Month: April 2021

Reviews

Forgotten Pasts, Remembered Futures: Sesshu Foster and Arturo Romo’s ELADATL

Janet Sarbanes

You’re listening to a live broadcast on Ehekatl 99.9, a pirate radio station named after the Aztec god of the wind, whose mission is to “advance the proletarian interest of the community and to counteract the military-industrial propaganda of the oppressor government.” A pilot-trainee has just taken the wheel of a “700-foot long state-of-the-art post-modern dirigible,” a master pilot by her side, and this Report in Progress is tracking their attempt to find Sky City, “a conglomeration of debris in the stratospheric rings – agglutinated by force—careening through the upper atmosphere, encircling the planet.” What they expect to find there: “enough plant and animal life and atmospheric water to have sustained a totally marginalized and invisible population, in spite of the occasional 1979 Pontiac El Caminos, delivery vans, old tires and broken water heaters that fall out of the sky at approximately 145 miles an hour terminal velocity, landing in school yards and shopping mall parking lots, which the government blames on Muslims and maintains is yet another thing soon to be fixed by tax cuts.”

Reader, welcome to ELADATL, a mind-blowing book collaboration between poet and novelist Sesshu Foster and artist Arturo Romo that brings forth a whole other past, present and future within the space-time continuum we (think we) know as Southern California. Billed as “a fictional history of an actual company,” ELADATL traces the rise and fall and rise again of the East Los Angeles Dirigible Air Transport Lines, a local addition to the long history of unsung ventures in U.S. airship transport by those “marginalized and disappeared” by capitalism, white supremacy, settler colonialism and patriarchy. These include, among others, the Bessie Coleman Aero Club, founded by real-life black aviator William Powell, and the East L.A. Balloon club, founded by the fictional Ericka Llanera. Building on his longstanding practice of personae-based artmaking, Romo gives this history/historical fiction a captivating visual form in détourned photographs, collages, etchings and mixed-media prints dispersed throughout the book, which blend the factual (incorporating photographs of real people, places and artifacts) and the fictional (assigning them captions that correspond to events and characters in the story).

One of the many pleasures of reading – or sifting through – ELADATL derives from the interplay between Romo’s and Foster’s sensibilities. As Romo describes their process, which includes the co-creation of characters and events, “sometimes the text would match the image, sometimes the text would fill in the gaps in the image, and sometimes the text would float away from the image. The relationship was dynamic.”[1] With this project, and other related ones, such as a series of walking tours of East L.A. collected at elaguide.org, he and Foster feel they hit upon “an alternative to colonial, capitalist and white supremacist constructs of art-making,” working in a way that “wasn’t privatized or individualized or attuned to the market, that wasn’t restricted by hierarchy of medium, and that didn’t believe in the legitimacy of non-fiction over fiction or vice-versa.”

Another of the book’s pleasures lies in how it activates the relationship of part to whole, whether that be fragment to narrative, neighborhood to city/region, or individual to collective. The story of the dirigible lines themselves is not one of seamless coordination, but of hit-or-miss connections within a crumbling infrastructure that must constantly be made and re-made, imagined and re-imagined. In the chapter titled “Following Years Without Communications from Downtown, This Was What Our Agents Reported,” the company responds to an unfavorable customer review by organizing teams of agents to serve as inspectors, “sending them out to check on all the lines, our ships, stations, and maintenance and ancillary facilities. The reports we received back were like a slap in the face by an octopus. Twice maybe.”  

Throughout the book, characters appear, disappear and reappear unexpectedly, with no one “character arc” predominating—though the on again/off again romance between Sergio, a world-weary dirigible builder, and Mel, a fearless young dirigible pilot, causes things to gel just enough before it, too, comes apart. And here, too, the lines between fiction and reality are blurred: another character, Swirling Alhambra, seems to function as a surrogate for the writer, who’s been awarded a Poet of the Universe residency “located in a remote area of City Terrace” (the East L.A. neighborhood where Foster grew up and the subject of his influential poetry collection City Terrace Field Manual). Swirling is a humorously unreliable member of ELADATL, and a source of annoyance to many, but he is committed to the collective enterprise. In this fundamental orientation he resembles both Foster and Romo themselves (who are LAUSD teachers and activists), and the novelist Oscar Zeta Acosta, author of the legendary Revolt of the Cockroach People, who was a Chicano movement lawyer.

