Category: Interviews

Interviews

Forever Prisoners: An Interview with Elliott Young

Adam Goodman sat down with professor, author, and human rights advocate Elliott Young to discuss his new book which shines a light on the often cruel and senseless policies that make up the intersection of immigration and criminal justice in the United States.

Adam Goodman: The book’s title, Forever Prisoners, is provocative. How did you come up with it and what does it mean?

Elliott Young:  A friend who does prison abolition activism work and criminal justice said that the stories I tell sound a lot like the Guantanamo prisoners who have been there for twenty years, many of them not charged with any crimes. And so, this moniker: forever prisoners. The more I thought about it, I said, “Yes, forever prisoners is exactly the state in which many of these immigrants found themselves.” Of course, most of them didn’t spend their entire lives in prison. Some died after being detained, but many got out; but even when people get out, immigrants found themselves in positions of rightlessness or diminished rights. For people deported to places in Central America where there is lots of gang violence or political violence, they find themselves also like prisoners, in the sense of being trapped in their houses. So, the long reach of the tentacles of the prison seemed like an apt metaphor to think about the condition in which immigrants have been living for the last 140 years.

AG: Many scholars of immigration detention focus on the 1980s to the present. You start a century earlier. Why? What do we learn by tracing that longer history?

EY: My previous book was about Chinese immigration and starts off in the mid-nineteenth, so I knew that the Chinese were being detained and deported (obviously not in the numbers that we have today) right from the beginning of when the federal immigration system was set up. It seemed that the origins of that system were important to understand and to try to understand the trajectory from the late nineteenth century all the way through to the present. Not to say that there were no changes, but to track those changes so we don’t make the mistake of thinking we could return to an idealized earlier era. Sometimes people say 1954, “Oh, that was the moment like immigrant detention ended.” Well, 1954 to the 1980s was not a good time for Mexicans who were coming across the border without authorization.

AG: One of the things I found most compelling about your book is that you tell the history of immigration detention through a series of incredible, incredibly revealing, and often disturbing stories. The book’s first story takes place not on Ellis Island or on Angel Island, but on McNeil Island, off the coast of Washington. Why there?

Fong Sun was arrested in Santa Barbara in 1916 and eventually sentenced to two years on McNeil Island for forging a residence certificate. Source: Fong Sun, inmate 2733, Photos and Records of Prisoners Received, 1875-1939, McNeil Island Penitentiary, RG 129, NARA, Seattle.

EY: McNeil Island was a remote prison island off the coast of Tacoma, one of the three penitentiaries in the United States in this period. I started to do research on Chinese imprisoned there and discovered that they were put there for unauthorized entry—but they were sentenced to hard labor, which was a prison sentence. They were not simply put in this prison pending deportation, which is now the justification for imprisoning immigrants. In this case, they were actually given sentences, but they didn’t go through a judicial trial, so this is completely illegal based on the Constitution. Eventually the Supreme Court, in a landmark 1896 case, decided that you couldn’t do that. You could imprison or detain immigrants pending deportation, but you couldn’t impose criminal sentence on them without a judicial trial.

In this early period, they are experimenting with what to do with immigrants, so they put them in McNeil Island. It was clear that Chinese at that point were crossing the border from Canada to come across into the Pacific Northwest without authorization. The easiest thing for the immigration authorities was to just take them to the border of Canada and push them across. But at that point, Canada had established a head tax requirement for the Chinese and the migrants didn’t have the money to pay. So, Canada refused them entry and they ended up in McNeil Island prison for years, while there were diplomatic negotiations with the Canadian government. Eventually, in the early 1890s, U.S. officials deported them back to China. It’s in this early period that you see the U.S. government trying to work out both the legal grounds for holding immigrants as well as developing the whole bureaucracy and mechanisms for deporting people across the globe.

This photograph depicts, from left to right, Hop Key (1144), Chung Fung (1139), Hing Tom (1141), and Jan Jo (1142). Source: Photograph of Chinese prisoners and McNeil Island Prison, Photos and Records of Prisoners Received, 1875-1939, McNeil Island Penitentiary, Records of the Bureau of Prisons, NARA, Seattle, Record Group 129.

AG: That raises the question: What do U.S. officials do when there’s nowhere to deport someone? What happens when there’s a country that’s not willing to accept them? This comes up in the case of Nathan Cohen, who found himself in extended—perhaps even indefinite—detention.

EY: Nathan Cohen came from a part of Russia that’s kind of a borderlands region. He was Jewish, he had migrated to Brazil and spent a few years there, then went to New York in 1912. He ends up going to the Deep South, because he has relatives there, and opens a business with his uncle in Jacksonville, Florida. Within a short period of time, he gets married and then he’s swindled by his family. He loses his busines and his wife runs off with his best friend, and this sends him into a funk where he essentially becomes mute. He goes to Baltimore, where his sister was living, and gets put into a mental hospital run by the state, a public mental hospital, and gets declared insane. And because he had immigrated within three years, that declaration of insanity was grounds for deportation. So, he gets sent to Ellis Island and they put him on a ship to go back to Brazil. But Brazil refuses to take him. The ship goes on to Argentina, who also says they don’t want him. The U.S. government is trying to contact the Russians. This is during World War I, Cohen is a Jew, and there’s anti-Jewish programs going on in this region, so Russia isn’t interested in taking him. So, he’s essentially stateless. The press describes him as the wandering Jew, the man without a country. And so, he gets sent back to New York. After spending several months in detention on Ellis Island, they try to deport him again. The same thing happens. 

AG: It’s a nightmare.

“He has no address, belongs nowhere, is wanted nowhere.” Drawing of Nathan Cohen in The Pittsburgh Press, 18 Apr. 1915.

EY: It’s a nightmare; a Kafkaesque nightmare. The last time when he comes back to New York Harbor. The authorities don’t even let him off the boat because they realize that once he’s on U.S. soil he could have legal claims. What happens with Nathan Cohen, eventually the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and the Knights of Pythias, which was a fraternal organization of which he was a member, intervene and agree to pay for his upkeep in a private sanatorium in Connecticut. He’s taken off the ship and lives in that sanatorium for about a year. Then he just dies, kind of mysteriously, since he’s still a young man at this point (mid-30s), and is buried on Staten Island.

Nathan Cohen’s story is fascinating on its own, but it also led me to discover that there was this whole other system of incarceration in the early twentieth century. Mental hospitals held many more citizens and noncitizens than detention centers or even in jails and prisons. By the 1960s, they started phasing out mental institutions in part because of the critiques of the way mental institutions were handled, and then we see the rise of mass incarceration. What we have now is lots of people who have mental illness, but instead of being in mental institutions they are in prisons and jails. 

AG: Something else that stands out is the history of the U.S. government deporting people from Latin America to the United States, rather than vice versa, and detaining them during World War II.

EY: During World War II, there was this semi-secretive FBI program to identify and roundup Axis nationals in Latin America through the U.S. embassies in various countries. Thirteen countries participated in this program. I focus on the case of Seiichi Higashide, who is of Japanese origin, went to Peru as a young man, developed a business there selling goods, and married a Japanese Peruvian woman. He’s put on this list but manages to evade detection for a few years with the help of a local police chief. When he’s finally picked up, Peruvian officials force him onto a U.S. military transport ship and he’s taken to Panama. He’s briefly held at a U.S. military camp there, then put on another ship and taken to New Orleans. From New Orleans they put him on a train and he ends up in Texas. His wife and two children eventually decide to follow him to the United States to keep the family United. The story raises all these questions that we’re facing today about family separation. According to the government, all these people voluntarily went into detention, but it wasn’t so voluntary when the father was forcibly picked up and taken away and the family ends up joining him. U.S. officials detained them in a camp in Crystal City, Texas, which is actually 40 miles from the current family detention center in Dilley. There’s a long history of family detention in the heart of South Texas that continues to this very day. 

AG: Another connection to the present is the history you trace of people resisting and organizing against detention. Tell us about the detention of Haitians and Cubans in the 1970s and 1980s, the uprisings in Oakdale, Louisiana, and Atlanta, Georgia, which you describe as “the longest prison takeover in U.S. history.” 

EY: In the 1970s, you have Haitians escaping from political unrest and political violence thrown into detention. And almost universally, their asylum claims are rejected. Then, in 1980, there’s this massive boatlift of people from Cuba, the Mariel boatlift, and these are people escaping from a communist country. Initially, Carter sort of welcomes them with open arms into the United States. But this group of 125,000 Cubans was unlike the Cubans who had fled Castro in the early 1960s. Many of them are Black, and they come from lower socioeconomic groups. Their reception in Miami was not as welcoming as the reception in the 1960s had been. They were seen and stigmatized as criminals and as being mentally ill, because there was this idea that Castro just sort of emptied his jails and mental institutions. 

The U.S. government responds by establishing mass immigrant detention spaces on military bases around the country. And the idea is they need to be processed to figure out who are the criminals, who are the mentally ill people, and figure out who has family sponsors. After a couple of years, it’s almost entirely Black Cubans who are still in detention. After about a year, almost all of them are paroled into the United States, but they still haven’t regularized their status. Some of those people commit low level offenses, many of them are picked up on marijuana possession charges. Some of them have assault charges and a handful of them do have more serious violent crimes like homicide. So those people are then criminally sentenced and do their time. But after they do their time, because of the immigration regulations, they are now ineligible for their status to be regularized. They face indefinite detention pending deportation.

Eventually, they are sent to Atlanta Penitentiary and to Oakdale, Louisiana, where there was another detention center. Many of them languish there for years. They arrived in 1980 and a few hundred of them were held until the late 1980s. The Castro regime was not interested in having these people return, so they were essentially in prison indefinitely. Then, in November 1987, the Cuban government agrees to take back 2,000 people. Word spreads to these two prisons that they’re going to be deported to Cuba, and that sets off an uprising, first in Oakdale and then a couple of days later in Atlanta. 

AG: It’s incredible that these uprisings were more or less coordinated.

Cubans on roof of Atlanta Penitentiary during takeover in 1987 with US and Cuban flags. Scott Robinson, Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP.

EY: They had word through the grapevine and through the media that this was going to happen, that these deportations were imminent. So, the uprising happens in Oakdale, they take over the prison, they seize hostages, and they start torching the buildings. Then the same thing in Atlanta. This is not too long, around 16 years, after Attica, and in that case the National Guard was called in and more than 40 people were massacred. So, the question was, “How is this standoff going to end?” Somewhat miraculously, only one Cuban was shot and killed in Atlanta. No one else died in this episode and after two weeks they finally come to an agreement thanks to the intervention of a Cuban American Bishop from Miami who encouraged the people to give up the hostages and to end the siege. They also received a commitment from the U.S. government to conduct individual asylum reviews. Finally, after Thanksgiving, they leave the prison with salsa music blaring and they give themselves up and turn over the hostages. The larger point of this story is that these uprisings offer insights into the beginnings of “crimmigration,” or the overlapping of criminal justice and immigration.

AG: Throughout the book you show how the criminalization of noncitizens has resulted in the detention and deportation of long-term residents, many of whom have U.S. citizen children. One of the book’s most moving stories is that of Mayra Machado.

EY: I knew for the last chapter I wanted to focus on crimmigration today, and probably a Central American case, since increasingly those are the people detained. As I was looking for media stories, one day I get a call from a detention center in Louisiana. I accepted the call and it was Mayra Machado, who I had done an expert witness asylum declaration for a couple of years earlier. That case was unsuccessful; she was deported.

Mayra was brought to the United States from El Salvador when she was five years old and grew up in Southern California. Then her family moved to Arkansas. When she was eighteen years-old she wrote a hot check; clearly a crime, a mistake. She was picked up, charged, and sentenced to six months in some camp for rehabilitation. She did her time, got out, and ended up having children. Then, in 2015, around Christmas time, she went to Hobby Lobby to buy decorations. Her son left his glasses at the store, and when they returned to get them, she was pulled over on failure to yield traffic violation. Because of the expansion of these Secure Communities agreements and 287(g) agreements, where local law enforcement was basically authorized as immigration agents, they ran her information through the system and discovered that she didn’t have authorization to be in the country. In reality, this is a woman who grew up in the United States, was a working mom—wasn’t some kind of violent criminal—and she’s all of a sudden faced with permanent banishment from the country and separation from her three U.S. citizen children. 

I hadn’t actually even been in contact with her personally, but she had my number and she called me up and she said, “I came back into the United States.” Police had picked her up on a traffic violation and put her back in detention while awaiting deportation. At this point she was representing herself. Immigration law is extremely, extremely complicated. When immigrants, as smart as they are, try to represent themselves, the chance of them succeeding is almost nil. I was able to get her a pro bono lawyer from Loyola Law School (New Orleans). And I agreed to work on her case as an expert witness. 

Mayra Machado and her children in hearing in Arkansas on Jan. 18, 2019. Photograph by Magaly Marvel. Courtesy of Mayra Machado.

AG: How did you start providing expert witness testimony in immigration and asylum cases? What is immigration court like?

EY: This book is really about the present and from my perspective it’s sort of ethically obligatory to not only write about this from the ivory tower, but to actually use what you know to try to have an impact. And one of the ways to do this as an academic is by working on asylum cases.

In 2014, Steven Manning, a great immigration lawyer who runs the Innovation Law lab here in Portland, Oregon, contacted me and asked if I would do an expert witness country conditions declaration to inform the court about the political context related to claims being made. At this point I’ve done more than 400 of these.

Immigration courts are kind of like the Wild West. Immigration judges could decide what they will and won’t accept, so whether your claim has any grounds entirely depends on which immigration judge you get. In Louisiana, the rate of denial is over 90 percent, and some of the judges have 100 percent denial rates. Essentially, no matter what your claim, they’re going to deny it.

AG: It’s farcical.

EY: Yeah. In New York or San Francisco, you’ve got a much better shot. That being said, in almost all of the cases that I’ve worked on, the people actually do gain status or are able to avoid deportation. So, if you have a good lawyer and an expert witness—and if you’re also not in Louisiana or in one of these terrible jurisdictions—you can actually gain asylum. But the problem is, most immigrants are not represented by lawyers and most don’t have expert witnesses.

The hero of this story is Mayra, because if she hadn’t advocated for herself none of us would have gotten involved. Isabel Medina, Mayra’s lawyer, advocate Pablo Alvarado, the head of the National Day Laborers Organizing Network, and I went down to an ICE facility run by GEO, the private prison company, in a remote part of Louisiana. We presented all the evidence that when she had been deported back to El Salvador, she had been threatened by gangs with sexual assault and had also received serious threats against her life. But the immigration judge decided against her. Her lawyer appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court, and while the appeal was pending (this was in January of 2020, a year ago), one night at 7:00 p.m. officials told Mayra that they were going to deport her and at 3:00 a.m. that same night they took her to an airport in Alexandria, Louisiana. She argued with them, saying, “No, I’ve got an appeal pending.” But they shackled her and put her on a plane back to El Salvador. 

AG: That’s harrowing, and also speaks to how detention and deportation affect U.S. citizens, like Mayra’s children. Something else that we’ve been circling around is the larger story you tell of how immigration detention became intertwined with the rise of mass incarceration writ large. 

EY: I’m glad you brought up the mass incarceration question because it’s really what brought me to this project. I was concerned about the mass incarceration of citizens, and also noticed that the literature tended not to focus on immigrants. I wanted to show how immigrant detention is inextricably linked to the mass incarceration of citizens since the 1980s. It’s not a coincidence that the immigrants you find in detention are almost entirely Black and Brown people. This is a racially biased system, enforcement is targeted against particular people, and so in that sense it’s very much linked to the mass incarceration of citizens and the rhetoric that we had from Trump about the “criminals” who are supposedly crossing the border. This is an especially exciting moment when the people arguing against mass incarceration and the folks arguing against immigrant detention can really see how these two systems work together, and then fight to end detention, to end prisons. 

AG: How can we accomplish that? Through abolition? Are there other solutions?

Immigration Enforcement Spending, Department of Homeland Security, Budget in Brief, 2003-2021.

