Documenting the Oakland cultural renaissance

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La Cultura Cura Cultural Arts Café Opening Adds Flavor to San Antonio District

Aztec dancers outside La Cultura Cura Cafe

Aztec dancers outside La Cultura Cura Cafe

To many Americans, Cinco de Mayo is a drinking holiday, an excuse to imbibe tequila shots, drink Corona and Dos Equis beers, and maybe wear a sombrero if you get tipsy enough. But for people of ethnic Mexican descent, the 5th day of May is a day to celebrate cultural resilience and victory over colonialism (the date denotes the anniversary of the defeat of the French army at the battle of Puebla, not Mexican Independence Day, which its often mistaken for).

This past May 5th marked the grand opening of La Cultura Cura Cultural Arts café, a new economic and cultural initiative of Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice (CURYJ), a non-profit organization dedicated to disrupting cycles of violence and poverty which impact youth by taking a restorative justice approach. The event was also an official celebration marking the repeal of Oakland’s gang injunctions, the issue CURYJ originally organized around back in 2011. Many of the defendants placed under gang injunction by the Oakland City Attorney’s office in the highly-publicized, now-abandoned effort now work with CURYJ, who raised $15,000 with a successful kickstarter campaign to open the café, situated next door to East Side Arts Alliance in the San Antonio district. In addition to employing youth—including those formerly incarcerated—La Cultura Cura claims to be empowering communities, promoting positive economic development and offering an alternative to gentrification by reopening indigenous trade routes; their free trade organic coffee is reportedly grown by Zapatista Mayan descendants in the state of Chiapas.

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The café’s grand opening event was a joyous occasion, featuring a full performance by Aztec dancers in full regalia on the sidewalk and street in front of the café. It was a little surreal to see the juxtaposition of the Aztecs in their colorful traditional garb against a backdrop of cars and AC transit buses, symbolizing the dichotomy between modern civilization and ritual culture. The traffic flowed in both directions, marking a type of unintended urban dance which contrasted the purposeful movements of the native dancers – who sought to bless the space by honoring the ancestors.

the La Cultura Cura logo

the La Cultura Cura logo

Inside the café, every wall was decorated with political art posters by Dignidad Rebelde’s Melanie Cervantes and Jesus Barraza, which spoke to the cultural resistance of Hispanic and Chicano peoples, as well as their solidarity with other liberation struggles – Steven Biko and Angela Davis were among those featured, along with Zapatista women, Arizona immigration activists, and musicians depicted with accordions or guitars. Tamales la Oaxaquena served yummy plates of rice, beans, salsa and cooked chicken, washed down with mint-infused ice water. A full house of community members, many of them parents with young children, attended, and there were live performances from local hip-hop artists as well as a short speech by CURYJ’s George Galvis. It was an auspicious opening for a much-needed space in one of Oakland’s most ethnically-diverse districts, one facing increasing encroachment from the forces of gentrification.

Dignidad Rebelde’s exhibit, “La Cultura Cura,” runs until June 30th, at 2289 Int’l Ave., Oakland.


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ESAA Block Party Celebrates Multiculturalism, Diversity, and Neighborhood Pride

Event Review/ ESAA Block Party Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Black and Chicano Arts movements, Saturday Oct. 25, 23rd Ave. & Int’l Blvd

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The East Side Arts Alliance has been in existence for almost 20 years. For the past 14 years, the grassroots collective has produced the Malcolm X Jazz Arts Festival, an Oakland cultural institution held every year in San Antonio Park. At their East Side Cultural Center, they’ve hosted numerous dance and hip-hop performance classes, youth workshops, lectures, film screenings, and panel discussions. But until last Saturday, they had never held a block party. Envisioned as a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Black and Chicano Arts movements, the event was a show of black, brown, yellow and red unity and cultural pride, and a welcome addition to Oakland’s growing number of street fairs and festivals.

But it almost didn’t happen at all. Overnight rain showered in the early morning hours of the day of the event, and all morning, dark storm clouds threatened to dump more rain. Light drizzles gave way to a fairly prolonged soaking around 10:30, causing event organizers to grit their teeth, concerned that all the planning which had gone into the block party would be in vain.

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Then something miraculous occurred. The rain subsided and the sun broke through the clouds, along with stretches of blue sky. The weather went from foreboding to downright pleasant, and the block party was on!

The festivities drew many local residents from the San Antonio district, one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the entire country. As the ESAA website notes, San Antonio represents “a living laboratory and dialogue of cultural co-habitation that reflects urban America’s rapidly changing demographics with shared sites of residence, employment and business relationships, parks, places of recreation, schools, churches, festivals and family events.”

Howard Wiley, Geechy Taylor, and Faye Carol

Howard Wiley, Geechy Taylor, and Faye Carol

That was certainly evident on Saturday, as lowriders, local artisans, food vendors, jazz musicians, social justice activists, visual artists, dance troupes and families with children all came together for a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon which lived up to its billing as a multicultural celebration of diversity and resiliency to the forces of displacement and gentrification.

Walking around the party, centered around 23rd Avenue and Int’l Blvd., it was easy to see what ESAA has contributed to the neighborhood: art, and lots of it. Especially murals, which were everywhere: vibrant, colorful, and often relating the struggles and triumphs of ethnic and immigrant populations. In addition to all the large-scale pieces on walls, there were also several installation-type pieces honoring the upcoming Dia do los Muertes: skeletons made out of traditional paper mache, some dressed up as Brown Berets. Other highlights included a jazz set featuring Howard Wiley (known for his saxophone playing) on drums, with Geechy Taylor on bass, and the vocals of Ms. Faye Carol; as well as a Lindy Hop demonstration by Traci Bartlow and her Starchild Dance Company.

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All in all, a wonderful event, and a great example of creative placemaking at its best. If you missed it, you’ll definitely want to be there next year. Here’s to another 50, 100, 200 years of Black and Chicano arts!