Few people are aware that there is more than one Coachella in existence.
The first is the one many are already familiar with: the three-day music and art festival celebrated over two weekends in April, which attracts thousands of people from across the world. The second is the one too many people are not familiar with: the festival's namesake, the city of Coachella, a former hotbed of Chicano political activism led by Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, which is now home to a sizable, low-income Latino population along with a number of jury-rigged, shantytown-style trailer parks packed with undocumented farm laborers.
The Date Farmers, an artist duo based in Coachella, hope to bring a little political awareness and recognition of the area’s Latino population to the festival with their art installation, “Sneaking Into the Show.” The painted wood sculpture towers 30 feet high and features a lowrider bicycle as well as male and female figures overlooking the festival from the eastern side of the field.
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The piece is a tribute that works on multiple levels. First, the installation is an homage to Date Farmers co-founder Armando Lerma’s cousin, who influenced his art. Lerma’s cousin was in and out of jails and a victim of gang violence. He was a talented artist, however, and his art style and the personal subject matter of his material had a profound impact on Lerma’s life and work.
“His art was about family members, his friends, his experiences, which was really exciting to me as a kid,” Lerma explains. His cousin’s art was in stark contrast to the expensive, decorative art available in Palm Springs at the time, and it provided something real.
“It sparked something in me, because usually when you see art you feel no connection to it,” Lerma adds.
Second, and most important, “Sneaking Into the Show” represents the low-income, Latino, working-class community of Coachella’s east valley, including the many creative youth whom the Date Farmers have taken under their wing and provided a safe space for at their studio.
“When I was a kid here in Coachella, you wouldn’t go out to a party,” Lerma explains. “It was just trouble. I never went to a party when I was in high school in Coachella.”
He met fellow artist Carlos Ramirez (who was unavailable for this interview) at a tamale festival in Coachella in 1997. The festival had a small art exhibit where they both showcased their art. The two formed the Date Farmers soon after with the intention of pushing the tamale festival promoters to work just as hard on the art side of their event as they did on the mariachi music side.
Thanks to the Date Farmers' efforts, the Coachella community now supports the arts and local music much more than it once did. “Now I’m throwing parties in my studio playing rock & roll, stuff like that,” Lerma says. “It’s changed. A lot of things have shifted to art and music instead of fighting.”
The festival is a matter of contention for Lerma. While he recognizes and praises the promoters for their work bringing outsider art into the desert, he’s also highly critical of their methods as well as their economically divisive practices.
Lerma considers it disrespectful that the festival is named after his hometown yet is hosted in the neighboring city of Indio. All of the festival’s revenue goes to Indio and the neighboring cities west of Indio, such as Indian Wells and Palm Springs. Meanwhile, most people from Coachella are not only shut out from the festival but practically alienated from all life west of their desert community. In response, the Date Farmers metaphorically snuck them in with their installation.
“It has to do with being left out, alienated, isolated, but then it’s also the haves and the have-nots,” Lerma explains. “We’re from here, but we’re seen as outsiders. There’s poverty, a lot of poor people who don’t have anything so … this [festival] is kind of disgusting!”
In response, Lerma connected with Medvin Sobio, director of L.A.’s Academy of Street Art, and launched the Coachella Walls mural project two years ago in order to bring more people out to the real Coachella, a name he is now fighting to protect from AEG/Goldenvoice.
“These people at Goldenvoice are going to the small liquor stores that are selling Coachella shirts and telling them to stop with cease-and-desist orders over [the name] Coachella,” he explains. “[The shirts] say ‘Coachella,’ which they don’t own, but they’re acting like they do!”
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