EY: I’ll come out and tell you that I’m someone who has an abolitionist horizon. I believe that we should construct a world where there are no prisons, where there are no immigrant detention systems. People should not be in prison because they have come to this country without authorization or they’ve come to this country seeking refuge. It is an abomination, it’s inhumane, and it doesn’t need to be this way. We had 50,000 people a day in ICE detention a year ago. Now, because of Covid, that’s down to 16,000 a day, which is still way too high, but it shows that this system could be dramatically reduced and the sky won’t fall. So, I’m hoping, against my better judgment, that the new Biden administration will not return to the policies of Obama—which were terrible for immigrants and which led to the greatest number of immigrants detained and formally deported in U.S. history—and will instead push for radical transformation of the massive bureaucracy that criminalizes and prevents immigrants from coming to this country in the first place. 

Elliott Young is a professor of history at Lewis & Clark College and author, most recently, of Forever Prisoners: How the United States Made the World’s Largest Immigrant Detention System (2021).

Adam Goodman teaches history and Latin American and Latino studies at University of Illinois Chicago. He is the author of The Deportation Machine: America’s Long History of Expelling Immigrants (2020).

Interviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

Courtesy of Active San Gabriel Valley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interviews

Imagining a New America: An Interview with Luis J. Rodriguez

Luis J. Rodriguez is an L.A. cultural icon. A major figure in Chicanx literature, the former poet laureate of Los Angeles is perhaps best known for his 1993 book, Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A., which was one of the first autobiographical insider accounts of gang life in Los Angeles. Banned in cities throughout the state, it became required reading in L.A. Unified School District.

His new book is called, From Our Land to Our Land: Essays, Journeys, and Imaginings from a Native Xichanx Writer, published by Seven Stories Press. The book has received critical acclaim in the Los Angeles Times and was also featured in the LA Times Book Club in conversation with Times reporter Daniel Hernandez.

Earlier this Spring, Luis sat down with Boom’s Editor-at-Large, theologian Jason S. Sexton, in Sexton’s class at UCLA called Sociology of Crime. The wide-ranging conversation explored themes in the book and in contemporary California life related to crime, gangs, drugs, politics, and his own experience of life in Los Angeles and beyond. 

Boom: This class at UCLA is called Sociology of Crime, and we’ve been exploring how “the victim” is a primary model of elevated American identity, but you’ve also got to have the reverse… a perpetrator, a criminal, somebody who’s committed the crime, created the victim… both of those swirling around. We like these hard binaries. Historians often describe crime in two ways: as ordinary crimes… and extraordinary crimes, with extraordinary crimes being those big crimes that really reshape the criminal justice system in radical ways. I want to talk about an extraordinary crime not on the books, but it’s in your “I Love LA” poem. I want to talk about “Water,” and perhaps L.A.’s original sin: water theft and water rights. I wonder if you could talk about that crime.

Luis: The way capitalism is, there are legal ways of making money, which is not that different than illegal ways. They make laws first that allow certain things to happen, but then end up doing stuff like stealing, committing theft, even murdering people. But if it’s legal, it’s ok, it’s in the bounds of whatever society says. The shadow of that is that people do this by illegal means as well. You can kill people in this country if you are legally supposed to. If you’re not, and you don’t have that given legal power to kill somebody then you’ll likely end up in prison. This is why police were given the power of life and death over certain communities. They literally had that. And now people are waking up to it with Black Lives Matter. But it used to be where police could kill people and nobody could complain, nobody could do nothing. I lost four friends, unarmed, to police violence. There was no recourse. Police had the power to do that.

Boom: And we have a history, of course, of federally sanctioned slaughtering of Native Indians.

Luis: The dominance and genocide starts off with Native peoples. Whites in power took their land, and it got legalized. You could do homesteading and you could do all kinds of things. Then they start legalizing removals and all this stuff. They also legalized slavery. The way things were done, you could legally do anything to another human being with slavery. They were constitutionally declared less than human. Then when they [slaves] escaped, you had the Fugitive Slave Act, which got the whole country involved in capturing escaped slaves. In other words, this country legalized these terrible things. It’s “okay.” But it’s not okay if it’s not a part of the legal thing. So to me, crimes in the shadow are reflective of what I would call crimes by a social system. If they allow certain people to do certain things, like steal people’s lands, steal their minerals, steal their labor, steal their water, then the shadow side is reflective of something that is allowed. When you got power, you can do this; when you don’t have power, this is what you do—commit crimes as a way to survive. I’m not justifying any of it, I think human beings shouldn’t do none of that. But the point is, that’s what we end up doing.

Boom: You identify as a Native person. Do you see Los Angeles ever making amends for that original sin, original crime?

Luis: I don’t see it happening. I was really pleased that not that long ago we changed Columbus Day in L.A. and made it Indigenous People’s Day. We were one of the first cities to do this. I just found out Chicago just did that the other day. It’s recognizing that there was a terrible theft. And you can’t honor the man that helped open that door. You can’t.

Boom: William Mulholland.

Luis: He’s one of those guys. He played a big role in the water theft. One of the things about the Owens Valley is that it used to be mostly Native peoples and it was beautiful and green. The Native peoples had a way of thinking: you only take what you need, you always give back what you take, and you never take more than you need. So, it kept green. Developers came in and said, “These people are wasting the land.” So they got rid of the first peoples. They started taking over the water. Since then the Owens Valley became horrible, dry. It’s lost most of its greenery.

Photograph by Matt Gush, used with permission

Boom: They’re still taking it from the ground. So now I want to sort of push back on this a little bit because in your L.A. poem … in the last line, that it’s a city “lined with those majestic palm trees,” which take a lot of water, [bear] no fruit, they’re not indigenous, they’re imports, they provide no shade … and you feed into the myth.

Luis: Well, I feed into it because it is a myth. I feed into it because what people think about L.A. is kind of like the transplant of the palm trees, the transplant of people. The only ones who can’t say they’re transplanted are the indigenous people who have been pushed out and are made strangers in their own land. But what happened is that we become like palm trees. … I am feeding into the myth, but the myth is that this is … not really L.A. but that’s how we’ve become. There’s a layer of L.A. that’s all made up…that people have created on top of it. But one of the things I also want to point out and contrast to this is that palm trees are very sturdy. They do take up a lot of water. Every once in a while, winds can knock them down, but hardly. The winds, rains, everything coming through here; most palm trees stay up. There’s also something there I see [in] the people of L.A. There’s resilience in the people; I think there’s something deep in everyone that comes here, and that’s what I love about L.A. Even if you come from other parts in the world, you start getting a certain depth, a creative depth, in L.A. I find fascinating.

Boom: As we’re talking about L.A., you mention in another line in that poem that this is “still a one industry town.” I wonder if we could talk about and it was mentioned recently in some of the academy award winners’ [speeches], mentioning not only the whiteness of the academy, but also the neglect, and I think the Tarantino movie, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” Brad Pitt highlights that with a lot of the stunt workers—the workers, I wonder if we could talk about the workers in that industry.

Luis: Well one of my sons, the one who went to prison, works for a Hollywood company that does sets. He’s a driver, and they bring stuff into wherever they’re filming. They’ve hired felons, and they’re doing good work; these men are working hard. And my son loves it. Somehow, he’s part of the Hollywood world. Now, he’s one of these workers that helps Hollywood get going; but nobody knows them. They’re not in front of the camera, not even behind the camera. They’re just the ones who get all the peripheral stuff needed for films to be made. So Hollywood to me is what makes L.A. the one industry town…; [but] let’s not forget this area is also the largest manufacturing center in the country. We have more manufacturing than Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh. And like those cities, we lost a lot of [good] industry in the ’80s. … In a sense people had jobs, made good money, and all this was pulled from other them. I was there when Goodyear, GM, Ford, Bethlehem… all the tire, auto, and steel plants went down, … when it all vanished. I used to work in some of these places. I worked as a welder, pipe-fitter, mechanic, in construction, and those industries were closing down, leaving. No jobs. We had one of the largest garment industries in the world, and it’s almost all gone, except for hole-in-the wall shops here and there. We were part of the rust belt and we weren’t in the rust belt. This is why by ’92 when the uprising happened, you could see how people lost their jobs, lost the ability to survive, and in turn how police got more money and became more oppressive. You can see the foundation for such an uprising because that’s the perfect storm that had developed.

Boom: Could we talk about your new book, From Our Land to Our Land, and how law, crime, and justice can better be conceived in this land.

Luis: Here’s what happened: slavery’s gone, but people are still treated badly. A lot of other things are gone, but things aren’t right. Native peoples have reservations but those are not the most beautiful places. A lot of injustice is still going on. They start building up the border, [which…] was a made-up thing.

Boom: We had a strong immigration bill in ’96 in this country, ten years after Reagan gave everyone amnesty.

Luis: What happened is they militarized the border, and an unfortunate aspect is you got Mexican tribal people and U.S. tribal people who have long ties, deep connections, family connections, that are adversely affected by this border. My mother’s family is from the Tarahumara tribe of Chihuahua, Mexico. They are known as some of the fastest runners in the world. They do marathons, and they do it with their tire-tread sandals. They don’t do it with Nike’s. The only ones they don’t beat are the Kenyans. The Tarahumaras have six canyons in southern Chihuahua. One of them is deeper than the Grand Canyon. I’ve been there, walked among them. Many live in caves. There were about 80,000 [people] living in caves when I visited. One of the few cave dweller [communities] in the world. They are Native peoples, don’t speak Spanish, they’re not Catholic, they’re Native. That tribe is related to the Pueblos, the Hopi, the Paiute, the California tribes. There’s a Uto-Azteca linguistic thing they’re all tied to. But the border comes and guess what? My mother who is Tarahumara has me born in El, Paso, [and] we live in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. She went across the international bridge, and it’s all part of the Chihuahuan desert. El Paso, parts of New Mexico, and Chihuahua, have this link to the Chihuahua desert. Those people have been there for at least 10,000 years. But now with the border, we don’t belong anymore. Now we’re aliens, strangers, “illegals.” When I was born, we went from our land to our land. 10,000 years to me means more than the last 150 years, even though my mother and my dad and my whole family were treated like foreigners.

I have an issue with this country making us immigrants. We’re not immigrants, we’re migrants, like people all around the world. And I’m not against any other migrant from around the world, I’m just saying you gotta understand our ties to Native peoples and Native lands—that it is as deep as anyone’s. If you work with Native Americans, so many of them recognize that. There are pow wows that include Mexicans from Central Mexico. There’s Native American nations that now adopt Mexicans as members of their tribes. The Navajo have a Mexican clan. In other words, some indigenous people in the US are recognizing that Mexicans are not Spanish or Europeans. They are from this land. Even if we’re mixed in with Spanish, African, Asian, and other Europeans. Everybody’s mixed up in some fashion. Native Americans have some of the most mixed people. I’ve worked with some wonderful, amazing blue-eyed Indians. I worked with some amazing African-mixed Indian people. They’re still Native. So Mexicans have that. Then of course Mexico has the largest number of actual tribal people in the whole continent. The numbers are greater than any other country. Per capita, Guatemala and Peru might have more indigenous people, but Mexico has the largest number of them.

Photograph by Matt Gush, used with permission

Boom: This is fascinating, and especially significant for a key theme in this class about how crime is conceived culturally, especially when you have an imposition of laws that are meant to reflect the culture, but the question is “which culture?” When people talk about criminal justice reform, how does that even happen in relationship to who have been perceived as criminals?

Luis: The whole book is really a vision for a new country. I really want to imagine a new America. I have to. I can’t just accept everything that America’s become to this day. Now people have said, “Well why don’t you go to another country?” I’ve heard this a lot of times. I don’t have to go anywhere else—this is my land. This is my country, and I have a lot to say about it. I’m not going to go anyplace else to do that. I’m going to do it here. Because I have these indigenous ties… I’m not going anywhere, I’m staying here. Yes, I have ties to Mexico, and I’m very concerned with what happens in Mexico, but I’m really concerned with what happens in the United States. So I feel there has to be a new imagination. And the imagination has to be more encompassing. Prison is one of the worst things we’ve ever created as a country. It does not work. It does not do what it’s supposed to do; … [it] actually does the opposite. Since they started building more prisons, more crime has been the result. The gangs in L.A. in the ’60s and ’70s expanded because of prisons. There were fifteen prisons with 15,000 prisoners in the early ‘70s. Since that time, California built up to 34 prisons with upwards of [appx.] 175,000 incarcerated men and women. California gangs are spread out to other parts of the world. You got L.A. gangs all over Central America, in Mexico, and other countries. Prisons made it worse for everybody, [not] any better.

You don’t punish crime away. It doesn’t work to punish people, especially when they’re adults—kids, even worse—it doesn’t work that way. If you commit a crime, if you’re troubled, if you need a lot of help, you should have a lot of resources at your disposal. You should be given tools, knowledge, connections, whatever you need to get through it. That’s not the way it presently works, and I know because I’ve been active in this area for decades. For forty years I’ve been going to prisons—teaching, reading poetry, doing healing circles. One thing you should know about the California prison system, it’s filled with almost eighty percent people of color, and we’re not near that [number] in the state’s total population. The largest single group [in prison] is Chicano, about forty percent, which is closer to the state’s population. African Americans are the most disproportionate because they’re about thirty to thirty-five percent in prison, when their population numbers are like sixteen percent. Whites and Asians… are far less than their [statewide] populations. So something wrong is going on here. That’s what people have to look at, what is going on, and why does the prison system reflect that?

I teach at the only California state prison in Los Angeles County, in Lancaster, every Monday. I go into two high-security yards. One of them is general population. Before I got there thirteen years ago, there were riots, there were lockdowns, [and] all these terrible things. We started doing programming. I was one of the first people to come into the general population yard to do programming at Lancaster. This was in 2016. Now there’s a lot of programming. The violence has gone down. The drug use has gone down. It’s not perfect. Every once in a while, things happen, so I’m not saying that everything is great. They’re doing much better; they really are better. Even the guards have recognized it. Before, [the guards] were my biggest problem. They would say, “why do you come here, why do you bother?” Now they’re friendly to me: “I’m glad you’re here.” They help me out. It’s changed, and that to me is what’s important. Can we find, can we imagine a way to deal with human beings [that] does [not] mean locking them up, putting them away, throwing away the key, and just making them worse than when they came in?

Boom: But you also … actually took some of this vision in a political direction. Running for governor, you got a lot of votes; you would have been the first Mexican governor that we’ve ever had.

Luis: Probably not since the 1800s.

Boom: And certainly before we became an American state in 1850. I wonder if we could talk about politics, and politics not just related to California and this vision. I Iove what you’re describing and Kevin Starr would often talk similarly, and he would triangulate that he lived in San Francisco, but worked in Sacramento as State Librarian, and then taught at USC. In his books he would sign, “Kevin Starr—San Francisco, Sacramento, Los Angeles.” People would ask him “well where do you live?” And he would say, “I live in a city called California.” It was a beautiful vision. And some of that, I think you pick up as well with different ways that we can better make life here, that’s more meaningful, related to work, related to education, resources. We’re not all at the same place socioeconomically. So how can we be more just?

Luis: I do not believe that Republicans or Democrats have much imagination. I find them to be stuck, both parties. I think all political parties in this country, and probably around the world, are in crisis. And I think all religions as well, which is not a bad thing necessarily because the essence of all of them begins to rise up while everything else falls to the side. … Everything’s in crisis for a reason. My campaign was called, “Imagine a New California.” I couldn’t do a Democratic or Republican thing. I had to imagine a whole new way to go. I’m not saying there are not good things in either party, but I have to imagine a new way that can take the best of all of them and create a new path. With no money. Governor Brown had twenty million dollars at the primary and there were fifteen candidates running at the time. I didn’t have [much] money, but I went up and down the state a dozen times, talked to a lot of people. I ended up getting fifth out of fifteen people in the primary elections, and first among all the Independents and third-party people. I also beat Governor Brown in border precincts and was second to him in San Francisco. He wasn’t the worst governor in the world, but he was, again, not very imaginative, I felt. But I’ll tell you one thing that happened, I got like 70,000 votes. You’re not going to win nothing in California with 70,000 votes, but that’s something considering that 70,000 people thought I was worth voting for. And maybe it was my name, who knows how they do it. The thing that got to me was that Brown actually picked up some of my issues after the primaries. He starts talking about poverty when he never used to. He started to talk about prison reform in a different way. And he was doing something he wasn’t doing before: he was commuting a lot of guys that had been in prison, some life without parole, but were doing very good because of programming. People were amazed that he was taking on these issues differently than he had before. I think, again maybe not, I think it had to do with what I was doing, with what I was saying.

