With Dia de Los Muertos drawing closer, having a Chicano band come to welcome the holiday was a treat for Cal Poly students. The Alex and Faye Spanos Theatre was nothing short of festive on Sunday as audience members danced, clapped and sang along to Las Cafeteras with pride.
The Chicano band from East L.A. created distinctive experience by combining a large variety of influences into its overall performance — including traditional Son Jarocho, Afro-Mexican music, folk music, spoken word, zapateado dancing and sign language.
The group mostly sticks to traditional instruments, including the quijada, a Latin percussion instrument made from a donkey’s jaw bone; the cajón, a box-shaped percussion instrument from Peru; and several sizes of jarana jarochas, a guitar-shaped stringed instrument from Veracruz, Mexico.
The larger portion of Las Cafeteras’ music was in Spanish, often bringing in traditional songs from Mexico. But the group also reworked iconic English songs, such as Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” and Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.”
Las Cafeteras was strongly interactive with the audience. Vocalist, zapateado dancer and guitarist Hector Flores encouraged them to participate in the show, saying: “Before we had microphones, we had our hands, we had our mouths and we had our feet — and we ask you to join along.”
That connection with the audience would become a major staple to the performance. Songs, including “Señor Presidente,” would ask audience members to call out the chorus and tell the room what they would change about the U.S. if they were president.
Answering into a mic held by Jose Cano — the band’s percussionist, who also played the cajón and Native American flute — audience members gave an assortment of responses, including feeding the hungry, raising teachers’ wages and tearing down the Mexico-US border and making college free.
Kerri Fisher, who works in sales and design for ProSource Wholesale Floor Coverage, had answered that she wanted to end hunger.
“I have a big heart,” Fisher said, “and I want to take care of people.”
Meanwhile, Cal Poly agribusiness assistant professor Neal MacDougall stated that teachers needed a pay raise.
“People think teaching is so easy,” he said. “I don’t think they understand, or they forget, how much work goes into it.”
But despite Las Cafeteras’ activist roots, with members having been activists or organizers prior to coming together as a band, Flores explained that they didn’t come together intending to become a politically motivated band. In fact, they didn’t originally plan on becoming a band at all.
“The whole idea was just to play music,” Flores said. “We all wanted to learn this style of music called Son Jarocho, and we learned in the community space … that encouraged autonomy, self-determination and had all kinds of programming.”
As the group began playing together more often, they gathered a fanbase and eventually started traveling out of town — both within California and to out-of-state venues as far as Chicago and Texas — on weekends to perform.
“We’d leave Thursday on a red-eye, then call in sick (to work) Friday and then come back Sunday night,” Flores said. “And we couldn’t do that anymore. And we were getting a lot of love, and we decided to do an album. That was the tipping point. We decided to make an album and we said, ‘I think — I think we’re a band.’”
As Las Cafeteras came together and started to pull influences around the Son Jarocho style, their different voices and musical influences began to create a unique, comprehensive sound.
“We’re L.A. kids,” Flores said. “Leah (Gallegos) loves Mariah Carey, Denise (Carlos) is inspired by the Riot Girl movement — so all of those things influence everything we do from hip-hop, ska, Cumbia and then traditional stuff, like spoken-word-esque things … I think L.A. inspired us.”
Flores emphasized that Las Cafeteras doesn’t mean to be inherently political, but they want their stories and struggles to be heard and recognized. But, because they’re sharing stories that don’t flow with the status quo, their songs become a political act by default.
“The social issues come from our families’ grievances,” Flores said. “So I think that’s the rub, you know? … Like the U.S. is trying to teach about Christopher Columbus and we’re trying to teach about Indigenous Peoples, so there’s a rub. We don’t intend it to be, we’re just showing our perspective.”
Flores added that the band’s political push stems somewhat from growing up as millennials.
“We’re a generation that’s very, very much about dignity and freedom and equal access to education and quality of life,” he said. “So we’re all for queer liberation and immigrant rights. We’re down for Black Lives Matter, and we’re down for universal health care. We want to create a world where many worlds exist.”
Altogether, Flores explained that using music is a good way for them to share their stories with others in an open, welcoming space and allows people to connect in a significant way.
“There’s a saying: If you can’t dance together, how do we build together?” he said. “If we can dance together, that’s a great starting point to everything else. How are we going to eat together, how are we going to be in the same neighborhood together, if we can’t dance?”