Wednesday, November 14, 2012

It's Time for Las Cafeteras!

They are Las Cafeteras, a seven-piece ensemble born in El Sereno under the watchful care of Roberto Flores and his brood, a clan of family members—some only symbolically adopted—that gathers still at a space called the East Side Café. Home to the spirit of collective cultural and political work, the East Side Café on Huntington Drive had long been an outpost of Zapatismo, progressive politics and a return to the roots of communal labor that seeks to uplift the needs of the many and eschew the glorification or gratification of the few.

Quiet and humble, Roberto Flores refused then and refuses still to be considered a patriarch. His has always been the spirit of collectivism. His own children, among them Quetzal and Xochitl and Angela Lucía, took those lessons… that kind of life learning gleaned as children of the movimiento and made music with it.

But it was not just music or even just movimiento music. It was black music, African music that had been molded and shaped by its marriage to indigenous Mexican cultures on the tropical shores of what is now known as the state of Veracruz. While not commonly known, only ten percent of the African slaves brought to new world were destined for the colonies that later became the U.S. The rest, 90% or more, were bound for Mexico and the rest of Latin America.  Nowhere is the African influence in the land of our forebears more evident than in son jarocho, a sound created by red and black slaves, human beings forced to labor under threat of whips, chains and guns.

Resisting their oppression at the hands of the colonizers and enslavers, they often came together, combining their respective musical and cultural traditions to celebrate freedom and liberation with joy. While their bodies may have been shackled, their hearts could still create, imagine and dream. Son jarocho is thus, at its core, the music of protest and resistance, the music of the original freedom fighters who knew, even then, that none could stem the tide, the inevitable triumph of those who would reshape the world into a place devoid of violence, greed and oppression.

Although only three parts women and four parts men, they are still called Las Cafeteras in deference to those slave women who worked on coffee and tobacco plantations throughout the Americas. Their debut, full-length CD is entitled It's Time. And the anthem which reveals the essence of their debut album release, a song titled “La Bamba Rebelde,” is a bold re-tooling of the traditional Mexican-American party track, a century-old song made famous in the U.S. by Ritchie Valens (Richard Valenzuela) and later given new life by Los Lobos for the Luís Valdez biopic of the “kid from Pacoima.”

In the Cafeteras version, however, the traditional son jarocho call and response dialogue directly addresses the poignant political issues that propelled Obama into the White House for yet another term. Jabs at anti-immigrant laws in Arizona and elsewhere, support for same-sex marriage, and an anti-war stance are just three examples of what give the song new teeth.

The group is comprised of Annette Torres on the marimbol, Denise Carlos on jarana and lead vocals, Daniel Jesús French on jarana and back-up vocals, Hector Flores on jarana and back up vocals and David Flores on requinto as well as quijada keeper Leah Rose Gallegos on lead vocals and José Cano on flutes and caja. Carlos, Hector Flores (brother of David), Gallegos and Torres also chime in with zapateado during the bands thrilling and universally popular live performances.

The opening track “El Chuchumbé” refers directly to a style of music and dance that was banned by the Spanish Catholic Church in colonial Mexico for its physically expressive, playfully romantic and flirtatiously suggestive lyrics or rhymes. Not only were the native and African slaves enriching the invaders through their forced labor, but they were being denied even life’s most simplest pleasures  

Produced by Aparato's Alexandro D. Hernández Gutiérrez, a PhD. candidate in ethnomusicology and chronic musician and Eguene Toale, It’ Time teems with the energy of Canto Nuevo and son jarocho fused at an East Side back yard happening in honor of a good cause, but it also vibrates with production virtuosity. Recorded at Bedrock Studios in Silver Lake, the album’s primary vocals are delivered by Carlos, Gallegos and French, the first two trading turns with haunting, torch-singer voices that seem to have been schooled by exposure Lila Downs and La Santa Cecilia’s Marisoul Hernández and perhaps even Hope Sandoval of Mazzy Star.

The opening a cappella zapateado on “Café con Pan” is more than an invitation to dance in happy communion with Las Cafeteras. It is also a call to action as much as a preamble to the traditional “fandango,” a musical fiesta where composers of improvised décimas and dancers come together. “Luna Lovers,” the subsequent song, is a soft quiet reverie, a ballad that speaks to the sweet surrender that is love. It is a stroll through the landscape of yearning and eternal companionship, illuminated by the ancient grandmother in the sky. With the addition of French on vocals, the love song is a lyrical balance between the three voices and delicate, jarana string pucking (requinto).

