Little did they know it, but when a coalition of Latino youth groups decided this year to hold a summer concert at the legendary Yost Theater in downtown Santa Ana, the teenagers had unwittingly stumbled into a decades-old controversy and triggered a boycott from some of their peers.
Mention the Yost in the mostly Latino downtown and you will hear bitter tales about how the venue was seized from a Mexican family and eventually converted into a boozy nightclub, damaging the family-friendly reputation of an already fading cultural shopping district.
It has become one of the main symbols of a battle over downtown's future. Business and property owners have opened new bars and restaurants so they can attract a well-heeled clientele, but longtime residents and small-shop owners have complained that gentrification is erasing downtown's Latino identity.
At first, the youth were conflicted. They didn’t want to seem insensitive to their community’s plight. But they also wanted a really cool place to have their concert. So they devised a solution that they hope, at least on some levels, will satisfy those on both sides of the issue.
Their plan is to reclaim the Yost for Latino youth and transform it from a cultural relic into a cultural building block for the downtown.
They said the Aug. 25 concert was at least one successful step toward that goal. Approximately 130 people attended the concert, according to an official with Latino Health Access, one of the nonprofits that organized the event. Performances ranged from traditional drums to a “Rock en Espanol” band.
“I still have mixed emotions, … and at first I was completely against it, said Jesus Gutierrez, a member of the youth core group with Latino Health Access. "However, this event has turned out great,”
Whether their goal will be achieved remains unclear. Gutierrez said that while the coalition members want more events throughout the year, they have yet to cement such plans with Yost owner Dennis Lluy, who allowed them to use the space — at least this time — for free.
Not everyone supports the idea.
Raiz, a youth group with El Centro Cultural de Mexico, a nonprofit that teaches Latino culture through various classes, boycotted the event. The nonprofit’s members are some of the most vocal anti-gentrification activists in the city. They are particularly angry about the theater, referring to it as “trash” during a downtown protest last September.
Benjamin Vazquez, an artist with El Centro, is one such critic. Weeks before the event, Vazquez delivered a history lesson to the youth coalition.
The kids heard stories about the city’s efforts to replace Mexicans and Quinceañera shops with artists and trendy bars. The message was that city officials measure the value of people by the weight of their pocketbooks. Mexicans just don’t carry enough cash, Vasquez said.
Vazquez’s lesson, while effectively summarizing the way many Latinos feel about the issue, was one-sided. For their part, gentrification proponents say that the changes are necessary to save a downtown that is mired in an economic slump. Latino immigrants, once the backbone of a robust customer base, don’t shop in the area anymore, instead opting for big-box retailers like Walmart, according to supporters of the transition.
It’s a thorny and complex subject, and the youth have been reluctant to trumpet the more controversial viewpoints. For example, Guttierrez had decided he wanted to present a slideshow of Vazquez’s teachings at the summer concert. But his peers were reluctant, and he ultimately decided against the idea, fearing it might be a “slap to the face.”
Others with anti-gentrification views are more supportive of the youth coalition’s idea than El Centro is.
Sam Romero, a community activist and owner of St. Teresa’s Catholic Gift Shop, which shares a plaza with the theater, says that the youth concert could bring back Latino cultural events in the city. And such events could help attract more Latinos to the area, he said.
“If they do afternoon matinees, that would help our business,” Romero said. “Once the word got out about what this is about, they [businesses and residents] would applaud it.”
Lluy at times gave vague answers during an interview about the subject. He avoided addressing the resentment that many Latinos have for the Yost when asked if such events could help roll back negative views about the theater. He insisted that he was not in a position to address such issues.
“I don’t believe in making statements. I’m not that important,” Lluy said.
Lluy argued instead that he had rescued the historic building from ruin. He called it a “loss” for anybody who chose not to attend the youth concert, a veiled reference to El Centro members, and said people should talk to him if they have concerns.
However, when asked whether he would be open to more events like the summer concert, Lluy said he would be, as long as he could afford it.
“Why would anyone not be, as long as people are respecting each other and it’s something positive for the community?” Lluy said.
There are already plans by the Yost’s management to hold Latino concerts, which could attract the crowds that had frequented the theater in the past.
Yost manager Hector Jose Castellanos said that by mid-October he plans to bring Spanish pop rock and artists from Mexico, South America and Spain. He acknowledged that the more traditional, salsa-style music doesn’t make as much money, but he said that the theater “might do some folklorio” or Mexican folk music.
“Given that we’re in Santa Ana, it’s only right to start bringing in Latin events,” Castellanos said.