Luis Rodriguez inside Tia Chucha. (Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles…)
Since it opened in 2001, Tia Chucha's Centro Cultural and Bookstore has endeavored to be the San Fernando Valley's answer to City Lights, a Chicano-centric version of the San Francisco bibliophiles' paradise that mid-wifed the Beat generation.
Yet only a few years ago, it was unclear whether the Sylmar-based combination bookstore, cafe, performance space and boutique publishing house would be around to mark its 10th anniversary in business this December.
In February 2007, Tia Chucha's was forced to seek new quarters to make way for a high-tech laundromat. Customers and supporters fretted aloud. A community meeting was held. A Times story lamented that a cultural "muse" was about to skip out on the northeast Valley.
As it turned out, the muse was simply migrating. For the last two years, Tia Chucha's has been operating out of a Sylmar strip mall storefront just off the 210 Freeway, not far from its former location, though the new space is only about half the size of its previous digs.
But under the restlessly energetic ownership of Luis Rodriguez, his wife Maria Trinidad Rodriguez (known to everyone as Trini) and brother-in-law Enrique Sanchez, the nonprofit Tia Chucha's continues to serve as a cultural oasis for a clientele with mostly modest incomes and limited access to wireless Internet, bookstores, movie theaters and live performance venues.
"All the arts is getting concentrated downtown and at the beaches. You can't get to a movie house from here, you can't get to a bookstore from here," said Rodriguez, 56, a poet, reformed ex-gang banger and author of the bestselling memoir "Always Running."
To reach the nearest bookstore, "you have to go 20 minutes on the freeway to go to either Pasadena, Valencia, Burbank or Northridge," he added. "I know, because I've staked them out."
According to in-house folklore, Tia Chucha's was named for one of Rodriguez's relatives (tia is Spanish for aunt), a colorful character who wrote poetry, made her own perfumes and insisted on experiencing life on her own terms.
Over the years, Tia Chucha's forged its identity in part by serving as a de facto classroom annex for local high school and college students. It has hosted readings by dozens of poets and authors, such as Sandra Cisneros, and musical performances by John Densmore of The Doors and the East L.A. Afro-jarocho band Quetzal.
It has been patronized by the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Cheech Marin and Tom Hayden, and received financial backing from sponsors including the National Endowment for the Arts and the Annenberg Foundation. "People think this is just a Chicano/Latino center, but we embrace everybody," Rodriguez said.
Most significantly, supporters say, Tia Chucha's is one of the region's few remaining genuinely grass-roots cultural institutions aimed primarily at working-class people of color, at a time when numerous other community venues have fallen victim to rising rents or recessionary downturns.
Poet and spoken-word artist Wanda Coleman, a longtime friend of Rodriguez, finds it ironic that in an era when a huge swath of L.A.'s youth population is poor and non-white, "there seem to be fewer and fewer resources" available to them for cultural expression. Tia Chucha's, she said, continues to help fill that void.
"One of the things with Luis that I find in common is really believing in the power of art, the power of language," said Coleman, who performed last August at a Tia Chucha's benefit concert with alt-Latina rocker Ceci Bastida and Grammy-nominated vocalist Perla Batalla.
Bastida agreed. "They're doing great things for the community, especially kids, who really need the help."
Today, Tia Chucha's attracts a slightly different constituency than in the past. Besides those who knew the space from its previous incarnation, Tia Chucha's clientele now includes large numbers of recent immigrants from rural parts of Mexico and Central America. Some are indigenous people who speak Zapotec or another native dialect, rather than Spanish, as their first language.
Tia Chucha's has preserved its traditional programming lineup of classes, lectures, workshops, movie viewings, readings, concerts and Friday open-mike nights. But, partly in response to its evolving client base, it also has been stocking its shelves with more indigenous-language books and packing its tiny performance area with musicians and acts with indigenous connections.
One recent day was typical of Tia Chucha's constant hum of activity. Students chatted quietly while tapping away on laptops. Old-school rock music and gourmet coffee fumes spiked the air. Opinions were being offered on topics including Arizona's immigration laws and the changing role of public art in East L.A.