Addressing a heavier, yet no less emotional subject, “Ya Me Voy” begins with minor chord flamenco-esque riffs created on the jarana (as a opposed to the guitar). The lyrics speak to exile, to the circumstances that lead to emigration and of the dreams that promise a better life. The song is a melodic reminder that leaving home for a far off land is journey also fraught with danger and uncertainty. By contrast, “It’s Movement Time” is a resounding hip-hop poem that underscores the history of race relation across the continent and the birth of civil rights struggles in the U.S. From Benito Juárez, who abolished slavery in Mexico, California’s United Farm Workers and the Chicano Brown Berets to imprisoned black activist Mumia Abu Jamal, murdered teenager Treyvon Martin and Chicago Young Lords, the rap is a roll call in support of progressive causes across the last century. Ultimately, it is a call for unity as we move forward in an era where poor and working class people of all colors and creeds need, now more than ever, to stand together.

As a whole, the collection of songs is an erudite and musically potent blend that brings son jarocho, Chicano protest music, hip-hop and trova nueva together for a peek at the future of Chicano-Latino music in Los Angeles. From music that speaks directly to the Juárez femicides in “Mujer Soy,” a moving song made all the more powerful by Cano’s Native American flute, to “Trabajador-Trabajadora,” a tribute to the humblest of working people everywhere delivered in harmonious song and hip-hop rhyme, the album lingers like a searing vision that leaves brightly colored tracers on the back of your eyelid. It’s time for It’s Time and it’s time for Las Cafeteras.

Monday, July 9, 2012


It’s me and Chapulín. This kid calls me maestro, and there is no more humbling an attribution. We’re at a neighborhood bar working on our second or third beer after walking through the Mobile Mural Lab which has been stationed strategically at the regular Friday afternoon Boyle Heights Farmer’s Market. It’s getting cool, and until just moments before taking a seat on these stools, our pockets were empty. For poets, this is not a surprise. Penniless poet is a redundancy.

“No problem,” I had uttered an hour or two earlier. We see a client and a Brooklyn & Boyle contributing writer, a successful attorney who supports the arts and advertises here regularly. He doesn’t have a problem with an advance payment on the next issue. Chapulín is a poet, and, of course, poets never think about the weather or whether they’re dressed appropriately. He’s in a t-shirt, shorts and the inevitable Chuck Taylors. As the sun goes down, I can see he’s having a tough time with the drop in temperature.

“We have to start your Eastside poe-tour and cantina crawl with a stop at the Proyecto Pastoral segunda to get you a long sleeve flannel, homie,” I tell the young vato sporting a goatee and Buddy Holly horn-rimmed glasses. Bronze and maybe just a bit on the chonchito side like me, he is covered in a grip of tattoos. Daniel Morales León, AKA El Chapulín, is the resident poet at La Mina Collective, over in City Terrace. Relocated from South Central to LA’s Eastside, he is part of a circle that also includes the charmingly magnetic boys in a lively cumbia band called La Chamba, young dudes who also happen to take political organizing with a zeal and a seriousness that provokes and inspires. They are LA’s first and foremost exponents of cumbia chicha, a Peruvian variation of working class cumbia where the accordion has been supplanted by the electric guitar. Daniel’s jefitos are from Oaxaca, and they don’t necessarily always understand, he says, that he is a “poeta necio,” a handle I’ve managed to get friendlier with myself over the years.

“They have a hard time understanding just exactly what it is I do,” says Chapulín, who has also begun extending his Eastside residency with regular gigs as the host of the Corazón del Pueblo bi-monthly open mic series, Flowers of Fire.

“You know why we named it Flowers of Fire, right? Flores de Fuego,” I say. “Not really, but I can pretty much guess,” comes the reply from a sage and wise young bard who I’ve watched the sun come up with more than once already.

“When we first came together as the original Corazón del Pueblo collective board, we were thinking of the floricanto, you know, ‘in xochitl in cuicatl,’ which is nahuatl for ‘flower-song,’” I explain. We weave back and forth on a hundred subjects but mostly we get back to the poetry and what it means and why we have to write. And then there are references to Neruda and Roque Dalton. I’m trying to tell him about the argentina Alejandra Pizarnik and her “ extracción de la piedra de la locura,” that stone of madness we both have lodged in our brains.

“She committed suicide,” I say. “Say what?” says Chapulín. “Yeah, she OD’d on seconal on purpose,” I say. Later, we sit in my car and I extract a manuscript to share some more of that madness, the kinds of craziness that keeps Chapulín awake at all hours when he has to write, when he has to let the ink dribble in spades from his fingertips, allowing it to pour forth onto a page before it hemorrhages in his veins.

