Month: December 2020

Interviews

“We’re just Trying to Breathe”: An Interview with Active San Gabriel Valley

As the condition of our climate continues to deteriorate, national and state policies beholden to special interests often play an exacerbating role in worsening effects on working-class communities, especially communities of color. Lack of adequate urban planning and underfunded public projects that can improve quality of life and reduce pollution are often ignored in the larger conversations around climate justice. Dedicated public servant David Diaz is the Executive Director of Active San Gabriel Valley, a local nonprofit organization that focuses on mobility, climate, and health and wellness in underserved communities. He joins Boom California to discuss the connections between public policy and environmental equality, and how we can take an active role in combating climate change in our own neighborhoods.

Boom: Hi David. We’re interested in knowing what the climate crisis looks like for a majority-minority city, one populated by migrants and children of migrants. Can you tell us a little bit about how it is that you, as a child of migrants, arrived to an understanding of environmental justice and the climate crisis.

David Diaz: Yeah, it’s a nice place to start. I was born in Mexico, as you know in Baja, California, and at six months old my parents brought me over and we landed in the city of El Monte. We’re right on the border of the city of El Monte and South El Monte. So, for me growing up as a latchkey kid, my parents had to work multiple jobs to make it work. We lived in this house that was subdivided internally. So, we had what was the front of the house. And then, in addition, there were two other units that were in the back. As a latchkey kid, I grew up on frozen food. My parents, due to a lack of economic opportunities, they had to work, so they couldn’t cook fresh meals. We ate a lot of McDonalds; we had a lot of frozen food. As a result, I became an obese kid growing up. Similarly, a lot of family members, extended family members, had diabetes, heart disease, coronary related diseases. I went to a lot of funerals due to strokes. When I was probably 18, 19 years old I was at about 260 pounds. I went on this trip of Muay Thai kickboxing mixed martial arts and nutrition education, learning about how I could be a healthier individual and so through that process I ended up losing about 110 pounds. And when I was going through this process, I was also going to Rio Hondo Community College and learning about culture, the erasure of culture, displacement, all the things that were not taught at the high school level. That really impacted me deeply. I ended up going to college at Arizona State to study psychology and social health and what I looked at was how systems play a role in determining the outcomes of people’s well-being and quality of life.

When you look at the communities that I grew up in, El Monte and South El Monte, some of the realities that emerge liken it to a concrete jungle. When I say concrete jungle, what does that mean? It means the absence of canopy, urban canopy, trees, vegetation, greenery in our communities. The national average for urban canopies is about 22%, so this means the percentage of publicly owned trees. In the city of El Monte, that’s about 5%.We’re not lacking fast food or liquor stores or tobacco, you can find one of those pretty easily. We’re also a super park poor community. The national average is approximately six acres per one thousand residents, and for the cities of El Monte and South El Monte, it’s about 0.41 acres per one thousand residents. And just to give a perspective: one acre is roughly the size of a soccer field, so we’re talking about cramming one thousand people in less than half the size of a soccer field.

And so, that coupled with questions like: what were the outcomes in the community I grew up in? Severe pollution burden, high childhood and adult obesity rates, low educational attainment, high unemployment. You start looking at the connections in the system and not just pointing them to personal responsibility, but understanding that all this stuff was done intentionally. So that really motivated me to take the opportunities that were provided for me and come back into my community to be part of that change. I ended up going to Claremont Graduate University to get my Master’s of Public Health. Simultaneously, I was interning at the city of Pomona’s Manager’s Office. I was also working for a startup in south Los Angeles on this concept of dealing with the whole health of an individual. Through these experiences I was able to connect with like-minded folks and organizations that were doing work that I was interested in. One of those organizations was Day One, which was based out of Pasadena, and they actually had this position that had recently opened, and it was titled El Monte Nutrition Education and Obesity Prevention Coordinator. And when I read it, I remember thinking: that’s what I want to do! Like it’s in the title, what I want to do. So, I ended up applying and I got the job. And then that put me into this kick of working in El Monte and South El Monte on various initiatives.

Courtesy of Active San Gabriel Valley

Boom: One of the things that you just outlined for us is the different ways in which residents in El Monte, and other majority-minority cities, experience what we might call if not climate change, at least, environmental injustice. Lack of access to parks and green space, lack of urban canopy, easy access to fast food and liquor stores. Are there any other things that you think are ways that people experience climate crisis or environmental injustice in El Monte and South El Monte that you haven’t mentioned?

David Diaz: When I jumped into the work, it was about nutrition education and obesity prevention for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. So, it’s called SNAP for short, food stamps or food assistance program. Providing them with physical activity and nutrition education is great. However, folks would tell me things like I love to eat healthy meals, I just have to work 14 hours and my schedule is variable. And I’m also worried about my housing insecurity and also I don’t have a car. And I would love to walk in my community, but I just don’t feel safe going outside and walking, because there’s no infrastructure for people to feel safe while walking. Those include simple things like the presence of sidewalks. In El Monte, more than 35% of the sidewalk network is missing. I quickly realized that we can’t just focus on direct services. We need to continue to address the systems that are in place. Poor urban planning has led to a number of things. Harm from freeways has been documented. They’ve displaced thousands of people and mitigated generational wealth from families. The car industry in general, is problematic. So, for example, if you’re a person that’s in El Monte and you want to get to a place within the city of El Monte, pretty much your options are limited to whether you have a car. And what does that create? Car dependency, which creates dependency on oil and gas because you need that. Poor urban planning has contributed greatly to the environmental inequities that we see today. And again, those things aren’t by accident, they’re by design.

