San Cha and Maria Maea
Artists: San Cha and Maria Maea
Camera: Jazmin Garcia
Editor: Caitlin Diaz
Production Assistant: Prisca Rios
I crush your once mighty hand under the weight of her stone body, 4 sides 10 feet
I become light as air and leave the ground
Each dry kernel opens in her wet earth and blooms to meet me in the sky
We are free of you and your scorched earth
We are free of our own forgetting
We belong to this place, we belong to her and you will never
Your hands broken, your body numbs as the venom of our bite cools your blood
And laughter, my own booming laughter awakens me from this sleep
Lizette Anabelle Gutierrez, better known by her stage name, San Cha, was born in San Jose, California as the first generation daughter of Mexican American immigrants. After spending much of her 20s cutting her teeth performing in the San Francisco Bay Area’s experimental music and drag scenes, she decamped in 2014 to stay with an aunt in rural Jalisco, Mexico, where she discovered her passion for ranchera music.
Now based in Los Angeles, San Cha is increasingly known for her visceral and explosive live performances, which boldly subvert her Latinx and Catholic upbringing while simultaneously paying homage to it. Through emotional renditions of traditional Mexican rancheras and original compositions, San Cha queers conventions of identity, power, and love. Her striking stage presence is accompanied by the one-of-a-kind garments she adorns, aesthetic reflections of the years spent performing in drag and club scenes in the Bay.
Her latest album, 2019’s La Luz De La Esperanza, is written in the form of a surrealist telenovela, mixing Spanish and English vocals in what Pitchfork described as “modernized ranchera with a rock edge and goth sensibility.” She has performed in notable venues and festivals across the country, include the Getty Museum, the Time Based Art Festival in Portland, the Sonido Clash Music Festival in San Jose and the Red Bull Music Festival.
Maria Maea is a Los Angeles-based multi-disciplinary artist working across object-making, installation, and performance. She moves fluidly between disciplines, deepening her connection to her source materials through explorations in film, sculpture and movement. Her work often employs references to magic, ritual and collective action. She has collaborated with such artists as Rafa Esparza, taisha paggett and Sebastian Hernandez, among others. Maea has had solo exhibitions at Coaxial Arts Foundation and Club Pro Gallery in Los Angeles. She has participated in group exhibitions at Residency Art Gallery, Commonwealth & Council, Human Resources and Grand Park’s Our L.A. Voices festival.
How would you describe yourselves these days?
Maria Maea: Honestly, every day is a different day. That’s something that’s been really apparent in this moment of quarantine. Maybe we thought we knew what to expect in our lives. We thought we had plans with our creative ventures, and that’s just not the way it goes. You don’t get to make those big stroke broad plans right now. I think it’s actually given me a lot of space to decide to just be with myself and actually sit in a feeling. Some days I wake up really bummed out, and I have to navigate what that is, and some days I wake up full of joy, sprawled out. Where is that coming from? How do I keep that as my practice? For me it became a lot less about the objects I was trying to make or the space they inhabit, but rather more how I move through creating and keep grounded as a person. How do you decenter in a moment like this? When maybe you are your only focus.
San Cha’s and my initial phone call and catchup through quarantine was because of this project, it gave us that space. We’re homegirls who have been in our own little bubbles for a minute and we were able to ask one another, ‘How are you? How are you through all of this? How are you through COVID? How are you with your partner? How are you without a partner? How are you with the protests? How do you feel about that?’ There’s a depth to the way in which we speak to each other now, even if it’s just a casual check-in and that hello. But right now, the people I’m showing up for and collaborating with are the people I want to hold space with and want to build with.
Do you think that this time has allowed people to not only reset, but take a moment to look at their lives? Think about what and who they hold dear? Perhaps also to stop spreading themselves so thin?
MM: For our generation we grew up in a rhythm of capitalism. Always ‘go go go!’ Even in our free time we see how many things we can pack into a day. We’ve had to dislodge ourselves, pull ourselves away from that. Both San Cha and I have been able to talk about growing things, getting the chance to eat meals with our families and our friends in a different way. We sat in my backyard, ate tamales and laughed and enjoyed each other. I think we weren’t able to hold space quite so intimately with each other before. That level of intimacy comes from being vulnerable, because I’m literally vulnerable right now. I’m in a pandemic. I’m in an uprising. You’re my sisterhood and I’m happy to create with you.
San Cha: Aw, love you! Because of all this I’m feeling very slow. Things just get drawn out. I spend most of the time not doing anything and I’ve never done that before. I’m allowing myself to do that, my body is forcing me to not do anything. I’m centering. I’m taking the ego away from what we’re doing. It’s a process in this creative world. We’re still central to our own works, but I’ve found more room for collaboration during the pandemic. We didn’t do this video piece alone. We brought Jazmin to film, then we brought Caitlyn to edit, then I sent the song out to musicians I’ve been working with closely. When I was stuck and I didn’t know where to go I asked, ‘Can you put some percussion on it?’ and one of them came back to me, with full percussion bass and guitar. The other musician I collaborated with was like ‘I can’t do this by myself, I have to come over.’ So he came over and recorded all the flute and some backing vocals.
