Friday, September 25, 2015

The Time is Now: Chicas Rockeras Touch Down in Huntington Park

Guest Post by Vickie Vertiz

Strings of hand-cut microphone papel picado hang above thirty girls and as many volunteers who dance the pogo. Brown and black ponytails bop around the Friendship Pit in the cafeteria, and do the lawnmower with blue-haired band coaches and comadres. The room is charged with so much joy that it's harder to stand still than to dance. Even the wallflowers (myself included) end up on the edges of the sweetest mosh pit ever, devoid of the usual fierce shoving. The house band, Las Pulgas, or The Fleas, plays "Your Moment," the Chicas Rockeras' bilingual theme song:

¿Quién eres? ¿Quién quieres ser?
Ahora es la hora de poder
¡Si Se Puede! (¡Si Se Puede!)
Con chicas a tu lado
Finalmente tu momento ha llegado

Who are you? Who do you want to be?
Today is your day, listen and see
Yes we can! (Yes we can!)
With chicas on your side
Your moment has finally arrived

The first-ever Chicas Rockeras Southeast Los Angeles camp in Huntington Park was a rollicking success. Just five miles from downtown and four miles from the Long Beach Freeway, the rock camp hosted over 26 children ages 8-17, for a week of band practice and workshops. Held the week of June 15-19, 2015, at Aspire Ollin University Prep Academy, girls learned to sing and write songs with musicians like punk legend Alice Bag, and were coached by Candice Hansen, who's played with, among others, Exene Cervenka from the L.A.-based band X. Other guest artists, like award-winning Trio Ellas and band coach Josie Wreck, performed original music and Salt N' Pepa covers and discussed their career and work with the campers. But this was no ordinary punk rock camp.

"In 2009 I was organizing a lot of community events, punk shows, and fests," said Marin, a member and comadre, of the Chicas Rockeras collective. "But then I saw the film 'Girls Rock' and immediately, thought 'How can we make this happen? I wish I had that when I was a kid.'" Marin volunteered with Rock n' Roll Camp for Girls, Los Angeles for five years, but, she said, "It was time to bring it back home to southeast L.A." Marin grew up in South Gate, and many of the comadres, or co-organizers, in the collective also grew up in the southeast or are from similar working-class Latino neighborhoods.

Based on a sliding scale up to $150 (half of the families paid the full amount and the other half paid between $25 to zero dollars according to income), the camp is based on the Girls Rock Camp Alliance model that build self-esteem and help find their voices by using music education and performance for empowerment and social justice. The feminist and radical effort was started in 2001 in Portland, while the Alliance began in 2007, exploding with new iterations across the country, as far as the United Kingdom. However, since many of those camps cost $400 or more, Chicas Rockeras was far more accessible to many families. Marin said that another thing that sets them apart is that mainstream rock camps are "traditionally a white-dominated scene, [and] the fact that we are focused on being bilingual and creating space for young women of color is unique." The camp was 100% volunteer-run.

 The camp was focused on problem-solving and on building critical thinking skills. The entire week was filled with lunchtime singing and dancing, with energized campers gathering each morning to think about their power, their friendships, and their literal voices. "Some of the younger girls were nervous to jump in with the older girls," said Marin. "But the older girls, in a very sister-loving way, would encourage the younger girls to jump in and dance. They would also eat together during lunch and ask them about their day. It was beautiful to witness this type of mentoring."

The groups were split into two: the younger set, ages 8-11, were called the Bidis; and ages 12-17 were called the Bom Boms -- both named after Selena's world-famous song, "Bidi Bidi Bom." The band lyrics reflected what girls were learning. In class, they talked about and mapped on a large piece of poster paper what's in their neighborhoods: trees, freeways, paleteros, and schools. Because the southeast has "an intense history of environmental injustices," according to Marin, "it made sense to offer Environmental Justice 101," she said about the week's curriculum. Facilitators Angee and Janeth "covered the history with Exide, and the fact that we don't have access to healthy foods."

The most important lesson, however, was to make the campers proud of who they are. For example, camper Isabel P., who's a reporter for the Girl Scouts of San Gorgonio, said this:
When I walked into camp for the first time I felt ecstatic, my adrenaline was pumping and I just wanted to play drums. The volunteers welcomed every girl with kindness that made me feel like I belong...

After the "Radical Body Love for Young Riot Grrls" workshop led by facilitator Gloria Lucas, one of the campers said, "I love my body!" Volunteers also said they heard girls say, "I'm not ashamed to be round. No soy gorda."

"It was really hard for me not to cry on the spot, it was so powerful," said Marin. "Some of the campers sharing these highlights were nine years old." The growth in the campers, their families, and communities will have positive, and hopefully long-term, effects.
After the workshop, a Bom band called Rotting Glitter wrote these lyrics for their song, "Body is Beauty": "We won't take this anymore! We have bodies we adore!"

When you watch this clip of them performing, you'll notice they start out on the quiet side, but as the song goes on, the singer's voice grows in confidence until she's screaming into the mic. This song embodies the changes and growth the campers experienced at Chicas Rockeras.

