Build Culture, Build Community, Break Fascism

On both sides of the border, artivistas—art activists—infuse their creative and political work with minority struggle and solidarity.

During a 1997 cultural encuentro between Chican@ Angelenos and the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico, attendees participated in various art-making activities that envisioned “a world where many worlds could exist.” For nearly two weeks, artivistas—art activists—from across the borderlands tapped cultural expression as a vehicle for building relationships, and for reflecting on the struggles Chican@ and indigenous people experience as political minorities, such as the lack of comprehensive women’s health care services. The idea of relationality—namely, seeking solidarity amid intersectional political, ethnic/racial, and gender discrimination—was central throughout the encuentro’s various programs, which included songwriting workshops, informative skits, concerts, and mural painting.

Cultural art helps communities connect and form shared identities when social and economic forces would otherwise tear them apart. Take the fandango jaracho: a celebration of community through sound and movement. Composed of instrumentals, singing, and dancing, this traditional folk art form from Veracruz, Mexico, is a blend of Spanish, indigenous, and Afro-Mexican musical forms. The fandango thrives through accessibility. People can partake together in their home, in the park, at a concert, or virtually anywhere else they please. In the United States, the fandango experienced a resurgence in the 1980s among Chican@s resistant to hyper-capitalist discourses and policies. The fandango inherently rejects individualist and commercial conceptions of culture, emphasizing collective, process-based music-making. Much like Chicano/a emerged in the 1960s as an identity distinct from the more assimilationist Mexican American, US-based fandango practitioners proudly maintain cultural connections that even a border wall cannot break.

Today, artivistas on both sides of the border continue to infuse their creative and political work with a relational understanding of minority struggle and solidarity. Artivistas like Martha Gonzalez of the band Quetzal and muralist Judith Baca channel their creativity to make political statements that denounce racism and neoliberalism.

Both Gonzalez’s and Baca’s work accompanies the efforts of scholars like Eric Avila, who frames Latinx and Black art and culture as sites for “invisible revolts” that resist outright marginalization.1 Culture and art are, in this form, a means for politically underrepresented people to make statements and participate in activities contrary to the white neoliberal order.

For Quetzal—a bilingual Chican@ rock band—making music is not a means to commercial success or critical acclaim. As artivistas, its members make art to build community and breathe life into political movements.

Kendrick Lamar’s hit track “Alright” famously analyzes the long history of Black oppression and serves as a hopeful anthem for the Black Lives Matter movement. Similarly, Quetzal’s title track, “Imaginaries,” builds on the work of Chicana feminist Emma Pérez. In doing so, the song emphasizes the importance of building collective power and forging alliances across national borders, ethnicities, and races:


Global Affinities, we work within our trenches

We make love through local intentions

Slow, chaotic and slow

but that seed you forgot you sowed

Is one day a tree guarding you from the cold and more.

We see more

From margin to the core.


Will slowly build

Will slowly build




In these two verses, Martha Gonzalez describes the community building so vital to the work of artivistas as a slow and chaotic process, one that begins with local intentions. Starting at the local level entails connecting lived experience to theoretical frameworks, creating a shared vocabulary and vision for resistance.

Gonzalez’s locality is rooted in East Los Angeles, but it branches well beyond city and national borders. Her global affinities have formed through transborder groups like the Entre Mujeres songwriting collective, made up of 15 mujeres from Veracruz and East Los Angeles. By remaining active in the Chican@ community and cultivating a social imaginary that prioritizes collective well-being over personal gain, Gonzalez continues to slowly build global affinities.

A song or mural, for most people, hits harder than a statistic. These works of art can make subjects like neoliberal labor exploitation or police brutality identifiable forces, as well as targets to rally against. It is this accessibility that makes artistic productions—songs, dances, paintings, theater, etc.—effective tools of coalition building, especially when attempting to convey complex struggles and dense political theory to a broad audience. Conscious and casual listeners alike can engage with art when it’s created with both audiences in mind.

Cultural art helps communities connect and form shared identities when social and economic forces would otherwise tear them apart.

