If you pause for a moment to take a look around your city, you’ll find hidden gems waiting to be discovered. One of the gems I’m grateful to have unearthed is Chulita Vinyl Club, an all-girl all-vinyl collective that invites female DJs to the forefront, to spin their favorite records. CVC has chapters spanning across Texas and California, and it is comprised mainly of Latina women who seek to create an intentional space that both empowers women and maintains the vitality of their cultural roots. In today’s cultural landscape, where appropriation exists left and right, these Latina women fight against the erasure of their culture, using music and vinyl to tell stories of their past and present.
The collective first took form a few years ago in Austin, Texas, when founder Claudia Saenz, 27, saw a lack of female DJs—let alone women of color—in the entrenched frameworks of music clubs and venues. According to Claudia, the community of Chulita Vinyl Club helps elevate women and propel women’s rights forward. For example, CVC offers classes for ladies new to DJing, who want to improve their skills in a judgment-free zone. The club provides a safe space where questions are welcomed and savvy tricks are exchanged among supportive peers. This pay-it-forward system has amassed a total of 49 members across several state borders, in just three years. Despite its far-flung membership, CVC uses the power of its social platforms to make connections by promoting various local events and sharing weekly mixes for those who want to hear its members’ beats outside the confines of a venue. The bonds between the women of CVC run strong and deep, typified by their “homegirls supporting homegirls’” ethos.
During a time of widespread gentrification, especially in the Bay Area, there’s a need for valued spaces where first- and second-generation Latinos can keep their music traditions alive. For the members of CVC, their existence is an emphatic reminder to new and future transplants in an ever-changing city landscape that Latino families and cultures will not be forgotten.
This past August, I attended a highly-touted CVC event, “Cumbia Jams”, in the heart of San Francisco’s Mission district. I never imagined I’d walk into a bedazzled venue rife with hipsters dancing, uninhibited, to the sounds of cumbia and songs so unique to Latin culture. PB&R and whiskey shots did their work, but the palpable energy suffusing the night was more than an alcohol-induced buzz. As I watched a few Chulitas dance onstage, untroubled by the world around them, I felt lucky to be part of their narrative, as told by each passing record. In a time of political upheaval and dissonance, collectives like Chulita Vinyl Club give me hope for a better and all-inclusive future, where strangers can bond simply over their love of music and appetite for culture.
Words by CVC Bay Area members Claudia Saenz (founder), Paulina Alcaraz, Melanie Garza, Evelyn Gomez, Samantha Sandoval, and Lisbeth Ortega. All photos courtesy of Chulita Vinyl Club.
How and where did Chulita Vinyl Club first start?
Claudia: I was born and raised in South Texas and created Chulita Vinyl Club while living in Austin, TX in 2013, out of love for music, the lack of women invited to participate in the conversation of music, and for the purpose of empowerment and collectiveness for vinyl loving girls. Womxn empowerment is important, and even on a small-scale, like being part of a vinyl club, can help us women move forward. CVC encourages women to be independent, to embrace the difficulties women face, and to rely on each other for support.
How many members does Chulita Vinyl Club have in total these days?
Claudia: 49 Chulitas across chapters between Texas and California: San Antonio, Austin, Rio Grande Valley, Bay Area, Santa Ana, Los Angeles, and San Diego.
How did you guys join forces from different states?
Claudia: After a year of Chulita Vinyl Club headquartered in Texas, I decided to create chapters with Chulitas that showed support and interest in the Bay Area, and later Santa Ana and LA. It was not hard to find Chulitas that were interested since there already was a community of womyn vinyl collectors that were ready to help organize and spin.
What prompted you to start collecting and playing vinyl at your events rather than using modern DJ software?
Evelyn: I started collecting records a few years ago when my grandparent’s old records were passed down to me. I then realized that most of the music I had on vinyl was music you can’t even find online now. Not only is it a treasure but the history behind [vinyl] is so special. My grandparents were very poor in the 20th century, but would save up to buy records.
Samantha: I began collecting vinyl out of my love and interest for music. I love the crackling sound of the needle on the wax. With all the work that goes into building my collection, it’s a really special experience to share my personal collection with a room full of (mostly) strangers. It kind of creates an unspoken bond between me and whoever I’m playing my records for.
