Sunday, July 3, 2011

Las Hermanas (the Sisters)

4003 Wabash Avenue today
Las Hermanas (the Sisters)
Location: 4003 Wabash Avenue, San Diego, California, USA

Opened: December 1974

Closed: Early 1980

This is a great piece from Gay San Diego:

Coffeehouse coincided with women’s music movement
By Pat Sherman l GSD Editor

On or around Christmas Day in 1974, The Las Hermanas Women’s Cultural Center and Coffeehouse opened its doors, offering a safe and welcoming space where women—particularly lesbians—could unwind, enjoy homemade food, hear live music amd poetry and engage in spirited discussion.

What seemed like an impossible dream at the time would soon become an epicenter of feminist culture and a hub for the evolving women’s (or womyn’s) music scene of the 1970s.

At its peak from 1975 to 1978, women packed the modest, one-room space at 4003 Wabash Ave. for performances by Meg Christian, Holly Near, Joan Armatrading or Malvina Reynolds, best known for her 1962 folk anthem, “Little Boxes” (theme song to the cable TV series “Weeds”).

“That place was hot!” recalled June Millington, guitarist and former front woman of the 1970s rock band Fanny, whose devotees included David Bowie and Barbra Streisand. Millington recalled playing Las Hermanas five or six times after her departure from Fanny in the mid- 1970s.

“You just had so much fun playing there,” said Millington, who today resides in Massachusetts with longtime partner, Ann Hackler, where they run a nonprofit that supports women and girls in music. “I couldn’t wait to go back and play every single time.

“The thing is, for people who didn’t experience that very first year or two of women’s music—’76, ’77, maybe into ’78—it was such an explosion of pure, flat-out joy. You almost felt like, holy shit, I can’t believe it’s happening while I’m here.

“In Fanny, I was the tip of the spear. I was objectified sexually. I was unapproachable. At Las Hermanas, there you were. It was like 50 or 60 people having a great time, whom I was interested in talking to.”

Long before she began backing local blues performer Candye Kane and emerged as San Diego’s “Queen of Boogie Woogie,” San Diego pianist Sue Palmer was among the performers who cut their teeth playing at Las Hermanas.

“It was really formative,” recalled Palmer, who sometimes played Las Hermanas in a trio with Molly Stone and Dana White. “I had started playing all through the ’70s because of these women’s movement get-togethers and benefits. They wanted women to play music, so they were really encouraging me, even though I didn’t have much of a repertoire. I was learning my craft and practicing in front of a very forgiving audience.”

Though Palmer leaned more toward jazz than the folksy women’s acoustic tunes of the day, she found the atmosphere at Las Hermanas empowering.

“It was just so cool because they were celebrating women and how wonderful we are and, you know, women’s love for each other,” she said. “I hadn’t been out very long, so it was a real thrill.”

The nonprofit coffeehouse was brainchild of a group of mostly Latina women, including literature professor Dolores Valenzuela (a.k.a. “Mal Flora”), Carlota Hernandez and Teresa Oyos. Las Hermanas began as a
seven-room collective house for women who were seeking refuge from abusive spouses.

According to a taped interview with Hernandez housed at the Lambda Archives of San Diego, part of the seed money to open Las Hermanas was obtained by transporting marijuana (mota) across U.S.-Mexico border.

Oyos, who was just coming out in 1974, recalled discussions with the co-founders of Las Hermanas (one of them her first lover)—and how they pulled her onboard with their enthusiasm.

“Coming from the social justice movement and the Chicano movement where guys were more in charge, I wasn’t used to seeing women do these types of things,” Oyos said. “To see women in charge was really amazing.”

The idea was to create a safe space where lesbians could gather for cultural events, music, movies and a cheap, healthy bite to eat.

Las Hermanas was intended as a conscious alternative to the dark, smoky bars where women met during the ’70s, such as The Club (today the Casbah), The Apartment, Diablos and, later, Wings Café (where actress Kathy Najimy got her start).

Also, unlike the bars, Las Hermanas had a fairly strict women-only policy in place, that was even said to have precluded women from bringing their teenage sons once they had reached a certain age.

San Diego attorney Pam Wilson, who belonged to the Las Hermanas collective for several years, said Las Hermanas was formed as a nonprofit with a membership structure as a way to legally avoid admitting men.

