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Concrete in Paradise

by Rebecca Solnit
photographs by Alex Fradkin
From Boom Summer 2011, Vol. 1, No. 2

Et in Arcadia ego says the famous inscription on the tomb in Nicholas Poussin’s paintings of that title. Even in Paradise there am I. He painted this tomb twice, surrounded by a group of shepherds and a woman (possibly a goddess), as though he himself were wrestling with the meanings. The assertion is sometimes thought to be spoken by Death itself; or perhaps the speaker is the dead shepherd whose tomb is being inspected. Whether the text refers to death or to one dead friend, the tomb is two kinds of intrusion into the landscape.

Growing is also dying, even in Arcadia, even in springtime, when the new grass pushes through the old, when the trees and flowers feed on the soil made out of life and digested deaths, where mortality itself, of lambs and shepherds alike, gives life the poignancy that heaven lacks. Poussin’s Arcadia is a little rough and rustic—not tender shoots but lean trees, and in the distance, sharp crags. And in the middle of it all, the architectural intrusion of the big, heavy, rectilinear stone monument in the landscape—a trace of industry, of a labor far harder than herding, of something permanent in a landscape of change.

We have our own tombs throughout the coastal Bay Area, each of which could readily be inscribed et in Arcadia ego. In the paradises I have hiked so often—among the deer carcasses, squashed salamanders, the pellets of coyote and fox spoor in which the fur of mice and rabbits is compressed—there are seventy or so bunker complexes whose blunt concrete forms are an apt modern echo of that shepherd’s tomb. These bunkers commemorate the violent death of war, in thought if not in deed.

There they are, along the beaches, roads, and the trails of the superlatively beautiful Marin Headlands, to be stumbled upon by hikers and day trippers who will stop for a moment to think more somber thoughts, pause like Poussin’s shepherds to contemplate monuments and death. Outdated even as they were being built, the bunkers are monuments to a particular imagination of danger and fear. In a way, they are honorable monuments to the idea that wars involve direct confrontation, and that the US could face the same threats it has imposed on other nations. Soldiers sat in the bunkers waiting for ships to appear on the horizon, waiting to receive orders to fire on those ships and to be fired upon. No ships arrived, however, and the nature of modern warfare rendered the bunkers obsolete.

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Ammunition Casement #1 Battery East: Fort Winfield Scott, 2005 © Alex Fradkin

“We are here because wars are now fought in outer space,” said Jennifer Dowley, Director of the Headlands Center for the Arts in the 1980s, when the center was still a fresh arrival in what was a fairly new national park, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Not far away, the Star Wars missile defense system was being actively pursued at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The park is unusual because it’s a large amount of open space, almost 75,000 acres, in one of the major metropolitan areas in the country. It’s also unusual because its focus is neither historical nor natural, but an uneasy melding of the two. The history is rarely examined, though its evidence is everywhere in the chunks of concrete embedded throughout the landscape of the park. These are the dozens of bunkers and related structures, crumbling souvenirs of the wars that never were or that were waged elsewhere. And yet, war is here in California in a thousand ways. Even in the Headlands there is war.

Dowley spoke in Building 944, a spacious military barracks built in 1907, when the Headlands was an adjunct of the Pacific headquarters of the US Army across the Golden Gate at San Francisco’s Presidio and Fort Mason. From those headquarters US military action from the Indian Wars to the Korean and Vietnam wars was directed; during the Second World War alone, more than a million soldiers were said to have embarked from Fort Mason for the Pacific theater of war. The barracks, with the other handsome buildings arrayed in a horseshoe that fits into the hillside, were used for training soldiers who’d be deployed across the Pacific. The Bay Area has always been militarized, always involved with wars, though most of the actual wars were fought elsewhere.

If you walk down Building 944’s worn, handsome, wooden staircase, out the big doors, and head west past the old bowling alley and chapel, the eucalyptuses and the Monterey cypresses, you come to a Nike missile launch site tucked into a depression that the road curves around. It was designed to fire nuclear-tipped weapons at incoming missiles launched from overseas. In the 1950s the threat was thought to be Russia, but by the late 1960s the nuclear war fantasies that generated the preventative architecture and weapons included China. By then, the idea that a missile could take out a missile was itself something of a fantasy. There was no particular reason to situate missile depots directly on the coast. The Marin County Planning Department put together a staff report (probably written by my father) in 1969 that questioned “whether the probable risk of accident isn’t greater than the probable risk from the kind of attack these missiles are supposed to defend against.” Fortunately, neither accident nor attack ever came before the warheads were taken away. What remains are busily unaesthetic structures surrounded by cyclone fencing.

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Untitled #4: Battery Townsley, Fort Cronkhite, 2005 © Alex Fradkin

So ignore the Nike facility and keep walking. You can choose the narrow, uneven trail that takes you through tall green banks of willows, coyote bush, brambles, and poison oak, on past the lagoon that pelicans, ducks, seagulls and other birds frequent, to the sand of Rodeo Beach, the cove beyond the lagoon and between two high shoulders of coastline. If you go left, or south, you’ll come to the bunkers. If you go north, you’ll pass the many buildings of Fort Cronkhite and arrive at the old road that leads to more bunkers. They are embedded in the landscape like shrapnel or buckshot in a body, the ruins of old fears and old versions of war, the architecture of a violence that was first of all a violence against the earth, with concrete poured dozens of feet deep into slopes that were also home to rare species and prone to erosion when disrupted.

These welts of concrete have shifted, cracked, crumbled, and in some cases slid down eroded hillsides into the surf, but the majority of them are still in place. If you imagine them as an assault on the earth, then the earth has fought back, with foliage that has half-hidden and choked some of them, with the forces of water and temperature that drove cracks in the massive structures, with erosion that has dislodged and tilted some at crazy angles. But they have a harsh beauty of their own, in the simple geometry of the domes and semicircular walls and cylindrical pits of the gun emplacements, in the steps that take you up to the roofs of some of the structures, and particularly in the long tunnels that frame views of land, sea and sky.

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Base End Station, Construction #243, North Elevation: Fort Funston 2006 © Alex Fradkin

They have the shapes of art-school exercises in drawing cubes, spheres, cones, and cylinders with shading, and they are the color of old pencil sketches. Poussin, with his passion for simple monumental form, would have loved them, though he would have inscribed them all et in Arcadia ego lest the hasty hiker miss the point. And they have the seduction of all ruins, the seduction of the past, of lost history, of irrecoverable time, of the sense that something happened here and then ceased. (In Poussin’s landscape it’s the tomb, not the trees, that invites contemplation.) It’s only when you imagine the dreary discomfort of soldiers stationed in them, the actual big guns that pointed toward the bay, and what a war might have looked like on these shores, whether like the bombardment of Fort Sumner at the beginning of the Civil War or the Normandy Invasion toward the end of the Second World War, that the romance diminishes. Or does it?

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Gun Encasement No. 2 Battery Construction 129: Fort Barry, 2008 © Alex Fradkin

As Jennifer Dowley put it, wars are now fought in outer space. A nation under attack is usually attacked inside its national borders. Troops may surge across a border, as they did at the outset of both of the Bush wars on Iraq—across their border, not ours—but both those were accompanied by the kind of aerial bombardment that ignores national boundaries to go far inside the country. And aerial bombardment is often directed at civilians. Thus war, from Mussolini’s bombing of North Africa and the fascist bombing of Guernica, became profoundly asymmetrical. The old idea of a confrontation between two sides is blown away; in its place is an attacker whose blows can be parried but who cannot be attacked directly.

