In Lake View Terrace, at the very north of the San Fernando Valley, not 200 feet from the 210 freeway, there is a mini-mall with a liquor store, two equestrian supply stores and a small, non-profit bookstore and Internet caf’eacute; named Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural.
“It started as an idea,” said Maria Trinidad Rodriguez, a CSUN graduate who founded Tia Chucha’s along with her husband, Luis J. Rodriguez, and her brother-in-law, Enrique Sanchez. “(We) have always been active and concerned about the arts and literacy.”
After living in Chicago for 18 years, Maria and Luis moved back to the San Fernando Valley to raise their family in 2001.
“When we returned to the Valley to raise a family, we realized what a vacuum it was in the Valley for arts and culture, and so we decided to do something about it,” Maria said.
When they first started Tia Chuchas, it was dedicated to Luis’ aunt Jesucita, whose nickname was Tia Chucha, Maria said.
“She was just a very creative spirit, wouldn’t be boxed in a corner as a woman in her time. And she was always just creating, singing, playing guitar,” Maria said. “Always loving being her own unique self, and that was really contagious. He always admired her for that, and that inspired him to name after that type of love of life and of growth.”
While they wanted to open Tia Chucha’s in San Fernando, they couldn’t find a site that suited their purposes. Instead, they opened in Sylmar, where they opened Tia Chucha’s Caf’eacute; in one suite and the centro cultural in an adjacent suite.
“We initially wanted to get land, and pursue having space on the bottom which was a bookstore and a coffee bar and performance space and the next story would be the electronics, T.V., radio, internet and other technologies so people could really develop that feeling of creativity and information,” Maria said. “Then again we don’t know whether we’ll be able to go that route, but that is what we ultimately decided.”
When their lease ran out in February, Tia Chucha’s relocated to a smaller site, its current, but temporary, home in Lake View Terrace.
“When we had to move to a smaller space, we dropped the caf’eacute; because we couldn’t build it out at the new site,” Maria said. “The centro then also took on the bookstore that was part of the caf’eacute;.”
They plan on again moving Tia Chucha’s, this time to a bigger location, when their current lease runs out in 2010, Maria said. She said they hope to move closer to the center of the Valley, possibly Pacoima.
“When we created Tia Chucha’s we had no idea all the forms it would take, and it just keeps growing and transforming,” Maria said.
While Tia Chucha’s has gotten more coverage from English-language media coverage than Spanish-language media, Maria said both have been great.
“It’s a matter of crossing barriers and of opening possibilities. Part of what Tia Chucha’s embodies is a new way of creating community in areas that don’t seem to have that in a cultural sense,” she said. “We’re thankful for the media coverage we have had.”
At 7:00 p.m. on a Saturday night, the minimall parking lot was empty except for a few cars and a Suburban towing a small trailer. At 8:00, cars that had slowly trickled in had filled the parking lot, and everyone was in Tia Chucha’s for Spread the Noises, a night of poetry and music hosted by the Free Thought Movement, an organization that supports and is supported by Tia Chucha’s.
“There’s a lot of supporters,” Maria said. “Anyone from individuals to groups who work with us and hold events that they want to support.”
Inside Tia Chucha’s, the 400-square-foot room had been lined and half-filled with chairs and benches, all of which were full. Tamales and Jarritos, a brand of soda that is imported from Mexico, were on sale from a counter near the door. The walls were all different colors: one a crimson red, one white, another a kindergarten yellow and another Crayola blue. An Aztec pyramid was painted on the blue wall, a bold yellow bar making a blocky zig-zag to the yellow wall at the back of the room. White icicle Christmas lights hung from the ceiling, and four paintings of musicians wrapped around a corner in the back.
In the same corner there was a drum kit and several amps set up. In the adjacent corner, five young boys, the members of Gotas De Luz, one of the acts for the evening, sat surrounded by harps and horns. Just inside the door, a crowd stood anxiously waiting for the show to start. The crowd was made up of every ethnicity: Latino, black, white and Asian, all mixed together like sand on a beach. A sense of family and belonging permeated the air, something Tia Chucha’s strongly encourages.
“It’s something that we cultivate in the sense that it’s already there because it can’t be forced. It’s just something that you feel,” Maria said. “We do welcome that, we do think that’s there and we know that it’s special.”
Tia Chucha’s aims to work with all communities, Maria said.
“Of course, we welcome all peoples, all backgrounds,” Maria said. “We understand, also, that in this community, in this area, there’s a predominance of Latinos. So, we do address and target that community and focus on correcting the lack of exposure to positive authors, films and arts that are created that are relevant to that community and indigenous populations, of which the Mexican population is a part.”
That’s part of the Tia Chucha’s mission, Maria said.
“We engage the arts and provide the arts as a means of enhancing the intellectual, cultural and spiritual growth of the individuals in the community,” Maria said.
