Saving Tia Chucha’s

Saving Tia Chucha’s

Artists and patrons rally around the Valley cultural mecca, now in need of a home after losing its lease

By Joe Piasecki 02/01/2007

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Sometimes words aren’t enough. Sometimes they’re everything. Tia Chucha’s Café Cultural, one of only a few bright spots for art and culture in the working-class and heavily Latino Northwest San Fernando Valley, is stuck somewhere in between.

Host both to readings by big-name authors like Sandra Cisneros and to countless aspiring artists from around the county, Tia Chucha’s will be forced to close its doors in February to make way for a state-of-the art laundry service.

“Apparently, money speaks louder than what we can provide,” said founder Luis Rodriguez, also the author of “Always Running,” a much-celebrated and groundbreaking account of gang life in Los Angeles, and “The Republic of East LA.”

Owners of the Glenoaks Boulevard strip mall where the café sits between offices and a Pizza Hut more than doubled the rent in September, said Rodriguez, and have given him until the end of February to vacate the Sylmar property, which he has rented since 2005.

Part bookstore, coffeehouse, spoken-word performance space and community meeting center, it will be greatly missed — most of all by young people who have nowhere else like it to go, said Cisneros, author of the acclaimed novel “The House on Mango Street,” a staple in California public school classrooms.

“A lot of kids in the neighborhood of Tia Chucha’s don’t have a quiet room in the house. It’s an alternative space as far as education is concerned. My heart breaks when I think of the work they do and that they are going to be moved out,” she said.

Cisneros believes local politicians, especially Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, should step in to save it. Having recently declared gang violence “Public Enemy No. 1” in Los Angeles, Villaraigosa will blow a major opportunity to prevent gang violence in the Valley if he lets it die, Cisneros warned.

“If you don’t want to invest now, you’re paying for these follies in the long run — kids dropping out of high school, building more prisons. The mayor should be giving [Rodriguez] an award. Tell Antonio that Sandra ‘La Bruja’ said this. La Bruja knows this and she sees this, so he should listen,” she said.

Villaraigosa could not be reached directly, but his office issued a statement to the Weekly praising Tia Chucha’s as “a safe haven for so many middle and high school students in the city” and promising his staff will work with the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency to help Tia Chucha’s find a new home.

Though he doesn’t bill his efforts as specifically anti-gang, Rodriguez believes bringing culture to the endless concrete and strip mall wasteland of the Northwest Valley is key to keeping kids out of trouble. It was for similar reasons back in the early ’90s that he wrote “Always Running,” a work also intended to reach his troubled son Ramiro, who eventually changed his life, but not in time to avoid a lengthy prison sentence he is now serving in Illinois for a gang-related attempted murder.

Rodriguez and his wife Trini opened Tia Chucha’s in 2005 with money out of their own pockets, naming it after a colorful aunt who had encouraged Rodriguez’s interests in the arts. The couple is currently scouting a new location and trying to bring all their operations into nonprofit tax status.

While the cultural center’s fate seems to rest primarily in their hands, they have amassed countless fans and suffer no lack of political connections, as Trini is the sister of LA City Councilman Tony Cardenas and attended Cal State Northridge with state Assemblyman Richard Alarcon, who is running to fill the Sylmar-area LA City Council seat left behind by recently elected state Sen. Alex Padilla.

“I haven’t been approached by the owners directly, but I can tell you it is a great place. There is a need for gathering places such as this that allow for people to dialogue and learn. The problem is people who own property have rights as to how that property can be used,” said Alarcon.

But Rodriguez says its time to take a stand.

“There needs to be some attention to safeguarding these cultural spaces at a policy level,” he said. “We need to be seen as vital. A cultural life is also necessary for a community.

Tia Chucha’s, according to Northridge Chicano Studies Department Chair David Rodriguez, plays a roll even beyond the arts.

“I’m surprised. I’m shocked. It serves an important function, not only culturally, but politically,” he said, listing immigration, employment, discrimination and police abuse among issues tackled at the café.

On Sunday, Los Angeles Mission College students Brenda De La Cruz and Hugo Castaneda were planning an upcoming event for the local chapter of MEChA (Chicano Student Movement of Aztlán).

“It’s a place where you can relate to your background,” said De La Cruz. “And it’s the only place like it in the Valley,” Castaneda added, both pointing out their neighborhood already has plenty of places for laundry, one of them only about a block away.

But this isn’t the first time a cultural organization serving mostly working-class Latinos has suffered in Los Angeles, says Gabriel Tenorio, who became interim director of East LA’s Self Help Graphics after it nearly went under in 2005.

In June of that year, Self Help shut its doors and dismissed its staff amid a financial crisis stemming from building-repair costs and inattention to the business end of the nonprofit.

“No place can run only on goodwill. The paradigm is changing for funding arts organizations. Foundation and government agency support is falling through the cracks. There’s a changing tide of what the nation is willing to support,” he said.

Like Tia Chucha’s, Self Help is also a gathering place for civil rights, anti-war and fair-housing activism. “Start mixing that in with the art and that’s the magic of these institutions, they tie in a socially conscious perspective,” said Tenorio.

Such magic has inspired John Densmore, drummer for LA rock legend The Doors, to continue work on his first novel. Densmore, 62, has given several performances at Tia Chucha’s, but also shows up occasionally just to hang out.

“I’ve been there many times and found a community of artists, poets, writers, musicians — focusing on Central America, sort of, but reminding me of what probably happened when the Beats used to get together. I felt at home there even though I’m a gringo born in West LA,” he said.

To Cisneros, Tia Chucha’s is even more than a widely popular cultural refuge. For many young people in the Valley, it’s their only exposure to a world outside their neighborhood and something Cisneros wishes had been around when she was growing up.

“I never met any real-life writers when I was a kid,” she said. “How do you even imagine or fathom that you could become a writer if you’ve never met one, and the only kind you see is someone on TV who doesn’t look anything like you?”

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