Si|embrando Life and Bailando Death: Isis Avalos’ “si|embra” as a Look at Life-Death Dichotomies and Gentrification

December 6th, 2021

Irvin Manuel Gonzalez

A euphony of polyrhythms, cymbals, harmonicas, and guitars pours out of an agape, rusting white bar door. It fills the cool night breeze of Jefferson Blvd with a palpable heat, one cultivated by the convergence of bodies sudando, grooving, and feeling their way through an open dance floor.  Above the door, a faded banner reads: “Jireh Estética Unisex,” a hair salon I am all too familiar with after having walked Jefferson for most of the spring in 2020 for a dance project I was working on.

Haidee Marin, the owner of the salón that has been on the block since 2007, linked with Show Box L.A. (SBLA) this year to open her space as a performance spot, helping contribute to the organization’s vision of partnering with local, immigrant-owned businesses to house artists and highlight the community, forms of art, and ways of being that already exist in the neighborhood. Since the loss of the organization’s studio, “we live in space,” in 2020 and the takeover of the SBLA by Primera Generación Dance Collective members, Alfonso Cervera, Rosa Rodriguez-Frazier, Irvin Manuel Gonzalez, and Patricia “Patty” Huerta, the mission of the non-profit has focused on integrating more possibilities of putting funds into L.A.’s District 10. 

Upon entering the estética-turned-nightclub/ Zumba dance class party/altar, we are greeted with the setting for “si|embra,” a work that “invites you to honor the parts of you that have died but exist to remind you, you are alive” (Avalos). The event was envisioned by Isis Avalos, a self-identifying border-crossing, brown mother and artivist. She is joined by Raquel Cabrera, another Mexican-American LA-based artist who specializes in storytelling through dance and visual design, and Dennis Guzman a local Zumba dance instructor. 

Inside the estética, the smell of hair dye swirls about the space as neon purple lights compliment the glowing red sign that reads “OPEN.” My body is immediately drawn towards an ornamented altar positioned in the lower, right-hand corner of the space. There, I am greeted by a rainfall of cempasúchil (marigold flowers) that beckons my belonging. The bold, orange blossom is a flower we use in Latine traditions for Día de Los Muertos to help our ancestors find their way to the physical world and join us for a celebration of life and death. The use of cempasúschil flowers follows in the tradition of the Aztec legend of Xótchil, a woman who was turned into a flower as a way of forever preserving her connection and affection for her deceased lover, Huitzilin. Xótchil’s affective bond manifested as these bright, aromatic flowers that we use to this day as a way to maintain togetherness in life and death. Avalos and Cabrera’s ofrenda, adorned in dried corn husks, maiz, candles, and images, situates an intimate environment where the magnificent stretch of the altar that frames one corner of the salon and stands opposite a ritual-in-the-making, implicates our bodies as integral to the ofrenda process, as conduits for life beyond death.

“We go through stages in our life… with different versions of ourselves. That version of you is still in you, but is placed to the side to make room for something else…In reality, death is something to be celebrated.”

Standing next to the salon owner, Haidee, Avalos explained “We go through stages in our life… with different versions of ourselves. That version of you is still in you, but is placed to the side to make room for something else…In reality, death is something to be celebrated.” To help us rejoice in these different versions of growth and death, Avalos invited Dennis to co-lead participants in a movement class of Latine rhythms and movimientos. In these moments of facilitated dancing, si|embra guides our perceptions by tapping into the ways that Black and Brown bodies have learned to move amid moments of joy and loss, provoking the layers of embodied life and death within us, while adhering to the local neighborhood’s call of “queremos una clase de Zumba” (“we want a Zumba class”).

Avalos, Cabrera, and Guzman’s ofrenda experience asks us to consider the ways in which bodies converge daily with ritualistic practices of life and death; how we embody survival and confront our own perceptions of afterlives, beyonds, untimely departures, and nonlinear belongings. From health & lifestyle awareness, Zumba parties as bolsillos/pockets of shared safe space for Latine, middle-aged women, to the corporate grasp of branded fitness programming, to altares/altars with pictures of deceased loved ones, to captured smiles in photographs, to the forceful displacement and unjust killings of Black and Brown communities, the grasp, power, and interconnected messiness was present within a little rinconcito/corner of Jefferson Blvd in Los Angeles, CA. 