626 Golden Streets, Courtesy of Active San Gabriel Valley
Courtesy of Active San Gabriel Valley

Boom: I think one of the things that you’re teasing out is the ways in which there are individual actions and choices that one can make. But in some ways, depending on one’s class, one’s neighborhoods, folks are limited by these larger structural factors. How does Active SGV work to address personal choice and structural conditions?

David Diaz: At Active SGV our mission is to create a more sustainable, equitable, and livable San Gabriel Valley. Active SGV started off as a Facebook page in 2010 by a group of concerned residents from the San Gabriel Valley. They were a multiracial group that lives in different parts of the San Gabriel Valley, from West SGV to East SGV, all concerned about the lack of public transit and active transportation opportunities available for folks. When I say active transportation, that’s everything that’s human powered: walking, biking, skating, scooting. The Facebook page grew into an official organization. They were a chapter of Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, the Western Gabriel Bicycle Coalition, and then they ended up being called Bike San Gabriel Valley.One of the first things that they did was identify these things called master plans, like a bicycle master plan or active transportation master plan and what the gaps were for cities. There’s 31 cities and four large unincorporated areas in SGV. About 2 million residents. They audited which of these cities have done any planning or thinking about active transportation or bicycle master plans.

Since 2012, Active SGV has worked on 12 masterplan processes for 12 individual cities and counting. What that looks like is that we’ve coordinated regional efforts so that there’s regional connectivity in the San Gabriel Valley. Because it’s not enough to just create one bike lane and then see it end at the city boundary, after which you no longer have anywhere to go. For Active SGV, it’s really been about doing the work around identifying where the gaps are and then providing some of the programming ourselves. So, our focus is really on mobility, climate, and health and wellness. Those are the kind of broad categories in which we’re trying to tackle this climate crisis because we know that you need a combination of the above strategy. We need to do the engineering. We need to have actual projects or infrastructure built in the ground.

For Active SGV our communities of concern are really the ones that are most pollution burdened, impacted by pollution, park poor, low income, so that’s what we’ve focused on. The West Puente Valley, El Monte, South El Monte, La Puente, Baldwin Park, parts of Monterey Park, parts of Alhambra. We’re working in Azusa and northwest Pasadena right now, which are really impacted. We’re trying to do this multifocal approach to address some of the region’s most pressing needs. And over the last few years that’s looked like coordinating one of the longest Open Streets programs in the United States. It was 17-plus miles long, from South Pasadena, all the way up to Azusa. Open Streets provides an opportunity to take our biggest public asset, meaning the thing we have most of—roads, which are a fully funded asset—and temporarily transforming them into parks.

We are also working with UCLA and the Energy Coalition to do an indoor air quality study. There are a lot of different appliances that people use that rely on gas. El Monte and South El Monte are in the top five worst pollution burdened sites in California. And that puts us around the top 10 in the entire United States because the county has one of the worst air quality indexes in the United States. If you look at it from that frame and then you look at peoples’ indoor air quality, it’s about five to seven times worse than their outdoor air quality.

People are literally living in toxic conditions because of some behaviors, gas, not having proper installation, or the type of dwelling they’re living in. It’s a number of variables. So, what we’re hoping to do with the outcomes of this study is to inform future building codes for the State of California. Like moving to electrification.

One of the examples that is good for our health and wellness efforts is that we’re currently funded to address food insecurity in the San Gabriel Valley. What we’re doing is coordinating a number of up to 160 – 190 nutrition education and/or physical activity classes with communities that are considered SNAP eligible.

Those are just a few examples of the work that Active SGV is doing, but our frame is always investment where it’s most needed. Doing the work alongside the communities that are most in need and then thinking about multiple benefits. We know that food insecurity doesn’t exist by itself. There’s a lot of complexity that creates food insecurity. Same with absent infrastructure for people walking and biking. It just doesn’t exist by itself.

Boom: One of the images that I got when I was listening to you talk is the El Monte airport. El Monte residents don’t own the planes and they don’t get to go on the planes. It’s almost like there’s literally another freeway. What are your thoughts about the El Monte airport?

David Diaz: The airport for me is like a visualization of the inequity that occurs. Neighboring communities used to have these airports too, that were from way back when, like WWII or something like that. I’m so puzzled as to why we still have this airport that is for leisure activities of the people who have, and it comes at the expense of people who don’t have, which is the people that live in the city El Monte, including myself. I would love for there to be some type of mixed-use development at that site that includes parks and addresses the housing need and has opportunities for economic development for small business owners, entrepreneurs and people from the community. Instead of what it is right now, which is a parking lot for rich people. If I had a wish list, I would love to get rid of that airport. I don’t see the value that it brings to the city of El Monte. It doesn’t generate revenue for them, they’re not getting significant taxes from them. We’re just getting all the pollution, and all of the carbon. So, I would love to see it become something else.

