It’s Friday night at Tia Chucha’s Book Store in Sylmar California. This is Open Mike Night and every other Friday alternates between Spanish and English speaking evenings. Tonight is Spanish. This book store was created by Luis Rodriguez, the Poet Laureate of Los Angeles out of his earnings from writing and selling 500,000 copies of “Always Running”; his story of growing up as a gang banger in East Los Angeles. His intention with the book store and the open mike nights are to empower and inspire young and old Chicano people to educate themselves and have a life beyond what they may know in the Barrios of Los Angeles. Most of the people here are directly from, or descended from Mexico, Central or South America.
I am here with 16 year old Danny from Wilmington. I mentor Danny through a Long Beach program called Power 4 Youth. The mentoring commitment is for Danny and I to get together once a week for 90 minutes to study, read or play sports. He and I have been working together for over 3 years so we have some liberties with outside activities like this evening at Tia Chucha. Danny lives in one of the poorest neighborhoods in LA and has never seen or known his father. His mom is from El Salvador and works until 9:00 PM most every night. Since working with him his grades have improved from all F’s to C’s and he graduated from the LA City Teen Explorer Firefighter Program. We have become regulars here at Tia Chucha. Danny has an interest in poetry, rap music and his historic roots.
The book store is about 40 ft by 60 ft with 2/3 of it cleared away for the stage and folding chairs for the audience. There are about 30 people in these chairs seated in 3 or 4 rows in a semi circle around the makeshift floor level stage. Surrounding the stage are musical instruments and posters of Events featuring Chicano artists and activists. Freida Khalo, Cesar Chavez and many others are visible. The people tonight vary in age from 80 to 16 and everything in between. Most are Chicano but not all. It is 9:00 PM at night. There are two small stage lights overhead hanging on a horizontal pole. One of the lights is intermittent and seems to be able to go on and off with accentuation to whatever is occurring on stage. There is the smell of coffee and lemon cake provided by the hosts of the evening. Occasionally we hear traffic outside as Tia Chucha is located in a corner shopping center in Sylmar. Oftentimes the topics here include protests of past American and Capitalistic abuses of power. Which there are many to choose from. Sometimes fatherhood and the anger of abandoned children from absentee fathers are expressed. Danny has written and recited extensively about this topic. Tonight is different.
Danny has written his poem this evening in Spanish. “Mi Vecino”, my neighborhood is the title. He passionately writes how he loves his neighborhood. He loves the guy who pushes the ice cream wagon, the people who cook and sell the tacos on the street, the children in the child care center on the corner, the low riders and gang bangers that cruise and tag the walls. He really loves it all.