In the opening scene of the new documentary Ovarian Psycos, shadows sprawl across Sixth Street’s sun-bleached pavement. The sounds of spokes — creeks and ticks — flitter past as masked women on bikes ride in formation, fanning out like a tactical military unit, their fists raised. A call to arms fades in, a chant made famous by the Black Panthers in the 1960s: “Revolution has come … time to pick up the gun.”
But this isn’t the ’60s. It’s 2016, and on the streets of Boyle Heights Xela de la X has an equally defiant message: “We are the women, the women you’ve been warned about.”
Six years ago, de la X founded the radically feminist bike posse Ovarian Psycos Bicycle Brigade. The all-women-of-color collective hails from the Eastside and is proudly composed of “the sisters … the knuckleheads” and “the runaways, the throwaways” — disenfranchised women banding together for self-representation and grassroots organizing efforts.
“What we intend to be is an incubator,” de la X says. “This is the space where you can see the full extent of your capacity, [learn] the basic understandings of how we’ve been affected by colonization and white supremacy and [gain] the vocabulary to fight against gendered imbalance of power.”
De la X’s cadence and lyricism seep into conversation, which is fitting since she moonlights as poet MC Cihuatl Ce, spitting rap with an indigenous, feminist bent. Her way with words is reflected in the Ovarian Psycos’ irreverent rhetoric, which includes slogans such as, “Ovaries so big, we don’t need no fucking balls” and “Haters gonna hate, ovaries gonna ovulate.” She scratches the word “womxn” into the table as she explains the crew’s preference for the unconventional spelling to be inclusive of trans people.
During their monthly woman-only bike rides, the Ovas set out to reclaim the space around them. Steered by a commitment to “feminist ideals with indigena understanding and an urban/’hood mentality,” the group facilitates meditations on issues that face their community — and right now, gentrification looms large.
The humble backyard of the Ovas’ Boyle Heights clubhouse, La Conxa, feels a world away from the glass and steel of downtown Los Angeles. But just across the First Street bridge, the Metro Gold Line Regional Connector construction is a constant reminder that change is coming. Joan Zamora, La Conxa’s coordinator, says prospective buyers have been sniffing around. They even received a letter asking how the collective might fit into this “new idea of Boyle Heights.”
“For me it’s a continuation of the same bullshit we’ve been facing since the beginning of the invasion [of the Americas],” de la X says. Sporting a military camouflage jacket and a side-shave, she has the aura of a guerrilla leader, emphasizing each point with a strike to the table. “[They’re saying], ‘Y’all don’t fit. Get the fuck out.’ How isn’t that modern-day colonization?”
Boyle Heights has long been home to a host of political struggles. Once a multi-ethnic enclave considered a sort of Ellis Island of the West Coast, the area was populated by leftist Jews touting Socialist ideals prior to World War II. Other minorities were funneled into the neighborhood because racist housing covenants and redlining (banks selectively denying loans) prevented them from owning homes in other parts of the city. As these restrictions eased, the Jewish population migrated westward.
Mexican immigrants took their place, galvanizing the Chicano civil rights movement for which the Eastside was a boiling epicenter. The muralismo that accompanied the movement left a lasting mark on the neighborhood, spilling colorful scenes of upheaval, pastoral life and indigenous lore onto the walls of low-income housing, alleyways and parks. Today, the neighborhood’s population remains working-class and is 94 percent Latino, almost half of whom are foreign-born.
During the last several years, projects such as the Eastside Accessibility Project and the extension of the Metro Gold Line have led to safer conditions on the streets, but they’ve also been cause for concern. Considering her community has historically been excluded from the urban-planning process, Ovarian Psyco Andi Xoch is skeptical. “Safer for who?” she wonders. “For us? It’s becoming a fight just to even survive in our own communities.”
Xoch was recently displaced from her home. Since then, she’s channeled her anger into art and has designed materials for Defend Boyle Heights, a broad, militant coalition of community members that organizes marches, canvassing projects, forums and study groups. Xoch is prominently featured in the Ovarian Psycos documentary, which makes its L.A. premiere on July 9 (and screens again on July 16) at Outfest Los Angeles LGBT Film Festival.
On another front, the Ovas are gearing up for August’s Clitoral Mass, the fifth installment of their most visible event of the year. De la X explains the ride’s purpose: “We want to scare off gentrifiers and developers first and foremost, then we want to really intimidate the fucking politicians. On top of that, we want to expose culture vultures feeding off the community when they’re trying to give the front like they’re servicing our communities.”
The name Clitoral Mass is a tongue-in-cheek homage to Critical Mass, but the ride itself is no joke — it’s the largest all-woman and trans bike ride in Los Angeles, attracting hundreds of riders. This year’s route will be approximately 35 miles with curated pit stops, plus community lectures and workshops, which in past years have moved participants to tears or outrage.
“We try to shine light on the issues that are happening in L.A. right now and the intersectionality of all that,” Zamora explains. “It’s about exercising your body and mind.”
“It’s a hugely significant ride,” says Don Ward, co-founder of Midnight Ridazz, the original organizers of irreverent group bike rides in L.A. Over the years, he’s become a transportation advocate, petitioning City Hall for more bikeable and walkable streets. “The fact that we still only see mostly guys riding bikes, that’s a problem. That means our city hasn’t created a safe environment for people ages 18 to 80 of all backgrounds and genders. That’s a symptom of a disease. Our streets are dangerous.”
According to a 2014 Los Angeles County Bike Coalition study, fewer than one in five bicyclists in L.A. are female, although there was evidence that female ridership increased on streets that were safer and had amenities such as bike lanes.
While L.A.’s cycling community encompasses Spandex-clad road warriors, eco-commuters and punky partiers, biking remains a low-cost transit option widely used by undocumented immigrants, the working poor and the homeless. In areas like Boyle Heights, cycling isn’t a luxury — it’s a necessity.
“We’re reaching this place where we have to talk about biking and walking. L.A.’s not shrinking,” says LACBC director Tamika Butler. Some architects, city planners and local leaders are optimistic about reshaping a city that’s more bike-friendly and features better-integrated, accessible public transit.
“[Planners] have to be open to the idea that for many people, when there’s talk of safe streets, it’s meant not for them — it’s for other people that will come there,” Butler says. It’s clear to her that the “old model of bike advocacy,” a traditionally white, male sphere, is outmoded in L.A. She’s pushing a diversified approach to bicycle and transportation organizing, one that taps into “community insight and expertise” already present through groups like Ovarian Psycos.
But the Ovas remain skeptical of the establishment. De la X, puffing one of several cigarettes, says, “What we are realizing to a greater degree is that we absolutely have nothing to lose. … The system is not broken. It was never meant for us.”
CORRECTION: This article has been amended to accurately reflect Andi Xoch's involvement with Defending Boyle Heights.