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After the Tragedy: Remembering Carlos Zaragoza, an ‘Optimistic Beam of Energy’ in L.A.’s Cumbia and Activism Communities

July 25th should have been just another routine Thursday. The painful reality is that many of us spent the day learning that our friend and brother, Carlos I. Zaragoza, the local activist and La Chamba's co-founder, had been killed in his family’s home along with his father, during the early morning hours of the day.

The painful reality is that our friend and brother was killed in his family’s home along with his father, Carlos I. Zaragoza, during the early morning hours of July 25th. According to a press release published by the L.A. District Attorney’s office, Gerry Dean Zaragoza “was charged in case LA090958 with four counts of murder, two counts of attempted murder and one count of attempted robbery” after “killing four people, including his father and brother, and injuring two others during a shooting spree.”

It was senseless, inconceivable, and unconscionable that this happened. 

To focus on the grief this has caused, however, is to disrespect and dishonor Carlos’ time with us on this Earth because Carlos was a man of unrestrained happiness and infinite optimism. These traits shone through in his work with cumbia group La Chamba, which he co-founded; in his political activism as he marched through the streets of DTLA supporting the human rights of immigrants, laborers, and many others; and in his work with the SEIU.

His music, his activism, and his work connected him with a massive community of people who he inspired with his joy and optimism. All it took at times was a flash of his smile. It was the type of smile that could light up the darkest room. He had a gift for turning grief into joy.

Carlos’ former bandmates commemorated that legacy with a benefit show at La Cita, the DTLA venue where they built their following and honed their skills on stage, last week on August 7th. The show was aptly titled “Life: A Benefit Show Honoring the Life of Carlos Zaragosa.” Volcán, Changüi Majadero, and El Conjunto Nueva Ola performed on the night along with La Chamba with every group dedicating part of their sets to the memory and life of Carlos.

Alejandro Araujo, José Luis Carballo, and Carlos Zaragoza

It wasn’t easy. Our collective grief hung in the air as the crowd that filled every nook and cranny of La Cita shared their own stories about Carlos. It wasn’t until La Chamba took to the stage that our collective grief slowly bloomed into collective joy. Their set was short but full of life, as Carlos would have wanted, and included a few songs connected with Carlos including “El Guapo” (for obvious reasons) and “La Araña,” one of the group’s first original songs that he co-wrote with bandmate Jason Zepeda.

An altar dedicated to Carlos. Photo by Ivan Fernandez

The moment of the night came when La Chamba invited Peruvian guitar legend José Luis Carballo on stage with them. Carballo is a former member of Peruvian group Los Hijos Del Sol who originally wrote and performed “Cariñito,” a classic Peruvian cumbia track that La Chamba typically cover with the help of Carballo himself.

We would go to marches together, as a band we would play at marches together, do fundraisers together, we fit together like that.

Carballo’s presence was not a surprise or out of the ordinary, nor was the group’s cover of his classic track, yet there was something about the performance of this song on this particular night that changed the entire mood inside. The entire venue sang along with the band and the optimism and joy Carlos exuded in life washed over us all. Our friend was no longer with us but he had been once and he had gifted us his joy and optimism during that time. His positivity outshined the darkness, even in death.

Lloro, por quererte

Por amarte, por desearte

Lloro, por quererte

Por amarte, por desearte

Ay cariño, ay mi vida

Nunca, pero nunca

Me abandones cariñito

Nunca, pero nunca

Me abandones cariñito

The friends and family of Carlos Zaragoza are collecting donations to help pay off funeral expenses as well as medical expenses for his mother who suffered minor physical injuries, via GoFundMe

Below are testimonies from a few people who knew Carlos through his music, activism, and union work:

Alejandro Araujo of La Chamba performs as Hector Flores of Las Cafeteras raises a shirt designed in memoriam of Carlos. Photo by Ivan Fernandez