Boom: And you do vote, you’re still involved?

Luis: I’m still involved. I still vote.

Boom: I wonder if we could take it back to talk about some laws recently passed related to criminal justice reform, which never addressed the issue of violent crime. It’s like, “you could have a commuted sentence if you didn’t do a violent crime.” But that relates to something of a preconceived understanding of, at least at some point, how a checks and balance might be provided with violent crime.

Luis: I think this looking at crime differently really started in Chicago, and then came over to New York and other cities eventually, when Jane Addams expressed the idea that you can’t just put these people away. She was putting forward, creating settlement houses primarily for the communities of white immigrants that were getting into a lot of trouble. These white immigrants—Irish, German, Italians, Eastern Europeans—were getting into a lot of trouble in their neighborhoods. They were poor, but were able to rise up because there were always Black people they can say were lower than them. The Irish were treated very badly, but they were never treated as badly as Black people. Some of them joined with the anti-Black stuff, some didn’t, but the point being: the reformers wanted to say, “Can we help these people?” The industrial world was creating crime. So they figured, “Okay these aren’t really criminals in the sense that they are just bad people; they’re bad people because the jobs aren’t there.” They gotta eat. So settlement houses, and the idea that maybe we don’t have to imprison these people as much as give them a leg up.

It was evident when there were white immigrants suffering, they were prepared to help. Now, in the twentieth century when crime involved more people of color, all of a sudden those ideas went out the door. “Let’s just put them away. They ain’t no good. They’re never going to get it. You got to put them away for a long long time.” This started to get really bad in the last 40 years, especially in the ’90s. Even Democrats fell into this. When kids were being tried as adults, they were given 135 years, they were just fourteen to sixteen years old, given a lot of years because they were already going back to the whole idea that you can’t change anything. And they weren’t justifying it by looking at the economy, they were just saying, “something’s wrong with these people, put them away.” So they were creating monsters, as I say in my book. They were monsters of our own making. We created these monsters, and now we don’t know what to do except say, “they’re monsters.”

I go to the prison now … there are guys serving their whole lives in prison who would never commit a crime again. I do thirteen-to-fifteen-week classes, so every thirteen to fifteen weeks I have a new group of guys. In the B yard, which is the general population yard, there’s about thirty guys—tattooed-faced, all buff, even though there’s no weights to work out with. They’d scare the heck out of anybody. But I do this regularly, I work with them, and some of them, over a course of time, you find out they are quite decent and complex human beings. Many of these guys are murderers, most of them have life without possibility of parole sentences. Some have been doing thirty to forty years already, some former gang members but I am working with them now, and I find a lot of decency, a lot of people that want to make some changes. Some of them are never getting out and they still want to make deep changes.

Jason S. Sexton is Visiting Research Scholar at UCLA’s California Center for Sustainable Communities, editor of Theology and California: Theological Refractions on California’s Culture (Routledge) and Editor-at Large of Boom California.

Luis J. Rodriguez is the former poet laureate of Los Angeles, and his most recent book is called, From Our Land to Our Land: Essays, Journeys, and Imaginings from a Native Xicanx Writer, published by Seven Stories Press

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

Interviews

Rise Against the Machine: Interview with Adam Goodman

The rampant spread of coronavirus throughout the United States has illuminated undocumented migrants’ role as essential workers as well as their precarious position in this country. Indeed, Trump’s administration continues to find novel measures to expel undocumented migrants and asylum seekers. In The Deportation Machine: America’s Long History of Expelling Immigrants, Adam Goodman traces the United States’ efforts to expel and terrorize migrants as well as people’s efforts to stop the deportation machine. Historian Elliott Young spoke with Goodman about his new book and this long history. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Elliott Young (EY): What led you to this particular book project and how do you think it responds to the present immigration crisis?

Adam Goodman (AG): My interest in immigration started to deepen when I was living and teaching high school on the U.S.-Mexico border in the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas. Seeing the ways that migration policies shaped both the region and the lives of my students and their families piqued my interest in learning more about migration history. When I got to graduate school, the historiography and the literature really captured my imagination. That was at the start of Obama’s first term, when there was a lot of attention on his immigration enforcement actions. The issues that have dominated news headlines in recent years are not unique to Trump and they didn’t start with Barack Obama, George W. Bush, or Bill Clinton either; the origins of the deportation machine date back to the late nineteenth century.

EY: One of the big arguments you make in your book is that we need to consider all forms of deportation. That term deportation is used colloquially, but as you show the immigration bureaucracy divides these up into what are “voluntary returns” and so-called self-deportations where conditions are such that people are pushed out, along with formal removals that are done through a legal process. What kinds of insights does this more holistic view of these forms of deportation provide?

AG: Having this broader understanding of deportation sheds light on expulsion’s importance throughout the twentieth century, the fashioning of state power, and how deportation—or the possibility of being deported—shapes people’s lives. It also shifts the chronology. Deportation isn’t something that just emerges after the Immigration Act of 1996, which led to a spike in formal deportations, or after 9/11. There are a tremendous number of people who have been removed through formal deportations—8 million or so throughout US history. (The vast majority during the past 25 years.) But there are 48 million people who have been deported via voluntary departure, and an uncountable number of others who have left in response to self-deportation campaigns. So, if we want to understand the history of deportation, we need to expand our time frame and look at how 85-90% of the expulsions throughout U.S. history have happened. Which, in turn, reveals that Mexicans have been even more disproportionately targeted than we thought.

EY: Given that so many scholars start by looking at formal deportations to make the argument that everything changes in the 1980s and beyond, what do you think the qualitative differences are between the informal or voluntary returns versus the formal and legal deportations?

AG: It’s important to distinguish and delineate the different types of expulsion. I argue that we shouldn’t conflate them, but should instead understand how they work in conjunction with one another, because that’s how the deportation machine functions. Formal deportations, historically, have carried more severe penalties and consequences, including bans on re-entry of five, ten or twenty years, or sometimes even lifetime bans. You also might have to spend an extended or indefinite period of time in detention. Many people recognized that’s not a very appealing option and immigration authorities used the threat of bans on re-entry and of indefinite detention to coerce people into accepting administrative removals via voluntary departure. In the book, I equate this to the role plea bargains play in the criminal justice system. If officials threaten someone with 25 years in prison, they might take a plea for four years to mitigate the risk. It’s somewhat similar as to why someone would accept voluntary departure. I recognize the important difference between types of expulsion, while also arguing that voluntary departures have been punitive in nature. They weren’t simply part of a nod-and-wink system in which immigration authorities let people come and go in a pattern of circular migration while employers were able to maintain a cheap exploitable supply of workers. The stereotype of Mexicans as “illegal aliens” has been created, in part, through repeated apprehension and deportation via voluntary departure.

EY: Why does the government turn to the tactic of voluntary removal in the early twentieth century?

AG: Immigration officials never had the resources they needed to carry out the enforcement actions that Congress charged them with implementing. At different moments officials wanted to apprehend and deport more people, but they didn’t have the resources to do so. Congress wasn’t willing to provide them, and perhaps the United States public didn’t have the stomach for such actions either. This led to voluntary departures and informal means to deport people, which depended on giving discretion to low level immigration authorities who, within the system as a whole, had very little power, but had complete or near total power over any one individual migrant. That’s largely still the same today.

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Activist and organizer José Jacques Medina speaks to a crowd of more than 200 people at the Embassy Auditorium in Los Angeles, March 1977, Courtesy of the Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.

EY: You show in the book how the well-publicized workplace raids and other kinds of raids that happened in the 1930s, 1950s, and 1970s are calculated campaigns that sowed fear and terror in immigrant communities to provoke them to “self-deport.” Do you think the workplace raids in recent years are done for the same purpose? In other words, are these principally propaganda campaigns to instill fear in immigrant communities?

AG: This administration has ratcheted up the fear campaigns and is doing everything it can to instill fear in immigrant communities. That’s happening through public proclamations by officials; it’s happening by leaking things to the press and carefully placing stories; it’s happening by relying on an extensive network of restrictionist think tanks and policy groups that promote an anti-immigrant agenda within Washington in hopes of making it more mainstream. I should point out here that in spite of such self-deportations campaigns, the majority of people have stayed. When Trump took office there were an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. Most of those people are still here. It’s important to recognize the way pervasive fear campaigns not only lead to self-deportation, but also affect and shape the lives of people who remain in the country.

EY: In one of your chapters, you describe the resistance by a group of shoe factory workers in South El Monte, right outside of Los Angeles. They refused to answer immigration agents’ questions and thereby blocked deportation efforts. This led to a lawsuit that in 1992 resulted in the recognition that immigrants are protected by certain elements of the Constitution and that immigration agents have to make immigrants aware of such rights when they’re being arrested. So, it’s a kind of success story in your book. But following that success story is a tremendous rise in the numbers of immigrants deported. I’m wondering whether legal strategies have been successful in protecting immigrants.

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Courtesy of the Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.

AG: I’m interested in how people have endured, adapted, and fought against the machine. The chapter you’re referring to looks at the 1970s, in particular, what I call the dawn of the age of mass expulsion, when we see the number of deportations rise exponentially and reach 900,000-plus people per year (which continues until the end of the century). This was a different era. Building on the Chicano/a and civil rights movements, they took to the streets. They also took their fight to the courts, and the case of the shoe factory workers is an inspiring story because of how people organized. That was one of the key takeaways: It wasn’t individuals engaging in random acts of resistance, it was the joint efforts of immigrant workers, labor organizers, activists, and lawyers that threatened to bring the deportation machine to a halt.  The deportation machine was vulnerable and it remains so today. Part of the job of undocumented immigrants and their allies is to identify how the machine works and where its points of vulnerability are, and to press on them.

EY: Is the trend we see since 2000 positive, in that we have a decreasing number of total deportations even though formal removals have increased significantly, reaching their height under President Obama? How do you interpret the last two decades of deportation history?

AG:  How many people are deported each year matters, of course, but what also matters is how people are expelled and how the consequences of being deported have changed over time. What we see is that deportation has become more punitive and separation more permanent, because of the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border, the explosion in enforcement funding, and the rise in formal deportations. I’m interested in the experiences of deportees and understanding things from their perspective. Simply looking at the number of expulsions and stopping there isn’t sufficient.

EY: I want to bring you to the point where historians never want to go, which is thinking about policy. You’ve talked about how deportations have been a bipartisan policy for more than a century. And, you argue that no particular party or president is responsible for the creation of this deportation machine, something I would definitely agree with. That being said, what kinds of immigration policies would you advocate?  And do either the major political parties offer a way to turn the United States into a nation of immigrants, rather than a deportation nation as you described in your epilogue?

AG: The Trump administration has made immigration policy more partisan. Whereas Barack Obama, Hilary Clinton, and Republicans and Democrats in Congress supported policies ramping up enforcement, today we see Democrats trying to stake out a different position. I’m a little skeptical about whether that will lead to real change; I’ll defer judgment. That being said, there are reforms that would solve a lot of the problems related to immigration policy. So much now is focused on national security and the needs of the nation, without reckoning with the fact that the migrants—the people these policies affect most—are very much a part of this nation. Allowing people to reunite with families, allowing people to come fill the country’s labor demands, creating more visa slots for Mexicans and doing away with the one-size-fits-all 20,000-person-per-year country quota are just some common sense proposals. Many people in the United States face real economic hardship, there’s no denying that. But scapegoating migrants is not the answer.

EY: The idea of prison abolition has been a powerful political way of conceptualizing the campaign against mass incarceration. I’m wondering if you think there should be a similar campaign to abolish immigration detention and deportation?

AG: Yes, and people are doing this work already. Groups like Organized Communities Against Deportations (OCAD) here in Chicago, the Detention Watch Network, and many others. A lot of community-based, grassroots organizations across the country are advocating bold policy reforms and their voices need to be heard; those possibilities need to be on the table. Whether or not we see such radical change in our lifetime is up in the air. But one thing history teaches us is that sometimes, when we’re least expecting it, transformative change happens, and it usually isn’t by luck—it’s through organizing and through sustained struggle.

Goodman_Deportation.Machine_Jacket_FINAL (with border)

Adam Goodman teaches in the Latin American and Latino Studies Program and in the Department of History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His writing on immigration history and policy has appeared in outlets such as the Washington PostThe Nation, and the Journal of American History. Goodman is a faculty advisor to UIC’s Fearless Undocumented Alliance, a co-convener of the Newberry Library’s Borderlands and Latino/a Studies seminar, and a co-organizer of the #ImmigrationSyllabus public history project. The Deportation Machine: America’s Long History of Expelling Immigrants (Princeton University Press, 2020) is his first book.

Elliott Young is Professor in the History Department at Lewis and Clark College. Professor Young is the author of Alien Nation: Chinese Migration in the Americas from the Coolie Era through WWIICatarino Garza’s Revolution on the Texas-Mexico Border, and co-editor of Continental Crossroads: Remapping US-Mexico Borderlands History, and a forthcoming book “Forever Prisoners: How the United States Built the Largest Immigrant Detention System in the World.” He is co-founder of the Tepoztlán Institute for Transnational History of the Americas. He has also provided expert witness testimony for over 250 asylum cases.

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

 

Interviews

Revisiting Joan Didion’s California: An Interview with David L. Ulin

Ryan Reft
David L. Ulin

“One difference between the West and the South, I came to realize in the 1970s, was this: in the South they remained convinced that they had bloodied their land with history. In California we did not believe that history could bloody the land, or even touch it,” Joan Didion wrote in her 2003 memoir, Where I Was From. In it, Didion spends a great deal of time re-evaluating her earlier work. After all, Didion documented the era that reshaped and initiated California’s transformation from its golden, hermetically sealed mid-century “idyllic” years as a symbol of the “American Dream” into the global, more complex, racially diverse, quasi-nation state that it is today representative of globalization.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the new collection from the Library of America: Joan Didion: The 1960s & 70s. Comprised of her first five works, Run, River, Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Play It As It Lays, and The White Album, the volume, a mixture of fiction and non-fiction, offers a window into a transformative period in American and Californian life, documented by Didion. Over the course of her five books, the two formats, the real and the imagined, intertwine to produce a distinctly Didion-esque narrative of the era: detached, intrigued, and clear-eyed. Author, literary critic, and editor of the new volume, David L. Ulin spoke with Boom by phone about the famed California writer, her disbelief in ideologies, and how he thinks about Didion’s work then, in the context of today.

This interview has been edited for length and content. 

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Ryan Reft: In a volume like this, what do you think an 18-year-old reader might take from it, as opposed to someone older such as a 32 year old? What do you think each might take from it, in terms of Joan Didion’s writing, and California and so on?

