An alien lowrider in a UFO is cruising the night sky over Los Angeles, looking for the action. He speaks calo—homeboy slang derived from the ancient Spanish of outlaws and rebels. “Caramba, cuates, donde esta la fiesta?” (“Hey, mates, where’s the party?”)
Down below, Chicano musical legends — Little Willie G (Thee Midniters), Lalo Guerrero, David Hidalgo (Los Lobos) and Flaco Jimenez — are rocking a barrio known as Chavez Ravine.
The “space vato” brings a warning. “Your time is up: the Gabachos (Anglos) will build a big stadium here. Get in my flying saucer. And let’s get flying quick, man, because our community has been stolen by the Anglos.”
But the “boys from La Loma and the girls from Palo Verde”, the cool cats, boxers, zoot suiters, and quiet dreamers, refuse to move. In the end, the last families are carried out of their houses by the LAPD.
Ry Cooder’s wonderful new street opera, a radical labour of love with an extraordinary cast of activists and musicians, is set in a Los Angeles dreamtime that is both past and future.
Chavez Ravine, in the first place, revisits the Red Scare of the 1950s and the overthrow of Los Angeles’ New Deal era public housing programmes.
It tells the bitter story of how a vibrant Chicano neighbourhood in the Elysian Hills north of Downtown was bulldozed to make way for Dodger Stadium (now owned by Rupert Murdoch).
The destruction of this “poor man’s Shangri-La” — wrought by a sinister collaboration of corrupt politicians, professional red-baiters and the city’s most powerful corporate interests — becomes a powerful metaphor for a larger history of dispossession.
Cooder denounces the “paving over and the malling up” of Los Angeles working class history, particularly on its Chicano Eastside where tens of thousands have been uprooted by stadiums, freeways and jails. Memory here is an act of resistance.
But noir history is only one side of this extraordinary album, which also projects us into a utopian future where all of Los Angeles has become an egalitarian neighbourhood like Chavez Ravine.
And Cooder, as always, throws the best party in town. Where else would you find 90-something Frank Wilkinson, the purged leftist head of LA’s public housing agency in 1953, laughing over the graves of his inquisitors and still singing in tune?
Or the great Lalo Guerrero — the king of the corrido — remembering Los Chucos Suaves of the 1940s in his last recorded performance (he died before the release of the album)?