“We’re always fighting,” DJ Yellow Black Bird says, shifting a bit with an intense, forward propelling energy. She’s seated on the edge of a small black couch at Chulita Vinyl Club Santa Ana HQ, starkly against a blue wall filled with art dedicated to and inspired by Santa Ana, the city that has shaped the trajectory of her life. Whether she’s working with her crew on stage at The Observatory or rocking a community event for Anaheim youth, the DJ born Michelle Reyes emanates the same driving energy, based in the same unwavering commitment to justice, collaboration, and intentional, unabashedly confrontational, style.
The members of Chulita Vinyl Club Santa Ana and I sit beside a large second story window overlooking a tree lined street just calming down from rush hour, reminiscing about monumental parties at warehouses and art spaces throughout Santa Ana over the last decade and a half, laughing at absurd notions that Santa Ana is supposedly just becoming a city where music and art are alive. We get a little agitated thinking about how Memos, Koos Café, SoapboXX sessions, El Centro, and Grrrl Fair laid groundwork for revolutionary parties, shows, feminist happenings, and small print culture nearly a decade before artisan chefs and city authorized murals rolled into downtown and proclaimed the city thriving. We process the reality that an anti-immigrant alt right group attempted to hold a rally in a new facility just blocks away from now seized spaces that many undocumented community members once considered a home away from home. Wind breezes into the bright blue apartment as the moon rises, cooling down a warm Santa Ana evening just shy of the Summer solstice.
There is much to discuss before we even scratch the surface of the main thing on my agenda for the evening: their music. But these are the conditions that make Chulita Vinyl Club Santa Ana so timely, necessary, and vital.
DJ Yellow Black Bird opens many sets by burning sage, a cleansing that has evolved into an offering. “It just anchors us in,” Reyes explains, “Its meaningful, especially when we do shows in Downtown Santa Ana, we smudge the area with our intentions and hope that we’re doing the right thing by being there.” For Reyes, Santana’s “Jingo” playing during the smudging is a beautiful way to envision the city. “It’s powerful, just really sets the tone. We’re not here to be your token women of color, we’re here to represent and reflect people in our community.”
An established DJ known for her eclectic all vinyl DJ sets, Reyes, is the founder of the Santa Ana Chapter of Chulita Vinyl Club. She describes her DJ style as aggressive, something I have witnessed. To see Reyes DJ her deeply personal sets of genera and decade spanning music is like watching a hardcore band at the top of their game. She delivers direct, cutting, artfully constructed compositions meant to stir emotion and dancing simultaneously. Equally intuitive and animated, she is the living incarnation of a word she uses to describe her style, which is also clearly a descriptor of Chulita Vinyl Club Santa Ana’s mission, “comadre desmadre,” which basically translates in English to a coven of badass women fucking shit up and having a blast while doing it.
Before popping up in Santa Ana, Chulita Vinyl Club started in December of 2014, the brainchild of Claudia Saenz, a DJ from the Rio Grande Valley. Saenz’s Texas based vision of an all-girl vinyl club for and by womxn of color has now spread into seven chapters across the South West, spinning anything goes mixes of Chicano soul, riot grrrl, garage, hip-hop, tejano, and everything in between. When Reyes caught word of what Saenz was doing in Texas she knew she had to reach out, and what started as communication centered in admiration in 2016 quickly became a conversation about collaboration, and the Santa Ana Chapter emerged.
“We all just had to be all in,” Reyes recalled. She reached out to friends Yuri Velasco, Gaby Cisneros, sister Jacky Reyes, and community member Esperanza Zamora, and within weeks the newly formed crew were offered a collaborative DJ spot at Beat Swapmeet in Santa Ana. In true DIY fashion, the group met up the night before the gig for an impromptu DJ workshop, everyone except for Yellow Black Bird finding their way around turn tables for the first time in their lives.
“I was really nervous!” Yuri remembers, recounting the hectic schedule of her first gig, running around with Son del Centro during Noche de Altares before showing up to Beat Swap Meet in full Dia de los Muertos face paint the same day. Her first set ever was powered totally by adrenaline, and dedicated to her parents, kicked off by dropping a needle on a piece of wax recently passed down from her father that he played at parties in Oaxaca, México decades prior.
An avid music fan and an educator, Yuri’s DJ style reflects her roots. She was heavily influenced by LATV, finding out about artists and bands like Julieta Venegas and Quetzal by watching Rockamole, a weekly show featuring cutting edge rock music from across the US and Latin America. In 2008 she became involved with El Centro Cultural de México, and became a part of the Son Jarocho group Son Del Centro after watching them at a protest. Community and family is very important to her, and she continues to incorporate her dad’s records from Oaxaca into her DJ sets as often as possible.
