OCWeekly — February 18, 2016
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Essay
Gabriel San Román

Bye-Bye, La Bodeguita

A warehouse in Santa Ana set to be demolished once thrived with Chicano culture

From the outside, La Bodeguita in Santa Ana isn’t much to look at, with its rustic, industrial exterior framed by a big, metallic warehouse door. But inside, for the past seven years, it has been home to a vibrant underground scene of Chicano culture in OC. A portrait of Emiliano Zapata, Chicano art and activist posters hung from its walls, serving as a backdrop for gatherings of 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, La Bodeguita made its home near the train station, nestled in a corner of Santa Ana’s historic Logan Barrio. The industrial space at 927 N. Santiago St. 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 [Puerto Rican] bombazos to [Mexican] fandangos . . . To bombazo fandangos,” says El Centro volunteer Luis Sarmiento with a laugh.

The dusty 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 as its rehearsal space while crafting El Segundo Es Felino, their Latin American major-label debut. (Members of the band lived in OC at the time.)

When SolArt Gallery & Café moved from a nearby building on Santa Ana Boulevard in 2008, artists Sali Heraldez and Carla Zarate converted a spot on the Santiago strip into a studio and launched SolArt Radio. They encouraged their friend Carolina Sarmiento (Luis’ sister) to do the same when she needed to find a place to live. 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, invited in the larger community by hosting its first fandango the following month.

“Literally, there 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 the room, 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.”

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 including 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, with information 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 such as 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. Beyond hip-hop, the hub staged countless shows for local cumbia, punk and reggae bands.

Intertwining culture and politics, La Bodeguita also housed activist meetings at which ideals for a better city and world were outlined on butcher paper. Its most critical moment came when El Centro was evicted from the Knights of Pythias building in the heat of downtown Santa Ana’s 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 2013 for its work at La Bodeguita. Raiz, a deportation-fighting grassroots group, organized its campaigns from inside the warehouse walls.

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 2014 of its 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 to demolish the warehouses in March, beginning the proposed 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 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 insists. “We’ve been talking to Victor Payan and his wife [Sandra “Pocha” Peña Sarmiento] for over a year now,” says Barry Cottle, C&C Development co-owner, referring to a member of the Santa Ana Arts & Culture Commission and her husband. “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.”

Unlike the contentious eviction of El Centro in 2011, the Sarmientos and other activists aren’t planning to fight for La Bodeguita. “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 re-establishment fees. “When they find a place, there’s a second round of money to help them re-establish in their new space,” Cottle says. “They have 12 months to find that new place.”

The last fandango at La Bodeguita took place on Feb. 5. Two other final events followed, both uncharacteristically greeted by Santa Ana police. Luis moved everything out last week and is looking for a new place to continue its underground cultural mission. Until then, the space belongs to memory.

“It represents a specific moment in time when 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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