Not all heroes wear capes, and not all musical groups play music. Wait, what? That’s right. Las Cafeteras didn’t start off as a band of musicians. They started off as individuals seeking conversation about positive social change in Eastside Café. This group is made up of Denise Carlos, Leah Rose Gallegos, Daniel French, David Flores, Hector Flores, and Jose Cano. What unites these individuals is not only their roots in East Los Angeles, but also their vision of a more understanding and accepting culture worldwide.
As a student at a Jesuit, liberal arts university that focuses on social justice, I had the privilege of hearing Las Cafeteras speak to a Communications class I am in. Hector Flores opened the presentation with his “Superhero” poem. In this poem, he reflects on his mother’s efforts to provide for and raise a superhero in a Chicano neighborhood. He details her laborious jobs in his youth as well as her high spirits, and notes the shameless effort his dad put forth into being a role model. This poem is more than a nostalgic recount of Hector’s past, this poem is a call to action. In depicting his own experiences with superheroes in East L.A., Flores says “If I’m a superhero, you’re a superhero. If the bum down the street is a superhero for being a good person, you should be a superhero for your own reason”. That said, this validation serves as a challenge, too—as Flores addresses the need for superheroes in our society.
Identifying as a female college student, I have been a part of many discussions on gender. And in doing so, I have seen quite a few reactions, especially on college campuses. So when Denise began her piece by addressing her identity as a female, I was into it. She stated the obvious norms: women are either pushed to the side, where the spotlight doesn’t shine in response to a belief of inadequacy, or women are placed front and center, objectified for their sex appeal. As a performer, Denise aims to be neither hidden nor misrepresented. As a woman, Denise wants more for herself and her gender. As a human being (a member of society), Denise wants to challenge stereotypes held across all spectrums, especially culture and gender.
This is at the center of Las Cafeteras’ track “Mujer Soy”. The music video for the Yukicito Remix version of this track follows one day in the life of a young, single mom in East L.A. The woman in this video was very involved in nonprofits in her youth, but upon getting pregnant at 17 years old, she dropped out of high school. After delivering her daughter, she finished high school and is now a huge part of a badass biking brigade, Ovarian Psycos, in Los Angeles. By following her for an entire day, we are able to see herself, her world, as she sees herself. Regardless of identity—whether it be sexual, cultural, or gender, it is vital to take a step back and see and hear people as they want to be seen and heard, as they ought to be seen and heard.
Las Cafeteras stresses the need for validation and respect. They hold a belief that the social issues our society faces stem from a lack of understanding, and, in addition, a lack of urgency to understand what we don’t. People have grown complacent with the ignorance that encourages hate crimes and oppression. By being stagnant members of society, we condone social injustices. In order to advocate for social justice, Denise discusses the foundation required to attack societal prejudices. Advocacy begins with oneself. Only after advocating for and validating yourself, can you begin to advocate for and validate others. But it is impossible to advocate for a particular group without validating their culture, race, beliefs, conflicts, history, existence, etc. To do so, you have to shut up for a hot sec and hear people out because sometimes you’re dead wrong in your assumptions. How you want people to address your culture is not necessarily the way another person wants you to address theirs.
A large part of social justice advocacy is using your privilege to promote positive change, according to Las Cafeteras. For Denise Carlos specifically, she believes her privilege is that she has a Master’s Degree in Clinical Social Work. Through her platform as a performer, Denise uses her education and credibility to speak on behalf of those who cannot. As a group, Las Cafeteras view their music, poetry, and performances as the privilege that allows them to effectively and visibly advocate for and stand in solidarity with cultures and communities across the world. Personally, as a white, educated female, I have often felt that there was no appropriate place for me in the fight for social justice. Denise’s response to this was: “Never be ashamed of your roots. Never feel guilty of your privilege. Use it for good. Validate yourself and then validate others. And then, advocate for those who need it because you can, and you should”.
It is refreshing to find a group of artists who do not merely criticize society, but actually give enough of a damn about cultures to talk about them. At awards show, we see actors, directors and musicians grab their award and give a “selfless” speech about topics like global warming, the lack of colored artists, and equal pay in the same breath. I am by no means dismissing these issues or the significance of talking about issues, but I am critically comparing the noise of these nationally broadcasted events to the authenticity of Las Cafeteras’ purpose. Las Cafeteras uses their privilege—their fan base (although still relatively small)—to discuss cultures, not movements alone. They validate the Black Lives Matter Movement, the atrocity in Trayvon Martin’s case, Chicano culture, gender equality, peace in Muslims and Islam, and the goodness in humanity through their music, poetry, performances, and brand. Not all heroes wear capes, these superheroes in particular, hold instruments and values, instead.