Missiles and more monstrous new inventions, like pilotless drones, are even directed from afar, often from within the attacking nation. Afghanistan cannot fire missiles back at the headquarters of the drone operators near Las Vegas, Nevada, though in the all-out nuclear wars imagined during the Cold War, both the US and the USSR would send nuclear bombs to strategic targets, military and civilian, within the other nation’s boundaries while trying to intercept incoming missiles. The heroic idea of combat, of bodily skill and equal engagement, of Achilles or Roland, or even Wellington and Grant facing risk with physical courage, has some relevance to the ground troops in some places, but nothing to do with the death rained from the skies by men whose daily lives more resemble those of video gamers. The Headlands bunkers are, among other things, an old daydream of an enemy you would face, one who could only hurt you by confronting you, by showing up.

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Gun Encasement #1 Battery Townsley: Fort Cronkhite, 2009 © Alex Fradkin

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Gun Emplacement #2 Battery Dynamite: Fort Winfield Scott, 2005 © Alex Fradkin

The bunkers were built to defend us from wars that never quite arrived on these shores. Central California has been attacked by foreigners a few times, starting with invading Spanish and Mexican attacks on the native peoples, which consisted largely of skirmishes and one-sided brutalities (the big campaigns against Native Californians were elsewhere and later, run by Yankees in events such as the Modoc War and the Bloody Island Massacre). The indigenous peoples responded with attacks on the Missions, raids on ranchos, and other acts of self-defense and survival, including an incursion on Mission San Rafael. Events resembling European war with all its pageantry and weaponry came later, when the Spanish-speaking nominal citizens of Mexico had become part of the population to be invaded and displaced.

Commodore Thomas ap Catesby Jones’s fleet arrived in Monterey—then the capital of the Mexican province—on October 19, 1842. He demanded surrender and got it without firing a shot. Perhaps the fearsome arsenal of the five ships with a total of 116 big guns convinced the small population that resistance would be unpleasant. The next day, 150 Marines marched up the hill to the fort while the bands played “Yankee Doodle.” The invasion was premature and based on rumors of British competition for the northernmost portion of Mexico. A couple of days later, Jones withdrew his proclamation and acknowledged Mexican sovereignty before the soldiers dispatched from Los Angeles could make much progress up the coast.

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Base End Station GB-1, West Elevation: Battery Townsley, Fort Cronkhite, 2004 © Alex Fradkin

Less than four years later, the Bear Flag Revolt began inland with the attack on Sonoma and the raising of a primitive version of what would become the California state flag. A few weeks into skirmishes by invading Yankees against resident Mexicans, Army Captain John C. Frémont—one of the few government men involved in the revolt—took twelve men with him on an American ship, the Moscow, that sailed south in the bay to the Presidio of San Francisco. The fort had been abandoned and there was no conflict, though there were some squabbles when they marched onward to the hamlet of Yerba Buena and took a few captives. There were larger battles further south as the revolt merged with the war on Mexico, but the Bay Area remained unscathed by major conflict. The newly American region was prepared for defense against coastal attack in the 1850s and 1860s, but the Civil War led to no violence—beyond duels such as the Broderick-Terry duel of 1859—in the locale. The fortifications then and a century later were built for conflicts that never arrived. They are the architecture of grim anticipation, of imagination of things to come.

During the Second World War, there were grounds to fear Japanese attack; in the wake of the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, seven enemy submarines patrolled the Pacific Coast. But Japan decided against a mainland attack for fear of reprisals. A false alert the following May caused the USS Colorado and the USS Maryland to sail out from the Golden Gate to defend the bay from attacks that never came. Late in the war, a Japanese fire balloon—a kind of incendiary device that floated across the Pacific—was shot down by a Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighter plane near Santa Rosa with no major damage reported. (Others landed in various places in the American West, and a few inflicted actual damage and a total of six deaths—a pregnant woman with her five children, out on a picnic: et in Arcadia ego). War was in the skies, and coastal fortifications were anachronistic.

The P-38 Lightning fighter was made by Lockheed when it was based in Burbank on the fringes of Los Angeles, back when Los Angeles was producing the airplanes to fight the war and the Bay Area was turning out a warship a day in its furiously productive shipyards. If we think of war as combat and casualties, then it has, with small exceptions such as the Ohlone and Miwok resistance to the Missions and the land grabs, been fought elsewhere. But if we think of it as a mindset, an economy, a way of life— a lot of things that add up to a system—then two things become as evident as a thirty-foot-thick chunk of concrete embedded amid the sticky monkeyflower and fragrant coast sage of the Headlands.

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Base End Station B2S2 Battery Construction No. 129, South Elevation: Devils Slide, Milagra Ridge Military Reservation, 2006 © Alex Fradkin

One is that the Bay Area is entrenched in and crucial to this system, with the University of California, Berkeley running the nation’s nuclear weapons programs since their inception, with defense contractors such as Lockheed Martin (makers, once upon a time, of the Nike missile) clustered in Silicon Valley, and with the ring of old bases around the bay—Mare Island, Hunter’s Point, Alameda, Treasure Island, Hamilton, and the Presidio.

The other is that this system is mad. Its madness was perhaps most perfectly manifested in the soldiers or National Guardsmen in camouflage who patrolled the Golden Gate Bridge at one phase of the GWOT, the Global War on Terror, a war that in its very name declared hostility not to a group or a nation but to an emotion, while seeking—with heavily armed men in civilian spaces such as Pennsylvania Station or the Golden Gate Bridge—to induce that very emotion in the public. That their desert camouflage only made them stand out, and that the threats to the bridge were sketchy and remote, while the men with semi-automatic weapons were evident and unnerving, articulates something about war as a state of being. The enemy may be remote, invisible, or even conceptual, but we, as a society devoted to war, see ourselves in a thousand mirrors, of which the bunkers are one.

The bunkers were both prophylactics against physical damage by an alien military and part of the damage that is the mindset of war—the mindset that induces fear and suspicion, that countenances sacrifices, destructions, and the willingness to engage in acts of violence, that damages a society before the enemy ever touches it. The military left radioactive waste behind at Hunter’s Point Naval Shipyards; rusting, leaking warships in the Mothball Fleet near Benicia; PCBs at 100,000 times the acceptable level, along with dioxins and other chemicals, on Treasure Island; and more. The Headlands and much of the rest of the GGNRA got off lightly, larded only with cement and rust, not with chemicals and radiation.

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SF-88 Radar Installation for Nike Missile Site, East Elevation: Wolf Ridge, Fort Cronkhite, 2010 © Alex Fradkin

What all these areas have in common is their status as monuments to public expenditure by those in charge of protecting us. There is, for example, the Sea Shadow, a stealth ship built at extraordinary expense in the 1980s and then abandoned without ever being used or being useful. The upkeep of the Mothball Fleet, the prototype, is a corollary to the lack of money for libraries and schools in towns like Richmond, whose African-American population mostly arrived during the Second World War for shipyard jobs and stayed even when the economy withered. It remains a depressed area, despite the growth of the Chevron refineries there that have been refining Iraqi crude since early in the current war. Chevron, whose board member Condoleezza Rice became our Secretary of State and led us into that war, Condoleezza who is back at Stanford, Stanford that helped generate Silicon Valley, Silicon Valley which has done so much to develop the new technologies of war. War is everywhere for those who have eyes to see, but in some places it’s hard to miss.

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Base End Station B4S4, Interior West Elevation: Fort Cronkhite, 2005 © Alex Fradkin

It is good that the bunkers are in the beautiful open space of the coast, and good that one of the region’s native sons, Alex Fradkin, has photographed them so eloquently. They should be there. We should pause amid the myriad pleasures that this Mediterranean climate and protected landscape afford to contemplate the presence of death and our own implication in the business. Until something profound changes in the United States, war will never be far away, and even on the most paradisiacal meander we do well to stop to remember this.

