American labor leader and civil rights activist César Chávezhas become a major historical icon for the Latino community. Streets, parks, and schools have been named after him, a film about his life garnered international acclaim and every year on March 31, millions across the country celebrate César Chávez Day.
While Chávez did so much to secure right for our community, it’s important to remember hat Latina activists also had a huge hand in changing the course of our history.
Here’s a look at seven of some of history’s most powerful Latina activists who led marches and fought for your civil rights.
When it comes to the desegregation of schools in the country, American history often credits the case of Brown v. Board of Education for the changes. Barbara Rose Johns is also the one who is most typically considered to be the face of that movement after she led a 450-student walkout at a high school in Virginia in 1951. But history has largely written out the work of Sylvia Mendez an American civil rights activists of Mexican and Puerto Rican descent who played a key role in the integration movement back in 1946. Mendez v. Westminster was a case sparked by Mendez’s rejection from an all-white school in California back in 1943 when she was just eight years old. Mendez’s parents sued the school district and the landmark case which was ultimately settled in 1947 successfully desegregated public schools in California making it the first U.S. state to do so.
As a fierce civil rights activist and labor leader, Dolores Huerta became a tireless advocate of the United Farm Workers union. The American-born Latina of Mexican descent originally started out her career as an elementary school teacher. After seeing kids in her class come to school hungry and in need of new shoes, she decided she would help organize their parents. She started to fight for economic improvements for Latino farm workers and pressed local government organizations to improve barrio conditions. In 1962, she co-founded the National Farm Workers Association (now known as the United Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee) with César Chávez. Her non-violent strikes and protests led to her 22 arrests. In 1997 she was named one of the three most important women of the year in by Ms. magazine.
In 2017, Perez helped lead the country in its largest protest in U.S. history as a co-chair of the Women’s March on Washington. In her 20 year career as an activist, Perez has dedicated her advocacy to some of today’s most important civil rights issues including violence against women, mass incarceration, gender inequality and community policing. Before the Women’s March she helped launch a 9-day 250-mile march from New York City to Washington, DC called March2Justice which implored congressional lawmakers to turn their attention to the nation’s police justice crisis.
Best known for leading a campaign that opposed a dam on the Gualcarque River, Cáceres was an award-winning Indigenous environmental activist. In 2015, the Honduran environmentalist received the Goldman Environmental Prize for helming the grassroots effort that pushed the world’s largest dam builder to stop the construction of the Agua Zarca Dam at the Río Gualcarque. Because of her efforts the river that was saved and considered to be sacred by the Lenca people, was still able to provide the nearby tribe access to water, food, and medicine. On March 3, 2016, Berta Cáceres was assassinated for her activism when two assailants broke into her home and shot her. Her murder sparked international outrage and brought attention to the fact that Honduras is the most dangerous country in the world for activists who fight to protect forests and rivers.
The Mirabal Sisters
Patria, Dedé, Minerva, and María Teresa Mirabal were four sisters from the Dominican Republic who ferociously opposed the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo and became known as Las Mariposas. In 1959, after witnessing a = massacre executed by the Trujillo regime the sisters were sparked into activism and rallied communities into public protests that renounced Trujillo’s rule. Three of the sisters, Minerva, María Teresa, and Patria, were murdered for their advocacy when they were beaten to death by associates of the government. Following the death of Las Mariposas, Dominicans across the island decided they had had enough. Six months later, Trujillo’s dictatorship was brought down when he was assassinated.
Well before activists like Harvey Milk and figures like Caitlyn Jenner made waves, there was Sylvia Rivera. The Latina born and raised in New York City had Puerto Rican and Venezuelan roots and a tragic story when she first began to carve out a place for trans people in the American gay liberation movement. Rivera was a self-identified drag queen and transwoman who participated in the Stonewall riots of 1969 and soon after founded Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries (STAR) with Marsha P. Johnson. In 1970 she led trans activists in the country’s first Gay Pride march, then known as Christopher Street Liberation Day March and in the years after she delivered fervent speeches that called for the support of LGBTQ people of color and who were homeless.
I first discovered Subsuelo on a sticky Sunday summer afternoon in Downtown LA. It was brutally hot, and the prospect of trudging through Monday morning loomed overhead. While most Angelenos were at home drowning their sorrows in the latest Netflix binge, the sweaty souls squeezed into the patio of Caña Rum Bar were doing anything but.
Music blasted, hips swung, drinks clinked. The partiers had an unusual vibe– unlike the typical Los Angeles club-goers, they felt like a collection of long-lost friends and family. I wondered if everybody already knew each other– but by the end of the night, after a total stranger bought me a rum-filled coconut, and a bubbly, young woman pulled me into her dance circle, I realized that was simply the Subsuelo way. Pure, unadulterated joy amongst friends, new and old– all with the familiarity and comfort of a house party.
Flash forward almost a year later and you’ll find me dragging my girlfriend to Subsuelo pop-ups all over the city well past our bedtime.
