The Heart of El Sereno
Sandwiched between the Here and Now and Mundo’s Furniture Upholstery, lies Eastside Café, an autonomous organization founded 15 years ago in the city of El Sereno. Eastside Café’s heart beats not solely for monetary profit but to internally serve those who seek to dedicate themselves to providing services for the community and those who are affected by the gifts that are extended to them. These services however, are often forgotten by those who have little knowledge of the role that community centers play in our society. Thus, the space becomes a simple normality in our everyday lives.
In witnessing the spirit of Eastside Café through a benefit show held on May 12th, it is apparent that the space maintains a strong and endearing support system. Collectives anywhere from Jiu Jitsu, English, art, and writing classes are offered altruistically to those who do not have the monetary means to afford them. Inspired by the Zapatista uprising, the co-founders understand the necessity in unifying the community against the marginalizing forces that hinder their wellbeing, more specifically gentrifiers who actively uproot long standing families and small businesses.
Since Eastside Café’s principles were founded upon the Zapatista uprising, co-founder Roberto Flores visualizes how communities are able to take control of their own destiny. “If every community did that then we could link up with communities that are doing the same and help each other out…that is a form, a process, a method, and a direction for liberation. If every community does this it is a way of liberating….and we’re suggesting a residential approach, all races in the community.”
Eastside Café like most community-based organizations of Los Angeles faced serious threats of eradication due to an unfair business deal conducted between a gentrifier and the property owner. Only given ten days to raise the funds to purchase the property from the gentrifier, Eastside Café banded together to reclaim the property for all that they know it is worth. Through contributions via GoFundMe–also known as “people power money”– lenders and investors such as Aloe Blacc and his partner Maya Jupiter, along with partnerships with autonomous organizations, the collective was able to enter escrow.
The status of being a poorer community had little to do with their ability in achieving this great feat. Their wealth appeared in their persistence and the love they pour out into establishing community links and indispensable relationships with people. The collective aims to be autonomous because as co-founder Angela Flores says, “[It’s] the only thing we have…not to be dependent on outside sources. We work within members, and immediate community. We share resources.”
Our livelihood and the resources we share are greatly based on the relationships we make, the deep connections we maintain, and the way in which we can extend our talents and abilities to those who will thrive by taking part in them. Rather than holding their skills hostage, Eastside Café’s collective leaders offer their time and efforts for the good of the public because by uplifting one person that person may uplift another. In a sort of domino affect individuals are coming together, united in support for one another through true forms of altruism and a love for others whether known on a personal level or those they have yet to meet. These actions largely comprise the pillars for community building in which individuals’ skills and talents are exchanged and friendships are made.
In a society where it appears that individuals are in a race to the finish line, where people step on heads to get ahead, utilizing others for their one-sided opportunistic gain, it is clear that an autonomous community center’s agenda is motivated by watching their brothers and sisters improve themselves. Here, one is exposed to humanity’s beauty where individuals lift each other when in need, or are interested in learning from one another.
Thereby, Eastside Café’s collectives represent free access to this sort of self-improvement, where knowledge is not limited to one’s socioeconomic status and the opportunities it allows, but rather open to people from all walks of life, status, and background. “It’s important to have dialogue,” says Angela Flores. “It’s hard to come across things that are free and it’s contagious when you are giving.”
Yet, many factors–the more prominent being gentrification–threaten the greater sense of community building and instead turn neighborhoods such as El Sereno into instruments of commercialization. In the case of Eastside Café, the gentrifier was in the works of converting the property into a strip mall sustained by profit rather than donations.
By taking a stand to gentrifiers and now future owners of their own property, Eastside Café reveals that they have a voice and a say in El Sereno’s destiny as a community and are not subject to the authority of the elite and the powerful. Power comes not from verbal dictation but from an inner confidence in voicing what we demand and expect for our future lives and our future communities.
Indeed the collectives that Eastside Café offer are life inspiring programs that encourage individuals to feel in charge of themselves and what they offer to all those they come in contact with. By denying Eastside Café their existence, it inhibits their voice from being ignited and thus, gentrification does more than just reconstruct the city landscape and the demographic of its city dwellers.
Gentrification’s ramifications silence the community’s voice and demeans the less powerful of their ability to protect themselves and claim a space of their own. “You don’t try to create something different,” says collective organizer for Corazón Del Pueblo, Xochitl Palomera. “You create something that is usable, something that is multifunctional. You don’t just come in as an outside developer, tear this down, and say ‘Hmmm what am I going to build?’ Instead you listen to the people. And look what the people have built already…this is an entire community that you are tearing down.”
Thereby, Eastside Café’s victory in finally raising the sufficient funds is telling of the community’s strength. In claiming a space for themselves Eastside Café salvaged what could have been seen as the death of the community and a sterilization of El Sereno’s spirit.
At last the community can see past what once existed as a single meeting space. Now they can see where East Los Angeles reaches the Zapatistas they look to as inspiration in Chiapas, México. The “caracoles” (organizing centers) that breathed life into the Zapatistas social movement are now finding their way into the heart of El Sereno one step and one social justice victory at a time, by the help of organizations such as Eastside Café.
Organization and meeting spots are stretching to Eastside Café’s own backyard where Caltrans’ bungalows now stand abandoned and calling to the community. They’re waiting to be occupied by individuals who crave deep human interaction, participation, and organization.
Here Eastside Café stands ready and preparing blueprints to claim what will be an extension of the small space that once was under threat. Now they’re envisioning a kitchen, a conference room, a digital media room, and an art culture space that will touch the heart of El Sereno and beyond.
“We’re on the homestretch,” states Angela Flores. “We have a vision of a caracol where the community can get together and participate…a sort of urban caracol.”
Their great victory could not have been lead by solely one individual, proving that human relationships are indispensable. We rely on each other for help. We rely on each other for moral, intellectual, and social support. Essentially we rely on each other for greatness, which is what Eastside Café portrays in all of their efforts.
We are here united in struggle to save our history and the bonds we have created with each other. It’s a sort of “relationship with tomorrow,” states bungalows collective member José Prado. “Anyone that wants to be here can be here…the community in El Sereno is largely Latino…but not just. It’s about community building and thinking about new terms to understand ourselves and challenging the borders that have divided us. You’ll see folks that the world doesn’t see as Latino or Latina but here they are.”
We will go down with the ship, whether it be gentrification, displacement, or eradication if need be and we will rise in greatness together for what we believe in, giving back to all those that have walked with us in our journey. This is community. This is a love for one another. This is a true altruistic spirit that cannot be destroyed no matter how many buildings a gentrifier aims to buy. Most importantly, this strength, love, and compassion is the heart of these self-sustained communities we admire, just like that of El Sereno.
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