A Concatenation of Sprawls

How, in 21st-century Los Angeles, can we continue to nurture the hardy roots of rasquachismo, to yield new and more inclusive Latinx-urbanist aesthetics?

Multi-panel mural showing corrido musicians.
Streetscapers, El Corrido de Boyle Heights (The Ballad of Boyle Heights) at Soto Street and Cesar Chavez Avenue, Los Angeles, 2021. [Raquel Gutiérrez]

I lived in Silverlake in the late 1990s, and occasionally walked the few blocks to Sunset and caught the 704 bus to Santa Monica to get to work. It was reprieve from the spiritual void of bumper-to-bumper.

The 704 took me to a cubicle where I logged inventory at my first and only job of the first dotcom boom. This was in 1999, just before Lars Ulrich of Metallica took Napster to court (in a case that would force the music-file-sharing company into bankruptcy), and I was the e-commerce manager for an online record label located at the corner of Pico and Cloverfield. I got the job through friends I’d made seeing live music in the heyday of an art-punk adolescence. We grew up in DIY spaces and helped each other find work in the music industry, in Burbank and Hollywood. The promo CDs, limited-edition vinyl, and free concert tickets made it seem like I had struck gold.

Sensory pleasure, and an inkling that such feelings could be linked to identity, difference, and belonging, shaped my crosstown bus commute in 1999.

I didn’t need a college degree for that job. So why was I still nervous about maybe never getting one? Adulthood snuck up on me. I hadn’t made it into the elite colleges that my private-Catholic high-school peers had prepared their whole lives for; I spent junior year grieving my best friend’s death in a car accident and hit my snare drum more than I did the books. Playing music was my solace, and college felt as vague as any other recognizable purpose for my life. I relied on sensory pleasure to direct me into the workforce.

Maybe that same sensory instinct, and an inkling that such feelings were linked to class, identity, difference, and belonging, shaped my rides along the 704 route. I wasn’t the only bus commuter in the office, where my colleagues were transplants from the East Coast and Midwest, still struggling to crack Greater L.A.’s transportation codes, still aghast at the ways Angeleños navigate distance. (They eventually put down payments on the first wave of Priuses.) As an L.A. native, I rode the bus to read Roque Dalton’s poetry, and to attempt my own imitations. And as I crossed the zip codes, and views transformed from murals depicting the Mesoamerican ancestors of many of my neighbors to the architecturally promiscuous porticos of Beverly Hills, I chatted with middle-aged mothers on their way to manage other peoples’ homes and children — a jolt of familiarity, since my mother had done this too, as a young woman, just a few years before I was born.

Mural of Mayan head on exterior wall of restaurant.
Mural at El Chavo Restaurant in Silverlake, 2006. [IK’s World Trip © via Flickr, under license CC BY 2.0]

Orange mural with faces on bodega.
Mural at Sunset and Echo Park Boulevards, Los Angeles, 2005. [Kent Kanouse © via Flickr, under license CC BY-NC 2.0]

I remember someone a few years older than me who asked if my husband let me work. I wish I could credit the woman who explained what huitlacoche is — the edible corn fungus some liken to a truffle. But most of the conversations ended with both parties awkwardly aware of a divide. I was born in Los Angeles to parents who, due to their own luck (or lack of it) in arriving in the early 1970s, had become U.S. citizens under Ronald Reagan’s Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which had extended amnesty to those who entered the country illegally prior to 1982. My father had come from Mexico, from the capital city of the state of Hidalgo, to harvest potatoes in Wisconsin and lettuce in Watsonville, south of Santa Cruz. In 1970, after two years in the Golden State, he was unceremoniously returned — via bus ride — to El Paso, where he was left to walk the bridge into Ciudad Juarez. He quickly devised a plan to return, and this time found relief in the anonymity of Los Angeles. He experienced the harder knocks of moving north to a country that wants your labor but not your personhood — whereas my mother arrived by plane and found her own path to a 704 stop near the nexus of San Vicente, Wilshire, and Santa Monica Boulevards, where the Bermuda Triangle of Beverly Hills swallows its Latinx labor force. Eventually she overstayed her visa. But both my parents received amnesty, and while my father went back and forth in political party affiliations, my mother voted Republican for the next three decades in homage to Reagan’s life-changing policy, despite his interventionism against her country of origin, El Salvador.

I think of my parents as having been two among thousands of similar erasures, excluded from the functional successes of the city until they reached middle age.

I often think of my parents as having been among thousands of similar erasures, those excluded from the functional successes of this city until they reached middle age. I think, too, about how the economic security they did at last achieve allowed me to stumble into my own politics. My mother had time to take my sister and me to the library in Huntington Park; to practice her English with every verse she read aloud from the worn copy of Childrens Bible Stories she kept on the nightstand in the pink-painted bedroom my sister and I shared. I persist, 20 years later in this queer mid-life, in never having found an occasion to use the word “Latinx” around her (or around my father, who died last year). This in spite of the fact that, in other realms, I traffic in the complicated nuances of the term, its representational burden meant to index history and create safety for those whose gender is considered nonconforming.

There was a point on my bus ride where, from the group of us starting at the same destination, only I was left. I headed West to Santa Monica, into my own erasures.

Two photographs of young couple, interior in suit and white dress with short skirt; exterior with casual clothes and sun glasses.
The author’s parents on their wedding day (left) and honeymoon in Las Vegas, 1971. [Courtesy Raquel Gutiérrez]

… the boulevard glowing with a line of low riders, puffing,
bouncing all the way down to the bald,
yellow mountains, where the outline of smog thickens
and the rickety houses wait for a can full of rain.
— William Archila, from “Drinking Beer in East L.A.,” The Art of Exile, 2009

A concatenation of sprawls, Los Angeles may once have fulfilled its promise as what Reyner Banham called the “uniquely mobile metropolis” only if you had a car. 1 But in the age of mobile apps and the CicLAvia car-free-streets program, driving doesn’t always define relationships to this urban geography. In terms of understanding the character of neighborhoods, your journey might start and end with referring to the intersection of Franklin and Vermont (in Los Feliz) as “The Eastside” — whereas that neologism is considered blasphemy for those who have resisted such deterritorialization and rebranding. 2 At the same time, throughout the pandemic, many continued to commute across the city by bike or bus. Many others sat anxious in home offices, tending to a child’s education, wondering about the headlines. Many more, even now, expect eviction. And some of us have straddled these apparently separate worlds of demand, restriction, need, and ambition. We have all been all waiting.

Through the pandemic we have waited to shimmer again in the prismatic LGBTQ club scene of Latinx Los Angeles.

Some of us — we, the nocturnal — waited for something very particular, albeit wildly varied and complex. We waited, and are waiting still, for a return to public spaces that center us in music and companionship, inviting us to shimmer in the prismatic LGBTQ club scene of Latinx Los Angeles. Some of us wait to be held in queer camaraderie and solidarity — to skip beyond futurity’s horizon, into a time when we will have survived the virus and the lockdowns and their aftermath. We wait to once again offer spectacles of our own making to our most intimate publics, to collaborate on performances and projects and other kinds of participation that rise out of the aftermath of violence and judgment — the ever-mutating consequences of structural inequities, made worse by the pandemic. We wait, too, for the real-estate market to push us along again, to force us to pick up our things and move to the next neighborhood that we might temporarily call home — and, having arrived, to apologize for the displacement our presence is causing those who lived there first. We remember our previous homes redolent with sense memories, struggles, and lessons, and we recall the unfettered desires of our homes-away-from homes in clubs and on dance floors, all marked by and celebrated for their capacities to conjure feasts out of so little. We remember and carry with us the spirit of rasquachismo.

