On April 13, Annette Torres of Chicano alt-folk band Las Cafeteras walked out of a tense three-hour meeting with her bandmates, shaken and holding back vomit. Before she even got to her car, things got heavier. Her phone was vibrating from several notifications. She froze as she read each one, which essentially said the same thing:
All the passwords for the band’s shared email and social media accounts were being changed, presumably to keep her out. It was at that moment, she says now, that her worst fears were confirmed: She was being pushed out of the band that she helped found 10 years ago in East L.A.
The socially conscious band, whose fusion of modern dance rhythm and hip-hop with traditional son jarocho music from Veracruz, Mexico, gained a strong international following that allowed them to be on tour almost half the year. In September, the band recorded the theme song for a telenovela that is broadcast on Telemundo, Bajo el Mismo Cielo.
“My grandma watches it in Mexico,” says Las Cafeteras band member Denise Carlos. “It’s crazy.”
Locally, the band has become something of a team of hometown heroes for East L.A. Chicanos, many of whom either directly or indirectly know someone in the band.
Their message of justice also means that they are sent all over the country to do workshops about the issues they sing about: racism, gender inequality and cultural oppression, to name a few. In fact, according to Torres, they make more money doing workshops than they do performing their music.
Despite all their success, keeping a band together for 10 years is no easy feat. For Las Cafeteras, the layered and complicated relationships between the seven band members have made certain conversations even more tense and difficult to navigate over the years.
Torres, who plays the marímbol, an instrument that is not usually played by women, is the aunt of brothers Hector and David Flores. Leah Gallegos is David’s girlfriend. Denise Carlos is Hector’s longtime ex-girlfriend. Jose Cano and Daniel French are former roommates.
“”The men were controlling and abusing the women in the band.” -Annette Torres
“Annette is our tía,” David Flores says. “We blur the lines of professional workspace and family workplace and friendship workplace. This organization is such a diverse, interesting cocktail of all of our relationships.”
All of their cumulative struggles came to a head eight months after that meeting in April when, after little to no communication with the band, Torres decided to self-publish her side of the story on her blog. She made the decision after receiving a letter from her bandmates' lawyer offering her a $1,000 buyout for her contributions to Las Cafeteras in exchange for her agreement not to speak publicly about her conflicts with the band.
“I don’t care if it was $20,000,” Torres says. “You cannot buy my story.”
Her story recalls years of mistreatment and misogynist behavior by men in the band, zeroing in mostly on her nephew Hector and on Daniel French.
“The men were controlling and abusing the women in the band,” Torres wrote. “We were constantly being bullied and criticized. … It wasn’t a safe space to express and voice out what we felt.”
Once on social media, Torres' post went viral, with more than 30,000 views on her blog, and readers from Mexico to Thailand.
Supporters quickly came to bat for Torres, sharing her post and denouncing support for the band. Some fans even sold their tickets to the band’s sold-out concert at the El Rey Theatre on Dec. 12.
The band released a response on social media two days after Torres shared her statement. In their response, the women in the group announced that they “do not agree with statements being made on our behalf by Annette.” The men, while not directly addressing Torres' accusations, admitted that they had “taken up too much space” and said they “are grateful to be in a space where we are challenged constantly about our male privilege.” The band also denied that Torres had been forced out, saying, “She left on her own accord and has not responded to our numerous attempts to resolve this matter.”
“Her statement really put a dagger into our ethos and our values as a social justice organization, which is really essential to a lot of the work we do,” David Flores says. “She put that into question and it’s got vast implications. Folks have been really reaching out to us all over the country asking for some clarification about the situation.”
In addition, other women started coming out with their own stories about individuals from the band. With permission from the women, Torres posted two testimonials, both directed at Hector, on her blog.
One of those was from Dollie Adaya, who says reading Torres' story brought up her unresolved feelings from when she worked with Hector at the student-led La Raza organization at CSULB, while he served as president. She says that the control and silencing that Torres experienced mirror what she experienced during that time.
“This is like 10 years ago and I’m like, finally somebody said something,” Adaya says. “I [feel like] I wasn’t crazy. Annette’s post made me feel like I wasn’t alone.”
[pullquote-2]The other women in Las Cafeteras, Denise Carlos and Leah Gallegos, have defended their male counterparts but say they are exhausted and angered by the pressure from people demanding answers.
“It’s a heavy thing to hold because now people are expecting Leah and I to defend the honor of this group,” Carlos says. “Is it feminist or not? Is it abusive or not? Those things don’t always have a relationship with each other. It's hard and complicated.”
Daniel French says he understands why the controversy has been so hard on Las Cafeteras' fan base. “It’s kind of like people see it as an inside job. Like, 'I trusted y’all — you represented an attempt to be better and the way I’m reading the story is you actually intentionally created that image to sell yourselves. We trusted you and you hurt us worse than someone we already looked at as the enemy or opponent.' That feels like betrayal more than the ongoing betrayal by the police or government. It wasn’t expected. It knocked the air out of people.”
The band members say they’re willing to do whatever it takes to address the issue publicly and move forward, but they plan to take it slow. They have announced their intention to hold a community forum in Boyle Heights on the subject but have not yet confirmed when it will take place, saying that their community advisers have told them to move gradually until the current “witch hunt” climate simmers down.
“We're on overtime trying to figure out a way to find resolution and peace,” Gallegos says. “There’s all these layers to this situation, so I think it’s on pause until we can feel comfortable with [a community forum] being a good next step. We hope that people are willing to walk through this challenging moment with us, through this pain and confusion, but we also respect if you choose not to.”
One thing fans shouldn't expect at any community forum is an appearance by Annette Torres. The band does not plan to invite her, and she says she has no desire to attend the forum when it happens.
“A healing reconciliation with Annette is not a public spectacle for people,” Hector said. “That’s what people want in a way, and that’s not what they’re going to get. It’s going to take years of mediation, therapy and work on both sides, and that’s not for people to see.”
In the meantime, Torres is taking music and singing lessons at Pasadena Community College. During one of her classes, her teacher and classmates were moved to tears after she sang her first song while simultaneously signing in American Sign Language, one of her roles when she performed with Las Cafeteras.
“I’m challenging myself to become better and to face the fear of singing in front of an audience,” she says. “I feel very happy now and very empowered.”
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