These are the musings and sharp reveries that have pulled him here, to a barrio not unlike the South Central hood where he was raised, a community that drew me 12 years ago after a decade of nomadic gypsy wanderings in Mexico City, Chiapas, Barcelona, New York, Matamoros, El Paso and Houston after a childhood in Austin marked by movimiento politics, Brown Beret marches against police brutality and the tutelage under an ex-pinto poet named Raúl Salinas, or raúlrsalinas, as he himself signed his named. “Tapón” (the placazo Raúl was given during his own childhood) had authored the now renowned “Un Trip Through the Mind Jail Y Otras Excursions,” and I’m trying to tell Chapulín that lineage and an appreciation for the literary opportunities we have been handed from elders who made it a point to step outside of their traditional homes to embrace brotherhood with distant relatives from all of the tribes is important. I’m telling him that I wouldn’t be publishing this paper in the barrio I recognize as ground zero for Chicano culture worldwide if it weren’t for them.

Chapulin, like many of the young brothers who share spoken word, did not grow up surrounded by nurturing poets who arrived with an armload of books and told them, “you should read this and come back later so we can talk about it.” No, Daniel and many of his peers brought themselves up, literally. They did not have guides or XicanIndio mentors who led them through sweat lodge ceremonies. They looked for and found their poetic voices on the street and in the immigrant stories of their indigena parents.

“I’ve been spittin’ for about a minute,” says Chapulín. And I know he’s the one. He’s the one who can only sit still long enough to let the poem live through him, pound itself out of him until it sees the light of day. I see a grittier, angrier yet somehow still less tortured version of myself in him.  So we chill, we make the rounds. We break bread and follow the moon, howling into the wind and pretending we don’t care. That life is only loaned to us and that we’re on borrowed time. Of course, I tell him that in an effort to let my own street-wise profe know how much his influence and love had meant to me, I coined a word. How I sat in a South Austin restaurant called Little Mexico over a plate of tacos de carne guisada (steak picado to folks here in Califaztlan) and a bottle of cold Corona with the legendary barrio bard, a traveler who had been invited to Cuba and Nicaragua and Libya and Palestine to share revolutionary poetry. How he was at the same time a die-hard radical AIM (American Indian Movement) activist and a co-founder of the national Leonard Peltier Support Committee. How I looked at him with reverence and said I would forever be proud of having been inducted into the great hall of the “literalocos y literatontos” he had adopted and raised.

I tell Chapulin how Raúl used to humbly refer to himself as the cockroach poet because he never took it so seriously that he had to act like a diva and demand green M & Ms backstage at readings where he shared the stage with truly great writers such as Ernesto Cardenal and Fernando Alegria and Mikey Piñero. When he heard me say literaloco-literatonto, or literary krazy-klown-fool, he laughed and nodded his approval. These days, veteranos like Jose Antonio Burciaga, Raúl Salinas, and Trinidad Sánchez are gone. And it seems like so many of the young poets are trying too hard to be rock stars who worry about pecking order or whether or not they’re going to be on the radio instead of just trying to be the guys that don’t mind taking out the trash and cleaning the refrigerator and loading sound equipment even though they don’t have to. Chapulín is one of those dudes. He gets down and dirty, he loads gear and slangs beers at fundraising events, but he can also slang words and spit fire with the best of them. There is something simultaneously charismatic and travieso about him. Much later, after I’ve published his gut-wrenching poem about Mexico, I watch him dance around a room holding the printed pages in his arms and waving them about with a contagious glee. And again, I know he is the one. I can ask for no one better to help me uphold the literaloco-literatonto banner. And more than any of the other youngsters on the scene right now, he really is mexicano. 

“Yes, I’m  Chicano and all that, but I was born in Mexico,” he says proudly.  While still heir to a powerful Chicano literary tradition, he is unique among all the other serious young wordsmiths mixing it up on the Eastside right now with poetry rooted in rap and hip-hop. He holds up his mexicanidad for all to see and still skips easily back and forth between two languages like a wizard of wordplay, straddling all kinds of borders… a lad after me own heart, neta.
“Literaloco-literatonto, huh?” says Chapulín. “I like it.”

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Trio Los Machos: Un Bolero Infinito...

Trio Los Machos opens with the bristling demise of a musical trio, three life-long friends who are being summarily dismissed from their regular gig as entertainers in a Mexican restaurant where they have plied their trade as strolling balladeers for years. Written by Josefina López (Real Women Have Curves) and directed by Edward Padilla at Casa 0101, the play is a warm tribute to the stellar musical repertory of legendary Trio Los Panchos, Mexico’s famous bolero kings. A romantic musical genre that is to love and heartbreak what salt is to savory food and seawater, the bolero, as typified by Trio Los Panchos, is one of Mexico best, if not most well-known exports.