Boom: There’s this term that I read in an LA Times article recently “solastaglia.” It’s a term coined by Glenn Albrecht to describe nostalgia for a place that is no longer the same place. And it’s not that place anymore because of environmental degradation, because of climate change, because it’s been transformed. This really hit me. As you know, Greater El Monte used to be surrounded by water, now it’s surrounded by freeways. We grew up with it surrounded by freeways. I imagine, some generations miss Marrano Beach and being surrounded by water. You have a baby, I have a baby. What do you think we’re going to be nostalgic for in 20 years if we keep headed in the direction we are headed?

David Diaz: As someone who’s involved in the climate world, people are pretty much of two frames of mind. One is resilience. We need to build resilience, and another way to say resilience is that we need to create adaptive strategies. Climate adaptive strategies. What that signals to me is that we pretty much have passed the point of no return. It’s like it’s coming. It’s going to happen. Therefore, let’s just try and adapt to the best of our ability. I think that right now people take for granted being able to go outside. Something as simple as that. You and I are going to miss the days where it was just as simple as, hey let’s go outside today. Because the wildfires that are happening right now aren’t a thing of this moment. They’re going to be a thing of this moment, tomorrow, next month, next year. They’re going to continue to happen and more major human made disaster events are going to continue to happen. And so when I think about it, it really comes down to things as simple as, we’re going to miss being able to go outside. You’re going to have these clean air days and not clean air days determining when you can actually go outside if we continue on the path that we are on right now without an aggressive or bold redirection somewhere else. I think it’s as simple as that. And I know that back in the smog days, people couldn’t go outside because of smog days or limit your physical activity outside because of smog. But moving forward, UCLA scientists right now are saying that the number of days by 2050, the number of days above 95 degrees are going to climb from 32 to 74 by 2050. That’s what UCLA scientists are predicting right now. Today, you and I are having this discussion and it’s currently 101 according to my watch.

Boom: Let’s end with one last question. We’ll try to end on a positive note: how can folks get involved with Active SGV? How can folks make small and big decisions that will help us move in a better direction?

David Diaz: Good question. I think in general one of the things I would offer to folks is to engage with Active SGV at activesgv.org and find our volunteer internship opportunities. We’re trying to do a much better job of building local capacity at the local level. One of the things that you mentioned right now is, how can at the individual level, people do better? One is educating themselves and we can work with folks to help them work through that education of what’s going on. I think that for me I’ve been learning as I’ve been going. What are best practices? What do we need to do? What’s the latest research? And working alongside folks to discover best strategies.

I think that one of the things that we’ve been doing a whole lot, while we still want to do a whole lot more, is build local capacity so that it could be advocacy at the local and state level. Because ultimately, one of the things is that the climate has been politicized.  We can’t agree on whether it’s real or how progressive it is, the whole electoral process, you know, from the local level to the state and national level, special interest has a lot of grip on politicians.

One of the immediate ways to engage with us is to help do some of this advocacy around some of the legislation that’s being introduced. Particularly here at the local level, as we know that our assembly members and Senate members both take a lot of oil and gas money. They voted, and you can see it, in favor of oil. They wouldn’t even agree to vote against like a 2,500 foot setback from oil drilling sites and where homes should be located. I think that’s one way. I think in general a solution that needs to be considered at the statewide level or even at the more regional level, is how we build more regenerative economies and really focus on how we can not only create – but it’s also been this battle of jobs vs climate. Either we have climate or we have jobs, and I don’t see it as that black and white. We need to be able to find ways can do it all. It’s not just investing in climate infrastructure, but it’s also investing in people; moving them onto green jobs and divestment from fossil fuels.

Divestment strategies are very important. Sign up with a credit union or public banks because private banks fund a lot of fossil fuel interest. If you currently have a pension or 401k, 403b, look at how your profits are coming back from oil and gas. What stocks are you investing in if you have that? I think that we need to build this economy where it’s inclusive of everyone. And we talk about things like a just transition. A just transition and that really gets to having a more regenerative economy that includes building good economic opportunities for folks addressing the most climate pressing needs, focusing on base frameworks, including racial justice so that we can live in the community that we’d like to. One of the things that I love about this organization that works in the southeast LA area and also Long Beach, East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, that one of their hashtags is #WeAreJustTryingtoBreathe. And while that sounds simple, it’s a reality: we are just trying to breathe. We are literally just trying to breathe. And so, I would love for us to get to a point where we talk more about regenerative strategies versus resilient or adaptive ones.

David Diaz serves as the Executive Director of Active San Gabriel Valley, a local nonprofit organization, focusing on mobility, climate, and health and wellness in underserved communities. He’s a dedicated public servant and advocate with project management, coalition building experience who has successfully worked with youth, schools, businesses, nonprofit organizations and cities to advance sustainability, equity and public health. David is also a member of the El Monte Union High School District, Investing in Place Board Member, member of the San Gabriel Valley Service Council, Chair of the Measure A Oversight Committee, and Vice Chair of the Upper San Gabriel River Watershed Area Steering Committee. He holds a Masters of Public Health degree and lives in the City of El Monte.