In the days leading up to the Grammy Awards in 2013, Quetzal and several other nominated Latinx musicians skipped the Hollywood Gala in favor of their own gatherings. Live performances, cocktails with neighbors, and dance parties ensued across East Los Angeles, leaving many of the musicians exhausted by the time they reached their seats in the Nokia Theatre on awards night. When Quetzal won Best Latin Rock, Urban, or Alternative Album, Gonzalez expressed gratitude but remained ambivalent about the award itself. She’s since likened the Grammy victory to “having Santa Claus come to your home when you don’t necessarily believe in him anymore.” Winning a Grammy is an honor, but for an artivista like Gonzalez, it’s rarely a goal.

It is no surprise, then, that Gonzalez and Quetzal ditched the lavish Grammy gala to celebrate with their families, friends, neighbors, and musical peers in East Los Angeles. Since the early 1990s, they have gathered in spaces such as the Centro Regeneración warehouse in Highland Park and the Breed Street Shul in Boyle Heights to stage and support anticapitalist and anticolonial programs. Whether it be performing at benefit concerts to raise money for local labor rights groups or hosting songwriting workshops, Quetzal’s hands-on work as artivistas demonstrates how the cultural arts help fuel political action.

Quetzal’s desire to work and play with the people, and not celebrities, has deep theoretical roots. One inspiration is the aforementioned theory of relationality—central in Zapatista and other leftist spheres. Relationality promotes participatory community actions, which, for Quetzal, means creating art for the sake of building relationships, rather than for producing products to consume.

The relationship between neoliberalism and BIPOC oppression is another theoretical through line within artivista action. Neoliberal, or capitalist, ventures have adapted over time to prioritize individual capital gain over the common good. This occurs under the guise of an abstract “free market” where everyone supposedly has a fair shot at getting rich.

In the United States, Latin America, and beyond, capitalist power players have historically squeezed as much work out of people for as little money as possible, whether through slavery, sharecropping, wage theft, undocumented labor exploitation, redlining, mass incarceration, or predatory loaning. It is no coincidence that the US racial wealth gap persists more than 150 years after Emancipation and 57 years after landmark civil rights legislation, the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Broadly speaking, the neoliberal order is tied to a white political and economic status quo that goes well beyond our national borders. Capitalist interests—both US– and Latin America–based—have underwritten dozens of political coups against democratically elected leftist leaders in Latin American and Caribbean countries. They have also facilitated the implementation of economic policies that favor foreign investors over indigenous and other minority groups.

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), for instance, opened the door for widespread US and Canadian purchase of land owned by, or previously stolen from, indigenous Mexicans. Frustrated by the prospect of further impoverishment, the largely indigenous Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional revolted by seizing public buildings and landholdings across Chiapas, Mexico. This region is still occupied by Zapatistas today. Artivistas, especially Quetzal, see the Zapatista fight against neoliberal economics and politics as inseparable from their own.

Minority groups in Los Angeles are no strangers to the type of neoliberal policies that plague indigenous Mexicans. Judith Baca’s mural Division of the Barrios and Chavez Ravine depicts a Latinx family and neighborhood torn apart by the construction of Dodger Stadium and various freeways—a land grab not unlike the NAFTA-motivated acquisitions.

The mural hits particularly close to home for Mexican Angelenos. They watched as their homes and small businesses were razed by private developers and city planners exercising “eminent domain,” seizing private property for public use.

Unfortunately, this practice is hardly unique to Los Angeles. The development of the Interstate Highway System destroyed hundreds of thousands of homes and small businesses across the United States, primarily in neighborhoods of color. Real estate developers and urban planners justified their land grabs with racialized assessments of property value that date back to President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Baca’s vignette testifies to the ways art provides a means to contextualize, contest, and, at times, alleviate the circumstances of BIPOC oppression.

Baca’s celebrated work contributes to a wide range of artivista action in Los Angeles over the past four decades. Martha Gonzalez’s recent ethnography, Artivistas: Music, Community, and Transborder Tactics in East Los Angeles, spotlights artivistas like Baca, who help create cultural infrastructures that serve as support beams for political activism. The arts serve as a vehicle to traverse local struggles and create space for transnational dialogue among marginalized peoples.

