El Tímpano’s Community Microphone Hits the Streets

El Tímpano’s community microphone at the César Chávez Library in Fruitvale. Photo by Ekevara Kitpowsong

El Tímpano’s community microphone at the César Chávez Library in Fruitvale. Photo by Ekevara Kitpowsong

It was past midnight when Graciela heard a knock on her apartment door. “I was well asleep, and so I said, ‘Who goes there?’” Standing outside was the new owner of her apartment building, putting up notices that the current tenants would have to leave. This late night notice wasn’t the only way the landlord was making life in Graciela’s apartment miserable. Since purchasing the property in February, he had imposed new rules. She can no longer care for her plants in the patio. Her grandchildren can’t play outside. She isn’t allowed to grill in the common area. And now, “We have two cameras on the foot of our bedroom windows recording what we say”—which are among more than a dozen he had installed around the duplex. She had fought eviction before, but now, “I just want to leave because of this man.” Graciela, her husband, and their son will soon move in with other relatives. Their home has become a living nightmare.

Stories like these have become commonplace in East Oakland. Since 2012, rent in the city climbed more than 50 percent—the second-highest increase in the nation. While the growth of tent cities is a visible sign of the Bay Area’s housing crisis, and the Ghost Ship fire in 2016 drew attention to the hazardous living situations many local artists have been forced into, the experience of working class immigrants has gone on largely unseen and told.

Latino immigrants earn the lowest wages in the Bay Area, and yet in the past decade of rising rents, their population in Oakland has increased. So how are they coping with the astronomical cost of living? How are they finding, and keeping, a home? And what would they like to see change?

El Tímpano was created to answer questions such as these by providing a space for Oakland’s Latino immigrants to share their stories, questions and concerns. Thanks to a grant from California Humanities, we partnered with local artist Ivan Lopez to build a microphone encased in a seashell-inspired sculpture, and throughout April, we took it to a dozen locations throughout East Oakland and invited residents to share their story about the rising cost of living. At the same time, we provided information about local resources that can help with various housing issues. We collected stories from street vendors, construction workers, day laborers and homemakers, from longtime Oakland residents, those displaced from other Bay Area cities, and from recently arrived immigrants.

Hear some of their stories in the video above, and go to our media partner, El Tecolote (in English or in Spanish), to read more.

Madeleine Bair