The South East Los Angeles Camp Empowering Girls Through Music
All Photos by Melissa Ramirez
My roommate, visiting house guest, and I pull into the packed parking lot of Aspire Ollin Prep in Huntington Park after a long morning navigating LA traffic. It’s Monday at 7:30 AM, and the sun has hardly peered out from behind the palm trees and freeway smog, familiar in a grey Southern California pre-retail shift kind of way. Instead of ungrateful management waiting at the door, we rush into a middle school gym filled with life, blaring Sleater Kinney and packed with punks, writers, and radicals getting to know each other over coffee, blueberries, and conchas, gearing up for a week of inspiring girls through music. The Rock n Roll Camp for Girls movement is growing in small towns and big cities around the globe, bridging radical values, music, and feminism, through locally focused scrappy organizing and a little DIY inspired magic. Chicas Rockeras South East Los Angeles (SELA) is one of these groups, bringing music, self-love, visibility, and justice to girls and gender non-conforming youth in their community.
Chicas Rockeras SELA formed in 2014, the brainchild of South East LA drummer and organizer Marin, along with Vikki and Bee from the local feminist hardcore band Apostasis. The trio was moved to bring a Girls Rock Camp to SELA after their experiences navigating heterosexism as musicians in the heavily male dominated Southern California punk scene, and transformative experiences at Girls Rock programs in Downtown Los Angeles and Orange County, CA. After a few initial meetings, they grew into a dedicated team of locals now known as The Comadres, with their sights set on bringing Girls Rock curriculum to their community in a way that is uniquely SELA.
“Chicas started with the idea of creating an amazing and accessible space for young rockeras to freely express themselves,” says Tina, a musician from Commerce, CA and a Comadre who has played in LA based punk bands like Civil Amok and Angustia. “I originally only intended to help build a website, but after our first meeting, I knew there was no way I couldn’t be a part of Chicas Rockeras.” Former Bruise Violet guitarist and fellow Comadre Mayra Aguilar concurs, “Unfortunately, Machismoism is still part our culture and it’s really hard to break down. We are trying to create a space where girls and women can be around something different. Instead of being quiet, be loud. Instead of feeling weak, find your strength.”
“We are trying to create a space where girls and women can be around something different. Instead of being quiet, be loud. Instead of feeling weak, find your strength.” -Mayra Aguilar
Chicas Rockeras SELA is a 6-day summer camp program for girls ages 8-17 held once a year. Completely volunteer organized and run, Chicas uses music as a mentorship program, teaching girls music as a way to combat sexism in music education and production, centering justice and embracing the local community. Each day starts early with breakfast and an assembly where campers participate in music themed games, watch a “telenovella” skit, and sing their ska, punk, and hip-hop infused camp song, a bilingual anthem that reminds girls that each of them are powerful and capable, and that their “time is now.” Telenovellas are short plays acted out by volunteers that teach valuable lessons about music, teamwork, and life, including lessons ranging from the importance of respectful communication to wearing sensible footwear to play the drums. They get in a bit of morning fitness through activities like “The Heart-core Circle Pit of Friendship,” which according Tina, was one of the most hardcore pits she’s ever been in “despite the fact that we were pitting to Taylor Swift’s Shake it Off surrounded by balloons.” At the end of each morning and afternoon assembly, the campers and volunteers are asked a question that ties in with a yearly theme the Comadres hope will shape the campers’ experiences and reflections. 2015 focused on power.
After morning assembly, the girls are rounded up into groups and taken to instrument instruction where they learn drums, bass, guitar, vocals, or keyboard, many picking up an instrument for the first time. After instrument instruction girls participate in workshops, with topics that range from song writing to environmental justice, all put on by SELA locals. “Environmental Justice by Angee and Janeth Lopez was necessary,” says Vikki. “SELA has a history of food deserts and pollution from industry and power plants, there are some cities with more factories than families, most of which are families of color. Unfortunately a lot of pollution that happens in this area doesn’t get much media attention,” something that Vikki hopes will change as youth gain tools to bring justice to their communities. Gloria Lucas of the organization Nalgona Positivity Pride hosted a workshop titled Radical Self-Love for Young Riot Grrrls that left an impression on many of the 30 campers, as well as the 50 volunteers. “Body positivity is important for individuals to learn because very few body types are accepted and celebrated, since Gloria specializes in body positivity for communities of color we felt it was extremely crucial.” One of Tina’s most impactful moments of camp was During Lucas’ workshop. “One of our campers bravely raised her hand high in the air and with a huge smile on her face and said “Before this class I never felt beautiful. I always felt like I had to try to live up to what society’s beauty standards are, but now I know it’s okay to be different, to be thick, to be hairy.”
After eating lunch and watching performances by locals such as Trap Girl, Alice Bag, and Trio Ellas, the campers head to band practice to write their own original songs with bands formed on Monday morning in preparation for their debut at the showcase on Saturday afternoon. “Some of the songs that 8 year olds create are mind blowing!” says Mayra, who believes music has the potential to be the greatest communication tool. By encouraging collaboration in their songwriting, Chicas Rockeras creates a space for girls to be creative and be active listeners, taking up and sharing sonic and visual space. Coaches don’t fixate on technical proficiency; rather they value and teach campers to pridefully work with the skills they have. On the Saturday after camp, each band performs their songs to a packed local venue, full of friends, family, and community members. “Volunteering at Chicas was a life-changing experience,” according to recent California State University, Long Beach grad and Las Tres Femmes band coach Petry Rivera. “The girls were extremely shy at first but after spending time together they developed a special bond. They had total control over their creativity and they used it to present who they were as a group. That form of self-expression is something that they will carry out into the world.”
The Comadres come from strong punk and radical organizing backgrounds, which has shaped the intentions and execution of their work. “I can’t stand when bands sing about revolution and creating change; [but] don’t do anything outside of that song,” says Mayra, who turned to punk and metal to find power as a shy kid, “If you’re going to say that you’re going to do it, then do it.” Chicas was organized with a DIY mentality, pooling all of their resources, tabling and flyering at shows, and even putting out a tape of the showcase to raise funds while documenting the girls’ work. They are dedicated to non-hierarchal leadership, something many of them picked up as members of collectives like Ladyfest LA, Clitfest, Ovarian Psychos, and countless bands. “My band and other Chicas organizers are my support system” says Vikki, “we’re not perfect and we all have different personalities, but we’re learning and have the same goal.”
Maintaining fully sliding scale tuition is another DIY inspiration necessary to their work, enabling families to pay anything from $0-$150 for the week. “We focused heavily on making everything in our camp intentional,” says Tina. “Coming from a [working class] single mother family, there was no way my mother could have afforded $150 tuition for me to attend a week of Rock Camp. Now I imagine approaching her and saying ‘Hey mom you only have to pay what you can afford or maybe even nothing and I get a free breakfast and lunch.’ There is a big difference there.” Part of being a truly accessible program means that all of their documents, web material, and even announcements at the showcase are in both English and Spanish. “As a kid my parents didn’t read English, so I had to translate school work, notices, and other materials,” Mayra remembers. ”Many things would get lost in translation and the result was often times being denied participation in activities, which bummed me out. We figured that if everything is in English and Spanish, families can be in this journey together.”
In addition to their goal of helping more girls and women from South East LA play music, Chicas Rockeras identifies as a “healing space” for both their volunteers and campers. “Many volunteers were hesitant because they had never been around so many women in one place and were afraid it would be catty,” remembers Mayra. “The fact that it was very positive helped them be a little more open, and build on their strength.” Volunteer Petry Rivera found this to be an integral part of the work. “It was a space where I could be myself and feel supported doing so. My ideas and opinions mattered just like any other person in the room. I felt safe, [although] I didn’t know anyone, the moment I walked in I felt like I was home.” Campers also became agents of positive change and healing, even encouraging a volunteer to play guitar, something she had been told she couldn’t do multiple times in her life. “The guitar students pushed her to learn, and consistently invited her into their class so that she would learn some chords,” says Mayra, “and by the end of the week, that volunteer played the camp theme song at assembly.” Instances like this birthed the camp mantra “Taco Core.” “Taco Core means anything you want it to be. The main point is that you give it your all and you have fun with it!” After camp, Chicas has kept the intergenerational ball rolling by hosting multiple showcases centering the talents of musicians and artists from South East LA, integrating youth bands from camp with established local working acts.
Celebrating South East Los Angeles and providing accessible youth programing for the predominantly Latinx community is at the heart of Chicas mission. “SELA is rarely seen for its positive contributions,” says Mayra, “and when you do hear about SELA, it’s negative news [about] corrupt politicians, gang violence, and high dropout rates, [but] SELA is beautiful.” Marin concurs, “[our community] is filled with so much culture and so many talented and amazing young women of color, all of which deserve a safe space to yell at top of their lungs, regardless if it’s about puppies or loving their body. SELA is beautiful and we are actively working to build something powerful.”