Articles

Listening to Art Laboe

by Susan Straight
From Boom Spring 2011, Vol. 1, No. 1

Susan Straight is Boom writer-in-residence for 2011.

For nearly all their lives, since they could first begin to understand the words to the songs playing on the kitchen radio that sits on the window ledge facing north, the deep wooden sill of a room that used to be a laundry porch in a classic California orange-grove bungalow, my three daughters have heard the veteran DJ Art Laboe in the evening, playing Killer Oldies while I cook dinner, clean the counter, do the dishes, pay the bills, and check the homework.

boom-2011-1-1-1-ufigure-2The very first song my middle daughter ever fully comprehended was “Just My Imagination,” by the Temptations. She was about five. In the kitchen, sitting on the floor, she looked up at me and said slowly, “So he never even talked to her? He just loves her?”

“Yeah,” I said. I think I told my child, “He loves the idea of her.”

That’s what Art Laboe’s Killer Oldies show has always been about—love, the idea of love, missing love, remembering love, hoping for love. For many of us who grew up in a certain time, in certain neighborhoods in California, his voice and those songs are as iconic as Route 66 winding through San Bernardino, Valencia orange groves in Riverside and Corona and Pomona, and crowded drive-ins in El Monte.

Now that daughter is eighteen, her sisters twenty and fourteen, and they roll their eyes when 7:00 PM rolls around, saying, “Oh, my God, Mom, do we have to listen to the same songs over and over? The same guy, saying the same things, every single night? Really? Seriously?”

I was born in Riverside, down the street from this house. After long days of working, being a single mother, living on a street where for twenty-two years my neighbors and I have struggled to keep it together, sharing eggs and oranges and babysitting and minor car repairs and major emotional repairs—after funerals and ambulances and foreclosures and new babies and trees that fall on roofs and graduation parties in a front yard with a cousin for DJ, we are all still here.

My street is one of eighty-and one-hundred-year-old houses. This week, two neighbors talked to me about their home additions—both are doubling the size of their houses. It sounds grand, only these are small wood-frame buildings—one is 950 square feet and one 650 square feet—and my neighbors have for two years been building the new parts themselves.

So when darkness falls I am still in the kitchen, making a cake for a neighbor whose truck was wrecked when the flatbed towing it away for repairs flipped. My girls go to the living room and watch YouTube videos of strangers dancing at weddings, falling off coffee tables while singing, and doing whatever else their friends think they should see. I stay in the kitchen; as ever, welcoming me to what must be approaching his millionth show is that deep, reasonable, invariable voice: “This is Art Laboe with another night of Killer Oldies on the Art Laboe Connection.”

Some Californians can’t wait to open laptops and listen to their favorite Beethoven sonata; some Californians in living rooms that I imagine with beige carpets and heavy drapes can’t wait for evening to put on an LP of Frank Sinatra or Tommy James and the Shondells or the Beach Boys.

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Susan Straight’s north-facing kitchen window with lavender radio, June 1, 2010 (photograph © Douglas McCulloh)

 

But the people who live where I do, we wait for Etta James to sing “At Last,” as she does nearly every evening at this time. We wait for Ralfi Pagan “To Say I Love You” and Brenton Wood to declare that “Only the Strong Survive.”

I’m waiting for, yes, the same old songs, the ones that comfort me, remind me of other times. Just like millions of listeners all around California, close to radios in cars and kitchens and yards and factories and prisons and night fields where if things are desperate they pick grapes or oranges by the beams of headlights.

He has to be nearly eighty years old, I thought this week, and so I looked him up. He is Armenian-American; his given name Art Egnoian. The girls think he resembles an ancient gangster, with his dark hair, still-vivid eyebrows, and wide slash of mouth. But I’m amazed by his youthful face.

Art Laboe is eighty-four. He loves playing songs for people. That’s what he does. It’s all he really talks about.

On a 2009 television interview with the newscaster Tony Valdez, who looks thrilled to tell Laboe that he grew up listening to his show, Laboe looks at a photograph of himself taken around 1947 in Pomona, at radio station KPMO, and says with a note of wonder, even now: “I was on Cloud Nine—I was on the radio.” In his voice, you can hear that this was his single-minded dream and obsession. He talks about being seven years old in Salt Lake City, sitting for hours in front of his mother’s radio, “completely enthralled with this box that talked.” When his parents divorced he decided to move to Los Angeles to live with his sister, so he bought a bus ticket: he was nine years old and rode there alone.

In 1951 Laboe built his own “roving radio” truck, a mobile DJ booth that had regular stops on street corners on Jefferson, Manchester, and Crenshaw in South LA, among other places. By 1956, he says, on the Los Angeles radio station KPOP he was the first DJ to play rock and roll on the West Coast. He was the inventor of the term “oldies but goodies,” which he used when kids requested songs by Big Joe Turner and other older R&B stars; he says people wanted “an old song, but it had to be a good one.”

He must reach more listeners, and more kinds of listeners, than anyone outside the mainstream media can imagine in this age of talk radio, satellite broadcasting, and high-definition TV. This morning, when I bought tamales from Angel, Sr., my tamale guy, who was born in LA and lives in Riverside, he said, “Oh, man, I grew up listening to Art Laboe! I was a kid. I listened to Wolfman Jack, too, but Art Laboe was the one. We used to go to Legion Stadium in El Monte and hear him. All the oldies.”

And a few hours later, when I was talking to a class of athletes at a college, one twenty-year-old basketball player grinned wide and said, “Art Laboe! Man, I grew up in Baldwin Park and the whole neighborhood listens to him! The women love him.”

I said, “He’s eighty-four,” and his face fell. “Man, if he dies, there’s gonna be thousands of people at his funeral. I’m not lyin’, man. Thousands.”

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Art Laboe hosts a dance, El Monte Legion Stadium, 1957 (photograph property of Original Sound Sales Corporation)

The thousands live all over California, Utah, Nevada, and even Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and, given the Internet, all over the world. Growing up, I knew people who called Art Laboe’s show to send greetings and dedications to their families who moved around to harvest grapes in Dinuba and Mecca. And always there have been women who send dedications to family members in prison. It’s a code many of us know: to send a song to someone in Chino, Delano, Calipatria and mention that you got a letter, or are urging your listener to “keep your head up,” to send the Brenton Wood song, means you’re talking to someone behind bars.

Most nights, when I’m listening, more women call than men, but guys call too, to send anniversary wishes, birthday wishes, and sometimes just wishes that a girl will call again.

He has two syndicated shows, the Art Laboe Connection, airing nightly, and the Art Laboe Sunday Special. The Sunday show started in 1991, the year my middle daughter was born, on 99.1 KKGO in Riverside, but I had heard his voice for years before then. The shows have grown; they now play on radio stations around the southwest, wherever people listen to the songs that are part of Chicano and black culture from a certain time, the songs that remind them of high-school dances, of parties in the park or at the beach, of front seats and back seats of cars like my friend Penguin’s Dodge Dart.

Nearly every night I hear what used to be Penguin’s favorite song—it is requested every evening: “Don’t Let No One Get You Down,” by War, the classic California band with members of every color, cowbells, and sweet deep harmonies and even a white guy, Lee Oskar, on flute. War was famous for “Low Rider” but is loved by those of us who grew up on “Slippin’ into Darkness” and “Me and Baby Brother.” I haven’t seen Penguin for years—he’s slipped back into the darkness of drug addiction so many times that he won’t come around now, and I miss him. Hearing this song takes me directly back to a night in 1981 when we sat around in the yard of his first house in the Eastside neighborhood of Riverside, a converted stucco garage. We sat on upended milk crates, eating his first barbecue, with a boombox beside us in the grass.