Acosta makes several cameos in the text, and ELADATL is animated throughout by a rasquache sensibility similar to Acosta’s own, a bricolage aesthetic with an underdog spirit and sense of struggle that is “down but not out,” to borrow Tomás Ybarra-Frausto’s memorable formulation.[2] Another rasquache forebear, Noah Purifoy, the L.A. Black assemblage artist and founder of the Watts Towers Art Center, also puts in an appearance –or his legendary desert “junk art” environment does, as an abandoned dirigible station. Nothing is thrown away, everything is repurposed — the form, or many forms, of ELADATL mark “an ongoing process of dodging erasure or denial,” in Foster’s words, “and individually, personally, reinventing community in order to survive.” As Romo observes, “the very way the book was created comes out of a particular political way of being.” Don’t be fooled by its wry, irreverent tone; this is a work of serious social imagination.

Given ELADATL’s rich texture and many layers, one must ask the question, can there even be a central storyline to a work like this? Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that there is what’s happening with the dirigibles, up in the sky, and there is what’s happening down below, an archaeology of everyday life in East L.A., with its own “mysteries,” also documented in the book, which includes over seventy pages of appendices. One overarching goal of the project, Foster tells us, “was to float the figure of the imagination over the historical landscape of the ordinary everyday and ask people to look.” The dirigible, with its slow-moving heft, drifting along erratic pathways, is the perfect incarnation of an imagination always in sight but just beyond reach of the predictable circuits of daily life (work, eat, sleep, repeat).

As we read on in ELADATL, the struggle to reactivate the dirigible lines begins to merge with the climate crisis, and the very real possibility that that there are no more possibilities to be had. Even as Mel and Tina, another young agent, hustle to get the ships back in the air, dirigible stations throughout Southern California are being repurposed by anarchist mutual aid groups and other community members to house climate refugees. At the South Gate station, Food Not Bombs “was showing Salt of the Earth and Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill over and over for refugees from the most recent firestorm . . . [and had] set up the vegetarian buffet for people who hadn’t had hot food in days, José Uriarte brought in his taco truck and set out the salsa, and even Ray Palafox mobilized Los Quemados to blast out cumbias or whatever they call it in a free concert.” ELADATL shows us what climate collapse looks like in the everyday:

That’s just how it is (when it’s not worse), everybody driving with their lights on even if it doesn’t help much to cut the blowing clouds of particulate and debris, pedestrians wearing face masks and head wraps, hunched over against it like a desert sandstorm, now there’s a haboob for you, everything glowing orange from sunlight refracted through carbon dioxide, they say, and the wind tearing through the streets . . . a telephone pole in an intersection, people driving around it, shipping container on top of a store, a billboard on top of parked cars.

In an eerie parallel to Marjorie Taylor Greene’s Jewish-lasers-from-space-caused-the-California-wildfires conspiracy theory, “experts and spokespersonifiers” insist that all of this is not, in fact, due to climate change, but the work of Hair Balls from Outer Space blasting Europe and the United States with Death Rays. While “white guys with automatic rifles” drive around “firing at anything suspicious,” the official response is the same old non-response: “trillions of spending on rockets” and “nukes to rain down on enemies and terrorists and stuff.”

