Interview: Las Cafeteras’ Hector Flores on Son Jarocho and social justice

Hancher Presents: Las Cafeteras

The Mill — Friday, Sep. 25 at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m.

Hector Flores tells me that Las Cafeteras were named by the community from which they rose—a fact that very plainly gets at the heart of what this band’s music is about. The members of this conjunto first came together in East L.A. in various activist spaces. A few met in college classes, a few on the streets during protests, and others in their roles as organizers. “We all had one thing in common,” Flores began to say during an interview with LatiNation about their formation. He quickly corrected himself: “Or two things in common: one, the love for Justice, and two, the love of music. That’s what brought us together.”

That particular explanation, one in which Justice comes first and music second, might be slightly misleading. It’s not so much that Las Cafeteras place Justice above music, or vice versa, but that Justice and music have always co-existed in a productive capacity. Las Cafeteras’ contribution to this cultural moment is an essential one, a reminder that the Struggle needs exuberance, play, levity, and celebration.

It’s interesting that you chose the name “Las Cafeteras,” the feminine version, rather than the masculine “Los Cafeteros.”

We all kind of came together learning traditional Afro-Mexican music called Son Jarocho at this community center called the Eastside Cafe, which is our namesake: Las Cafeteras from the Eastside Cafe. When we decided to really call ourselves a band, we really felt like “Los Cafeteros” didn’t include the women. We really did want to challenge the patriarchy within the Spanish language and call ourselves Las Cafeteras even though there are men in the group and really challenge patriarchy within the Spanish language.

I think everybody’s name is so important, and tells a story. Your name tells a story about who you are, who you were, and who you will become. In give ourselves the name Las Cafeteras—which is in honor of women and that kind of feminine energy—we wanted to let people know who we were, who we are, and where we want to go. It’s subtle, but we thought it was very powerful.

What are some examples of tracks you would have as playing as soundtracks for the struggle?

How many tracks do I get? “Latinoamerica,” by Calle13. “Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,” by Nina Simone. Any Rage Against the Machine song. All of them. Watching Zack de la Rocha play Jarocho made me want to play Jarocho.

So, “Son Jarocho” is from mi tierra—I’m from Veracruz—and it’s very near and dear to my heart. Would you talk bit about Son Jarocho, the traditional instruments that your group uses in its music and the way you engage with and resist tradition?

Son Jarocho is a mix of different peoples, cultures, stories, rhythms and rhymes—African, Indigenous, Arabic and Spanish beats. Today, in Los Angeles, as Chicanos—as mixed peoples—we feel like the music found us. It wanted to stay alive, it needed to tell a story up here about México and the evolution of its people. So we learned to play Jaranas, we learned to dance on the tarima, we learned singing verses from southern Veracruz. But the most important that we learned from Son Jarocho is how important it is to document and tell your story as a people. We feel like we’ve been able to fuze our experiences in L.A. as Chicano kids, as urban kids, as punk kids, as folklorico kids, and use Mexican traditions, Chicano traditions and new ones as well. We mix it all up as this sopa, man. It just tastes so damn good.

Your music deals with displacement, transgression, resistance. What social movements are you and your bandmates currently involved in?

As Las Cafeteras we’ve been involved in multiple movements that are all towards the same thing: a life with dignity, respect—a quality of life where you can have food, housing, water, quality education. Using traditional songs, we create modern day stories to create a new future for us. By 2050, the majority of people in this country will trace their roots to Latinoamerica, not Europe. Part of the imagery of our stories and songs is to reclaim who we are as a people, and to forge a new history, a new her-story. Hopefully, fifty years from now, people can look to our album as a way to say ‘this is what Los Angeles was in 2013, 14, 15; this is what people were demanding and screaming out for.

As migrant kids, it’s really important for us to be for migrant justice, but there’s a lot of people who are for migrant justice who are not for Black justice. There’s a lot of people for queer justice who are not down for migrant justice. For us, it’s really important to forge a solidarity among the many different movements that exist. It’s creating a new paradigm for how we need to live and care for one another. I think that’s what our music is about.

Las Cafeteras are here to tell you that you’re beautiful, you’re storytellers, and that you need to continue the tradition of your people.

