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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.
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
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
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."
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.
5/6 Two people hug at the Cumbiatón party. | Paolo J. Riveros/Cumbiatón
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.

While the fusion between cumbia and reggaeton is the core of what the DJs spin, they also play a wide breadth of music that the Latinx community enjoys, like hip hop, salsa, merengue and banda. Pech said they're mindful of the different genres because the Latinx community is made up of people from South, Central, North America and beyond.

They focus on inviting womxn and queer people to DJ, which is an industry that is often male-dominated. Same goes for womxn-led mariachi bands. "We do a lot of the things based on our personal experiences, and how some parties or experiences have made us feel," Pech said. "We want to be the space that doesn't replicate those cycles of oppression or exclusivity."

Part of Cumbiatón's charm is its unpretentious vibes. It doesn't matter what you wear or how old you are, but they do have some expectations of their guests. "Even though we are a very welcoming space, we are also a political space, where we uplift and center womxn, queers, immigrants and people of color," Pech said.

We don't tolerate any of the isms — racism, ableism, sexism — or misogyny, any of that. We've got to check all of that at the door.
Zacil Pech

Yaquelin Hernandez, 30, first discovered Cumbiatón two years ago. However, she didn't actually start attending until its last two events when she met Fajardo. Hernandez ended up vending at the parties, selling jewelry that she makes. She instantly fell in love with this dance community's inclusivity and support. As an undocumented immigrant, she was relieved to find a safe space where she felt comfortable.

"Whether you're trans, gay, bisexual or you're Black and brown, it really feels like a safe space to just go and have fun and meet people," Hernandez said. "You know the way that you go and the way that you act will not be something that will bother somebody."

Kevin Garcia, who's been attending Cumbiatón since its humble beginnings in that billiards bar, first learned about it through his girlfriend, who's a friend of Pech and Fajardo. He's gone so many times that he's lost count. One of the reasons he keeps going back is because of Cumbiatón's vibe.

"I'm a heterosexual man and I grew up in the Latin community, but there are also queer and non-binary people there. We're all in the same space united by the music and the culture that we all grew up in, but it's also still in the 21st century of cool inclusivity and acceptance of everyone, which you know, doesn't always happen. That's why it's such a great space. I think that's why everyone loves going."

One of the principles behind organizing the Cumbiatón events is to foster a sense of family. When the events were taking place in person, the team would walk around and stop to chat with guests to get to know them. Fajardo interviewed attendees at the parties about what Cumbiatón means to them.

Womxn of Cumbia event March 6, 2020.
Performer Angela performs as Selena at the Womxn of Cumbia event March 6, 2020. | Paolo J. Riveros/Cumbiatón

"Yes, we are a party, but we're not just a party where you come and pay and then you leave; it's not just transactional," Fajardo, 32, said. "We really do try to get to know the Cumbiatóneros who come to our event, and we really do focus on fostering the sense of family and support for one another."

There is an intergenerational component to the events as well. Kevin Garcia's parents have gone more than 10 times. They usually get to the venue a few minutes before the doors open — and sometimes even closing out the event — while Kevin will show up a couple of hours later with his friends.

"To us, me and my wife, we have a great time because of the ambiance, the people and the DJs," Carlos Garcia said. "All the young guys and [people of] different ages come, and nobody's paying attention to how you dress or how you look or anything like that."

They've brought along their friends and relatives. Even Kevin Garcia's 76-year-old grandmother will get down on the dance floor. Martha Garcia said she would go every weekend if she could.

"This whole situation doesn't feel weird or awkward," Kevin Garcia said about attending the same Cumbiatón events as his family. "It just feels like a growth from family parties that we attended before, just now they're at night with other strangers."

The Cumbiatón collective made it a point to have the parties encompass a wide range of ages. "The intergenerational part came because … we didn't get here by ourselves, right?" Pech said. "We got here through the help and were uplifted by our parents as well. Many of us. So a lot of the culture, music and customs, we learned that from our elders, whether it's our caregivers, our mothers, our tíos or tías. We wanted to really create a space that was going to be reflective of that as well."

Going Virtual with Womxn of Cumbia

Fajardo was surprised that when Cumbiatón went virtual, their audience grew.

"Most of our party is nationwide, but we don't have the ability to travel outside the U.S.," Fajardo said. "But now that we are in this horrible pandemic and we've been forced to do virtual events, I feel like it's like a blessing in disguise because we've been able to grow even more and reach places where we don't have access to travel to."

They expanded their programming beyond just playing music. Last March, Fajardo started an interview series called, "Oversharing with Normz La Oaxaqueña" through her Instagram Live. It was initially a way for them to virtually connect with their Cumbiatóneros. She began inviting different artists and musicians who are part of the Cumbiatón movement, so that their following could learn more about them and support their craft during these difficult times. It was also a way to document the movement. Fajardo will be launching the second season this month.

As the Cumbiatón collective hit the ground running with their virtual programming, they all decided to take a break from running their social media account when the 46th Presidential election took place in November.

"That's the thing that I don't think a lot of people get for undocumented and queer people, marginalized communities and Black people: Donald Trump [and his administration have] been such a traumatic experience as a whole … I don't know if everybody fully understands the magnitude of that," Pech said.

They recently came back to the virtual space with some live DJ sets. They are now in the midst of planning their Womxn of Cumbia event, which will have DJs, performances and programming that will break down the different regions of cumbia and cover the genre's history.

DJ La Femme Papi performs at the 2020 Womxn of Cumbia event.
DJ La Femme Papi performs at the 2020 Womxn of Cumbia event. | Paolo J. Riveros

The Womxn of Cumbia event first started in 2018 as a way celebrate womxn in an otherwise male-dominated space. They wanted to uplift the voices of womxn who've made contributions to cumbia, like Selena, La Sonora Dinamita and Toto La Momposina.

"We have all of these womxn who have been contributors to the music scene, period," Pech said. "But we also have a lot of womxn that are producing music in this day and age, but are not getting the [same] playtime as their male counterparts. So, that's why this event is super important to us to continue to elevate and highlight all the womxn — past and present — that are continuing to do amazing work in the music industry, particularly for cumbia."

While virtual events have filled the void of live dance nights for the time being, Cumbiatóneros are looking forward to meeting in person again one day. "We're just anxious for everyone to get vaccinated, even with a face mask and face shield on, for all of us to gather together," Carlos Garcia said. "We really miss it."

Editor's note: This article has been updated to correct the date of the Womxn of Cumbia event. The event will be held March 27 instead of March 20 as originally published.

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