Copyright: © 2020 David Diaz. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Postcards Series

Memories of my Tata’s Frutería

Courtesy of Fernando Mendez Corona

With “Postcards,” creative non-fiction stories grounded in place, we aspire to create a new cartography of California. For us, literature and language are as much about marking and representing space, as they are about storytelling.


Marco Vera

We never ate salads. World-class mechanics drive lemons, world-class musicians pawn instruments. Know-it-all scholars would come to our store because the university was close by. All the math was done on a Scribe notebook, quietly, as a swamp cooler rocked you to sleep. Tripping out, because there is no other way to spend time in a fruit stand after morning setup duties. Art was there, always, always, always. In the way you stacked tomatoes. In the rotation of the avocados. In the Dutch angle tamarind candy. In the handcrafted, misspelled signage with the price collaged on neon bright fluorescent colored paper.

There’s a science and technique to opening costales. Just like there is to cleaning and bagging cacahuates. Or stacking bags of carbon. In the Malverde merchandise room, chaos was art, as Jesús’s bust would watch over you trying to make sense of the merchandise rearrangement. A framed print of San Martin Caballero hung in the lobby open to the public where we played the nice señora ballads. Malverde was in the back where the radios blared to a different beat, punk and norteño music. If you were a wiseass, you’d oversleep to stay in the air conditioner in the house next door where my grandparents lived. But the smell of garlic was too alluring. The chile pico de pájaro halo that adorned our day-to-day is something I miss every day. Many years later, the smells of dried chile california and chile pasilla still jump-start those memories.

I did some of my growing up in a fruit stand in Mexicali. Frutería Alejandrina. An establishment full of disaster, poor judgment and reflections of a teenage memory. The funniest, most beautiful place to roll out the red carpet on being a peacock. Toda la pinche vida carposa.

My grandparents had a fruit stand in the northern border of a super, super nice part of town. Where governors lived and the houses looked like marble mansions. Safe as houses even if that hood had a big ole graveyard, with gangs like “Los Panteons” referencing it. Colonia Libertad, the freedom neighborhood. A place where detached, lived-in people from the hood or posh intellectual fucks on their mistress dates would come by and purchase the bare essentials. It wasn’t as tough as my neighborhood, which was two blocks away from the physical U.S.-Mexico border, but it was poor neighboring the richest part of town. Everything seemed more ironic. And those memories are crisper, because you don’t have fear or crime clouding your overall existence and sadness. There were cute girls coming into the shop. Rocker girls. With money. The cruising strip was not too far away from there in the rich part of town. My barrio was amber alert. My grandpa’s barrio was divine. We were a border frutería in a border city, an assertion that you needed us, it was love amidst class war.

Photo Courtesy of Marco Vera

And once every week or so, Frutería Alejandrina had to restock. So, we would drive back near my hood to downtown Mexicali, to a place full of wonder and smells and culture and a taste of all of México nicknamed “La Yarda.” A double entendre poem in motion. Mercado Braulio Maldonado is known to all the locals as “La Yarda.” A place frozen in time. Founded by working people and their offspring for generations to come. It was hot. It was absurd. It was full of lament and fast-paced driving decisions. It was millimetric. It was colorful. It was full of smiles and laughter. And sun. You had a stake in it. The United States were not far off. But the tale was everybody’s. We had possession, we were awake. It was always day in “La Yarda.” If you saw it by night you were a bit of a tourist.

Named after what was by all accounts a brutal and repressive governor, Mercado Braulio Maldonado is referred to as “La Yarda” for reasons unbeknownst to many. Local unofficial historians even claim it’s a pochismo, a bastardization of the language, as the border always does, signifying “The Yard,” due to all the loading and unloading docks filled with truckloads of fruit and vegetables lining the immense real estate. La Yarda, like any beautifully chaotic memory, is fiercely contested geographically. “Where does it start?” “Who started it where?” “Were you so and so’s neighbors back in 1962?”

But this is a postcard. A postcard to my grandfather, a mi Tata. Reverse psychology souls. We were both heavy breathing alcohol. Drinking ourselves away like little devils in a graveyard.

The kiosk where the mariachis and taka takas would wait for gigs was our parking departure. My cousin and my uncle would reiterate that I wasn’t shit as they blew up their grandeur driving the van or crowded pickup truck, even when I didn’t want their Yarda canonization or holiness. My grandma hated all of it, the restock. There was no love in that affair for her unfortunately. Just separation. But I found peace there. Peace from social classes, genres of youth roleplay, it was all mixed up together. Beautifully. Low blows n’ all. An oasis for the shrink wrapped battalions of drunks and nihilists dreaming of luxurious starlets at the magazine stand. The audience at the cockfight dishing out fables, day drinking. Euphoria.