Two drag queens dressed as Frida Kahlo.
Joey Terrill, Dos Fridas (Luiz & Jef), 1990. [© Joey Terrill]

Painting of four drag queens
Joey Terrill, Jef, Victor, Luiz & George, 1992. [© Joey Terrill]

Illustration of Che Guevara kissing Cesar Chavez.
Alex Donis, My Cathedral: Che Guevara and Cesar Chavez, 1997. (Non-extant; destroyed onsite by vandals). [© Alex Donis]

Rasquachismo is a term as varied as its deployment, which can be limiting or liberating depending on circumstances; it’s both a derision and a secret code. Detractors might be middle-class aspirants, or Sunday church señoras who name the rasquache in whispers, calling out the tacky, the impoverished, the vulgar. Expressing another kind of criticality, art historian Tomás Ybarra-Frausto describes the aesthetic in his 1989 essay “Rasquachismo: A Chicano Sensibility” as embodied in the resilience of los de abajo, the underdogs. 3 The ethos of rasquachismo is the ability to make do, to improvise. Frausto offers as an example the protagonist in the novel The Adventures of Don Chipote, or When the Parakeets Suckle Their Young (1928), who naively leaves his wife and children in Mexico in search of success in the Roaring Twenties in Los Angeles. Don Chipote was written in L.A. by Mexican journalist Daniel Venegas, as a comic cautionary tale for those who might attempt to abandon la patria for the exploitative labor conditions awaiting in El Norte. 4 Rasquachismo is represented in the antics of Don Chipote (whose name means “bump on the head”), his quixotic-improvisational survival and working-class wherewithal; rasquachismo for Venegas is the pick-yourself-up vibe animating those caught in low places, the street urchins and ruffians who find pleasure in the embodied simplicities of food, jokes, and sex.

Don Chipote is famous as the first fictional iteration of the Chicano — a Mexican toiling in the soils of the United States, uneducated and unrepresented in the political system. Chicanos in Venegas’s era might have been laborers who escaped the Mexican Revolution in 1910 and crossed the Rio Grande on foot; or they might have been the descendants of Mexicans who lived in Texas under annexation, prior to passage of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. These populations dispersed across the Southwest, finding their footing in places like Crystal City, Texas, just north of the border, known as the spinach capital of the West — where one generation rose to power in city government, only to see the next generation of administrators institute a ban on Spanish in schools and public places. It was in Texas that the Chicano Movement was born in the mid 1960s, though it soared to perhaps its greatest heights in East Los Angeles during the 1968 high school walkouts, when students in the L.A. Unified School District boycotted classes in order to protest unequal educational conditions.

Cultural workers in the movement — the artists and the poets — were similarly inspired by these desires for empowered mobility, and they responded by celebrating the material textures and city spaces they knew best, re-centering everyday objects that had been deemed uncouth by the dominant power structures of White America. They were lifting up los de abajo, and in the process defining a spatialized discourse.

We remember and carry with us the spirit of rasquachismo, a term as varied as its deployment,  both a derision and a secret code.

Extending his discussion from the picaresque of Don Chipote, Ybarra-Frausto explores a range of examples — shopping at K-Mart and laughing at Tin-Tan, the celebrated comedian from the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema (low rasquache), or being bilingual and speaking with an accent in both languages (high rasquache). From Guadalupana chapels celebrating the Virgin in parking lots, to flowers blooming in planters made from painted automobile tires, to endless rows of glass-jar candles dedicated to every kind of prosperity prayer, rasquachismo is a practice of anti-elitism, a gestural vocabulary that recuperates lost materials and restores lost beauties. In Latinx Los Angeles, rasquachismo has long been a mode through which to recognize historical memory as expressed in public places. Urban theorist James Rojas argues that these aesthetics of the underclass imbue placemaking with a sense of play, while art historian Amalia Mesa-Bains has put forward a feminist reading of the Latina domestic interior, where rasquachismo creates quotidian sacred spaces for matriarchs whose double duty continues after the five-o’clock whistle blows. 5

Meme with The Rock.
“The Rock and Don Chipote’s Meme.” (Q: Will Mexicans get rich in the U.S. one day? A: Yes, when parakeets suckle their young.) Created by a student in “Borders and Languages — BL 220: Immigrant Experiences,” taught by Dr. Carolina Alonso at Fort Lewis College, 2018.  [Courtesy Carolina Alonso]

In my own communities, shaped by the bonds that tether “Latinx” to “queer,” what began as an adaptive cultural project has in recent decades been refashioned to signal things to come. The spatial sensibilities brought by Mexicanos into the hostile north have, historically, been based in an urgent need to thrive creatively, as well as to survive in nearly untenable economic circumstances. The artists and performers of my own generation, as well as those immediately preceding and following ours, are infiltrating these inherited cultural practices with evolving queer affects and demands.

Key questions I would like to consider, then, are these: How, in the 21st century, can we continue to nurture the hardy roots of the rasquache, to yield new and more inclusive Latinx-urbanist aesthetics? More specifically, how do we hold onto — and continue to transform — the legacies shaped and reshaped by bicultural and bilingual artists belonging to varied Latino and Latina and Latinx diasporic and Indigenous traditions in Los Angeles, as they (as we) respond to gentrification pressures, anti-immigration policies, and earlier waves of activism against the Vietnam War or in support of people with AIDS? How have these ephemeral but crucial communities been dismantled and reconfigured as our gathering-and-dancing and art-making places move and move again through the currents of underground culture as they collide with real-estate interests in this city?

In considering such histories and kinships, it’s important to emphasize how often it has happened, in my life and beyond, that a club space has transformed into a care space. At a club or a performance, we can find a kind of attention that we often sorely lack or lacked at home with primary caregivers — an attention that, for me, arrived when I was younger as a laser-sharp recognition of the gender(s) I chose to inhabit on any given evening, standing by the bar, holding up the bathroom line, pumping fists over the house beat on the dance floors of Silverlake, Echo Park, Downtown, Hollywood, or Inglewood. The club has been a place to check in and catch the chisme of the week, to celebrate the ways in which we manage to live another day; it’s a place where consideration of musical and sartorial detail creates new audiences and exhibition opportunities. On those nights out, club space made possible a mode of belonging that I wanted.

Figure in cowboy hat and flowered shirt, with microphone, looking into camera as a group of club-goers dance in the dark background.
The author at Club Chico in Montebello, 2018 [Bradford Nordeen]

Any one version of this room where imagined community is made real will likely slip away, eventually, into assimilation. But another will evolve. Throughout the year of lockdowns, my students were attending Zoom dance parties and streaming IG Live content from nightclub personalities; they found new friends in each chat log. Their online spaces continue now to assemble a new folklore, establishing rituals for digital natives to enact together, remotely. And as I witness this, I think back on my early days after coming out — coming into the intimate publics that nightlife made possible. Over those years, as I leaned into music and performance art and theater communities in Los Angeles, I became a scribe and in-house interlocutor, a chronicler of visual culture made by and for weirdos, punks, partiers, and dirtbags. In the process, I felt us forging links to the experimentalists and rebels who came before us, who agitated in the Chicano Movement and survived the HIV epidemic. This remains a story I want to tell, in part to help to anchor my students’ generation and those who follow them, those who will need access to this history in the next iteration of unimaginable loss, whatever that turns out to be.

Over the years I became a scribe and in-house interlocutor, a chronicler of visual cultures made by and for weirdos, punks partiers, and dirtbags.

I don’t presume to offer fixed definitions or definitive versions. I am able only to relay some localized nightlife experiences and corollary stories of performance and art-making in Latinx Los Angeles, in the periods from Vietnam to AIDS to the last major recession in 2008 to the here-and-now of 2021. Categories of self-formation will always be conditional, and definitions of community unstable; historically, these categories and definitions have often failed to offer us the ontological freedom to expand beyond a narrow kind of legibility. Even so, and even across the last year as I wrote this essay in the seeming endlessness of corona-distance, I have been fortunate to draw on experiences with my favorite artists at the sites of our exaltation.

The walls of this building
are sturdy like myself,
guarded by the spirits of long dead stars.
— Gil Cuadros, from “Conquering Immortality,” in City of God, 1994

Early in 2020, I was set to move back part-time from Tucson to Southern California, where I had gotten a lecturer job at the University of California Riverside. I thought I would again enjoy a springtime fevered by the salve of the queer party. And not just any queer party, as you might find in West Hollywood, but specifically scenes indebted to the legacies of those who organized for Chicano rights and against the war in Vietnam in the 1970s, and in support of earlier waves of immigrants and on behalf of people with AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s.

