Sunday, February 28, 2010

Corn Women of East LA: 13 Years of Art and Activism

Olga García Echeverría

It's 5:30 PM on a Friday evening and while many Angelenos are unwinding and getting ready for the weekend, a small group of female artists/activists are rolling up their sleeves and gathering at Casa Grande in East LA.

The purpose of their meeting?

To strategize and finalize logistics for this year's International Women's Day Celebration.

Actually, they're working on a month-long salute to women's herstory because...because...well, simply because one day of Viva La Mujer just isn't enough for them. These are corn women, afterall, officially known as Mujeres de Maiz, and the corn women of East LA don't mess around. For starters, they've been organizing art events for the past 13 years. Rumor has it that during meetings, they bust out 7 page agendas and sometimes hold each other hostage for 3-4 hours. Ay! I would need to sneak a swig or two of tequila to keep up with them.

There's so much to say about Mujeres de Maiz, but there's one thing I want to make clear--estas mujeres estan bien locas. They've been working for free for the past 13 years, they burn sage, wear sea shells and feathers on their ears, strap giant wings made of corn husks on their shoulders and show up to City Council meetings to defend the arts. When they aren't planning events or juggling jobs to pay bills, they delve into their own art; they paint, poet, make films, sculpt.

This year's celebration will feature art shows, teatro, music, poetry readings, workshops, and vendor markets. Also, este año se aventaron las mujeres by organizing an amazing musical show that will feature the prominent Afro-Peruvian singer, Susana Baca. If you don't know Baca's music yet, you must check her out. She's a 2002 Grammy Award winner and one of Latin America's musical treasures. She's traveling all the way from Perú to come share canción and corazon in Boyle Heights. She'll also be performing a collaborative set with local musicians, such as Martha Gonzalez of Queztal, CAVA, and La Santa Celicia. Baca in el barrio? If you're local, don't miss this! If you miss this and you're local, well, then you're just plain loco.

This week, I was able to crash one of MDM's organizing meetings. The women, most of whom have been with the collective since its inception, were kind enough to delay their agenda and chat with me about MDM and this year's event. Core members of the collective and Board of Directors are Felicia Montes, Gina Aparicio, Margaret Alarcon, Lily Ramirez, Claudia Mercado, and Maritza Alvarez.

During our 15 minutes together, Mujeres de Maiz shared more than I could possibly include in this small bloga (son bien platiconas las muchachas). The following excerpts, therefore, by no means attempt to offer a comprehensive history of the 13 years of Maiz herstory, rather they briefly highlight a few of the women's pensamientos and insights.

Why and how was Mujeres de Maiz formed?

Felicia: A need to create a space for women was why we started Mujeres de Maiz. We were questioning: Why is it that we never see women on stage? Originally, we were inspired by community groups such as the Peace & Justice Center and the Popular Resource Center. One event in particular, “Caught Between a Horn and an Angel,” which was put on at the Popular Resource Center, was very inspiring. It was a Zapatista fundraiser for a women’s delegation to Chiapas. It was organized by Patricia Valencia, Aida Salazar, Victorilla Delgadillo and her sister. The event was mainly all-women and this really inspired us. Around that same time, In Lak Ech [an all-female performance poetry collective which Felicia and Claudia are original members of] was also formed. As we began to share our work publicly, there was a transformation of both the participating artists and community members. We decided to put a call out to everyone we knew to discuss what could be done to form some type of collective. We had to figure out a name and Lily came up with Mujeres de Maiz. Our first event was in June of 1997 at the Popular Resource Center. Our original idea was to have an event every 4 months, representative of the cycle of the four seasons. We did two or three events that year, but after that we began to do one yearly event, along with the publication of our Zine.

What has MDM provided local emerging or established artists?

Margaret: I think it's empowered a lot of people. Personally, coming out of my educational background in art, I felt really invisible through that whole experience. Meeting up with these women made me feel present and valid. I had something to say and MDM gave me the space to say it.

Gina: It offers space for self-trained artist to perform and exhibit their work, as well as a space for professional trained artists who have gone through formal institutions. MDM provides a space for people who have not yet been published, who have not been written about, people who don’t have a gallery space to represent them, don’t have a stage to perform. So we have all these levels of artists interacting and communicating with each other. It’s also intergenerational, from teenagers to artist in their 70’s. The interesting thing for me is witnessing how the individual artists have developed their work and their aesthetic and their collaboration with each other. All of these things have moved us forward and given us skills as organizers and artists.

How do you feel MDM has grown through the years?

Claudia: The growth that I’ve witnessed in MDM is crossing borders, intergenerational and cultural, as well as building bridges between academic scholars and grassroot community activist, so much so that it inspired and enabled Susana Baca, a world renowned musician, to come to Los Angeles to participate in our event. That’s something that people of her caliber don’t usually do.

Margaret: Speaking of crossing borders, last year we had a women from Saudi Arabi submit an art piece for our publication. That was pretty amazing to get someone from so far away connect with us…that was really powerful.

Felicia: It's true we are often very East LA centric, but Mujeres de Maiz has always been intergenerational, intercultural, and now it’s become more national. Even though we don’t have events in other places, there are people in other states who’ve been inspired and influenced by the work we’re doing here. Through Facebook, Myspace, and other mediums we've been able to share who we are and what we do with non-local people and this is exciting.

Claudia: Aside from crossing borders, I believe that as a collective we’ve also been instrumental in supporting other's larger visions. There was one year where MDM, for example, helped Womyn Image Makers [an all-female, LA based film collective] go to the United Nations for the Permanent Indigenous Forum. The funds provided by MDM enabled another collective of women to document and experience that forum first hand. It’s collaborations like these where we are not only empowering ourselves but other collectives as well.