My children know this, accept this, shake their heads at my fatalism, and my calcified listening habits, and my inexorable sentiment. They think they will never listen to the same songs over and over, or have friends who disappear.

Laboe’s website, KillerOldies.com, is one of the most heavily-trafficked sites on the Internet. On it he reads dedications for men and women in the military serving across oceans, and dedications for loved ones serving prison sentences in other states. Because California exports inmates now, I wonder sometimes if those dedications and goodnight kisses are heard by the intended recipients.

There is a comfort in listening to Laboe’s voice. He’s live six nights a week and he’s always patient. Last week a little girl named Pearl calls in, and he says, “I don’t think I’ve ever talked to you before,” and she says, “Yes, you have,” and Laboe says with a half-smile in his voice, “Really? When?”

“Two years ago!” she says, as if astonished that he doesn’t remember. Laboe asks, “How old are you?” and she replies, “Eleven.” Then she dedicates a song to her grandmother.

The commercials are embarrassingly cheesy: Smoker’s Savior, a machine that allows people to quit smoking by imitating cigarettes somehow, with smoke rings of steam; Hero Tabs, a new Viagra made of watermelon rinds. But one Sunday night this year, April 12, Antonio Villaraigosa called in—yes, the mayor of Los Angeles, who grew up in East Los Angeles and proudly says he listened to Art Laboe while driving his Camaro through the streets with his friends.

The mayor and Art Laboe talked about the 2010 Census, and how important it was for Killer Oldies listeners to send in their forms and not be afraid that the information would be used for anything but counting them. It was standard stuff. But the mayor’s voice changed when he talked about how he used to cruise at night, listening to Laboe, and he seemed almost abashed—maybe he was remembering how he looked in that car, how he was seeking girls, how the boys beside him must have teased him sometimes.

That night there was a strange timelessness as I listened, looking out the kitchen window at the dark. Even the mayor of Los Angeles must still hope to hear specific songs from his past, evoking comfort and history and, yes, memories of love.

The good-night dedications begin at ten and last until midnight. “This is Pelon from East LA, man, Boyle Heights, and I wanna send out a song to all my boys. Sly Slick and Wicked.”

Alejandra calls from Pomona to wish her boyfriend a happy anniversary—it’s been three years and seven months.

Esperanza calls from LA to tell her grandmother Esperanza that she loves her. She asks for “At Last” by Etta James.

And every night, Betty Johnson calls from Madera, where she listens to KOKO 94, to chant in a breathless mantra variations on the same message: “This is for my husband Randy Johnson, Jr. Baby, I love you I adore you You Are My World and I’ll always be here for you. Don’t worry, baby, I’ll send some money tomorrow. Thanks for your card. I hope you got my letter. I’ll see you soon.” She asks for a different song every night.

I think she is one of the women who used to kiss their loved one goodnight via Art Laboe, who actually made the smooching sound of a kiss right there, live, on the radio.

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Art Laboe in KRLA studio, 1977 (photograph property of Original Sound Sales Corporation)

When my daughters roll their eyes at around seven, when the small lavender boom box we bought ten years ago at Target has trouble tuning in the station, I feel old. I’m forty-nine. But I stand at the sink, looking out the window at the long, dark four-lane avenue that leads directly east, to Colton and San Bernardino and then the Cajon Pass and the Mojave Desert, while hearing “Memories of El Monte,” a song you might only hear on Art Laboe’s show, and I realize that his voice is as totemic and Californian as the missions, each built a day’s journey from the next to unite the whole sprawling state. His voice does the same. I cannot explain that to my daughters, listening to this litany of love and heartbreak and memory in this immense place that many Americans never see. They think we’re all Beverly Hills with sedate, decorative palm trees; but we are the huge silver groves of date palms in Mecca and Indio. They picture the crashing waves and cliffside mansions of Malibu, but we are the strawberry fields of Oxnard and the Marine base of Camp Pendleton, where the ocean mist is full of salt. They see Hollywood and Sunset, but we are also on E Street and Whittier Boulevard; cruising, boxing groceries, welding mufflers, changing tires, sewing prom dresses, picking oranges, teaching kids—and calling after nightfall to request “Don’t Let No One Get You Down.” B

(album cover image property of Original Sound Sales Corporation)

Articles

Undocumented and Unafraid: Tam Tran and Cinthya Felix

Kent Wong
Matias Ramos

The failure of the DREAM Act in the last Congress—by a narrow margin—followed on the untimely deaths of Cinthya Felix and Tam Tran, renowned leaders in the immigrant-rights movement. Two activists and colleagues remember them.

On May 15, 2010, Tam Tran and Cinthya Felix, leaders in the movement to pass the DREAM Act, were killed in a car accident. Their tragic passing has galvanized the movement they left behind.

The Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act proposes to grant United States citizenship to undocumented students or those who entered the country while still children.1 It was first introduced in Congress in 2001 under another name and has been reintroduced several times, most recently in 2010. The effort to get the bill enacted into law has been growing for a decade, and the national campaign for its passage has emerged as one of the most important social-justice movements of this generation. Students who stand to benefit from the law have conducted civil disobedience in the halls of Congress, organized hunger strikes, marched on foot for hundreds of miles from Florida to Washington, DC, as part of the “Trail of DREAMs,” organized a “DREAM Freedom Ride” from Los Angeles to Washington, and held countless press conferences, mock graduation ceremonies, and rallies to advance the cause.

The movement to pass the DREAM Act arose in the hearts and minds of thousands of young immigrants who claim America as their home; it has created powerful bonds among these young activists, who are assuming leadership roles and shaping the nation’s future.

Tam and Cinthya had both grown up in undocumented immigrant families; against the odds, both had graduated from UCLA and entered prestigious graduate schools. Indeed, they were among the very few undocumented immigrant graduate students in the country. Tam was in a PhD program in American civilization at Brown University; Cinthya was in a Master’s program in public health at Columbia University and planned to enter medical school. Both Tam and Cinthya were leading advocates for passage of the DREAM Act, with a national reputation as activists. DREAM students are carrying on their work in their honor and memory.

Of the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States, more than 2 million are minors. These young people had no say in the decision to come to this country, but were brought by parents or relatives seeking a better life. The aim of the act is to give them an opportunity to earn legal status by completing two years of higher education or through service in the US military.

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Cinthya Felix, Prema Lal, and Tam Tran demonstrate on behalf of the DREAM Act, Washington, DC, March 4, 2010. (photograph courtesy of DreamActivist)

DREAM activists like Tam and Cinthya became advocates for their own legal status as part of the broader fight for immigration reform. The rise in visibility of such activists challenged the pejorative labels of “illegal” and “law-breaking” frequently used in congressional and media debates on immigration. Tam and Cinthya, and others like them, showed America a different, more accurate image of undocumented youth that exemplified all that we value and hope for in our children: leadership, courage, articulateness, civic-minded commitment, and professional skills. They epitomized the motto of the DREAM Act movement: “undocumented and unafraid.” By breaking the habit of fear and anonymity to share their stories, they advanced a powerful movement for social justice.

Tam Tran was born to Vietnamese parents in Germany on October 30, 1982. After the fall of Saigon in 1975, her family was forced to flee Vietnam by boat, along with hundreds of thousands of other refugees. While many “boat people” were rescued at sea by Americans and relocated to the US, Tam’s parents were rescued by the German navy. They came to live in Germany, where Tam and her brother, Thien, were born.

