The Chulita Vinyl Club keeps tradition alive with old-school Latin soul and R&B. (Courtesy Jahaira Morales)
At the Aloha Club, boasting "the longest bar" in Oakland, Jahaira Morales dances cumbia with ganas. A DJ and founding member of the Bay Area chapter of Chulita Vinyl Club, she wears a track jacket with a gold chain, doorknocker earrings, loose bootleg trousers and heels, and Jesus Christ, she can move. When she spins, turns, and kicks up, we're not in Fruitvale anymore -- we're free.
It's July 7, the night that protestors have shut down I-880 and 2,000 people protest police brutality and the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. We are just a few blocks from where Oscar Grant was killed, and it doesn't feel like seven years have passed because the killings have not.
Tonight I want to protest. Tonight I want to resist.
I also want to find it in myself to dance. I want to be free. But I don't know how.
I do not know how to cumbia. But I do know how to move, and follow when someone is bold enough to lead. Jahaira, mid-spin, throws her hand out at me, swings under her partner, and begins to sort-of cumbia with me. I say sort-of, because I don't know what I'm doing, but I'm not slowing her down. She's swinging me so fast, I'm only focused on not flying flat on my ass and becoming an accidental coming attraction.
But it feels so good to follow a woman who knows what she's doing, whose long curly hair flows in every direction, and whenever she laughs, I can't help but laugh too.
All there is: this dance floor, these lights, y Jahaira. And the music. Phenomenal old-school cumbia and soul.
I let myself forget myself. I let myself dance.
SIDE A: Sisters in Dance, Sisters in Struggle
I meet Jahaira at the most gentrified spot in the Mission that I can think of, an empty bar on 19th Street with couches and an affected speakeasy vibe -- but it's quiet, which makes it a good spot to do an interview. I try to remember what this place used to be. Jahaira and her fellow DJ crew member Andrea Gutierrez meet me at the bar.
After a warm hello, and hugs, Jahaira looks around, and is silent.
"Oh wow, this used to be the Lexington Club."
And it hits me. The words of Rebecca Solnit: "This was the Lexington, a lesbian bar in the Mission for a long, long time, and now it's had amnesia, identity theft, and a botox injection of fake SF history."
I feel complicit in the historic revisionism. Why does our counterculture continue to be taken away from us?
In many ways, Chulita Vinyl Club is carving out a spot for Latina women to take the stage and reclaim a space that should be theirs. By spinning classic, old-school cumbia songs, the all-women DJ crew is keeping tradition alive.
I ask Jahaira and Andrea how they started collecting vinyl, and what started it all for them.
"I started collecting six years ago when I started having my own source of income. Unfortunately, growing up with parents who aren't from here, they grew up working. All they know is work, and they see music and art as something that's a waste of time," says Jahaira. "I mean, my Mom would play music too, but it wasn't no thing to be like, oh we're going to spend $15 on a CD or something."
Andrea's circumstances were similar. "I was from Mexico, and with moving a lot, I never really felt like I had the space," she says. "I feel that always made me not want to collect anything... It's nice to know, that once you make your own money and are able to take care of yourself now, you can build this little treasure and keep it growing. And that's why it's important to share it."
Jahaira and Andrea talk more about the need for sharing resources and building community. They finish each other's sentences and act like sisters. Both recount that they've shown other women how to spin, and stress the importance of creating a space for Latinos where they feel like they are safe.
"With the Cumbia Jams on Tuesdays (at the Makeout Room), we literally have had to fight for that space," Jahaira says. "We're only there once a month, and they have the space the whole time, and sometimes they have the nerve to come up and say, 'Can you play something else?' And I've had to get on the mic and say, 'Hey everyone, it's Cumbia Jams tonight, so if you're trying to hear something else, the door's right there, and by the way, viva la raza!"
Jahaira's frustration is evident. "I just think that people that don't understand the struggle, they don't understand the space that they take up. And they don't understand what it is to share it. You know what I mean?"
