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“If I Was President”: Chicano Band Las Cafeteras on Pushing an Agenda of Migrant & Food Justice

StoryAugust 04, 2017
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Los Angeles-based Chicano band Las Cafeteras joins us in studio for an interview and performance. The band has been described by the Los Angeles Times as “a uniquely Angeleno mishmash of punk, hip-hop, beat music, cumbia and rock.” This year they released a new album called “Tastes Like L.A.” with the hit single, “If I was President.” “In the left, we’re always talking about what we’re against,” says one of the two co-founders of the band, Hector Flores. “We really want to reimagine and really think what we’re for, because the day is coming and the day is here where we need to push forward an agenda of what we’re for.” We also speak with Denise Carlos.

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Video squareWeb ExclusiveAug 01, 2017Las Cafeteras in Conversation & Performance on Democracy Now!
Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, that’s Las Cafeteras performing “This Land is Your Land,” from their latest album, Tastes Like L.A. They were here in our Democracy Now! studio. I’m Amy Goodman. This is Democracy Now! Yes, the Los Angeles-based Chicano band Las Cafeteras joined us here in New York. The band has been described by the Los Angeles Times as “a uniquely Angeleno mishmash of punk, hip-hop, beat music, cumbia and rock.” This year, they released their new album called Tastes Like L.A. Here, they’re performing their hit single “If I was President” in our studio. It begins with musician Denise Carlos singing in Spanish, “If I was president, honestly, if I was president for my people.”

LAS CAFETERAS: [performing “If I was President”]

Si fuera presidente
Honestamente
Si fuera Presidente
Para mi gente
Si fuera Presidente
Honestamente
Presidente
Para mi gente

Check, check, one, two
You see, if I was president
I’d roll up my sleeves
As I face the congregation
First thing I’d do
Is free education
And every third period
We’d practice meditation
Every third period
We’d practice meditation
Like a brown Robin Hood
I’d take from the rich
And I’d give to the poor
So my little sister
Ain’t got to be hungry no more
And my first lady
Would be my mom
Cause she’d slap me
At the first thought of drone strikes
And dropping bombs
And I’d free all my poor black and brown kids
That got caught up in three strikes
And when they get out
They’re gettin’ free bikes
So they can ride to their future
Not their past
Go to the store, get some chips
With no GMO ’cause my folks
We gotta right to know
And if you don’t know
Now you know

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Las Cafeteras. I spoke to two of its six members, the two co-founders of the band, Hector Flores and Denise Carlos. I began by asking Hector Flores to talk about their hit song, “If I was President,” on their new album, Tastes Like L.A.

HECTOR FLORES: I think, in the left, we’re always talking about what we’re against. And for us, we really want to reimagine and really think what we’re for, because the day is coming and the day is here where we need to push forward an agenda of what we’re for. And that’s what this song was really about, like what would I do? You know, what would I push for? And, actually, three months leading up to the recording, I went to like Food 4 Less, and every time I went to go buy food, I would ask the workers, I’d say, “Hey, if you were president for a day, what was the first thing you would do?” And basically, their responses are the lyrics to—the lyrics that I wrote for my piece. They always said education. They said, “Man, you know, I’d get my cousin out of jail, because he shouldn’t be in there for weed.” And like, things like that. And that’s sort of what we put into the song.

LAS CAFETERAS: [performing “If I was President”]

Si fuera presidente
Honestamente
Presidente
Para mi gente

At my inauguration
I’d burn tobacco at the opening
Send thanks and prayers
To creator and all living beings
Then I’d sit you down with your abuelita
Rewrite history so our kids can see
Where we came from and a new destiny
From Flint to Cali water flowing pure and free
My department of peace
Would melt guns into bike racks
Budget cuts to corporate kickbacks
If I was president, well, there’d still be drama
Takes a village to heal our generational trauma
So, shake your spine,
Put your hands up high
We got a different kinda party in the White House tonight

If I was president
Hey, what would you do?
If I was president
Hey, I’d ask you
If you were president
Hey, what would you do?
If it was you, you or you

AMY GOODMAN: And Las Cafeteras, the name of your band, what does it mean? Denise?

DENISE CARLOS: It comes from a space called the Eastside Café in Northeast L.A. And it is a space that had this wild imagination about self-determination and creating a world where many worlds exist. And this is really the narrative and the teachings of the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico, of not responding to a government that doesn’t identify or recognize them, but really taking it upon themselves to govern themselves in a way that they find holds dignity. And so, for us, in those days, it was a space that really gave us, again, the imagination of more how do we build a world where we fit and where we’re powerful and where our voice is heard. And so, it’s a beautiful, beautiful root of how we, as Las Cafeteras, started playing music, where we never grew up playing music. And it was for many of us the first time that we even sang out loud in front of people.