The Tran family came to the United States when Tam was six years old to join other family members who had settled in California. Tam’s parents applied for political asylum, but their request was denied (after many years waiting) because they had emigrated from Germany, not directly from Vietnam. The family received a “withholding of deportation” exemption, but their status does not lead to legal residency or US citizenship. Tam was Vietnamese, but she had never been to Vietnam and was not a Vietnamese citizen. She was born in Germany, but Germany does not grant citizenship based on birthright. And although Tam subsequently spent more than twenty years in the US, the American government refused to give her legal status. So she was not only undocumented but stateless, trapped in a disgraceful immigration morass.

Tam grew up in Garden Grove, California. She graduated from Santiago High School, attended Santa Ana College, and then transferred to UCLA. She worked multiple jobs while carrying a full course load, and was also a prominent student leader and activist. At UCLA, she found a home with IDEAS (Improving Dreams, Educational Access, and Success), the support organization for undocumented immigrant students. She was a gifted filmmaker who produced acclaimed documentaries that have been screened nationally. The two best-known are Lost and Found and Seattle Underground Railroad (both 2007). Both capture the stories of undocumented UCLA students and celebrate the struggles and accomplishments of young immigrants. These moving, humorous, and insightful films provide a sharp analysis of oppressive immigration laws and their impact on youth.

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In memoriam: a Day of the Dead altar honoring Cinthya and Tam made by fellow activists Gabriela Monico and Uriel Rivera, 2010. (photograph © Elizabeth Leonardo)

Tam graduated from UCLA in 2006 with a bachelor’s degree in American literature and culture and with Latin, departmental, and college honors. After graduation, she worked at the UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education and as a teaching assistant for the first university course ever offered in the United States on undocumented immigrant students. Her story was featured in Underground Undergrads: UCLA Undocumented Immigrant Students Speak Out, a book published by the Center in 2007.2

Tam gave public talks on the DREAM Act, screened her films, and promoted Underground Undergrads throughout the country. She made presentations before the national convention of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance in Nevada, the first Asian Pacific Worker Rights Hearing in Washington, DC, the 2009 American Sociological Association conference in San Francisco, the 2009 Asian American Studies conference in Hawaii, and the Ford Foundation in New York in 2010. Each time, she spoke with eloquence, grace, and power. And each time, she recruited more allies to support the movement of immigrant youth and students.

As a leading national advocate for the DREAM Act, Tam testified before the US Congressional Immigration Subcommittee on May 18, 2007. Given her own undocumented status, this was an act of considerable personal courage. And sure enough, three days later, ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) agents staged a predawn raid on her family’s home in Orange County and took her parents and brother into custody. Tam reached out to members of Congress and immigration attorneys and was able to have her family released and to stop their deportation. Throughout this ordeal she kept her focus, remarking, “My family is one of the lucky ones. Most immigrants don’t have access to Congress and immigration attorneys, and just disappear.”

Tam applied to top PhD programs nationwide and was accepted to UCLA, the University of California, Berkeley, University of Michigan, Yale University, and Brown University. Although public institutions are legally barred from granting financial assistance to undocumented immigrants, both Yale and Brown, private universities, offered her generous scholarships. Tam entered the PhD program in American civilization at Brown. She joked, “Maybe if I get a PhD in American civilization they will finally let me become an American.”

At Brown, as in California, she swiftly became a leader. She continued to advocate for passage of the DREAM Act, founded the Brown Immigrant Rights Coalition, and helped launch the first statewide network of undocumented immigrant youths and students. She mobilized student contingents for marches in Washington, DC and lobbying visits to the Rhode Island congressional delegation and statehouse. A few weeks after her death, Brown University awarded her a Master’s degree in recognition of her extraordinary achievements.

Cinthya Felix was born in Sinaloa, Mexico on January 23, 1984. At fifteen, she went with her family to Los Angeles for what she thought was a vacation to Disneyland. In reality, it was an economic-survival move by her parents. The Felix family settled in the historic Mexican community of East Los Angeles. In high school Cinthya was a brilliant student as well as an accomplished basketball player. She then matriculated at UCLA, a two-hour commute each way by bus. There, she worked hard, saved money, and bought a car, audaciously giving it the vanity license plate YLLEGAL.

Like other undocumented immigrants, Cinthya was unable to get a driver’s license in California. She understood the contradiction: “The state wants our money, so they let us buy the car, get insurance, and pay for registration. But when it comes to giving us a license, they don’t want to give you one.”3

She could not get a license in California, but she had a plan. She organized a group of students to drive to Washington State, where it is easier for immigrants to obtain a driver’s license. Tam Tran was one of the few students in IDEAS who had a driver’s license, so she joined the trip and brought her camera to document the experience, producing the film Seattle Underground Railroad.

At UCLA, Cinthya was one of the founders of IDEAS, the organization for undocumented immigrant students. IDEAS began as a clandestine support group: undocumented students would gather to share survival tips and assist one another to navigate the frequently unfriendly waters of the big university. As its numbers grew, the group developed into a bold public-advocacy organization that held mock graduation ceremonies on campus, immigrant-youth empowerment conferences that drew hundreds of students to UCLA, and an annual banquet that raised funds for members to complete their education. Cinthya and Tam became leading activists and fast friends. After their death, IDEAS was recognized by the University of California’s president and regents as an outstanding student organization within the university.

Cinthya graduated from college with a degree in English literature and minors in Spanish and Mexican Studies, but her ambition was to have a career in medicine. Fearing that no medical school would accept an applicant without legal status, she instead applied to Master’s programs in public health, eventually choosing that of Columbia University. In graduate school, she conducted research on health-care access within immigrant communities, waiting tables at night to support herself.

Tam and Cinthya were pioneers, undocumented immigrant students who had made it into graduate programs at exclusive private universities. This achievement was not without its share of alienation and isolation. As they had done in California, they relied on one another, and their experience on the East Coast only deepened their friendship. To celebrate the end of the school year, Cinthya and Tam decided to take a road trip to Maine to visit lighthouses, eat lobster, and prepare for summer. As they were returning from their trip, they were killed by a drunk driver who swerved into their lane of traffic.

Two days later, more than five hundred students gathered at UCLA for a memorial in their honor. Vigils were held in Los Angeles, Orange County, New York, Washington, Rhode Island, and Florida. Students in Arizona made buttons with their image in their memory. Most importantly, students in many areas of the country commemorated their spirit by carrying on their work, staging sit-ins, street closures, civil disobedience, hunger strikes, a national DREAM Freedom Ride, and other activities. Tam and Cinthya’s untimely death has been mourned and memorialized by members of Congress, the California state legislature, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, and the Los Angeles City Council. In their memory, DREAM activists reaffirmed their commitment to fight for the DREAM Act.4

Although we mourn the passing of Cinthya and Tam, we celebrate their lives. They were sisters; they were kindred spirits, always in sync: planning their next meal, their next act of defiant and optimistic activism, searching for a new adventure, pursuing their next dream. They accomplished more in their short lives than ever could have been imagined. Their spirit lives on in the hundreds of IDEAS alumni, in the thousands of young immigrants who embraced them as role models, and in the millions of immigrants who will one day be empowered to emerge from the shadows. B

 

Notes

1. The Senate version of the bill in its most recent form (S. 729) is published by the US Government Printing Office and may be found at http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/BILLS-111s729is/pdf/BILLS-111s729is.pdf, accessed January 6, 2011.

2. See http://www.labor.ucla.edu/publications/books/underground.html, accessed January 6, 2011.

3. Film, Seattle Underground Railroad, 2007.

4. In the 111th Congress the bill passed in the House of Representatives but the Senate majority was not large enough to overcome a Republican filibuster, and it died with the end of the legislative session. Activists plan to lobby for it to be revived in the next session of Congress.