I’ve seen the same organizers and DJ’s week after week and finally decided to get to the bottom of this unique party. And no shade to the seven men in the Subsuelo founding crew, but I, of course, had to consult the two fierce women who helped bring it together.
Meet Farah Sosa and Cristina “La Tigresa” Lucio: co-founders, and the photographer and Flamenco dancer (respectively) for Subsuelo.
For those who aren’t already aware, Subsuelo translates to “underground.” It’s a term that fits the crew well, given that their music is still funky and different enough to stand apart from the mainstream, and that they might very well be LA’s best kept secret.
Subseulo started as a rambunctious, feel-good house party in Boyle Heights, at the old home of Farah and Canyon Cody (AKA “El Canyonazo,” another co-founder and the lead DJ for Subsuelo), former roommates.
“The house just became too small for our parties. So we took it to a venue, and we started at East Side Love, which was just a few blocks away from our house. And then the party started evolving,” Farah tells FIERCE.
Subsuelo considers themselves an “artist crew” that plays global bass with Latin-American music, as, perhaps, an anchor.
“It’s supposed to be like a multicultural house party vibe where you can come and feel comfortable to elbow your neighbor and sweat together and become friends at the end of the day,” explains Farah. “We’re influenced by music from all over the world mixed with electronic beats. We’ve got roots from Venezuela to the Dominican Republic, to México, to Africa. We gather these sounds and we add bass to it, and we call it global bass.”
Good danceable Latin music at bars amounts to the same cumbias again and again, or, if you’re at one of *those* nightclubs, I swear, “Te Boté” will be looped endlessly (unpopular opinion: Bad Bunny is overrated– fight me).
Subsuelo, on the other hand, guarantees never-before-heard remixes to shake your booty.
“You get to go out to a party but you also get to experience this cultural education,” explains Cristina. “We have electronic music mixed with urban music from around the world– and that could include folk music of all kinds. We love playing around with the new and the old. Like, for example, Flamenco and hip-hop.”
This peculiar mash-up of genres sticks out. When I recall a ridiculous(ly awesome) remix of La Chona, Cristina laughs.
“There’s a lot of humor in it, there’s a lot of surprise… I always think I’ve heard everything already but then I hear a new remix, and, wow, it’s beautiful, or so fun to dance to. It’s like you fall in love with music all over again.”
It’s the diversity and uniqueness of Subsuelo’s music which sets the standard for their parties.
“We want a diverse following. We love that. People who come to our parties love music and have different backgrounds which is so much more fun for us because it’s also a representation of our city.” Farah admits. “The fact that we may all be brown doesn’t mean we all necessary like Latin music. I particularly like a lot of African music, and Brazilian jazz, so I may not be in love with cumbias even though I enjoy them. All of us bring influences from the things we like, and we just happen to like the world,” she says. “It’s not about just bringing our community in– we are happy to have people we don’t know, that will feel comfortable in the environment, so we can share the things we love with them.”
At first entrance, Subsuelo’s unique playlist captures the heart but it’s the vibe of the atmospher that makes it a one of a kind experience.
“That welcoming environment, that sense of feeling at home–that’s the most important thing,” explains Farah. “People talk about the vibe. You can’t produce or force a vibe. Our end result will have you walking out of the room knowing a stranger, and you feel safe in that environment.”
Dancing at a Subsuelo party never feels awkward or uncomfortable. It’s a house party away from home. Complete strangers dance together freely, laughing and twirling like old friends.
“I always tell people the only way to understand the vibe is by going,” says Cristina. “It always reminds me of when I was a little girl and I was at my aunt and uncle’s house, at a birthday party or something. It’s like a family party.”
Family party is an apt comparison, as adults of all ages are welcome– I even brought my 64-year-old mother once (who proceeded to school me on the dance floor).
For a city that hosts some of the most notoriously stuck-up, high-end soirees, Subsuelo offers a break from the pretentious club scene.
Even if it’s held at a more upscale venue like The Edison, there’s never a dress code, a huge relief for women who may not want to sausage into a tight dress (usually accompanied by a faja) and a pair of sole-numbing heels.
Although plenty of ladies still show up dressed to the nines, I eagerly seize the opportunity to sport my chucks and jeans. “We want men and women to come dressed however they want. We want them to feel comfortable, safe and respected,” assures Cristina. Unfortunately, at many clubs and bars, men consider women dancing in close proximity to them an open invitation to touching or grabbing.
Remarkably, not much inappropriate behavior goes down at Subsuelo, and if it does, it’s nipped in the bud.
“As women, [Farah and I] can spot that quickly,” confirms Cristina. “If there’s a creepy guy, we’ll notice him and we’ll immediately have the security guard keep an eye on him.” A woman can always confide in Cristina and Farah at events, no questions asked, no scenes made.