How should we understand the intersection of those decades-old movements with pre-pandemic  nightlife? It starts with a desire for freedom. And in saying this, I include not only our elders in activism and art-making, but also our parents — who may have steered clear of movement politics, opting for something safer. Many of us were raised with traditions that merged into the dominant culture’s conservatism. Yet our families, too, longed for a stability promised by places to call their own.

The Gutiérrez family celebrating Christmas in Huntington Park, 1979. The photographer is the author’s older brother Jaime. [Courtesy Raquel Gutiérrez]

School picture of girl with short hair in Catholic school uniform.
The author’s 5th grade school portrait, 1985. [Courtesy Raquel Gutiérrez]

My parents certainly felt this way. Their generation created what Los Angeles Times columnist Jack Smith has called the “Latino Renaissance,” a cultural flowering caused by entrepreneurs and strivers who in the Reagan era moved their small businesses into Downtown L.A. “Broadway obviously had been rescued and revitalized by the Spanish-speaking population,” Smith wrote appreciatively in 1986.

From 3rd to 9th the street is entirely Latinized. It might be a street in the heart of Mexico. Mexican music blasts out to the sidewalk from stereo shops. Taco stands abound. Merchants roll their wares out to the sidewalk on racks — clothing, jewelry, leather goods, shoes. All the signs are either in Spanish or bilingual. 6

It was the children of this generation — at least, the queer ones — for whom clubs like La Cita in Bunker Hill, and the New Jalisco Bar, which is Downtown, and parties like Mustache Mondays, which over time moved from bar to bar, would become places of refuge. We were (still are) the children of those who conquered social death as threatened by initiatives like Proposition 187, a measure on the state ballot in 1994 that would have made it illegal for undocumented immigrants to receive nonemergency health care, public education, and a host of other services. We are the offspring of those who assimilated, who voted against the interests of their community, with goals of reaching some proximity to power.

We were (still are) the children of those who assimilated with the goals of reaching some proximity to power.

For this essay, I had planned an investigation into that generational past — a return to the site of my parents’ first meeting, at a 1971 Valentine’s Day dance in the third-floor salon de baile at El Mercadito, the indoor marketplace on the corner of E. 1st and N. Lorena Streets in East L.A. In the era of that Valentine’s Day, my father lived Downtown. But my mother lived in the Estrada Court housing projects, walking distance from El Mercadito. I myself have been going to El Mercadito for as long as I can remember. It’s where I can get my favorite gordita de buche from the infamous first-floor corner stand, and my abre caminos candles and mal ojo curative powder from the botánica across the aisle, and the latest in bootleg cockfighting DVDs for a performance art piece. It had occurred to me that these things were part of an unexamined engagement on my part with rasquachismo. So, for this essay, I imagined myself retracing those steps, to reconnect with ways in which the fundamentally Latinx space of El Mercadito has quite literally shaped my life and informed my longings for expression.

Of course, that didn’t happen.

Instead, I spent the year teaching remotely, riding out the pandemic in Tucson, thinking about my dreams of generational excavation and late-nightlife deferred. Or are they permanently dashed? I am far away, now, from the disco balls that revolved above watered-down cocktails as they sloshed on the dance floors of greater and lesser Los Angeles. This has been the longest I have ever been separated from the ephemeral families built around desire and conviviality. But I am never far from the feelings of euphoria that made it worth staying up late all those nights. Moreover, even as I call on the unreliability of memory, I am also calling on the memories of friends whose conversations I can conjure up on FaceTime. I have been chatting and emailing with those who shared and helped to build the L.A. scenes. 7

Low slung market building with red flowers blooming in foreground
El Mercadito, 2021. [Raquel Gutiérrez]

Shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe surrounded by ceramic flowers.
The Virgin of Guadalupe Shrine at El Mercadito, 2021. [Raquel Gutiérrez]

One thing we’ve talked about is how the emergency halting of nightlife in 2020 recalls the impact of AIDS on scenes shaped by disco and punk rock. It’s eerie to be losing people and places and scenes again — after a period of feeling as if, in some ways, there had been recovery from that earlier era of virus-related grief.

The halting of nightlife in 2020 recalls the impact of AIDS on scenes shaped by disco and punk rock.

I knew I had to talk to one of my favorite visual artists, Joey Terrill, a longtime queer-rights activist and AIDS healthcare advocate. Terrill’s paintings, zines, and comics chronicled gay Chicano life in 1980s L.A.; his work demonstrates the possibilities for self-formation under duress, and creates visual repositories for queer grief. We talked about what it’s been like for him to watch the second pandemic of his lifetime unfold, with the corollary emergence of clubs as spaces for connection and care, and he reminded me that sometimes it’s the death of our heroes that announces a new dark age. “One pivotal moment that signaled the end of the decade for me was the assassination of Harvey Milk in ’78,” Terrill says.

It was like the dark music started playing, and 1980 is approaching, and you know it’s going to be weird. I was in New York when John Lennon was shot, and that impacted me on many similar levels. Before the eighties, going to the Castro meant all-night dancing and hooking up. But as the decade started, after Harvey Milk had been killed, these bars became meeting places. Friends and friends of friends asking, “Have you seen Daniel? What about Craig?” “Craig is in the hospital.” We were exchanging information, accounting for each other.

Listening to Terrill reminded me of the late 1990s, when I worked as the house manager in an experimental black-box theater, Highways Performance Space, in Santa Monica. Highways was founded by Tim Miller and Linda Burnham, and animated by queer performance artists including Luis Alfaro, Marcus Kuiland Nazario, Mario Gardner, and Reza Abdoh. It was a place created out of the ashes of pandemic loss; the gallery had a permanent installation that invited patrons to write the names of people they had lost to AIDS on the floor of the space. My first summer there, as an intern, I ran Sharpie markers over names that had faded.

Handwritten names and spraypainted body outlines on a concrete floor.
Highways’ AIDS Memorial Floor, installed in May 1989 at Highways Performance Space & Gallery, Santa Monica, CA. The project’s originating artist was Chuck Stallard. [Courtesy Highways Performance Space]

Things that are rasquache possess an ephemeral quality, a sense of temporality and impermanence — here today and gone tomorrow.
— Tomás Ybarra-Frausto, “Rasquachismo: A Chicano Sensibility,” 1989

Nightclubs don’t last. They come, they go — you hear about this or that themed night or party long after the bar that hosted it has closed, another casualty of Southern California’s parking lot-industrial complex. The places are gone, but their legends persist in one anecdotal register or another. This has always been a pleasure of nightlife for me — remembering convivial histories through those who lived them.

I recall my first time at Dreams of L.A. in Silverlake, and marvel at my 21-year-old self, who was marveling at the gamut of Latina lesbians dancing, flirting, and laughing in the smoky lounge upstairs. One thing that I think my students (all of us, really) tend to lose in online conversation is an understanding of how, in the past, different generations and economic classes often met in rooms like Dreams. Samuel R. Delany refers to these spaces that encourage cross-class contact as “democratic metropolises.” 8 Such sites eschew prohibitive respectability — just one of the many ways in which they uphold the tenets of rasquachismo. Here, in embodied space together, we could be uninhibited in the vices of our choosing.

Nightclubs come, they go —  casualties of Southern California’s parking lot-industrial complex.

This meant that, at the tender age of 21, I was free to occupy spaces which 30 years prior had been sites of violent clashes. In 1967, for instance, gay patrons at The Black Cat Tavern on Sunset at Hyperion in Silverlake got tired of being picked on by plainclothes L.A.P.D. The ensuing protests — two years before Stonewall — were powerful enough that participants could continue living their lives, however discreetly. By the time I moved to the neighborhood, The Black Cat had become Le Barcito, an ordinary-seeming, primarily Latino queer bar with weekly drag events, next to a laundromat. Yet the regulars were carrying their own burdens, surviving in the dark ages of AIDS.

