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Highland Park native brings music and yoga to the Eastside

Highland Park native brings music and yoga to the Eastside
Leah Rose Gallegos, vocalist for Las Cafeteras, says her favorite song to perform is "Luna." (Maria Alejandra Cardona / Los Angeles Times)

Leah Rose Gallegos has long aimed to live by the longstanding proverb of “each one, teach one.” And now the artist best known as co-founding Eastside band Las Cafeteras is seeking to empower her neighborhood one song — and one yoga lesson — at a time.

As a co-founder of People’s Yoga, hailed as East Los Angeles’ first proper yoga studio, the 34-year-old Highland Park native — “the O.G. Highland Park,” as she says — is approaching the art of breathing, exercise and meditation in much the same way as she tackled music: in the folk-like tradition of passing lessons from one generation to the next.

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What started four years ago as a five-week pop-up series in Boyle Heights’ Boyle Hotel soon became a 10-week series, and today Gallegos and People’s Yoga co-founder Lauren Quan-Madrid have a studio in an East Los Angeles strip mall, which will soon expand to a second location in Boyle Heights. It all began in a rather grass-roots way, with the pair at first teaching yoga lessons wherever the community invited them, be it schools, a chiropractor's office and even a Buddhist temple.

“We were reaching this demographics of people that I’ve never seen in a yoga studio, first- and second-generation Latinas, Japanese and Chinese,” Gallegos recalls. “Sometimes English wasn’t their first language but it didn't really matter, we were all able to move and breathe and smile together.”

Leah Rose Gallegos leads a yoga class at People's Yoga in East Los Angeles, the first in the neighborhood.
Leah Rose Gallegos leads a yoga class at People's Yoga in East Los Angeles, the first in the neighborhood. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Gallegos has always been up for a challenge. Music, for instance, didn’t formally come into her life until her mid-20s. Her lifelong passion — soccer — had earned her full scholarships to Florida State, USC and an invitation to try out for the U.S. National Soccer team. But a torn ACL killed that dream, and led to her using music as a sort of medicine.

“Right when that door closed, two other doors opened,” she says of her sports career. “One was yoga, one was music.”

Little did she know that they would have somewhat shared paths.

Gallegos and other devotees of the regional folk music son jarocho started meeting for jam sessions in Sycamore Grove Park in Highland Park. It was there, sometime around 2007, that Gallegos met her Las Cafeteras band mates and future husband.

Like her, Gallegos’ partners in Las Cafeteras were drawn to son jarocho because of its connection to different social justice movements. Learning the music was a way to connect with her roots, meet other activists and foster a sense of empowerment within the community.

Las Cafeteras’ audience grew rapidly, much to the initial bewilderment of the band. “We're by no means son jarocho experts or musicians for that matter,” said David Flores, Gallegos’ band mate and husband. “But there are a few things that we have learned that we can pass on.”

And in Gallegos’ case, not all were music-related.

In 2012, just as Las Cafeteras was releasing its first album, yoga was also becoming an important part of her life. With her soccer hopes dashed, Flores introduced her to Futbolistas, a group of politically like-minded folks who play pickup soccer games on the Eastside every Sunday. There she met her People’s Yoga co-founder, Quan-Madrid.

They bonded over their mutual passion for practicing yoga and its lack of accessibility in their Eastside neighborhoods. “When we went to yoga in different neighborhoods, the people taking classes didn’t reflect the people in our own lives, our family and our friends,” recalls Quan-Madrid. “It bothered us, we wanted to do something about it.”

They weren't certified to teach at the time, but the knowledge was there and there was a community of people willing to try yoga. That's how People's Yoga started. “It was this will, this passion, this heart-centered need to pass on this medicinal practice to whoever was willing to receive it,” Gallegos said.

David Flores and his wife Leah Gallegos keep a watchful eye on their daughter, Ella Rose Flores, 1.
David Flores and his wife Leah Gallegos keep a watchful eye on their daughter, Ella Rose Flores, 1. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

By 2014, they were being stretched too thin and too far around the Eastside. Gallegos was touring full-time with Las Cafeteras and Quan-Madrid had her own full-time job with East LA Community Corp. (ELACC).

Opening a full-time studio was their next step. “We wanted a physical space that could be sort of a landmark on the Eastside, where we could reach multiple surrounding neighborhoods, where people could come and go.” They launched an Indiegogo campaign, ultimately raising $10,000 to for what would become People’s Yoga.

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When they secured a location, a one-story shop on the corner of Pomona Boulevard and Atlantic Boulevard in East Los Angeles, friends and family gathered to rip out carpeting and tear down walls.

Today, People’s Yoga is ready to expand into a second location in Boyle Heights, set to open in 2019. They plan to partner with fellow Eastside startup Todo Verde, run by Jocelyn Ramirez, who is also an instructor with People’s Yoga. The three-year-old vegan catering company just successfully completed its own Indiegogo campaign to open up its first bricks-and-mortar location in Boyle Heights.

The two businesses aim to open up shop in the same building and hope to provide a mutual space that is not only a yoga studio and restaurant, but is also focused on family services, holistic wellness and healthful eating. “There are increasing systemic issues that are not providing these types of services to our neighborhoods, but if we can try to provide them on our own, I think that's a huge inspiration,” says Ramirez. “We're still trying that. I wouldn’t say we're at the final product, but we're a small step in the right direction.”

After the birth of Gallegos’ and Quan-Madrid’s first children, both born in 2017, People’s Yoga has worked to offer more family-oriented classes. Prenatal + Postnatal Yoga classes are already a part of the studio’s roster, and they’re arranging to add wellness workshops, childbirth education, as well as postpartum and breastfeeding support. “We want to be a vehicle to bring in these resources, particularly to communities that lack them,” Gallegos said.

Fifteen months after the birth of her daughter Ella, Gallegos hasn't returned to full-time touring and has no plans to do so any time soon.

“It was a learning curve for all of us, for me as a new mother, for David as a new father and for the band as new tíos and tías to this baby,” Gallegos said. “It was really hard for me, personally, to honor that I needed time away from touring to transition into this next phase of life.”

Gallegos stays heavily involved with Las Cafeteras, working on administrative tasks as well as recording new songs with the band when its back in town from touring.

This summer, Las Cafeteras collaborated with Making Movies to release five singles, three of which Gallegos provided vocals for, “Montaña,” “Ritmo de Mi Pueblo” and “El Feo Más Bello.” She also still performs at local shows. On Saturday the band will play at the VintageVibe Festival at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, and on Sept. 30 it will play at LA Phil 100 x CicLAvia in downtown L.A.

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With upcoming shows with Las Cafeteras, a new yoga studio in the works, plus plans to release a children’s album and accompanying children’s book in 2019, Gallegos shows no signs of slowing down her commitment to bringing music and medicinal practices to her community.

“She has this fearlessness and this spirit and this drive,” says Quan-Madrid. “She just sees the world in a way of possibility.”

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Las Cafeteras

When: Noon-10 p.m. Saturday

Where: VintageVibe Festival, Santa Anita Park, 285 Huntington Drive, Arcadia

Tickets: $95

Info: vintagevibefest.com

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