What does For the Love of L.A. mean to you both?
SC: For me it’s all the people I’ve met here. People that are from here and people that I’ve met through this network. In some way, we’re all connected or affiliated with each other; the whole community of people that I’ve found here. It’s made it easier when I realize I can’t do things. I can always connect with somebody in my community who I can collaborate with.
MM: For me, For The Love of L.A. is essentially the same thing. These brown art communities that have grown together. I grew up in Long Beach but I came up in the art community through DIY sound and music communities. I grew up doing noise and DIY experimental sound, then found my way into the Latinx community. When one person gets pulled into these larger networks and institutions, it’s really poignant to take your friends with you. It’s part of how you’ve come up, and how you’ve grown collectively. You’re not just a single person who’s made this really unique art all by yourself, you’ve done it in community.
A lot of my mentors like Rafa (Esparza), Beatriz Cortez, Eva Aguila, those people have always spread that space. That’s so L.A. On one side, it’s such a strange place and can be so isolating, but deep underground there are kids who are finding the spaces. My first show was played in a garage. L.A. has always given me those spaces. They weren’t always beautiful. There were people who really needed that space and they created it for each other. L.A. just continues to do that over and over. It feels so important. At this moment I didn’t want to know just what San Cha and I were thinking, I wanted to hear from Jazmin, from San Cha’s partner Cris. I wanted more input. L.A. always gives me that.
At what point in your lives did you both realize you were artists, or that you could be?
SC: I’ve never wanted to do anything else but music. But of course, that wasn’t what I was supposed to do. My dad said to me ‘You’re not born rich, you need to find something else.’ I found ways around that.
When I first started performing at these drag spaces that weren’t designed for musical artists, I was my own band. When I did have a band, we were performing at punk shows and art galleries and I never had the language to claim ‘I am an artist’, but I kept falling into these art spaces. Even two years ago I would have said I am a musician, I’m not an artist.
MM: I did not feel like an artist for a very long time. I grew up in a very conservative home and background. It wasn’t until I discovered experimental sound and punk shows in Long Beach. I saw people make not-music and thought, ‘Oh my god, you can do that?!’ I put a contact mic in my mouth for the first time and was like ‘Whaaaaa!!!’ What the fuck is that? It was always that community of people who weren’t looking for anything from it, it was just a very visceral and sonic way of expressing themselves. You could be creative in these really experimental ways and challenge yourself. In three years I was doing that, and just trying out different avenues, like dancing while I played a noise track I made about walking to the park, and I wasn’t looking for anything from it. But I was encouraged by the people who did see it, who heard it, and held space for it. Objects didn’t come into my work until much later. They came through performance and the creation of sonic pieces. There are younger people in our community who ask us ‘How do you participate?’ I tell them ‘You and your friends, you do it yourselves and you encourage each other. You reach out to older people, but institutions are not the goal.’ Work on yourself and in your community, and it will only be more potent together. If you’re shaping yourselves to fit inside these (institutional) spaces, you’re never going to be yourself. Only through that unmasking and constantly showing up and performing and failing, when we juxtapose ourselves to these big institutions, we feel like we can’t fail. But this is when our work actually gets good. Let me make choices about artmaking and performance that I wouldn’t have made if I was constantly worried about what other people thought.
How did you guys meet? Was it through the DIY scene?
SC: I was in a band with Maria’s brother. That was my first performance at a music venue, it was upstairs at Los Globos. That’s where I met Maria because she came to see her brother perform.
MM: We actually had our first moment when San Cha came out to Maria and I was helping Rafa (Esparza) out there with adobe brick making. San Cha and another friend drove out and performed in the local drinking hole. (laughs)
SC: I performed because Maria and Rafa told the bartender I had to perform. (laughs)
MM: What Rafa has really helped with in our community has been bringing folks together and instilling that trust in one another. Work it out. What can you guys know about each other. We stayed in a house together for a weekend and in that moment there were a lot of masculine bodies in the room so it was really nice to have female energy. We had a really refreshing, bonding moment.
This piece brought you to create together again. How did your relationship develop throughout the collaboration?
SC: For me it was tricky and I thought ‘who is even around right now? Who can we trust to be in each others’ spaces?’ Me and Maria have always had that intimacy, but having the project made it that much more ok to be in each other’s lives again. Even though we had talked about meeting up before for a hike or something, with this pretext it was so much more enticing and got us really excited.
