Brown Girl Punks Fight Bro Culture On Bikes
By Nidia Melissa Bautista
In a city where young women of color are incessantly subject to street harassment and multiple forms of violence, and pushed to the fringes of political invisibility by macho activists and cultural counterparts, a collective is using the punk aesthetic and cycling to claim space: L.A.’s Ovarian Psycos Bicycle Brigade.
The Ovarian Psycos are an L.A.-based cycling club that started in the summer of 2010 as a response to the lack of female cyclists of color and the dominating white, middle- and upper-class macho bike culture. Since its founding, the collective has promoted women of color in leadership and activism, and has been a strong feminist response to bike mobility and violence against women in multiple communities in the city. All the while, it’s remained true to the DIY Xicana punk legacy of East L.A.
Although the Psycos are comprised of 13 core committee members — known among the community as the “Ovas” — they have engaged hundreds of women of color throughout the city via monthly bike rides and events. Their handbook describes their effort to bridge women-centered cycling with social justice to make women “change agents who create and maintain holistic health in themselves and their respective communities for present and future generations.”
The Luna Ride is a monthly event organized by the Psycos. Equipped with gear decorated with white fallopian tubes printed on black bandanas, helmets and safety gear, dozens come out to ride through the L.A. streets. They invite women-identified cyclists to ride in and around L.A. every month under a full moon — a symbolism that evokes female energy and power and pays homage to the Aztec moon goddess Coyolxauhqui. Each ride has a different theme, from ovarian cancer awareness to sexual health and healing, but is always guided around female solidarity. Described as bike riding with a conscious twist, the monthly rides usually include self-healing workshops.
But the Psycos are much more than a monthly cycling brigade — the collective promotes women of color leadership that extends and builds community in the quickly gentrifying Latino neighborhoods of L.A. In La Concha, their headquarters in Boyle Heights, a predominately Latino community just east of the L.A. River, they have helped organize an eating disorder support group and open mics, and actively hold meetings with other feminist collectives.
In 2012 they founded the national cycling event known as Clitoral Mass. It currently takes place in six cities around the country, inviting women who are tired of the “testosterone overload that is the cycling scene” to attend. The 4th Annual Clitoral Mass ride last year brought out almost 300 women-identified individuals. It was themed “Mobility and Immobility: Base Building & Reclaiming Spaces Beyond Our Streets” to continue awareness and discussion around mass incarceration, mass deportation, gentrification, and state-sponsored genocide.
While the collective has become an unapologetic feminist powerhouse in Los Angeles with an increasing international following, their organizing remains a direct response to patriarchy and the cycling gender gap. These brown girl punks with “indigena understanding and an urban/hood mentality” have addressed intersectional and overlapping issues in order to physically, emotionally, and spiritually heal the women of their community.
Throughout the U.S., cycling has a reputation for being mostly white and male dominated. According to the Bike League’s equity report, less than 1 in 5 cyclists in L.A. are women, while on a national level, women make 24% of all bicycle trips. However, according to the Bike League’s Women Bike initiative, interest in cycling is increasing among women, where more than 80% positively view cycling and two-thirds think their neighborhoods would improve if cycling were safer and more comfortable.
A key factor in closing the gender gap is to “normalize bicycling” by convincing women that riding isn’t a privilege reserved for white men and that their safety and integrity isn’t at risk when they ride. Closing the gender gap implies addressing women’s safety concerns and street harassment prevalent in cities.
In L.A., where Latino cyclists bike to work every day in big numbers — ironically known as “invisible bicyclists” because they ride out of economic necessity and come from communities without access to safe bicycling education — women must confront street harassment in order to ride.
In Boyle Heights, where a large part of the Ovas and their followers live, street harassment, domestic violence, and sexual assault is prevalent. There, the context of a male-dominated bike culture overlaps with the material violence that threatens women in the community. According to a report published by the East Los Angeles Women’s Center, sexual assault in L.A. has seen a 31% increase since 2011, while Boyle Heights and East L.A. has experienced a 100% increase. And according to respondents in the study’s focus group, sexual harassment like catcalling is rampant and contributes to a fear that challenges women’s decision to walk alone or cycle.
The Ovarian Psycos continually address violence against women while pushing against the underrepresentation of women in the cycling scene. The deaths of two young women in the community last fall sparked strong support from the collective, who organized a vigil outside of La Concha and a ride dedicated in their honor. Briana Nicole Gallegos, 17, and Gabriela Calzada, 19, were found murdered in Ernest E. Debs Regional Park in the Northeast L.A. community of Montecito Heights. In partnership with other feminist collectives, the Psycos participated in the Justice and Peace Community Memorial Vigil & Procession for Gabriela and Briana to honor their lives, demand justice in their case, and protest to end violence against women.
Even so, the collective has been accused of exclusion by men disgruntled by their intersectional and aggressively-feminist organizing, one that also includes demanding a halt to gentrification in communities like Boyle Heights. One group even shot back a misogynist response to the group, calling themselves the “Brovarian Psychos.”
However, the misogyny doesn’t stop there. In the Psycos’ stomping grounds, local male artists and activist have been accused of mistreatment and misogynist behavior and sexism. Yet the unapologetic and fierce activism, with badass punk aesthetic to match, is testament to the importance of the collective’s work to smashing patriarchy in their community and inspiring women beyond the limits of East L.A. to do the same.
The crew is also pushing to be more inclusive, making a conscious decision to create a safe space for trans women and other female-identified individuals, holding true to their mission to respond to the legacies of oppression that have created the conditions of violence and abuse in their community.
In March, a documentary about the brigade premiered at the Austin-based SXSW festival, and received critical acclaim. The documentary is a project three years in the making that follows the lives of three Ovas’ everyday struggles with single motherhood, student life, career, and community activism.
Evelyn Martinez is one of the Ovas featured in the documentary. A student at the time, Evelyn discussed her struggle to balance school and work while initiating the process of becoming an Ova. No longer a core member, Evelyn describes how members practice mindfulness and self-love in order to continue organizing and occupying space as women of color cyclists:
“[The Psycos] find ways to support each other in order to heal while organizing. There is a role titled ‘clit rubber’ and whoever serves that role is responsible to check in with the sisters to see how they are doing on all levels. They also have new moon gatherings for personal bonding time and self-healing.”
Xela de la X, founding member of the Psycos and also a fierce artivist known for her feminist revolutionary indigenous hip hop, is also featured in the documentary.
A single mother and youth worker, Xela stepped down as the group’s leader to spend more time with her daughter. However, she remains an active supporter of the Psycos and in an interview with The Establishment, she describes the evolution of the collective and the processes of personal and collective growth she has witnessed and hopes to see in the future:
“It is an intentional process, creating spaces — whether through bike rides or the events held at La Concha — where all womxn, all marginalized people, can further explore our personal narratives and begin translating these moments through a more critical lens that in effect informs our way of understanding the world around us, shaping our analysis and politicizing us and our work to a greater degree of militant commitment.”
For the past six years, the Ovarian Psycos have been a feminist punk cycling movement that’s transcended from the personal to the political. And they’ve done it all “for the punk rock girls, the cholas, the knuckleheads, for the sisters in the neighborhood that live the hard life.”