Susan Baca is huge. Can you briefly say something about her coming to Boyle Heights?

Lily: This is a world class musicians who’s donating her time and her art for our community. What a gift! We just put it out there and someone believed in what we're doing and that’s really amazing. The collaboration that she’s going to have with local musicians is also going to be historic and it’s going to happen in a historical place too, here, at Casa Grande. I don’t know if you know the history of the Paramount Ballroom here at Casa Grande, but in the 1940’s and 1950’s the Communist Party used to meet here. It was a social place where they could gather. In the 1960’s, artists like Richie Valens performed here, Etta James, The Clash, and X. Famous people. In 70’s and 80’s it was the Punk Rock ELA movement and punkers in general. Then in the 80’s it was disco, and now here we are, Susana Baca will be closing the circle.

Do you get any financial support? [All the women laugh].

Lily: Chhhhhhh! [I can't quite phonetically capture Lily's response, but it basically was a sound that translated into yeah right! We wish!]

Margaret: Chhhhhh! Chhhhhingao! [More risa].

Several of the women: We got a lunch last year!

Who gave you the lunch?

Felicia: We did. We had cleaned all day from 10 AM to 5 PM and then we were hungry, so we treated ourselves to a lunch.

What about grants?

Felicia: In the past 13 years, there’s been one Neighborhood Council Grant and that was for our Zine. There's a chance we may get one this year too, but pretty much everything we’ve done has been possible because of hard work, volunteers, and in-kind donations. Nobody’s been paid. When you think about it, it’s pretty incredible that we’re still here.

Why are you still here?

Gina: What we're doing is creating sacred spaces for ourselves because they don’t really exist for us in this city and in this side of town. There are less and less community centers, especially right now because of the economy and budget cuts and art programs are always the first to get cut.

Margaret: It’s all about corazón and dedication. We believe in it and we believe in each other.

Well put, Margaret! The corazón and dedication these women have invested over the past 13 years is evident. Come out and support Mujeres de Maiz this March. An abridged version of the schedule follows. Yes, it's abridged! There's so much going on I had to abridge it, but you can get all the juicy details on their website.

If you're not in Los Angeles or can't make it to the events, you can still support MDM by visiting their website and making a donation. They take electronic $5's, $10's, $20's, $100's, etc. Any contribution, big or small, is appreciated. As the corn women would say, tlazocamti. And no sean gacho, make a donation so that perhaps these hardworking women can buy themselves lunch again...or por lo menos un elote. ________________________________________________________________
Mujeres de Maiz: 13 Anniversary Live Art Show: 13 Baktun

An interdisciplinary, intercultural, intergenerational event honoring International Women's Day and Women's Herstory Month with events along First Street in Boyle Heights/East LA.

Below are some of the highlighted MDM events. For more information visit

Sunday March 7th 2010


Public Live Art Show (FREE)

Mariachi Plaza

East 1st Street & N. Boyle Avenue

Los Angeles CA 90033

Featuring all women performers:

Danza Azteca

Cihualt Ce

Guerrilla Queenz

In Lak Ech

Las Ramonas

Raquel Salinas

The Sirens

March 07, 2010


Exhibits at the following locations:

Eastside Luv: 1835 E. First Street, LA CA 90033

Primera Taza: 1850 E. First Street, LA CA 90033

March 7, 2010: FREE Live Art Jam

Casa Grande

2708 East Cesar Chavez Ave

1st Floor

Los Angeles CA 90033

March 7, 2010: 6:30-9:30 PM

Special Guest of Honor Susana Baca (Get your tickets now: You don't want to miss this!)

with performances by: D'LO, Happy Frejo, Hermanas Canto Cura, Indigie Femme, Josefina Lopez, Las Bomberas de la Bahia, La Santa Cecilia, Quetzal

Casa Grande

2708 East Cesar Chavez Avenue

2nd Floor

Los Angeles CA 90033

New reduced tickets for Susana Baca show!

General Admission: $20.00

Students with ID: $15.00

A series of other Mujeres de Maiz events are planned throughout the month of March, such as poetry readings, Mujer mercados, and holisitic and self-defense workshops. Please visit the Mujeres de Maiz website for more information


Also in Los Angeles this March

A FREE extended Preview Screening of the documentary, "The Camino Today."

The Camino Documentary is about the experience of walking the life-changing, 500-mile pilgrimage across Northern Spain known as “The Camino de Santiago”. The film follows six strangers from incredibly diverse walks of life, as they attempt to cross a country on foot with only a backpack, a pair of boots, and an open mind. Driven by an inexplicable calling and a grand sense of adventure, each pilgrim throws themselves heart-and-soul into their physical trek to Santiago, and their personal journey to themselves.

Where: Hilton 100, Loyola Marymount University

When: March 4, 2010

Time: 1:30 PM

Sponsored by LMU's Center for Ignatian Spirituality


msedano said...

las Mujeres de Maiz celebrate Women's Herstory Month by making herstory all these 13 years. Not only does this exciting event have lots of attraction, getting to the March 7 events is as easy as hopping the Gold Line to Mariachi Plaza. My gosh, it's next Sunday!

Color Online said...

Yes! Linking to this today at Color Online, on our Facebook pages and Twitter.

I have goosebumps. I'm so excited and grateful for women like you.

Viva Liz Vega! said...

Thanks Olga. I will be there. And maybe I will ride the green line to the blue line to the red to the gold.