How a Chicano band blends urban and wild life

Quetzal finds a sense of place in East Los Angeles.

 

The band Quetzal, founded by Quetzal Flores. From left to right, (top) Alberto Lopez (percussion), Quetzal Flores (guitar), and Peter Jacobson (cello); (bottom) Martha González (lead vocals, percussion), Juan Pérez (bass), and Tylana Enomoto (violin).
Pablo Aguilar

As a child, Quetzal Flores used to cut through Ascot Hills after school. On those walks through the 100-acre park, instead of railroad tracks, warehouses and chemical plants, Flores saw coyotes and hawks. That green refuge in dense, urban East Los Angeles County left a profound mark on the boy. “This is one of the last open spaces — the last spaces for animals: a refuge,” says Flores, now 43.

It’s a refuge for people as well, one of the area’s few safe open spaces. Los Angeles lags behind all the other major West Coast cities in terms of acres of park per resident, and East L.A. is especially park-poor; its largest open space is a 137-acre cemetery.    

As a Grammy-Award winning musician, Flores celebrates the open space of East L.A. and its urban animals with his Chicano rock band, Quetzal, and the songs on their 2014 concept record Quetzanimales.

Flores, Quetzal’s music director and guitarist, sprang from what has become known as the East Los Angeles Renaissance, an early-’90s blossoming of politically engaged musicians and artists, including Grammy Award-winner Ozomatli. These were multicultural groups led by the daughters and sons of Mexican immigrants and first-generation Mexican-Americans, who inherited both the gains and the ongoing struggles of a civil rights movement.

Quetzal captures the sounds of Los Angeles — rock, soul and classical as well as salsa, cumbia, boleros and rancheras. Band members are proud of their role as community musicians, a role that Flores describes as taking an active part in preserving and protecting people and places through a dedicated commitment to craft. The musician, he says, is not the soundtrack to the movement, but part of its fabric.

As the band began to write Quetzanimales, they drew inspiration from a genre nearly five centuries old: Son Jarocho, traditional music from the rural villages of Mexico’s Gulf Coast. Many of Son Jarocho’s lyrics focus on the lives of animals — woodpeckers, doves, iguanas, rabbits and bulls — as metaphors for people: lovers, dancers, the curious and the proud. Quetzal’s members focused on the urban animals in their lives — the coyotes of Ascot Hills, the geese of Hollenbeck Park and the rooster of Mariachi Plaza — meditating on the conditions in which urban wildlife thrives, beneath bridges, in storm channels and otherwise hidden in plain sight. The urban animals became symbols of the people of those places: street vendors whose livelihood is illegal, community organizers returning to work after crushing defeat; resilient immigrants upholding their culture and language.

Flores also finds inspiration in the perseverance of Hollenbeck Park, one of Los Angeles’ oldest. Once the green jewel of Boyle Heights, the park was severed by the Golden State Freeway more than 50 years ago. As the park lost its prominence, residents took on maintenance work neglected by the city. Today, those residents hail from Mexico and Central America; 100 years ago, they came from Russia, Germany, Eastern Europe and Japan. The commitment to communal space over generations and across culture and language awes Flores. “There’s something telling about that. Something so profound and beautiful,” he says. “Boyle Heights is a great lesson for humanity.”

A sense of place has always been central to Quetzal’s music. And with that place come collaborations that are part of the band’s legacy. In 1997, the band helped organize an encuentro, or gathering, of Chicana and Chicano artists and Zapatista rebels in Southern Mexico. The proliferation of Son Jarocho within West Coast Chicana communities is partially due to Quetzal’s work with musicians from Mexico’s Gulf Coast. For the past few years, the band has worked with Japanese and Japanese American musicians in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo to create FandangObon, a participatory festival fusing Japanese, African and Mexican traditions. Locally, the band mentors young musicians, and Flores is part of a group of artists working with California prisoners.

Quetzal Flores teaches a guitar class for prisoners at the Pleasant Valley State Prison in Coalinga, California. The music his band plays is meant to inspire social change.
Peter Merts

The legacy of nearly a quarter century of work continues with the release this spring of Quetzal’s latest album, The Eternal Getdown. Much like Quetzanimales, The Eternal Getdown is inspired by the people the group has met as well as the places they come from.

At his office in Boyle Heights, Flores often encounters the rooster of Mariachi Plaza, which stalks the sidewalk daily, its feathers a mix of deep red with hues of orange and a black tail with a blue sheen. Despite the congested streets, the bird safely roams up and down driveways, onto porches and through fences around the neighborhood. “Everybody knows that rooster,” Flores explains. “He’s part of the cultural web of Boyle Heights.”

Flores and the rooster squawk at one another. They follow one another. They play. The relationship, Flores says, is crucial to understanding our humanity and sense of place in one of Los Angeles’ most dense urban neighborhoods.

The rooster is given the first words of Quetzanimales. Flores says it is a direct call to action: “Wake up, everybody!”