Lisbeth: I’ve always liked collecting records, but my relationship with them has evolved over time. I partly started because it was an affordable way for me to discover music. This was during a time when I didn’t have a reliable income. I began by hunting for gems in bargain bins and flea markets. It was also a way for me to bond with my partner during that time and friends. We would wake up excited to go hopping from garage sale to garage sale. It was some time after that that I started developing a relationship with records as objects. These were items that once belonged to someone else, and even if I was picking it up for 50 cents, the record was something that someone had treasured at one point in time.
How would you define your sound?
Paulina: My sound is a reflection of my parents, my identity and experiences as a Xicana growing up in Richmond, California. My parents have always been music fans and are the biggest influence in my taste in music.
Melanie: My sound reflects my emotions, environment, or any experience I may be feeling nostalgic about. Sometimes these things work together. That’s the most fun and makes me feel most present.
Evelyn: Most of my records are in Spanish: Rancheras, Cumbias, Corridos, Spanish Rock, Tejano music, etc.
Samantha: Spicy soul with a dash of Sade.
Lisbeth: Psychedelic, Rock, Surf, Cumbia. Subversive preservation of identity, and of a time, place, and a story.
What kind of music did your parents listen to?
Paulina: I grew up listening to all kinds of music thanks to them. My mom was always really into 50’s and 60’s Rock ’n’ Roll like Los Apson and Johnny Laboriel. My dad introduced me to the likes of Simon and Garfunkel and Patsy Cline. They also played music in Spanish like Los Angeles Negros, Los Muecas, Los Terricolas. My house was always filled with all types of music genres, both in Spanish and English. I also grew up in Richmond where Rap, Hip Hop and R&B were always a part of my environment. My collection is a reflection of all of that.
Melanie: My favorite musical memories of my mother include Lisa Lisa, Cult Jam, Prince, and Keith Sweat playing in her white Mazda. Also listening to Art Laboe out of LA in my grandma’s front yard where a car was usually being hand-washed and Tall Boys being consumed. Both my grandma and my mama will forever have a sweet spot for those sweet oldies. Some favorites include Brenton Wood, Mary Wells, and Sly Slick and Wicked — straight classics. I’m so grateful for that.
Evelyn: My parents are the typical traditional Mexicans. They grew up in Mexico, but came to the U.S. when they wanted to start a family. They listen to Vicente Fernandez, Luis Perez Mejia, Los Tigres del Norte, Antonio Aguilar, and Flor Silvestre. It was important for them to bring that piece of their native land to their new home.
I’m sure it varies by state, but for the most part, what has your audience’s reception been like at your events?
Melanie: For me the reception has been great and feels supportive. I think CVC Bay Area is being thoughtful about the events they choose to participate in. They are accepting invites from folks who are rooted in uplifting community and cultura. As well as joining old friends and new whose visions represent safer spaces, inclusion, and a good time. Personally, these are not feelings that I often get from going out to clubs/bars or even larger community events. It’s been great to feel this in the spaces that CVC has helped cultivate.
Samantha: We’ve received nothing but positive responses from both womyn and men alike. Especially WOC. I can’t say we have one particular type of crowd. It just varies depending on where and what type of event we’re at.
Lisbeth: Absolute love. Honestly, hearing the music you grew up with or whatever you identify with home is so powerful. Those memories, that feeling, what it was like dancing and laughing with your family and friends, is what keeps community and identity alive. People don’t hesitate to tell you how the music you play makes them feel.
Why is it important for you guys to share music from your culture?
Paulina: I think it’s really important to pass along music that maybe folks who are second or third generation didn’t grow up listening to. It’s a way to keep our culture alive and to resist assimilation. Going into a gentrified space and playing our music is revolutionary, especially when it’s in places like the Mission that use to be full of brown folks. We’re reclaiming space for PoC in places we thought we didn’t exist anymore. We’re still here!!!
Melanie: I think it’s important to share because of the possible connections you can make with other folks. In the short time that I’ve been part of CVC, I’ve made special connections since we all vibe to at least some of the same music. We’re open to learn from each other because we have that trust and those commonalities. I hope that sharing music with other gente can form new relationships, or at least make someone feel less alone.
Samantha: It’s important to create a safe space for our gente. A place to listen and dance to the music they love and grew up listening to without fearing that they will get ridiculed for whatever reason. To keep Cumbia alive! To keep that nostalgia you get whenever you hear your favorite oldie alive. It’s all about sharing with our community.
