement, are in the midst of planning their biggest virtual party, their fourth annual Womxn of Cumbia event March 27, on Twitch.

Tiny Bar, Big Impact

When Pech and Norma Fajardo (aka Normz La Oaxaqueña), who both come from social justice organizing backgrounds, started Cumbiatón in 2017, it was on the heels of Donald Trump being elected as President.

"We saw the need for a space where folks who were social justice-oriented or were involved in movement work in one way or another to come together and kind of release because there was such turmoil, there was such fear," Pech said. "There were obviously sentiments of anger, frustration — and all sentiments you could probably feel around this election. But more than anything, it was just so uncertain, so we decided to create a space that was going to be a healing space for our folks to come and release through music, dance movement and community."

Pech and Fajardo met around 2014 while doing an internship at Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, which centered on connecting workers' and immigrants' rights. As advocates fighting for underserved laborers, they found that their work could be mentally, emotionally and physically draining. It was difficult to detach at the end of the day from the heaviness that was a byproduct their efforts. As a way to unwind, the two would go dancing or meet up for a drink or coffee after work.

"That's where we found that common ground where we were like, 'OK, maybe this is something else that we can do — as we saw it being beneficial for ourselves — on a larger spectrum for our communities, whether it's social justice organizing; undocumented, queer or marginalized communities; or [people] that just wanted an escape, even if it's just for a few hours of the day," Pech said. "And it's not necessarily an escape, it's a moment for you to recharge, refuel and replenish all that you give out."

A lady in a flower shirt expresses joy at Cumbiatón.
A lady in a flower shirt expresses joy at Cumbiatón.
1/6 A lady in a flower shirt expresses joy at Cumbiatón during their Mother's Day festivities. | Paolo J. Riveros/Cumbiatón
A woman in a purple top and a man in a cowboy hat dance at Cumbiatón
A woman in a purple top and a man in a cowboy hat dance at Cumbiatón
2/6 A woman in a purple top and a man in a cowboy hat dance at Cumbiatón. | Paolo J. Riveros/Cumbiatón
Two people party at Cumbiatón
Two people party at Cumbiatón
3/6 Two people party at Cumbiatón. | Paolo J. Riveros/Cumbiatón
A crowd dances at the Cumbiaton Posada Tropical event December 28, 2020. A man in the foreground holds up a white t-shirt that reads, "Cumbia."
A crowd dances at the Cumbiaton Posada Tropical event December 28, 2020. A man in the foreground holds up a white t-shirt that reads, "Cumbia."
4/6 A crowd dances at the Cumbiaton Posada Tropical event December 28, 2020. | Paolo J. Riveros/Cumbiatón
Two people hug at the Cumbiatón party.
Two people hug at the Cumbiatón party.
5/6 Two people hug at the Cumbiatón party. | Paolo J. Riveros/Cumbiatón
An older gentelman and lady at a Cumbiatón party.
An older gentelman and lady at a Cumbiatón party.
6/6 An older gentelman and lady at a Cumbiatón party. | Paolo J. Riveros/Cumbiatón

Fajardo, who's been organizing workers' rights for the last decade, didn't expect her path to lead her to cofounding Cumbiatón. "If you would have asked me five years ago that I would have been planning parties, I wouldn't have believed you," she said. "But we realized that most of the Cumbiatón collective has a background of organizing in general or being part of the immigrant youth movement, so the way we see it is that now we organize in a different way: we organize through parties."

Their team grew to include members DJ Funky Caramelo, photographer Paolo Riveros and artist Julio Salgado. "We are undocumented, we are queer, we are trans," Pech said. "We are womxn. We are artists. And we wanted to create a space that was directly reflective of that."

Pech recalled their first event taking place at Boyle Heights' First Street Pool & Billiard Parlor, a "rinky dink bar" with a wobbly makeshift stage and 50 of their closest friends. As attendees began telling them that they were happy this inclusive event existed for them, Cumbiatón expanded. Their monthly events ballooned to packed venues at L.A. hotspots like the Echoplex, Globe Theatre and the Regent. They took their show on the road to San Francisco, Seattle and New York. Just before the pandemic, they were selling out venues to over 1,000 people per night.