Once a Rebellious Santa Ana Gallery Café, SolArt Now Promotes Community Artists Through the Airwaves

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Carla Zárate-Suárez, left, and Sali Heraldez of SolArt Radio.

Sali Heraldez and Carla Zárate-Suárez sit around a kitchen table in an apartment building that is part of the historic French Park neighborhood on a quiet early afternoon in Santa Ana. They are just a few streets over from the iconic Pop’s Cafe and a short bike ride away from what is now referred to as DTSA by newcomers.

Heraldez, who was born and raised in Santa Ana and is the creative director and founder of SolArt, scoffs and shakes her head in disapproval at the mention of downtown. Zárate-Suárez, the lead for SolArt’s media and design and a Santa Ana resident of 15 years, sits silently with a grin, nodding in agreement. She is quite familiar with what her podcast partner will say about the displacement of local businesses and artists. Heraldez disapproves of the recent changes in downtown, and unless she is supporting a local artist or friend, she avoids all new establishments.

The SolArt Gallery Café was opened in 2004 as an artistic place for community-building. The café was priced out of two spaces after five years because of rising rents – in other words, gentrification pushed them out.

But that didn’t stop SolArt’s mission. Collectively, Heraldez and Zárate-Suárez have continued building their community under the SolArts banner for over 15 years and are still going strong.

SolArt Gets Its Start

SolArt Gallery Café was founded by Heraldez as a way to combine all her personal interests under one roof: art, music and community. In five years’ time, the gallery hosted the works of over 50 local artists and the music of approximately 500 bands – all while Heraldez continued to maintain a regular day job. The gallery’s original location was at 2202 N. Main Street (currently a make-up studio) and its second location was 511 E. Santa Ana Blvd, which is now Hidden House Coffee.

Photo courtesy of Carla Zárate-Suárez

Attendees at a SolArt Gallery Café event, at the 511 E. Santa Ana Blvd location.

In 2005, Heraldez recounts that early press by Sunset Magazine described their venue as “an art gallery like no other” and it was voted as the “Best Capitalism-Free Zone” in the late OC Weekly. Both compliments served as attributes that kept locals attending their events and yet also complicated their ability to keep the gallery open.

Yet there is still no other gallery like it anywhere in Orange County. Heraldez curated her exhibits and music events in order to represent grassroots artists and activism – artists like Los Four, which included Gilbert “Magu” Luján and Roberto “Beto” de la Rocha. Los Four were the first Chicano artists to exhibit at LACMA in 1974. They were reunited in 2008 in Santa Ana with mariachis, Son del Centro and Rage Against the Machine lead singer Zack de la Rocha, Beto’s son.

Photo courtesy of Carla Zárate-Suárez

During the Azul Verde y Colorado art exhibit at the 511 E. Santa Ana Blvd. location featuring Beto de la Rocha (sitting center left) and Gilbert Lujan (sitting center right) from Chicano art collective Los Four, with invited artists standing behind them.

Photo courtesy of Carla Zárate-Suárez

Son del Centro and Rage Against the Machine lead singer Zack de la Rocha, center.

During those years, SolArt Gallery Café hosted music festivals, conferences, creative writing workshops, poetry readings, theater workshops, and even a week-long art and activism camp. They represented the underrepresented population of Orange County that rarely makes it onto local gallery walls or into bigger art centers. The space and its organizer focused on building community-based support by bridging many important issues that Santa Ana residents still deal with on a regular basis: organic farming, anti-militarization of public schools, and supporting indigenous communities in Southern Mexico, which an abundance of Santa Ana residents themselves represent.

“SolArt provided an important space during its café days for local alt-Latin musicians to perform in OC…a ‘Latinx’ hub long before artists, musicians and activists began calling themselves that,” said Gabriel San Román, local journalist from Anaheim.

On top of raising awareness, the café also became a familiar free space for artists and community-based programming to counter the lack of representation in the local arts. They hosted small organizations and nonprofits at the beginning stages of their existence such as El Centro Cultural de México, Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls, Breath of Fire Latina Theatre Ensemble, The LGBT Center of OC and The Grain Project. All of them were provided free space with the help of unsolicited donations from community members and Heraldez’s personal income.

