By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
After the Sisters, Arvizu sang with a Top 40 group called the Village Callers, then got offered money to go with a band called the V. I. P.s, which eventually became El Chicano. The group had minor success nationally with the jazzy instrumental “Viva Tirado,” but they remain iconic in East L.A. for Arvizu’s soulful singing on their lovely signature tune, “Sabor a Mi.”
As Arvizu was one of the very few Latinas, possibly the only one, fronting a rock band in 1970, her time spent in El Chicano was a rewarding but often pretty rough encounter. There was the group’s legendary performance at Leavenworth Penitentiary, for example, which she sings about in Friend’s “En el Cambo.” The inmates weren’t exactly cool about Arvizu’s presence.
“At Tehachapi,” she says, “backstage, they would lock me up in a cage. Because they were like animals. At that time, usually they would allow a woman to go only once a year. At Leavenworth, we were doing a concert in their baseball field, and it was scary, because I had 10 guards around me, and all the inmates are out, and they’re going to the field, and the guards would tell me, ‘You’re going to hear profanity, because they haven’t seen a woman in years. So just keep walking.’ ”
When El Chicano fizzled out, Arvizu eventually moved to Arizona and had a band with which she would sing in different nightclubs once in a while. But then she decided to jump into the boxing ring. She figured singing and boxing weren’t mutually exclusive disciplines.
“I had, like, four fights in Lake Tahoe,” she says, “and the first time I fought, I stopped the girl in the second round, and then after, I went to go eat, and then I went to the lounge to see the combo. Well, I got up to sing with the combo, and after that, they booked me for three fights, and then I got to sing in the lounge! The promoter told me, ‘I will pay you this much money to box and sing.’ I told him, ‘What if I get a black eye? What if they stop me? It’s not gonna look good.’ ”
Arvizu ended up being featured in the boxing mag The Ring, and while her father was at the barbershop, a customer said to him, “I thought your daughter was a professional singer.” Dad said, “She is.” “Well, what’s she doing in this Ring magazine?”
Arvizu laughs. “My mother called me, crying, saying it was a disgrace to our family, why are you doing this? So I just stopped — I had the four fights, and that was it. And, you know, I was okay with it, because to me, honestly, it’s not a woman’s sport. And I never did train women, never. They asked me to, but I refused to, because I don’t believe a woman should be in that ring. The reason I did it is, I needed to take it out of my system.”
Stories like these were what Cooder encouraged Arvizu to draw upon when he asked her to write material for the Chavez Ravine project, and for her new solo album. He’d asked her to probe deeply, to go all the way back. Among the most moving tracks on Friend is a touching love letter to her father titled “Mi India,” Papa’s affectionate nickname for his little girl.
Music and her father’s training regimens for boxers in that backyard room (and later at Resurrection gym, now owned by Oscar De La Hoya) were equally integral experiences for little Ersi. She gives shout-outs to her homeboy fighters on Friend’s opening track, “Windows of Dreams,” in which she sings about making holes in the walls of the workout room so she could watch the boxers train. Because she was only 8, her father wouldn’t let her into the gym — the men walked around in various states of undress. “I remember him asking me, ‘Well, you made those holes, what is it that you were trying to see on the other side?’ And what I wanted to see was to see them spar.”
For the Chavez Ravine album, Cooder had dared Arvizu to write about her life, to get those pictures of what she wanted to see on the other side. “I was looking for a ‘musical neighborhood’ kind of thing,” he says. “Then Ersi revealed the fact that her mother had written songs — not many, but some — and some had survived, and here was this one that told a very interesting story about how the soldiers went to World War II and fought, had all the shit jobs in the Army, then came home, and then afterwards they were eminent-domained out of there and so forth.”