“Under a membership structure you’re allowed to restrict the members and that’s how they were legally going to be able to have it be women-only,” she said.

Lambda Archives volunteer Diane F. Germain discovered Las Hermanas after moving to San Diego from Las Angeles in 1976. She recalled her own coming out process as being in “fits and starts.” Fresh out of graduate school and studying photography at the time, Germain’s subjects slowly began to gravitate toward the Pride festival and a women-only dance group. Germain realized that if she wanted to photograph the contra-dance group, she’d have to join in and, from there, “one thing led to another.”

After a few visits to Las Hermanas for $2 Sunday brunch, Germain began volunteering as a ticket taker at the door.

Germain said the experience of volunteering at Las Hermanas gave many women valuable work skills that they carried into their professional careers.

“It’s kind of hard to imagine now, but women weren’t even carpenters,” she said. “Women needed to know how to do lighting, and they needed to know how to do sound and put on a performance,” she said. “Sometimes we’d put on a concert and we couldn’t find a woman to do the lighting, so we’d hire a guy and we would say, ‘We’ll pay you to do the lighting, but you have to have two women there and teach them while you’re doing it.’”

During concerts, Las Hermanas was often so packed there would be women sitting on the floor or in each other’s laps. Many romances were kindled over tea, eggplant Parmesan or the “Amazon Special,” which consisted of pita bread with cheese, vegetables and a smoothie.

Germain recalled a cowgirl passing through from Tucson with her guitar, who sang and shared a harrowing story of ignorance and escape.

“When her parents found out she was gay they put her in an insane asylum,” Germain recalled. “She had to eventually work her way out of there by tricking the people and playing along.”

On Tuesdays, Las Hermanas served as a meeting space for young lesbians.

Longtime San Diego activist Wendy Sue Biegeleisen recalled visiting Las Hermanas once as a teenager, where she said she found a mix of younger and older women, from bikers and blue collar lesbians to college students from San Diego State’s burgeoning Women’s Studies Department.

“I felt comfortable and uncomfortable at the same time—cause, wow, there were so many women there,” Biegeleisen said.

Coyote Moon, who adopted her name during Las Hermanas’ heyday (“Hey, it was the ’70s,” she quipped), worked there as part of a work-study course at San Diego City College, cleaning up and making the popular “Joy Balls” from cashew butter, nuts and raisins.

Though it was created as an alcohol-free venue, she recalled taking a few swigs of Black Velvet whiskey before going on stage with her band, Amazon Spice.

“That was fun for me,” she said with a laugh. “We were pretty awful.”

Pam Wilson learned about Las Hermanas as an undergraduate student at University of California, San Diego when a group of women from Las Hermanas visited the campus to lead a talk about lesbianism.

Wilson remembers the space as a refuge from a storm of homophobia, which at the time included Anita Bryant’s crusade against gay teachers. It was a place where “everyone was accepting and the women were accomplished,” she recalled.

“It (provided) good role models for the younger women,” Wilson said. “I was in my 20s and I felt like I learned a lot about the process of working in groups and getting things accomplished— you know, meetings and how decisions are reached. It was pretty much a consensus thing.”

“I distinctly remember someone saying, ‘This place saved my life,’” Wilson added.

Eventually, the venue’s popularity led to internal strife.

“It was mostly working class Latina women that (formed Las Hermanas),” Germain said. “Then, as it started to take off and get bigger and more famous, there was kind of a set of middle class women that came along and wanted to make it better, but their idea of making it better made working class women feel not so good.
“There always was an argument about having men,” she said. “Middle class women had allies and friends that were men, and wanted them to come around, and a lot of the women who began it liked it the way it was."

Conflict, lack of interest and an increase in rent finally led to Las Hermanas’ closure in early 1980. An article in the Feb. 1980 edition of Thursday’s Child by Karen Merry summed up the venue’s demise this way: “Things have changed over the past five years,” Merry wrote. “Many new groups have formed, providing women with many choices for involving themselves politically, socially and culturally. Las Hermanas slowly and somewhat painfully declined in popularity and the nucleus of women nurturing it over the years have become exhausted.”

Since Las Hermanas’ closure, the space at 4003 Wabash Ave., on the cusp of North Park and City Heights, has served as a barber shop among other things. It is currently vacant and available for rent.

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