The Transition to Radio and Podcasting

When SolArt Radio started in 2009 with support from friends like San Román and local educator Adriana Alba, Heraldez and Zárate-Suárez had no idea their personally funded project would last more than ten years. They merely did it for their shared love of music, and to counter the lack of representation of such musicians in Orange County.

They credit their good friend San Román as their source of motivation to transition into an audio format. Even though the café didn’t survive, there was no reason their vision of community building had to die with it.

“He said, ‘Why don’t you host a podcast, since you house and host the musicians in your home anyways?’” Heraldez laughs.  “Bands stayed all over, sometimes we even left our home and stayed with friends or family so we (could) offer our space to the artists.”

Heraldez brought in Zárate-Suárez as a creative partner in the SolArts Radio endeavor and their first feature was Cat Mendez, who now plays with iAparato! Second in line was the Grammy award-winning La Santa Cecilia, years before fans across the nation and the U.S. border would know their name. Most recently they hosted Diana Gameros, Gloria Estrada, Fernanda Ulibarri, Echo Sparks and Sunny War, among many others.

As members of the SolArt Radio collective, they have interviewed more than their fair share of artists – locals and international visitors alike. SolArt’s work produced in collaboration with the artists is also available on SolArt Radio’s YouTube channel. With the exposure via SolArt, it’s highly likely some of these musicians will generate bigger headlines soon enough.

Photo courtesy of Carla Zárate-Suárez

SolArt Radio interviews artists in the Radio Santa Ana Studio in El Centro Cultural de Mexico. From left, Carla Zárate-Suárez, “La Marisoul” Hernández, lead singer of the band La Santa Cecilia, and Sali Heraldez.

Beyond Radio

“SolArt is continuously introducing art and music on the cutting edge of the world to their local hometown of Santa Ana and beyond,” said Gloria Estrada of the L.A. based band Viento Callejero. “They open their hearts and home not only to musicians from around the world, but also locals in a way that makes you feel like you simply belong and are appreciated. They are friends, family, activists, community leaders, organizers, curators, philanthropists, artists, photographers, designers, videographers, managers, genies, and … amazingly beautiful people.”

Through word of mouth and referrals, their motto to promote solidarity through all the arts continues in SolArt media, design collaborations and commissioned work. Since they do not desire to become a business or nonprofit organization, Heraldez and Zárate-Suárez provide individually contracted services to obtain funding through their 15 years of experience in art, music and community. They now offer media and design services on a sliding scale for community-based businesses and organizations and use those funds to continue their work.

They have supported initiatives like Grrl Fair, the Santa Ana Thrive Conference and most recently, collaborated on two UCLA Labor Center multimedia projects: I am a #YOUNGWORKER and Undocumented Stories.

Both UCLA projects utilize storytelling through media. The projects share the harsh realities of young workers and uplift the lived experiences of the undocumented immigrant community. They document hard statistics of two distinct, often overlapping, underrepresented populations and how they have built a movement to change policies impacting higher education, access to fair wages and better working environments, and deportation proceedings.

“With UCLA, we had two projects, both based on studies. We shot portraits and recorded audio interviews, covering young workers and undocumented stories, and partnered with other artists,” explains Zárate-Suárez.

“Ultimately, they were both exhibited at UCLA,” adds Heraldez.

Heraldez and Zárate-Suárez finish each other’s sentences seamlessly, mostly in English but on occasion code-switching into Spanish. They put the frustrations about their changing community aside and laugh in unison when they mention the various ways they work with limited resources and tight quarters at the apartment in French Park and the small recording room known as Radio Santa Ana at El Centro Cultural de México.

As SolArt Radio, Heraldez and Zárate-Suárez aspire to host more like-minded folks on the air,  5 p.m. on Mondays and Thursday at 104.7 FM Radio Santa Ana. Although they also credit gentrification as a reason they transitioned to radio, Heraldez and Zárate-Suárez choose the airwaves as a way to support the local community. They want to talk with “not just music artists but also local organizations” striving to make a positive impact in the area, specifically with the programming once hosted at the SolArt Gallery Café and folks they work with now, in and out of Orange County.

“That’s the mission, to promote solidarity through all the arts,” says Heraldez. “And I think we have done it and we will continue to do it. Through SolArt Radio we want to unite everybody in the community and hopefully reach even more.”

Sarah Rafael García is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. She can be reached at sarah@sarahrafaelgarcia.com.