MM: San Cha and I have been trying to co-create before on three different projects. As brown women, the things we have to say are very important and these things are important for other women of color to hear and to participate in. Especially as brown women in this moment with purpose.
We could take it to this mystical realm. That part kind of scared me at first. How do we talk about the world in this moment? When things are really real right now? Maybe it’s not in this real space, maybe it’s in this... I don’t want to call it a dream world because it’s a reality, that we can exist in this reality together where we are magical and these stories we want to recreate and reintroduce into the world are just as potent through symbolism.
Yes, there’s a lot of symbolism in this piece. Can you discuss how the music, the visuals, the costumes, all of it came together, and what this piece means to you in the context of this moment in time?
SC: When Maria and I met up, we spoke a lot about the land, BLM protests and COVID forcing us to stay inside. We talked about land ownership and things like that. I started writing the song and talking about how this land doesn’t belong to us, but we belong to the land. Seeing the way whiteness and capitalism work, how it’s so separate and ‘despegado’ (detached) from anything, detached from empathy and knowing our histories. Our ancestors being colonized, and us having white blood running through us. And making us disconnect from the earth and the land. We thought about how brown and Black people turn against each other. We wanted to bring it all back to the land.
MM: Something that came up was that through colonization there’s been an erasure. When we look back at our history, we don’t understand its sources. For women like San Cha and me, we grew up in religious backgrounds. Our parents indoctrinated it into us but it didn’t belong to our parents either, it was indoctrinated into them. The object of the Guadalupe dress, for example, San Cha’s worn it to the calles. Our conversations brought up her desire to wear the dress, and we started talking about our own indoctrination into Catholicism and how we feel about it. But we said Guadalupe was actually the replacement of Coatlicue, the creation goddess. I’m not an academic. A lot of this information I’ve gotten through the underground community. Through our collective gathering, I’ve learned a lot about where I come from and who I am. What we were trying to do was create this living altar of Coatlicue being unburied.
When the Spanish came to Mexico and they found the Aztec calendar and the Coatlicue sculpture, which was a 10’ tall, 4-sided piece sculpture, they decided to rebury her because she was so grotesque. She’s a two-headed snake. But she was creation, and creation in that duality lens, destruction and reaction, birth and death. She’s all of it. And this is something people of color are really trying to embody right now. This is a moment of struggle, but this is also a moment of our celebration, of our lives, and how much perseverance we can have and how much we’re willing to stake to change it all. We’re ready to really throw down to do that. Creating the visual aspect of the living Coatlicue was about unburying that imagery. San Cha created a protest song, a chant, a mantra to be repeated. This is something we really tried to embody in the performance. It was summer solstice too!
SC: The snake imagery in Catholicism, which is the religion I learned it from, represents a temptress. It actually emerged that the Aztecs were called snake people. Snakes were a symbol for the Aztecs when they separated from this tribe that is still here in the U.S. It is still here in Arizona and Colorado called the Hopi. Putting the snake in the ice and melting the ice, but also having the snakes behind me was a way to convey creationism and represent all people. It’s that duality.
MM: Magic can also be so literal. We’re here to destroy ICE. We’re here to destroy detention centers. Our actions can be that literal. That’s where the magic exists. Honestly, in a lot of brown culture, even in being Catholic, they still embody curanderisma. They still embody folk magic. Those things are real and you need those symbols to empower people through that object.
San Cha and I essentially became one united body in that image. The thought was that her head as the Guadalupe image was the decapitated head worn by Coatlicue. That is the entry point to San Cha’s head. Back into this source, this old memory of ourselves, our power, a place beyond our servitude. For Black and brown bodies, that feels like a very important message to relay back to ourselves. Our myths tell us that. But we don’t know our myths. We’re not taught about our mythology. They are very human stories about surreal beings and peoples. Cultures across the world have these creation stories for a reason. They empower people. They empower your light, your ability to make change, allow you to feel a capacity to do these things. We want the ICE symbol to be too literal.
San Cha and I also don’t know what to do with all these things coming up. Something else regarding the ice, we talked about a lot of things and wrote words: trans rights, police brutality, colorism, things that right now we don’t know how to solve. We don’t know how to fix them. I don’t even know how to be fully in dialogue with these things because we’re at the beginnings of this. And at the end of something else. Just allowing those words to sit in that space, to change, to be, melt away and see what happens.
You mentioned something earlier about the brown community being not necessarily at an advantage, but at a different vantage point than the Black community? What are your thoughts on how that dichotomy is framed?
SC: The struggles are different. With money, they’ve figured out ways to put us against each other, even in the way that the Super Bowl happened. While Black artists such as Rihanna were protesting the Super Bowl, you had this visible Latin exposure. Before anything blew up to this proportion, we could have had some solidarity. Even now as brown people, we’re still trying to figure out how to show up, and really show up, and confront our own racism. We could call it Colorism, but really it’s racism. We need to confront that part of it, otherwise we can’t actually be a part of the cause if we don’t understand.