They started off the night of the arts with poetry from Adolfo of Sylmar, who hosts the open mic night on Fridays. Throughout the night, there was constantly music playing from somewhere, if not to go along with the performance then a gentle and soft acoustic guitar from people mingling outside.
Next, Jessie Wilson, an old black woman from Sun Valley who talked about raising her children during the 60’s, came up and recited her poetry in front of a tattered American flag while Jimi Hendrix’s “Third Stone from the Sun” plays in the background.
“There’s a lot going on about rap today,” Jesse said between poems. “I’ve been asked, ‘Ma’am, do you know anything about rap?’ And I said, ‘Are you kidding? I’ve been rapping since before you were born.'”
After the performance of CB1, a multi-ethnic band that played together for the first time that night, a poet who goes by Bus Stop Prophet and works at Tia Chucha’s, recited some of his poetry, including a poem reaching out to the unknown killer of his cousin. Between poems he talked about Tia Chucha’s.
“They’ve given me three minutes to transition, so I’m going to use one of ’em talking about what’s going on, where you’re at,” the Bus Stop Prophet said. “Tia Chucha’s is here providing positive influence to the community.”
The Bus Stop Prophet talked about the classes Tia Chucha’s has, such as Mexikayotl cosmology and drumming, pointing out that the classes are free.
“It’s for everybody’s welcome to take advantage of it, ” he said.
“It’s a lot of things you don’t learn in school,” Arlene Mejorado, who does publicity and outreach for Tia Chucha’s, later said.
“Support places like this,” he said. “There’s people here that are actually doing things in the community, putting positive energy out there, and all we gotta do is put our energy with it.”
Maria said she thinks the way Tia Chucha’s has a positive effect on people is in how they affect individuals.
“The most direct way to explain that would be to sample the people who have been at our center and continue to come back to our center who have found their art and through their art they’ve found their expression, their purpose and their spark for life,” she said. “A lot of people have responded to books, some people have responded to dance, others through writing, others through painting and a lot of
them through just cooperating in a space that develops that in other people.”
One example she used was a veteran who, before coming to Tia Chucha’s, had never read books outside of school, but within a single year had read 30 books. Another was a young woman who heard drumming from Tia Chucha’s and, following the sound, came to see what was going on.
“She said that day she was going to commit suicide, but then she found the drumming,” Maria said. “That drumming just woke her back up to herself, and she said she didn’t want to die anymore, and that was the end of her death wish.”
“We have to start with identity, with knowledge of ancestry and just a wealth of wisdom that comes from that culture, but at the same time we also address another aspect: the lack of knowledge and appreciation. We also address what we see as symptoms of that. We address the high drop out rates and illiteracy. So we try to get books and authors and workshops and activities that address all those things.”
These stories are how they measure the success of Tia Chucha’s, Maria said.
“We measure success by the kind of stories people have told us about how their lives have changed, and how they see themselves and their place in the world. It’s the positive way people respond to our programming and integrate it into their lives. That’s something incidental but it’s a necessary part of how they live in the world.”
While Tia Chucha’s is focused on arts and culture locally, that doesn’t stop them from being known by people from around the world, Maria said.
“We already have a track-record of attracting active local people,” Maria said, “but we also the surrounding the L.A. area, around the state, also people from Texas and New York. They hear about us and come seek us out when they’re in town, and we’ve had people from Chile, from Italy and other places around the world who come specifically (for Tia Chucha’s).”
The next act that night, Gotas de Luz, exemplified this attraction. The five boys who make up Gotas de Luz, none of whom looked older than 12-years-old, are from Guatemala City, Guatemala. Each of the boys played at least two instruments in addition to being able to sing in Spanish, Hebrew and Portuguese, among other languages.
It’s events like these that make Tia Chucha’s special, even though there aren’t enough of them, Arlene said.
“I think that these events are so necessary in our community,” Arlene said. “I don’t think they happen as often as they should, where people of all ages, little kids, adults, grandma, grandpa, we’re all having a good time, we’re all sharing the same emotions, and I think that’s really important.”
After that, Pathanapong Pathanadilok, a 20-something who immigrated to American with his mother when he was a child, recited his poems. One of his poems concerned his mother and how he didn’t realize how hard she worked for him until he had already grown up. Pathanapong reiterated that this was an event in which everyone was involved.
“If you’re feeling what I’m saying smile, yell out, whatever you’re feeling, ‘What!,’ ‘Yes!,’ whatever your heart is feeling, just say it,” Pathanapong said, “to know that you’re with me, making this less of a performance and more of a sharing because we’re all a part of this and it’s not just me up here.”
Another poet, Victor, came up and read a poem before the final act, a quartet named La Escritura that included two brothers and a sister, finished up around midnight. Soon, small speakers throughout the bookstore started playing music as people continued to talk, tell stories and laugh often. By 12:30 the parking lot was only half full, but many remained, the joy of community and culture holding them in Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural.