D.C.'s Rabble Rousing DJ Collective is Creating a New Kind of Party
Kristy la rAt and Carmencha. Photo by Antonio Hernandez.
They call it “Maracuyeah.”
It’s a little joke – an emphatic twist of the Spanish word for passion fruit, “maracuyá.” And that’s just it. Washington, D.C.’s Maracuyeah Collective is about passion. For the past five years, the collective has organized and hosted sweaty, throbbing parties, soundtracked by Latin music from across countries and generations and attended by a similarly diverse swath of the city’s Latin community. They make their parties welcome to people across the spectrum of cultural and gender identities, queer and straight. While there have been other Latin dance events in D.C. over the years, none have provided the space for the DJs and party-goers to which Maracuyeah caters.
The collective’s pioneering members found one another through the deep underground broadcasting scene in D.C. In those early days, Kristy Chavez-Fernandez – known locally as Kristy La Rat – and collective co-founder Maria Fernandez Escobar – who performs as DJ Mafe – operated in the same circles around music, underground radio, Latin beats and their shared culture and community.
One weekend five years ago, they found themselves in the same car, driving the four-plus hours north to New York to interview and record Los Rakas, a blossoming Oakland-via-Panama emcee group that had eschewed D.C., Baltimore and elsewhere for the brighter lights and presumably bigger crowds in New York. And it wasn’t just Los Rakas that skipped over smaller cities further down the east coast. Consistent parties where up-and-coming touring Latin artists could play to dancehall crowds just didn’t exist in DC at the time.
On the drive back down I-95 to the district, the two lamented that the kind of inclusive party they had attended the night before never materialized in D.C. “On the way down, we were like: This sucks that we have to go this far to see a Latin alternative group,” Chavez-Fernandez says.
Two founding members of the group, dj rAt and dj bent, first honed their organizing and DJ skills within D.C. party collective Anthology of Booty, which to this day reps a more global array of beats. Maracuyeah sought to create a booking platform focused on the weirder side of Latinx underground music. The collective’s members put on their first party when they saw an opportunity to book Argentinian DJ Chancha Via Circuito at a low-key Salvadoran restaurant called Judy’s. It was the opportunity to create the kind of space they would otherwise have to drive 200 miles for. “We don’t really have money, we don’t really know how, but we’re going to try it,” Chavez-Fernandez says of the group’s mindset at the time. They were organizers, and they still are. They knew how to draw a crowd, to create space. So they did. And for the past five years, Chavez-Fernandez, Escobar, fellow DJ Carmen Rivera – DJ Carmencha – and others have put on monthly dance parties, blasting hybrid Latin beats primarily to oft-marginalized communities within the city’s growing Latin population and friends.
We sat down with Chavez-Fernandez and Rivera to discuss how their ongoing conversation with the Latin and larger communities in Washington, D.C. shapes their parties and their place within the city’s broader music scene.
RON KNOX: What do you want the vibe to be at your parties? Obviously you want it to be a party, but you said you wanted it to be community-oriented, a safe space, a place to foster discussion. Is that something that was in your mind when you decided you wanted to do this?
KRISTY LA RAT: I think it’s mutated over time. It’s going to be our fifth anniversary this year. So that’s exciting. Personally, I think I’ve been involved in people starting parties a lot in intentional spaces, and I think it’s both. You’re creating something you think is lacking or needed within the community, and that’s both an act of service and contribution to the community, and it’s also an act of self-love, and creating something where you actually want to hang out and feel a little more free and a little more yourself. I don’t believe in complete safety in any public space or club, but I believe in going for something that is safer.
But also, I think coming from where we started to where we are now, it’s feels good, the amount of mutation that has happened to feel more and more centered towards my idea of contributing to my community, and self-love. When we started we wanted to be a platform for the artists, and that was it. But if it was inherently going to be a space created by women, by mostly immigrant, queer folks, then that was going to resound in the space from the beginning. And I would say that all of those elements have gotten a lot stronger as there’s been more ability to cultivate them, and to have experiences where we’ve had to make decisions to try to make that so – and as our larger community has gone through a lot of changes.
You’re creating something you think is lacking or needed within the community, and that’s both an act of service and contribution to the community, and it’s also an act of self-love, and creating something where you actually want to hang out and feel a little more free and a little more yourself.
Can you give me some examples of the kinds of decisions you’ve had to make to help shape your parties into what they’ve become?
KLR: It was 2015 that we started doing gender-neutral bathrooms, for example. So there are some really concrete things like that. But the other things that I think are more consistent over time, and less easy to describe, is the way we’ve always tried to be in conversation with the attendees at our parties. It’s more than just a show, where there’s a performer on the stage and then there’s an audience that is consuming. It’s more like: We try to listen as much as possible to what people are telling us – even afterparty Facebook messages or whatever. We try to be a little more horizontal.
What’s the message that you’ve heard from the people who take part in this space? What are they looking for that you’ve had to take into account as you’ve made those decisions?
CARMEN RIVERA: I think certainly the kind of music that we play – the genres, and the diversity of it. We play contemporary radio reggaeton hits, and then old cumbias in one night. Maybe not right next to each other.
KLR: Most people who organize events in Washington, D.C., just like in a lot of other cities, venues are an issue. We haven’t always been at Judy’s; we’ve moved around some. And we’ve been invited to perform in other spaces. If we’re not organizing the parties, that’s a much different level of control anyway. I think with venues you definitely make decisions, too. Like if a venue is refusing to serve water to your patrons, and you ask it to shift and it can’t, is that something that’s a deal breaker? Right now, I’m like: If you can’t get that together, I don’t know how we can organize a party at a space and ask people to pay for water. That’s not ok, from safety, to economy – for many reasons.
Coming from the punk scene and the DIY scene, that’s ridiculous. It’s kind of unheard of.
KLR: I come from the same scene too. So, like dress codes, stuff like that – a lot of door policies end up being racist and turning people away, particularly black and immigrant communities, and particularly queer and trans people. So we’re looking for a space that has a good door situation, or one that is willing to enter into conversation about it. That’s the other good thing – the level of dialogue we want to have with our venues allows us to actually put feedback that we’re getting from our guests into action. If we can’t work with a venue to meet those needs, sometimes it means the relationship with the venue isn’t working anymore. So I think those have been some of the decisions we’ve made along the way. I think that’s become increasingly important.
We do hear from a lot of folks who identify as queer and Latinx who are like: There’s no other space that I’ve found like this in this city. I think there are a lot of awesome queer Latin spaces in the city. But this is a space that, for whatever reason – probably in combination with the music and the fact that we’re doing it in a restaurant, family-owned business dancehall-type situation – we’ve heard a lot of really positive feedback, especially from femme-identified or woman-identified queer Latin folks. And, of course, the broader queer Latin community and the broader community of people of color have given us feedback that they really like the space.
How much of an activist do you have to be in this role, in order to ensure that these parties are happening in the way you want them to happen? You’ve been doing this for five years now. Is it all second nature at this point – that the right people show up, it’s a chill environment, and so on? How active do you have to be to ensure your audience is comfortable and safe at your parties?
KLR: I would say I’m really proud of the work that we’ve done, and we have a lot of work left to do. That’s just the nature of it. And I think we do have a strong interest in being really specific about the people we want to showcase and lift up on the platform that we’re creating, and at the same time, we do talk a lot about mixed spaces.
I’ve grown up in activist spaces, and I participate in them very lovingly – they serve a lot of important purposes for myself and for my people. But one thing I think can happen is a narrowing of identity within those spaces. I think that’s important. If we’re coming into a space where there are regular customers, how do we not be the party that then just makes those regulars feel unwelcome? That has to do with the place that we pick in the first place, but also recognizing that with a lot of nightlife, there’s the risk of pushing people out along lines of race and class and sexuality.
So in wanting to have something that is more mixed, it is more messy and risky. That’s the work we’re in. I definitely wouldn’t say I’m comfortable and over it all.
CR: It’s always a conversation. We put a lot of thought into it, and spend a lot of time talking about it – de-briefing it after things are done. We’ve come a long way, and we can always push it further.
KLR: We always talk about ways of doing things that are defined by identity, like race and culture and other things. I’m always thinking about how to make space for a lot of different codidos and, also help with some empathy and translation. Not thinking of strictly spoken language translation, but the way that somebody may invite somebody else to dance, or decline to dance. I’m trying to put reminders out there, humanizing all of us in space, and also messages that remind us to respect each other’s boundaries. For a lot of those ways of interacting, if the spaces are more focused on one set of identities, a space that has more folks in there can risk more confusion about those different ways of doing things. Does that make sense?
I’m trying to put reminders out there, humanizing all of us in space, and also messages that remind us to respect each other’s boundaries.
It does make sense. How much does the music help? As a kind of common-denominator, binding agent between a lot of different people coming together in once space and trying to interact?
KLR: The mix of music signals it’s not a normative space, for one.
CR: But the music helps a lot, because it’s a party. So that is important. It’s a priority. But does the music make everything fall naturally into place? No. You still have to work on it.
KLR: The people matter a lot. The core community who have been coming for years or who have started coming regularly do hold a lot of the space. It’s not just a few of us are going around saying, this is how we do it, this is how we don’t. I think there’s enough people who have been around for a while, who feel comfortable enough to say: That’s not how we do this here. Or to come talk to us with concerns during or after the party.
Is there a way for you two to expand what you do, to reach more people and throw bigger parties? If so, does that interest you?
KLR: I would say that we are really lucky to find an amazing partnership with the venue and the set of people we care a lot about, and have a lot of trust in and want to build with. And we have an amazing community of people who make the party happen, in all the ways – especially just showing up and giving energy.
The idea of size – for me, isn’t as relevant as the quality of a party. D.C. is maybe 9 percent Latina, the last time I checked. So then if we’re doing a kind of alternative or weird thing within that, and all the other things that go into making it to our party, the idea of growing to be like New York or Chicago is just not realistic.