At the Los Angeles Zine Fest, representation is do-it-yourself

Circe Cota was has always been obsessed with houses. Ever since she was a little girl, riding down the streets of Tijuana looking out the taxi window, she found herself enamored by the large brick arches and vaulted windows glowing with natural light.

The houses of her hometown looked nothing like the caricatures she found herself drawing — a triangle balanced on top of a square with neat, symmetrical windows — a contradiction she found herself drawn to and wanting to explore. Cota began making zines, or small, DIY paper booklets, in 2017. In each she digs into what makes a house, or a home, and how perception and reality diverge.

Cota, 23, was one of nearly 150 vendors who gathered in Los Angeles last month at the Los Angeles Zine Fest, an annual gathering of zine makers and artists. Amid the flurry of attendees clutching tote bags overflowing with purchases, those who stopped by Cota’s table took in her work — and the Spanish words that adorn her art.

One woman, who Cota noticed a woman looking intently through her latest house-shaped zine, lingered at the booth as other customers came and went. When she approached Cota to purchase it, she made a confession:

“I don’t speak Spanish,” the woman told her. “But I’ll figure it out.”

Cota’s work, like those of many other Latino artists, transcends language and culture. But, many said, showcasing their identity is integral to the messages and the imagery they seek to display in this unique art form.

Humble Servants of The Worm, a collective of artists and community organizers from San Diego, showcase their zines and merchandise at the Los Angeles Zine Fest. BRIANA MENDEZ-PADILLA/LATINO REPORTER

Zines are self-published paper booklets that can range in style and tone. Some tackle hard issues like abortion access and politics, while others showcase whimsy and poetry. For Cota, zines allow her to explore not just the physical attributes of houses that fascinate her but the thematic importance of a home and the impact of gentrification.

Two booths away, Cindy Macias was selling her zines for the first time. The colorful pages were filled with prints of her unedited photos from trips to Puebla, Mexico, and others from her childhood. 

For Macias, being an artist and making zines that are reflections of her life and her community create a space for her and others like her that she has never seen before. No one in the glossy, curated magazines she would cut up to make collages as a burgeoning artist looked anything like her or her community. 

“Taking up that space on paper in people’s hands is really radical,” Macias said.

That creative freedom aligns with the ethos of composting collective Humble Servants of the Worm, a group of community organizers from San Diego that use zines as an educational tool meant to show readers how waste can be transformed into a community resource.

The collective first began using zines as a way to introduce their vision at community workshops. It later led them to tabling at different zine festivals and has connected them to people who share similar values. 

For Laura Saint-Agne, an Argentinian artist who attended her second Los Angeles Zine Fest this year, zines don’t just mean putting words and images to paper. Her work is tactile and intimately tied to her homeland. At her booth this year, she displayed pebbles and paper treated with water, resin and other materials to give it a look and feel that resembles ocean ripples and waves. She describes these works as capturing her own view of the world.

Zines “are a current and very relevant form of communication,” Saint-Agne said. “It crosses all social and cultural stratum, it has no borders.”

As she braced herself for the 14-hour flight back to Buenos Aires and gathered what zines remained, she felt lighter. It was more than the zines she sold and the luggage she carried that weighed less leaving Los Angeles than they did coming in. She felt that with each piece someone took from her booth, she had given parts of herself.

Briana Mendez-Padilla is a bilingual journalist based in Long Beach, California, who is passionate about covering education and her community. She is a recent graduate from Cal State Long Beach where she managed ENYE (Formerly known as DÍG En Español), a bilingual magazine working to uplift stories on and for the Latine community. Reach her at brianampadilla1214 [at] gmail[dot] com or on X at @brianampadilla.

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