"We didn’t always practice what we preached on stage," Annette Torres says of Las Cafeteras. The musician spoke out on her strained exit from the band on social media last week causing a stir in activist circles everywhere after months of silence. She charged that Las Cafeteras became corporate and overrun by abusive men, striking at the core of the co-ed East LA urban folk band’s identity as a feminist force for good in the world. Wearing a Dodgers cap and looking tense at times, Torres, who played marimbol and bass, opened up more in-depth about her experiences at a café in Whittier. “This is my story, this is my time.”
Las Cafeteras began ten years ago when young Chicano kids started learning how to play son jarocho at Eastside Café in El Sereno. The band took form in 2008 playing shows and testing out songs like “La Bamba Rebelde” that fueled social storytelling with a new fusion-folk sound. The group’s lineup rounded out with Torres, Denise Carlos, Leah Gallegos, Daniel French and brothers David and Hector Flores at the helm. Their ascent to popularity had never been easy with criticisms heaped all along the way including charges that they appropriated the community space’s name and the Mexican tradition of son jarocho itself.
But Torres’ testimony could prove to be most damning. “In the beginning, we’d sit down and all put in our views,” Torres says of the band democracy that guided the recording of It’s Time, their 2012 debut album. “But the more popular we became, the more controlled the image needed to be.” And it was men, Torres says, that were doing the controlling in all areas from workshops, interviews, business, rehearsals, performances and tour planning. “Their whole vision was how to push Cafeteras to make more money and it stopped being about the community,” she adds. The musician also charges that tours became opportunities for most of the men to bed women with macktivist charm.
Before ever speaking out on social media, Torres aired her concerns during a regular March meeting at the band's La Mina rehearsal space in City Terrace. Hector and Daniel demanded more work from the women according to her account. She called the men “bullies” and after the band meeting, Torres felt like her commitment had been put under greater scrutiny. In early April, another series of squabbles got addressed at a meeting with Torres. “They served me with a letter of intent,” Torres says, fighting back tears. She showed up to the next gathering that proved to be her last. “The meeting didn’t end well because I didn’t apologize the way the men wanted me to,” Torres says. “Hector and David are my nephews,” she says. “Family speaks and said ‘Oh, Hector says you’re out of the band.’”
On a chilly December afternoon, Las Cafeteras sat on amplifiers and chairs arranged in a half circle at La Mina. Usually upbeat for interviews, the musicians seemed solemn and worn in the wake of Torres going public. “The incidents that were talked about in her letter were in the span of years, not one time and not one meeting, which were addressed by the group and not her specific complaints,” Carlos says. The band insists it never kicked Torres out and only learned of her departure in April through a journalist writing about the split for a story that never surfaced. They do admit to cutting her access to band social media accounts after the contentious April meeting out of fear she might do something retaliatory with them.
Coming off a sold-out show at El Rey Theatre in the midst of all the acrimony, a performance Gallegos called the hardest ever for the band, the musicians refute most of Torres’ claims, including that the men have created a “bro” space for themselves. “This is one of the very few spaces as a woman that I feel that I can bring up these concerns,” Gallegos says. “These are men in my life, in a workplace, that I feel listened to.” French, usually very animated, stayed mostly quiet for the almost two-hour interview but did offer a defense of himself. “I haven’t cheated on anybody on the road. Yeah, I have had sex on [tour] and what’s most important about that is that it’s done in a respectful and consensual way,” he says. “This is again something we talk about in this group.”
Another issue Las Cafeteras constantly address is finances. Goldenvoice presented their El Rey show, the video for “Luna Lovers” appeared on VEVO and other savvy moves try to grow the band’s small business side. “We are poor and we have dreams,” Carlos says. Her former band mate charged that money trumped community and a vision had been laid out to make an annual million dollar empire. “We’re nowhere near making a million dollars,” the band’s treasure Jose Cano says. “And if we make a million dollars in a year, we’ll be making a living wage.” The band later forwarded a booking agent survey from February where Torres stated a salary goal of $50,000-75,000 a year, a figure matched only by Hector. Las Cafeteras calculates that if everybody made $75,000 each, they'd have to generate roughly a million dollars in revenue to make it happen.
Las Cafeteras aren’t the only ones talking about the claims of their former member. The band’s politically educated fan base responded strongly to it all, forcing them to issue a statement on their Facebook page that became grounds for an intense debate. To detractors, Las Cafeteras symbolized the latest revolutionary farce, a co-ed band intentionally taking a Spanish feminine name only to mistreat women in all its facets. “It’s hard being the example that’s being torn down, being called hypocrites and almost being dismissed as a woman in this group,” Carlos says. The band sees themselves as a continual process searching for a productive way to address the allegations.
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They’ve called for a community forum that will be held at Self-Help Graphics in Boyle Heights at a time and date soon to be determined. But the gathering won’t be about Torres so much. “She’s the trigger to talking about all these other issues but she is not the issue we are talking about,” Carlos adds. When asked if they still considered themselves a feminist band, Las Cafeteras exclaimed “Yes!” in unison.
During better times with the group, women came up to Torres as a source of inspiration, being a single mother following her dreams. Now they are reaching out to her in another affirming way. Since she went public on Facebook about her experience with Las Cafeteras, she’s received support from women with similar stories to tell. “It’s not only bands, it’s in organizations,” Torres says. “These men are activists, they study and read books. It’s very disappointing for me.”
It’s a story that might not have been. Torres isn’t performing with the band anymore but still is a co-owner. Las Cafeteras served her with a lengthy legal separation agreement offering a $1,000 payout and compensation for the band’s work that she helped create. The terms sought to prevent her from making any “derogatory” statements about the band in media, an industry standard Las Cafeteras explains. “I’m not going to sell my voice,” Torres says. Speaking out cost Torres a lot, both financially and emotionally. She’s focusing on healing, exploring her options and working on personal projects these days.
The musician felt compelled to act because she felt she couldn’t encourage others to speak out if she didn’t do the same for herself. Torres never expected the reach to be so widespread, but ultimately it all comes back home for her. “Personally, it's for my girls because I don’t ever want them to be in a situation like this.”