Like Son Jarocho, the struggle is intersectional. It is a mix, but it retains a fullness of identity from each of its constituent parts.

There’s a Zapatista saying: “We want to create a world where many worlds exist.” Ni de aquí, ni de allá, and at the same time we are from here, and we are from there. Learning the tradition of Son Jarocho has been the greatest teacher in terms of resistance, perseverance, and storytelling. That’s what we’re trying to do, man. I think we’re all storytellers, but I think as brown people or as raza we have been told what we are not. Las Cafeteras are here to tell you that you’re beautiful, you’re storytellers, and that you need to continue the tradition of your people.

When I go to rallies and protests, I see signs that say “Ferguson to Ayotzinapa to Palestine.” People are doing the kind of intellectual work to see the parallels, similarities, and differences between all these different forms of state violence.

Public Enemy says, “Rap is Black America’s CNN.” In a time when information is so accessible, it’s easy to get lost in the lies, it’s easy to get lost in the web of information. You almost don’t know what to believe anymore. I think it’s really important for artists right now—from photography to painters to muralists, to musicians, to poets, documentarians, to journalists—to reflect the times and to really launch the peoples’ imaginations of who we are and who we need to become. We are so limited in our thinking, and so bogged down by the constant attacks, whether it be state violence, relational, interpersonal or institutional oppression. We need to heal right now and I think art has a great ability to reach a broad population and to show ourselves to each other.

I don’t know how you feel, but as a Latino in the United States, I am very pessimistic about the limits of electoral politics. You look at Donald Trump who gets a megaphone to spew all of his vitriol, and people focus on that. But if you look at the so-called left you get Bernie Sanders, who is supposed to be socially progressive, suggesting that migrants are a threat to organized labor. Where does that leave us?

It’s really easy to get lost in the national politics, international issues, but at the end of the day we need to build autonomous and local power.What are you doing in your university? What are you going in your local community? I’m from East L.A., so I’m trying to organize the Eastside. I’m trying to rally and stay connected with what we’re doing here, and really see what we can forge here, in terms of creating and moving forward policies, laws and culture that represents the interest of Eastside people. I have no power over what’s gonna happen in Nebraska, I have no power over what’s gonna happen in Iowa. I have power over what’s going to happen in my house and in my community. There’s no reason why we can’t become a network of connected caracoles, as the zapatistas say, building power locally and autonomously.

What’s something important for you to do in your daily life that’s outside of music, outside of organizing?

I play soccer, man! I’m part of a collective of radical soccer players—L.A. Futbolistas—who use the game to build community, to challenge misogyny. It’s all genders, all [sexual] orientations, all [skill] levels, and it reminds me to be childlike. Soccer, if done right, can be a very healing practice and process of reflection of one’s body and also about really feeling one’s own emotions. I think as adults we forget how to play, and I think that’s a detriment to our health.

I say more karaoke nights, more barbeques, more cumbia parties. If you’re going to organize a protest, then you better organize a karaoke, night too. On the same night!

I’ve seen and felt myself and other getting burned out, losing hope, becoming tired, cynical. Can you talk a little bit about the role you think joy and exuberance in music plays in the struggle, and how Las Cafeteras fits into all of that?

We must celebrate each other everyday. We need to learn how to be free everyday. Son Jarocho came out of African and Indigenous slaves put together in grotesque living conditions. And out of those conditions, they still came out with songs, music, and dance. Now what does that teach us? People four hundred years ago, who were in conditions much worse than us, were able to create a culture of music, a culture of celebration even in the most grotesque conditions. Las Cafeteras, man, we’re about honoring our struggle, but we’re also about celebrating ourselves. We gotta do that. We have a lot of songs that are hella deep—“Ya Me Voy” is about a the struggle of migrants, but it’s also a cumbia song that we’re dancing to. We’re too worried about the struggle and less worried about celebrating our work. So I say more karaoke nights, more barbeques, more cumbia parties. If you’re going to organize a protest, then you better organize a karaoke night too. On the same night!

José Orduña lives in Iowa City and his book, the Weight of Shadows: A Memoir of Immigration and Displacement, will be published in April by Beacon Press. This article originally appeared in Little Village issue 184.

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