David L. Ulin: I think that’s a really good question and I don’t know the answer to it. I was drawn to her at 18 because I was a particular kind of 18-year-old, in a sense that I spent a lot of time in my own head. When I started reading her, my first thought was one of connection because I thought “this is someone who spends as much time in her own head as I do or maybe more.” I was really drawn by the interiority of it and the self exposure, even in material that wasn’t necessarily inherently autobiographical. Like “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream” where she basically is tipping her hand about a whole sensibility instead of attitudes and social postures, but it’s woven into the body of the text. So there was that. Also at 18, I was already kind of self-identifying as a writer. So, although I don’t want to say that I was thinking about it as programmatically as I would later come to think of it, I was definitely on some level thinking about sentences and paragraphs and structure and sentences. I do remember opening the book Slouching towards Bethlehem having never read her and “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream” is the first essay in the book, and what I do remember is quickly within a few pages thinking, “Wow, I’ve never read somebody write sentences like this.” I mean, I was really intrigued by the language. So that was the first impulse. I think for an 18-year-old reader with those same kind of sensibilities or that same kind of wiring, I could see them coming to her work in all sorts of ways. It’s interesting because I don’t necessarily think of this collection as the gateway for that kind of reader. Only because it’s an expensive, hardcover with five books in it. I have to imagine most 18-year-olds are getting their books online or the cheapest possible used copy. I think in terms of California, it’s interesting because a lot of what she says about California is still relevant. A distinction that we see in terms of reading her work now is that the California she’s describing leaves out large parts of the California we live in. She’s not intentionally leaving them out, she’s focusing on other areas. So I think that for someone reading her now, to get a handle on California or Southern California in particular, she would be missing a lot. Her racial politics or racial vision, deals with a vision of black and white. In the ‘50s and the ‘60s, that was the frame and mechanism for how we wrote and thought of America. But even then it was a narrow way of looking at California, and certainly now it’s an extremely limited lens on California. She’d have to be supplemented now in terms of really digging into what the persuasion of the state is.

Reft: You make a very good point about the much broader, non-binary, multi-racial nature of California as the way we think about the state today. I wanted to ask you about race because you know some people, as I’ve read her, and others such as Lorraine Berry, she mentioned that in her review of Didion’s had South and West, she had said that “Didion contently treats people of color as objects of observation, they are objects of discussion, but never once do they get to offer Didion their views of the states they live in.” I think this is broadly true but also I do think Didion was sympathetic. You’ve already said you’d supplement it but what would you supplement her work with?

Ulin: Yes, I’ve read that piece that you’re citing, and I don’t disagree with it, I think it’s complicated. I think that the whole issue of Didion and –I don’t mean to package these two things together though I do think they overlap –say, race and class, is complicated because Didion is writing out of a particular demographic position. And that demographic position is certainly a position of privilege, but a nuanced kind of privilege. She’s writing out of class privilege in a sense that her family came over on the Oregon Trail, so she is a kind of a first California family, she’s writing out of that similar position of those old roots because of having been raised in Sacramento and the state politics component, you know playing in the governor’s mansion when she was a kid and that sort of stuff, but also the kind of nostalgia of what that California means. It’s a very Anglo vision of California. The so-called “First Californians” in this construct are not so much the Chumash or the Tongva, they are the Anglo settlers who came from Iowa and Missouri or whatever, and who came before the railroads were built and pioneered it over to California. So that’s a very particular sensibility. I think that’s a valid sensibility in terms of thinking about California but again as we are talking about in terms of the non-binary discussion of race, it is now finally commonly acknowledged and accepted as it should be as simply one of the theories of overlapping perspectives or visions of California as opposed to the only one or even the central one. There are dozens and dozens of others. This is a long way of saying that I think she is sympathetic. I think in large measure the sense of distance is not so much a political or social posture for her as it is a psychological or personal posture for her. I think that Didion’s was always at a distance. Didion famously said style is substance. She very interested in the surfaces of things because she wants to see what they signify, but also because she is always approaching others from the surface. She keeps a distance and is either not trying or not able to be intimate with them in a different way. Another thing that really fascinates me about her is the kind of collapsing distinction between the personal and the social. She always has the posture of an outsider, as someone who is looking at other people as objects, as someone operating from the outside in.

Reft: I actually find that her detachment attracted me to her writing.

 Ulin: Me too. I think that is something I psychologically share with her, and I think it’s one of the reasons when I read her as a teenager, I felt myself moving through the world. I don’t think I’d ever come across that  kind of detached sensibility.

Reft: In Where I Was From, she’s spent a great deal of time talking about the ’60s or ’70s when California came out of this hermetically sealed existence and started becoming celebrated as a symbol of what America’s promise was, whether one believes in that or not.  I think that that’s an interesting dynamic, particularly in the fact that she’s still in California when you get the rise of Ronald Reagan and the New Right, which you could argue is not so outward-looking.

Ulin: She was highly critical of Reagan, (and particularly of Nancy Reagan) and justifiably so, but I also think she understood him. Reagan is interesting, because he’s not a product of the ’60s.  But as a political figure, he’s as much a product of the ’60s as Mario Savio. In some ways without Mario Savio we don’t get Ronald Reagan. Now that’s a broad generalization. Without the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley in 1964 and 1965 maybe there’s not a kind of Silent Majority backlash. There’s so much interesting overlap in terms of the kind of pendulum of history, and I think Didion is aware of that. I don’t think Didion is particularly surprised by Reagan, but Reagan really comes out of that Old California, that pioneer California or that insular California trying to reach out and grab its territory. I think that tension is embodied in a lot of Didion’s writing about the ’60s because you know she started off the ’60s as a conservative, she voted for Goldwater in 64. One of my favorite pieces of information about her is that in 62 she flew back from New York to vote against Nixon in the Republican Gubernatorial Primary because he was not sufficiently conservative. She is in her own way very socially conservative. The entire essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” which is a masterpiece, is built in part around the notion that traditional social narratives have eroded and that nothing has replaced them. These little things we take for granted like “how do we set a place at a table,” we think are not that important, but she’s arguing that in fact they are extremely important as pieces of social fabric or the social narrative. That’s a very socially conservative point of view. At the same time, because of what she is going through and living through, her head is sort of exploding with ideas and possibilities and I think that there’s a real tension in Didion between a kind of innate social conservatism on the one hand and the wildness of what she’s observing and also, in some way, living through in Southern California. The uncertainty if it, the breakdown of narratives. For her, narrative is both a necessity and also something that she grows not to trust. And I think that that’s really, really important and it grows out of the overlap of all of these elements and influences.

Reft: Eric Avila wrote an essay about how she had anticipated a rising conservative critique of cultural decline in the US. But it’s weird because when I read her, I never felt that it was ideological.

Ulin: She starts out ideologically when she’s like 28 or 30 in 1962 and 1964. I don’t think that the ideology crosses into the work, but she is ideologically conservative. Then she kind of loses a sense of faith in ideology. It’s one of the narratives that collapses for her because the ideologies are inconsistent, and situations are too complicated. She is very good because she is a dread junkie in her way, which is also something I share with her. She’s really good at focusing on how the narratives collapse and desert us and leave us bereft, and that isn’t an ideological issue, really because the narratives on both sides are doing that, or at least that’s Didion’s position. It’s a position I also share with her. So all narratives are up for grabs and you end up with everyone being kneecapped by the collapse of whatever their chosen narrative is.

Reft:In a 2017 interview with you, she made a comment about narratives being atomized even in her novel, Play It As It Lays, as almost imagistic. It seems like that kind atomized essay form speaks to the current moment. In your 2019 interview with the Library of America, you say, “Didion is drawn to disruption, social, cultural, and personal.” What I find particularly noteworthy about that description is how it fits the current rhetoric of disruption that came out of Silicon Valley and the tech industry. The larger point being that the comment that she made in 2017 about the atomization of narratives, and your comment, speak to the way we encounter narratives today. I wonder if this collection, even though it is from the ’60s and ’70s, actually speaks in its physical form to how we think about these things today. Does that make sense?

Ulin: Yeah, it does, and I don’t know if I can speak to how the collection addresses it for contemporary readers, only because I think that’s for each contemporary reader to figure out. First of all, I agree with her that narratives become atomized, I mean if you watch the latest Democratic Presidential Debate, you got an atomized series of versions of what essentially is a shared narrative. Right? And so we can’t even agree on how we are going to agree at this point, or what our common ground is. And I’m not only talking in terms of political narrative. I think there are a lot of reasons for this, some of them have to do with politics and ideology, and some of them have to do with education. Some of them have to do simply with cultural overload, the breakdown of authority. I actually think that that’s not a terrible thing, you know, the breakdown of traditional gatekeepers, and of that kind of structure by which stories went out into the world. I think that it does come back to technology in some way because technology is disruptive, and social media in particular is disruptive. It can be disruptive in really useful ways, and one of those useful ways is by giving everyone an unfiltered platform by which they can speak without being curated by somebody else. So I think that we live in that kind of universe already. When I talk to students, they’re gathering information, as we all are, but they’re gathering information from all sorts of overlapping sources that don’t on the face have anything to do with each other. Students understand that they’re different sources, but they’re not necessarily concerned about those distinctions. So you’ll have a social media post, a novel, something from a film or streaming video, conversations they might have had, a photo of someone’s food –they all kind of overlap. We are all collaging it now as we go along. I don’t want to make a claim for her prescience but again I do think this has to do with Didion’s sensibility and her emotional and psychological framework. I think Didion identifies this really early. In a lot of ways it all grows out of the Haight Ashbury essay in Slouching Towards Bethlehem  because that essay is the first of what we can call a concrete example of one of her atomized narratives. That’s an essay written entirely of fragments. None of the fragments are very long. They do add up in the sense that they move chronologically through a period of time, so we have a sense of time progressing and we run into some of the same characters over and over again. But there’s no real movement. Those characters aren’t doing anything different. There’s no change or progression in their behavior or their attitudes. At the same time, there are these anonymous or secondary characters who are interchangeable and drop in and out. Like the kids she buys the burgers and Cokes for –the sort of “clueless young” is what we can call them in the concept of the essay. So that essay, the only way to tell that story, which is essentially a story of stasis and chaos, is for her to create a structural form, a fragmentation that allows her to mirror in the structure of the writing the fragmentation that she’s trying to describe. As a critic, I trace a direct line from that essay to Play It As It Lays which is essentially the atomized narrative writ large, it’s an atomized novel. It’s a 200 page novel with over 100 chapters, and some of those chapters are a sentence long, and there’s something really, really interesting about that as a formal move. And then she moves from that into the essay “The White Album,” which is also an atomized, fragmented narrative. There’s “Los Angeles Notebook’ which also operates that way. She’s playing around really early with this idea of using fragmentary structures to reflect or illuminate the fragmentation of personal and collective narrative that she’s observing in the culture around her. At one point 10 or 12 years ago I wrote an essay saying that in some way, her description of 1968 was highly relevant to 2008, because if you wanted to break down an atomized or fragmented narrative approach you have Barack Obama’s narrative on one hand, and Sarah Palin’s narrative on the other, and they both were American narratives, but they were utterly divergent with no point of intersection. Didion was aware of this 40 years before. So I think that that’s a really interesting and important part of these writings in particular, because these are the books that she is staking out that territory content-wise, but even more importantly where she’s developing narrative and structural strategy to illuminate and illustrate through the movement of the language on the page.

Reft: Despite my saying that, I also think that when you read through the collection from Run, River and the rest all the way through, it almost reads like a big sprawling conversation. It starts with the story of this august California family, and its failure to adapt to postwar realities in the States, and then in the essays she discusses California’s larger history in this way.  In The White Album, in her essay on motorcycle films in Slouching Toward Bethlehem, then in Play It As It Lays, in which the main character Maria Wyeth is trying to get a role in such a film, and in the “Bureaucrats” in The White Album. You could even look at A Book of Common Prayer, where Marin is basically a symbol of a kind of student unrest. Do you think that her fictional work and her nonfiction writing intertwine? And when they do, what do you think that does for the narrative? Does it muddy it, or do you think that it brings it into clearer focus? Or does it do something completely different all together?

Ulin: I think that the relationship between her fiction and nonfiction is really interesting. To be totally honest, for years, decades, I completely gave her fiction short drift. I wasn’t particularly interested in it. After I first read Slouching, I went and read The White Album and then I basically went and got all the nonfiction that was available and read it. As new nonfiction books would come out I would buy them, in hardcover and read them instantly. But the fiction… I think the only novel for a long time I had read was Play It As It Lays. I have to say I think it’s a really interesting novel, though I also think it has a bunch of problems. I wasn’t that interested in Hollywood at that point. I was still living on the East Coast. So it didn’t resonate with me and I really thought the fiction was somehow secondary. That changed prior to my getting involved in this project. But the work on the project has been interesting in kind of exactly the way you are asking about, because one of the things that the work of the project required at the beginning was the kind of end to end rereading of the entire body of work. Over the years, I had ultimately come to read all of the novels, and I think a couple of them are quite good. I think Democracy is a really spectacularly good novel. And I’m a big fan of Run, River. I really think it’s a really good novel and particularly for a first novel. I’ve always kind of liked A Book of Common Prayer for a variety of reasons. But I do think that in the context of the whole career, the fiction seems a lot more essential to me than it did when I was thinking simply book-to-book. And partly for the reasons you are talking about, it makes sense because as a writer and as a human, she’s not addressing certain concerns in fiction and certain concerns in non-fiction. She’s writing out of  whatever it is she’s wrestling with. And she’s wrestling consistently over a period of years. So I think that it’s absolutely the case that the novels are in conversation with the essays; that they’re learning things from each other about style and structure; that they are learning things from each other about content and angle of attack. I think we really see it in Where I Was From, where she doubles back and basically takes apart Run, River. In Where I Was From, she uses her reevaluation of Run, River to make a larger reevaluation of California mythology and narratives, you know, narratives she bought into, that she’s now no longer buying into. It’s really an interesting pair of bookends, if the career had ended with Where I was From. It would have been a kind of perfectly arched structure in a certain sense with a conversation taking place between a book of fiction and a book of nonfiction. I don’t think she is mapping it out that way, but you know as a writer, she is clearly aware on a cellular level, if nothing else, of how these books are informing each other. But one of the great pleasures of doing this project and there have been many, is that it has allowed me to think about and contextualize her fiction as an essential part of her body of work. And that is something that as a reader of her, I’ve had to grow into that perception.

Reft: I can’t end this interview without asking a question about gender. Famously, in her essay from “The Women’s Movement,” from The White Album, she wrote, “I’ve also often wondered about gender. And then, at the exact dispirited moment when there seemed no one at all willing to play the proletariat, along came the women’s movement, and the invention of women as a ‘class’ … To read even desultorily in this literature was to recognize instantly a certain dolorous phantasm, an imagined Every Woman with whom the authors seemed to identify all too entirely. This ubiquitous construct was everyone’s victim but her own.’” Now that sounds like a dismissal of feminism. But then when you read this volume, you’ve got women in a constellation of roles and positions. You’ve got Lily Knight in Run, River as an adultress stuck in a complicated marriage. You’ve got Maria Wyeth, who at first may seem like a victim of Hollywood’s toxic culture but by its conclusion is revealed to be much more complicated and perhaps much more problematic than the reader realizes. And then Charlotte Douglass and her daughter Marin are these independent and emotional elusive figures; Marin a literal criminal. So how do you think readers will wrestle with this aspect of her writing in terms of gender, because on the one hand it seems dismissive, and on the other hand when you actually read through it, it’s not at all. 