From 1942 to 1964, the Bracero guest worker program brought thousands of agricultural laborers from Mexico to the U.S. to harvest crops which would have otherwise rotted in the field due to the limited supply of U.S. workers willing to work so hard for so little. Trio Los Machos uses popular songs by Trio Los Panchos, as well as original tunes written by Claudia Durán (also Rosario in the play) and Josefina López with music by Danny Weinstein, to propel the story of Lalo, Nacho and Paco, three young braceros who discover their talent for making people fall in love through song and are thus able to leave the indignity of their guest worker status behind.
Now in their twilight years, the trio must come to terms with mortality, masculinity and changing musical tastes. Played by Miguel Santana, Roberto Garza and Henry Madrid respectively, the three are portrayed in moving flashbacks often graced with musical elegance by Gilbert Martinez (Young Lalo), Josh Durón (Young Nacho) and Adrian Quiñonez (Young Paco). While the characterizations among the actors who play the three in their latter day incarnations are marked by better musicianship than acting chops, the reverse is true for the trio as young men. On the whole, however, Padilla is to be commended for his impeccable casting and for his luminous staging, which relies on silhouettes and scrims as much as it does on the ever-present live music fusillade to evoke mood, feeling tone and memory.

Durán, as the fiery, sex-pot singer hired to jazz up the trio after they’re fired for being too old, is played perhaps a bit too much as caricature, but this is countered by the appearance, in flashback, of Rocío Mendoza as Aurelia, Paco’s long deceased wife. With a voice that captures the essence of this timeless music perfectly, Mendoza delivers the play’s truest notes. It is a sound that brims with late night trysts, love hangovers, too many cigarettes and not enough tear-filled tequila shots. It also provides the perfect foil for the comedic twist that gives the story an endearing, if unexpected, jolt of tender, and, yes, politically correct sensitivity.

A world premiere, Trio Los Machos is a reminder of the truly great state of theater on LA’s Eastside under the watchful care of award-winning playwright Josefina López, whose own father first came to the U.S. as a “bracero.” It is a fitting homage to him.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Bro': Motocross Mayhem & Redemption

How many times a day do we hear or say the word bro’? Short for “brother,” it has come to us as abbreviated speak from the ’60s era rise of the Black Power movement. Funny how no one ever seems to notice or acknowledge that. And we use it all the time now. We don’t even think about it. The word is understood universally. It has become, arguably, the most widely used three-letter slang designation in the world.  It cuts across all ethnic, racial, class and national divisions. It spawned the Chicano equivalent, “carnal,” a word that even more closely reflects the symbolic flesh and blood nature of bestowing brotherhood on those we choose to call our own.

Filmmaker Nick Parada knows this. He knows how we anoint our closest male friends with special status when we address them in this way. He understands that we also invoke the word as an overture of peace and a willingness to overcome our competitive and territorial instincts as men. He is acutely aware of the fact that in Southern California, the term has an even deeper significance among the skater, surfer, snowboarder and motocross crowd. Here, it signifies an extreme sports elevation to non-poser authenticity. It makes you one of the young men who other men envy; the fearless, ultimate risk-takers who women want to hook up with.

In Bro,' his first full-length feature, Parada focuses his lens on one facet of this world even as he crafts the story of a young man’s descent into  an exotic world of death defying motorcycle stunt riders, drugs, fast money and easy sex with hot girls drawn to the dudes who call each other “bro” only when they’ve proven to be more than mere pretenders.

With a cast that includes veterans such as Danny Trejo, Larry Fessenden and Gunner Wright, Bro’ also marks the feature debut for freestyle motocross champions Beau Manley and Colin “Scummy” Morrison, both members of the Metal Mulisha. Written, directed and produced by Parada, Bro’ is ultimately a story of redemption. At its center is Johnny (newcomer Will Chavez), a tame suburban kid working the counter at an athletic club. Enter unblemished co-worker (Rebekah Graf as Stephanie), and Johnny’s head gets immediately turned. When he finally overcomes his shyness and ask her out, she takes him to the track and introduces him to her older brother Jesse (Beau Manley), a daredevil party animal covered in tattoos who lords over the scene as the untouchable master of outrageously dangerous motorcycle stunts. Unfortunately, Jesse is the perfect antithesis of his younger sister.

Taking his sister’s new boyfriend under wing, Manley as Jesse, leads into the alluring depths of a world he could never have imagined, while inviting him to participate fully in its mayhem. It’s an age-old formula. Boy meets girl. Boy goes slowly bad and falls out of favor with girl while earning stature with the wild bunch. Boy eventually embraces badness with a no guts, no glory, gung-ho attitude. Badness bites boy in the ass. Hard. Parada, however, has graced his solid, straight ahead story with nuanced reflections of honest teen angst, even as he opens a window to a lifestyle and youth culture around a relatively new sport that has not yet been examined to such an electrifying degree in a narrative picture.