Unabashedly experimental, ELADATL resists linear narrative at every turn, knocking time out of joint by bringing invisible histories to light and to life, not content to let the past be the past, nor the present be the present. This strategy reveals its full power in the moving scene where Mel and Tina briefly exit “the blasted smoke and particulate atmosphere” of full-on societal and climate apocalypse and “[descend] in actual sunshine and [merge] with the crowd into the infinitely forgetful city.” They suddenly find themselves marching towards downtown L.A. in the middle of something that looks a lot like the recent protests for George Floyd, or an immigrant rights protest, or a teachers’ strike—or as it happens these days, all three–running into old friends (who also happen to be Foster’s and Romo’s real-life comrades, fellow artists, writers, educators and activists), everyone glad to be there and be there together. Is this all in the past now, only a memory? Or is it a glimpse of what C.L.R. James called “the future in the present,” a way out of the nightmare – if, like Foster and Romo, we know where and how to look.

Sesshu Foster (left) Arturo Ernesto Romo (right)

Janet Sarbanes is the author of the short story collections Army of One and The Protester Has Been Released. Her book of essays, Letters on the Autonomy Project in Art and Politics, will be published by Punctum in 2021. She lives in Los Angeles and teaches in the MFA Creative Writing Program at CalArts.

[1] “Q & A with Sesshu Foster and Arturo Ernesto Romo, authors of ELADATL: A History of the East los Angeles Dirigible Air Transport Lines,” City Lights.

[2] Ybarra-Frausto, Tomás. “Rasquachismo: a Chicano sensibility.” In Chicano aesthetics : Rasquachismo, 5-8. Exh. cat., Phenix, Aruz. : MARS, Movimiento Artiscico del Rio Salado, 1989.

Postcards Series

Oh Salinas! Song, Story and Punk Rock Behind the Lettuce Curtain

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.


Courtesy of Fernando Mendez Corona

George B. Sánchez-Tello

The long white buses are unmarked. The paint job on the bus panels looks thin and cheap. If I stare long enough, I could probably make out the name of the school district or church or factory under that white layer of cover. The buses idle in an empty parking lot which is pockmarked with potholes partially filled with drainage. The gravel is crumbling. The people boarding the buses stand in single file. Their informal uniform consists of jeans and sweatshirts, baseball hats, bandanas and other shards of cloth fashioned into face masks.

In the distance, mist hovers over the fields. The buses will carry them to those fields. Soon the workers will be silhouettes in the distance, bent over and picking, working themselves up and down the rows of lettuce, strawberry and spinach.

Every one of them has a name. A home they come from. A language they were born into and another adopted for work. Most of those people have children. I always wondered who they were and what was their story. None of this is new. There was no “news peg to hang it on,” as an editor would say. So I wrote a song.

In the pre-dawn dust of the parking lot the workers form a line
They board the long white transport bus and hope the kids are fine
Left home alone with the little ones
The cousins will take care
Mom wraps a t-shirt around her face to filter out the filthy air
No food to wake the little ones
Pop tarts will do just fine
Gonna’ make do with what we got
Gotta’ stretch every single last dime
Why?
Cause that’s where we’re at.

A few miles away, on a given Friday night, the children of those workers sing along. In a small café or the back room of a Mexican restaurant, bodies pack together, in their own uniform of jeans, faded black t-shirts with band logos, jackets or vests quilted with small square patches. Everyone joins in to sing:

Another song about the Salad Bowl
About the place that we live
This valley can be a prison
Just ask the kids!

Where We’re At” is a song I wrote for Rum & Rebellion, a punk rock band from Salinas, a farm town in Monterey County on California’s Central Coast. We were one of many: from Salas, Chole, Prunetucky, Watson and King City. We played in cafes, backyards, apartments, community centers, storage sheds, bars, restaurants, parking lots and clubs.

Rum & Rebellion songs were a refuge for stories. A place to safely express my voice – literal and literary. During the day, I worked as a newspaper reporter, first for the Salinas Californian and later the Monterey County Herald. I often wrote newspaper articles about crime, education and local politics. I wrote songs about what I witnessed: The tired paletero. The teenager walking to school. The father of a lifer. The campesino. Portraits of the people, stories and moments between me and the farm fields that surrounded a town known for labor, e. coli and, of course, Mr. Steinbeck. What was otherwise setting in an article became a story in a song.