Ulin: I think that’s a key question. I will say “The Women’s Movement” essay is not one of my favorites, it feels to me not fully formed in some way, like that’s an essay I would love to have seen her revisit in some fashion. But I do agree with you, though she’s not dismissing, she’s critiquing the movements. She’s always writing about strong women characters. For me, it’s not necessarily feminism or what feminism entails or means or activates that she is resisting. I don’t even think that’s true. I think that on practical terms, she’s a feminist. A strong working woman who put her career first, always did. She wanted to go to Saigon and report on the war, and no one would send her because she’s a woman. She and Dunne were going to bring Quintana as a baby to Saigon. I think you know the idea of a kind of strong, self-directed woman is not something she feels she has to champion because it’s just who she is. She’s natural. That’s the first part. I do think that’s true. I also think it’s more of her resistance to the idea of a movement, rather than going back to what we were talking about. She’s not a “joiner.” So the idea that to be actualized or activated, she needs to be part of a movement, I think that’s what she’s resisting. And I also think she’s resisting a certain kind of flattening of language and rhetoric that comes out of movement ideology and movement thinking. I think that across the board whatever that movement is, and that’s true not just of progressive or liberal movements, it’s also true for conservative movements. I think she’s rejecting the idea of group think in favor of a kind of individual consciousness. Now the trick about that or the catch is that that is a position of a class privilege. Only a human who is in a position to be able to self-actualize, who has the resources, whether they are financial or professional or whatever, to do what she needs to do can step away. The value of a movement is that it works for everybody. It’s not about the individual, it’s about making everybody rises on the tide. Only someone who has already risen can stand  askance from the movement. Didion is not someone who is struggling to get a job, she’s not struggling to get recognition or respect, she’s not someone struggling financially, or any of these things. But by the same token, that is who she is. That is what her experience is, that is her social positioning, and so there’s no way for her not to operate out of that social positioning. It’s her context. And so I think it’s really complicated, particularly around the women’s movement, because she is emblematic of many of the things that the women’s movement stands for, but she’s suspicious of movements in general. She’s privileged enough that she hasn’t had to be part of that collective process. I think there we see a lot of the impulses and contradictions that come together in some way. Again, with Didion, it comes back to personal positioning and and personal sensibility first, and the political or social positioning or sensibility grows out of that.

 

 

Ryan Reft is a historian of 20th and 21st-century American history at the Library of Congress. His work has appeared in several journals, including Souls, The Sixties, California History, Planning Perspectives, Southern California Quarterly, and the Journal of Urban History, as well as in the anthology “Barack Obama and African American Empowerment: The Rise of Black America’s New Leadership” and “Asian American Sporting Cultures.” He is the co-editor of East of East: The Making of Greater El Monte. The opinions expressed by Reft are solely his and not those of the Library of Congress. He can be reached on twitter at @ryanreft.

David L. Ulin is Associate Professor of the Practice of English. He is the author or editor of a dozen books, including Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles, shortlisted for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay, and Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology, which won a California Book Award. The former book editor and book critic of the Los Angeles Times, he has written for The Atlantic MonthlyVirginia Quarterly ReviewThe Paris Review, and The New York Times. He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, Black Mountain Institute, and the Lannan Foundation. Most recently, he edited the Library of America’s Didion: The 1960s and 70s, the first in a three volume edition of the author’s collected works.

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

Interviews

A Boom Conversation at the Edge of the World

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Denise Sullivan

Editorial Introduction: Something I heard in Kim Shuck’s poems and read in Lynell George’s writings indicated both California women not only understood and shared a passion for our place, but could also deliver a deeper understanding for the rest of us through discussion of what it means to be a committed Californian. While their modes of expression are different—Shuck a poet and beadworker, George an essayist and photographer, and their roots are in different parts of the state, with ancestral ties from outside of it—their experiences as women of color and their unique expressions are similarly compelling. I became convinced they had to meet.

Shuck, San Francisco’s seventh poet laureate, is also an educator, mentored by some of the great women artists and activists of the twentieth century, from sculptor, educator, and Japanese internment survivor Ruth Asawa, to poet and Native American cultural affairs educator, Carol Lee Sanchez. With a heritage that is part Oklahoma Cherokee and part Polish, Shuck has followed in the footsteps of artist/activists, while tutoring children in the arts and math, teaching poetry and Native studies at the collegiate level, and generally pitching in where needed in her community, whether supporting independent bookstores and public libraries or eradicating everyday racism in our town square. A many times published and awarded poet, her most recent project to create fifty-five poems in fifty-five days was inspired by the reactivated thirty-year effort to remove the colonialist/settler statue, Early Days, from San Francisco’s Civic Center. The takedown of the bronze occurred in September and the poems and dialogue surrounding it caught the attention of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, which with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture continues concerted efforts to remove racist statues and logos from the public sphere. Shuck’s new poetry book, Exile Hearts, publishes in December with the American Indian/Indigenous press, That Painted Horse, while her reading series and appearances as poet laureate continue unabated, within and outside the Bay Area.

George is beloved in the Southland from her years as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times and LA Weekly. Her family came West from New Orleans, a journey she chronicled in her first book, No Crystal Stair: African Americans in the City of Angels (Verso), and she has spent her share of time reporting from there as well in San Francisco’s North Beach, her homes away from home. George’s latest, After/Image: Los Angeles Outside the Frame, for LA-based Angel City Press, combines her photography with her writings about the changing cityscape and the people who contribute to making LA the de facto capital of the West Coast. The stories combine the best of what people bring with them, the already considerable gifts of our native, majestic desert-mountain-seascape, and George’s own experiences as a close observer. Earlier this year, she won a Grammy Award for her liner notes about Otis Redding’s historic performances, Live At The Whisky A Go Go: The Complete Recordings; she also spent a chunk of time with the Huntington Library-housed archives of original Afro-Futurist, science fiction writer Octavia Butler. George can be found giving talks at cultural institutions from Loyola Marymount and the University of California to Union Station, or about town, writing and photographing her LA, the place she knows and loves best.

While their modes of expression are different—Shuck a poet and beadworker, George an essayist and photographer, and their roots are in different parts of the state, with ancestral ties from outside of it—their experiences as women of color and their unique expressions are similarly compelling.

And so they met, at the fifty-year-old literary landmark, Beyond Baroque, in Venice, where I organized a reading with the expressed purpose of joining the pair to read from Your Golden Sun Still Shines, the San Francisco story anthology I edited, and to discuss matters of north versus south, and specifically the changes we’ve lived through as women still committed to California dreaming and doing. While that conversation between California cultural herstorians, poets and artists, journalists and photographers (accompanied by songwriter Peter Case) was indeed lively, it was our talk prior to the public one, where Boom editor Jason Sexton and Shuck’s partner Doug Salin were also present, where we got down to parsing the rougher business of our state, from its wild nature and riotous flora to the problems of racial and economic inequality that have been with us since the origins of statehood. We join that conservation as Shuck and George recollect their experiences growing up as students in California classrooms.


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Photo of Shuck, George, Sullivan, and Sexton by Doug Salin.

Lynell George: When we moved from our home in the Crenshaw District to Culver City, immediately I was put in a low reading group without testing. I confronted the teacher and said, “You know I actually already read these books.” and I could see that she was not paying attention to me and it wasn’t just that it wasn’t sinking in. Not that she wasn’t absorbing it; she just didn’t believe it.

I went home to talk to my mother about it and she had just come home she was taking her shoes and her hose off and was listening to me talk and all of a sudden, she’s getting dressed again, and we were heading down to the school to talk to the principal and the teacher. Because my mother was an English teacher, she was able to tell them, “You give her this test, this test, and this test.” But what if she wasn’t able to do that? What if she didn’t know? And so the teacher had to correct it and then, of course, was angry with me for the rest of the year because she was embarrassed in such a public way. That was early on. I was eleven, ten, something like that.

Kim Shuck: I went to public school and then to high school at a private school because dad was working in Silicon Valley at that time and suddenly he was making money. Both my parents had been working class and they went, “Oh it’s gonna be good for her if we put her in this private school….” And essentially, I had a lot of trouble, but after the one time my father got called in from work—you did not call Indian men in from work—it was not well received and dad was so angry. He drives up from Mountain View back to San Francisco and he doesn’t understand how frightening people find him—a six foot plus, dark-skinned man with jet black hair—looks like if a darker-skinned Elvis had never gotten fat and had been career military, and  he walks like that. His lips are disappeared and he is talking to the guy in the office about this thing. And after that I really had no problem with anyone because nobody wanted my father coming back to school.

They almost expelled me for doing a creative writing project that they didn’t like. They threatened me with expulsion and then I said, “Well let’s just call my parents.” I didn’t want to be yelled at by these people anymore. And everybody in the office kind of went hmm… and did the math and thought, “That means that big man will come back: Let’s not have him back.”  When I got named laureate of San Francisco, they called up and asked, “What do you remember about going to our school?” I remember the poetry teacher telling me my work would never go anywhere because it was too self-referential.

They almost expelled me for doing a creative writing project that they didn’t like.

George: What lit the fire in me as a reporter was, I wanted to tell the stories of the neighborhoods that I knew really well, but didn’t see their stories told with richness and in their voices. There was a negative feeling about the Los Angeles Times when I started there in the ’90s: People felt it didn’t tell the story of their community. So, here I was an African American reporter, and do you trust what I can do with your story? Then over time, people got to know my byline and my reputation, but I had to earn it and I knew I had to earn it. I didn’t walk in expecting, like, some of the other reporters often said, “Your quotes are going to be in the L.A. Times.” I was like, “Please, contribute to the story. I want to hear your side.” That was the important part and I was able to create lifelong relationships with people all over the city because of that. It didn’t so much happen with The Weekly, like if I was going to do interviews in South L.A. or East L.A. Back then, they didn’t distribute the papers in those communities, so a lot of people didn’t know what that was: “And what is that paper?” “Who are you with?” But, by talking to them, connecting with them, finding whatever the common ground was, they trusted me to take back that story.

Shuck: You get them to tell you stories. You have to earn their trust. The poem about the mother and child or the parent and child cycle poem that I do, there is a line in there:

The boy showed me the mark of the scorpion on his leg
and I showed him the mark of the spider on mine

That happened. I work with brand new immigrant kids from Mexico and this student had walked across the border by himself…. It’s a long story. It’s not mine to tell, but boy, is it a good story and as he was telling me that story, he pulls his pant leg up and he goes, “That’s a scar from the scorpion sting.” So I showed him where on my leg, there is a spot where there is just skin over a hole because I got bit by a fiddleback spider. I said, “That’s a spider bite.” He went, “Wow. That’s cool.” And suddenly I had all of this street cred. You find the common ground, you know? Tell me where it hurts. Maybe I can help, maybe I can’t, but I will witness for you.

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George: Once I sat in a classroom at San Francisco State, and had to turn in a story for the class. I was writing about L.A. When the discussion opened up, the first question was “Can she do this?” And I’m like… “Can she do this? Why are they asking about me? I’m sitting right here.” And instead of the professor trying to shift the conversation, she starts saying, “Well, I don’t know. I’m not sure. If she sent this story into XYZ magazine….” And finally I said, “I’m not sure what you are talking about.” And it was clear that they didn’t understand what race the characters were in my piece. The characters were multiracial because it was a story about Los Angeles in a multiracial environment, but they were looking for something that identified the character as African American. Nobody would really come out and say that right away.

This is a different conversation than one that happened in the memoir class; this was a fiction class. Either way, I was screwed. I’m writing true life and I’m writing fiction and whatever I do or say, as in, “I’m reflecting the environment around me,” would prompt, “Can she do that?” I said, “Men write women. White men write all kinds of….”

Shuck: Anybody they feel like.

George: Anybody. So why can’t I? And then the instructor said, “Well, I’m sure, if they saw….” I think she said something about a picture, a photograph of you. “What difference does it make?” And she couldn’t answer. But, it stopped everything cold and at that point, yeah, I kind of shut down. Why would I share my work with this group?

Shuck: Right. Well the thing is you grow out of them and that’s kind of the fun part. You keep going. So when we went into the hearings for the removal of the Early Days statue, I started in the mode, “Okay. I’m listening. What do you have to say?” And it was so unreasonable. They kept speaking as if we weren’t there. It’s complicated for me. I can fact-find in plain sight, if I don’t have a relative with me. The first guess people make isn’t, “That’s a Native woman.” But finally, that behavior is like an icepick over and over at very shallow depths increasing over time. People call this microaggression, but it’s not. One of my good friends broke a tooth clenching her jaw over something like that. I mean, these are not micro at all. Finally I just went “Ahhhh”  and I went off. And the stuff came out and I feel like if you read all fifty-five of the poems back-to-back, you’d see me de-comp-ing over time. The things I don’t deal with right away get really complicated on the page, so it makes for crap poetry—passionate—and I call them rants when I write like that. I mean, at my best, I’m not calling people idiots and racists.

George: Right. Sometimes it’s necessary.

Shuck: Sometimes it’s just so true that you have to. Somebody’s got to say it. In the hearings this guy was saying, “I know art because my family has funded a lot of art museums.” I got up and said, “I know art because I am an artist and I have two degrees in art and I teach it, and on the days when I am not teaching it, I am making it.” My family built the buildings, those museums…. We didn’t own them, but I do feel a certain ownership of them. And if this was just a conversation about art, we could sit down over a coffee or a brandy and have it as a really polite conversation, but that’s not what we’re talking about. We are talking about privilege and that’s going be more painful. People get their scabs torn off in this conversation: “There will be blood.” I kind of ranted at them for a few minutes and then I did that sort of Columbo thing and went, “You do know that you’re on the wrong side of this argument, right? You do know that eventually this statue is coming down and that history will look ill upon the fact that you have made it take longer? You get that right?”

George: It’s funny, when I moved to San Francisco and I would meet people and they would ask me where I was from and very often someone would say some version of, “Oh. How lucky for you to have left L.A. You made a good choice being up here. Because L.A. is such a pit.” And I’m like, “No. It really isn’t. And you should come and spend time down here and I would take you on a tour. I really would.” I would take you on a tour that would blow your mind because it would burst through every misconception and preconceived notion you have. And I actually did do that with a couple of friends and they’ve gone back and told people, “It’s not what you think.”

The idea that all of the sudden sitting in traffic or I’m at the market, trying to get to my car, I look up and I see the mountains and there’s snow on them: And you can actually see them, which in the seventies, you could not always see the mountains. In the eighties, you could not always see the mountains. You can see them now. And there is something for me still, about sitting in my house with all of the windows open and hearing all my neighbors playing their music….

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Shuck: And the slight breeze changes, and it’s a whole different setting.

George: Exactly.

Shuck: I feel like what I see that still happens here that sort of has stopped happening in San Francisco is that you can see people kind of hanging out with one another outside.  When I was a kid in San Francisco on our block we had installed these sorts of bulkhead things that acted as benches and at night, on warm nights, we’d go hang out and like there’d be fifty adults and a whole bunch of kids riding bikes and skating up and down the sidewalk and we occupied that space and occupied it as our own. And as time has gone on, there is less and less and less of that. I love it when I come down here and I see, it’s after dark and we’re driving through wherever, and there’s this group of folks outside, sitting there talking and that is a useful thing to remember and something to try to resurrect a bit.

When I was a kid in San Francisco on our block we had installed these sorts of bulkhead things that acted as benches and at night, on warm nights, we’d go hang out and like there’d be fifty adults and a whole bunch of kids riding bikes and skating up and down the sidewalk and we occupied that space and occupied it as our own.

George: That’s a good point. I moved up there without a car because I didn’t need a car. It was exciting to learn a city on foot, learn a bus system and be in the BART system or on MUNI and learn how to read a map and get myself around places. That stayed with me as I traveled other places, but when we finally were able to get a rail here, and I’m on it a lot—I know it’s because of San Francisco.

I’m watching this younger generation of Angelenos: It used to be this rite of passage for us to get a set of keys so we could drive everywhere and be independent. I’m noticing there are kids so much younger who know the city in ways that my generation will never know because they went out and they pushed into different neighborhoods. They have friends, they have places they meet, and they’re independent at a younger age and they think about the city’s grid in a different way than we did. It’s very exciting to watch that, and I see it through my San Francisco eyes.

Shuck: Yeah. I don’t know about here, but in San Francisco, everything’s gentrification grey.

George: Yes. Here it’s starting to be that way.

Shuck: With entitlement orange trim.

George: Yes! Yes! Yes!  You get the chartreuse doors too.

Shuck: Yes! I just saw my first one of those on Valencia. And Guerrero had one, as well. I just want to say, there are all these eviction arsons in San Francisco. Houses with small apartments that have a lot of long-term residents. So this one place down in the Mission actually bolted charred boards, which I know is a traditional Japanese aesthetic thing, but it’s so tone deaf: It was built on the site of a house that had burnt down.

George: Oh my god. Oh no.

Shuck: I loved that the first graffiti that went up was “Are you fucking kidding me?” It wasn’t even a tag. It was just exasperated.