My grandfather’s journey as a merchant began in Culiacan, Sinaloa. His father married and remarried but always took his first-born son along with him. Teaching him the trade, being the owner of a wholesale distributor that supplied its clients with fruits and vegetables from all over Mexico. Once he was of age, my grandfather’s dad set him up with a fruit stand in Culiacan’s Mercado Garmendia, where he met my grandmother, a client who would come in and ask the price of items individually to see how much her handful of coins could afford her. My grandmother had been left behind by her widowed mother who migrated to the border town of Mexicali and formed a new family of her own in the border city. After my grandmother’s grandma passed away, she was left to the care of an abusive aunt who would take a big bulk of her profits doing home-to-home manicures and pedicures. Out of desperation, she asked my grandfather if she could live with him, who in turn left his girlfriend, and they moved in with consent from both families, later starting a family of their own.

Photo Courtesy of Marco Vera

Years later, my grandmother’s mother would come back to Culiacan from Mexicali on a trip to reconnect with her daughter and her family, and that established constant travel between both cities. My mother would be taken to Mexicali at the age of five to practically be raised by her aunt and grandma, but when they wanted to adopt her at the age of 13, my grandmother refused, and back to Sinaloa she went. My mom would eventually move to Mexicali as a young adult, having grown tired of not being allowed to study or work where she wanted. Taking advantage of a vacation to the border city, she found independence and did not return. Some of her sisters and brother would follow the promise of borderland employment. My grandmother would later follow her children and her mother to the border city, reuniting three different generations of family affected by distance. My grandfather, after a series of poor financial decisions and now nearly alone in Culiacan, moved to Mexicali to rejoin his family with very little money and no business connections.

My grandfather would have a humble reinvention in Mexicali as a birria taco vendor with a cart outside the city’s railroad station, as passenger trains arrived and departed. One day, he caught the eye of a couple of young men who used to be kids when he owned fruit stands in Culiacan, guys that couldn’t believe he wasn’t owning his own business as he did back in their home state. They offered to give him a loan to start up a new business in Mexicali, supplying him with all the merchandise needed to commence what my grandfather would graciously call Frutería Alejandrina, in honor of the young men’s business of the same name. Years later, with no more credit to pay and the property ownership under his belt, my grandfather had built what we all considered our home away from home, that beloved frutería forever etched in our memory.

Courtesy of Marco Vera

There’d be rich people that would roll into Frutería Alejandrina, asking what it took to make a yummy guacamole. They all have that same face of discovery. La Yarda was no different. It even had a local bus station by the mariachi kiosk that picked up and dropped off people, one farm at a time, to restock, next to world class vehicles and air-conditioned wine and cheese connoisseurs. But it was also a party. A playing field in a police state for migrants. Where self-made people unmount towards commerce. Where you could build a party from scratch, get different styles and sizes of piñatas, the ultimate Mexican dulces, theme-party candy bags… It was a place where you could see humans connected with nature, disconnect from it and package it. Signmaker commissions highlighted storefronts, restaurants, worker bars & gay bars, barber shops, banda music for hire bass drums, and mariachi & norteño groups’ vans.  

Nowadays it’s a fascist state battle between wannabe gentrifiers “rehabilitating downtown”, police harassing immigrants, divide and conquer Christians, and no end to justify the means. It’s a place of constant relocation anyway. The tacos from El Jefe were better when he was down in the pit and outdoors, not his brick and mortar three blocks up, years later. Food at a marketplace tastes better when eaten standing up. These are facts.

If one business was struggling, others could relieve it. There was store-to-store credit. Grin and bear, it was La Yarda’s mission statement. If you were young and thought you were enlightened nobody cared. You still had to arrange the wooden crates along the wall. My cousin and I would wake up at night to drink, that was our dawn. Dawn was our afternoon, we would be so hungover. Everything was an interminable binge and a hangover. And on the street there was always a scam, always a story. Men that cry to take your money. Professional actors. Cons. “Let me tell you something…” Weird caressing holds from grimy sausage fingers. All downtowns are beset by ghosts.

At Frutería Alejandrina, my grandfather and I could go days together working and hanging out without talking much, just reading El Libro Vaquero or watching classic movies from Mexico’s Golden Age on the De Pelicula channel. When we’d visit La Yarda we could both sense the status differences amidst businesses. The cold-storage room owners had personalized gold rings on several fingers, the daughters of the wholesalers wore designer jeans and ordered workers around, one could only imagine the lavish parties where they did the same. The rehab center fugitives wore rope around their waists, their hair flailing around looking for the “ghostbusters van” to take them back to internment one last time. From the back of our van and in honor of all this chaos, we drank beers from the ice chest, between loading up, in between sugar wafer and Hot Cheeto bites, observing.

It was through this lens that my grandfather and I built our history together. We’d drink till all the perishables would become unsafe for consumption. If we were really hungover, we’d stop in at the birrieria and ask for coffee. I remember the first time I went, I said “Grandpa, I don’t like coffee.” “Shut up, just drink it. It’s before 10.” I’d get a coffee cup full of foamy ice-cold beer prior to alcohol sale permits, then he’d order birria the right way. His background as a birria vendor informing his purchases, he only permitted us to to go to this one birria spot. Where it was birria de chivo, none of that lamb or beef shit. With machito and costilla, cebolla y cilantro, limones and salsa, all the different textures and flavors necessary to make it an experience. Then we’d get pretty faded ordering more caguamas, drinking them while sipping on our consomé with warm handmade corn tortillas. One time I remember he ordered the birria goat head, and I ate the eye by mistake, but the meat would come off the warm tortilla scoop like butter.

