When Oppression Thrives in Social Justice Spaces: How Las Cafeteras Can Teach Latinos to Speak Out

“Your silence will not protect you.” -Audre Lorde

For those of us mujeres who have worked in social justice and creative spaces with cisgender men, an all-too-real pattern of silencing has taken root. From the Black Panthers to the Chicano movement, women have been shunned, interrupted, and relegated to the limelight in decision-making processes. Our struggles have been labeled as distractions from actual politics, and our accusations deemed untrue.

In community and social justice spaces, there’s a place where oppression still lives and thrives. Individuals still experience injustice in marginalized groups, proving that oppression can make its way to even the most radical of spaces. How do we hold each other accountable as Latinos committed to social justice, especially when violence and abuse are common in our families and communities?

Last month, Annette Torres, former member of the band Las Cafeteras, spoke out against the group’s oppression and abuse towards women. Las Cafeteras are immigrant children remixing roots music, telling contemporary stories with a politicized brew of punk, hip-hop, beats, cumbia, and rock.

In the past few weeks, Torres has written lengthy pieces detailing the sexism she and other members experienced at the hands of the men in the group. She initially reached out to a journalist who agreed to write her story, and after losing communication with the writer, she decided to post her story on her blog.

Torres spoke to us about her past experiences of abuse, including exploitative encounters within in her own family and former romantic relationships. “It’s almost like we are conditioned to accept this [violence] and that this is the way that we should be treated because we are so used to being in that environment.”

How do we hold each other accountable as Latinos committed to social justice?

After the group adopted a more corporate model, Torres began to feel silenced by her bandmates. She felt bullied by members Hector Flores and Daniel French; it seemed there was no longer an atmosphere of safety, one where she could share her thoughts or ideas on how to move forward with the band. The censorship was stifling Torres to the point of mental and emotional exhaustion, but she insisted her voice be heard. On her blog, she details the damage the incident caused:

“I was kicked out of the band because I spoke up. The men were controlling and abusing the women in the band. There was a lot of verbal abuse from them. In the last three years, I suffered from low self-esteem.”

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On December 11, 2015, Las Cafeteras responded to the debacle in a Facebook post for the first time. The women of the group explain their side of the story:

“We are not victims, nor abused, nor oppressed by our bandmates and have not lost our power. We refuse to be reduced to voiceless participants. Furthermore, we do not agree with the statements being made on our behalf by Annette. As cultivators, we address and confront individuals with stern compassion because we expect more than the status quo, yet will not marginalize or abandon anyone who is willing to reflect and grow. We are, after all, challenging mainstream narratives.”

Men in the band also spoke out:

“As the men of Las Cafeteras we admit that we’ve taken up too much space, spoken for instead of with, and when we should have stepped back and allowed the women in our group to lead, we didn’t. We admit we are often ignorant to the experiences of womyn in this group. Patriarchy is real. We were all raised in it & we must repeatedly call it out both inside and outside the group.”

The patriarchy is alive and well, even in radical spaces.

But Torres emphasizes that these incidents are unacceptable. “I feel like if this happens in conscious settings, the men should be held more responsible because they know what they are doing, because they are conscious about their behavior.” For her, the group seeks “to uphold some type of image. The women in Las Cafeteras were looked up to by other women. They looked for us, our voice.” Though she describes the other women in Las Cafeteras as strong Chicanas, she remains disappointed by the lack of support.

We also spoke with Las Cafeteras member Denise Carlos. As a former social worker who has worked with the Gender and Sexuality Center at California State University-Los Angeles, this topic hits close to home for her. “Any place I’ve been involved with that has included men has also been [one] that [demonstrated] sexist behavior. I didn’t always feel safe. This is the only group [in which] I’ve been able to be honest and raw.”

Carlos claims “there’s a lot missing in these stories that [Torres] talks about…I in no way want to be represented or part of a group that would be sexist, abusive, or anything like that. Are there problematic things that happen because of assigned privilege? Yes. Have we talked about it? Yes. We have a process of reviewing whether it’s for positive or whether it’s for growth.” Carlos calls for a better accountability process if someone feels victimized or abused.

On New Year’s Eve, Las Cafeteras issued a public statement on Facebook and their official website. Echoing much of the conversation we had with Carlos, the message states, “Each of us carries baggage wherever we go. We bring this baggage into our relations, our organization, families, and workspaces. Las Cafeteras is no exception; we all have contributed equally to the environment and experience of Las Cafeteras, positive and negative. We publicly commit to being better.” Throughout the message, Las Cafeteras underscore their accountability while chronicling the details of their side of the story.

Beyond the he-said-she-said details of what went down, by failing to acknowledge abuse of a mujer, any group committed to social justice risks strengthening the same patriarchal system they purport to challenge. Denise Carlos recognizes the episode’s didactic power, even if it cracks the band’s spirit. “If we need to be that example for people to talk about all that bullshit that happens in communities that are organizing or that are activists, then cool. It hurts. But it’s all of our pain.”

So yes, the circumstances of this pain go beyond Las Cafeteras. The patriarchy is alive and well, even in radical spaces. In order to truly attempt to decolonize ourselves, we cannot agree to accept the culture of domination. Accountability takes time. It takes communication, understanding, apologies, and forgiveness. Accountability takes growth. It requires understanding how power and violence play out in our interpersonal relationships.

Regardless of ideology and identity, patriarchy permeates our society, seeping into everything from bands to political organizations. Just last year, the Human Rights Campaign faced criticism for its predominantly white, gay, and male leadership. Lesbian and straight women described sexist encounters in the workplace, and trans staff often felt tokenized and were sometimes misgendered.

These injustices are no different from the experiences of oppression women faced in the oft-romanticized movements of the Civil Rights era. Take the Chicano Movement for instance. Chicana feminism arose as a response to sexism within the Chicano movement in the 1970s. As a result, Chicanas created their own political agendas and organizing circles. Influencing a generation of activists and writers, the rhetoric of Chicana feminism now informs the foundation of Chicano Studies. But we cannot stop there. To denounce sexism within our communities, silence cannot be accepted. Torres’ departure from Las Cafeteras is not a simple breakup, but a testament to the silence imposed on women in social justice spaces, where women’s rights are supposed to be acknowledged and protected. To contend with this injustice, we must reimagine power dynamics in activist contexts.

Accountability takes time. It takes communication, understanding, apologies, and forgiveness.

Torres’ blog post reached thousands of readers, sparking an outpouring of support from fans and other women. She feels overwhelmingly confident in her decision to share her experience.  “If every woman spoke out, this issue could no longer be ignored.”

As people of color who are constantly creating and re-imagining socially conscious spaces, what can we do to avoid the reproduction of oppressive systems? Pues, that is a really hard question. Looking inside ourselves is a start. Liberation begins with asking ourselves the difficult questions, like “What are my privileges? How can I deconstruct and unlearn sexism, racism, and heterosexism? In what ways can I be accountable to my whole community?” A constant interrogation of our own interpersonal lives and the spaces we occupy is vital to creating a healthy and sustainable community. How are we treating our brothers and sisters in the movement? Open and honest conversations are hard, but they are necessary if we want to be what we want to see in the world. Accountability is growth. So like Queen Audre says, your silence will not protect you. Speak up and do it loud.