Collaborating with the Los Angeles Street Vendor campaign is not a surprising choice for Quetzal, the Eastside-based Chicano band with a stated mission to use music as a conduit for social justice. The Grammy Award-winning group collaborated with the East Los Angeles Community Corporation (ELACC) in the production of the video for “Coyote Hustle,” a song from its latest album “Quetzanimales.” The video, shot in Boyle Heights, uses local street vendors to portray their daily struggle and will be used as part of a citywide movement to legalize their activity.
The video was officially released last week at a songwriting workshop with Boyle Heights community members, led by Quetzal’s lead singer and songwriter Martha González. Picking out phrases called out from the audience, Gonzalez gave the song structure, the rest of the bandmembers put it to music, and then everyone performed it together. Afterwards the “Coyote Hustle” video was screened and Quetzal performed a few of its danceable tunes.
Boyle Heights Beat spoke with one of the band’s founder and guitarist, Quetzal Flores, just before the June 16 event. He recalled the group’s origin, its stake in Boyle Heights and ongoing involvement in social causes. He also talked about Quetzal’s upcoming participation in the taping of an NPR program with host Michel Martin titled “Streets and Beats: Personal Stories of Cops and Community From Across LA,” to be held June 24 at the Los Angeles Theatre Center.
You celebrated your 20th anniversary in 2014. How has Quetzal changed in 21 years?
I think we’re still figuring out how to apply all these ideas and to collaborate and to participate in community and stay connected to community. I think we’ve reached a point where we’re very clear about our intentions… we are not striving for commercial success. There was a moment where perhaps that was part of the focus, and commercial success -–I use that very lightly– I don’t think anyone wanted to be stars. I think that at some point we realized the two are diametrically opposed. Being in community with music and have that type of career are in opposition to one another and it’s impossible to balance those out, so we decided we were going to go with this.
‘Coyote Hustle’ is not literally about street vendors, but lyrics like ‘You will never know what it’s like to be me’ work well for the video. How did you come to collaborate with the LA Street Vendors Campaign?
I work for an organization called the Alliance for California Traditional Arts. I have been working in Boyle Heights with the Building Healthy Communities campaign [of the California Endowment]. One of the things that we did is we mixed a son jarocho class with street vending. César Castro, from [the East Los Angeles-based group] Cambalache, got to spend time with different community members and write new verses to old son jarocho songs, about street vending. There is one verse I remember, it says: “Señora Caridad, nos vemos en la noche, para las quesadillas, de flor de huitlacoche”. [We attempted to] bring out the humanity in street vending, really placing it where it belongs, which is a very important piece to our cultural environment. Through that work I got more and more familiar with the street vending campaign and I work with ELACC on various projects. When the idea for a video came up I called Janet [Favela] and Isela [Gracian], said ‘What do you think of this idea?,’ and they said, ‘Let’s do it’.
The video was shot in Boyle Heights and a lot of your work is related to this community. Some of the songs actually mention specific places here. Why is that?
Martha [González] grew up in Boyle Heights. Juan Pérez grew up in Boyle Heights. I spent a lot of time in Boyle Heights, I grew up in Lincoln Heights. When I was coming up as a musician., Boyle Heights was a really important site in terms of what was happening with all the different groups. Boyle Heights was at the center of a lot of the stuff, Boyle Heights and Highland Park. Then beyond that, a lot is happening in Boyle Heights right now. Being able to be a part of this very important moment of change and hopefully contributing to the change in a way that does not look like [what] happens when developers come in and resources start to come in and poor people can no longer sustain themselves in this community. That’s the biggest deal of being in Boyle Heights and continue to do work here.
Where does the street vendor campaign fit in that work?
Well, it speaks to that whole idea of displacement. The street vendors represent the bottom of the economic food chain. These are people who work their [butts] off, they work hard to sustain themselves and their families. These people are culture bearers, culture assets. I feel that this is part of the struggle, the resistance to displacement. They’re at the front of it, they’re the ones inspiring us, they are out there fighting and making change and telling their stories and being these braves individuals. I want to follow these people, I want to participate in any way I can, I’m inspired by them.
This is not your typical video release party. Why did you decide to do a songwriting workshop?
What Quetzal has been trying to do is redefine the idea of music in community. Yes, we can play concerts still, get on stage and do that thing, but sometimes we can come into a space and gather people and we can write a song together. And everybody participates, and everybody’s voice is heard. So we’re going to write one song together about street vending; we’re going to have a conversation and then put music to it. Again, reimagining how we interact with music is so important. We’re not judging whether [you] sing in tune or in time… the criteria is: are you participating or not? When you set that criteria, the whole idea behind music changes.
How do you think it will go with your NPR gig on the 24th?
So looking forward to it. We are playing two songs, one from “Quetzanimales,” which is called “Hormiguitas divinas,” and playing another called “Critical Time” from the new album, that we just recorded, which will be out next year. Both those songs say a lot, but I feel that we need to have a moment to say something too, especially because there are going to be police officers there and they need to hear, and they need to hear very clearly. So we’ll see what happens.