Meet The Ovarian Psycos, A WOC Bicycle Brigade Taking Over East LA
Just one day after Christmas—December 26, 2011—a 22-year-old woman named Bree’anna Guzman went missing in the Lincoln Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles. A month later, her body was found on the side of the highway. The previous year, a 17-year-old girl named Michelle Lozano was abducted, possibly by the same person—her naked body was found months later, wrapped in plastic bags and crammed into a plastic container, which was dumped alongside the freeway. These are just two of dozens of cases of extreme violence against women in Los Angeles—a Los Angeles that is so far removed from the glittering, luxurious LA of Keeping Up With the Kardashians and Rich Kids of Beverly Hills that it’s practically a different world.
What would you do under the threat of such violence? How would you resist? The Ovarian Psycos, an all-women-of-color bicycle brigade based in North and East L.A., is fighting back by making themselves visible. Founded in 2010 by Xela de la X, the Psycos are both a bike brigade and an activist group—their guiding principles are “feminist ideals with indigena [indigenous] understanding and an urban/hood mentality,” and they combat not only violence against women but also racism, gentrification, and all forms of discrimination. The Ovas are so badass that they immediately caught the attention of documentary filmmakers Joanna Sokolowski and Kate Trumbull-LaValle, whose film Ovarian Psycos premiered earlier this year at SXSW, and screened this weekend at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York City. We caught up with Sokolowski, Trumbull-LaValle, and Andi Xoch—one of the Ovas—about the film, their politics, and what they’re planning next.
Originally, the Ovas were hesitant about granting Joanna and Kate access to their community. What made them change their mind?
Andi Xoch: Our mission was never to make a documentary or anything like that—we knew we wanted to document what we did, but we had our own historian. We were very hesitant because to be honest, they were white, and most of the time we wanted to work with people of color. But we also felt that it was important to tell our story, the story of Ovarian Psycos, and it become something deeper than that—they started telling our personal stories. I personally thought it was a really good opportunity to let the rest of the world, women of color especially, see what we’re doing and to get something out of it.
Kate Trumbull-LaValle: I am Latina—my mom is Mexican-American, but I’m white. My dad is not Mexican, he’s from Iowa and Swedish. I don’t present typically Mexican-American. Early on, we had a conversation with Xela—she said no originally, because this is a story about women of color. Their politics are women of color telling and being in control of their own stories. But we had a lot of open conversations, and I think my experience of being Latina, even though I don’t present as Latina, helped open the door to that.
But to this day, we continue to have conversations about how complicated it is to do documentary in terms of the filmmaker/subject relationship. They don’t want to lose control of their narrative. It’s been an ongoing dialogue between those who appear in the films, the Ovarian Psycos, and Joanna and I.
The film is based on relationships between women—sisterhood, mother/daughter relationships—but there are also larger underlying themes: poverty, femicide, immigration, discrimination. How do these themes relate to human rights more broadly?
AX: Our basic human rights are being taken away from us. The fact that we have to fight for the basic right to exist is crazy! But we understand that it’s our fight, we have to fight for those who feel that they don’t have a voice. We have to organize and speak up when nobody else will. We’re showing how important it is to organize to make change happen.
KTL: Our film is very much a character-driven film. It’s about activists and their activism with several themes running through—violence against women, sexual abuse, immigration, poverty—but I think really what it comes down to is women’s rights are human rights. Our film doesn’t directly address one specific issue, but it’s really about the experience of women of color in an underserved community, and what they can do to address the violence that they experience collectively and individually.
Xela is candid about her experience with sexual abuse, and the Ovarian Psycos are at the forefront of raising awareness about the issues: violence on the street towards women, and disproportionately in their neighborhoods women of color. There were several women whose bodies were not only found, but found in the most horrific ways. And it continues to happen in the neighborhood to this day. We never wanted to paint a picture that Boyle Heights or the east side of Los Angeles was this dangerous place in a one-dimensional way. It both is extraordinarily culturally rich and deeply, deeply politicized because of these elements. But it’s also facing real threats in terms of gentrification, in terms of issues with immigration, police brutality, gang violence, and women are often at the center of it as single moms, mothers, heads of households.
Is it more difficult to call out the violence when it comes from within the community?
Joanna Sokolowski: In the film—and the Ovas themselves when speaking—we really try not to color the neighborhood or the community as violent. We don’t use any hyperbolic imagery. The violence is real, the tight-knit community is real, the reasons that the women have been driven to participate in the movement are real, but those things aren’t colored by culture or class. One umbrella of violence, one of the reasons the women organized is because of violence against women.
Another issue is sisterhood; Xela taks about how she didn’t have any sisters growing up. She has a young daughter, and a huge motivator is to get these women together so they can talk about the issues in their personal experiences that motivate the work. The heartbeat of the film is the relationships that they build between themselves, and also with their nuclear families or their birth families.
KTL: Joanna and I have always been very clear from the get-go that this was never a film that wanted to call out Latino culture or any kind of culture for being violent. Xela clearly knows that, she speaks from the heart and talks about institutional violence, she talks about patriarchy, she talks about interpersonal violence, she talks about state violence. All these multiple forms of violence are something that is relatable to all women on some level.
AX: I think the film did a good job of showing the community isn’t violent itself. I think it focused on a lot of things, but us combatting the violence in our community or within our own families was one of the major issues that the documentary talked about. The Ovarian Psycos take a stand against it. We focus a lot of our rides and dialogues on the violence because we experience it all the time.
Gentrification is one of the issues that is affecting the community now.
AX: The violence in our community was—is—a very important issue, but I think the gentrification happening in the Boyle Heights/East LA area is what we’re being affected by now. We’re fighting for our homes and for our safe spaces. It’s becoming so unlivable. Our community where we were raised is disappearing.
KTL: When we premiered at SXSW, Xela, who appeared on stage, was torn. On the one hand she was thrilled to participate in the world premiere of our film, but on the other hand she felt conflicted that it would be premiering at SXSW, a for-profit festival that has been criticized for actively gentrifying the east side of Austin. So she called them out in our Q&A and it was a collective gasp from the audience. And then everyone broke out into applause, I think even the programmer who did our Q&A sort of swallowed hard.
Accessibility is also a major issue, especially since the discourse surrounding these issues is often so inaccessible. How do the Ovarian Psycos make these discussions accessible?
JS: One of the things that initially attracted us to the Ovarian Psycos is their incredible use of language, in everything they do—not only regarding decolonization but everything from their clitoral mass rides to the terms they use. It’s a lot like what women did in the Riot Grrl movement; they use language and iconography in a way that is exciting and makes sense, that accesses an intuitive part of you but is also so new and fresh.
AX: Some of us haven’t gone to school, haven’t gotten a college education. Some of us are knuckleheads coming from broken homes. Some of us didn’t have education that was as accessible as others. Our education, how we appropriate words, I think that’s a way we can make it accessible and that people can identify with it.
Ovarian Psycos is screening Monday, June 13 at 7:00 p.m at the IFC Center. Purchase tickets here.
Image courtesy of Ovarian Psycos