Art and culture converge in El Monte

Memories of El Monte community space launched amid pandemic.

Danza Mexica performance at the Memories of El Monte’s community art space grand opening in El Monte, Cali. Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021. (Victoria Ivie/UT)

Victoria Ivie, Community News Reporter

Four dancers wear headpieces adorned with fierce animal heads. They ask ancestors for permission to perform honored traditions, commanding the attention of a hushed crowd.

As the performers throw themselves into the Danza Mexica, or Aztec dance, the beat of the accompanying drums make the ground thump to its rhythm.

Rich aromas of tamales, pozole, and flautas waft from nearby vendors, who claim the whole sidewalk. 

Those were some scenes from the grand opening of the community art space, Memories of El Monte, on a Sunday in late September. Community members gathered to connect and honor indigenous and Latinx culture.

“All of a sudden, this well of magnetic, powerful, melanated energy swept over me when I got here and it put me in an awesome mood,” said an event speaker, Iyapo Ngina, who is a reverend, acupuncturist, activist and spiritual advisor. “I’m grateful to be in this space with my indigenous brothers and sisters and I think it’s really important. We have to spend more time stepping out of our comfort zones with one another. I think in this period of time where we have the ability to radically change the circumstances of humanity, we have to leave our spaces, we have to show up for others in a more visceral and organic way. It’s not uncommon for me to be the only Black person when I show up in spaces. I used to feel some type of way about that but Spirit tells me it is an opportunity for me to build bridges and show up for others.”  

The event aimed to build community and raise awareness among residents of El Monte and nearby local communities, according to Carla Macal, an organizer of Memories of El Monte and member of Sin Fronteras 1312. All of the small businesses, vendors, artists and performers were from El Monte or San Gabriel Valley.

“As an artist, it is nice to have spaces where I feel safe talking about my art because I do political art and talk about social issues,” Dulce Lopez, a local artist said. “It’s always nice to have a space where I can sell stuff but also interact with like-minded people who align with my mission. Art is all about connecting with others.”

Lopez found out about the event from another local artist group, Sin Fronteras 1312, who has solidarity merchandise available for sale at Memories of El Monte.

Memories of El Monte, located on Garvey Street in El Monte, California, opened in July 2021. It  prioritizes centering queer, trans, Black and indigenous people of color in activities, events, workshops, classes and speakers, according to Macal. The community space provides resources and emphasizes the indigenous grounds and Tongva land the building stands on, the original caretakers of the land being the Houtngna. This space is uniquely collaborative with entities such as the El Monte Tenants Union and Sin Fronteras 1312 coming together to provide a community fridge, theory book clubs, a zine library and much more.

Memories of El Monte crowd-sourced to secure funding for rent, according to its GoFundMe page. While the group had a soft opening in July, COVID prevented a bigger opening until the recent event. 

“Since we do not operate as a regular business, [COVID] has not hit us as hard,” Macal said. “We are about building relationships and trust in the community. COVID-19 has slowed us down but helped us to meet people in the neighborhood. We do hybrid meetings and events for people who can not meet in-person.”

For many vendors, having a community that prioritizes them is essential.

“For small businesses, it’s hard to get the word out there,” Lopez said. “Especially for young POC-immigrants, it’s hard to have people who are willing to give you that space in an affordable and accessible way. This kind of space can have so many different artists working together, like I was able to sign up and also bring my mom and have her sell her art as well.”    

 Another vendor, Leslie Campos, came from La Verne to show support, sell her handmade jewelry and make connections.

“Community spaces are so important because when I was younger, I felt no sense of community because I didn’t know my own identity,” Campos said. “I was too Latino for the white kids but too white for the Latino kids. My Spanish is fucked up but after coming to spaces like these, it helped me realize I’m not the only one with that experience. It’s stuff like this that connects people to their roots. Especially here in El Monte, we go through similar things.”

At one point late in the event, about 150 people were crowded in the parking lot and on the street where vendors were set up.

“We are so excited for the future of the community space. Many people are excited and keep sharing how we need these spaces,” Macal, an organizer, said. “I think it was a great turn out and everyone had a smile on their face.”