Sign for Black Cat Tavern against blue sky.
The Black Cat Tavern in Echo Park / Silver Lake, 2017. [Wikimedia Commons under license CC BY-2.0]

Group of young white people carrying signs in support of gay rights.
Black Cat demonstrations led by PRIDE (Personal Rights in Defense and Education), Silverlake, Los Angeles, 1967. [Photographer unknown. Courtesy ONE Archives at USC Libraries.]

The Reagan era ushered in a sharply antagonistic response to gay culture; in his 2001 book Shots in the Dark: The Wayward Search for an AIDS Vaccine, journalist Jon Cohen reprints the painful transcript of a White House press briefing on October 15, 1982, in which deputy press secretary Larry Speakes laughs his way through answering his first public question about AIDS. 9 In California, political extremist Lyndon LaRouche inspired activists to form PANIC, the Prevent AIDS Now Initiative Committee, and then to draft Proposition 64 and usher it onto the 1984 state ballot. Prop 64’s proponents wanted to return AIDS to the public health department’s list of diseases mandating quarantine. Opponents of Prop 64 feared that such a decision would result in another generation being sent to World War II-style internment camps. Even as the number of AIDS cases skyrocketed in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, the Reagan administration avoided taking action, preferring to emphasize homophobia and abstinence. “After all,” said the president in 1987, “when it comes to preventing AIDS, don’t medicine and morality teach the same lessons?” 10 A few years earlier, Ryan White — a young hemophiliac who had contracted the virus through a blood transfusion in Kokomo, Indiana — had become the “innocent” face of AIDS. I remember watching the Phil Donahue talk show with my mother, seeing Ryan blush under the attention of his (and my own) current crush, television heartthrob Alyssa Milano of the sitcom Whos the Boss? She planted a kiss on his cheek to demonstrate that AIDS transmission through casual contact was impossible.

A few years later, around the time when I walked into Dreams and Le Barcito, I found my way to lesbian support groups at a place in East L.A. called Bienestar Human Services. In many ways, the clubs and the healthcare agency offered me the same thing. Bienestar primarily served low-income Spanish-speaking communities. Their office in East L.A., however, focused on HIV- and AIDS-related public health campaigns to support gay Latinos and their families; the place was staffed by gay men and lesbians, many biding time after grad school, or waiting for big breaks as artists. There I could connect with others who had grown up under the strict gender codes dictated by tradition and patriarchy. Our constraints were, in a sense, a shared language, a reality we all struggled with. Some of us had been raised by single mothers. Many were closeted, despite the opportunities that came with being the first in our families to go to college.

So AIDS and its aftermaths percolated throughout those queer care spaces, as they did through the music scene. I encountered gay men a decade older than me who had survived a plague; a shadow hovered on the faces of the young and middle-aged gay men I knew. They had buried friends and lovers, and they continued to mourn in dark dance halls or parties or coffeeshop poetry readings that marked the occasion of their own survival.

Bienestar outreach van, 2013. [Courtesy Bienestar Human Services]

Will you tell the folks back home I nearly made it
Had offers but don’t know which one to take
Please don’t tell ’em how you found me
Don’t tell ’em how you found me
— Albert Hammond, “It Never Rains in Southern California,” 1973

In a parallel, non-pandemic version of today, I am returning from a romp with my dog at Rosie’s Dog Beach in Long Beach. It’s 80 degrees by noon and I am indulging in nineties-era nostalgia as I make the rounds of my high-school haunts and pop in for a cold brew at Portfolio’s coffeeshop on the 4th Street drag. I turn the corner on the Pacific Coast Highway at The Executive Suite nightclub, its neon off-duty in the sun, and remember dancing myself into oblivion in another queer Latinx space. It wasn’t as generationally diverse as Dreams, in that it was a young crowd, many of whom probably worked at the mall and fought their way through state college bureaucracy, as first-generation students tend to do. This was one of the first places in my young adulthood that perhaps felt too easy to belong to, its neon rainbows glowing behind the beer signs. But the constellation of queer spaces gave me a new social world, one that created distance from my parents’ expectations about what a respectable adulthood might hold.

I stand in the sunny street and look up at The Executive Suite. Then I get in the car and head back to my mother’s place in Downey. For her, Downey represents a goal achieved. She and I both sought to belong to a world that deserved us, and to escape from a world that would only exploit us — and what she sought and eventually found was a place as far away as possible from the way she had grown up.

My mother now lives in what has been called ‘a middle-class minority-majority suburb,’ aka ‘The Mexican Beverly Hills.’

The home of 1970s yacht-pop crooners The Carpenters, Downey was once an aspirational destination for generations of White working-class families employed in the Hub Cities, situated along the Alameda corridor that connects East Los Angeles to Long Beach. Businesses here included steel production, meatpacking, paper mills, canneries, and garment work; these families were surrounded, as the former Los Angeles poet laureate Luis J. Rodriguez reminds us, by cities with the words “Commerce” and “Industry” in their names. 11 They enjoyed economic freedom because redlining kept Latinos, particularly Mexican Americans, from owning homes in the area until the late 1980s. Subsequently, strict municipal rules governing everything from the repair of broken windows to the placement of decorative landscaping kept Downey middle-class, while allowing its racial makeup to change. It is now “a middle-class minority-majority suburb,” a.k.a. “The Mexican Beverly Hills.” 12 Historian G. Aron Ramirez (a Downey High School alum) describes such strategies as “residential pruning” — “economically discriminatory policies to ensure that incoming ethnic Mexican homeowners conformed to a high middle-class standard.” In Downey, these legally enforced social expectations have been “flexible enough for working-class residents to move in, but strict enough to enhance the middle-class reputation” of the city. 13 I’m ambivalent about why my mother would want to live in a place that once actively kept Latinos out.

Two story apartment building with lawn and tres.
The Only Just Begun apartments on 5th Street in Downey, California, named after a song by The Carpenters, 2021. [Raquel Gutiérrez]

Intersection in California suburb.
Intersection of La Reina Avenue and 5th Street in Downey, California, 2021. [Raquel Gutiérrez]

A year went by when I could not embrace my mother or set foot in her white-carpeted living room, the pride of her domestic bliss, a room I referred to as el museo. But while I was missing her, I read Tomás Ybarra-Frausto’s essay with my students in an “Intro to Chicano Literature” class. I assigned it as a way to help them understand the spatial particularity of neighborhoods represented in short stories by the East L. A. fiction writer Helena Maria Viramontes. But their impressions of the text went far beyond academic literary analysis. I am rasquache, this and that one wrote in the chat space of our Zoom classroom. I never knew there was a word for how I feel. We all identified with the notion of reusing coffee cans for starting veggie seeds or storing leftovers in old sour-cream containers — and we all understood the power of transforming the shame that clings to such acts into celebrations of pragmatism. I listened as they shared frustrations about the gentrification of such habits, under the Instagram-esque sign of upcycling. As we finished up the unit on rasquachismo, it occurred to me that Downey has done its best to outlaw this important vector of Latinx sensory awareness, an index of culture and history, a prismatic marker of presence.

I propose an art that is not private property, an art that will make other artists aware of their real duty as human beings. I propose an art that is not only an inspiration and an education but also an art form that is aggressive and hostile toward present bourgeois standards.
— Carlos Almaraz, “Notes on An Alternative Aesthetic,” 1973

I was a young queer Latinx gender-nonconforming Angeleñx, and signs of home needed to fit my purposes in order for me to feel safe enough to cross certain thresholds. Like my students — except in embodied, real-time space — I found those signs, thanks to L.A. artists of the 1990s who adapted an ethos of rasquachismo into an explicitly queer vernacular.