Though still a young director, Parada began making short films while still a teenager and was already an award winning regional television producer and director when he invited Kim Mackenzie to help him flesh out a coming of age story based on the pitfalls, challenges and moral dilemmas facing young people today. In Johnny, we identify a symbolic depiction of so many boys who have been raised by single, hardworking and often religious moms. As a result, like him, we are naturally drawn to the savvy, cool attitude and lust for life his newfound “bro” represents, a world of drugs and danger epitomized by Danielle (played perfectly by Alexandra Mason), an under-aged seductress who uses Johnny to break away from home.

In crafting a thoroughly believable thrill ride through the dark side, Parada gets a powerlift from sound supervisor Frederick Howard and a soundtrack that resonates and thrums with vitality. The music, a cross-section of the best contemporary underground alternative grunge core, hyper-hip-hop and cross-pollinated pop available anywhere with Kotton Mouth Kings, Eyes Set to Kill and Brokencyde being the three most notorious. Visually, the film is pristine, with motorcycle stunts, chases working to bolster the intense emotional moments that happen both indoors and out, during daylight and at night.

Working with non-actors and actors alike, Parada has culled surprisingly even overall performances that drive the narrative forward and, at moments, even enhance the gritty, real world plot. If the inexperience evident in some of the characterizations also leads to an occasional slight stumble and sputter as the tale unfolds, Parada remains undaunted in an a nearly invisible effort to show what he is capable of as a director. He succeeds in spades. We feel for his hapless hero and believe in Johnny’s ability to push past the delirium for an honest look at himself and the decisions he has made. At the same time, we root for his mentor and friend, his adopted big bro’ Jesse, a sympathetic, albeit  flawed and self-destructive, anti-hero who confronts equally life-changing choices.

The Crumbles: Coming to Rock LA

It’s Friday night and I’m running late. My friend Francisco Hernández, a filmmaker born in Boyle Heights and raised in San Juan Bautista, has invited me to the L.A. premiere of a film he has co-produced. Written and directed by Akira Boch, one of his life-long friends, the film has a buzz. For the last two years, I have connected with him, and a mutual circle of friends I love and cherish, only sporadically. I miss them, and the opportunity to help celebrate this milestone achievement is reason enough to make the rare trek west, all the way to the West Hollywood environs that glitter with a tangible movie business patina.

It merits mention that Francisco and Akira were reared alongside Kinán and Anahuac Valdez, scions of the Luis Valdez-led Teatro Campesino theater clan, an extended Brechtian guerrilla theater crew forged in the heyday of the Chicano Movement that took shape in the ’60s and ’70s. In support of farmworkers and labor leader César Chávez, Teatro Campesino earned a well-deserved place in the annals of American theater history as the first family of Chicano theater, spawning a score of like-minded Chicano theatre troupes throughout the southwest in its wake.

The company, of course, later became renowned for its production of Zootsuit, a ground-breaking musical which shed light on the heavy-handed police and military efforts to thwart a Mexican American expression of pride and sartorial style. In the ‘80s, Teatro Campesino founder Luis Valdez wrote and directed La Bamba, a film about pioneer Chicano rocker Richie Valens that hipped Hollywood to the ever elusive box office draw of the Mexican American experience.
Ambitious forerunners of DYI filmmaking, who witnessed the making of Luís Valdez’ La Bamba first-hand as toddlers, Hernández, Boch and the Valdez brothers formed a film company together while still in high school. “It sounds funny now, but, believe it or not, it was called Funky Flicks,” Francisco says about his peer group’s first ambitious foray into media over the phone several weeks in advance of the LA screening at the Directors’ Guild of America theater on Sunset Blvd. in West Hollywood. The screening is part of the L.A. Asian Pacific Film Festival organized by Visual Communications.

So I’m running late because I have to drive to Southgate to pick up table cloths and chair covers for a wedding scheduled tomorrow at the hall where Boyle & Boyle is currently camped out. I suddenly find myself tearing down Franklin to avoid the Friday night 101 and Sunset traffic.  All I know about The Crumbles, Akira’s feature debut, is based on a cursory look at a web-site and Francisco’s excited description of the film’s effusive reception at a recent Bay Area screening. The DGA screening I’m careening to is, naturally, sold out. Francisco has graciously provided a comp ticket at will call.

