In a garage in Bell, Friday nights used to be occasions for a communal celebration. Rows of people would sit under strings of lights, vibrant hand-drawn illustrations adorned the walls and local vendors lined the driveway. If you walked past the front yard you might assume it was a carne asada joint, but for the past six years, Alivio Open Mic has been home to various Southeast L.A. poets and artists, all taking their shot at the spotlight.
With California sheltering at home during the COVID-19 crisis, Alivio has had to cancel its monthly gatherings, but open-mic nights continue; all you need is a phone.
For the last month, poet Eric Eztli, who founded Alivio Open Mic in 2013, has been hosting weekly live poetry readings on Instagram Live. It’s his way of sustaining the Alivio spirit now that they can’t gather in his parents’ garage, and it has allowed him to support local artists and vendors via a GoFundMe campaign, which aims to raise $10,000.
“In-person events are so important,” Eztli said during a phone call. “That’s how you make memories, and that’s the stuff that really leaves an impact on an audience.” But for now Instagram will have to do.
Typically the show would begin with Eztli walking down the driveway burning sage as the crowd gathered outside the garage. But at the beginning of a recent Instagram show, all he can do is light the sage from his guest bedroom in Maywood as the phone starts to record. The rhythms of Aniceto Molina’s “Cumbia Cienaguera” fill the room as pink fluorescent lights illuminate a white wall with framed drawings.
Alivio’s guidelines remain the same — with a few adjustments. Those who want to be featured must request access. Once accepted, each performer is limited to five minutes of spoken word, singing, rapping — whatever they like, so long as it isn’t sexist, racist, homophobic or transphobic.
The livestream lasts almost two hours (with a quick break because of Instagram streaming limits), showcasing nine performers and reaching 31 viewers. Each artist — including one from Texas and another from Hawaii — offers an intimate portrait from self-isolation, focusing mostly on financial insecurity, mental health and the longing for community. Heart and fire emojis replace the sounds of cheers and snapping fingers. Words of encouragement flood the bottom of the screen. Eztli ends the online event by reading poems from his most recently published book, “From My Blood.”
One artist taking part is a frequent Alivio rapper who goes by the name of Figgy Baby. He performed music from his album, “Blood from a Stone,” two years in the making, which had been released the night before.
Figgy Baby, whose real name is Andrew Figueroa, had been gaining momentum as an artist before having to cancel several live concerts, including a headlining spot at Los Globos, a music venue in Silver Lake, for his album release party.
“So many events got pulled from under me, and I rely so much on my community and spaces like open-mics,” Figgy Baby said over the phone. “I rely on them not just for financial support but emotional support. Community has been my savior.”
Alivio has raised more than $3,500 since the beginning of April from 71 donors, including $1,250 from Anthony Rendon, the speaker of the state Assembly, representing Southeast L.A. It has made $1,500 in payments to six working artists.
Silvandgold, whose real name is Ruth Guerrero, ultimately chose not to apply for Alivio’s funding — feeling that the events’ vendors should benefit first. After releasing her self-titled debut album in November, the spoken-word poet was forced to cancel performances, including a festival show in Florida. She also lost her part-time job in her family dress shop, which was forced to shut down.
Eztli has been posting fliers on the Alivio Open Mic Instagram page and encouraging others to share them online — even if they can’t afford to donate. He points out that more famous artists have been able to continue profiting off merchandise. “We support big-name rich artists,” he says. “Let’s support the artists that we call neighbors, friends, community.”
Alivio is not the only open mic that’s moved online as the result of the COVID-19 crisis. Da Poetry Lounge, located at the Greenway Court Theatre in the Fairfax district, has continued to meet digitally every Tuesday night.
A few weeks ago Da Poetry Lounge presented its first-ever Instagram Live event, hosted by poets Jasmine Williams and Yesika Salgado and featuring Imani Cezanne, this year’s Women of the World Poetry Slam champion. After having to cancel a spring tour, Salgado has been hosting poetry workshops via Zoom in collaboration with Not a Cult, which has published her three poetry books, from her family home in Silver Lake.
“It’s been interesting having poetry readings while in my house,” she said by phone. “It makes them more emotional. When you’re performing a poem you realize that you’re sitting in the place where you had that experience.
“I love my readers and I miss them so much,” she added, her voice quivering over her “mangos,” as she calls her fans. “Because they’re my family. I share my life with them. I miss community.”
Eztli too had an emotional reaction as he wrapped up his first virtual Alivio Open Mic Night.
“I turned off the phone, went to the living room, and I cried,” he said. “I let myself feel that because I needed that human connection, and people needed it.”