"There's nothing wrong with people coming in and not knowing how to dance, as long as they're respectful," says Andrea. "There's been a lot of times when they're being disrespectful and acting like fools. Like, they'll scream Ay aye aye. And it's like no, be conscious."
Can we learn to recognize the space we take up? Or will we keep bulldozing the cultures that were here before us until there is nothing left?
SIDE B: The Healing of the Dancefloor
"With all of the urban upheaval that's been going on in the Bay Area, even when we started, and adopted the name Brujas, we decided that we wanted to take up the role of a healer in that sense," says Dharma Mooney-Hayes, one of four members of the women-of-color DJ crew, the B-Side Brujas. "You know, like a witch would be a healer."
Dharma plays soul and R&B, and -- as the only non-Latina in the group -- grew up with Lakota spiritual practices. It's refreshing to hear that a group of women who go by the moniker Brujas have a spiritual connection to it, beyond a tongue-in-cheek nod or a shorthand for "badass." There's intention behind it.
At the Nightlight, a few nights prior, the Brujas had performed a blessing before their set, paying tribute to the four directions, which Dharma's Lakota mother and father had taught her, and also to the Yoruban Orishas, goddesses that played a part in the upbringing of Zakiya Mowat, the Brujas' founder.
"We set up an altar for Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, and had sage and candles," says April Garcia, who is "culturally Catholic" and plays cumbia and soul. "Throughout the night, different people in the community kept coming up, taking pictures, lighting candles, and smudging. Everyone needed some healing in the community, and it was really cool to be able to see people dancing, and then having a moment with the altar."
Before founding B-Side Brujas, Zakiya got her start spinning records with Rene Lopez and Cameron Thompson from Suavecito Souldies. For her, the mission of the Brujas is creating community with each other and at large. "Building upon each other and the community, I get really stoked every time one of us plays a song," she says. "We go out and dance like it's the first time we ever heard it, basically. We really build each other up. And this night at the Nightlight where we did this ceremony before, I feel like we were extra connected."
The Brujas met each other growing up and going to punk shows in the East Bay. Their sets mix "dark" with "light," and you're just as likely to hear the Brujas spinning a rare garage-rock 45 as you are to hear them play Mary Wells' "Bye Bye Baby." In many ways, their performance style is an extension of punk, finding a way to address social ills through music, and using it as a way to heal.
"A lot of people I know work full-time, and they live in tents, and that's hard for me to see. I've seen generations of families from the Bay having to move out of their houses," says Dharma. "So I feel directly affected, and also I've seen how it's affected the greater scheme of things in the city and neighborhood, and when we play, when we're angry about something, it's hard to stay connected, you want to separate yourself from whatever is making you upset. But with this, I see connection, and that's important to any kind of healing process or progress."
When discussing how the Brujas find their own form of resistance to that gentrification, Zakira says, "Sometimes we throw in a secret anthem called 'Foxy Girls in Oakland,' it's by Rodger Collins, he's from Oakland. And even if people who aren't from here come and check us out, there's a relationship (to the city) in the music. Sometimes it's hard to see people who are exploring something that's been around forever, they're stepping on a scene, but we're providing a space for people from all walks of life to enjoy our music and hear our ode to Oakland and this city that we're from."
There is a tension between the "new" Oakland and "old" Oakland, and it's rare that the two worlds meet. Between the "old Oakland" and Uptown, clubs are mostly segregated by ethnicity and class, and it can feel like the story that the press has spun about Oakland's "upward mobility" is only for the privileged few.
"We are really trying to bridge a gap," says Moe Alvarez, who spins Mexican rock and soul records. "Our hearts are open to all of that -- bringing together people who wouldn't normally be together and having a good time. Making new friends you never thought you would have met."
With all that is happening -- police brutality, cultural erasure, displacement -- the Brujas are creating a positive space for their community to do the hard work of healing.
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