If it was after a Yarda restock, we’d get drunk with all the merchandise in the blazing heat, the chicken would thaw and go bad, and he’d invite his girlfriend over. We’d have to ask the restaurant owners to take away all of the beer bottles, coffee and consomé cups, belonging to my cousin, my uncle, my grandpa, his lover, and her daughter all having a dandy ol’ time. We’d be greeted back at Alejandrina by a well-thumbed hose spray and disciplinary actions, one time I saw him get a whole bucket. It was sad but I would just escape to the cruising strip. And keep drinking. One time my uncle and I got stoned and drunk while taking my grandpa to restock. Since it was the first restock of the year, my grandpa wanted to go to the downtown cathedral. He wouldn’t go to church regularly, much less to confession, but he’d still cruise up and go get the host. Walked into a church full of police officers because it was their annual mass, several of those cops knew us, especially my uncle. Never a bigger smile. Wasted. Watching my tipsy grandpa take communion, the only person not in blue. We left as soon as the host dissolved in his fiery breath.

Photo Courtesy of Marco Vera

When my grandpa would get very drunk, he’d start singing the lyrics to this one song: “Angelitos Negros.” After claiming for years he wrote it, we discovered Javier Solis had sung it. So had Pedro Infante, famously. I only recently found out that Roberta Flack and Eartha Kitt did it too.

Pintor nacido en mi tierra
Con el pincel extranjero
Pintor que sigues el rumbo
De tantos pintores viejos

Aunque la virgen sea blanca
Píntale angelitos negros
Que también se van al cielo
Todos los negritos buenos

Pintor si pintas con amor
¿Por qué desprecias su color?
Si sabes que en el cielo
También los quiere Dios

Pintor de santos y alcobas
Si tienes alma en el cuerpo
¿Por qué al pintar en tus cuadros
Te olvidaste de los negros?

Siempre que pintas iglesias
Pintas angelitos bellos
Pero nunca te acordaste
De pintar un ángel negro

It was grounding.

He would yell it! That feeling when he sang it. And I remember thinking I’ll carry that underappreciated sentiment with me everywhere I’m headed.

There is a court of appeals that succeeds when we remember our blurry selves; those intoxicating, enamored, simpler versions of ourselves. Like a greatest hits album. Not remembering the times we’ve been racist, idiotic, suicidal, sexist, apathetic, or truly, truly helplessly sad. Such are oral histories. There are landmarks that serve as living documents, testaments to when you and I were unstable and precarious, we’ve all driven past them after years of public transport to fall back in love with ourselves.

My tata’s frutería was one of those chaotic commerce places that you could say was such without having to face your own mess at home. 

There’s one like it in your town.

**

Dedicado a mi tío Efraín. (1952-2020)

Marco Vera is a documentary filmmaker and full-time editor residing in Los Angeles, California. Originally from the oldest neighborhood in the border city of Mexicali, he was the founder and director of Mexicali Rose Media/Arts Center, a grass roots communitarian organization dedicated to providing free access to artistic media for community youth.

Postcard Series

  1. Jenise Miller, “We are our own Multitude: Los Angeles’ Black Panamanian Community”
  2. Toni Mirosevich, “Who I Used To Be”
  3. Myriam Gurba, “El Corrido del Copete”
  4. Jennifer Carr, “The Tides that Erase: Automation and the Los Angeles Waterfront”
  5. Melissa Hidalgo, “A Chumash Line: How an old email and five PDFs revealed my Native Californian Roots” 
  6. Brynn Saito with Photographs by Dave Lehl, “Acts of Grace: Memory Journeys Through the San Joaquin Valley”
  7. Nicolas Belardes, “South Bakersfield’s Confederate Remains”
  8. Ruth Nolan, “Cima Dome, East Mojave National Preserve”
  9. Marco Vera, “My Tata’s Frutería”

Reviews

“Making the Impossible Possible”: Octavia Butler Reimagines Space and Time

Mike Sonksen

The Pasadena-born science fiction author Octavia Butler is considered among the most prescient writers of the last several generations. Her superbly crafted stories deconstruct race, gender, politics, religion, and sexuality while travelling back and forth across space and time. Recent Los Angeles Poet Laureate Robin Coste Lewis describes Butler as being “on the frontier of human imagination.”

Though Butler passed in 2006, her work has never been more popular. Butler’s Parable of the Sower reached number one on both The New York Times and Los Angeles Times bestseller lists in the fall of 2020, 27 years after original publication. In 2019, the Los Angeles Central Library named a do-it-yourself studio space in the library, the Octavia Lab. Adding further momentum to Butler’s lasting significance is a new book A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky: The World of Octavia E. Butler by the award-winning author Lynell George that showcases Butler’s inner world.

George demystifies the legendary science fiction author by using archival material from the Huntington to meticulously uncover how Butler constructed herself through a regimented autodidactic recipe of reading, writing and ritual. A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky is creative non-fiction as inspiration without solipsism.

