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Meet Eric Eztli, The SELA Community Leader Throwing Open Mics In His Childhood Home

[dropcap size=big]I[/dropcap] walked up a driveway to a small garage in the City of Bell last Friday, where a group of creatives came together in person for the third YouTube livestream of Alivio Open Mic, a grassroots safe space created to celebrate the working class community of Southeast Los Angeles (SELA). Folks gathered in a circle on the driveway doing strange vocal exercises I will never understand, while the host recorded them for Instagram from the vantage point of the top of his parent’s pickup truck. I knew from that moment it was going to be one hell of a show. 

After a few minutes of slight confusion and complete awe, I greeted Alivio’s founder and host, Eric Eztli, a SELA community leader and educator dismantling hypermasculinity, teaching crypto investing, and providing artists with opportunities, all while being a husband and father.

In a time when the pandemic isn’t over, my Friday night never felt so surreal, but I remain hopeful as we move away from the never ending uncertainty of 2020, and slowly drift into a reality that’s as close to “back to normal” as possible.

Rare Hearts performs at Alivio Open Mic on Friday May 21, 2021. Photo by Rudy Torres.

The show opened up with an acoustic set by The Altons, featuring some of their hit singles “When You Go (That’s When You’ll Know)” and “Over and Over.” Followed by a solo guitar set from Rare Hearts. Victoria Elise literally gave me goosebumps as she performed a bilingual set of love songs straight from the depths of her heart. To close out the show, Figgy Baby came through with original songs from his debut album, ‘Blood From a Stone,’ that made me feel like I was listening to the album itself rather than witnessing a flawless, live performance.

Victoria Elise performs at Alivio Open Mic on May 21, 2021. Photo by Rudy Torres.
Victoria Elise performs at Alivio Open Mic on May 21, 2021. Photo by Rudy Torres.

With concerts and shows slowly making a comeback, the best way to get my feet wet before diving right into crowded, confined spaces was to be amongst friends I haven’t seen in over a year. Being out for the first time, you even start to notice all of the little things you took for granted after being away for so long. The art hanging parallel in the garage walls, the pretty string lights, and Eztli taking a moment in the midst of coordinating chaos to catch up with everyone.

Alivio Open Mic has established itself as one of SELA’s most popular community spaces, by welcoming all walks of life into Eztli’s childhood home. He proudly says, “I’m responsible for something that’s become really important in this community.”

Despite growing up in the City of Bell, a predominantly Spanish speaking, immigrant community, Eztli says he still endured racist comments from teachers who overheard him and other students speaking in Spanish. He told me, “In the school system at LAUSD, a lot of teachers were just straight up racist. They used to tell us ‘Don’t speak Spanish, you’re in America.’ They made comments and those things don’t leave you, so you grow up being ashamed of who you are.”

“My mom always instilled this idea in me that I was going to go to college and be great since I was a little kid, even though I didn’t know how to speak English until I was seven or eight,” Eztli notes.

It wasn’t until Eztli turned 16, that he began shaping his cultural identity through punk rock and ska music. He says, “At the moment I wasn’t really thinking about it, but ska and punk had a big influence in centering my cultural identity and being proud of being brown, Mexican, and first generation. It was the first time I ever had music speak to me in that way and it was awesome.” 

Some of his favorite bands during this era were La Resistencia, Cheap Sex, The Casualties, and of course you can’t talk about political sounds without mentioning System of a Down and Rage Against the Machine. “They gave me language about why I was so angry and why so many people were poor and why so many kids in the hood weren’t doing well and why our streets were bad. The music was teaching me. Even though I didn’t know it back then, but it was.” These political teachings would eventually serve as the foundation for the variety of Alivo Open Mic artists, who had something to say through different creative avenues.

For over seven years, Eztli has filled his parents’ driveway and garage every fourth Friday of the month

In 2008, Eztli graduated from Bell High School and attended CSU Long Beach where he double majored in creative writing for poetry and english education. Eztli was writing poetry for three years at this point, but it wasn’t until he was in college when he began to take it seriously. One day, his professor informed him he would eventually have to present a ten-minute assignment in class, so he decided the best way to prepare himself was to attend an open mic and share a poem. 

After searching for open mics online, Eztli ended up at an event called Speak Easy at the Last Bookstore in DTLA, where he met the host and his now longtime friend/mentor, Lady Basco. “I went alone,” he says. “Because the thought of someone seeing me petrified me even more, so I could deal with the fact that if I lose my shit, it’s in front of strangers I’ll never see again.”

