Somehow, it was an odd stroke of luck when Xela De la X’s car broke down in the summer of 2010. Looking for another way to get to work, she began riding her bicycle, something she had never been allowed to do as a child growing up in the East Los Angeles neighborhood of Boyle Heights.
But her rides to work quickly turned into reminders of the violent machismo culture that made her parents want to keep her home in the first place. "The cat-calls felt worse than when I would walk," says De la X, a musician and artist in the Boyle Heights neighborhood who uses a pseudonym. "People paid more attention to me simply because I was a woman on my bike in downtown."
But the experience planted a seed. One day when she was traveling home from work, several traffic lights stopped working due to a power outage. Traffic ground to a halt. "But I was able to maneuver through the traffic without stopping,” says De la X. “And I remember thinking, ‘this is what freedom feels like. This is what it feels like not to have obstacles blocking your movement.’ And I wanted to feel like that again."
So she set about creating a space that could bottle that feeling. De la X founded the Ovarian Psycos, a group of women cyclists in Los Angeles, many of them residents of the Latin Quarter of Boyle Heights. The "Ovas", as they call themselves, are the subject of a new documentary directed by Kate Trumbull-LaValle and Joanna Sokolowski, which premiered in Los Angeles on July 9.
The film follows the lives of Xela, Andi Xoch (another member of the group and an artist in the community) and Evie, a 21-year old newcomer who struggles to balance her responsibilities working part-time, going to school and organizing with the Ovas.
The film is an intimate glimpse into the lives of these women as they navigate personal struggles and difficult activist work.
There is Xela’s fraught relationship with her mother, who failed to protect her from a sexually abusive father, and her struggle to raise her own daughter Yoli in a way that makes her feel strong and whole and loved. There is Andi’s endeavor to connect with her mother and sister, who don’t seem to really understand her involvement with the group. And there is Evie’s internal conflict as her family falls into financial trouble and she has to decide how much time she can give to the Ovas.
But behind this intimate story there is a rhetorical one. Twice, the documentary cuts to news footage of the deaths of two young women from the neighborhood, one killed by her boyfriend in the parking lot of her school, and another found dead in Hollenbeck Park Lake in Boyle Heights. The women live surrounded by the threat of violence, many times from the men who are their neighbors. All of their families, too, have lived in fear that this violence will touch their lives someday.
“When I was a kid, I couldn’t do anything really except stay in my room and sometimes watch TV,” says De la X. “I wasn’t allowed on the front porch or in the backyard. Meanwhile, my brothers could go wherever they wanted. Growing up like that, it really gave me a sense of urgency [to change things], but I also had mad amounts of rage,” she says.
In the film, De La X visits the room where she spent many hours as a child. She almost cannot contain her sadness. It is a different kind of existence than the one she lives now, and the one that her daughter Yoli gets to enjoy, joining her mother on rides with the Ovas.
Every month, the collective hosts "Luna Rides," overnight trips where riders roam the streets under the full moon. Before mounting, they have dialogues about problems they're facing in the community and in their personal lives. They usually have a speaker, and every participant gets a "spoke card" to put between the wheels of her bike, full of information on resources for victims of sexual or domestic violence, among others.
Once a year, the collective also organizes a 26-mile journey called the "Clitoral Mass", which has grown and now takes place in six cities. Hundreds of women come out and ride together, watching out for cars and shouting calls to one another, both joyful and rebellious.
"When we bike together, especially at night, we make fun of fear," concludes De La X. "We make fun of all these ideas that tell us how women should be."