Through kinesthetic energy and booming cross-rhythms spilling into the night, the event momentarily adds another layer of joyful breath to a street who is still feeling the ongoing effects of gentrification. Just as recently as August 2021, it was announced that a 54-apartment building project would be developed to replace commercial businesses in the street.[1] The units will be located just 5 minutes from Jireh Estética. Jefferson Blvd residents have seen these continued “development” projects for years. During interviews I conducted in March of 2020, business owners, many of whom are immigrants from Latin America, explained that they had encountered increases in rent prices while seeing a new wave of white residents join the street. 

…Yet this community perseveres; selling pupusas, renting party supplies, cutting hair, and of course, dancing.

Through breathy “hey’s, hah’s, and eh’s,” Avalos and Guzman lead a group of mainly Brown and Black peoples through an impromptu Zumba lesson, beckoning us to locate ourselves through multiplicities of movement as a way to (un)consciously consider death through life. As part of this reflection, Avalos journeys her audience through an encounter with danced pleasure, asking us to move our cuerpos; dipping caderas, shimmying chests, and beating hearts, into a space of layered protection where Black and Brown folx can rely on the familiarity of polyrhythms, cumbias, salsas, and corridos to groove together on the same pulse in the face of adversity. 

At the same time, there is something about Brown and Black people coming together to sweat that transforms space.  We could be in Haidee’s salon, literally getting down with the owner, pressing heels into her purple-and-white tile flooring, but also exist elsewhere, in a future, in a past, in relationship with severed parts of ourselves, by taking in Avalos’ words: that nothing ever really dies. These parts are there but hidden, maybe even forcefully buried. The power comes in how we can visibilize and work with them again. In fostering this space, Avalos reminds us of the powerful ability that BIPOC folx hold to dance life in the face of death, to dance life and death, to dance life into death, and death into life. These ideas are echoed in her ending duet with Cabrera where the two women outstretch their arms towards one another and care for their affective woes and sweating souls. Their bodies beautifully intertwine, deliberately sewing arms into each other’s open space, limbs inching towards spines to cradle torsos. Death meets life.

In many ways, the work rebounds back to the gentrification of Jefferson Blvd, and how something like dancing energy can redirect the painful effects that displacement has on bodies and communities. Brown and Black L.A. is being erased by white hipsters and corporate greed, but as si|embra asks us to question: how do we work with and amongst death in ways that fight back, find resiliency, and redirect narratives of death as the end? How do we go beyond romanticizing death, but rather, get real with it, look at the facts, and do something with and about it? 

Avalos’ si|embra ultimately invites us to position ourselves more palpably in connection with the daily, millisecond-by-millisecond truth that death and life and vida y muerte are not necessarily opposite spectrums but coalesced states of being that teach us how to move in volatile times, giving experience to the old adage, “Nos quisieron enterrar, pero no sabían que éramos semillas” (“They tried to bury us, but they didn’t know we were seeds”). 

And it is here, in the space of social movement, that Avalos leads us to find commonality as a spectrum of bodies entering the experience, guiding a collective knowing that we all live and die. What is perhaps most important, is how we confront this cycle and the realization that we all do not die in common ways. Ultimately, the work reminds us that, like cempasúchil’s layered, persisting aroma and colors, Brown and Black resiliency continuously perseveres in the face of peril. 

[1] https://urbanize.city/la/post/exposition-park-1436-jefferson-boulevard-apartments

Irvin Manuel Gonzalez (he/him/his) is an artivist, scholar, and teacher. He received his PhD from the University of California, Riverside and teaches as an Assistant Professor at Florida State University. Gonzalez’s scholarship analyzes the constructs of brownness, queerness, and mexicanidad(es) within social dancing, looking at how immigrant, queer, and working-class dancers navigate trans/national politics through feeling and creativity. As a dance artist, Gonzalez grounds his art approaches, strategies, and constructions in rasquachismo, a low-brow Chicanx methodology, to generate collaborations and new potentials. He revels in rasquachismo’s “low brow” aesthetics and sensibilities to redefine the intended use-value of materials, connections, and being. In doing so, he seeks to dismantle notions of the “solo artist” based on white supremacy by highlighting how minoritized bodies are always already ancestrally-connected and linked to one another through emotions, experiences, and ways of resisting. Gonzalez investigates these ideas within his collaborative group, PGDC, where he works alongside brown creators and family to define ‘mexicanidades’ as a communal formation and to highlight the complexities of brown joy and loss in the United States.He is a founding member of Primera Generación Dance Collective (PGDC) and a board member for Show Box Los Angeles (SBLA).