Alejandro Araujo, La Chamba

“I first met Carlos about close to 10 years ago. He’s one of the co-founders of La Chamba along with myself and our singer Jason Zepeda. Jason is actually the brother that met him first at an action in downtown LA for immigrant rights. Carlos overheard Jason talking to me on the phone about coming over to my place to practice and Carlos hit up Jason. He was like ‘hey man, you got a band going on? I play bass if you’re looking for a bass player.’ And it just so happened that we were looking for a bass player and Jason told him ‘if you’re interested, show up to Alex’s place on Sunday, we’re going to be there.’ Sunday comes and I’m waiting for this guy named Carlos. I see that there’s a car parked right outside of my home that’s been waiting there for about 30 minutes or so and I’m like ‘who is this guy?’ and I’m kinda getting suspicious. I go up to this guy and I knock on his window. He rolls it down and says, ‘What’s up, man?’ He was on the phone with Jason. I’m like, ‘What’s up, brother? Are you looking for somebody?’ He says ‘Uh, does Alex live here?’ I was all, ‘Who wants to know?!’ He was like, ‘Oh, my name is Carlos. I’m supposed to practice.’ I go, ‘Oh! You’re the bass player! Come on in, man, watchu doin’ in the sun?!’ So that was my first introduction to him and we just started practicing and getting to know each other and eventually formed a band, La Chamba.”

“He was always community-minded and activist-minded. Like I said, he met Jason at an action in downtown LA and even as we continued playing together...I come from an activist background, Jason comes from an activist background, and so we fit together naturally. We would go to marches together, as a band we would play at marches together, do fundraisers together, we fit together like that.”

“I got a message from one of his family members who sent me a message through Facebook and I didn’t want to believe it. His family member was like, ‘Yo, have you heard anything?’ I was all. ‘Uh, what? What are you talking about?’ He tells me ‘Carlos passed away’ and I’m like, ‘What are you talking about, man?’ I thought he was playing some sort of sick joke. I didn’t want to believe it. I was in denial. I went searching on his Facebook trying to look when he last posted. I was thinking about calling him and checking up on him but his cousin then sent me the link of the report of the shootings. That’s when reality just hit me like a ton of bricks, like a train. I was just really losing it. I turned on the TV and saw the reports that were on the TV and I was just trying to get the facts straight. I ended up telling my other bandmates about this news. I was the first in the band to know so I started telling the other bandmates about this news and same reaction: They didn’t believe it. From there, we just scrambled to try to get in contact with family members, friends to verify it. It was difficult to really get to know the facts as it was coming out because the media didn’t have the facts straight. They were saying that there was a 20-year-old, deceased man and we were like, ‘Yo, Carlos wasn’t 20 years old! He was in his 30s. What’s going on?’ Hearing it first-hand from his family pretty much confirmed that the brother had passed.”

“I was telling some folks the other day that I remember him as just a very happy, very joyful person. In terms of processing it, I’m still processing it, even tonight. We’re doing this show for him. I know that I’m going to be thinking about that brother up on stage while I’m playing because we played here at La Cita together many, many times. I see him all the time wherever I go. He’s always on my mind and I know that it’s going to take a while for me to process it. At the same time, it’s beautiful to see the community. We have a sold-out show today, all the community came out. The artist community, the musician community, the activist community—all came out to show some support and show love. His family is here tonight as well. His mother is here. His sister is here and his aunts from Mexico came by and we’re all just supporting each other and trying to hold each other close during this difficult time.”

Edgar Modesto of Buyepongo. Photo by Ivan Fernandez

Edgar Modesto, Buyepongo

“I found out through the homie Luis. Luis Horacio. He’s a really good homie and filmmaker and he was going to film our show with Subsuelo. I was literally packing to go to Subsuelo when he told me. It shocked me. It killed me. For like the first three songs, I couldn’t breathe, like in the sense of me missing something...and the way it happened, it was tragic, but, at the same time, reflecting on his persona, his soul, his smile helped me finish the show. I just focused on him but it was tough.”

He was a very strong figure in our community. He was a person you could count on.

“He sent me the link to the news and I didn’t think it was him because it said his brother was 20 and I was like ‘Nah, Carlos was 30-something, it wasn’t him so they might be tripping’ so I was blowing up Jay’s phone and he answered and he confirmed it.”

“I first met him years ago. We used to throw parties at UCLA and him and Jay used to come through and some other people and just support the band. We always build relationships with our folks and this was with the old Buyepongo. A few years later, they started La Chamba and, ever since then, we’ve been doing shows with them. We did marches, we did a lot of community events, raising money for the community and La Mina and everything we did there supporting them. We used our music as a tool and we had a lot of fun doing it.”

“Look at the way it looks here and the way we’ve been getting together. Jason put it good yesterday. He said he brought musicians, organizers, teamsters, plumbers, different walks of life, he was a very strong figure in our community. He was a person you could count on. I just hope that I represent the way he did. He was always a non-selfish person who was there for us and that’s how I remember him. He loved his family, he loved his people, he loved his work, he loved good music and that’s what showed yesterday at his service.

