Last year was a tumultuous time for the East L.A.-bred band Las Cafeteras. One of the band's founding members, Annette Torres, left the group in April 2015—although she's said she was kicked out.
Torres accused her male colleagues of misogyny, silencing and suppressing the women in the band. She particularly pointed fingers at her nephew Hector Flores and Daniel French, who both contribute vocals and jaranas—an 8-stringed instrument from Veracruz, Mexico—to the band.
Those allegations brought tons of heat, since Las Cafeteras' foundations lie on social justice issues, such as fighting gender inequality and racism.
"The men were controlling and abusing the women in the band," Torres wrote in a blog in December 2015. "There was a lot to verbal abuse from them. In the last three years I suffered from low self-esteem. I lost my voice and I lost myself being part of Las Cafeteras."
Leah Gallegos, vocalist and master of the quijada de burro—a Latin percussion instrument made of the jawbone of a donkey, horse or mule—says the unfortunate way those events unfolded taught a lot of lessons to herself and the rest of the band.
"Annette, first and foremost—she's family," Gallegos says.
After musically collaborating for more than 10 years, to Gallegos, Torres and her children are blood.
"It is completely heartbreaking that we are in this situation with a family member, where we can't meet eye-to-eye, and see things in a way that is neutral," Gallegos says.
In a way, the backlash that came from fans and other critics after Torres' departure forced the band to look within. It was an opportunity to grow.
"We were critiqued, we were questioned, we were challenged...the heart of our being, the core of what we stand for," Gallegos says.
She's now one of two mujeres in Las Cafeteras.
"I am completely confident that I am in a place where I am supported, where I can raise my voice and challenge people to do better," she says.
The beginning of 2016 is about fresh air for the band.
Las Cafeteras, the perfect child of hip-hop, son jarocho (a style of music from Veracruz), folk and alternative influences, is putting final touches on their second album. It's hard to believe their debut record, It's Time, came out four years ago, and it's been as long since the band performed in the Old Pueblo.
Gallegos says they have 10 songs ready thus far—mostly originals and the rest are remakes of some of the band's most beloved classics. The new album will bring cumbia, hip-hop, R&B and salsa with a hint of oldies and even rancheras—all sounds Chicanas and Chicanos typically grow up listening to in East L.A.
"We go on the road and we come home to the studio to try to put it all together," Gallegos says. She hopes the final product will come out some time in April.
"It is a lot of fun to have our sound, coming from our bodies, our instruments, the voices, the clapping, the stomping," she says. "It sounds beautiful."
The heart of the words on the new album will come down to pure storytelling. It will be a marriage between Las Cafeteras' distinct, socially conscious message, as well as their lives—from being young students taking son jarocho classes together at the Eastside Cafe in L.A.'s El Sereno neighborhood to unexpectedly becoming a full-time musical ensemble.
"What we really want to do is encourage people to start expressing their stories, whether that is through song or poetry or writing or even dancing. How can we creatively express our stories?" Gallegos says. "Who were are, where we come from, where we wanna go, what we dream of, what we're scared of—all these things make up our experience. Let's use that to engage with each other."