George: Do better. Just do better. It pains me to look and see it because part of the richness for me of being here has always felt like the world comes here. And if we are open enough to have conversations, we get closer and closer and closer. And that was the thing, like I could dip into a Haitian community here, a Brazilian community, Salvadorean community. I had friends from so many places—Cuba, Costa Rica—and that also is, I think, one of the things that turned me into a journalist. The big ache in my heart is from that flattening of place and things looking the same, getting the same kind of food, the same buildings and missing the colors people use to paint them, and the flowers that they plant in their yard. I like that riot of color and the difference.

It depends on where you are in the city, but there are certain things that are going away.

The big ache in my heart is from that flattening of place and things looking the same, getting the same kind of food, the same buildings and missing the colors people use to paint them, and the flowers that they plant in their yard.

Shuck: I have a lot of lines about this because it really irritates me and, as I said, [snaps fingers] “Fast switch sarcasm.” Understand this: If we have a good earthquake, half of those guys are going back where they came from. Wherever that is.

George: Oh yeah. That’s very true. That happened here too.

Shuck:  The people who have moved here by volition. Because the acquisitional people who moved in for a paycheck are not committed. There are other kinds of neighbors who move in and make themselves part of a neighborhood and participate in things, and that’s a big difference. It’s a cycle. It was kind of getting better through our generation and it’s getting worse now, but nature will resolve this.

When the building at 22nd and Mission burned down, one of my students lost his father.

It’s been so interesting to watch the pushback. The city got involved, so they haven’t yet rebuilt the forty-story, you know, ice cube tray for techy rats.

George: The ice cube tray. That’s so excellent. I had not heard that before, but that’s so right.

Shuck: But if you notice, the buckeye butterflies are back. There was a night cloak there the other night, as well. We have very few night cloak butterflies in San Francisco and they used to be all over the place. And the buckeyes we haven’t really seen in any numbers for a long time, but the minute you bring their food back, shockingly they come back and start eating it.

George: Oh, that’s beautiful

Shuck: In San Francisco, Native San Franciscans keep being called unicorns, as though we’re mythological and rare. I’ve been trying to make the point lately at readings to ask, “Who was born and raised here?” And there’s always a lot of us. I’m not going anywhere.

We’re still here and I’m not going, you know? And Doug’s not going. And my kids are there. And their father was also born in San Francisco, by the way, so they’re native San Francisco on both sides. We’re here. We’re around, you know?

I want you to think about what oxalis does. if you put a pot with just dirt in it out on your porch in San Francisco within six months, it will have an oxalis plant or a nasturtium in it. One or the other. Seriously. And oxalis reseeds itself like four different ways. It’s got roots under the ground, it’s got seeds, if you chop it up, the little bits of it will grow a new one. They’re pretty resilient and I feel we’re that way too. So, I just don’t think it can keep happening. This direction is not endless. It’ll pop back, you know? It will, but I think we need to stop talking about ourselves as though we’re all going away.

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George: You hear that about L.A. too, that it’s rare. I remember being at some event with a bunch of Brazilians and they were going around the table asking the question and I said, “No I’m a native of Los Angeles,” and a woman kept asking me.

Shuck: No, but where?

George: Yeah, “No, but where?” I said, “No. Los Angeles.” She said, “That’s very rare.” No, it’s not. If you took a poll, there would be more people in this room who are native than you think, and I think there’s this perception because of the way people are grouped.

Shuck: We are five native Californians in one room.

George: In one room. Owning that nativeness and talking about it is so important. That’s why when I did this book, After/Image, I wanted to focus on what was still here and who was still here, and what unifies us. When I’ve been doing the readings, I ask people, “What’s your L.A. story?”  Because I want us to share in a group like what matters still about L.A.

Shuck: Otherwise it’s just like being talked around  in those classes—the way that they make us disappear in San Francisco or in L.A.

George: Yes. Absolutely.

Shuck: It’s exactly the same thing. We’re right here.



Shifting the World one Opinion at a Time
(Kim Shuck)[1]

I have come awake
Homesick in my hometown
Tapped sacred songs onto porch wood
Onto pavement squares
Like a child game
Thrown a place holder
To the next foothold
Jumped
Tapped sacred songs onto library walls
Museum walls
City hall walls
The thing we bring here today is not predicted by your security
Coal hot memories
Generational
And a terrifying patience

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Kim Shuck, adapted from photo by Doug Salin.



Flavor
(Lynell George)[2]

If Los Angeles is ever evolving, being an Angeleno must be something that by consequence is too not-fixed, that it is an identity in flux.

What far more interests me is how Los Angeles exists in our own imagination—influenced by that perception—how a sense of place affects and shapes us: TV beams in weekly, scripted scenarios, movies seduce, but so many of us who grew up around narrow narratives of place work against or away from that; we’re not all chasing the round-the-next-bend dream (film industry, real estate, peace of mind), but often we are the fruit of those who came in search of it.

For us, then, the kids who lived in those off-the-radar places on the map—a dead-end street, “below-the-10,” or over the bridge—finding your path, your way, meant finding your terrain, your tribe, and your heart.

We move through a collection of roads that spin us toward some next chapter of understanding. In certain ways, it’s ongoing coalition building: Whom we connect with gifts us another small brick of clarity and compassion—a sense of deeper self-making. And with all this connecting, mixing, and borrowing, if we are lucky, it can produce something as uncanny as indelible.

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Lynell George, adapted from photo by Al Quattrochi.



Notes

[1] Reprinted by permission of Kim Shuck.

[2] Excerpt from After/Image: Los Angeles Outside the Frame (Los Angeles: Angel City Press, 2018), 144.


Denise Sullivan
is a fourth generation San Franciscan who’s lived in Los Angeles and Atlanta. Author of several books of music biography, she’s editor of Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions for independent press Manic D, and co-editor of the 2018 chapbook, The City Is Already Speaking: The Sound of Calle 24. She writes the SF Lives column for The San Francisco Examiner.

Copyright: © 2018 Denise Sullivan. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

Interviews

Curating History in Southern California and Beyond

Editorial Introduction: Midway through volume 100 in its present ordering, Merry Ovnick has overseen tillers of California’s historical terrain as Editor of Southern California Quarterly for fourteen years, curating regional historical scholarship for readers eager to learn the shared history of this remarkable place. Published first in 1884 and running for 134 years as the scholarly publication of the Historical Society of Southern California, SCQ explores “the history of Southern California, California as a whole, and the American West.” Ovnick’s own expertise, though, is Los Angeles; specifically L.A.’s residential architectural history. Boom Editor Jason Sexton and SCQ Book Reviews Editor Allison Varzally sat down with Ovnick earlier this summer in a residential setting on L.A.’s Westside—not far from where Merry grew up—to conduct this interview.

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Boom: It’s always good for Californians to come back to their roots. And having this conversation here is probably special because this is where you grew up, about two blocks from here. What is it like coming back to the old hood?

Ovnick: Well, I don’t come very often, and it was quite different during those days. We started school at Short Avenue Elementary, just around the corner, and we were its pioneer kindergarten class. At the end of this block was all fields—agricultural land, where beans and celery and things like that were farmed. They’d been Japanese farms before the relocation and in my earliest memory they were Mexican farms. This is home.

Boom: This is home, but now you are in the San Fernando Valley both living and teaching. But going back to your growing up years, what was it like growing up in L.A.? Were your parents from Los Angeles?

Ovnick: I don’t know what to compare it with, but it worked out. My parents came from Kansas and migrated during the Depression, and my dad worked at Douglas Aircraft during the war.

Boom: Now you are a historian interested in regional history, and have been editing Southern California Quarterly for fourteen years. When did you begin to think about California as a place? And specifically, to think of Los Angeles as a place?

Ovnick: I don’t think as a kid you think of such things. It’s just home. That’s what you know. You may travel, but then you come home and home is normal. Unless you’re a child whose parents moved around a lot so that you can understand how different a culture or lifestyle might be in different places, I don’t think you think comparatively. At least, I didn’t. We moved to Santa Monica when I was ten, but that was still local. And we did some camping things. Every so often we trekked to Kansas to visit my grandmother. But that was it.

Boom: What were your preferred hobbies or pastimes as a kid? Were you reading a lot? Nonfiction? Were you interested in history from the beginning? Or were you studying space?

Ovnick: Oh yes, I was a terrible bookworm. We went to the Venice Library, which was an Arts and Crafts style building at the time. By fourth grade I had read every book that I could in the children’s section. So the librarian—whose name was Faye—kindly said that I could use adult books as long as she or my mother approved of the books. I would get historical fiction things, and then the main character would snuggle up to somebody (graphically described) and I’d wonder, “Why would they be doing that?” But I knew better than to ask my mother. She would never let me read again. So I had to grow into with this mentality of, “Oh, now I understand the things that I had read.”

Boom: What led you down the career path into becoming a professional historian?

Ovnick: Well, I decided when I was thirteen that when I grew up I wanted to be a history professor. Mainly, in those days, history meant princesses and castles and that sort of thing. But I had understood that history professors got to teach what their favorite subjects are and they got to do research on those subjects and they could just dwell on this world that I had come to enjoy. The “history of what” changed as I grew older and a little more perceptive, outside of the princess mold.

Boom: Did you have inspiring history teachers?

Ovnick: No, it was books. And so public libraries meant a lot.

Boom: So what led you to become, then, not just interested in history but specifically a scholar of Los Angeles?

Ovnick: Well, I have an interest in architecture. I’m not sure exactly how that started, but I’m interested in buildings. The other was that as an undergraduate, at Santa Barbara then at UCLA, my field was Japanese history. That was my interest. I decided that to do graduate work I would need language and would have to go to Japan to do research. So, when I was proposed to I originally said “no,” causing a big flap. Then I said “okay,” but here’s the condition: I would get to do graduate work in Japan. My husband said “yes,” and we got married. Then he said he lied and I could never go. So I had to think about what I wanted to do when I eventually took up graduate studies in the U.S.

Boom: Was there a gap there at all? When you discovered you weren’t able to go to Japan to study where and what you wanted?

Ovnick: It was quite a crisis, and lasted a long time. I’ve now since been to Japan and enjoyed it very much. But at the time I figured California history has the Asian-American component, which was the next best thing.

Boom: Southern California Quarterly is more than Southern California history and more than California history. It includes the Far West, the American West, and the Pacific.

Ovnick: I’ve had articles on Hawaii, and there’s one in our Fall 2018 issue about British Columbia. But that article does mention there’s a parallel with what’s happening further down the coast.

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Boom: But taking you back to 2005, when you took the helm as editor of the journal, why did you volunteer to take it up?

Ovnick: It was because I had done the book review editing at first. Clark Davis had been groomed to be the successor to Doyce Nunis (who was the editor for forty-three years), and started by becoming book review editor. The journal had fallen into trying times, with grammar errors, typos, and other things that the editor had missed. That was painful for Clark, who was quite the diplomat, to work on the book reviews when the journal was in such sorry shape. So we talked about it and I was the intern coordinator for the history program at CSUN. So, I said how about I get interns who are dual English/History majors and set them up under Doyce as copy editors? Doyce, who was missing teaching, would love to have the tutelary role and there would be an extra pair of eyes without Clark having to say something.

So, we did that for a while and that worked out well. He loved handling the interns. He had two interns and they both went on to Ph.D.s later. Then Clark died very suddenly at age thirty-seven—a tragedy for all who knew him. That then left a gap. That’s why I was moved in to be book review editor, and Doyce later retired as editor two years later.

Boom: Among the many exceptional articles you’ve published in SCQ, do you have a favorite?[1]

Ovnick: No—usually the one that is latest is my favorite.

Boom: So you didn’t have any doubts about assuming the editorship? Because it’s one thing to be book review editor, but a much grander responsibility to be the editor. What was the transition like? Can you describe what you see your role as editor being?

Ovnick: I work approximately twenty hours a week on the journal. At first it was very, very difficult and it was also just as I was starting to turn my dissertation into a book. So that got put on the back burner and it never got done because I do this instead.

The role of editor is a dual role and there’s a conflict between the two. One, the editor is the conduit for the author. The author has done the research, the analysis, the writing, and this is how the work gets out to the public. It also builds her CV and helps her survive “publish or perish.” So, the conduit role is one where the editor just helps the author shape things, getting them to publication.

The other role is to serve as the guardian of the history discipline’s standards. You’re the one who decides what the public should read and what kind of integrity it should have. So the conflict is, if you really need articles for the next issue and you have a poor article but you really need an article, do you relax the guardian role? One of the safeguards is the peer review process which we rigorously enforce. But even so, there’s that pressure from the two sides.

Boom: And at certain times has it been harder to secure potential articles?

Ovnick: I’m in one of those situations right now. I have one article that has to be totally revised and the author is incapable of doing so. I’ve worked on him for two years to get this wonderful research into publication shape and he can’t do it. I’m going to just shepherd this along. But that’s only one article out of the three that make up an issue, so I’m in one of those desperate spots.

I have actually had several times where I’ve needed to step in. Doyce admitted that many times he solved this “not having an article ahead” in one of two ways. Either he wrote an article himself and published it and admitted that he had not sent things out for review for several years because he thought he was capable of reviewing everything himself. The other way he solved it was to just not produce that issue. Instead of volume or issue one, two, three, and four for the year, he’d have one and two, then a combined three and four, which he got complaints about from people who were paying for a subscription. They got this type of reaction fairly frequently. During my tenure, though, we’ve never missed an issue, and we’ve never been late in fourteen years.

Boom: Obviously “quarterly” is embedded in the name of the Southern California Quarterly, but have you thought about—given the pressures of producing in such a regular fashion—producing less frequently? Like maybe once a year, or even twice a year?

Ovnick: In the early years of the journal, it was an annual publication in the very beginning. But that hasn’t come up with the historical society. If it does, we could do that. So far it hasn’t.

Boom: And is there significant direction that comes from the historical society?

Ovnick: Well, the money comes from them, and this is their most costly item. So, it’s a crisis for them, they’ve been doing a big fundraising job just to support the journal. We recently received a bequest.

Boom: That’s reassuring. Can you say anything about that?

Ovnick: As a bequest, it’s a will, and becomes active upon the passing of the donor, which is hopefully a long time from now.

Boom: We did spend some time going through the various issues you’ve produced as editor, and noticed a couple of innovations, like “The Historian’s Eye.” Can you tell us about that?

Ovnick: I did a number of those with the help from others. One of them was someone from the Auto Club, and one was from his wife, who is the historian or archivist at City of Hope. They asked to do them, and I have another author who suggested that we do little bio sketches. His first suggestion was Mira Hershey, you know, of Hershey Hall at UCLA, an early feminist who had money.

Boom: One of the images depicted folks getting into a street car and you brought up the theme “chivalry.” How do you choose images? And what are you looking for?

Ovnick: Just something interesting. I have to be careful to ensure it’s not just some image I like. I did this in the classroom, things like that chivalry one when you notice what the ladies are wearing, they have to step up fairly high to get off the dirt street and there’s that white dress dragging on the dirt street. Various little things like that.

Boom: In some decisions you’ve made of what to publish in Southern California Quarterly, what you’re highlighting isn’t your area of research, it’s rather a curatorial area of interest. I’ve noticed that during your tenure. I [Jason] remember the previous editor of Boom, Jon Christensen, with an issue of Boom we were working on where I said I didn’t want to strong-arm things related to my interests and views, to which he responded that I’m allowed to do some of that. But I noticed you haven’t really. You’ve focused mostly on racial, international, socio-political history, and social histories.

Ovnick: Yes, I admit that there’s probably more architectural articles early on because somebody would know me from my architectural interests and submit an article here rather than somewhere else. Likewise then for Japanese-American history, which I’ve probably done more than is quite even-handed. I have another one coming up in the next issue.

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Boom: So, let’s bring us back into the areas you’ve published on, especially in L.A., and California, as these things also reflect some of Boom’s concerns related to the future of California. How do we curate this place and what’s here? From your work on residential architectural history, does Southern California have a best style of architecture, one most fitting for this place?