“Women will come to us and tell us if, hey, there’s someone who did this, he touched me, and he is immediately escorted out of the party. There is no tolerance for that. We do it as smoothly as possible. That’s always a priority of mine and Farah’s. And of the guys,” she adds, referring to the male members of Subsuelo. “They let us handle that and are always supportive… And that’s the thing– there are certain parties that I just don’t go to alone. I should be able to enjoy myself on the dance floor or watching the stage without being bothered or followed around the club.” In a day and age where women are still disrespected and subsequently dismissed, Farah’s and Cristina’s commitment to addressing any foul play is refreshing. There aren’t many women managing nightlife events, and Cristina notes that the vibe is noticeably different when female perspective is included.
“The other crews that have women in them–for example, the Cumbiaton ladies–have kind of the same feeling we do– they have a house party vibe. It’s more Latino heavy but there are all different kinds of people there and it feels safe, and I think it’s because it’s women who are organizing the party, compared to crews that have just men. There is a difference. You walk in and you feel the difference.”
Even though Subsuelo is mostly men, neither Farah nor Cristina feel strained by it. “We do have more males than females and I want to say that it’s challenging but it really balances when you have a good partner like Canyon,” mentions Farah. Cristina agrees. “Sometimes it’s tough but we’re fortunate to have men that are open-minded. They’re not misogynistic– and if there’s a moment where they might not know that they’re being sexist in a way, that’s something me and Farah are always verbal about.”
Both Cristina and Farah play pivotal roles in Subsuelo.
Farah co-leads the administrative and managerial duties with Canyon. She also photographs the event. After all, that’s her full-time profession. She first started taking pictures at 16, when still living in Guatemala. “My Dad bought a couple of cameras on the black market. He asked, do you want them? And I said yes, and he said, if I get them, then you have to use them. That’s what started everything. He bought me two black market cameras- 25 bucks and they still had film inside,” she says proudly. As a woman, co-leading Subsuelo is straightforward, but, as Farah points out, it’s her profession as a photographer where she runs into gender problems. “I have a lot of qualities that are not favorable in my business– being a female is number one, being petite is another one. Being a minority is an extra one but I don’t wanna see being Latino as a limitation since I work with people that look beyond my demographics and they just care more about the work that I provide,” she says. “The challenges are more in the field– like a man will approach me and be like, oh what are you shooting with, sweetie? I get that a lot. Or they don’t think I’m the official photographer of the event. They’ll talk with the males instead of talking to me about the work that I’m doing. And because I’m petite, it’s kind of limiting. I’m little, so people may not see me, but I have a unique perspective.” Indeed, her fly-on-the-wall, observant but discreet photography style captures the raw Subsuelo heat without crossing the line into tacky or cheap, Cristina observes. “Farah always keeps this in mind– the images we post are not where women are seen as the adornments, or oh, there’s these sexy women here, you should come because of that. She’s very conscious of that.” While Farah does booking and photography, Cristina is Director of Flamenco. Cristina has danced Flamenco for 15 years. She began in LA, and eventually moved to Spain to continue her training.
“I have a teacher here and in Sevilla. Most of the gigs I do are Flamenco gigs. I dance other genres but it’s all Latin, like Salsa or Samba, and I have experience because I grew up in a Mexican family household so I was already exposed to those genres,” she explains.
At Subsuelo events, she performs a Flamenco solo, but to unexpected live music, sometimes even a rapper accompanied by DJ Ethos (Subsuelo’s hip-hop DJ) on the turntable.
So much of Subsuelo is about exposing people to something new, and Cristina loves that about her role. “My part is creating a slight disruption with Flamenco. Most people haven’t really seen or know what flamenco is, so for me, being able to include that in the night even if it’s just a snippet– then I’ve done my job as far as people experiencing something new…Flamenco is rare in this part of the world and unfortunately, in my experience, it’s a dying art, the tradition of it.
So, I see Subsuelo as a gateway to expose people to Flamenco.” Cristina, like Farah, has also dealt with a little bit of dismissiveness in the field. “Yes, I’m a performer, but I’m also one of the party organizers. And this gets mistaken a lot, especially by men. Sometimes I will be spoken to a certain way, and they don’t understand– you’re at my party,” she says. “It’s because I’m a woman because it doesn’t happen to the guys in our crew.”
Though both women seem slightly irritated by the subtle sexism, their passion and drive outweigh any lingering resentment. “I have not focused my work on being a female or being a minority. I know that it exists because I carry it in my face, but that is not the base of my work,” says Farah firmly. “My focus is not on the limitations imposed by society, but more on the work that I can achieve by making you look my way.”
I left my first Subsuelo soaked in sweat, makeup smudged, ears ringing, and a huge smile on my face— and not a single Subsuelo since has been anything less than just as magical as that first one.
Where else can you find a dance party you can attend in sneakers with a live Flamenco dancer, a dope photographer, and some of the most unique global-bass mash-ups in LA? With nine people organizing the event, it truly takes a village to pull it off– but it’s undoubtedly Farah Sosa and Cristina Lucio, the two fearless mujeres behind the scenes that make it a safe space for everyone to let their hair down. “All of us have learned these last seven years working together that being inclusive is always beneficial for everyone,” explains Cristina. “And the more inclusive we are, the more successful we become.”
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