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Mexica New Year ~ Self Help Graphics ~ East Los Angeles

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Self-Help Graphics & Arts ~ 3802 Cesar E. Chavez Ave. East Los Angeles, CA 90063

Beige walls force us to forget life's potenital for passion. Their seeming innocuousness smothers the voice inside that demands vibrancy. Fortunately, we still have artists and celebrants who know that our struggles and joys are to be lived openly and in full view, that art is found in and born from the everyday, and that living right resembles a festival more than slaving away in a cubicle. Self Help Graphics & Arts’ Mexica New Year festivities in mid-March personified all above notions of celebrating life in full-blown color.

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The SHGA stands as haven for East Los Angeles' artist-warriors – that they may find strength in their visions – the building itself a functional artwork on the corner of East Cesar Chavez and Gage Avenues. The brick walls are covered with gray concrete and embedded with broken pieces of pottery with different textures and colors; in haphazard shapes resulting from the random point of the break. At intervals, white, unglazed semi-circles, the bottoms of ceramic mugs and bowls, jut from the climbing, vertical surface.

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Upon entering the festival, held in the SHGA parking lot, we were handed a glossy postcard advertising the event, and welcomed warmly with a “thanks for coming.” A cursory glance suggested that the festival itself was unexpectedly small, both in size and also (at that time) attendance. What it lacked it size, it made up for in heart and true artisan quality. About a dozen booths lined the parking lot, packed to the tops of their tents with handmade goods and art displays. Tables boasted the creations of local creatives and crafters, including art, jewelry, and clothing. More than just wares, the items – such as silk-screened Subcomandante Marcos tees – reflected political awareness and celebrated cultural pride, without coming off as aggressive or exclusionist.

Many of the vendors’ booths reflected the celebration’s general theme of the environment's importance and reconnecting with Mother Nature, as reflected in the Mexica calendar system, which uses four yearly signs – the rabbit, the reed, the house, and the knife – to reconcile self-achievement with the signs’ representations of self-sacrifice, service, justice, rest, tranquility, family, and truth, as a means of self-discovery.

Friends of the Los Angeles River were repped at a table; another displayed a small box of soil and information about organic gardening; and another supported the amazing Dr. Elena Esparza, D.C., selling herbal tea blends, soaps, and scrubs, as well as body-healing potions; plus a tent for the South Central Farmers Market, where clusters of beets the color of earth-darkened ruby slippers and boxes of lush emerald kale and spinach were sold. And no, not that proverbial line about not being in Kansas anymore. This was a far better magical world, if modest in its size.

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Children watched the hoisting of a giant sun piñata and waited expectantly for the candy explosion. Alas, the piñata’s mechanics were as faulty as Icarus’ wings, and the sun was too full of loot to hang. The weight ripped it right open with the first tug of the rope pulley. Before it could be whacked open, the piñata was done. Since the candy innards had been gravity-felled prematurely, they were subsequently human-tossed. But the joy of the children, the scramble to shove handfuls of sweets into small black plastic bags, was no less gleeful. And I’m quite certain, the taste no less addictingly delightful.

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The food, provided by Familias Unidas, was as delicious as promised. Also advertised was the nominal fee, and this too was delivered. We ordered a plate of tacos de papa (tres for $4), drizzled with sour cream, guacamole and salsa, and one tostada de frijoles y queso ($1), sprinkled with fresh green cabbage and salsa. Then we went back for another plate of tacos.

Satiated but thirsty, we sought paper cups of sweet, red agua de jamaica dished out of large glass jugs with metal ladles. I don’t know about you, but I could drink that flower water every day. Maybe I was a hummingbird in my past life.

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And then there was Umoverde on the stage. Actually, just Tone-Irie (vocals/guitar) represented the five-man group, but his set represented well. The small but appreciative audience loved the mellow Latin reggae. Tone-Irie played a song that he dedicated to the South Central Farmers Market, and reminded all of us that what we witnessed after Hurricane Katrina should serve as reminder that we need to take care of each other. He finished with Bob Marley’s “War” as a final statement. Enough said.

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For all of its quiet celebration, the Mexica New Year felt like a private invitation. We were ready to say to someone “thanks for having us,” had we received another “thanks for coming” as we left, but as we didn’t, we just thought it instead. But we’ll be back; life with beige walls will inevitably take its toll again. And even if we paint with raw, loud colors, we’ll still seek out the places that did first, those places that teach us how to live.

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