A small, narrow cafe in Little Tokyo has become one of the few venues in town dedicated to showcasing budding Latino performers and musicians.
Just over the bridge from East Los Angeles, Troy Cafe, at 418 E. 1st St., is located near the people that owners Sean Carrillo and Bibbie Hansen say they want to attract. The cafe opened three years ago and has become a gathering place for young Latinos as well as a cultural center.
On most Tuesday and Thursday evenings, the Chicana feminist folk group Las Tres rehearses near the back stage. Other bands, including Aztlan, Los Guys and Boca de Sandia, also can be found rehearsing melodies and trading lyrics.
A benefit for Troy will take place Saturday at the Los Angeles Theater Center, where Chicano artists, including the comedy troupe Culture Clash, will perform. Proceeds will help Carrillo buy equipment and pay the musicians, poets, singers, comedians and performance artists who appear at Troy.
Many of Troy’s performers have their own followings, though they are small by comparison to mainstream artists. Carrillo says he hopes to nurture the groups and performers who are starting out or who do not appeal to a wide audience.
“If I think (the groups) are good, even if they don’t have a big draw, they can perform here,” he said.
The cafe sells cappuccino for $2 and large slices of cheesecake and apple pie. Several small tables--some decorated with United Farm Workers of America literature and “No Grapes” bumper stickers--line the exposed-brick wall leading to the back corner stage.
A couple plays chess at a table near the front window and a student reads a textbook at another. The cafe is the site of a former restaurant and underground punk club called the Brave Dog.
“This place feels comfortable to me, not like some of the coffee shops or even the library sometimes,” said Peter Hernandez, who takes occasional breaks at the cafe after classes at a nearby adult school.
Latino musicians call the place home and credit Carrillo for making them feel welcome.
“He goes out of his way to back up the community and help Latino artists because there’s a lot out there,” said singer Alice Almendariz of Las Tres. “We perform at other places, but we rehearse at Troy. Troy is home.”
Teresa Covarrubias, also with Las Tres, said Troy has become well-known among younger musicians and writers who live in East Los Angeles.
“It’s an interesting interplay,” Almendariz said. “We can tell them what to look out for and they can remind us of our goals and dreams and rejuvenate us.”
Almendariz plays with another group that performs at Troy called Cholita, which includes a 7-foot-tall drag queen. Las Tres often adds other musicians and the occasional belly dancer to complement its songs. The group will celebrate its first anniversary in a performance at Troy on Feb. 13.
The Troy Cafe’s popularity is somewhat of a surprise to Carrillo, although he says his friends expected the success. If he and Hansen were to rename it now, they might consider Chicano Cafe. Troy, he said, sounded right at the time because it is short and reminded Hansen of a city in her native New York.
“I don’t think we ever set out to do this, but it evolved naturally out of who we are,” Carrillo said. “There’s an emphasis on people who are more marginalized in society, especially in the cultural world. There is so much talent out there, all you have to do is scratch the surface. But there are no outlets for them.”
A teen-age boy, dressed in baggy shorts and a torn sweater, interrupted Carrillo to ask if he had listened to his group’s demo tape. Students from the Los Angeles County High School of the Arts on the campus of Cal State Los Angeles have discovered Troy as a place they can try out their work.
However, all performers have to pass Carrillo’s standards before he will let them use his space.
“I’m interested in promoting people with a cool viewpoint,” he said. “That may sound a little bit autocratic, but white people in power do that all the time. If they don’t agree with my viewpoint, they can perform at any venue in town.”