HECTOR FLORES: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: So, introduce this song for us, which everyone knows a form of, “This Land is Your Land,” and why you chose to put it on the album.

HECTOR FLORES: So, “This Land is Your Land” was written by Woody Guthrie. And when he wrote it, he actually omitted verses, because he wrote it during the McCarthy era. And so, we were asked to write a song, and I remember an organization asked us to write like an American song, like an old-school. And we said, “Well…” We didn’t really want to. And so we actually went back and said, “What songs exist, like traditional folk songs that really speak to our identity?” And we found “This Land is Your Land.” It was actually Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings. We saw her. We saw her example, and it was beautiful. And then we said, “Well, why don’t we do it our own?” We did a Mexican Zapatista funk version.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Las Cafeteras singing “This Land is Your Land.”

LAS CAFETERAS: [performing “This Land is Your Land”]

Oh, this land (This land!)
This land (Whose land?)
This land was made for you and me

As I was walking, I saw a sign there
And on that sign it said “no crossing”
And on the other side, it said nothing
This land was made for you and me

Oh, this land (This land!)
This land (Which land?)
This land was made for you and me
Oh, this land (This land!)
This land (Whose land?)
This land was made for you and me

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Las Cafeteras in our Democracy Now! studios, singing “This Land is Your Land.” And it’s one of the songs in Tastes Like L.A. Denise Flores, why did you call the album Tastes Like L.A.? And why the cover, which is a food truck?

DENISE CARLOS: You know, a lot of places that we play ask, “What genre do you play?” And we don’t fit in any specific box. We don’t fit in a genre. We are so L.A.-flavored. And that’s the only way we would know how to describe it. We grew up listening to hip-hop, Norteño, rancheras, cumbia, punk, goth, you know? And all of us come from so many different traditions and experiences. We’re Chicanos. We’re Mexican. But as Hector always says, that just means that you’re mixed, and you come from all kinds of places. And so, for us, we really wanted to introduce ourselves back into the musical world as just a band from L.A. playing everything and anything and not fitting into a box, because, as people, we don’t fit into a box, right? So the census is really complicated for us.

And we have this food truck, because in L.A. it’s—you know, food justice and even vendor rights are a big deal. I think L.A. is one of the biggest cities in the country that don’t have established policies that protect street vendors.

AMY GOODMAN: Hector, can you talk about the food truck that was turned over just a few days ago. The video went viral, when a guy turned over this man’s truck.

HECTOR FLORES: There’s this man who flipped over a corn truck, where a man was selling corn on the street, because he didn’t want to move. And I feel that speaks to how I think a lot of our communities feel about street vendors. But that’s really basically reflected in the fact that policies don’t—policies don’t protect street vendors. So, for us, like the ice cream truck, the elotero man, the peletera woman, folks who are making a living selling food, need to be protected. They’re trying to raise their families, live a life of dignity. And so, that’s why on the front of our CD it’s a ice cream truck. You know, that’s L.A. for us. It’s people working, doing what they have to, selling food to raise, you know, their families and have a life of dignity.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to “Tiempos de Amor.” Talk about this song, the origins of it, Denise.

DENISE CARLOS: So, “Tiempos de Amor,” when a certain person was up on a podium, as a candidate for president, speaking about Mexican people, saying that we are rapists and we’re drug dealers and we’re dangerous, and some of us are good—

AMY GOODMAN: You don’t like to say President Trump’s name?

DENISE CARLOS: I would rather not, although I’m OK other people saying it. And so, the lyrics that I wrote for “Tiempos de Amor,” I went back into my parents’ story, and I went back into my family’s story and everybody I know. Most of the people that I know are first generation born in the U.S. And the root of the reason why a lot of our parents left the comforts of their home and family was because of love. They loved the children that they didn’t have so much that they sacrificed really their lives. And I just wanted to remind people that the root of all this pain and the root of all this struggle is love. And we can’t live without it. And it’s so easy to criminalize people and to dehumanize because they’re breaking laws, and we forget that laws aren’t always, you know, dignified and compassionate and understanding.

HECTOR FLORES: And just.

DENISE CARLOS: And just. And so, we—I mean, we just had a truck full of people found in—

HECTOR FLORES: Texas.

DENISE CARLOS: In Texas, and 10 of those folks had passed away. And so, what I saw in the reaction to a lot of the article was: “Well, they were illegal. They deserve it.” And it breaks my heart that we are in a time where people care more about laws and policies than actual people and beating hearts.

