South LA

El Conocimiento is turning art into activism

South Gate natives are preparing the first zine dedicated to South and East Los Angeles artists.

Photo of South Gate Park sign.

After the Los Angeles storms, Lily Navarro dodged puddles from the recent rain as she walked through South Gate Park. Between family picnics and soccer games, it seemed there was no secluded spot in the almost 100-acre park — just as Navarro always remembered. On a table at the corner of Hildreth Avenue and Tweedy Boulevard, Navarro spread out multiple drafts of her future zine, El Conocimiento. Bright photos and vibrant colored pencil drawings covered the A4 pages.

This park is her favorite part of the city. While Navarro’s heart is full of love for South Gate, she has an appetite for change.

Navarro, an artist who recently graduated from California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt, noticed the art scene in South Gate was lacking. This wasn’t due to a lack of artists, but a lack of space. She decided to change that.

Soon, Navarro will release the first edition of El Conocimiento, a zine dedicated to providing a space for artists of South and East L.A. The project has been three years in the making.

El Conocimiento is not Navarro’s first zine. Navarro created Cajas de Cariño, after learning about them in college and getting inspired by 1980s Black, Indigenous and People of Color zines.

“[Zines are] very punk,” Navarro said. “It’s very in your face of different subjects too, it doesn’t really have limits. There’s nobody policing or editing it for you. It’s just like, ‘I did this. And I printed it. And I’m sharing it.’”

Following the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, Navarro and other South Gate community members rallied for months of protests, but Navarro, and her partner, Kent Zapata, were dissatisfied with the city’s minimal changes — especially with the 2% police budget decrease when they initially asked for 30%.

Angrier than ever, the pair realized bureaucracy was not working and turned to new means. In 2020, The People of South Gate, a collective “created by the people for the people,” was born. Through weekly food distribution events, rallies and teach-ins, the collective is dedicated to improving South Gate through mutual aid.

Cajas de Cariño, now called the People of South Gate, was created as a physical, shareable manifesto of the collective’s mission statement. Navarro was the primary contributor to the zine. She served as the writer, photographer, artist and editor. Between balancing the zine, college work and her activism, El Conocimiento “floated around in limbo” for years.

Amanda Tapia, one of the founders of The People of South Gate, is supportive of Navarro’s endeavors.

“One of the beauties of our collective is whatever skill sets and passions our folks have, we love to see it be used here in our group,” Tapia said. “We have a lot of members that are artists, and are willing to create a zine that is centered around the community centered around need centered around amazing opportunities that maybe otherwise wouldn’t have been highlighted and showcase other people’s art to within the community.”

After graduating in December, Navarro has more time to dedicate to the zine, aspiring to finally build a space for the artists of South East L.A.

“We do need more art in our community because it is very policed. We don’t really have much to share. We don’t have murals here. We barely opened the South Gate Museum,” she said. “I really wanted to be the first to introduce that to here.”

Navarro, and The People of South Gate member Zapata, attribute the “lack of an art culture” in the area to the city council’s hopes of maintaining an “old-fashioned” image. Zapata believes the council ignores demographic changes in the area. According to the 2022 United States Census, over 95% of South Gate residents identify as Latino.

“The city council has this old-fashioned [image of an] upper-class, white, segregated town, even though it hasn’t been since the white flight. With that change in demographic came a change in culture,” Zapata said. “We don’t have murals on our walls like East L.A. does or Watts does. [City Council] doesn’t allow certain things that don’t cater to the pristine image of South Gate.”

Although the plan for El Conocimiento originally started as just providing space for local artists, the zine will hold more than just art. Navarro has plans to add tips for healthy eating, ways to support public libraries and Metro information. Her goal is to have multiple businesses carry the zine to make all information as widely accessible as possible. The People of South Gate zine is currently available at Cruzita’s Deli and Cafe, the location of the group’s weekly food distributions.

As a child, Navarro’s parents enrolled her in art programs, but she was not able to continue due to the financial burden. In the future, Navarro hopes to head free art programs in the city.

“Times are just really tough right now. It’s hard to have students go every month or every week [to art classes] because they would have to pay every week,” Navarro said. “We’re navigating this world of like, ‘where can we express ourselves?’ And I think art is the most wonderful way.”

The journey to publication has been challenging, and it is not over yet — Navarro is currently struggling to find a place where she can produce the physical copies of the zine for free, as the high printing costs would hinder her plans for mass production. She is in contact with local teachers and is also planning to make the zine available digitally.

Three years in the making, Navarro hasn’t stopped pushing for the creation of El Conocimiento. For Navarro, art — and the act of uplifting underrepresented artists — is activism.