Artist's image of mermaid embracing the Virgen of Guadalupe
Alma López, Lupe & Sirena in Love, 1999. [© Alma López]

To establish some examples of this particular vocabulary, consider Lupe & Sirena, a series of photographs, digital collages, and installations by Alma López (1999), which feature scenes of lesbian desire populated by cultural icons such as the Virgin of Guadalupe embracing the topless mermaid or sirena from the popular Mexican bingo game known as lotería. Or the series My Cathedral by Alex Donis (1997), paintings that were originally displayed as lightboxes in which cultural figures embrace homoerotically — Che Guevara and Cesar Chavez; Jesus and Lord Rama; Mother Teresa and Madonna; Fidel Castro and John F. Kennedy. 14

L.A. artists of the 1990s adapted an ethos of rasquachismo into an explicitly queer vernacular.

López and Donis belong to the generation born in the era of the high school walkouts and the National Chicano Moratorium — the antiwar coalition that rose up in 1970 in Mexican American communities from Los Angeles and San Francisco to Denver and Chicago — and the visual culture they created helped to define the era of AIDS in California. Survivors of that earlier viral pandemic were sorting through their aspirational longings as second-generation Latinxs, including their dalliances with the Westside (read: White) gay establishment, and their relations with their communities of origin and of choice — relations often defined by new levels of education and spending power. They were extending visibility for a community in flux, including those who kept a healthy distance from the trappings of tradition, and also those (like themselves) who sought to carry traditional iconography and cultural references into spaces newly opened by innovative queer art-making.

In some ways, these artists of the nineties were taking up and adapting a pathbreaking vision of conviviality that had been established in the 1970s and early eighties in L.A., by the artists’ group Asco, as they offered the world their own series of quiet, elegant, and rageful gestures. Propelled by the Spanish word for disgust, the four artists of Asco embraced an in-your-face attitude, taking rasquache sensibilities to new and unapologetically iconoclastic heights. They performed in public, on the street, where they could demonstrate their disapproval at the disproportionate number of Chicano casualties in Vietnam — including the deaths of some who had been their classmates and neighbors. By the early 1980s, their anger at the Reagan administration was on display for all to see.

The words WALK OUT spray-painted on the sidewalk.
Devra Weber, Graffiti on the sidewalk at Roosevelt High School, 1968. [© Devra Weber, La Raza Photograph Collection. Courtesy UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center]

Devra Weber, Students demonstrate during the High School Walkouts, 1968. [© Devra Weber. From the La Raza Photograph Collection. Courtesy UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center]

Phalanx of helmeted police with batons confront group of students in front of houses and palm trees.
Ralph Arriola, Police surround crowd at Laguna Park during Chicano Moratorium demonstration, August 29, 1970. [© Ralph Arriola. Courtesy UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center]

Ben Juarez, National Chicano Moratorium crowds move back down Whittier Boulevard, August 29, 1070. [© Ben Juarez. Courtesy UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center]

Glugio “Gronk” Nicandro, Patssi Valdez, Harry Gamboa, Jr., and Willie Herrón emerged at a moment in L.A. when traditional forms of activism had, in a sense, reached their limits. They came of age during the East L.A. high school walkouts of 1968, when students at Garfield High boycotted classes to protest unequal conditions in the Los Angeles Unified School District. They formed Asco on Christmas Eve in 1971, when they debuted their first public intervention, Stations of the Cross, as a protest-performance against the war. Subsequent performances — perhaps better described as embodied polemics —sought to reanimate East L.A. neighborhoods recovering from state violence. First Supper (After a Major Riot), performed in 1974, commemorated deadly riots that had taken place four years earlier, following marches connected to the Chicano Moratorium. The Asco foursome, in Day of the Dead makeup, sat around a table situated on the median strip on Whittier Boulevard in East L.A., feeding each other as the sun went down.

Asco burst onto the city’s art scene at large in 1972, when they spray painted their names on the entrance to the L.A. County Museum of Art, as a response to a curator who had dismissed the possibility that Chicanos could make anything but folk art or graffiti. With their graffitied signatures, the group claimed the museum as a whole, citing it as the world’s largest piece of Chicano art. This wasn’t just a prank, but a call-out to the fact that this cultural institution had essentially failed its mission to serve the public by supporting artists from all over Los Angeles. The performance is now known as Spray Paint LACMA and mostly circulates in the form of Gamboa’s single photograph showing Valdez the morning after the “defacing,” leaning against the wall loudly marked in red and black with the names Herrón, Gronkie, and Gamboa.

Three costumed performers carrying giant cross through LA streets.
Seymour Rosen, Asco’s “Stations of the Cross,” 1971. [Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase through the Frank K. Ribelin Endowment]

Woman leaning on concrete parapet above spraypainted names.
Harry Gamboa Jr., Spray Paint LACMA, from the Asco era, 1972. [© Harry Gamboa Jr.]

From these events and projects made some 50 years ago, into the present, the built environment has remained a steady addressee for a particular kind of alienated brown-skinned Mexican, who was born in the U.S. but carries — as the legendary L.A. Times reporter Rubén Salazar would say — a non-Anglo image of herself. For us, streets and buildings and neighborhoods are themselves an archive, keepers of memory. Graffiti can signal which parts of town we stand in, and when that graffiti is whitewashed over, the blank patches show which neighborhoods we no longer have rights to. Los Angeles is marked by what literary scholar Raúl Homero Villa calls Barrio-Logos, a medium of historical, geographical, and social knowledge accumulated through urban Chicano experience and displayed in all its vernacular luster in built space. 15 It’s the Dickies or Ben Davis or Pendleton brand names on self-styled barrio bodies, the spray-painted names of friends we’ve lost, or the tag Con Safos — abbreviated C/S, meaning “with safety” or “with respect” — that follows a graffitied phrase like Viva La Mujer in order to protect it, warding off backlash.

Streets and buildings and neighborhoods are themselves an archive, keepers of memory.

Community spaces coalesce to meet the demands of cultures actively clashing, and throughout the 1970s, Chicano punks found creative shelter in the DIY organizations of their barrios. Asco’s Willie Herrón and Harry Gamboa’s sister Diane Gamboa, a painter and photographer, found a place to exhibit in the halls of Self Help Graphics and Art, a radical printmaking workshop founded on the Eastside in 1973 by an artists’ group that included Sister Karen Boccalero, Carlos Bueno, Antonio Ibáñez, and Frank Hernández — prior to opening the workshop, they had been working out of a garage. Performance venues like The Vex, founded by Herrón along with his Los Illegals bandmate Jesus Velo, opened in 1981 in the upstairs space at Self Help Graphics. 16

By the 1980s and 1990s, along with the emergence of López and Donis, artists like Monica Palacios, Jef Huereque, Luis Alfaro, and activists affiliated with VIVA! Lesbian and Gay Latino Artists were creating yet another queer vernacular of grief and celebration in order to remember those lost to AIDS. VIVA! was a nonprofit founded in 1987 in Silverlake, by young artists looking to break into the city’s mainstream art scene. Ultimately, however — like the punk musicians a decade earlier — the group created spaces for themselves, supporting exhibitions, performances, and educational outreach. VIVA! used the arts to address the AIDS crisis, specifically for a constituency of Latinxs who were struggling to tell their families of origin that they’d been infected. By the early 2000s, VIVA! was defunct; other clinics and community centers were offering support, and artists who had led the charge turned back to their careers. Yet Latina lesbian feminism was finding its own visibility in L.A. by way of a group called Tongues, who like VIVA! wanted to showcase artwork, address health issues with specific urgency for Latina lesbians, and support emerging academic researchers. Tongues inherited the West Hollywood office space and 501c3 non-profit status from VIVA!, and remained there until 2001. The Tongues archive, a series of small publications, is now archived at UCLA’s Chicano Studies Research Center.

Costumed group at a table on the median strip of Whittier Blvd. LA
Harry Gamboa Jr., First Supper (After A Major Riot), from the Asco era, 1974. [© Harry Gamboa Jr.]

Costumed performers walking down the street in LA.
Harry Gamboa Jr., Walking Mural, from the Asco era, 1972. [© Harry Gamboa Jr.]

Young man with feather necklace and long hair, in front of graffitied wall.
Harry Gamboa Jr., Willie Herron III, from the Asco era, 1972. [© Harry Gamboa Jr.]