 

Kent Wong is director of the UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education and taught the class that produced Underground Undergrads: UCLA Undocumented Immigrant Students Speak Out. Tam and Cinthya were his students and Tam also worked as his teaching assistant and intern.

Matias Ramos is a writer, blogger, and founding member of United We Dream, a national network of immigrant student activists. He is a graduate of UCLA and was a friend of Tam and Cinthya as well as a fellow IDEAS member. He lives in Washington, DC.

Articles

Religion by Lottery

by Wade Clark Roof
From Boom Spring 2011, Vol. 1, No. 1

During the holiday season of late November and December a traveler exiting Interstate 5 onto La Paz Road toward Mission Viejo, between Los Angeles and San Diego, is soon greeted with a religious display unlike that found in most American cities. What makes it unusual is the diversity of peaceful messages from Jewish, Islamic, Christian, Bahá’i, and, for the first time this past year, Hindu traditions. Located at the intersection of La Paz and Chrisanta Drive—the so-called Four Corners, itself symbolic of many paths—the display reminds us that there is more to this country religiously than the Judeo-Christian heritage, and that globally diverse faith communities can and must coexist. Despite the media’s violent images of religious populations clashing with one another around the globe, here there are neither swords nor the sounds of battle.

But this display is far more unusual than initially meets the eye. Mission Viejo’s residents offer the vision of—or better, experiment with—the possibility of an amicable religious pluralism and have gone further than most other communities to implement it. Decades ago the Four Corners was host to Christmas trees and Santa Claus, but as this upscale, planned residential community grew into a city of roughly 100,000 residents and became more ethnically and religiously diverse, the situation changed. What had been largely an unquestioned Christian space became a contested public site with religious groups vying with one another for a spot to make public their presence within the community.

This occurred in part because of demographics. The city’s religiously affiliated population is reported as 45 percent, less than California’s overall 54 percent. In California generally, Catholics account for 61 percent of the religious population; evangelical Christians 18 percent; mainline Protestants 9 percent; and “other” religious constituencies—mainly Jews, Mormons, Buddhists, Muslims, and Hindus—amount to 12 percent. Compared with the country as a whole, Catholics and members of eastern religions have a greater representation both in Mission Viejo and in California as a whole; evangelical Christians and mainline Protestants somewhat less. Plus, a large unaffiliated sector includes varieties of agnostics, atheists, privatized believers, nature lovers, and those who identify themselves as spiritual but nonreligious. Overall, the mix is that of an emerging “new religious America” of increased diversity, as Harvard’s Diana Eck describes it.1 California, it is said, stretches the definition of what constitutes the religious and the spiritual, and there is certainly some truth in this claim in Mission Viejo.

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Mission Viejo’s Four Corners, December 2010: at right is a Christian nativity scene, sponsored by a local Evangelical Christian church, with a Bahá’i display in the background. (photograph © Bill Sharpsteen)

Pluralism—that is, a culture that embraces diversity—requires not just believing, but doing: cultivating a spirit of acceptance that moves beyond mere tolerance. Faith groups vary in the ways and degrees to which they buy into a pluralist ideology: exclusivists resist recognition of the truth claims of others; moderates respect others; and the most inclusive celebrate the religious other as contributing to their own spiritual well-being and growth. Of course, always looming in the background of any consideration of the practice of religious pluralism are thorny issues: What are its limits? What defines a group as religious? Where do the nonreligious fit into the scheme of things?

The experiment at Mission Viejo has had its share of challenges. In 2000, city officials decided to allow, for the first time, an Islamic display to accompany Jewish and Christian displays. The following year, there were complaints about including the Muslim decorations (no doubt connected with feelings about the then-recent September 11 terrorist attack) and the planners feared that too many additional groups might demand a presence in the limited space at the Four Corners, so the multifaith display was called off. The city council voted to return to the earlier plan of showcasing Santa Claus, American flags, and a winter scene—all deemed secular and noncontroversial. But they misread the sentiment of the community, and after a week of complaints the city reversed its decision: it would permit religious groups to have displays, but only at a nearby park. But even this was not enough to satisfy the residents. In 2002, pressure from them led to the return of the multifaith celebration to the Four Corners.

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The Bahá’i display marks the holiday celebrating the birth of Bahá’u’lláh (photograph © Bill Sharpsteen)

Over the years concerns have arisen from all sides. “Why should the city recognize these religions?” asks an evangelical Christian pastor. “We are a Christian nation. Why are we embarrassed to proclaim it?” Exclusivists find shared space problematic. Secularists and strict interpreters of the legal separation of church and state question why city property is used to showcase religious exhibits of any kind, and still others have wondered if atheists should be allowed to have a display—some saying yes, because their voice should be heard, but most adamantly opposing the idea. Nor has it gone unnoticed that the timing of the holiday celebrations fit Christian and Jewish calendars far better than those of other traditions. (This led the Hindu community in 2010 to put up and take down their exhibit before Thanksgiving.) There have also been acts of vandalism: once the Baby Jesus was stolen and a year ago the Muslim display was defaced, which led to complaints by Muslim organizations and the American Civil Liberties Union about the city’s failure to patrol the exhibits at night.

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The Jewish holiday display is a giant dreidel (photograph © Bill Sharpsteen)

But despite setbacks, complaints, and vandalism progress has been made. Over the years, as a Bahá’i told me, “dealing with one another became a public matter, pressure was on us to do something that would be as open as possible to all religions.” Public discussion brought forward practical questions about how to be open to all groups, given the limited space at the Four Corners. In effect, how would the city choose which groups could set up holiday exhibits?

The solution: “Religion by Lottery!” Mission Viejo decided to try to accommodate the growing number of religious groups while retaining the Four Corners as the location of the event. Faith groups desiring a presence on this spot would have to apply for one of eight available spaces. In doing so, they agreed to exhibit seasonal messages within a cooperative multifaith event. The spaces would be assigned by a double lottery system in which numbers identifying spaces were drawn at random from one container and matched with applicant groups drawn at random from another container. If there were more applicants than spaces, those unsuccessful in getting a space at the Four Corners would be selected, again by lottery, to exhibit at a nearby park. Minority religious spokespersons played a big part in pushing for the lottery. Hamid Bahadori, an Iranian-American Muslim resident, was reported to say in 2001, “If we want to celebrate our sense of community, then let’s be as inclusive as possible.”2

Asked recently about how well the system is working, David Cendejas, in the city’s Office of Community Development, responds, “Pretty well. People like the fairness of it, although so far it really hasn’t been all that tested since we haven’t had more than eight groups applying in any year.” If that were to occur, the present relaxed tone of the process might not endure. Imagine a December religious holiday display in Mission Viejo without a Nativity scene. This might well occur, should the number of applicants continue to increase. Based upon what both city officials and clergy have told me, this eventuality would most definitely challenge the lottery system.

Yet the mood of the nation may be working in Mission Viejo’s favor. Despite the tensions created this past year with the proposal to build an Islamic cultural center and mosque in lower Manhattan, not far from the site where the Twin Towers once stood, and threats to burn the Qur’an in several places across the country, a recent Pew Forum survey documents a general tendency among Americans not to assert that “my religion is the one, true faith leading to eternal life.”3 This is a shift in mood we might expect in diverse, well-educated communities like Mission Viejo. National surveys point as well to greater openness to gaining spiritual truth from religions of all kinds—perhaps just a matter of curiosity for many, yet for some a genuine interest in learning from other traditions.

Both the city’s effort to embrace religious diversity and the willingness of most religious groups to play by the rules for this holiday celebration signal that a civic-minded culture is widely shared. Despite the unpredictable nature of a lottery—or perhaps because the luck of the draw is perceived as fair to all in the long run—the system appears to be favored by many in the community.

