Chulita Vinyl Club Holds the Line Against Cultural Appropriation
All-women, all vinyl, the DJ collective spins for empowerment and togetherness
"The vinyl could be a record belonging to a family member that maybe passed away and we get to share with folks," explains Camila Torres-Castro, also known as DJ Cienfuegos. "It means playing music that hasn't made the digital jump and sharing private moments in a performance space. Inside that one song, there's a whole history of things, whether it's the musical stylings or the story the singer's telling."
Torres-Castro belongs to the founding Austin chapter of the Chulita Vinyl Club, self-described as an "all-girl, all-vinyl club for self-identifying womxn of color in the context of providing a space for empowerment and togetherness." The collective has spawned chapters in San Antonio, the Rio Grande Valley, and northern and southern California, spinning yé-yé pop, oi! and other various punk subgenres, indie-pop, numerous black and brown soul movements, New Wave, twee, Tejano/Chicano oldies, and even lowrider "souldies."
Support group and think tank as much a DJ crew, the hive-minded endeavor began in Austin three years ago next month. Born and raised in Edinburg, club founder Claudia Saenz grew up listening to Norteño and conjunto, and gravitated toward cumbias. She doesn't portend a technical prowess – "skill-sharing" is one of the unwritten tenets of the group – but when she arrived in Austin following college in San Antonio, Saenz started the group as a means to bond over music with other women.
"I often found that women, in the music conversation overall, we're shut out," she says. "We're underappreciated and underestimated, whether as a performer, working in the industry, or a DJ. I knew girls out there that collected records and mentioned they wanted to DJ. I, myself, always wanted to DJ and collected records, but never saw that platform out there.
"The majority of DJs up there didn't look like me. They weren't brown. They weren't girls."
Aside from being an all-woman, all-POC group, the Chulita Vinyl Club only spins vinyl, which not only lends to the enterprise's authenticity but feeds individual histories. Society tends to bunch up all of Latin America into a single brown amalgamation where there are numerous and critically significant differences. Almost all of the women of CVC originate from different cities if not countries.
To wit, Torres-Castro is from Guadalajara. Austin chapter leader Xochi Solis (DJ Mira Mira) descends from an Austin lineage going back centuries. Natalia Rocafuerte (DJ Dada) arrived from Puebla, Mexico. Ana Calle (La PhDj) is native to Bogotá, Colombia. Jessenia Giron drove up from San Antonio. An "ear to the ground" aesthetic unites them.
"I'll walk by a mechanic shop in my neighborhood and someone's blasting some Tejano, or you go to the store and you hear what people are blasting from their phones," explains Giron.
The group chuckles in unison at a question about whether they still crate dig at record stores, a practice eclipsed by online record marts such as Discogs.com.
"We learn to become better collectors, which isn't the same as buying a record on Amazon," offers Calle. "Going to a store and finding this tune that Sara [Zavaleta, DJ LaSalvi] was playing from Peru in the Sixties, you're like, 'Oh my God, I found this!' Then you're super eager to play it."
Then there's the audience. CVC gets around: club sets, women-centric events, labor union conferences. They never know what will pop with who, and where – what crowds are going to dance and which are "seat-destined," as notes Zavaleta, a former KVRX deejay. Some crowds can't help but expose the collective's fortitude.
Hispanics as a group make up roughly 32% of Austin's metro population and 35% of Austin proper. Even so, local businesses sometimes operate with an unspoken policy of "heritage without the people." Cultural aspects originating from people of color are commodified and made noninclusive.
This scenario appears to be the case from the viewpoint of the local collective in respect to a now well-reported local fiasco. In July, CVC was hired to spin for two hours at Upstairs at Caroline for the soft launch of the hotel lounge featuring Afro-Colombian funk band Superfónicos. Following the Austin octet, at around the 45-minute mark of their set, the women were reportedly told by a member of the management staff to immediately turn off the music, because "this hotel does not play Latin music."
After the incident became public, the collective was met with informative messaging from other venues.
"We got a lot of folks wanting us to play their space, who, in my opinion and our founder's opinion, may or may not be gentrifiers, but they wanted us to play so they'd have the Chulita stamp of approval," reveals Solis. "They're all, 'Oh, can you come play us? We promise we won't turn you off.'"
"So it's like, 'We're about building community, but we don't know you, and I think you see us as a token.'"
Beyond a collective that spins its heritage as enjoyment, CVC doesn't shy away from its curating as a politically tinged protection mechanism. Their existence alone holds a line against the decline of credible spaces for people who look like themselves. They keep the struggles and emphatic triumphs of discriminated peoples – as women, as persons of color, as women of color – alive and in plain view.
"There's obviously an effort of resistance [to what we do]," admits Giron. "It doesn't mean we're crying, or shouting. We're having fun, but that's also a way of resisting and of occupying a space that's been long neglected to, not only us, but many people."
The Chulita Vinyl Club fights against the shamefully exploitative usage of "black and brown bodies in the entertainment industry," explains Solis.
"It's like, 'Here's your line. You're on one side, we're on the other,'" she says. "That's something we're all navigating too, thinking about that history."
Mira, Mira! Xochi Solis' Top Spinners
Sunny & the Sunliners, "Put Me in Jail"Mr. Brown Eyed Soul 1966-72 (Big Crown Records, 2017)
"This Big Crown compilation released over the summer es fuego! Sunny Ozuna has a smooth velvety voice that makes you weak in the knees!"
Estrella, "La Única Estrella"7-inch single (Joey Records, San Antonio, 1991)
"This 7-inch was gifted to the Austin crew at one of our first joint gigs with the San Antonio crew. A kind vinyl collector in San Antonio handed this to me and said, 'Welcome, here's a little bit of San Antonio history!' It's always in heavy rotation because of its amazing grito!"
Sonny Ace & the Twisters, "Wooleh Booleh"7-inch single (Atlantic Records, 1965)
"I know us Chulitas mention it a lot, but collecting music really is so much about learning our own cultural history. This 7-inch is a perfect example.
"My great tío, Domingo Solis, best known as Sonny Ace, helped define San Antonio's West Side Sound. An often-overlooked form of Texana and Americana music, this sound has been a mainstay of the River City and Texas for more than 50 years. This intercultural genre originated in the cantinas, house parties, and night spots on both San Antonio's east and west sides.
"Young musicians of the city's major ethnic groups – Chicano, African-American, and Anglo – went beyond the incipient racism of the period to create an original form of music that developed from a horn-driven, piano triplet R&B and rock & roll core to incorporate conjunto and traditional country & western."