Concurrently, of course, there was ACT-UP L.A. Los Angeles activists who had attended the Second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights in 1987 came home inspired by ACT-UP New York, and two months later their own chapter met for the first time in West Hollywood. The group focused on improving AIDS healthcare service, using nonviolent direct action to draw media attention and criticize the inaction of the Reagan administration. They also publicized the wins, such as the establishment (in 1990) of an AIDS ward at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. 17

This history helped to make it possible that, along about the end of the 21st century’s first decade, pushing through the padded-leather saloon doors at the New Jalisco Bar or getting your hand stamped by a young trans-femme hostess at La Cita, you could hear the remixed sounds of the banda anthem “La Chona” and know that you were, finally, in the right place — ready to prance and stomp alongside any number of tomorrow’s performance-art stars.

Mustache Mondays may have been a weekly in La Cita’s historic, Mexican edifice, but it was a community and we felt edified in that space.
— Marcus Anthony Brock, “Date Night: The Aspirational Vision of Mustache Mondays’ Ignacio ‘Nacho’ Nava, Jr.,” 2020

If you weren’t ready for the work week to begin, you were in luck, because the party called Mustache Mondays was invented for those who avoided nine-to-five. It was at Mustache that I, like many others, met and reveled in the queerest of convivialities with D.J. and producer Nacho Nava, patron saint of queer L.A. nightlife in the 2000s. Nacho’s flock included artists like rafa esparza and Sebastian Hernandez, curator Paulina Lara, and many more born out of and inspired by the rage of the foremothers and queer fathers who had forged radical affinities through ACT-UP LA, Asco, and the rest.

D.J. and producer Nacho Nava was the patron saint of queer L.A. nightlife in the 2000s.

I myself found Mustache in the stability-shattering period of the 2008 recession, when (depending on the way you timed your drugs) entering Nacho’s world could feel like walking through a portal to another time. Mustache felt familiar, like the queer grandchild of yesterday’s scenes — to walk in was to take on a spiraling cultural habitus that could renew and revamp the histories it followed. I had a full-time university admin job at this point. But its endowment funding had taken a hit, and I was reduced to fifteen hours a week. I had no prospects of doing creative work full-time. So, I did what anyone would do who could squint and see age 30 coming at them. I went dancing.

Bearded man in neon-lit club filled with patrons.
Nacho Nava at Plaza nightclub in Hollywood, 2018. [Bradford Nordeen]

Along with DJs Josh Peace, Dino Dinco, and Danny Gonzalez, Nacho had founded the roving party the year before, in 2007. For the next decade, Mustache held its Monday events in one of several spaces within an eight-block radius Downtown, including residencies at La Cita on Hill Street and The Lash in the Toy District; as the real estate market pushed out the working poor and artists, Mustache moved farther east. All the while, it was serving as an incubator for emerging artists, a space in which to try out new identities. It was a place where artists with established careers would come to see younger folks with something to prove; where curators from museums and local galleries could check out artists like esparza, No Bra, Azealia Banks, Mykki Blanco, Maluca, Robyn, or  Total Freedom. Mustache was a party that never stopped — until it did. Nacho died in the winter of 2019, a few days after his 40th birthday, following a bout of pneumonia.

Those early days of the financial collapse are fuzzy in hindsight. I remember landing at Mustache in a labyrinth bathed in red and purple lights, when the party was headquartered at 704 Broadway, between the movie palaces of an historic Downtown district built between 1910 and 1931. Returning to that six-block stretch was probably inevitable; some activated signal in my DNA led me back into the heart of the “Latino Renaissance” district that Jack Smith had identified in the 1980s. To this day, the strip boasts twelve theaters, with names like The Rialto (where an Urban Outfitters currently resides) and The Globe. They lost their sheen after World War II, as audiences turned to glitzier venues in Hollywood, and it wasn’t until the 1970s that Broadway lit up again, with Latinos in the seats of the dusty, opulent theaters decorated with Spanish-baroque facades and sunburst mosaics. My mother used to talk about my father taking her and my older brother, newly arrived from El Salvador, to see horror flicks at the Million Dollar Theater (this was before I was born). My dad would offer simultaneous Spanish-language interpretation of The Exorcist and Texas Chainsaw Massacre — and later, when my brother discovered Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris, of The Slaughter in San Francisco and The Way of the Warrior.

Postcard of the Million Dollar Theatre, Third and Broadway, no date. [Steve and Michelle Gerdes © via Flickr, under license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

Old fashioned movie theater marquee.
The Rialto Theater (built 1917) as Urban Outfitters, Los Angeles, 2014. [Wikimedia Commons under license CC BY-SA 3.0]

By 2018, when I was driving to Broadway from my parents’ home in Huntington Park, I might find myself in the car with fellow Huntington Park resident Sebastian Hernandez, a multimedia artist who first showed work to Mustache audiences on the dance floor at La Cita. Sebastian’s choreography was championed by Nava, as it had been by Sebastian’s parents — who were danzantes as young parents, and had taught Sebastian and their siblings to honor the traditional four directions in beautiful routines in Aztec-styled garb, and performed ceremonies from dawn to dusk for Día de Los Muertos. I remember, on that drive, arguing over shortcuts; it was a distance of some five miles that Sebastian had managed for years without a car.

Now, in the middle of 2021, as we process not only the pandemic but the aftermath of Nava’s death, we contemplate a void in the heart of the scene; even before the arrival of coronavirus, the loss of Nacho had compromised the health of L. A. nightlife. In yet another FaceTime interview, Hernandez and I talked recently about what Nava’s absence has meant. “I remember asking several people I have looked up to, ‘What are we going to do?’” Hernandez said, their voice cracking with emotion. “What about the party? How are we going to function?”

I remember asking several people, ‘What about the party? How are we going to function?’

One pre-pandemic answer was that Hernandez founded YOU, a monthly trans femme-centered party that harnessed the experimental energies cultivated at La Cita through Mustache. “It wasn’t until someone asked me if this was how I was working out my grief for Nava that I made the connection that, yes, this was one way to keep Nacho alive,” Hernandez told me. They also realized how much work Nava made look easy. Hernandez funneled those feelings into managing the kinds of business relationships a club promoter has to have, contracting DJs and performers, publicizing and branding and ultimately tapping out the reserves of energy needed for a labor of impresario love like this. The lockdowns made it even more difficult to maintain momentum, and YOU is on hiatus until further notice. But, in Los Angeles (or any city), a space that centers BIPOC trans femininity remains crucial, and until the space reopens Hernandez, too, has moved their work online, signal-boosting GoFundMe initiatives for the community’s most vulnerable members as they navigate precarities brought on by COVID-19.

Another of Nava’s protegées, Paulina Lara, also stepped into a new role when Nava died, realizing new ambitions as a curator. Lara’s Guatemalan and Mexican parents met in the mid-1980s in an L.A. English language-learning class, and settled in Boyle Heights, where Lara was born. Today she lives in the same neighborhood, which was Nava’s neighborhood too. But she was based in Oakland when I first met her, when she started coming back to Mustache on visits to L.A. After a while, she and her Bay Area friends abandoned their cobbled-together wage jobs and moved south again to try out the scene in Los Angeles as singers, DJs, and exhibition organizers. Lara started hanging out with Nacho, who taught her (as she explained to me) “how to hustle” — that is, what it takes to produce a large-scale event. “There was no way I could get a place in L.A. on minimum wage,” Lara tells me. “Nacho helped me establish myself by simply letting me sleep on his couch, rent-free. I told him I wanted to curate a show on queer nightlife, so he introduced me as a curator to big-name artists before I even curated my first show. Of course, his faith in me meant a lot.”