Building and maintaining community is hard work. It’s a slow and chaotic process that often requires the durability of cultural infrastructure.

Unlike brick-and-mortar infrastructure, cultural infrastructure creates conceptual spaces where politics and art can flourish. The durability of abstract cultural expressions often offsets the loss of physical meeting places.

Martha Gonzalez’s introduction to the Chican@ artivista community occurred at a small coffee shop in Little Tokyo called Troy Café. Although the cafe closed due to financial hardship, the artivistas’ work lived on in the form of songs, poems, and other art pieces. The ability to keep creating and consulting art, whether alone or with others, allowed Gonzalez’s political conscious to remain active until a new meeting place was firmly established.

Gonzalez eventually became a regular at Highland Park’s Centro Regeneración warehouse: a radical community art space and public resource center cofounded by Zack de la Rocha, lead singer of the rock band Rage Against the Machine. Visitors were exposed to an array of radical programming and materials. One interactive art piece included smashing televisions around bloodied American flags. The piece provided visual sustenance to the warehouse’s library of radical political literature that denounced capitalist and colonial interventions. Although the Centro Regeneración is now dissolved, many of the people who utilized it continue to organize and create art, including de la Rocha, Gonzalez, and the rest of Quetzal.

Building and maintaining community is hard work. It’s a slow and chaotic process that often requires the durability of cultural infrastructure.

Amid recent tragedies like the murder of George Floyd and family separation at the US-Mexico border, cultural arts continue to play a pivotal role in building and maintaining the solidarities necessary for political action. “No Trump! No KKK! No Fascist USA!” is the most recent iteration of a popular chant created in 1982 by Texas punk band MDC. The original song lyrics—“No War! No KKK! No fascist USA!”—were a direct response to the Ku Klux Klan’s attempts to recruit white punks for their war against Latinx farmworkers and immigrants. While slightly evolving over time, the antifascist and antiracist rallying cry persists for its brief but blunt political commentary. It reemerged as a favorite chant among US-based protesters in the past few years. The catchy punk lyric succinctly denounces a neoliberal power structure that treats people of color as second-class citizens.

Earlier this year, the Black Panther biopic Judas and the Black Messiah debuted on HBO Max to widespread acclaim. The film is the highest-profile depiction of militant leftist groups in recent memory, drawing headlines such as “Is This the Most Radical Film Ever Produced by Hollywood?”2 One of the film’s sequences follows Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, as he assembles the Rainbow Coalition—a multicultural coalition of radical leftist groups in Chicago, including the Puerto Rican Young Lords and white southern Young Patriots. The Rainbow Coalition practiced relationality by stressing solidarity among poor and marginalized peoples. While the movie has its detractors on both sides of the political aisle, it has also stoked many of the conversations we’ve seen over the past two years surrounding police brutality and racial inequity. The film provides an accessible view of the ideas and methods necessary for change.

Similar to Martha Gonzalez’s hesitation toward the Grammys, Judas and the Black Messiah cowriters Kenny and Keith Lucas admit to having mixed feelings about their film’s Oscar buzz: “It seems so weird to tell a story about Fred Hampton and then also to care about being validated in a capitalistic way with metal.”3

When art and activism are combined, political intention and commercial reception are bound to create tension. But the goal is to keep people watching, listening, and engaging with your art. That’s the first step toward getting them to act.


This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloom.


Correction: November 12, 2021

An earlier version of this article stated that the fandango jaracho was part of the 1997 cultural encuentro. icon

  1. Eric Avila, Folklore of the Freeway: Race and Revolt in the Modernist City (University of Minnesota Press, 2014), p. 4.
  2. Lawrence Ware, “Is This the Most Radical Film Ever Produced by Hollywood?,” New York Times, February 16, 2021.
  3. Jacob Uitti, “The Lucas Brothers Discuss the Philosophy Behind Their Film, Judas and the Black Messiah,” Interview Magazine, February 9, 2021.
Featured image: San Francisco Mission District Mural. Fabrice Florin / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)