At the south edge of Berkeley, on Shattuck Avenue, there are quite a few landmarks that serve as staples to the city’s social life. There’s Berkeley Bowl, which has built a community around its food market; the Starry Plough, which draws folks to its charming pub environment; and La Peña Cultural Center, which has opened up a space of affirmation and healing for womxn of color in the area.
The cultural center is situated near the edge of Oakland, and is decorated with a bright colorful mural at its entrance. The painting shines a light on people of color bonding over art; this is a theme that is central to the Empowering Womxn of Color Open Mic Series jointly hosted by the center and the UC Berkeley Womxn of Color Initiative.
The center hosted its first open mic night of its Spring 2019 series on Jan. 24, bringing in a variety of artists and packing the room with an positive and enthusiastic crowd. Whether these artists wanted to read their poetry or sing an original song, or even showcase their faith in God, the stage was undeniably theirs for the few minutes they went up to perform.
The room was dark and a dim blue spotlight shone on the stage, where many artists took their place. One woman performed her original poem “Godversation” with a smile across her face the entire time. Anna Allen performed “Small Death,” an original poem about an old love, moving slowly from a smile to shaken tears.
Allen’s poem was strong in how it regarded love — “I can’t stop poking her like she’s a bruise” — and heartbreak: “She loves like a 40 hour work week…she just don’t love me.”
As these poets guided the crowd through their emotional journeys and stories, the audience reflected similar emotions back to them. At times, people hooted, and in other moments, they quieted down for a supportive silence.
UC Berkeley senior Bryanna Benicia brought her light, lullaby voice into the space. The singer performed her original songs, “Quento” and “Versa” at the open mic. She remarked that she knew this open mic was a great space for healing, because she had already performed here once before in the fall, when the open mic was organized for the first time ever.
“I love this space so much, and I feel so comfortable,” Benicia said. “And the songs that I personally write are my experiences as a woman of color and what kind of like my mom has taught me as a woman of color.”
Benicia’s songs were written in Spanish and represented her day-to-day struggle with the challenges that come with being a woman. As she sees it, women are meant to suffer a lot of the time, due to the nature of our lives and the systemic societal challenges we face. She produces these songs as a way to cope and come to a more optimistic conclusion of how to approach life.
The event also featured singer Nanauishka, who sang multiple covers and an original song “Free like a Bird.” The artist had a very slow and mellow voice, smiling at the audience as she sang and encouraged them to chime in.
As the event was a space for sharing both talents and experiences, the feelings and emotion in the room were palpable. Womxn of color, especially queer womxn, were given the stage, and though the room was packed, it felt open — as though there was an infinite amount of room to hear out people’s stories.
“It’s really great to perform here because I know that a lot of people experience the same struggles and just to like be empowered,” Benicia said. “ I hope my messages are empowering to women.”