Finding her voz again

Times Staff Writer

Ersi Arvizu was on vacation in Hawaii a few years ago when she heard that some guy named Ry Cooder was looking for her. She got the news from colleagues who knew her from her long-gone glory days as lead singer of El Chicano, the 1970s East L.A. band famous for her version of the classic old bolero “Sabor a Mi.”

No way, shot back Arvizu, who had long before moved to Arizona. Besides, she was “fit to be tied,” she says, over a money dispute involving a previous El Chicano comeback concert. She was in no mood to get back in the business.

Her colleagues insisted that this was the chance of a lifetime. How many veteranos wouldn’t want to work with the producer who had turned a bunch of aging, forgotten Cuban musicians into the international superstars called the Buena Vista Social Club? Maybe Cooder could do the same for old-school East L.A. artists with “Chavez Ravine,” the project he was working on at the time based on the razing of Latino barrios on the Dodger Stadium site.


Cooder Shmooder. Arvizu wasn’t budging.

“I don’t know him and I don’t care,” she recalls responding. “I’m not leaving Hawaii to go over there and audition for some man I don’t even know. Heck no.”

Famous last words. Tuesday brings the release of Arvizu’s “Friend for Life,” the first solo album of her career and her first recording since leaving El Chicano more than 30 years ago. The title song was written for her newest best friend, Cooder, the multicultural connoisseur who had tracked her down after hearing her teenage voice on a 1960s single by the Sisters, a vocal trio featuring Arvizu and her hermanas (sisters), Rosella and Mary.

Cooder was struck by the natural, timeless quality of Arvizu’s voice, transcending pop trends with its heartfelt delivery. It was the female voice he was seeking for “Chavez Ravine,” which featured several male artists from the macho-dominated East L.A. music scene of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Ironically, Arvizu is the only one who has emerged so far with a solo project under Cooder, a la his Buena Vista spinoffs.

And why not? As Arvizu told me over lunch this week, “I am unique.”

Where else, she asks, will you find a woman who grew up in East L.A., had a Top 10 hit in her teens, trained boxers with her father, went undefeated in four fights of her own, drove a truck for FedEx to make ends meet and attended college to become a “woman cop.” Yes, and who still sings with tenderness and perfect pitch after all these years.

Musical memoir

The album is a musical memoir featuring the first songs written by Arvizu, who turns 60 in September. At first, she says, Cooder had asked her to write for “Chavez Ravine,” but she was too young to remember the controversial history. Later, he urged her to write about what she knows best, her life. Her new bilingual songs, many penned with pianist Joey Navarro, range from deeply nostalgic boleros to gently up-tempo tunes with shades of R&B;, salsa and the blues.

In “Window of Dreams,” we see the little girl forced to peek through a hole at the boxers practicing a boys’ sport. In “El Arbol” (The Tree), she’s the mischievous girl who climbed a tree in her frontyard to escape vocal rehearsals with her mother. And in “En El Tambo,” she recalls a prison performance with El Chicano, “pretty nervous being the only woman in a sea of men.”


The latest chapter of her life is captured in that title track, written as a tribute to Cooder for having faith in a singer who was all but forgotten. In the liner notes, she thanks the producer “for believing in me and reigniting my love of music.”

For this column, a publicist sent word that Cooder was unavailable for an interview. It may seem weird that he wouldn’t make the time to talk with his hometown paper about a pet project featuring a hometown girl. But Cooder hasn’t taken my calls since I knocked Buena Vista, which I found oddly bland in light of the amazing history and evolution of Cuban music, a context which was totally ignored to hype the project’s nostalgic value.

East L.A. is an entirely different world. Here, Cooder doesn’t have to nurture nostalgia. The East L.A. scene virtually feeds on it. It’s a neighborhood where oldies never die, they just get passed on to the next generation. In a few weeks, faithful fans will flock to the Greek Theatre for what is becoming a ritual, a revival concert featuring veteran Chicano bands, including Tierra, Thee Midniters, Malo and El Chicano, performing May 25 and 26.

Arvizu will appear as a special guest with her old band. But it’s not an entirely rosy reunion. Some hard feelings are being set aside for the show.

Recent resentments arose from confusion about who would work with Cooder on “Chavez Ravine.” The way Arvizu tells it, the audition sounds like an episode of “I Love Lucy,” with people angling to get in on the act by playing up to Cooder, who, like Ricky Ricardo, was clueless about the scheming behind the scenes. (“Pobrecito Ry,” she says. “He was the only one kept in the blind.”) When Cooder finally made clear he just wanted the singer and didn’t need the band, Arvizu says, not everyone was happy.

“It’s not my fault. Why are you yelling at me?” she recalls saying during an angry confrontation. “If he wanted my voice and not the band, what am I supposed to say? Am I going to tell the man no? Am I stupid?”


Bobby Espinosa, El Chicano’s original keyboardist, acknowledges there was bad blood. “I was shocked that she didn’t call,” he says, to use more of her old band members on her new album. (Only El Chicano guitarist Mickey Lespron was included on two tracks.) As for Cooder, he says, there was “not even a thank you” for helping coax the singer back from that Hawaii vacation.

Espinosa shares one thing with Cooder: a deep admiration for Arvizu’s talent.

“I never heard her go flat. I never heard her go sharp,” he says. “Her intonation was almost perfect. I would never hear her warm up before a show and she could come on stage and belt out the tunes.”

Old neighborhood

One afternoon this week, Arvizu returned to the East L.A. neighborhood where it all started. She visited the boxy little bungalow on Fisher Street, near the intersection of the 60 and 710 freeways, where she and her five siblings were raised. Her father’s backyard boxing gym is no longer there, but the beautiful shade tree she used to climb still stands tall and sturdy in the frontyard.

It’s a typical barrio street, with a touch of graffiti and a lingering gang problem. Dogs yelp as kids glide by on bikes and an ice cream truck slowly passes, playing “It’s a Small World,” that tune from Disneyland. But it feels strange for her to be back after many years. Both her parents have died, and everything now looks so small.

Her arrival brings out a couple of curious neighbors, including a tattooed man in a wheelchair who remembers her father, Arturo, as a local standout, “The Magnum P.I. of the barrio.” He was not only good looking, he also fixed Harleys, trained boxers (including Oscar De La Hoya as a boy), played guitar and sang duets at parties with his wife, Rita, a farm worker’s daughter and former beauty queen.

Arvizu pays tribute to her father in a moving song from the album, “Mi India” (My Indian Girl), his term of affection for her. But she doesn’t gloss over his faults. “He was a very jealous man, oh my God,” she recalls. He didn’t want his wife to drive and even stopped her from writing songs, Arvizu recalls, because he was suspicious when she’d get out of bed at night to sit quietly in the kitchen and write lyrics in her tablet.


That memory inspired “Angel de Mil Voces” (Angel of a Thousand Voices), Arvizu’s tribute to her mother. The CD also includes one of four surviving songs her mother wrote, “Sin Tu Querer” (Without Your Love), dedicated to her husband.

“It’s sad because he held her back,” says Arvizu, who never married. “And he regretted it after she passed away. But too late.”

For the visit, Arvizu has brought along her sister and back-up singer, Rosella, to apply a touch of eye liner for a photo shoot.

“She doesn’t like makeup,” Rosella says.

“I’m not a pretty girl,” Arvizu offers. “I’m not like those models. But of course, they don’t have my voice.”