In 2019, Lara channeled her grief into organizing (with Joseph Daniel Valencia) a multimedia exhibition titled Liberate the Bar! Queer Nightlife, Activism, and Spacemaking, mounted at the ONE Gallery in West Hollywood and produced in collaboration with ONE Archives and the University of Southern California. This was in part an homage to Nava. But the exhibition was also an important site of knowledge production concerning queer Latina/o/x imprints on the L.A. built environment over recent decades. The exhibition included images from notorious clubs like Arena and Circus in Hollywood, along with The Black Cat in Silverlake, and Jewel’s Catch One on Pico and Crenshaw. 18 Arena’s founder Gene LaPietra (who also founded Circus) isn’t Latino. Yet he says that he was impelled to open his club on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood after witnessing the consistent racial profiling his friends and lovers were subjected to, often being asked to produce three forms of identification before entering a bar. Arena is Gay announced a sign above the box office. The club has since been leveled and developed into condominiums. But it was right at home on Santa Monica Boulevard, within spitting distance of Boystown, the gay strip of Santa Monica Boulevard that runs through West Hollywood, although home to a clientele long alienated by that neighborhood’s White gay men. Liberate the Bar! displayed never-before-seen archival materials — newspapers, photographs, flyers, videos — and called attention to the short lives such spaces enjoy, even when they spread across a few generations of LGBT and Latinx patrons.

A mural honors both Nacho Nava and another set of forebears — the infamous 41 gay revelers arrested in Mexico City in 1901.

The exhibition also presciently reminded us that these venues can’t rely for help on the same government that enables ICE to remove Latinxs from the country. Recently I’ve seen a GoFundMe link circulate for the New Jalisco Bar, which was on the verge of shuttering due to COVID. While Mustache was never headquartered there, many of its diehard patrons called the subdued wood-paneled room with its modest sound system a home away from home; it had only recently avowed itself as an openly gay bar, adding a new bright pink façade and a rainbow flag over its awning, plus sexy go-go dancers, feisty drag-queen performers, and a rehabbed dance floor. In 2019, Lara commissioned rafa esparza and Gabriela Ruiz to paint a mural above the entrance that honors Nacho Nava alongside yet another set of forebears — the infamous 41 gay revelers who were arrested in 1901 in Mexico City’s Tabacalera neighborhood when police raided a private house party, an event so scandalous that the number 41 became a Mexican euphemism for homosexuality.

Pink mural above LA bar; three people standing in front of building.
rafa esparza and Gabriela Ruiz, Nostra Fiesta, mural at the New Jalisco Bar, Los Angeles, 2019. The curator Paulina Lara is standing between Ruiz and esparza; the portrait of Nacho Nava is at the mural’s top left. [Courtesy rafa esparza]

The owners of the New Jalisco Bar were a year behind in paying rent and asked for $80,000. It took several months, but they made their goal with $2,000 to spare. 19 I can’t help but credit Liberate the Bar! for preparing a new generation to think about loss and community investment. Technology has facilitated our sociability, and it has created Venmo activism, a spirit of mutual aid that speaks directly to ongoing desires for queer space. Venmo is a transactional party-line, where friends and lovers go back and forth for rent, bills, brunch, and birthday gifts; it has also become a cyber-commons, where those with something to spare can help those in need. Even so, it’s also only a digital waiting room for many of us, where we can send each other tokens of remote appreciation — a lunch delivered via app, a book from a favorite bookshop. I can’t be the only one eager for the reinscription of barrio-logos in embodied connections.

People are not going gently into Trump’s good night. They’re fighting like hell.
— Mike Davis, interviewed by Amy Goodman on Democracy Now,” May 22, 2020

There is, in my experience, nothing more enthralling than taking to the streets to protest. (Second to that, of course, is roaming those same streets in the wee hours after a long night.) The demonstration that eclipses all others in my mind took place March 25, 2006. Organized by the March 25 Coalition, over half a million people showed up at Los Angeles City Hall to protest the federal anti-immigrant legislation of the day, HR 4437, which would have made it a felony to be in the U.S. illegally. (The House passed it, though the Senate did not.) That march, sadly, signaled what would come a decade later with the Trump administration. But activists were learning as well, and on February 16, 2017, they staged a nationwide protest variously known as The Great American Boycott and A Day Without Immigrants. For me to see the streets of my hometown animated by the diversity of Latinx immigrants demanding respect and dignity with a one-day strike was an exercise in de-centering Whiteness and re-centering working-class Latinx capability. The image of that March 2006 protest captured our imaginations. It spurred my friends — artists who have been raised by immigrants — to continue building upon those powerful images from la gran marcha.

This culturally insightful energy is what I glean from work by rafa esparza. For his early performances at Mustache in 2010, esparza, also took cues from and honored his laborer father. Ramón Esparza had built the family home back in his native town of Ricardo Flores Magón, in Durango, Mexico, out of adobe bricks that he made himself. In homage, his son rafa worked quietly, in a corner of La Cita’s lounge, mixing batches of wet plaster and applying and reapplying it to his own face, to mold masks that were then displayed onsite as the evening rolled on, turning club patrons into an art audience.

Man dressed in gown made of blue string mops.
Noe Olivas, de la Calle performance organized by rafa esparza in The Santee Alley in Los Angeles, 2018. [Dorian Ulises Lopez]


In 2018 esparza brought his love for vernacular expression to the streets through a project titled de la Calle, produced during a residency at the Institute of Contemporary Art L.A. De la Calle operated on a relational ethos that has long been part of esparza’s practice, especially in institutional contexts. esparza utilizes every opportunity to take the hinges off those institutional doors, to facilitate entry to emerging artists. For this project, he invited ten artists to collaborate on a range of endeavors under a range of themes, including a performative queer parade through The Santee Alley, one of the most popular bargain-shopping stops in the downtown Fashion District. esparza told the Los Angeles Times’ arts-and-culture reporter Carolina Miranda that the idea for de la Calle arose one day when he ran into a friend while both were shopping, putting together looks each would debut that same evening at a Mustache Monday party. It dawned on him that lots of people he knew got their club looks on Santee, so de La Calle became an urban catwalk that took the demands of la gran marcha and made them fashionable. There were models in outfits from everyday materials that invoke and extol Latino im/migrant labor and self-determination — as in a periwinkle bridesmaid-style dress made by Noe Olivas from the cascading layers of a string mop. De la Calle presented rasquache avenged, rasquache as covetable, a synesthesia come to life. The ghosts of HR 4437 had finally been exorcised.

COVID-19 shifted the attention of queers and artists (and queer artists) to another vulnerable community — migrants in detention centers.

Now, almost three years after de la Calle, COVID-19 has shifted the attention of queers and artists (and queer artists) to another exceedingly vulnerable community touched by the public health crisis — migrants incarcerated in detention centers across the country. The California Department of Public Health reports that Latinos in the state remain three times more likely than White populations to test positive for the coronavirus. And the issue of government detention is not distanced or abstract; even if one does not have friends or family caught up in the system, ICE detention centers exist in plain sight, part of the built fabric in close proximity to where Latinos sleep, work, and go to school. 20

In the summer of 2020, spurred on by the ambivalent experience of living near these institutions, esparza and the queer performance artist Cassils responded by leveraging their networks of queer Latinx club culture and art-making, in order to produce a project titled #XMAP: In Plain Sight, a collaborative omnibus performance by a diverse group of 80 artists, including me. Just before the pandemic hit, we met in Little Tokyo in downtown Los Angeles to discuss our messaging, emphasizing the need for brevity. We, the artists, would only have fifteen characters with which to write our messages across the skies over specific detention centers — but our messages would be legible for miles.

On the 4th of July weekend, #XMAP launched three skywriting fleets to fly over 80 detention centers from California to Texas, on to Louisiana and Florida, and ending in New York. On Friday the 3rd, the sky-written phrase CHINGA TU MIGRA, a contribution from spoken-word artist Yosimar Reyes, appeared over the Los Angeles Metropolitan Detention Center, a federal prison. #XMAP circulated primarily via social media. So I saw these words in the sky on my Instagram feed — they translate roughly as “fuck your immigration police” — yet I heard them spoken in the voice of my late father, a lifelong critic of the force with whom he had more than his fair share of humiliating encounters. Of course, instead of TU in my father’s phrasing it would have been la; not “your” but “the.” The informal TU in Reyes’ project speaks back directly, even intimately, to a nation that has remained consistent in its dehumanizing treatment of the Latinx working class.

