A Warehouse in Santa Ana Set to be Demolished Once Thrived With Chicano Culture

La Bodeguita's final fandango
La Bodeguita's final fandango
John Gilhooley

La Bodeguita in Santa Ana isn’t much to look at from the outside with a rustic, industrial exterior framed by a big metallic warehouse door. But inside, for the past seven years, it’s been home to a vibrant underground scene of Chicano activist culture in OC. A portrait of Emiliano Zapata, Chicano art paintings, and activist posters hung from its walls, serving as a backdrop for gatherings populated by radical youth sharing food, music, politics and drinks. But now, La Bodeguita (‘Little Warehouse’ in Spanish) is fenced off, slated to be demolished next month to make way for an affordable housing project.

Surrounded by lofts near the train station, La Bodeguita made its home nestled in a corner of Santa Ana’s historic Logan Barrio. The warehouse at 927 North Santiago Street played host to countless music shows, poetry readings, political fundraisers and son jarocho fandangos that strummed deep into the night. It became an unofficial satellite spot for El Centro Cultural de México, Santa Ana’s longtime community space. “Over the course of several years, we saw all kinds of events there, from bombazos to fandangos…to bombazo fandangos,” El Centro volunteer Luis Sarmiento laughs, referring to the Puerto Rican and Mexican cultural gatherings that ultimately fused.

Street view of LA Bodeguita
Street view of LA Bodeguita
John Gilhooley

The dusty, industrial strip of warehouse spaces beneath the shadow of the iconic Santa Ana water tower might seem an unlikely place for culture to thrive, but even before La Bodeguita blossomed, artists took up residency there. Mexican rock group Enjambre used one of the warehouses when members lived in OC as its rehearsal space while crafting El Segundo Es Felino, their Latin American major label debut.

When SolArt Gallery & Café moved from a nearby building on Santa Ana Boulevard in 2008, artists Sali Heraldez and Carla Zarate converted a warehouse on the Santiago strip into a studio where SolArt Radio launched. They encouraged their friend, Carolina Sarmiento, Luis’ sister, to do the same when she needed to find a place to live and work. With the help of my truck, Carolina moved in couches and a bar on loan from SolArt Gallery & Café in January 2009. La Bodeguita, as her place became commonly known, wasted little time inviting the larger community in by hosting its first fandango the following month.

“Literally, there’s was no other place to do a fandango in Santa Ana,” Carolina reminisces. “The reason is that a fandango isn’t a programmed event and they take place in public spaces lasting the whole night.” Central to son jarocho, fandangos allow jaraneros to gather and play in an informal party setting. A wooden box, known as a tarima, laid at the center of La Bodeguita with dancers rhythmically stomping atop it while being surrounded by a circle of people strumming their jaranas. “In the fandangos, we play traditional sones,” Luis says. “On top of that, there’s all kinds of different improvisation through the music and poetry.”

A Warehouse in Santa Ana Set to be Demolished Once Thrived With Chicano Culture
John Gilhooley

With furniture makers and a tool shed counting themselves as La Bodeguita’s neighbors, fandangos never invited any noise complaints and became the heart and soul of the space. They drew in LA Chicano All-Stars like Martha Gonzalez and Quetzal Flores of the East LA group Quetzal, rapper Maya Jupiter and La Marisoul, singer for Grammy-award winners La Santa Cecilia. In the beginning, cultural events stayed deeply underground and passed only through word of mouth. Any Facebook promotion merely mentioned “La Bodeguita” without giving the address to the spot.

Though fandangos remained at the core of La Bodeguita, the space hosted many other events with notable guests and performers. Mare, a rapper from Oaxaca, delivered her feminist anthems in the intimate setting. Local hip-hop acts like Salvajes, Sacred Blasphemy, Cham Kerem and Scott Keltic Knot all rocked the mic at La Bodeguita. Grammy-nominated Chilean rapper Ana Tijoux hung out there after delivering a parking lot concert at El Centro Cultural de México. Beyond hip-hop, the hub staged countless shows for local cumbia, punk, and reggae bands.

With culture and political intertwined, La Bodeguita also housed activist meetings where ideals outlined on butcher paper dreamed of a better city and world. It’s most critical moment came when El Centro Cultural de México got evicted from the Knights of Pythias building in the heat of downtown Santa Ana gentrification battles in 2011. La Bodeguita became the emergency space for El Centro volunteer meetings and classes, the lifeblood of the organization.

In better times, Radio Santa Ana, another project of El Centro, outlined its plans for a low-power FM station at the space. Orange County Immigrant Youth United held a pozolada fundraiser in 2014 for its work at La Bodeguita. Raiz, a deportation fighting grassroots group, organized its campaigns from inside its warehouse walls.

A Warehouse in Santa Ana Set to be Demolished Once Thrived With Chicano Culture
John Gilhooley

The Chicano community continued on at La Bodeguita even after Carolina moved in 2014 to work as a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Everybody chipped in for rent and electricity,” Carolina says. “I didn’t see it as a transition.” But one loomed on the horizon even before she left. C&C Development acquired the property and notified tenants in 2013 of their plans to build affordable housing units on the plot. “That’s when the first relocation agent came and knocked on our door,” she recalls.

C&C Development is poised demolish the warehouses in March, beginning a 16-month long process of building the Depot at Santiago. The 70-unit mixed-use affordable housing development will feature a first floor of retail space with new tenants lining up, only El Centro Cultural won’t be among them. The Wooden Floor, a Santa Ana dance nonprofit, will have a branch location at the Depot. There will be more room for the arts, C&C Development affirms. “We’ve been talking to Victor Payan and his wife [Sandra "Pocha" Peña Sarmiento] for over a year now,” Barry Cottle, C&C Development co-owner, says. “What we’re talking about doing is having a space for them to have a small gallery and office. They’re excited and we’re excited about it.”  

A Warehouse in Santa Ana Set to be Demolished Once Thrived With Chicano Culture
John Gilhooley

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Unlike the contentious eviction of El Centro in 2011, the Sarmientos and other activists aren’t planning to fight for La Bodeguita. Two-bedroom rental units at the affordable housing project will range from $581-$1,214 per month. “I’ve spoken to some of the folks in the neighborhood, right there in Logan, and they’re in favor of the project,” Luis reports. “Personally, I think the accessibility of the affordable housing could be much greater.” But that’s the extent of the displacement disagreement. The developer cut a check for moving fees and promises help with reestablishment fees. “When they find a place, there’s a second round of money to help them reestablish in their new space,” Cottle says. “They have 12 months to find that new place.”

The last fandango at La Bodeguita took place on February 5. Two other final events followed, both uncharacteristically greeted by Santa Ana police. Luis moved everything out of last week and is looking for a new place to continue La Bodeguita's underground cultural mission. Until then, the space belongs to memory. “It represents a specific moment in time where folks were trying to build something on their own and created something beautiful,” Carolina says. “I hope it doesn’t end here but I don’t know what’s going to happen.”  

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