.Las Cafeteras brings East L.A. to the East Bay

There’s no movement without movement

For California, a state with an ever-mixing population, fusion is strength. Children grow up exposed to different cultures, religions and ethnicities, which fosters cultural sensitivity and adaptability, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 

Las Cafeteras, a band that treasures that fusion, especially the fusion of cultures in Los Angeles, began with three young community organizers in college. Denise Carlos, a dancer, met Jose Cano, a runner, in the student union at Cal State L.A. Both were involved with the Chicano Student Research Center and M.E.Ch.A.

Carlos and Cano founded the East Side Cafe, a space for planning and hosting off-campus events, with 30 other community activists and artists. “This is before there were spaces for young and first-generation kids of Mexican or Latino parents that wanted to celebrate our culture, but understood it was a little different than our parents,” Carlos says.

The third original band member, Hector Flores, attended Cal State Long Beach, just on the other side of L.A. Carlos met him at a conference for kids in high school. Flores joined her and many other organizers at the East Side Cafe.

“Each one, teach one” epitomized how the members connected with one another, learning from and with each other. The Zapatistas, an Indigenous group that kept its sovereignty from the Mexican government by living in the jungle, promoted and lived by the concept. The group followed a horizontal hierarchy, one that focused on community more than authority.

“You have everything within your community to thrive,” Carlos says, regarding the Zapatistas’ lifestyle.

Twenty East Side Cafe members used this concept to learn son jarocho, a traditional music genre from Veracruz in Mexico, which they played casually and when asked to by patrons in the community. The genre reflects a fusion of West African, Indigenous, Spanish and Arabic cultures. Music served as a uniting factor during the slave trade because it defied language barriers.

Carlos found the concept of music as a uniting force inspiring. “I was in awe of how magical the arts can be and how magical it can be to express yourself in communion with other people and say, ‘We’re going to survive this,’” she says.

The group began to condense as the requests to play poured in. By the time it solidified as an official band, eight members remained. They traveled around the country, following requests to play at events.

“We’re not a band that started as trained musicians wanting to perform as a band and seek fame,” Flores says. “We were organizers who wanted to use music as a tool for change, that accidentally became a band.”

Playing in the band began to affect the musicians’ full-time jobs. Carlos, the last member to commit full-time, found the transition difficult when she left behind health insurance and benefits. Now, though, she says the choice was worth it, even with the toll it takes.

“We have put so much literal sweat and tears and blood, I’ve injured myself a lot,” Carlos says. “I broke my foot on stage, but still kept going. I just finished the [show] on my knees.”

In December 2020 Las Cafeteras received a request to perform a song to help bring together and motivate Black and brown voters during the special election in Georgia. The group performed a Cumbia-trap version of “Georgia On My Mind” which received a lot of attention—Sen. Bernie Sanders even reposted it. In the end Georgia flipped to blue, and Jon Ossoff and the Rev. Raphael Warnock took the Senate seats.

Since then Las Cafateras continues to work with immigrant, queer, trans, drag, Afro-Latino communities and more.

“What we try to do is work with different folks, different communities, different causes, and try to elevate them and create the soundtrack to the movement,” Flores says.

In May they released their third album, A Night in Nepantla. In Nahuatl, a native language of Southern Mexico and Central America, the term “Nepantla” means “in-between-ness.” 

“This album is the most honest album,” Carlos says. “I think [in] the first one we were still trying to sound like a son jarocho band, singing traditional songs. The second tastes like L.A.

“When we talk about celebrating the space in between and who we are,” Carlos adds, “we’re no longer making excuses and we’re no longer ashamed to not be able to fit into any mold. It’s a beautiful place to be.”

The band members have refined a sound that feels more true to themselves.

“This album is a sonic evolution,” Flores says. “It’s our third full-length album, but it’s sonically an evolved album. We’re now like this electro-folk, synth-laced, eight-track bumping band that’s rocking. And so we’re excited.

“It took 10 years to get to a place where I think we’re doing the kind of music and the kind of shows, having the kind of engagement and parties we always wanted to,” he adds. “To uplift each other.”

Las Cafeteras will perform 8pm on July 12 at The New Parish, with local friends of the band, Mariposa Del Alma and Deuce Eclipse. 1743 San Pablo Ave., Oakland. 510.227.8177. thenewparish.com

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