Gentrification has become a longstanding issue in San Francisco’s Mission district and neighborhoods alike throughout the US, and it only seems to be accelerating in pace and range. As Latina women, what’s it like to play for a gentrified crowd?
Melanie: I’ve attended Cumbia Jams, Slow Jams, and Oldies Nights [recurring CVC Bay Area events] for some time. It feels weird and frustrating to even dance alongside folks who don’t seem interested in learning more about why this music is significant to many of our communities. The music brings us together for reasons deeper than beers. I feel nostalgic for simpler days with my family, and connecting on the dance floor with gente that I can relate to through dancing and smiling and just healing.
Samantha: We recently played Noche Romantica. When we arrived a show was just ending and the crowd was way on the gentrified side. A lot of bros with long hair and beards to match, and a lot of people you wouldn’t typically expect to see on a Cumbia night. Myself and a few other Chulitas definitely noticed the type of crowd we were about to play for and jokingly said, “well maybe they’ll all leave once they hear our music”, but they loved it! Everyone danced their asses off, and there was a lot of good energy floating around in the air that night. It was completely unexpected. Everyone was surprisingly respectful. I guess it can be bitter sweet depending on the situation and crowd’s response.
Lisbeth: It’s conflicting. If anything, blasting music to a gentrified crowd might be my favorite way to be subversive. Music can also be a way to educate people about something they knew nothing about. I play a lot of Chicha, which is a unique sound that people ask me about all the time. It’s a way to get the story of the music and the people behind it told, and that’s powerful. Not only does playing the records help keep identity alive for those at the party who identify with them, but it also tells (sings!) the story to those who don’t know about [the music]. It breaks stereotypes and builds a bridge, even if it is a small one.
In the past few years, there has been a rise in women collectives like the B-Side Brujas out of Oakland, the Brujas skate crew in NYC, Brooklyn based booking agency Discowoman, and more. Why is building a community around sisterhood and empowering women especially important these days?
Claudia: Creating spaces for womxn of color is important. As I’ve learned stereotype threat exists. When a space is dominated by men we think, “if girls like me aren’t represented in this scene then it mustn’t be and I don’t belong here.” Chulita Vinyl Club hopes to continue creating a space for women that allows growth and encourages empowerment. As womxn in society we recognize that it is difficult being a woman and that society has a tendency to make it difficult for us to succeed. Being a mujer in the DJ scene can be tough. It’s almost our duty to deal with the defeatist nature that comes with it. CVC has brought the community of vinyl loving girls together and thats been the best part.
Paulina: Jahaira and I recently played a benefit for Mujeres Unidas y Activas, and we had women coming up to us and asking us how to join CVC or just telling us how cool it was to see women curating the music. It’s not only empowering to be a part of CVC but I think its empowering for other women to see it as well.
Melanie: To smash patriarchy! One of the most impactful ways to see that shit destroyed is by forming strong solidarity and trust with each other. Not just ‘women’ as labeled by the patriarchy, but folks who self-identify or reject the imposed gender binary. We’re all impacted by masculinity, but so many of us do not benefit from it. So pair that with some turntables and jams, and we’ve got a dope party while smashing it.
Samantha: It’s all about homegirls supporting homegirls! Womyn already have a difficult time as it is just existing, so it’s important for us to have each other’s backs and lift each other up. We need to take up as much space as possible, especially WOC. It’s crucial that we’re not only seen but heard.
As a collective, how do you promote your events? Does each member have a different role?
Claudia: I co-manage all of the CVC’s social media and booking, but all chapters mostly run on an autonomous structure. As far as the CVC Bay Area chapter, we collectively organize and book events. I do most of the promotion via social media sites. It’s a beautiful effort from all of us and we work together to make things happen.
How do you think social media has helped you guys promote and build a community?
Melanie: Social media is almost entirely accessible these days. I think this benefits us in the Bay chapter as there are so many of us coming from different dynamic backgrounds and doing dope stuff on the daily. With social media we are able to keep in touch regularly about events and just about anything. It also feels like it’s become a safe space for us to exist with each other when we can’t be there in person. Outside of the club, social media helps us form new relationships and maintain existing ones.
Any last thoughts you’d like to share with us?
Claudia: If a Chulita is interested in joining any of the existing chapters in California or Texas, they can contact Chulitavinylclub@gmail.com or message us on Facebook or Instagram @chulitavinylclub
Samantha: Que viva las mujeres! Y viva la raza!