Close your eyes and imagine sitting in the back seat of a lowrider. It’s the 1960s, and some Tejano oldies are playing on the radio as you drive around with the Texas heat blowing in your hair.
Now open your eyes.
You’re at a bar in Austin, Texas and it’s 2016. Chicanas are spinning old school tunes on 45s, maintaining the soul of vinyl ‘till close. The crowd is diverse, but it's mostly women.
This is the scene created by the Chulita Vinyl Club, an all-girl crew that’s creating new spaces and empowering women of color to express themselves and their cultural heritage by spinning old records. The movement named itself chulita, a Spanish-language term of endearment for meaning “cute” or “adorable,” to reclaim a word that’s sometimes used dismissively. They use it with pride, confidence and poise.
There are folks who crowd into the club are Chulita fans, or other curious music fans who just pop in to check out the vibe. Like many bars in Austin, Drinks is a partially open-air bar that invites diverse audiences to come in off the street. It’s mostly dark, and the red and purple lights dance across the floor with the oldies songs.
Meet Claudia Saenz, a twenty-something Tejana DJ known as “Tear Drop.” She’s the founder of Chulita Vinyl Club. A year after starting to DJ, Saenz noticed she wasn’t the only woman who was a vinyl aficionada, so she started Chulita Vinyl Club for the purpose of empowerment and collectiveness. In a world where promoters, bouncers and most DJ’s are men, Chulita Vinyl Club is challenging gender norms and opening new spaces for women.
“As women in society we recognize that it is difficult being a woman and that society has a tendency of making it difficult for women to succeed in all industries. Being a mujer in the DJ scene can be tough. It's almost our duty to deal with the defeatist nature that comes with it. People are watching and are curious knowing what we stand for and how we function,” says Saenz.
It’s unfortunate, but most male-dominated spaces are riddled with patriarchy and fragile masculinity. That limits and discourages women in different ways, especially when it comes to creating music. Women are undermined, harassed and their skills are often questioned. That’s why Chulita wants to create a space that is about honing talent and empowering young women.
Beyond shaking up the gender sphere, the Chulitas are also challenging electronic DJing by reclaiming the use of vinyl. The women use their own record collections to play with the notions space and time. In today’s world where the DJ culture is beginning to create a hegemonic narrative through digitally mixing music, Chulitas are making new beats from old tunes.
In this digital age, having an attraction to vinyl and oldie music is not a hipster habit for these Chulitas. This is an ode to their histories, their past and their strong ties to communities of color.
Every Chulita’s collection is personal. But with many of them playing oldies, soul and cumbia in their sets, they are paying tribute to their childhoods and connecting with folks who are nostalgic for their music. In an interview with the Texas Standard, Saenz mentions that audience members would approach her after sets and tell her that certain songs reminded them of their parents, or grandparents.
The Chulitas aren’t the only ones who face these struggles. There are many other groups of women challenging the status quo. Women DJ collectives and creatives like New York’s Discwoman, Stockholm’s Mahoyo and London’s Born n Bred are also using DJing as a means to bring women together to empower a generation of music-listeners.
Saenz and the other Chulitas are part of a movement of women of color that are mixing art and media—analog or digital—to take hold of their own narratives and spaces. These mixed-media artists showcase their work at local community art events, music festivals, international showcases and online publications. In collaboration with each other, they sometimes mix digital art with music, and other times poetry with photography. They exist everywhere and they connect digitally through platforms such as Instagram or Twitter. This generation of media artists is taking advantage of social media and technology to build and empower women of color.
These emerging groups are self-starters and entrepreneurs. They do not see themselves represented, and so they create something of their own. I call these collectives media girl gangs. These women of color are retelling their stories in a way that has been co-opted by the mainstream media and shattering stereotypes. Literally fighting off and resisting how mainstream media has portrayed women of color, Chulitas and other collectives around the world are carving out spaces for themselves.
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Jessica Diaz-Hurtado is a multimedia storyteller and freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. She focuses on culture, gender and civil conflict.