Eduardo Arenas, Chicano Batman

“I met him at a party. He was still at UCLA. He had a beautiful smile and his energy was good. He looked like he was going to soar into the world and take it. He was young and eager and very optimistic.”

I think that’s why we all deeply felt it because we all felt his presence in a good way but now he’s gone. It’s a big emptiness.”

“I was telling my wife that the last time Chicano Batman played with La Chamba here at La Cita, Carlos broke my amp. We shared the same bass amp. That fool broke it and I had to play next but I just played it all chueco. I was like, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ They were all sad and down about it and I was like, ‘Fuck it, let’s move on.’ But he did bust my amp. I had to get it fixed. It was awesome, it was so funny. That story is amazing, I love it.”

“I found out through Instagram and then I had to call their guitar player. He broke it down and I was really sad. He was a beam of energy. A very optimistic beam of energy. I think that’s why we all deeply felt it because we all felt his presence in a good way but now he’s gone. It’s a big emptiness.”

José Rendón, Carlos Zaragoza, and Roberto "DJ Fresko" Castellanos at a Dodgers game.

José Rendón, Barrio Funky

“I’d known Carlos throughout the years because of him playing with La Chamba. I used to do a night called Barrio Funky so I’m a co-founder and DJ of Barrio Funky and we had booked La Chamba. Even before that, I’d seen him at other shows. We booked them and I always made sure to thank the musicians at the end of the show and through a mutual friend of ours, Fresko who was also a DJ, I got to know Carlos a little better the last few years. We’d go to his house and spin a few records or go out and Carlos would come and hang out.”

He took the time to hear me out because I know he was going through some stuff around the same time too so I really appreciated that he took that time for me.

“I heard the news that day and read a bit about what happened that day, but never in a million years did I think it was going to be a loved one. That night I went to a show at the Hi Hat and met up with some friends. It was when I got home that I put on social media and I read Fresko’s post and I couldn’t believe it. That was when I put two-and-two together from what I read earlier. It’s crazy because the last time that I saw him was outside of the Hi Hat earlier this year, I believe, at the Rudy de Anda show. After the show ended, it was myself, Fresko, some guys from the band, and Carlos were having some tacos and burritos after the show ended. That was the last time I saw him and then it blew my mind that when I showed up to the show earlier that day, I actually remembered that instance. Then of course I get home and find out what happened. It was definitely heartbreaking. He was a great dude.”

“Honestly, I remember his big smile like a lot of folks do. He had a smile that lit up the whole room. I had a really good conversation with him a year ago and I’ll never forget the advice he gave me. He took the time to hear me out because I know he was going through some stuff around the same time too so I really appreciated that he took that time for me. It really makes me think about those moments and how important they are.

Le decía ‘ahi viene el de la sonrisa de Colgate.

Gabriel Velasco, Kaiser Permanente SEIU-UHW

“He used to be one of our union leaders for Kaiser Permanente SEIU-UHW. He had contacts with us, the employees, to update us about our contracts. As a union leader, he was always willing to help us. We would go up to him and talk to him when he was around the office; he had one of those smiles that you could ask for anything and he would be there.”

“I found out by one of our co-workers. I guess they posted on Facebook, on channel 11, and she forwarded the video and that’s when I found out. At first, I was shocked, like ‘nah, it can’t be.’ I tried to recognize the face because they put his face on the video and I was like ‘nah, it can’t be him. That dude’s not him.’ I had to watch it twice and that’s when it hit me: ‘ is him.’”

“I didn’t go to work that day but I heard that everybody that knew him was in shock. Like, no lo podían creer (they couldn’t believe it). When I went back to work, everybody was talking about the news, de lo que había pasado (about what had happened), the video, and all that. Everything at work was not the same thing. It was todo mas sensitive, porque (because) everybody liked Carlos. At first, I was still in shock for a couple of days but then, con el tiempo, pos ya iba pasando (with time, it sank in).”

“The first thing that comes to mind about him is his smile. Como te digo, siempre que estaba en la office te pedía algo con una sonrisa (Like I’m telling you, every time he was in the office, he would ask something with that smile). Le decía ‘ahi viene el de la sonrisa de Colgate (I would tell him, here he comes with that Colgate smile).’ Siempre se reía. Ese es el mejor recuerdo que me queda (He always smiled, that is my favorite memory of him that remains).”

Update on August 13, 2019: L.A. Taco has been notified that Gerry Dean struggled with mental illness for many years and that Carlos stood by his brother's side to help him through these struggles before this tragic event. 

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