Over the next few years, Eztli continued attending open mics but eventually grew the urge to start hosting his own events. He shared with Lady Basco that he wasn’t sure if he could pull it off since he didn’t have the budget for a venue. “She said ‘Just do it from your house’ and I was like wait what, from my house? So she’s the one that planted that seed,” says Eztli.

In August 2012, Eztli hosted his first event in his parents’ garage. The open mic consisting of a few friends from his community was originally called Micrófono Libre, but the name was later changed to Alivio Open Mic and the rest is history. For over seven years, Eztli has filled his parents’ driveway and garage every fourth Friday of the month with supporters and creatives ranging from poets, musicians, and DJ’s to DIY vendors, painters, and more. 

Figgy Baby performs at Alivio Open Mic on May 21, 2021. Photo by Rudy Torres.
Figgy Baby performs at Alivio Open Mic on May 21, 2021. Photo by Rudy Torres.

On an average night, you could expect an array of people talking, eating, listening, and supporting one another. Anyone who was serious about performing, knew to come early in hopes of finding a slot on the open mic list, a seat to watch the show, and a good parking spot nearby. Eztli also made sure you greeted his parents on your way to the bathroom while they made tamales and bacon wrapped hot dogs in the kitchen for folks to purchase.

However once the pandemic came in and shook the world, it put a pause on Alivio’s monthly get togethers as it did for most events. This didn’t stop Eztli though. He took the necessary precautions and moved over to Instagram Live in March 2020 and continued hosting Alivio Open Mic virtually. Exactly one year later in March 2021, Eztli was approached by David Hernandez from Nightflare LA to produce a virtual livestream of Alivio from his parents garage via YouTube. Eztli agreed and the two have established a production team amongst friends to bring their vision to life, which stands true to the testament that it truly takes a village.

In addition to his monthly open mics, Eztli and two other friends, Figgy Baby and Rudy Torres, are also taking community outreach a step further through Bloom Homie, a platform they created as a way to reimagine masculinity in hopes of inspiring others to do the same. They host circles and create curriculums for young men to discuss the pressures of toxic masculinity and how it often puts them in opposition with their families. “When men live with these thoughts they’re going to be in opposition with a new type of millenial woman that is not in this pueblo mentality,” he says. “This is not where we live anymore so how are you going to level up to the point where you can celebrate your partner together communally?”

Eztli’s mission with Bloom Homie is to help men value happiness over machismo by discussing the different ways they can express their vulnerability and be supportive, loving partners in their relationships. He is currently working with A Place Called Home to facilitate conversations and create literature for high school boys through a program called, Guy Talks. He says, “How lonely are all these men when their only form of comradery is talking about sports, women, and cars? Statistically men die earlier than women and commit suicide at disproportional rates, so how do we change the culture?”

Not only is Eztli focused on the mental wellbeing of his community, but his latest mission is to educate folks on financial literacy through crypto investing. His plan is to onboard over 360 people who expressed interest in a Summer Crypto Course for Newbies he is developing, because he believes it is very valuable for material change in people’s lives and the way they see money. “It shows you there is a demand in our community. People want to learn but they’re intimidated so I want to try to teach them as best as I can,” Eztli notes. “I would love for my community to get to a point in their own financial endeavors where they fill up these spaces and create their own businesses where we can have a local sustainable economy because I know we can do it.”

Through Alivio Open Mic and Eztli’s other community driven projects, Eztli has established his position as a powerful leader and organizer by opening up his childhood home and turning it into a safe space for his community. Eztli has since gone off to provide SELA artists with other opportunities such as his current board position with Metro Art’s Nos Vemos/We See Us Call to Artists, and the annual SELA Arts Festival he helped curate three years in a row since 2018. He says, “We can do so much it just takes a lot of coordination and organization, so when spaces don’t exist, we create them.”

Nowadays Eztli spends most of his time teaching Hacienda La Puente Unified School District high school students from home and taking care of his 2-year old son with his wife, Jen. He also plans to continue the promotional run for his debut poetry book, From My Blood, which was impacted a few months after its release due to the pandemic. “I’m still promoting Alivio and Bloom Homie, and then I’m trying to do this investing stuff and then I’m still trying to be a dad and a husband so it’s a lot. It’s fun but it can get chaotic at times,” he notes. “But at the end of the day it’s all about helping other people if you have the tools to do so. Alivio is my tool to help facilitate the voices of young people to speak up, so it comes back to that, building each other’s voices.”

'From My Blood' is now available for purchase at Target or Barnes and Noble. For more information, visit Eric Eztli’s Instagram.

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