Of course, pluralism is always a fragile culture, easily disrupted by those hostile to it. Yet every year in Mission Viejo, when these rules are followed, when this public experiment is carried out, thousands of citizens and visitors affirm fundamental democratic principles. More than simply trying to avoid conflict, as was the original intention, religion by lottery is a positive force, providing a procedure that reinforces notions of religious equality and freedom; by bringing order and fairness to the process of choosing religious groups to represent the community it also neutralizes fears of Christian dominance and discrimination against other faiths. “I ride up La Paz during the holidays,” says one of the electricians helping to set up the lights at the intersection, “and even though I’m not so religious myself it helps that people here get along pretty well. In fact, I think they are beginning to really like the event.” B

Notes

1. Diana L. Eck, A New Religious America: How a Christian Country Has Become the World’s Most Religiously Diverse Nation (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 2001).

2. The remark was made in the comments to a newspaper article, “Santa In, Religious Symbols Out at Season’s Exhibit; Mission Viejo: Muslim leaders question decision to end three-decade holiday display tradition,” Los Angeles Times, October 31, 2001, online at http://articles.latimes.com/2001/oct/31/local/me-63863.

3. U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, report of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, February 2008, 174-75; online at http://religions.pewforum.org/pdf/report-religious-landscape-study-full.pdf.

Articles

California Sueños

by Josh Kun
From Boom Spring 2011, Vol. 1, No. 1

“California is a tragic country—like Palestine, like every promised land. Its short history is a fever-chart of migrations—the land rush, the gold rush, the oil rush, the movie rush, the Okie fruit-picking rush, the wartime rush to the aircraft factories—followed, in each instance, by counter migrations of the disappointed and unsuccessful, moving sorrowfully homeward.”
—Christopher Isherwood, “Los Angeles”

In 1967 Los Tijuana Five, a band best known for their Beatles mop-tops and live Revolución Avenue recreations of the entire Rubber Soul album, took on the California dream. On their first full-length album for the US label Pickwick Records, the band recorded a cover of the Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreamin’,” one of the great pop manifestos of mythic Upper California sunshine. Written by John Phillips after leaving LA for a particularly rough and frigid New York winter, the song casts California as its own cinematic fantasy, full of perfect beaches and warm evening winds, a promised land without tragedy. But instead of merely translating the song into Spanish, Los Tijuana Five use it to play with the politics of their location. When “California Dreamin’,” becomes “Sueños de California,” they are singing from California about a longing for California. It’s just that their California is Baja California, not the California north of the line. They change the original refrain “California dreamin’,” into a possessive that happens to rhyme with the English lyric: “California mía,” my California. The California they miss, the illusion they create through their longing, is not the same one that Phillips built behind the frost on his New York City windows. Their California isn’t LA; it’s Tijuana. Their California is their California.

Ever since a war-birthed border split the two Californias in the nineteenth century, the idea of California—its sunshine myths and romances as much as its noir realities—has been a prime subject of musical interpretation for Mexican artists across the California-Mexico borderlands. While Los Tijuana Five dreamed their California from their home south of the borderline, critiques of California myths and harsh, dramatic accounts of California realities have dominated the Mexican migrant music made and consumed on both sides of the border.

The migrant experience in California has been at the very heart of norteño music since the beginning of the twentieth century, from Los Hermanos Bañuelos’ dishwasher tale of failed Hollywood hope in “El Lavaplatos” in 1929 to Carlos y José’s wishful thinking in the 1980s in “Me Voy a California” (“I’m going to California, I’m going to harvest money”) through song after song on contemporary Spanish-language radio. It can be heard in the music of Los Tucanes de Tijuana (once Tijuana-based, now in San Diego), El Chapo de Sinaloa (from Sinaloa, but now calling the Inland Empire home), Los Razos (from Michoacán, now living in Oxnard), and Jenni Rivera (born and raised in Playa Larga, a.k.a. Long Beach). For that matter, the entire body of work of Sinaloa-born, Northern California-based Los Tigres del Norte—the reigning musical titans of Greater Mexico—could easily be read as a collective study of the political, cultural, and affective impacts of Mexican migrancy in California and belongs in Literature of California anthologies and on California Studies syllabi, right next to Ramona, The Grapes of Wrath, Southern California: An Island on the Land, and City of Quartz. The Mexican scholar Gustavo López Castro has written extensively about norteño music and other musical styles of migrant Mexico as forming a decades-spanning “songbook of migrancy,” a dynamic, living archive of everyday migrant life, of cross-border feelings and emotions that create communities of sentiment between Mexico and the US. Or to borrow from Roberto Tejada’s important work on Mexican photography, norteño music has created not a “shared image environment” but a “shared sonic environment” between the US and Mexico. Nowhere is this more the case than in the current popular music of California. Music made by migrant Mexicans for migrant Mexicans—arguably the most commercially popular and culturally galvanizing music in the state—has been a key source of migrant articulations of longings and feelings for Mexico and for a better, more just life in the US. It is also, as Catherine Ragland and Hermann Herlinghaus have persuasively argued, a key site for shaping everyday vernacular reactions to the asymmetries, dislocations, and violence of economic globalization.

Don Cheto, one of the top Spanish-language radio DJs in Los Angeles (he hosts the morning show on the massively popular station La Que Buena), has built his entire career on the belief that Mexican migrant music—and its stories of immigration, identity negotiation, and daily economic struggle—is the music of Southern California, the music that most clearly and powerfully speaks to his millions of listeners, be they migrants from Jalisco and Michoacán or the US born sons and daughters of migrants from Zacatecas, Sinaloa, and Sonora. A character created by Juan Carlos Razo, a thirty-year-old immigrant from Michoacán, Don Cheto is a seventy-year-old immigrant veterano who wears a campesino hat and a big gray moustache and, between the latest banda and norteño hits, dispenses wisdom and advice about immigrant life in LA. When Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids LA factories, plants, and warehouses, he sings “Ice, Ice, Baby,” putting an agitpop immigrant spin on Vanilla Ice’s late-eighties hip-hop hit. Earlier this year he released “La Crisis”—first on the radio, then on YouTube, and only later on iTunes—a comical song about the impact of the global recession on family life in LA that takes shots at both President Obama and Mexican President Felipe Calderón. Don Cheto has become the unofficial poster boy of Mexican migrant music and a leading cultural mouthpiece and media icon for LA’s massive (and thriving) Mexican music industry. This industry is a formal and informal commercial network of record distributors, multinational record companies, homegrown indie labels, swap-meet vendors, neighborhood record shops, corner grocery stores, nightclubs, clothing stores, and weekend jaripeos, rodeos, and bailes that stretches from Westside beaches to South LA, from Orange County and East LA to the eastern suburbs of the Inland Empire and beyond.


Los Tigres del Norte performing in 2008
Image: courtesy of Jose Cornide, www.alterna2.com

That is the California we’re welcomed into on “California,” the single released earlier this year by the Michoacán-born, South LA-raised hip-hop duo Akwid. It’s a classic “welcome to California” song, but their hook is “Bienvenidos a California,” and while it’s still a land where “all of your dreams become reality,” their California is “the land of my people . . . California, Mexico . . . the land of the sorcerer wetback.” Akwid’s migrant remapping of California is on the same album as “Esto Es Pa’ Mis Paisas,” a song dedicated to Mexican migrants, or paisas (slang for paisanos), who shave their heads, wear cowboy boots, listen to banda music, and take pride in their working-class rancholo (or rancho-meets-cholo) lifestyle. “I can’t hide who I am,” they rap over slow West Coast funk, “These clothes I’m wearing? I bought them at the swap meet.” Like Los Tijuana Five’s “Sueños de California,” Akwid’s song is a cover, but instead of a California myth makeover they do a Chicano makeover. “Esto Es Pa’ Mis Paisas” is based on “La Raza,” the influential nineties Chicano hip-hop anthem by the East LA-born rapper Kid Frost, which was itself based on “Viva Tirado,” a low-and-slow 1969 cruising instrumental from the seventies Mexican-American funk and soul band El Chicano. (True to California-Mexico form, El Chicano’s “Viva Tirado” was itself a cover; the song was originally penned by the African-American jazz composer Gerald Wilson, who originally wrote it in 1962 as an homage to the Mexican bullfighter José Ramón Tirado.)