Luckily, I’m able to nab a still vacant seat on the last row and fall quickly under the spell of a funny but riveting film about friendships, expectations, aspirations, disillusion, betrayal and, ultimately, the infallible belief in the power of music, art and the creative impulse inherent in us all to transcend the challenges and obstacles we face every day. The Crumbles, a fictional indie, alt-rock start up band around which the film is based, resemble the real world in a way that Hollywood still resists. In spite of that sad fact, they become, nonetheless, the band we want to believe in and root for. 
Unfortunately, the industry continues to have an incredibly hard time believing that the Katie Hipol, Therese Michelle Lee and Jeff Torres and are the new Winona Ryders and Brad Pitt, respectively, of cinema.

A nuanced, well-crafted film that features Hipol as Darla, a brown-skinned, ethnicity neutral, guitar-wielding songwriter who recruits her talented, but flaky Asian-American slacker BFF for a musical project with Torres along as “Dante,” the penultimate “awkward and awesome” drummer who crushes on Darla is, despite what so many well meaning young executives (and yes, Scott Budnick, I am talking to you, and believe me, I’m not kvetching) will say about how they can’t sell a movie without a goofy but lovable white boy or white girl in the mix as a lead. All that excuse making and hem-hawing aside, The Crumbles rock. Their story is universal and every bit a part of the mainstream because this is where we live. This is who we are.

I’m watching what is a standard LA reality that, given half a chance, would otherwise be an amazing sleeper box office smash. I understand that it will be studiously ignored by studios and the Fox Searchlight types precisely because it is every bit as good as an early Woody Allen dramedy. And it’s a homegrown, organic expression that has none of the exotic allure of an import vetted by the likes of Diego Luna or Gael Garcia, who are generally sympathetic guys. But they don’t, however, automatically or readily assume that we also grew up reading Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel Garcia Marquez while we were discovering, unlike them, James Baldwin, Angela Davis, Rodolfo Anaya, Corky Gonzales and Americo Paredes. 

Boch has assembled a cast that represents the real Echo Park, the real Boyle Heights and the real downtown L.A. But the industry is loathe to accept that filmmakers like Boch and Hernández are the arbiters of what is quickly becoming the new smart, quirky cool. It is uncomfortable with outsiders deciding what constitutes culture and taste with an edge.

So what? It doesn’t matter. What matters is that Hipol and Torres and Lee and Seth Millwood as Serge and Ebony Perry as Francine, an independent bookstore manager who just happens to be black, are believable and true and indicative of what this country will become in spite of backward, xenophobic Arizona-style legislation. The Crumbles embody an idea that flies in the face of the ignominious, visceral and latent assumptions that black and brown and red and yellow people are intent on subverting traditional  American values.

The latter is more than evidenced by the recent retard laws which criminalize immigrants and seek to ban empowering studies and books that have led to an increase in graduation rates for all students and allowed for the kind of learning that boosts graduation statistics and college prospects for kids emerging from a community that has the highest drop-out rate in the nation.

As The Crumbles unspools on a screen at a bastion of American cinema, I feel pangs of empathy for Darla, who realizes that her rock star aspirations are perhaps a pipe dream. She tastes the possibility and then sees her hopes dashed because she trusts a girl she cares about. It may be that she has a more intimate interest in Elisa, but she can only recognize them as platonic feelings colored by a need to help a sister trying to make her way out of relationship with a wannabee rock star that has worn thin.
A lucid and cogent musical score by Quetzal Flores bolsters the story of a little band poised to make the big-time that can’t seem to overcome the dead-end inertia that plagues so many in a contemporary generation that has all but given up on real social interaction in favor of safe  iPhone and Facebook distance. In many ways, the music makes the film flow seemlessly. 

Through it all, Boch proves to be a sensitive, gifted story-teller who is, by virtue of his integrity and experience, able to muster the efforts of talented friends who support his vision and believe in the redemptive power of collaboration. There are moments in the film, some of them uncomfortable and ungainly, just like real life, which trigger laughter and others that lend to the sad emptiness that can sometimes invade your spleen with that sick, broken-hearted, almost sinking feeling you get when life seems bleak and insurmountable.

This is what makes the film soar, what makes it resonate with truth. The ensemble cast and crew that gathers for the Q & A afterward gives ample credence to the “awkward and awesome” mantra that has informed Boch’s aesthetic. Their nervous, tentative answers to audience questions are refreshing as a reminder that engaging, independent, underground cinema, which reflects the inevitable veracity of our times, is alive and well in L.A.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Floricanto en DC: Part II

Ed. Note: This is in the new issue of Brooklyn & Boyle and reflects on a trip made several months ago. It seems to be gestating and gelling in parts. There will be in the end, three parts, I believe. And when they are finished, I hope to collect them in one complete monograph or chapbook. Please accept my humble gratitude for your patience and your willingness to follow along, even though there will be other posts that don't necessarily adhere to a specific chronological order.