“Growing up in Santa Ana you just hear all sorts of different sounds running through your city!” says Jacky Reyes, aka DJ BlueCollarScholar, fellow Chulita Vinyl Club Santa Ana DJ and big sis to DJ Yellow Blackbird. Her style as complex as the city itself, part banda, part Brit pop, part Zapp and Roger, raised on a steady diet of punk rock ethos and the determination to survive and thrive.
Before becoming a DJ, Jacky identified as more of a fan than a creator. She was DJ Yellow Black Bird’s biggest supporter and roadie, spending many nights lugging crates and turn tables in LA and OC for her little sis, and spent many evenings hanging out at poetry nights at old school Santa Ana spots like Morey’s Deli, an experience and community which left a big impact on her. Jacky’s biggest musical inspiration is her mother, an eclectic musical curator herself, blasting everything from Los Bukis to Juan Gabriel to The Doors during afternoon cleaning sprees. “I’ll never forget, this one time she was cleaning and she flipped the script on me and put it on KRTH and started singing to the Beatles and I was like “what the fuck?” How does my mom know who The Beatles are? My mind was literally blown.”
Brit Pop found its way into the Reyes household via Michelle and Jacky’s sister who was obsessed with Morrissey, and through late night KROQ airwaves via Rodney on the Roq. Music coming out of Manchester always made a lot of sense to the Reyes sisters, especially to Jacky. “I feel really connected to working class [music], coming from a family where my parents were immigrants. We worked so hard, and I think what always got us through was music. When I would be working retail what got me through is we would take over the music and we would blast whatever we wanted.”
That tradition of subversively occupying airwaves is being carried over in Chulita Vinyl Club’s work, playing music that they and their community loves, not just what will please bookers or the masses. One of Yuri’s favorite moments while DJing was watching a crowd of servers dancing during an event they played. “I don’t really care if people like our music, but the fact that the servers who were all Latino and older were dancing while they were serving the food, I was like wow, even if I made one person dance, that to me is important. That’s my community!” Yuri thinks its important that CVC takes up space at events. “Its important that we play music that our community likes, in case they are walking by, even if it’s one cumbia or something, they’ll stop and at least they feel like they are represented.”
Its also powerful for Chulita Vinyl Club to represent as women of color DJs, a job most people still consider masculine territory. Reyes encourages her crew to own whatever they are doing behind the turntables without apology. "Our Chulita Vinyl Club Santa Ana Workshops have gotten a big response from local women identified and gender non-conforming folks,” she says, hoping that by creating accessible avenues for women to try out a turntable workshop more OC folks will see people that they can relate to behind turntables. Just owning it is an integral part of her DJ philosophy, solid advice that women aren’t always given.
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Being a woman is an important part of every members identify, but the word “chulita” didn’t immediately resonate with Yuri. “At first I was like, damn, chulita, I don’t consider myself chulita,” she laughs, I was never called chulita growing up, I don’t fit that mold.” But after some wise words by writer Michelle Castillo at the Seeds Of Resistance Women’s Day event Chulita Vinyl Club DJ’d in March, Yuri started to see the word in another light. “[Castillo] was just like, whatever you guys are doing just own it in all aspects of your life, just own it! As a teacher, jaranera, bailadora, bomba, and now this, like fuck I can be chulita, even though I don’t fit that beauty standard you know, but I am fucking beautiful.”
Chulita Vinyl Club is totally DIY, but have achieved more than they ever dreamed they would in the short year they have been performing as a group. Since DJing Beat Swap Meet last Fall, the Santa Ana collective have performed at community events such as the Schools Not Prisons event, local hot spots like Alex’s Bar and The Observatory, and graced stages at festivals like Ruido Fest in Chicago, and When We Were Young where they were sought out to put together two back to back nights of tribute sets to Prince and Selena. They’ve shared the stage with some of their favorite musicians like one of Yuri’s favorite bands, Very Be Careful, and one of the Reyes sisters childhood staples, Morrissey, right in their own backyard.
Chulita Vinyl Club Santa Ana are making some of the smartest and coolest musical statements coming out of So Cal, constructing resistant narratives that bridge politics and identities into danceable, beautiful, and meaningful DJ sets. Diverse yet united, they are like a band ready to take on the world.
“The desmadre is the fight, it’s the rock n roll, it’s the survival,” Reyes says, “but it’s the party too.”