MM: This moment in particular has made communities of color confront anti-. I know we’ve asked that of whiteness in previous moments. ‘Hey talk to your mom, talk to your aunt.’ As women of color, as brown women of color, it’s also been our obligation too to show up in these ways and re-educate our own families. And also bridging these gaps of understanding. The way the media sells it to us is ‘police brutality is a Black issue and immigration is a brown issue, and these are separate issues’ and it’s not. It’s mass incarceration and systematic oppression that affect all peoples. There is a very large amount of Black immigrants in detention. There are a large amount of brown bodies slain by police. In understanding ourselves, I think we can offer more solidarity in understanding our own histories, and the ways in which we’ve erased Blackness from our story and find a way to reconcile that in ourselves and in our practices.
SC: Especially because slavery happened not just in the U.S., it happened in Puerto Rico and Mexico, everywhere in Latin America. There are Black Latin American people, but that’s something a lot of us don’t consider because you don’t see so much of it in the media. They just fixate on white embodiment.
MM: I think that through understanding our histories and seeing so many relational points and connections between not only Black and brown cultures, but Black and Latino cultures, you start to see the connections between Asian American cultures, Middle Eastern cultures and finally the oppression as Americans or when people come to become Americans, is across the board. Lynchings happen to brown folks too; all of these histories coincide. Japanese internment camps then and detention centers now. We have to see those lines of connection so that we know we’re in solidarity. So that we know all of this is all of our history.
SC: And all of our struggle.
MM: And all of our struggles. Like San Cha said, ‘the thing to know is that until we take care of the most vulnerable, we’re not really taking care of anyone’.
How do you see the future evolving? How do you see your contribution to that future, through visual arts? And how would you like to see art’s contribution overall?
SC: By giving power to Black womyn and centering Black trans womyn in curatorial positions. I feel like the future is going to be Black, and Black-centered, and that will trickle down.
MM: It needs to trickle down on all aspects. A lot of my daily work, not during quarantine, is production. That was a big conversation we were having a lot in production. About how we not only needed people of color in front of the camera, but people behind the camera too. And, also, how we create these systems to put people in those positions. How do we take out our own ego, decenter ourselves and realize that people aren’t in these positions because systematically we’ve made it this way? A person of color can stand as a director or a producer or this or that just as empowered as a white man. That’s really important to understand at this moment. And that’s what the art community can do. Allow people of color to take up more space. To really toss money into that, to really level out what hasn’t been leveled before. I understand it wasn’t all of us who did this, but right now this is the world we’ve inherited and we can do better collectively. We can acknowledge we’ve benefited in ways that weren’t of our own making, and that’s ok. We can level it out though. We can redistribute. We can allocate differently, and we will still have plenty.
What places in L.A. inspire you the most? Where do you escape to, to get out of your own head?
SC: It’s always my friends’ houses like Maria’s house. I get to see a lot of my friends’ families here and that always takes me out of the art world or the entertainment world, and just be a person. Hang out with the elders (laughs).
MM: All of the above. Being in familial spaces. Being in spaces that are not always creative spaces, but also since quarantine, the ocean. I’ve started surfing. My background is mixed race, I’m half-Mexican and half-Samoan, so I’m Polynesian. I’m completely drawn to the ocean. But in poverty, you have a different relationship (with the ocean) and even growing up in a beach town, I existed so differently with the ocean. To stand as a brown woman on a surfboard in a predominantly white space and to fail again, I’m having that DIY art community moment where I’m failing so hard but I’m enjoying it. It feels really impactful and it’s helping me gain another sort of trust with myself and with my community who I’m going out with who are also queer brown women. It’s been really interesting to do that in my 30s (laughs) and realize I’ve had separation from that level of play that can exist within my body. I’m part of a project Rafa’s doing right now and there’s these really heavy talks; we’re talking about ICE, we’re talking about detention centers, we’re talking about people being sprayed with disinfectant. It’s atrocious shit. To have this deep trust with myself that I’m gaining through this action and being with the ocean, the salt water, the smells; it’s helping me really be present in a way I haven’t been in a long time. It took away a lot of the posturing that I felt like I was starting to get from wanting to be in an art community.
What other projects do you have in the works right now?
SC: I feel like developing this idea we created for For The Love of L.A. a lot more. How this came together so magically and how we’ve been wanting to have this conversation and didn’t know how. It’s something that can be expanded.
MM: We’ve talked about making more of these myth stories for ourselves. It really does something for us to learn that history. It gives us agency to think about, ‘How do I do this? How do I create something in my backyard? How do I bring this mythical creature alive?’ We want to dive into something deeper with the work. We want to keep on doing that. The world’s going to shut down again it seems, but we can meet in each others’ backyards.