Fresh off an international Pride season that celebrated the 50th anniversary and groundbreaking legacy of the Stonewall Riots, few at this point would argue against the place of nightlife within the pantheon of modern civil rights movements. Dance floors remain essential spaces of resistance and community building to this day – a truth that queer and trans people around the globe hold to be self-evident. However, more than ever in these troubling times, LGBTQ+ party goers are far from the only ones searching for refuge and solidarity with a touch of hedonism.
“Cumbiatón was birthed out of the need for undocumented immigrants to hold space with one another,” says DJ Sizzle, one of the founding members behind the beloved Los Angeles party series and collective. A beacon of Latinx revelry in an already saturated LA nightlife landscape, Cumbiatón stands out for its refreshing balance of activism and dance floor catharsis. The five-member crew at the heart of the phenomenon includes DJ Sizzle, DJ Funky Caramelo, production manager Normz La Oaxaqueña, photographer Paolo Jara-Riveros and visual artist Julio Salgado – all of whom infuse years of labor and immigrant organizing experience into rapturous events with a powerful and intersectional social mission.
Cumbiatón was conceived nearly two years ago, when an especially bleak and uncertain future brought the long time friends together for an urgent round of drinks and brainstorming. “When 45 got elected, we all gathered at a neighborhood bar, kind of in shock and disbelief,” remembers DJ Sizzle. “But we just thought, ‘we can either sit and cry or we can dance and say fuck it.’ We’re going to continue to thrive and we’re going to continue to resist and exist, with or without papers and this fool in power.”
The kickoff party was held at First Street Billiards, a cozy Boyle Heights watering hole where about 50 people congregated for a night of nostalgic cumbia, salsa and reggaeton classics. The crowd mostly consisted of friends and colleagues from the organizing world, but the hunger for a contextualized space was soon apparent to all. “We know the emotional labor that goes into fighting for immigrant rights and the toll it has on our mental health,” reflects Normz. “So we wanted to create a space where folks could forget about their struggles for a few hours and have a good time and be surrounded by people who understand their journey.”
“We welcome people that feel they can’t be entirely themselves in other spaces,” says Paolo Jara-Riveros, the party’s photographer and visual storyteller, for whom Cumbiatón’s message of safety and community resonates on a personal level. “I identify as trans and I’ve had moments where I wanted to go into spaces and didn’t have the proper identification, making it difficult just to come in and relax. So with the space we’re creating at Cumbiatón we want to make sure everybody is comfortable and free to express however they want to express.”
Cumbiatón rapidly outgrew First Street Billiards, relocating to Civic Center Studios in Downtown LA, and later securing a residency at the Echoplex in Echo Park – the first time an event of its kind was hosted at the iconic venue. “It’s a location where I grew up,” adds DJ Funky Caramelo, “where there’s lots of immigrant and Latinx folks, and this venue had been closed out to them for years.” Shortly after, Cumbiatón moved to the prestigious Regent Theater, again breaking ground for cumbia and Latinxs at the Los Angeles landmark. While the collective still regard the Billiards as home, returning intermittently for intimate events, Cumbiatón is gearing up to celebrate their second anniversary at The Globe on September 13, setting yet another milestone by booking a space with capacity for 1600 patrons.
But no matter how big the party gets, centering undocumented immigrants remains the heart and soul of Cumbiatón. “If we’ve learned anything after more than a decade doing this kind of work,” says Julio Salgado, “it’s that none of us are going back into any closet. If anything, coming out and being very vocal with our experiences has enabled us to let that fear go. We want people who come to Cumbiatón to know who is behind this party because the history of this country has shown us the work of immigrants is not highlighted or shown. So we want everyone to know this party is by undocumented people.”
Cumbiatón’s fall schedule is stacked with events bringing activism and sabrosura across the US. First, the collective is joining forces with California Youth Immigrant Justice Alliance (CYIJA) for a September 5th Cumbia for Liberation rally at the Sacramento Capital Building in support of Bill AB32, which aims to close detention centers where undocumented immigrants are held without bail or adequate legal representation. On September 7th the crew takes over Bar El Rio in San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood, while their September 13th anniversary party at The Globe pulls all the stops with sets by Dinamita Los Angeles DJ collective, folklórico dancers and performances by an all-women banda outfit.
As if all that wasn’t enough, on September 27th Cumbiatón heads to New York City, teaming up with local undocumented-led party Arrebato for a blowout at massive Queens nightclub, La Boom. And just in time for Halloween, the crew will visit Seattle for an October 26th function aptly titled The Brujas Ball, organized in partnership with Roxy Productions and the Women.Weed.Wifi arts collective.
“We want to change this narrative que somos pobrecitos, that we’ve victims,” adds Salgado, defiantly “Yeah, it’s a fucked up system, but we’re thriving.”