Skywriting against bright blue sky.
Raquel Gutiérrez, NOS VEMOS LIBRES, El Paso-Phoenix Field Office, July 4, 2020. Part of In Plain Sight, a coalition of 80 artists fighting immigrant detention and the culture of incarceration, conceived by Cassils and rafa esparza. [Ash Ponders]


The next day, Saturday the 4th, I loaded the trunk of my car with hand sanitizer and drove from Tucson to Phoenix to watch a Cessna “type” my own message into the sky over the ICE field office: NOS VEMOS LIBRES (We See Ourselves Free). Partly, for me, this statement is prospective: In the future I want to conjure, the so-called anchor babies of immigrants will grow up to advocate for the restoration of human rights to newly arrived migrants, and for restitution to those being held in detention centers today. But this Arizona iteration of the #XMAP project also engaged the real-time present on that block in downtown Phoenix, which had been a site of protest for local organizers throughout the Trump administration. This was my first car-rally protest, where activists decked out their cars, trucks, and minivans with signs denouncing the border wall then under construction and family separations then taking place. A long line of honking vehicles drove around and around the same block for almost an hour, and we chanted the same chant I have been chanting all my adult life: El pueblo! Unido! Jamás será vencido! (“The people united will never be defeated.”) The stakes had never felt higher. Yet knowing we could all cast our gazes up into the same part of the sky offered the first hope I had felt all year.

I watched a Cessna write my message in the sky over an ICE field office: NOS VEMOS LIBRES (We See Ourselves Free).

#XMAP drew on and adapted precedents in experimental art and political organizing familiar to the worlds of L.A.-based performance art at least since Asco first staged its interventions at LACMA and along Whittier Boulevard. But in addition to extending community traditions and building on word-of-mouth connections, #XMAP employed a savvy Instagram campaign leading up to the 4th of July weekend, which was followed by the debut of a richly informative website. What makes this 2020 work distinct from projects like Spray Paint LACMA is the fact that significant institutional support has now become a part of the equation. Still, this project hoped to center Black, Indigenous, and Latinx migrants, people displaced by free-trade agreements, violence, and climate crises, with no other choice but to leave their homes in countries they have known their whole lives. They find exploitation, as did Don Chipote — but unlike Venegas’s protagonist, they encounter a frightening carceral system as well. The mission of the detention system, one could argue, is precisely to hinder newly arrived migrants from leaving their own imprints on the American cities they call home, whether that’s temporarily or for good. The system’s unstated goal is to make a rasquachismo for the 21st century impossible.

Of course, I think about what it might be like now to ride the same 704 bus line from my old apartment on Bellevue Avenue, in the contested part of the neighborhood surrounding the Rampart exit from the 101 freeway. I know my rent wouldn’t be $425 and El Criollo, the Cuban mini-market, wouldn’t still be down the hill. What if I was 21 in 2021? That would mean my parents had come to the U.S. in the late 1990s, making it impossible to get amnesty. What if we had a different set of circumstances where documentation was concerned? Would any of us find comparable opportunities today?

Child on a pony, wearing cowboy outfit.
The author in Huntington Park, ca. 1980. [Courtesy Raquel Gutiérrez]

I get to speculate about this other existence because of the privileges I do have — to have been born during a seemingly hostile period in Pete Wilson’s California; to have been raised in communities full of families like mine, in a Southern California metropolis officially named El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora De Los Angeles del Río Porciúncula. By the time I took that bus ride to a Westside office job, there were already Latinx artists, queer organizers, and activists forging new identities in struggle across the city. There were dance floors, dramas, and deaths animating the spaces of care and self-discovery. In these surroundings, I would fall in and out of infatuation with aesthetic theories, neighborhoods, careers, histories, futures

I may have been displaced by rising costs of living, but the place taught me how to live.

Editors' Note

This essay is supported by a grant from the Vilcek Foundation, which is dedicated to raising “awareness of immigrant contributions in the United States.”

  1. Reyner Banham, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009), 23. Originally published 1971.
  2. The East Side proper is east of the Los Angeles River; historically, these neighborhoods were home to Jewish, Japanese-American, Black, and Mexican-American communities.
  3. See Tomás Ybarra-Frausto, “Rasquachismo: A Chicano Sensibility,” originally published in the exhibition catalogue Chicano Aesthetics: Rasquachismo (Phoenix AZ: MARS Artspace, 1989).
  4. See Christian Durán, “Lost in Trans-Nation: Unearthing Chicano Identity in Daniel Venegas’s Las Aventuras de Don Chipote o Cuando Los Pericos Mamen” (University of California, Berkeley, Charlene Conrad Liebau Library Prize for Undergraduate Research, 2013).
  5. Amalia Mesa-Bains, “Domesticana: The Sensibility of Chicana Rasquache,” originally published in Aztlán: A Journal of Chicano Studies vol. 24 no. 2 (Fall 1999): 155-67.
  6. Jack Smith, “Los Angeles Theater: Flashback to yesteryear … and a Latino Renaissance on Broadway,” Los Angeles Times (September 30, 1986).
  7. Much as I love them, these aren’t the only sites of refuge I belong to. In Tucson, the queer-nightlife scene I have stumbled into revolves around a radical network of borderlands activists. Most parties I have attended in the city that I affectionately refer to as the Red State’s Blue Dot have been fundraisers for queer and trans individuals newly released from the nearby detention center in Eloy.
  8. In Times Square Red, Times Square Blue (New York: New York University Press, 1999), Delany extends the idea of “contact” as established by Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), to consider how sexually specific gathering places can assuage the class anxieties that might otherwise interfere in erotic exchanges between gay men.
  9. Jon Cohen, Shots in the Dark: The Wayward Search for an AIDS Vaccine (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2001). See also the experimental documentary When AIDS Was Funny by Scott Calonico, commissioned by Vanity Fair for World AIDS Day 2015.
  10. Gerald M. Boyd, “Reagan urges abstinence for young to avoid AIDS,” New York Times (April 2, 1987).
  11. “Luis J. Rodriguez, “Los Angeles Industry — Where the Past and Future Collide” (July 23, 2016).
  12. G. Aron Ramirez, “There Goes the Neighborhood? Residential Pruningand the Good Life in Downey,” Cornell Historical Society, Ezra’s Archives vol. 8, no. 1 (Spring 2018), 79, 95.
  13. Ramirez, 79, 92. He continues, “middle-class families have stayed in Downey and middle-class families have flocked to Downey. This is all the more astonishing in comparison to similar suburbs in the area: Compton, a city that middle-class blacks upgraded to en masse in 1960s, did not survive as a middle-class suburb when it went from majority-white to majority-black. The makeup of the two cities was largely the same in 1956, when Downey was incorporated: mostly Anglo middle-class white-collar workers living in a racially-segregated sleeper suburb” (96).
  14. In its inaugural installation at Galería de la Raza in San Francisco in 2001, My Cathedral was repeatedly vandalized. The gallery organized a town-hall meeting attended by more than 250 people for a community conversation about visual art, censorship, homophobia, and the cultural legacies of the Mission District. For more on these events, see Alex Donis, My Cathedral.
  15. Raúl Homero Villa, Barrio-Logos: Space and Place in Urban Chicano Literature and Culture (University of Texas Press, 2000).
  16. See “Our Story” at the Self Help Graphics & Art website.
  17. See notes on this history at the Cedars Sinai website.
  18. Eddy Francisco Alvarez (arenaboy14), “How Many Latinos are in this Motherfucking House?”: DJ Irene, Sonic Interpellations of Dissent and Queer Latinidad in ’90s Los Angeles,” Sound Studies Blog “Sounding Out!” (November 26, 2018).
  19. See the Go Fund Me campaign “Help Save the New Jalisco Bar.” The bar’s owners, Rosa Maria and Sergio Hernandez, received no monies through the federal Paycheck Protection Program or PPP.
  20. See data at the website of the California Department of Public Health.
Raquel Gutiérrez, “A Concatenation of Sprawls,” Places Journal, September 2021. Accessed 08 Feb 2023. https://doi.org/10.22269/210916

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