AMY GOODMAN: “Tiempos de Amor” means “Times of Love”?

DENISE CARLOS: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you share the first verse, the first verse with us in English, since you sing it in Spanish?

DENISE CARLOS: Of course. It says, “I would cross whichever—whatever river to be close to you, because I feel an emptiness beating in my heart.”

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to “Tiempos de Amor.” This is Las Cafeteras.

LAS CAFETERAS: [performing “Tiempos de Amor”]

Cruzaría cualquier río
Para estar cerca de ti
Porque siento un vacío
Palpitar dentro de mi
Dentro de me

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! Before we end, when you came back into the United States from Canada on this tour, as you head off to London, then back to Canada, you came through New Haven. Talk about why?

HECTOR FLORES: We came through—we had a show in New Haven, Connecticut. And coming into New Haven, I received a text message from a—from the Connecticut Immigrant Rights organization saying there’s a woman in sanctuary, and her name was Nury Chavarria, and they were having a vigil that night for her. And we found out—and they asked us to come to the vigil and play. And we found out that there was a woman, Nury Chavarria, who was to be deported last Thursday, and instead of showing up for deportation, she went to sanctuary—she went into sanctuary in a church. And so, we went, and we met Nury. And we played at the vigil. And the next day, we were able to go to the church, meet her, hear her story. met and played at the vigil. the next day we were able to go to the church, meet her, hear her story.

AMY GOODMAN: She has four children.

HECTOR FLORES: She has four—

AMY GOODMAN: She’s been here for almost quarter of a century.

HECTOR FLORES: Four U.S.-born children. Four U.S.-born children.

AMY GOODMAN: Twenty-four years.

HECTOR FLORES: Over 20 years in the United States, no criminal record. And every years since 1999, she’s been going into court to get a year sort of relief.

AMY GOODMAN: Extension.

HECTOR FLORES: Extension. But last month, she went in, and instead of giving her a year extension, they put an ankle bracelet on her, and they told her, “You’re going to be deported in a month.”

AMY GOODMAN: A shackle on her ankle.

HECTOR FLORES: And they told her in front of her 9-year-old daughter. And instead of showing up to court to be deported, she went into sanctuary. And so, when we learned about that, we said we have to go, we have to make it happen. And we were able to meet her. And we actually did a video in support and asking people to call Department of Homeland Security. And I got a text message two days ago that she has been—she received—what is the word? Clemency? A stay of—a stay—relief from deportation.

AMY GOODMAN: For a year.

HECTOR FLORES: For a year.

AMY GOODMAN: A federal judge has asked ICE to re-examine her case.

HECTOR FLORES: Yes, yes. And that’s—and that is in part to the organizations in New Haven, Connecticut, doing that beautiful work. So when people say like—you know, when you’re asked to help and call ICE, it works.

AMY GOODMAN: What did you play outside of the church?

HECTOR FLORES: Outside of church, we played “Tiempos de Amor.”

DENISE CARLOS: Mm-hmm, “La Bamba Rebelde.”

HECTOR FLORES: “La Bamba Rebelde.”

DENISE CARLOS: And “If I was President.”

HECTOR FLORES: And “If I was President,” outside. And it was a banging show in an empty parking lot right next to the church.

AMY GOODMAN: So this is interesting, what you do when you go from city to city. Can you explain the kind of theme?

HECTOR FLORES: So, we’re movement organizers. We’re organizers before we’re musicians. So when we go into new towns, we identify who’s doing work in that town, who’s doing—what is—what is the issue that needs to be elevated. We went to Burlington, Vermont, and we met with a dairy—dairy farm workers.

AMY GOODMAN: The whole migrant justice group.

HECTOR FLORES: Migrant justice organizations. And we found out that there’s a lot of injustice against dairy farm workers. We had no idea. We invited them to our show. You know, they were able to table, share their work. And that’s the work that we do. And we do shows called Beats, Beats Not Borders or Beats and Bridges, where we go into different neighborhoods, different cities. We invite the local DJ. We invite the organizations, you know. And basically we have these banging parties, and we get down with justice, but we elevate and connect people in the neighborhood to the movements. And I think that’s the work we want to do as musicians.

AMY GOODMAN: Those are two of the co-founders of Las Cafeteras, Hector Flores and Denise Carlos. Their new album is Tastes Like L.A. You can watch their full extended interview and performances in the Democracy Now! studio at democracynow.org.

And that does it for our broadcast. A special fond farewell to our outgoing video fellow Andre Lewis. Andre, we wish you the very best, and thank you so much for your contributions and your work here at Democracy Now! You made us so much better.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to democracynow.org. Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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