Make the Impossible Possible

Years before Butler won the MacArthur “Genius” Award in 1995 and had published any of her eleven celebrated novels like Kindred, Wild Seed and Parable of the Sower, she was a humble soul growing up in Pasadena stealing time to write in the middle of the night or making a small paycheck stretch for weeks at a time. Butler made, as George writes “the impossible possible” and expanded space and time through her discipline and concentration. The fact that she wrote science fiction is further proof of her intention to create new worlds. 

George reveals how Butler’s “most ambitious and remarkable creation was the shapeshifting narrative of her own life–the one she honed and sharpened, draft after draft after draft. It was a work of art that was not complete until she made the impossible possible; the unseen, seen. Who is Octavia E. Butler, ‘That tall girl who was always writing?”

George spent four years, starting in 2016, in the Octavia E. Butler Papers at the Huntington Library, Art, and Botanical Gardens Museum diligently sifting through almost 400 boxes of Butler’s personal items including notebooks, to-do lists, recipes, scraps of paper, letters, bus passes, library cards, hand-me-down diaries, receipts and all sorts of other ephemera. George came to call her weekly forays into the archive, “Fridays with Octavia.” George committed to “let the archive lead her.” George’s instinct to let the archive lead her proved fruitful as she found some of Butler’s most insightful thoughts on scratch pads or even on the back of an envelope. It was this marginalia where George found the portal to Butler’s inner world. It was this personal voice that would prove the most fidelity to Butler’s intent. George also found hundreds of newspaper clippings Butler kept on topics like global warming, cancer, vampires and social unrest. These saved articles showed how much research Butler did to write her prophetic stories. 

These notes, George demonstrates in her book, add up to the math of Butler’s life, especially in lists connected to time and money. From the time she was a teenager, Butler crafted her life, filling dozens of notebooks with to-do lists, budgeting and contracts with herself, complete with extra specific wishes serving as willful manifestations. George’s book artfully includes images of artifacts from the Butler archive like a library card, an old calendar, a few pages from Butler’s journal, bus passes, covers of her notebooks and ticket stubs. Butler’s candid handwriting on an old notebook testifies to just how miraculous her journey was.

Visiting Octavia E. Butler at Mountain View Cemetery in Altadena, Courtesy of Lynell George

Octavia’s Way

In our contemporary 21st Century era when New Age commentators on Instagram talk about “the law of attraction,” and “creating your own reality,” George’s portrait of Butler shows us someone who did just that years before these ideas permeated popular culture. “If you read these pages in succession, day after day,” George writes, “they are nothing short of a prayer.”

“Art may be the finest form of prayer,” writes Julia Cameron in her book, Walking In This World. Cameron’s made a long career out of writing books on world building like her perennial bestseller The Artist’s Way.  Many of the journaling strategies Cameron offers corroborate with practices Butler was doing instinctually years before Cameron’s book was published. One more Cameron quote connects to Butler: “We make art not merely to make our way in the world but also to make something of ourselves, and often the something that we make is a person with an inviolable sense of inner dignity.”

Butler meticulously constructed her life and vigilantly protected her time and energy to preserve her dignity and achieve her destiny against all odds. Though Butler did not have the specific instructions presented by Cameron, George discovered in the archive that Butler read self-help books by Dale Carnegie, Napoleon Hill, J. Lowell Henderson and Claude Bristol among others. The writings by these men advised her. “Her advisors, she acknowledged,” George writes, “may not be on the same page socio-politically, may even be dead, but she’d intuited that something essential could be gained from submitting to their worldview, even if she was never meant to be the target audience.” The clues Butler gained from these books taught her how “to keep her own counsel” and write her own affirmations. “These affirmations,” George declares, “are her safety net. They are her therapy she has neither the time, money nor constitution to undertake.” Butler discovered these books in the Pasadena Central Library as a teenager and by the time she started submitting her writing for publication in her early twenties, she had created her own practice to keep herself going. She conquered her fear and self-doubt by using these affirmations and following her strict discipline of research and writing.

Interspersed throughout George’s text are various quotes from Butler that show how she kept herself inspired. Consider this: “We don’t have to wait for anything at all. What we have to do is start.” Butler jump-started her journey in the dark without a map to follow. She grew up in Northwest Pasadena, an omnivorous reader and lifelong hermit who purposely never drove a car. Nonetheless she crisscrossed Los Angeles on public transit and took long walks to find her way in the world. George reveals all of this and shows how Butler’s worldbuilding and writing processes were methodical. She charted her life with such precision that she would often write on the calendar how many pages she wrote each day. 

A Lifeline for Writers

The celebrated Angeleno novelist and USC professor Dana Johnson calls George’s book on Butler, “a lifeline for writers.” In conversation with George for a virtual event hosted by Vroman’s Books, Johnson tells her that, “[she] shows us an Octavia Butler we have not seen before.”

George saw Butler speak a handful of times over a three-decade period. The first time George ever saw Butler was when George was in her late teens and she attended the reading with her mother, an English teacher and voracious reader. George’s mom was a fan of Butler and they attended a few of her readings together. George cannot remember if it was at EsoWon Books or the long gone Midnight Special in Santa Monica but she does know that attending these readings impressed themselves upon her as her own journey as a writer was beginning.

