The Women Behind Cumbiat贸n L.A. Turned a Dance Night Into a Safe Space

The undocumented, queer POCs, and even some grandmas are finding community on the dance floor

It鈥檚 the Friday before Christmas and the Echoplex is at capacity with over 800 people dancing with their partners, friends, and family (there鈥檚 for sure a mom or two on the dance floor too). The energy at Cumbi谩ton Los Angeles is as warm and inviting as it is lively and pulsating with energy. Behind the DJ booth is Boyle Heights-bred DJ Sizzle Fantastic, aka Zacil Pech, playing the sounds of childhood鈥揺verything from cumbia, merengue, and salsa to rock en espa帽ol and banda鈥揳s partygoers forget, if only for a couple hours, that the world鈥檚 still turning outside the music venue.

鈥淵es, we have a lot stacked against us鈥攚e have a whole country, we have a whole administration that sees us as targets, that sees us as the enemies, but we鈥檙e not shriveling up,鈥 says Pech. 鈥淵ou may see us as that, but we see each other as greater beings that despite all of it, we鈥檙e out here thriving. We鈥檙e still out here living life, singing, dancing, and providing spaces where our communities can be themselves.鈥

Co-founded by Pech and Norma Fajardo (who goes by Normz La Oaxaque帽a) in May 2017, Cumbi谩ton is 鈥渁n intergenerational cultural movement which utilizes music as a vessel to heal and uplift oppressed hood communities.鈥 What began at Boyle Heights鈥 First Street Pool & Billiards has eventually branched out to bigger venues, and other cities like San Francisco, Seattle, and New York.

The two women met in 2013 and became fast friends working together for a labor rights organization that provides resources to undocumented and immigrant workers in the city. Their passion for immigrant and labor rights was what bonded them鈥攁nd their love of cumbia, which they both grew up listening to, was the cherry on top.

鈥淐umbia is so rooted in my childhood, in my upbringing, I knew about [musical groups like] La Luz Roja de San Marco and La Sonora Dinamita when I was like three,鈥 says Pech, who was born in Costa Chica in Guerrero, Mexico. 鈥淐umbia is just so beautiful and it deserves to be praised.鈥

Normz, who grew up about 400 miles south of Guerrero, in the state of Oaxaca says, 鈥渋t鈥檚 the music our parents would play on a Sunday cleaning the house, you鈥檇 just hear it all throughout the neighborhood.鈥

Photo by Paolo J. Riveros for Cumbiat贸n Los Angeles

The summer they worked with the labor rights organization, going out to bars and clubs was a way for them to de-stress. 鈥淲e were dealing with not only our own turmoils but also the problems of another undocumented workforce,鈥 Pech says.

During that time, dancing became synonymous with healing and replenishment. Three years later, the 2016 presidential election rolled around. 鈥淎 bunch of us undocumented folks got micheladas and food [after a work day], and we watched Trump get elected, so it was a mix of emotions,鈥 Fajardo says. 鈥淲e were laughing and talking, but ultimately the night ended sour.鈥

As months passed, they kept feeling the negative effects of an administration that continued to normalize hate toward the undocumented, immigrant, Latinx, and LGBTQ communities that they and their friends are a part of.

鈥淲e would see that folks were getting burnt out and losing hope, so we felt we needed to create a space where people could come out and rejoice,鈥 Pech says. 鈥淣o matter what, undocumented people, we come together in times of crisis. We come together to hold space for each other, to cheer each other on and to more than anything, let each other know that we have each other鈥檚 back.鈥

People dancing at Cumbi谩ton Los Angeles

Photo by Paolo J. Riveros for Cumbiat贸n Los Angeles

From the get-go, Cumbi谩ton was intended to be an inclusive and positive environment where undocumented and queer people of color could feel safe. Cumbi谩ton鈥檚 main goal was not only to center but to celebrate these often marginalized folks.

鈥淚t was like a glimmer of hope, you know?鈥 Pech says. 鈥淵es, we鈥檙e undocumented. Yes, it affects us in our daily lives in different ways but Cumbi谩ton was a safe space to come and forget about that.鈥

What started off as throwing a party for their close-knit group of friends, soon grew into a bigger experience, a bigger venue, and eventually, a bigger movement meant to be shared with those who needed it.

Now in its second year, Pech and Fajardo say Cumbi谩ton wouldn鈥檛 be what it is without the help of their friends and the community. Organizing alongside the two women are marketing lead Garciela Lopez Marquez (who goes by聽DJ Funky Caramelo),聽illustrator Julio Salgado, and聽photographer Paolo Riveros.

鈥淭hrough cumbia, we celebrate our immigrant roots. It鈥檚 also through the music that we highlight and center womxn and queer/trans folks,鈥 says DJ Funky Caramelo.

In the past year, Cumbi谩ton has expanded to several other cities, but Pech recalls a time when she wasn鈥檛 sure she would keep the party going at all.聽鈥淭here was a point, and it was amidst all this Trump bullshit, where we didn鈥檛 even promote the party because as an undocumented queer woman鈥ll of this was鈥 I was just depressed,鈥 Pech says of she put a pause on the social media promotion that Cumbi谩ton relies on to get the word out (that particular party also had its lowest turnout). At her lowest point, she even considered pulling the plug altogether.

鈥淏ut then in talking to people, the stories that people always come and tell us, thanking us for creating this space鈥搕hat definitely encourages us, it makes me feel like this is necessary,鈥 she says.

Artist and activist Julio Salgado (@juliosalgado83) at Cumbiat贸n

Photo by Paolo J. Riveros for Cumbiat贸n Los Angeles

For the December 2018 party, they stacked the line-up with DJ鈥檚 from Subsuelo, Late Night Laggers, Gasolina, Techno Cumbia, Beso, and live music from all-female mariachi and banda Las Catrinas and Las Angelinas. It turned out to be their biggest party of the year, selling out Echoplex.

They say what brings out big crowds is their focus on diversity.

鈥淲e actively promote and tell people to bring your grandmas, bring your tias, bring your cousins!鈥 Fajardo says excitedly.

鈥淚鈥檝e never told anyone to bring their grandmas,鈥 Pech interjects with a laugh. 鈥淏ut that鈥檚 you, OK, go ahead.鈥

鈥淵ou鈥檝e never seen the grandmas at Cumbi谩ton?,鈥 Fajardo replies. 鈥淧eople will bring their grandmas.鈥

鈥淚t鈥檚 tia-friendly, it鈥檚 grandma-friendly, but leave your patriarchal daddies and tios at home, just bring your mommas,鈥 Pech adds.

Photo by Paolo J. Riveros for Cumbiat贸n Los Angeles

Photo by Paolo J. Riveros for Cumbiat贸n Los Angeles

This month, the Cumbi谩ton crew is back at the Echoplex with another hefty line-up. On March 15, the party pays homage to all the women of cumbia who have paved the way for DJs like Sizzle Fantastic and Funky Caramelo to share their love of one of the most widespread music styles in the world鈥攁nd to keep on celebrating their roots through dance.

In the midst of a divisive political climate, Cumbiat贸n is a force to bring people together. 鈥淲hat they want us to do is mentally disintegrate and to just break our spirits, but what Cumbi谩ton is doing and what we鈥檙e providing is making sure we鈥檙e replenishing that spirit, we鈥檙e replenishing each other.鈥

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