While leaving the ballroom auditorium where Zurita has just delivered a series of epic poems, I am able to greet LA translator and poet Jen Hofer briefly before Francisco Alarcón, Odilia Galván, Javier and I must rush to prepare for the official Floricanto in DC, which is being held at the True Reformer Building on U Street in the U Street arts corridor. Dedicated on July 15, 1903, the building was the first in the nation to be designed, financed, built, and owned by the African-American community after Reconstruction.
Spacious and well appointed with all the modern conveniences, it now serves as the home for the Public Welfare Foundation. The second floor auditorium is nearly full by 7 p.m. Poets from across the country have gathered for an event being presented by Acentos Foundation, Poets Responding to SB1070 and Split this Rock, the organization behind the annual Split This Rock Poetry Festival built on the premise that poets “have a unique role to play in social movements as innovators, visionaries, truth tellers, and restorers of language.”

Looking around it has become obvious that more than just the two-dozen or so previously confirmed writers have gathered to share poetry in protest of Arizona’s anti-immigrant legislation. In addition to the confirmed list, which includes Francisco X. Alarcon, Tara Betts, Sarah Browning, Regie Cabico, Carmen Calatayud, Susan Deer Cloud, Martín Espada, Odilia Galvan Rodriguez, Carmen Gimenez Smith, Aracelis Girmay, Randall Horton, , Dorianne Laux, Marilyn Nelson, Mark Nowak, Barbara Jane Reyes, Abel Salas, Craig Santos Perez, Hedy Trevino, Pam Uschuk, Dan Vera, Rich Villar, and Andre Yang, Chicago area poet and activist Susana Sandoval, has jumped on board to lend her voice and her considerable experience as a press liaison. Roberto Vargas, the honorary poet laureate of Bay Area Mission District has actually flown out from San Antonio, Texas where he now lives, to participate.

It is thrilling to see that even literary luminary Sonia Sanchez, who had appeared earlier on a panel celebrating the work of Langston Hughes at the AWP (Association of Writers & Writing Programs) conference, has come out share her words and her support for the wellspring of poetic action as well. On a personal note, I am moved almost to tears when I see my older sister Gloria in audience at the back of the room. Because we are scheduled to read alphabetically, I take advantage of being near the end to slip out and grab some chili at Ben’s, across the street. The weather is cold and damp. According to my sister, the residual snow that still glistens on the ground is from a storm that has blown through several days before.

Ben’s Chili Bowl is an institution. The crowd at the dining counter is three deep, yet the small bowl of chili and a small order of thick steak fries come pretty quickly. Back in the True Reformer, the poetry is round and full and powerful. By the end of the evening there is a sense of joy and euphoria that floods the room. People don’t seem ready to leave. It is the first opportunity that many of the Facebook Poets Responding to SB1070 have had to meet face-to-face.

A group of us spend the next hour looking for a restaurant where we can all eat together. Because the group is large, we are unsuccessful. Every place is packed, and it’s nearly impossible to seat us as a party of 14 during the late evening rush. It’s Friday night in U Street section. Walking by a restaurant called Poets & Busboys, a place named in honor of Langston Hughes, we see LA poet/author Luis Rodriguez, founder of Tia Chucha’s Café Cultural in Sylmar. The handshakes and hugs between him and so many of his long-time colleagues and contemporaries from around the nation are contagious. Luis is in D.C. for the AWP Conference and a meeting with the author of a book Tia Chucha Press is preparing to publish.

After finally giving up on the possibility of finding a restaurant nearby, we are invited to the home of Carlos Mauricio and his wife Ruth Goode. who live a short drive away. Their apartment is in a classic older building, which feels very New York or Chicago. Our hosts are both very involved in cultural affairs here and outside of the U.S. Ruth is a consultant on several U.N. projects and Carlos is a photographer with roots in El Salvador who spent many years in San Francisco where he documented murals and became acquainted with the Mission District Latino arts community. I say goodbye to my sister and those of us that are left begin sharing poetry around a living room coffee table. Ruth and Carlos have gone on a grocery run and I’m later enlisted to help prepare a modest dinner as well as a salad.

The poetry and the pasta are incredible. I feel so entirely privileged to be part of a new poetic family. We listen to jazz music and sip red wine while we listen to each other share. Am I dreaming? It this real? In the middle of it all, I wonder if I won’t wake up back in our own beloved Boyle Heights barrio where all of this began. To Be Continued...

