When I hear the unmistakable beat of cumbia, my body and spirit naturally respond — I just want to dance. Cumbia is the sound of my childhood and the backdrop to my life’s celebrations. I grew up in South Texas in the ‘90s and early 2000s. Back then, every quinceañera, boda, and family barbecue was imbued with cumbias by Tejano and norteño bands. You couldn’t leave a party without hearing Fito Olivares, Los Tigrillos, Grupo Control, and of course, Selena. I danced with my cousins to “Como La Flor” a hundred times and made my quince dance debut to “Baila Esta Cumbia” with my damas and chambelanes.
But once I left home for college in Austin, the music from my upbringing faded away. The house parties and clubs on 6th Street I frequented with friends played electro, top 40 hits, and hip hop. Whenever I was homesick, I would blast cumbia in my apartment to transport me back to the Rio Grande Valley.
Then, a few months after graduating college, around the time I had come out to my parents after being in the closet for years, I went to an event hosted by Queer Qumbia en Tejas. That night, I danced to the songs of my childhood with the person I loved, who is now my spouse. Up until that point, I had only ever seen straight couples dance to cumbias. Watching queer and trans Latine people take over the dance floor was pivotal for me. It was the first time I felt all of my identities affirmed in one place.
Now, more than a decade later, queer-led collectives across the country are celebrating cumbia at parties and events that center queer and trans people of color. From Cumbiaton in Los Angeles to Arrebato in New York to La Choloteca in Atlanta, DJs and artists are prioritizing queer and trans joy and throwing bigger and better parties along the way.
“We really needed these spaces for our own perseverance.”
DJ Sizzle Fantastic
“We created this space where we could come and rejoice and be unapologetically ourselves as immigrant, undocumented, queer, trans people of color,” says Zacil Pech, also known as DJ Sizzle Fantastic, who co-founded Cumbiaton. “We really needed these spaces for our own perseverance.”
Pech and her friend Normz La Oaxaqueña started Cumbiaton in 2017 in response to Donald Trump’s presidency. Pech and her friends were involved in the immigrant rights movement and wanted an outlet to have fun.
“It can’t be all work and no release,” Pech says. “We decided to hold these spaces where we saw that music, dance, and art can also cure and help our broken spirits.”
Originally from the coastal state of Guerrero, Mexico, Pech and her family migrated to the U.S. when she was four years old and settled in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Boyle Heights. Pech’s upbringing influences her DJ sets. She mixes tropical music — salsa, merengue, and cumbia — from her roots in Mexico with the music she heard in her Chicano neighborhood: hip hop, banda, and reggaeton.
“I play for the people that I grew up with,” she says. “I play for those marginalized communities. And, for me, it's really important to always put that at the forefront.”
Cumbia originated in Colombia and has both African and Indigenous roots. The music gained popularity and made its way to Mexico, across Latin America, and eventually arrived in the U.S. Pech sees cumbia as a “working-class genre” — you can hear cumbia coming from the kitchens of five-star hotels and restaurants, no matter the cuisine, all across the country.
“[Cumbia] has crossed borders, and it has surpassed countries and broken glass ceilings, and it's still as resilient as ever,” Pech says. “I don't think it's going anywhere, anytime soon.”
Cumbiaton started as a small get-together among friends that’s now sold out venues of hundreds of people, including in different cities like San Francisco, Seattle, and New York. Cumbiaton strives to be a welcoming space for multiple generations including the primas, tías, and even parents of young party-goers.
“It is through our families that a lot of us have our love for cumbia, so it's only right that we're also able to share it with them,” Pech says. “It creates moments and memories that are core to our beings and to our lives.”
Diana Chacon, aka DJ Undocubougie, watched Cumbiaton flourish from across the country in Jackson Heights, Queens. In April 2019, Chacon and her friend Mateo Guerrero were talking about how all the events they wanted to go to were mainly in Brooklyn and catered to either non-Latine white people or cis, gay men. Inspired by Cumbiaton’s work, Chacon realized she could do something about it.
“We're not just taking space, but we're also making space for the owners and the people working to have an opportunity to learn more and not just tolerate the party, but rather really understand that these are your people, too."
“Meeting the members of Cumbiaton was the push I needed to remind myself it is possible for us to create these spaces,” she says. “And we don't need to wait on anyone else to just start it.”
Arrebato launched in June 2019, just in time for Pride month, making a space for queer and trans people of color in Queens, New York. Undocumented and formerly undocumented DJs and artists like Chacon — who immigrated from Lima, Peru, when she was 11 years old — lead the organization.
“With Arrebato, my intention has always been to hire folks who are migrants and play that music you heard back home that you probably wouldn't think you would hear in a queer space,” Chacon says. “You probably would hear it in a Latino spot that happens to also be straight, but like, why can’t we have both?”
As community organizers, Chacon and her friends wanted to hold Arrebato events in “straight spaces” to create a more inclusive culture in Jackson Heights. Chacon explains that while she loves her community, she understands homophobia and transphobia are still alive and well. It’s an opportunity, she says, to have conversations with bar managers and workers about queer and trans identities.
“We're not just taking space, but we're also making space for the owners and the people working to have an opportunity to learn more and not just tolerate the party, but rather really understand that these are your people, too,” she says.
Arrebato primarily throws parties, but the group has also previously hosted biking and rock climbing events. For Chacon, the most memorable event was the 2022 Queens Pride pre-game party, which was held on a rooftop with the 7 train passing by in the background and performances from a live band and DJs.
“It was one of those full-circle moments where you're like this is exactly what we wanted to do,” Chacon says.
Down south in Atlanta, multimedia artist Josephine Figueroa was making waves curating her own Latine-centered art shows. But after the 2016 shooting at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub killed 49 people, mostly queer and trans Latines, Figueroa saw the need to bring the LGBTQ Latine community together. It fueled her to co-create La Choloteca in September 2016, in tandem with Latine Heritage Month celebrations.
“We needed joy. We needed togetherness.”
“This party was created out of a necessary need for hope,” says Figueroa, aka DJ La Superior. “We needed joy. We needed togetherness.”
Figueroa’s Peruvian family moved from New York to Atlanta when she was a kid, leading her to experience isolation in a neighborhood and school that didn’t understand her. So Figueroa looked to Selena to help her feel like she wasn’t alone.
“She was the first person I got to see that looked like me — that had a similar upbringing of maybe they speak English better than Spanish,” she says. “Her music was what made me feel like I belonged somewhere.”
La Choloteca is Figueroa’s way of building the community she always wanted growing up in Atlanta. Today, La Choloteca has become so popular that it’s regularly selling out venues with a capacity for hundreds of people.
“It's just an important place for queer joy, to relax, to move your body and release the negative energies that the world and capitalism has placed on us and just have a good time and connect with one another,” she says. “Through that connection is where we will be able to make cultural change.”