Sitting in a Highland Park restaurant behind a plate of french fries and a mint tea, Quetzal Flores talks about gentrification. The subject plays into his new album with his Mexican-Afro-Cuban rock band Quetzal, called Imaginaries, which is out next month on Smithsonian Folkways, the Smithsonian Institution's nonprofit record label.
“Gentrification in Highland Park is a perfect example of corporate greed,” he says. After living briefly to Seattle with his wife — Martha Gonzalez, who's also the band's lead singer — they recently returned, and he noticed changes in East Los Angeles. “Rather than revitalize what's here and make it better for the people living here, rents are raised, property values go up and it forces the people who have been here to move. Imaginaries responds to that feeling.”
Raised by a pair of social activists, Flores has been political for as long as he can remember. He formed Quetzal when he was 19, in response to the Rodney King beating. “I remember when Ronald Regan was shot I came home from school and said, man, I hope he dies. And my mother just looked at me and said, 'Don't ever say that again, don't ever wish for that.' She made me realize that being critical and being violent were separate. Music is a place for Quetzal to express these issues.”
Nowadays he cites Homeboy Industries, a gang prevention program, as a program that's close to his heart. Quetzal has a strong following of political minded Chicanos as well as people who know nothing of the band's politics — they just love good Latin-Afro dance music. Their shows often transform into sweaty celebrations, full of hand clapping and foot stomping.
In its 19 years, the group has played all over the world; Imaginaries is their fifth work, and they plan to tour it this summer. Their travels have inspired a project called “Fandango Sin Fronteras.” Loosely translated as “dance without borders,” it's a musical collaboration between San Jarocho musicians locally and from Veracruz, where San Jarocho comes from. (For more on the style, see Erica E. Phillips' feature story on
Las Cafeteras, a band of whom Flores has been critical.) The project helps folks learn the style.
Flores constantly uses the word “community,” and indeed the exchange of ideas seems to be the driving force of the band. Curing East L.A.'s social ills is his goal. “We do write love songs but we write love songs for our community, for our dignity, for our self motivation.”
“I hope with this album we incite conversation but also criticism. We need it,” says Flores, his face brightening as he takes a sip of tea. “Everyone loves [praise], the good stuff is great, but it doesn't help you. You need someone to be honest and say, hey, I'm not feeling what you said there, but to say it in an honest, nonviolent way. That's what keeps us always growing.”
Quetzal will perform at Café Fais Do Do tomorrow, January 6, previewing material from Imaginaries., out February 28