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Tejaztlan Tour, Again

The sky is gray and heavy with the rains that haven't come. My daughter Alma Ixchel and I are sitting with Mamá Cynthia at the 24 Diner next to the legendary Waterloo Records where we've just missed a free set by Los Lonely Boys, who have just released a phenomenal new record called Rockpango (a play on huapango, for you LA pochos who don't look past the son jarocho or the norteño standards we all grew up with). A surprise encounter with Alejandro Escovedo reminds me that I come from a community of musical brothers. I'd nearly forgotten about a translation gig I did for him when he was being interviewed by Telemundo a while back. A fortuitous reunion, it results in a guest list slot for me at his Continental Club show tonight. We're in a hurry because mi'ja has to be at ballet folklorico practice by 7 p.m. This trip to the ATX is the result of the poetry in response to Arizona SB1070. The Washngton DC Floricanto and its impact both online and in Mexico have led directly to the invitation from the National Latino Congreso to organize a Floricanto Tejano in Response to Arizona SB1070 and Texas HB 12. It's always so strange being back your hometown. It's where I first wrote about music for magazines like The Austin Chronicle, the equivalent of the LA Weekly, except that the music coverage is about ten times as good, perhaps simply a function of the fact that Austin is a music city in a way that LA can never or will ever be. Here you have son jarocho and Chicanismo alongside Tex-Mex and bluegrass and country dosed with straight-ahead rock, indie-rock, rock en español and blues. This is the city that made Stevie Ray Vaughn a legend. It should come as no surprise that Ozo and Santa Cecilia try to play Austin as often as possible. The food is good. And the city is an oasis for craft brewers. I've had a Pecan Porterville, a Jester King-brewed Black Metal, which is like a sweet espresso with a kick, a Fireman's 4, and at least least four other locally brewed and bottled beers, this go 'round and I have to say it's definitely part of what makes the city I was reared in great. Imagine listening to young Chicanos in a group called Son Armado in the back yard at an Eastside home which you find out three hours later belongs to a girl you went to high school with. Reggie Villanueva has opened her house to the future and still remembers me from Spanish class in Mrs. Olivares' Spanish for Native Speakers 5th period blow-off hour. Later, I find myself and my younger half brother, Abraham, who I call a Chicatracho (Chicano-Catracho, beause Catracho is slang for Hondureño, gente) at a trendy downtown bar called Beso Cantina, where a rock en español band called Kalua with a skinny lead singer who sounds like a cross between Roy Orbson and Buddy Holly sings a rock version of La Malagueña. You can't make any of this up. It's so real in its beauty and so beautiful in its realness. I do miss Boyle Heights and the family that I have there. I honestly wish I could bring everyone here. It was great to see Matt Sedillo fly himself to Dallas where he visited with his father, who then drove him down to Austin for the Floricanto, where he was able to see his son Matt "Seditious" Sedillo bring the down the house with his poem. I can honestly say it was the best reading I've ever seen Matt present. It was just as great an honor to see Sarah Rafael Garcia, founder of Santa Ana's Barrio Writers settling in and making her way as a writer/performer in Austin. She was nice enough to read at our Floricanto, and she's also in the middle of cooking up a really cool beer blog. I hadn't realized that when she said she would be in Austin, she meant that she had relocated here permanently after visiting a sister that lives here. She's actually preparing for a move to the Eastside, my other Eastside, East Ostion, East Austin, East of the Freeway like the title in Raul Salinas' book. East of I-35, because in Austin it's all about two zip codes... the 78704 and the 78702, the former being the South Austin hippie-ville turned trendy, somewhat gentrified hipster, coolified "SoCo" (South Congress Ave), and the latter being what was once a mostly Mexican American barrio that kids on my high school gymnastics team used to worry about. Can't tell you how many times I heard "Uh, oh. We're in the Eastside, better roll up your windows and lock the doors." on the way to tournaments at high schools on the black and brown sides of town. No modo. Everyone wants to live in the '702 now, much like they're finding their way to the '033 in LA. Seeing the parallels simply makes me wonder how we live and work around the inevitable. Is the Wyvernwood housing project in Boyle Heights doomed to go the way of downtown lofts and condominiums? I'm just glad sisters like Sarah are making their way to traditionally Chicano neighborhoods and doing creative cultural work with young people. Stay tuned... Maybe my older brother Tomás has the right ideas with a little tree-lined, open land spread outside of town and a back porch with a hammock and a beautiful paint horse, a mare he calls 'Spérame Sister, because "she's a fast girl." So more on the homecoming as it transpires. The Congreso was firme. Agenda and policy were on the front burner, but they made space for la poesia y la cultura. I was pleased with the opportunity to interview Nativo Lopez, a leader at MAPA (Mexcan American Political Association), based back in Boyle Heights. The internationalization of our struggle as indigenous people is on, he says, and we stand firmly behind those wise words. The fact that he's been branded an "American traitor" and a "menace" by the yahoo minutemen commando wannabees of "American Patrol" is just funny. Let them add me to the list of menaces who make sure they go the way of the cowards who killed Brisenia Flores and her father.