Salinas Valley V.2 courtesy of Álvaro Marquez (linocut-based serigraphy from the series Al Norte y P’atras/North and Back)

For being a small, farm town, Salinas has a population of about 150,000, making it the largest city in Monterey County. Someone once said the population doubled during the harvest season. Of course, it was exaggeration, but the harvest – or more like the people harvesting – was inherent in all aspects of life in Salas. Education officials coordinate with districts in Washington and Arizona as families migrate to work the harvest elsewhere. The school districts start later in the winter to account for families returning from Mexico. For many years the town was segregated: Whites to the west, Mexicans to the east, or the Alisal, as it was called. The annual César Chávez march is not a relic from a Chicano Studies class, but a testament to community, organizing and the continuing ability to mobilize in support of one another.

Image courtesy of Scott MacDonald 

Not all Rum & Rebellion songs were high-minded: I wrote about crushes on an older woman and colleagues. And drinking.

I wrote angry responses:  as in the song “No Charity

Don’t need no charity
Got my own pair of lungs
There are no voiceless
there’s only repression

And songs – “Hey Armando!”, “No Folk Song (New DA Blues),” “Not Down”, “Four Years” – about prisoners. All of whom I’d met and spoken with.

If there was a news peg, I filed an article. But the daily, almost taken for granted, became song. I think one of my favorite compliments of Rum & Rebellion lyrics was the disappointment from one person after she learned I was from Los Angeles and not Salas.

Rum & Rebellion came together after a freelance assignment for Punk Planet, one of the national punk ‘zines at the time. Scott MacDonald, a photographer for the Salinas Californian, and I spent a weekend with Against Me! and Lucero. Scott also played drums. I could play guitar. I could write. And yell.    

Image courtesy of Scott MacDonald 

As a reporter, there were stories I carried with me, stories I’d witnessed, that would never get past my editors. Like the quiet dignity of campesinos lining up for work in the early morning: a sight so familiar in East Salinas it had become a regular backdrop. Or the ritual of family members waiting in line outside county jail on visiting day. Stories that required more nuance than I could fit into a 12-inch print article. Or stories that required a different worldview than most of the papers’ readers and editors.  

There were subtle reminders, like the “news from home” section that carried articles from the Midwest. Maybe it was because I was from Los Angeles and I had plenty of co-workers from other parts of California, or simply knowing home for many in Salinas was Mexico. Sometimes they were blatant: like a red faced, irate white editor telling me “everybody knows Latinos are the most macho people.”

I can’t pin it on a single editor, though there were certainly a few that reminded me. Because I think I learned lessons about what to share and what to withhold long before I became a writer. Lessons about the sense of security in silence.  Lessons learned by parents who, in turn, transmitted them to me. Lessons of “Americanization” taught by the Sisters of Loretto across the southwest two generations before my birth. Lessons of silence wrought by the onset of the Guatemalan Civil War. Lessons of hiding in plain sight after my family arrived in Los Angeles after the mass deportation of Mexican and Mexican-Americans during the Great Depression. Lessons of obedience when my father began working for the Los Angeles Police Department. And the lesson that no matter how I spoke, what I wore or where I lived, I’d never fit comfortably into an affluent white suburb.  

When I wrote my entrance application essay for Saint Francis High School, I took seriously the invitation to write about someone I admired. I wrote about Steve Clark, Def Leppard’s founding guitarist. I still go back and forth about whether that was one time when I should have kept a story to myself. By the time I wrote my entrance essay for Loyola High, I had “learned” better.