Ovnick: Well, the Spanish Colonial, which was deemed to be appropriate because of a romanticized version of a Spanish past. But I’ve seen Spanish Colonial houses in Utah and Wyoming where somebody just liked that style I guess and there it was. So that’s one we’ve appropriated.

Also, the California Bungalow, which was my dissertation topic. I have a particular soft spot for that. The Craftsman magazine, which was published in the East, after 1908 had a crisis where they let their entire art department go. There were drawings of ideal interiors that sold their style of furniture, but they had to fire their art department. They then became reliant on people near and far to send them photographs to use as illustrations. A great share of the ones that came during that period came from Los Angeles with photographs of small to large houses in the Arts and Crafts mode. But they were redone for California, with lightweight material, not the winter roofs or snow-shedding roofs or insulated walls. They featured the indoor-outdoor life with sweeping porches and cross-ventilation, and on-site trees intertwined with the house, that were indigenous to California.

It became The Craftsman look because of their lack of an art department. I later tracked down some of those houses and found them by looking through Ancestry.com and finding out where that architect’s address was. There is something about the appropriateness of that style for California.

Boom: Why do you have this kind of affection for the Bungalow style?

Ovnick: It just looks very cozy and comfortable. I wouldn’t mind living in one.

Boom: Does your own house reflect your architectural passions?

Ovnick: No, which of course destroys the entire premise of my first book.[2]

Boom: Your book and one issue of Southern California Quarterly noted the cross-pollination of East and West characteristic of Southern California architecture, which has also been characterized by experimentation and reinvention. Isn’t that a luxury, perhaps one that we’re not going to be able to afford much longer?

Ovnick: Oh yes, and the single-family residence is an albatross.

Boom: Okay, well that brings me to another question. Is a house an investment?

Ovnick: Absolutely. When you look at the early advertisements, they promised that when you buy a tract house in the 1920s it will double in value in a number of years. It is an investment and you could buy the empty lot next door and hold onto it, because the value of that land and that tract is bound to go up.

Boom: We can probably safely conclude that for twenty miles of coastal California, but what about the interior? The Central Valley, the Inland Empire?

Ovnick: Inland Empire has its own background because of the citrus boom and the railroads coming in there and other things. It might be special. For the Central Valley, Bakersfield and Fresno have taken the prize recently of being California’s fastest growing cities. I’m glad though that I don’t live in the Central Valley. It’s hot enough in the San Fernando Valley.

Boom: In some of your research you’ve shown that some developments here have been borrowed from elsewhere, especially from the American East. But have we and could we be developing ideas for residential housing from the Far East more then we have? Like Japan?

Ovnick: Well, the indoor-outdoor house with sliding panels is the Japanese aesthetic of simplicity. Those have influenced our architecture.

Boom: I [Allison] was also wondering how we might incorporate the density of Japanese cities, where they seem to be able to house a lot of people in very little space. I don’t know what that means if you don’t have the single-family home that has defined Los Angeles, but if we move toward that model of densification and more clustered living….

Ovnick: It could be, but you know what works in Japan is partly because of a cultural thing about privacy. You may have people very close together, but you’re very quiet and you don’t air your arguments because it just would not do. There’s a whole cultural thing that has to happen. You can’t just import the buildings from another culture and have any luck.

Boom: Of course, residential architecture relates very much in the title of your ’94 book, somewhat hidden in there is an echo of the California Dream. How that relates to the “working man,” buying a home in the post-war world. But how does the California Dream manifest in Los Angeles residential architecture?

Ovnick: In that case, how do you distinguish the California Dream from the American Dream? Success and being ahead of your parents’ generation was it, and the expectation that each generation would do that. Even if there’s a ceiling now that makes it not so likely. All those people who moved out here weren’t California-bred people to begin with, they came from Iowa or wherever and had an American Dream that they could realize in California.

Boom: I think a single-family detached house was part of that dream, so maybe that dream is changing as it becomes impossible to attain.

Ovnick: It needs to. Otherwise it becomes a disappointment. I think that’s a good thing to discuss in Boom particularly. In the world of Internet and Facebook and other things, that dream may be very real. There are all kinds of savvy people who can expect to make hay while the sun shines. But as a general thing, and when you have a classroom full of elementary school students, do you hold out that dream for them? For everyone, of every color, of every part of town or immigrant background, or in whatever economic situation? There needs to be some readjustments.

I was talking to somebody in Paris about this recently, who was in awe that I came from Los Angeles, and asked, “What is Los Angeles like?” I said, “Well, we have 55,000 homeless that live on the streets,” and he was aghast. He asked what is being done about that? And what can we answer?

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Boom: You’ve written on post-war Los Angeles, a long seventy-year moment that might be coming to a terminus soon, reflective of what we’re discussing. Could you thematize what’s happening in Southern California during those decades?

Ovnick: I think it was a turning point for gender issues, for one thing. Men had gone off to war and being macho was very much a part of it. Women might be Rosie the Riveter and they might have been capable during the war, except when you look at the ads. The Office of War Information monitored advertisement, and I have a small collection of ads from wartime popular magazines; they had the young woman with the stylish hat and her pocket book asking, “I earned it, why can’t I spend it?” Then, the stern response that she ought to save it for the home front and postwar when the boys come back from oversees and make new starts. The patriotic thing to do is to save your money, buy war bonds. There was this sense of women doing their part for the home front as just part of being the little woman helping the man. It reinforced a gender ideal that had been moderated in the ’20s and ’30s that has been reinforced as a macho thing.

The final chapter of my book where I deal with this happens to be my favorite chapter, but because nobody had done primary research on World War II at that time, I had no secondary sources. Everything had to be primary. Looking at the expectations for housing after the war, you know, “When I get home from this war I’m going to build a house and have hot running water and I’m going to have…,” and so on. They spun big dreams during the war about the house that they and Rosie the Riveter were going to move into at the end. Then the building trades and architects and building material suppliers and others were all busy gearing up for postwar, how they were going to change from making war items to making things for a housing boom that fed that dream or would make it come true for people.

There was such uniformity in the news that you also couldn’t show a picture of the coastline because a Japanese submarine might notice that a little notch there, which might lead directly to a war plant. With all those cautionary holds on what could be published, it’s no wonder that my parents and Archie Bunker and many others had such black-and-white, good-and-bad views that fit the Cold War. It was good guys and bad guys, and we were the good guys. It was just so sharp and clear—that generation spent their youth not seeing anything except black-and-white.

Boom: But the ’60s and ’70s started to challenge that.

Ovnick: Absolutely. It was their kids in the ’60s who saw grey and objected to Archie Bunker’s views—generational conflict as of about 1964, when the war babies grew into teenagers.

Boom: And how is that shaping the residential architecture? Thinking of young people living outdoors. Breaking free of their parents’ homes.

Ovnick: They turned their tie dye stuff into boutiques and joined the middle class.

Boom: And after the wave of white Buddhists moving to Japan and coming back….

Ovnick: That’s actually what this upcoming article is about—a person whose last name was Goldwater, who was the second cousin of Barry Goldwater, and who was a Buddhist priest during the war.

Boom: So the religious architecture in Southern California—especially Los Angeles churches, temples, mosques—especially if said communities are moving around a Buddhist temple, for example, how did religious architecture shape Los Angeles during this time, and is it having any influence on residential architecture?

Ovnick: Unfortunately, my book was just on residential architecture. But from the Society of Architectural Historians, which I’m heavily involved with, we do tours of churches and recently toured one by Ernest Coxhead that was where Cesar Chavez first raised the challenge over on the east side of Lincoln Heights. We look at church architecture, but is it a case of L.A. shaping the architecture or is it architecture shaping the people that are in it? For example, the Hompa Hongwanji temple, right across from the Japanese American National Museum (JANM), which has the traditional arch which faces outward and is now owned by JANM; it’s made out of concrete but it echoes the thatch roof of tradition, including echoing the cedar wood graining that a traditional Buddhist church in Japan would have had because it was built during the 1920s by an Anglo architect and some of the touches are neo-Egyptian because it was a stylish thing and the architect worked in theatrical things. I don’t think that’s new or unusual.

In Savannah, Georgia, there’s a Jewish synagogue that was built in the 1840s in Gothic Revival style. You know Gothic, with that window that’s split into two smaller Gothic arches, symbolizing the Trinity. The rose window with the twelve leaves to represent the twelve disciples. Those have iconographic meanings, but this was a Jewish synagogue and it was built in neo-Gothic because that was the stylish church-like architecture, and this was an affluent membership who were movers and shakers in their community and they particularly wanted a Jewish “church” that would fit in with other churches. They didn’t want to look strange. So, whether a time and a culture shape the building, or the building then shapes the culture—I mean, I doubt many people who went to that “church” thought about the nativity and the twelve disciples.

Boom: So, they like the style and don’t necessarily care where it came from.

Ovnick: I wrote and published in California History on motion pictures and how motion picture-making affected architecture in the 1920s, in the silent era. Without sound, the actors and cinematographers had to do other things—if the story was about a princess and a castle, the very first scene had to show the young lady, probably with a coronet on her head and crenellations on the top of a wall behind her, and maybe a moat. Then movie-goers would realize this was about a princess and didn’t have to have a big discussion. Things like style references that make a setting were exaggerated and clear to read in the silent film era. In the 1920s we get the little castles and Tudor houses and the Spanish Colonial. All these easy to read make-believe backgrounds. Then, likewise, cinematographers used heavily rusticated surfaces so light and shadow would play off them so they wouldn’t look too flat in the kind of film and lighting they had at the time. We had those exteriors with what they called jazzed stucco, the troweled-on stucco that were supposed to look like adobe houses (that never had such a rough looking job) because light and shadow worked. Other parts of the house like columns or door arches or whatever had to be projected in a certain depth, so they cast light and shadow.

Our culture changes, and of course movies are shown nationwide. So you see make-believe architecture in Utah and Wyoming, and you see that heavy use of shadow and texture on buildings—it “took” across the country. It took especially hard here because this is where movies are made. So many people are in the industry, and in fact many of the set designers in Hollywood were also doing residential architecture on the side.

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Boom: There’s a great chapter in Day of the Locusts that talks about the crazy diversity of architectural styles that come back in the movies. And we keep telling ourselves stories, projecting. The last line of your book captures this, where you conclude that Los Angeles is “a durable dream.” A beautiful line. But in light of things like the current enormous homeless crisis, do you still believe that Los Angeles is a durable dream?

Ovnick: As a matter of fact, I wrote that book so long ago that I’d forgotten all about that last line. In 1994, who could predict the Northridge earthquake, which hadn’t happened when I wrote that.

Boom: But it’s interesting how just a couple years after major riots that make people doubt whether this region is sustainable.

Ovnick: That’s not maybe just this region. Polar ice caps are melting and other things. People in Venice are doing these elaborate mega-houses on these tiny lots. Society of Architectural Historians was showing one of these houses and the architect was telling us that one of the things she had done was to look at the underground water flow, because it was basically on marshland, and at the topography. So, she built hers in a part of Venice that was several feet higher and away from those underground stream flows, which are ancient stream flows. She wanted to build a one hundred-year house, so it would be there for her kids.

Boom: Forward-thinking. And do these kinds of questions shape your work as editor of SCQ?

Ovnick: You never know what the next article is going to bring, and it’s going to be on some topic you’ve never addressed before hopefully because if it’s something you’ve done already you don’t want it. Each piece needs to contribute something, and every one is a learning experience from an editor’s point of view. I learn things every time, and if I didn’t, then there’s probably something wrong with the article. So how significant is it? What kind of insights does it give on things like homelessness and earthquakes and all those other things, or perhaps on a path that can be constructed? We look at things with a more empathetic eye because of a particular historian’s work, and that has an impact on our current times. It’s not that history repeats itself, it’s just that we open up our mind when we read history, which is a human subject. We’re gaining a wider understanding of our fellow men and women.

Being an editor, then, is like having your finger on a pulse of what’s out there being done and what its possibilities are when it reaches a reading audience. I think that was one of my biggest accomplishments was to get SCQ online. At the beginning, before there was a regime change at the Southern California Historical Society, there used to be a board that I spoke to on multiple occasions about the importance of going online, and their eyes would just glaze over since they were absolutely uninterested, didn’t want to think about it, and didn’t want to know the mechanics of how this could be done or who could do it. It was like talking to the wall.

As the board eventually changed and got some newer members, it happened. I think an all-print journal is not a viable entry. I’m old, so I like reading things in print, and I like having the covers, and enjoy working on the covers. But I know that print things are a dying breed. Whether you can reach an audience, the right audience or a big enough audience with what you put online, that’s a concern.

I think one of the solutions is a journal like ours that has multiple subjects. Every issue has a real diversity of topics that are there, even when they’re a set. But even as a set, each article expresses different viewpoints. A person who’s reading something they got online and sees the title of the article above and below might be intrigued and might read things they wouldn’t otherwise. But if it’s not in that very journal issue as something that might be important to them, are they going to go back and look at past ones? So, one of the concerns of the marketing people at UC Press is how to keep reminding people of good stuff that’s in the past issues. Doing special online issues introduce readers to something covered back in 1920 or 1942 that might be of interest work to send people looking backwards.

Boom: Deeper into the archives, and the online archives.

Ovnick: That’s a possibility, and I hope it works. The current president of the HSSC reached out to four grad students at three different institutions and got them to do bibliographic essays on subjects like Native Americans. They looked through back issues of SCQ and put together a bibliography of articles that have been done on a particular subject. They did one on the mission, noting the articles on the mission era back in the 1920s were romanticizing the padres and the adoring Indians. Then in the 50s they were doing thus and so, which leaves a track that they’ve analyzed. How we change how we view the past, missions being a particularly good example, puts us in mind not to just think in black-and-white, but enables us to think critically about what is the “historical truth.” Twenty years later, something else was the “historical truth.” I think that’s broadening, and it will hopefully work to send others to past issues of SCQ.

Boom: I think that’s something that is hard for undergraduates to grasp, the idea of historiography. That the interpretations change by what you’re reading.

Ovnick: And why does it change? It’s very important. The journal is a form—both SCQ and Boom—of public history. Because they reach out not just to the profession, but to a wider public. And I think that’s very important.

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Notes

[1] Out of an extensive list of well-written articles, reflecting good research, and worthy contributions to their fields of history, there are a handful that stand out for their ground-breaking discoveries, exceptional research depth, and insightful analysis. Dr. Ovnick is especially proud to have had a hand in bringing these to publication in the Southern California Quarterly during her tenure (2005-2018; volumes 87-100):

Scott Zesch, “Chinese Los Angeles in 1870-1871: The Makings of a Massacre,” SCQ 90.2 (2008).

Kelly J. Sisson, “Bound for California: Chilean Contract Laborers and ‘Patrones’ in the California Gold Rush, 1848-1852,” SCQ 90.3 (2008).

David Igler, “Captive-Taking and Conventions of Encounters on the Northwest Coast, 1789-1810,” SCQ 91.1 (2009).

Emily Bills, “Connecting Lines: L.A.’s Telephone History and the Binding of the Region,” SCQ 91.1 (2009).

Kim Hernandez, “The ‘Bungalow Boom’: The Working-Class Housing Industry and the Development and Promotion of Early Twentieth-Century Los Angeles” SCQ 92.4 (2010).

Hillary Jenks, “Bronzeville, Little Tokyo, and the Unstable Geography of Race in Post-World War II Los Angeles,” SCQ 93.2 (2011).

Patty R. Colman, “John Ballard and the African American Community in Los Angeles, 1850-1905,” SCQ 94.2 (2012).

Mary C. Greenfield, “Benevolent Desires and Dark Dominations: The Pacific Mail Steamship Company’s City of Peking and the United States in the Pacific, 1874-1910,” SCQ 94.4 (2012).

James Tejani, “Dredging the Future: The Destruction of Coastal Estuaries and the Creation of Metropolitan Los Angeles, 1858-1913,” SCQ 96.1 (2014).