"After the camp, I felt that I had learned a lot, not just with learning a new instrument but I learned a lot about myself, the history of music, and life lessons that can be used in the future," wrote Isabel P. in her article.

The hallway of Aspire Ollin's first floor was covered with pictures of women who rock: Selena, Joan Jett, Jenny Rivera. While the curriculum is derived from a punk-aesthetic, the people at the center of the posters and decorations included many Latinas. Chicas Rockeras' most amazing strength is that they place the students' cultures and aesthetics at the center of the curriculum. To achieve this work in public schools, which are facing massive budget cuts that make teachers choose between having a school nurse and band class, is a minor miracle.

Another workshop I participated in was on how to be an ally. Sitting in a circle of mostly the younger girls and a few adult volunteers, the facilitator thoughtfully asked us to go around and say our name and our preferred gender pronoun. We talked about what a gender pronoun was first. For them it was "she and them," which served as an example of the many ways the campers could identify. We also defined being an ally, as: the way you can check if someone was all right, or if they needed anything.

One girl of about seven, with a hand that was always in the air, asked, "What does 'gay' mean?" "That's a great question," said Povi-Tamu, the facilitator who also works with the local social justice group Black Lives Matter. "Let's figure it out." Our teacher went up to the white board and drew three lines with the words "boy" and "girl" at each end. The first mapped out who they like to spend time with, the second was what activities they thought each gender enjoys, and the last was what gender is written on their birth certificate. The girls took markers and drew marks where they belonged along the spectrums. The group discussed these ideas respectfully, and no one was shamed or punished for asking questions.

This was yet another great camp moment, one that many of us never thought we could have, even as adults. What's even more exciting is that conversations like these are happening in southeast L.A., a set of communities that do a lot with limited economic and educational resources. The children in our communities hold precious lessons learned at home that teach them to be inventive and resilient, to thrive in the face of bigotry embodied in toxic factories, the expansion of dangerous freeways, and overcrowded schools that frequently fail to serve them.

In 2010, the median income in Huntington Park for a family of four was $34,000, while 31.7% was under the age of 18, compared to 25% for the state. These are normal statistics for the southeast and, in opposition to what some might think, conditions that generate ingenuity. Children are natural artists, full of energy and ideas, a resource in which the southeast is rich.

Chicas Rockeras is the kind of group that all families, politicians, nonprofits, and teachers should know about and support immediately. Like the Southeast Los Angeles Colectivo, like the Alivio Open Mic, like Communities for a Better Environment, Chicas Rockeras is made up of people from the southeast and their allies who are stepping up and organizing their communities, not waiting for anyone to come and save them.

It is the younger people, a few years out of college or a few years into the workplace, from southeast L.A. County who are the organizers and participants at the numerous art projects, programs, and events blossoming in the region. If foundations that support programs like AVID, for instance, are interested in investing in that expanse of the county, they should support groups like Chicas Rockeras Southeast Los Angeles, run by those of us who see promise and talent where others only see poverty.

In their work and behavior, the campers identified and gained confidence, power, friendship, love, and encouragement. "I also learned some valuable skills," added Isabel, the camper who is also a reporter, "such as leadership, team work, collaboration, and communication skills." If Isabel could articulate these skills, there's no telling what she'll be up to when she grows up.

The need for a program like this is clear. The music and art programs in Los Angeles Unified, like many other school districts, have been cut drastically, pitted against other basic needs like an on-site nurse.
The bilingual camp will return next year with just as much energy. The 35 volunteers, who spanned everything from punk rock drummers to PhD students, will also be back because the project was close to their hearts.

"That was me when I was that age," said one woman during an after-program meeting. Almost every adult in the volunteer circle nodded in agreement. Most people in the room related to the campers at that age: introverted, questioning, yet brave and curious. The local families were really supportive of the camp. "That surprised me," said Marin, "there's no way, growing up, my tía would have sent me to a 'Rock camp? Que es eso, que rock!' But times change."

On the day of the final showcase, the camp theme song is played again, in a set of roaring final performances at the American Legion in South Gate. Pastel-colored paper lanterns adorn the ceiling, and under their glow, the stage is packed with singing campers and teachers. The audience is a sea of waving arms in the air, an auditorium jammed with parents, siblings, and abuelos. Everyone, from Ph.D. students, punks, and baby siblings cheer on the campers' big final numbers.

Let the student songs be rallying cries for all of our young people to be this supported in their creativity. May our schools vibrate with affirmation and song.

To support Chicas Rockeras Southeast Los Angeles visit their website and look out for their fundraisers like Ladies' Rock Camp, upcoming shows, and awesome mixed tapes. Watch more campers rocking out on the CRSELA Facebook page.

 *This story was published on KCET.

Vickie Vértiz was born and raised in Bell Gardens. Her writing explores the intersections of feminism, class, and Latino sub-cultures through everyday beauty.


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