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Tacos, wine, and vinyl spin at Traffic Records in Atown 

Sounds, sights, flavors of LA Chicano history spinning at Traffic Records on Sept. 15

For Manuel Barba, growing up in East LA in the 1980s provided a feast for the senses. Even now, while standing behind the counter of his Traffic Street record shop in Atascadero, all he has to do is close his eyes to be transported back to that vibrant neighborhood nestled between Olympic and Whittier.

It wasn't just the music or the food or the backyard parties—it was the mixture of it all, pulsing together on a hot summer day. Layers of flavor, texture, and community.

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"We'd spend all day and night at my grandmas's house. You could hear the people, the taquerias, the music. You could smell the onions and the ground beef," Barba said. "In addition to the street vendors, everyone's backyard was always blowing up with barbecues; you could smell it wafting through the air. You'd walk by and say, 'Damn, they're cooking up some carne asada right now!'"

Mexican food is something SLO County residents—and Atascadero locals—undoubtedly understand. But true Mexican culture? Its intricacies, hard-fought battles, current struggles, and unheard stories? These, like grooves on a dusty record, require a closer listen.

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That's why the 20-year SLO resident has teamed up with his local food and wine friends, as well as LA Chicano music archivist Gene Aguilera, to bring a little bit of East LA love to his downtown Atascadero record store, Traffic Records, which opened this past spring. With any luck, the party will spill into the street, not unlike the impromptu fiestas Barba remembers from his youth (that said, a designated reception and vinyl dance party will kick off at the the nearby Carlton Hotel at 7 p.m.).

Dancing, eating, listening, laughing, and mingling: Barba believes this isn't a bad way to immerse yourself in that elusive thing we call "culture." He's welcoming everyone into the fold, even those who threw out their record collections decades ago.

"Culture is more than ethic background. Culture is how we talk, how we eat, how we interact with the world, how we interpret information. The Chicano struggle has been a somewhat ignored and neglected one, at least here on the West Coast," he said. "We've seen a lot of local interest in this event; I think Atascadero wants and needs more diverse cultural events like this."

This isn't a lecture, however. It's more of an invitation to perk up your senses. Namely, your ears.

California's tumultuous role in Chicano rights, a sometimes forgotten element of the 1960s civil rights movement—shows up in the songs of the day. All you have to do is drop a needle and listen between the hisses and pops.

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Barba added that, just as Cesar Chavez became a symbol of freedom when it came to Chicano rights, musicians and songwriters were able to amplify the struggles faced by the working poor, immigrants, families of the West Coast and beyond.

No one knows this more than Gene Aguilera.

Known as "The Duke of East LA," he is an author, songwriter, historian, producer, and a renowned music archivist (he owns one of the most extensive and well preserved vinyl record collections highlighting the lost history of Chicano and East Los Angeles soul, garage rock, and doo-wop of the 1950s through the 1970s).

The living legend himself will be on hand at Traffic Records this Saturday, Sept. 15, for the event—the weekend of Mexican Independence Day—for an event that combines Barba's vision of food, wine, music, and Chicano heritage.

"Let's Take a Trip Down Whittier Blvd; The Sounds Of East L.A," is a one-day pop-up exhibit sponsored by KCBX Public Radio, The Carlton Hotel, Atascadero, Nelle Winery, and SLO Record Swap.

Planning on heading down? You'll certainly hear Aguilera's historic gems, many of which have been lent to the Grammy Museum Los Angeles from time to time.

From 3 to 6 p.m., hear a selection of rare vinyl from Aguilera's library and even take a few home, if you're so inclined. Wine from Paso Robles-based Nelle Winery and killer local Mexican food from Taqueria Don Jose will complete the vibe.

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I mean, c'mon. Did you think Barba would throw this event without a food truck serving up insanely delicious tacos sprinkled with cilantro, diced onion, and that intoxicating carne asada?

That alluring smell, and the sound of people enjoying themselves, may be the best advertising out there.

"It's so appealing for me to integrate Taqueria Don Jose, run by a local family, and having them bring their taco truck here and parking it adjacent to the store. It completes the package for me of what it was like when we were kids, and the elote man would come by and slather the corn with mayo, chili powder," Barba said. "Having all this going on, while we're spinning East LA Chicano rock and soul ... there's something familiar in that for me; it's not just nostalgia. It's something more."

Yes, perhaps this is the magic of culture. Δ

Hayley Thomas Cain is ready for a brush with the salsa kind. She can be reached at hthomas@newtimesslo.com.

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