Frost’s original call for “Aztec warrior” brown pride was based in East LA; Akwid shift the focus to South LA, Southgate, and Bell, areas that since the 1980s have become hubs for newly arrived Mexican migrant populations. Instead of Chicano pride, Akwid preach Michoacán pride and paisa pride, musical formulations of identity that are as rooted in the urban geographies of LA as they are in the binational migrant labor networks that have historically connected LA to Mexico through a shifting series of loops and circuits. (According to one 2008 study by the Pew Hispanic Center, 36 percent of LA immigrants are Mexican and of the one million undocumented in LA county, 60 percent are of Mexican origin.)

Akwid weren’t always rapping in Spanish about being paisas. Originally called Juvenile Style, they were an English-language rap duo whose heaviest influences—2nd II None, King Tee, DJ Quik—were born directly from their 1980s upbringing in largely African-American neighborhoods across South LA. But in the 1990s Akwid, like so much of Mexican California, got banda fever. Due in large part to rising immigration numbers, the music of banda sinaloense became a central part of California’s radio soundscape, producing what George Lipsitz has called “a new cultural moment, one that challenges traditional categories of citizenship and culture on both sides of the border.” The 1992 murder of Sinaloa’s leading corrido superstar Chalino Sánchez—a former Coachella farmworker who had become a migrant icon throughout Southern California—further cemented the relationship between migrants and the rural, working-class music of the Mexico they had left behind. In the Los Angeles of Akwid’s childhood, it produced what the journalist Sam Quiñones famously dubbed “the Sinaloaization of LA.” Mexicans who had previously looked to gangsta rap as a mirror of urban outrage now looked to corridos and banda; closets full of Raiders jerseys suddenly shared hangar space with cowboy hats, belt buckles, and boots.

Since the 1990s in the US the commercial genres banda and norteño have been subsumed under the rubric of “regional Mexican.” The category has rapidly become one of the most commercially and culturally vital genres in US popular music. For this is not just a California story, of course, but a national one as well: the more Mexicanized the map of the US grows, the more regional Mexican music becomes the genre with which to reckon. Regional Mexican is currently the top-selling Latin music in the US, responsible for over 70 percent of all Latin music sales and outselling pop and tropical by significant margins. It is the official music of the geography that Los Tigres del Norte called, back in 1986, el otro México, the other Mexico, the Mexico that lives and thrives beyond Mexico’s territorial national borders and within the spaces of the United States.

Los Tigres reimagined the US as part of a new map of Mexico (or, to borrow Roger Bartra’s formulation, a new map of “post-Mexico”). That they charted el otro México not in the press or in their liner notes but over accordions and snare drums in a song of that title is a reminder of just how central Mexican migrant music has been to articulations and explorations of social and political identity in the US. Regional Mexican music in California is not simply the soundtrack to Mexican migrant life, but, to borrow terminology from Thomas Turino, it is “music as social life” grounded and shaped by “the politics of participation.” “The other Mexico that we have constructed here on this ground that has been our national territory,” Los Tigres sang, “is the effort of all our fellow Mexicans and Latin Americans who have known how to improve themselves.” The “other California” that has for so long been a key part of the “other Mexico” has likewise been its own republic of song, its own binational audio territory, where migrant songs blasting over car radios and cell phones continue to reveal, perhaps more than any other contemporary art form, all the tragedy and all the promise of the California yet to come. B

Articles

The Antidote to the Trope State

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To a greater extent than most other states, California has always been a trope state. Since the Gold Rush, and arguably before, its residents have imbued the place with unreasonable expectations. Those expectations served as the basis of the state’s first and most enduring trope: superabundance. The trope of superabundance was not based on pure fiction: indeed, up through the 1950s, the State provided enough mineral and material assets, enough dreamers, technicians, engineers, and artists, and enough money in its coffers, to make good on the promise of limitless opportunity for the majority of its residents.

But the 1970s introduced stark challenges to the trope. The passage of Proposition 13, the gut-wrenching job losses ushered in by global economic change, egregious violations of human rights and the skyrocketing rates of incarceration forced a new state narrative, which could easily be found in the corollary to the trope of suberabundance: catastrophism. Overstating the uniqueness and the extent of California’s calamity became a cottage industry for critics and scholars by the 1990s and it remains one of the State’s most thriving enterprises.

It the tropes of superabundance and catastrophism are inadequate as foundations for a coherent state narrative, one might reasonably ask, with what should we replace them? I would answer that we really have no need for a coherent state narrative, because any new trope will fail spectacularly to capture the complexity and dynamism and the place. Additionally, no one— perhaps with the exception of the occasional chamber of commerce executive—lies awake in bed fretting about not having access to a coherent narrative of the place in which they reside. A coherent state narrative provides no collective psychological or material benefits that can be measured.

I would submit that a better question to ask would be this: what are the core ideas that inform our lives in this particular part of the world at this general time? By showcasing high quality writing, the results of exacting but accessible research, and the work of California’s most creative thinkers, artists, writers, and performers, Boom is uniquely positioned to answer this question.

Josh Sides
Whitsett Professor of California History
California State University, Northridge

Articles

Subduction Zone

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In Lawrence Levine’s essay “The Folklore of Industrial Society,” he explains that magazines, music, and movies are forms of popular culture that function in ways similar to folk culture. It is even “a form of folklore for people living in urban industrial societies.” Levine’s area of exploration, as is mine, is the Great Depression, and the state of California, (a term I use both geographically and descriptively).  California offered a fascinating trove of industrial folklore during that time, as it always has.

In a state in which political analyses are as common as sunny days, Californians are inundated with information about policy, pricing, legislation and law.  But Levine’s concept of expressive culture as an actual folklore we can record and study provides a necessary and fascinating entrance into the way the people who will live here, under that legislation, attempt to create and often recreate their lives.  It can tell what people see as “normal,” even in the most abnormal of times and trace the methods they use to achieve normal life. It can give us insight in to the reasons and routes people take to interrogating normative patterns that have been ingrained into society but never explained. It does not necessarily explain or predict how we will be living in the future, but it explains in rich ways how we came to live the way we are currently living. The songs people write, sing and download; the fashions they produce and parade; the various forms of communication to which they turn and innovate—all work to produce a deeper, richer history, one that goes beyond the surface to explore the lives of those who live, as Ralph Ellison wrote, “outside of history.”

When I introduce California literature in my classes, I use the metaphor of plate tectonics. In geology, one tectonic plate moves and subducts a second, with the second plate being forced under. Sometimes, the result is a volcano. Sometimes not. In this very loose metaphor, I point to the state’s long history of immigration, emigration, and migration. Over time, one race, or group, or class of people moves to or across the state, and a subduction zone occurs as the new converges onto the old. Sometimes a literary volcano occurs. Sometimes not.

Looking at this pattern of convergences and the new voices that have so often arisen from them allows us to see the various ways that people who live “outside of history” have made sense of a state whose shifting cultures continue to make it both dazzling and frightening.

Jan Goggans
Assistant Professor, School of Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts
University of California, Merced