Music's the life for Chili D

  • by Heather Cassell
  • Tuesday June 25, 2013
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Diane Felix, who is better known as DJ Chili D in the Latin LGBT club scene, will be dancing down Market Street as a community grand marshal in Sunday's LGBT Pride parade.

The Latina lesbian activist, disc jockey, and club promoter is being honored for her more than four decades of cultural and health activism and bringing Latin beats to LGBT nightlife.

"It's a good feeling to be honored," said Felix, 60, who has marched in the Pride parade for nearly 40 years. "I'm excited about it and I feel proud of it."

Fighting for human and health rights and celebrating life have always blended together for Felix.

"All of the music that was going on all around me [and] the movement, everything is just all one big punch bowl. It's all in there for me," said Felix about political activism and music. "It's always been music and life."

Felix, who was born and raised in Stockton, California, recalled waking up in the morning to Spanish-language radio that her mother would have on before she headed out to school or into the fields during the summer to harvest the crops. In the afternoon Felix returned home to the sounds of Motown that her older brothers tuned into on the radio.

"Radio was a really important part of our life, so the music always takes me home," said Felix. She recalled the neighborhood parties she threw in her garage as a teenager with music from the Beatles and later, the disco era when she moved from the San Joaquin Valley to San Francisco.


Celebrating and fighting for life

From an early age Felix knew working the fields wasn't going to be her life's work, she said. The late farmworker organizer Cesar Chavez gave a speech at her high school, which brought attention to the struggles of the farmworkers that she had worked with side-by-side during the summers. At the same time she looked around, becoming aware of the Chicano Student Movement; her personal knowledge that she was a butch lesbian and homophobia in her community; and listening to news about the Vietnam war filtering in through the music on the radio inspired her to action.

"It all made sense to me why I was feeling these feelings after listening to him," said Felix of Chavez. "It just started making sense to me that all of these things all go together. That there is some kind of movement, that there is some kind of social change that needs to happen that people need to be aware of how all of this affects us."

She escaped Stockton as soon as she could, landing in San Jose, where there was a strong Latino LGBT community with an active and vibrant nightlife, but no activism, she said.

Having a good job and nightlife wasn't enough for her.

"There was still something lacking for me," she said.

In 1975, she found the missing piece in an ad for a gay Chicanos gathering in San Francisco. She and a group of girls piled into her car and headed nearly 50 miles north to the city. She was blown away by the more than 150 queer Latina/o activists from different parts of the U.S. at that first meeting.

Within days Felix packed up her bags and moved to San Francisco's Mission-Dolores neighborhood where she co-founded the Gay Latino/a Alliance, the first or second LGBT Latino organization in the U.S., she said. The organization later folded, but she continued working as an activist by day and bartending, DJing, and promoting clubs by night.

Felix hooked up with famed feminist activists Angela Davis and Victoria Machado in the late 1970s and began speaking at Stanford and other universities about Chicana homosexuality. She has also been honored with awards and featured in many articles for her activism.

Six years later the AIDS epidemic hit San Francisco and she watched as her gay Latino brothers died left and right. She sprung into action co-founding Community United in Response to AIDS/SIDA in 1981. Not ignoring the women, she helped create the program Curanderas, which later became Mujeres Unidas and Activistas, to promote health programs for immigrant women in the Mission that continues today.

When CURAS closed she became a founding member of Proyecto ContraSida Por Vida, an organization promoting sex-positive HIV education, in 1993. The organization promoted men and women working together for the community and didn't stigmatize queer sexualities or genders creating programs, such as addressing Latina lesbian health issues.

Felix led the Lesbians and Bisexuals Responding with Sexual Education and Sinverguenza (translated to without shame), a safe-sex performance group, to raise awareness of HIV prevention through her clubs.


Partying for a cause

She spun beats in many of the hidden queer Latin bars in the Mission until AIDS and skyrocketing rents wiped them out, but back in the 1970s it was still difficult to find the queer Latinas in the gay white male dominated club scene, said Felix.

So she began to create her own clubs for queer women of color. She started with the popular A Little More on Potrero Hill, which had a women of color softball team, Un Poquito Mas. Felix then went on to start Colors in the Mission. Later she hooked up with Club Papi Productions. She's been DJing at the queer Latino circuit parties for the past 16 years, said Jamie Awad, founder of the Latin stage at San Francisco Pride and owner of Club Papi.

She continued throwing the popular Delicious parties at the Cafe, along with Cream and Kandy in the Castro and Octopussy in San Jose under her production company CreamSF.

Felix's parties became important social centers to make friends and network, attracting LGBT politicians, such as former state Senator Carole Migden and current state Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco); and former city supervisor Roberta Achtenberg, now an official in the Obama administration.

Colors closed in 2000 after more than a decade. Delicious left the Cafe in October 2012. Felix shut down all of her girl parties that operated under CreamSF around that time, she said.

Felix's friends are thrilled she's being recognized this year.

"It's a great honor for her to represent the Latino community," said Awad. "She's done a lot of great work over the years."

And she'll even find time to DJ on Sunday.

After the parade Felix will be spinning salsa beats as DJ Chili D at the Latin stage.

"People need community and culturally specific community," said Felix. "My parties started becoming the hub for networking."

Felix continues spinning Latin beats at the Cafe every Thursday night at club Pan Dulce and DJing for Club Papi's circuit parties. Recently, she began spinning for KittyKat Entertainment, which launched Venus, a new women's T-dance at the Cafe every first Saturday of the month, she said.

"It's just been a very natural way of life for me," said Felix. "It's just always been music, clubs, and activism all at the same time. Kind of crazy, but actually it's been a wonderful thing."