by Mike Talavera
At 1900 East Cesar Chavez Street in Austin, TX on Saturday, a crowd led by revolutionary organization Defend Our Hoodz descended on the newly opened Lou’s Bodega to protest the gentrifying restaurant’s shameless disrespect of Chicano culture.
Backed by McGuire Moorman Hospitality Group, “bodega” owners Lou and Liz Lambert leased the property that formerly hosted Leal’s Tire Shop and then Gomez Tires. The mural with Aztec warriors on the walls, painted by Tito Garcia, had been a landmark of East Austin’s Chicano barrio.
Inspired by the 1960s Chicano movement, this imagery has been used by the Lamberts as a marketing scheme to sell over-priced food and beverages to hipsters and yuppies. Not only have the Lamberts kept the aesthetic of the building decorations, including the “Bienvenidos” welcome sign, but they have used the Aztec art on their merchandise as well.
Images juxtaposing the former Chicano business with the gentrifying Lou’s Bodega quickly spread online, with many accusing Lou’s of “cultural appropriation.” This is a common phrase in the liberal world of online activist culture, but it does not accurately describe the situation.
Ruling class capitalists push gentrification in working class neighborhoods, many of which were historically enforced as enclaves primarily for oppressed nations such as Chicano and Black people. With gentrification, the working class people, especially the oppressed nations, are driven out by economic exploitation.
The culture expressed in art like murals are either painted over or used in the pursuit of profit. In the case of Lou’s, gentrifiers saw the chance to make money off of the previous imagery created by Chicano people.
Defend Our Hoodz called for a protest in response to the community’s outrage, but in their call to action made the Lamberts’ use of Aztec imagery secondary to the primary offense of gentrification.
Blue Cat Cafe, the gentrifier business down the street from Lou’s that took advantage of the violent displacement of the Jumpolin piñata store in 2015, did not adopt Jumpolin’s aesthetic in the way that Lou’s Bodega uses the aesthetic of Leal’s, but the material outcome is the same: another Chicano business pushed out to make way for new businesses that cater to gentrifiers.
On Saturday just before noon, protesters marched on Chicon Street, without a permit, to confront the patrons of Lou’s Bodega. Police officers were already stationed at the front doors, guarding the gentrifying customers on the patio. Protesters surrounded the building, forming a solid picket and blocking off all entry points.
Protesters chanted slogans like, “Not a dime! Not a cent for hipsters trying to raise my rent!” and “They Steal Our Hoods! Mock Our Cultures! Basta con Yuppie Vultures!” and could be heard blocks away.
One man named Arturo said that he joined the protest because he thought the demands were reasonable. Defend Our Hoodz had called for Lou’s to drop their branding and to stop selling Constellation beers in honor of the boycott called for by Mexicali Resiste.
“I used to come to Leal’s tires, and it was a place that I felt like I belonged,” Arturo told Incendiary. “Any restaurant like this is not a place I want to go to. I’m not who they’re trying to serve.”
A woman named Ro said that she came out to the protest because online call-outs only go so far. “Everyone needs to actually go out on the streets and make [these gentrifiers] feel uncomfortable,” she said.
One of the Bodega patrons was wearing a shirt depicting a caricature of Che Guevera, prompting one protester to yell, “Che would shoot your ass!”
A masked protester made a speech connecting the struggle against Lou’s to Defend Our Hoodz ongoing fight against gentrification on East Riverside.
“Resistance is not something that can be comfortably done at a bar or classroom, it can’t be mailed to shit politicians, it will not be civil,” she said. “Gentrification is violence and we will fight back!”
When the internet blowback to Lou’s disrespectful imagery had started, Liz Lambert had initially invited Defend Our Hoodz representatives to discuss the grievances. Gentrifiers always use this “dialogue” tactic to push their agenda. In this way, they get to act magnanimous and pretend that it is a talk between equal parties, when in reality they have the backing of capitalists and the state. If they don’t get their way, they call the police.
In the past ten years, East Cesar Chavez St., once the center of Austin’s Chicano community, has become unrecognizable to longtime residents. Some have even condemned East Cesar Chavez as a lost cause to the wave of gentrification, but the numbers and mass character of the Saturday protest showed that a will to fight back remains among the community and is getting stronger.