In a perfect world, there would be a Tia Chucha’s Cafe Cultural on every other street corner in L.A. You’d walk in, get a coffee and a couple tamales, browse through the deep selection of novels, histories and children’s books, and maybe catch a young person working on an art project, learning son jarocho or reading their poetry. You’d get the feeling that most people who walk into Tia Chucha’s say they get when they’re there: that it’s genuinely welcoming, a place where people come to express themselves, share and be nourished. You wouldn’t want to leave.
For now, there’s only one Tia Chucha’s. It’s in Sylmar — but not for very long. The café is facing an eviction in February after five years of operating at an undistinguished strip mall on Glenoaks Boulevard. The owners want to bring in a laundry. Author Luis J. Rodriguez, who opened the café in 2001 with his wife, Trini, said Tia Chucha’s will most likely relocate to a temporary space before possibly finding a permanent home in Pacoima. In the meantime, supporters are planning a silent auction and other fund-raisers to ensure that the presence of Tia Chucha’s in the San Fernando Valley remains uninterrupted.
A man who’s come face to face with struggle and negativity throughout his life, Rodriguez is characteristically cool and levelheaded about his current battle. “We don’t want to target the landlords, because, believe it or not, they were trying to be helpful. But the problem is they’re businesspeople,” Rodriguez said at the café last Sunday. “Cultural centers are not about money. The power of it has to do with the way people get intellectually, spiritually, culturally alive. You can’t measure that with money.”
Rodriguez is a living icon. After falling into gangs at a young age, he made a turnaround, devoted his life to creating positive change in the lives of young people, and started writing books about it. His memoir, Always Running: La Vida Loca: Gang Days in L.A., is a seminal book in Chicano and California literature. It’s had an immeasurable effect on the lives of countless young men who struggle to keep a healthy relationship with the streets of their neighborhoods. At least it did with me. When I was just entering my teen years, while some of my relatives and friends got into tagging and gangs, I came across Always Running and found in it a source of strength and inspiration. To respect myself, to pay witness, to write.
Tia Chucha’s springs from the same fountain: Call it love. During a strategy meeting with supporters at the café on Sunday, Rodriguez said that saving the café is a calling that honors the indigenous roots he said live inside each of us: “We have a paradigm in our society where if you want anything done, you have to go to war. War against poverty, poverty got worse. War against drugs, drugs got worse .?.?. Everyone has the indigenous mind — it’s to cooperate, to care. This is something we have to bring again.”
The room was filled with people from all walks of life, milling about, signing petitions, eating tamales, holding small children. Rodriguez’s message resonated with Carmen Ruiz, a 23-year-old nurse from Glendale and a Tia Chucha’s regular. Ruiz said she made her reading debut as a poet at Tia Chucha’s. She also sang before an audience for the first time there, sharing her rendition of Rocío Dúrcal’s “Amor Eterno.” A big deal because “that’s a very hard song,” but also because only at Tia Chucha’s did Ruiz feel comfortable enough to give it a shot.
“My family brought me up as a regular Mexican girl,” explained Ruiz, who was born in Zacatecas and came to L.A. at age 1. “So it was very difficult for me to speak out sometimes at home. And this is a place where I was able to speak my mind, and it’s helped me with my family and other relationships, overall.”
Despite the looming eviction, optimism reigned at Tia Chucha’s. “Like Luis said, it’s not about the walls of the place, it’s more about the vibe and the people that make it,” said Ruiz. “It doesn’t matter where we end up, if we just keep the roots of this place together, and we help each other to keep making it bigger.”