Years later George saw Butler in Seattle in 2004 for “Black to the Future: A Black Science Fiction Festival.” George travelled to the Pacific Northwest to cover this event for the Los Angeles Times and she even briefly spoke to Butler that day. George’s Times essay, “Black Writers Crossing the Final Frontier,” published on June 22, 2004 described the event and explained that when Butler began writing science fiction in the early 1970s she was often one of the only Black writers doing it, let alone a woman in a male-dominated genre. They made an agreement to speak again but as fate would have it Butler passed two years later in 2006.

Another important point George told Dana Johnson the night of the Vroman’s reading was that this book is a product of serendipity. In 2016 Julia Meltzer, the Executive Director of Clockshop invited George to participate in their year-long program celebrating Butler. This is how it all started. Meltzer recently told me via email: “When we first dreamed up Radio Imagination –a year-long program celebrating Octavia E. Butler where artists and writers were invited to work with her archives at the Huntington Library—I knew that writer Lynell George had to be a part of it.”

“I felt certain that learning about Octavia’s life through what she left behind,” Meltzer states, “would resonate with Lynell and that she would bring her intrepid, dogged and steady journalistic eye to the project. Very early on in Lynell’s research process I sensed that a book was soon to be born. I’m thrilled that my hunches were correct. How lucky we all are to be able to learn more about how Octavia E. Butler deliberately and carefully made herself into a science fiction writer.”

Clockshop’s 2018 book, Radio Imagination includes writing from George, Tisa Bryant, Robin Coste Lewis, Fred Moten and artwork by Laylah Ali, Malik Gaines, Lauren Halsey and Alexandro Segarde. George’s piece was a “posthumous interview” for which she immersed herself countless hours in the archive. As George communed with Butler’s archive, she felt as if she could hear her voice and the channeling for the piece began.

A modest Pasadena Bungalow, Courtesy of Lynell George

Forecasting the Future

Though readers marvel at Butler’s seeming ability to predict the future, journalist and former editor of LA Weekly Judith Lewis Mernit recalls soliciting Butler for an essay on the “future of reading”. Instead, Butler wrote about how she still wrote on her typewriter because she liked to be methodical and deliberate with her process. However, it was her careful attention to her craft that allowed her to turn a keen eye on the present and imagine the future.

According to Mernit and Lynell George, Butler also observed the world around her by reading hundreds of articles on climate change and taking daily walks around Pasadena. Butler always paid close attention to the plants and trees in her neighborhood, noting the different species and details, such as, whether a tree was producing as many fruit as in the previous year. Like a scientist, she carefully cataloged her observations in her notebooks in detailed lists.

George’s book includes lists that Butler created from her walks and bus rides around the city. In these trips, Butler observed the city up close. The lists she wrote often read like poems. Here is one of Butler’s poem-like lists exactly as it appears in George’s book:

#79 Bus

Brown and deep green hills of early summer

The grass is dry for the most part.

Blond with a little green grass

And many deep green trees.

•••

Alvarado + Sunset—N. on Alv.

Small El rancho mkt—not chain

Way into hills

W. on Sunset—through cut hills

Both sides—houses cluttered on hills

Much wood frame

@ Sunset to sea—enclaves + open

Thru-way

As George’s narrative reminds us again and again, Butler’s careful attention to the world around her empowered her with the x-ray vision to write about the environmental conditions of the future. She was watching her immediate surroundings so closely that she could read the writing on the wall about rising temperatures or social unrest before everyone else.

A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky spotlights Butler with the same verisimilitude that Butler herself used to show us the future of our world. George writes that she found the book’s title while reading a passage in the archive: “Science fiction allowed her to reach for something beyond what she could visualize. Reading through a draft of a speech Octavia was puzzling out, I was struck by a particular answer. Science fiction is a handful of earth, and a handful of sky and everything around and between.”

Lynell and Octavia

George shares several commonalities with Butler beginning with the fact that she lives in Pasadena just minutes from where Butler grew up. Moreover, both Lynell George and Octavia Butler write the type of impeccable prose that only comes from countless drafts and years of practice.

Indeed, George has practiced her own diligent writing regimen with the same dedication as Butler, having written thousands of essays over the last 30 plus years for publications like Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Essence, LA Weekly, Alta Journal, the Smithsonian, and others. George’s countless articles have mapped Los Angeles and crisscrossed California with the same veracity as Butler’s fiction. And finally, they both were very close to their mothers and were gifted typewriter’s by them when they were little girls. George’s dedication in the book reads, “To my mother, who bought me my first typewriter.”

A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky accomplishes many missions simultaneously. Whether the reader wants to learn more about what made Octavia Butler so influential or if they want to learn how to be as influential as Octavia Butler, Lynell George provides a roadmap that reveals Octavia Butler’s secret recipe for expanding space and time.   

Mike Sonksen is a 3rd-generation Angeleno. Poet, professor, journalist, historian and tour-guide, his book Letters to My City was published by Writ Large Press. His poetry’s been featured on Public Radio Stations KCRW, KPCC & KPFK. He teaches at Woodbury University. 

Copyright: © Mike Sonksen. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.