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