As a reporter, I had my own uniform: I wore a collared shirt and necktie. With my black and white Doc Marten brogues, I had a distinct, pachuco-inspired style. But it was still a shirt and tie. A shirt and tie I wore purposefully to access what Nolan Cabrera calls “white immunity,” or the protection from disparate treatment. Day in and day out, sitting on the press bench in a courtroom, I couldn’t help but notice that the people who looked like me also wore uniforms: either orange jumpsuits for inmates or green and khaki of the sheriff’s deputies. Those with ties were attorneys, the judge and, on the rare occasion, a defendant. And me.  

I learned to wear a tie at Loyola, an all-boys high school. By that point, I had learned to be careful of what I said in front of who. To be aware of authority. Eventually writing became the place where I could express myself freely.     

When my editor caught a Rum & Rebellion acoustic set at the Cherry Bean and he asked me to write more articles like my songs, I appreciated the compliment, but I couldn’t simply shrug off the decades and generations of learned and practiced silence. Thankfully there were those who wouldn’t remain silent.

Touring punk bands typically bypass Salinas, heading north to Santa Cruz or San Jose. The exception were those that were connected through the Razacore network of punks who could put up bands and shows in farm towns outside the bigger cities. Thanks to Eduardo of the band Outraged in Watson, Limp Wrist came through. Argentina’s Boom Boom Kid did a show in Salas. But there were two bands – La Plebe and Los Dryheavers – with roots in Salas who always returned from San Pancho and San Jo to play periodically. Those shows were the best.

Salas punk shows meant 50-100 young, sweaty bodies squeezed up against the walls, counters and the band itself. Shows with booze were at the Penny, an English Pub, and all-ages shows were up the street at the Cherry Bean, a local café.

When the Dryheavers played, the guitarists, bassist and singer encircled the drummer. They usually had to play with their backs to the crowd to ensure the space to strum and, in the singer’s case, make sure the crush of the crowd didn’t lead to teeth getting knocked out.   

There is a story about the Dryheavers. It is too good to ruin by finding out if it’s true. The Dryheavers “played” the Warped Tour. Except Warped’s Kevin Lyman didn’t invite Los Dryheavers. They simply packed up their van and drove along with the Warped caravan. At each stop, the Dryheavers set up outside the festival and played. With the exception of Kory, all the Dryheavers were big, heavy Chicanos. Not even Warped security wanted to bother them, or so the story goes. 

Image courtesy of Scott MacDonald 

One Salas show, in between songs, the Dryheavers’ singer, Hector, took a moment to speak. First, he needed to catch his breath. Not uncommon.

“My family works hard. They work the fields, like your families,” said Hector, slightly gasping from screaming and trying to breathe through the humid air thick with sweat and body odor.  

Hector turned to Felix, one of the Dryheavers’ guitarists, and asked what his parents did.

“Big pimpin,” he responded.

The sudden pivot from vulnerable self-admission and statement of solidarity to crude humor: I laughed. That was Salas punk – irreverent, political by imposition and impatient for the next song. It was Chicano Punk Rock. It was Immigrant Punk. It was Los Dryheavers, La Plebe, Outraged, Uzi Suicide, The Gunslinger, The Kings Kids, Dear Avarice, The Achievement, Cali Nation, Bound to Break, Madtown Mulligan, Darktown Rounders, Chainsaw Death Squad, Toxic U.S. and so many others.


“juntado” from the album i am plotting my way out
“no folk song” from the album i am plotting my way out
“desesperados” from the album i am plotting my way out
“boulevard” from the album i am plotting my way out
“hey fucker” from the album i am plotting my way out
“witness” from the album i am plotting my way out

Notes:

George B. Sánchez-Tello lives, writes and teaches in Los Angeles.

For Mark Cantu: El mejor recuerdo es una simple canción para alguien que ya no está.QEPD.

Thank you: Scott MacDonald, Claudia Meléndez-Salinas and Clarissa Aljentera, colleagues from the Salinas Californian and Monterey County Herald who added valuable suggestions and edits.

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”
  10. George B. Sánchez-Tello, Oh Salinas! Song, Story and Punk Rock Behind the Lettuce Curtain