Andrea Geiger, “Reframing Race and Place: Locating Japanese Immigrants in Relation to Indigenous Peoples in the North American West,” SCQ 96.3 (2014).

Erica J. Peters, “A Path to Acceptance: Promoting Chinese Restaurants in San Francisco, 1849-1919,” SCQ 97.1 (2015).

Benjamin Cawthra, “Duke Ellington’s Jump for Joy and the Fight for Equality in Wartime Los Angeles,” SCQ 98.1 (2016).

Barry Read [3-part set], “Building Mulholland Highway: The Road to Mulholland Drive. Part I: The Campaign; Part II: Construction; Part III: After the Celebration,” SCQ 99.1-3 (2017).

[2] Merry Ovnick, Los Angeles: The End of The Rainbow (Los Angeles: Balcony Press, 1994).

Copyright: © 2018 Merry Ovnick, Allison Varzally, and Jason Sexton. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

Interviews

Locked-Up Vietnamese California

Interview-1

Tin Nguyen
Bidhan Chandra Roy

Editor’s Note: The Vietnamese diaspora comprises a significant population among California’s immigrant communities. For some of these, the trauma of involuntary migration and the subsequent necessity to negotiate Vietnamese and American identities did not lead to enriching new experiences or cultural formations. A less visible demographic than those currently celebrated by food, literary, or cultural critics today are the Vietnamese Americans currently incarcerated in California’s vast prison system. Not long ago, almost 65% of California’s Asian and Pacific Islander prison population was comprised of either immigrants or refugees, and Vietnamese Americans represented the largest segment of the Asian and Pacific Islander California prison demographic at 22%.[1] This constitutes a significant number of Vietnamese Americans currently incarcerated in California—a fact remaining largely unknown to many Californians.

One such person, for whom the trauma of migration and the negotiation of identities in California produced a path to prison is Tin Nguyen, who is currently serving a “Life Without the Possibility of Parole” sentence at Los Angeles County Prison, Lancaster. As a former Vietnamese gang member, Tin is now a student in Cal State LA’s BA program at Lancaster, as well as a published writer. Boom editorial board member Bidhan Chandra Roy sat down with Tin over three meetings to discuss his childhood experiences of fleeing Vietnam as a child in the 1970s, his role in establishing a new wave of Vietnamese street gangs in Southern California in the 1990s, and his hard-fought transformation into the man he is today. Since recording equipment is not allowed in the prison during the interview, Tin wrote up his responses to the questions following the three meetings.



Boom
: Can you tell us about your experiences traveling from Vietnam to California as a child in the 1970s? What do you remember of that journey? Do you ever recall these memories today?

Tin: At 145 pounds and thirty-two years of age, I was standing in front of the ‘C’ section shower in Building 3 on a maximum-security prison yard. A group of muscular, heavyset Crip members surrounded me, disputing for a shower that none of us own; really, the State of California owned the shower. I knew if I didn’t back down, I could expect at the very least a severe beating, and quite likely, a knife to the gut or a sliced throat. Yet I stood there, at the risk of my own life, because this shower was claimed by the Asians; the marking of our territory. At that moment, I thought, “So this is how I’m going to die… this is how my life sentence was going to end….”

In that moment, I couldn’t help but rapidly wonder, “How did I get here? What happened to the once little Vietnamese boy who pulled his small red wagon along the streets of Pomona and sold flowers to help his mother buy milk for his baby brother?” How did that innocent kid become a monster now tagged P24706?

At that moment, I thought, “So this is how I’m going to die… this is how my life sentence was going to end….”

I remember the boat journey in the late ’70s as flashes of images. There is an image of my godparents hugging me tight; through their tears, they tried to act as if everything was normal. I guess, because of the tension in Vietnam, they didn’t want any suspicion of what was going to happen, an attempt to escape Vietnam. Then there are images of my mother under the cover of darkness passing—or should I say, throwing (my mother would disapprove of this characterization)—me from boat to boat. Thinking of how our boat sped away from two other boats, I remember the word, “pirates,” repeated on everyone’s lips and a throng of rowdy men with all sorts of objects in their hands for weapons.

I remember us all on the boat’s roof, bowing our heads, and me trying to look over, seeing for the first time, men with pale skin standing on the deck of a large ship. We begged for their assistance, to no avail; they just passed by leaving us to fend for ourselves in the great ocean.

Then our boat finally landed. At the island where I have the fondest memories, images and feelings of happiness, swimming all day and following my brother on the shore as the tide was low, catching crabs and fishes. After that, I remember feeling frightened on a plane as I encountered people of different ethnicities, on our way to California.

Scan 2017-7-27 22.51.41


Boom
: What was it like for you growing up in Pomona during the 1980s and 1990s?

Tin: In Pomona, everything was different. In second grade, I was the only Vietnamese kid in class, and not speaking a word of English, I hated school. Kids can be cruel. Yet, the constant taunts of “ching-chong,” “jap,” and “dirty gook,” were the least of my miseries. Because they wanted to test my kung fu, I was punched in the throat and smacked on the back of my head during long walks home from school. To this day, I still have a vivid memory of being run over by a bike—my books were everywhere, I was facedown, and a BMX wheel was on my back, pinning me to ground, while the guy snickered, “You should’ve gotten out my way,” and spit on me. He then rode over me. I cried as I picked up my stuff off the ground, while other kids walked by and laughed, but no one helped. I cried all the way home, and then some. I thought it was my fault for being in his way, but then it occurred to me that all his friends had rode around me with plenty of room. That’s when a spark of anger ignited within me. But that anger from those physical discomforts didn’t compare to what ultimately fueled my anger with a real hate.

What truly fueled my anger was the thought of my family being subjected to the same abuse and discrimination. I remember my older sister sitting in the schoolyard lunch area crying, while other Vietnamese kids were making fun of her. What made this especially painful was the American kids were laughing about how they’d gotten us to turn on each other for their amusement. When I was nine or ten years old, I tried to help an older Vietnamese gentleman who didn’t speak English. There was a misunderstanding at a store, where the sales clerk was accusing the Vietnamese man, hurling crude comments at him, like, “You gook! You’re a thief, coming to the US just to steal and cause trouble. You should’ve stayed in Vietnam.” I remember a feeling of heavy degradation. With my broken English, I attempted to serve as a translator and tried to explain that the Vietnamese man had a receipt. But it was no use. The clerk kept ranting and ended up reducing the Vietnamese man to tears. From that experience, I had the sinking realization that my parents must be suffering similar indignities.

Once I was sitting outside of my older sister’s bedroom door, I heard her crying as she told my cousin how an African-American woman had mistreated her at the college’s financial aid office. I don’t quite recall the exact words, but I do remember clearly the feelings of anger and hate. Hurting me was one thing, but hurting my family was another matter. What made it worse was the helplessness I felt to do anything about it. This is the reason why I’m very protective of my little sister.

I couldn’t claim I was Vietnamese because I barely spoke Vietnamese, and I couldn’t say I was American because I wasn’t born here and barely spoke proper English.

I suppose all these external hardships contributed to who I eventually became, but no less significant were the internal dynamics of my family. Let me start by acknowledging that my father was a very good man who loved his children and always sacrificed for his family. Yet, there were a number of factors that enabled his violent behavior. First, he was raised in a traditional culture where the father’s words are absolute and indisputable, and corporal punishment was the norm. Back in Vietnam, my father was a person of some importance and social standing, so for him, it was a letdown being in America—after losing everything and making all the sacrifices that he did—to become a nobody who had to rely on his wife and whose children wouldn’t even listen to him. I can only imagine how this ate away at his pride, driving him to the edge. Typical days in our house had fights and arguments; I don’t remember a happy moment at home. The Christmas tree tumbled a few times every Christmas. During the year, my mother would vigorously defend her children from her husband’s wrath, after she’d worked all day to put food on the table. Even though my father never made a fist, he did freely use the backhand, the front smack, the belt, the telephone cord, the clothes hanger, and my own favorite—the chopsticks, with a hand full of them, they hurt like hell. I remember like yesterday… I was huddled in the kitchen corner while my mother used her petite body to shield me from being hit by an inch-thick stick as she told my father in Vietnamese: “you’re not going to hit my son with that.” But this was the Vietnamese way, right? Our culture? In such moments, I envied my American friends.

I think what made things worse was that I didn’t know where I belonged, who I was. I couldn’t claim I was Vietnamese because I barely spoke Vietnamese, and I couldn’t say I was American because I wasn’t born here and barely spoke proper English. I felt trapped between two generations of immigrants, one who knew they’re Vietnamese, and one who knew they’re American. My father pushed me to read more and to keep up with my sister in school, and when I couldn’t, I was “dumber than a cow” (English translation). During times when I could, I wasn’t “dumber,” but merely “dumb as a cow.” Either way, I was always dumb. This wasn’t just my father’s assessment, it was everyone’s. I guess they hoped I’d at least be good with my hands. To my mother though, I was always good and smart, but her opinion wasn’t enough. So I ended up with low self-esteem, insecure, lost, and filled with anger and hate.

Scan 2017-7-27 23.33.19[1]


Boom
: How did this childhood trauma pave the way for you joining a gang? How did you see Vietnamese gangs begin to proliferate in South California during your adolescence, and what attracted you to join one?

Tin: In America, the first Vietnamese generation’s youth trend was “New Wave,” with its tight pants, pointy shoes, and spiky hair, and dancing to European bands like Modern Talking, CC Catch, and Bad Boys Blue. With no one I deemed worthy as a role model, I turned to my two older brothers. They were cool, and if someone wanted to test their kung fu, they didn’t have any problem showing that their kung fu was better. Seeing them fighting and winning, I developed a sense of Vietnamese pride, so it wasn’t long before I showed others my kung fu was good too. My first violent act was during a summer camp at Cal Poly. When a Caucasian kid tested me, I didn’t hold back, but instead, I punched him. Next thing I knew, a counselor was holding me and a crowd of kids was cheering me on. The counselor sternly stated that I was going to be suspended, and I replied that I didn’t give a fuck, at which point the crowd got even louder. This was not only my first act of violence, but also my first act of rebellion, and I knew then that this was how I must act in order to be respected, like my brothers. The final straw came when some of my boy scout troop and I were jumped by a group of African-American teens. After the teens’ laughter and us lying on the ground of the parking lot, we looked at each other and decided then that the boy scouts was not for us. We chucked our uniforms and donned blue jeans and chains, going from scouts to hoodlums.

In Southern California, there tended to be two kinds of Vietnamese gangs. The first was the street gang, largely unstructured. But unlike their Hispanic or African-American counterparts, it was rare for Vietnamese street gangs to truly represent a street or neighborhood. Rather, they were just some Vietnamese teens who got together and named themselves, mostly in accord with the city they were from—like “Pomona Boys” or “Santa Ana Boys”—or something to do with Vietnamese pride, like “V-Boys” or “Vietnamese For Life.” Since I was Vietnamese and from Pomona, my boys and I decided to call ourselves Vietnamese Gangster (VNG) Pomona V-Boys. We used the appendage “V-Boys” because we were the V-Boys’ younger association and under their protection. We started with minor things like cracking arcade games for money, and then moved up to GTA. Fighting was the norm now, and I soon landed in juvenile camp. Three months later, I came out bigger because I finally hit puberty. Everyone who mattered to me knew that I’d just come from the “box” and it wasn’t long before I went back to camp. My father still had hope for me, but after this second stretch, I disappointed him again and was no longer welcome under his roof. So with no place of my own, at age sixteen, I reached out to my brother Tony in Los Angeles, where I met the Black Dragon for the first time.

This is the second kind of Vietnamese gang, more exclusive to the LA area. This second kind was more engaged in organized crime, after the pattern of triads, perhaps because of the close cultural proximity of the Vietnamese to the Chinese. Black Dragon (Hac Lun) was one of these, and unlike the unstructured street gangs, Black Dragon had an ordered hierarchy where a soldier could move up the ranks and, if he is lucky and doesn’t land in prison for life or die, become an “Anh Hai” or a “Tai Lu”—the equivalent of a “Capo” in the Italian crime families.

The history of the Black Dragon began in the early 1980s. Its predecessor, the Viet Thanh, actually yielded three successors: Cool Boys, LA V-Boys, and Black Dragon. Since each came from Viet Thanh, these three were always at war with its rival, the Chinese gang Wa Ching. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Chinatown consisted of both Chinese businesses and Vietnamese businesses. But the Wa Ching began harassing Vietnamese businesses, so the youths of the Vietnamese businesses decided to stand against the Wa Ching. That was how Viet Thanh started. But what started out as noble acts eventually were corrupted as the Viet Thanh became thugs themselves. After the three-way split, Black Dragon migrated to the San Gabriel Valley where it established new territories.

I chose to be part of the Black Dragon mainly because of the respect their members received. For example, one time my boys and I were walking into a nightclub associated with the Black Dragon, and a new bouncer stopped us and pointed us to the back of the line, but then the regular bouncer told him to let us through. (We were all still minors and this club was for those over twenty-one.) When we entered, the new bouncer insisted that we walk through the metal detector, which, of course, we weren’t going to do. This was when the older bouncer stepped in and told the new bouncer, “These guys are the real security of this club.” I still remember his words, and the pride I felt then was overwhelming, but it didn’t compare with what happened next. After my boys and I settled in at a VIP table, this new bouncer asked if he could speak with me. Sitting across from me, he asked for my forgiveness, pleading that he didn’t know since he was new. Here was a middle-aged man humbled, apologizing for his mistake and offering me his services. Respect… at long last.

When I became a member of the Black Dragon gang, I was known as Tin Hac Lun, or Tin BD. I carried that name with pride. When others thought of Black Dragon, I wanted them to think of me. When I was twenty-two, the Temple City Sheriff led the Asian Gang Task Force and rounded up my crew, now known as the “gangbanging” side of Black Dragon. I was facing possible of fifty-eight years for numerous counts of extortion and robbery, so I took a deal for two years and did my time at San Quentin. Obviously, I didn’t learn anything, and worse, I was now connected and moved up the ranks because I’d been to the big house. During this time, my crew and I broke away from our Anh Hai, because we no longer wanted or needed to be under his thumb. We could protect ourselves without him, and we wanted to keep all our earnings and not have to give him a cut. No longer a soldier, I had my own crew. However, we still kept the “Black Dragon” name because we’d earned it, and our loyalty was still to the gang.

Interview-5


Boom
: Tin Hac Lun sounds like a completely different person to the Tin I have known for the past four years. How did the lifestyle you led as Tin Hac Lun end in a prison sentence of life without the possibility of parole?

Tin: Drugs were a major detriment in my life. At a young age, I inadvertently unleashed a demon so voracious that it consumed me. I started drinking in seventh grade, and met Mary Jane (marijuana) and Coco (cocaine) when I was fourteen. A couple years later, at a party, I was sitting on the bathroom floor across from a beautiful woman in her twenties, and she passed me a pipe with some crack…. Part of me screamed, “No!” But the demon within me seductively whispered, “Don’t embarrass yourself in front of this glorious girl—just take a hit, that’s all.” And the demon was right; that was all. I became the demon himself. Mary Jane, Coco, and later Crystal (Methamphetamine) became the three loves of my life. They destroyed me and brought me to the edge of suicide. Yet for one reason or another, I couldn’t find the nerve to do it myself, so I went crazy with drugs and gangs, hoping to end it all.

In 1996, during a robbery in San Jose, I killed Mr. Stanko Vuckovic. Throughout the years, I have replayed that moment repeatedly. I asked myself, “Did I pull the trigger?” or “Did the gun go off during the struggle?” After years of contemplating, I realized there were other factors just as significant. The point that I cocked the gun, that I chose to use the gun in the robbery, and above all my decision to rob this man and take what was not mine were all what caused his death. Yet, these were not the only factors. Other elements, such as abusing drugs, joining a gang and choosing a life of crime, were all the bad choices I made that led me to that very moment. I was going to kill someone eventually. Thus, I am responsible for Mr. Stanko Vuckovic’s death; I pulled the trigger and my only hope is that I can make amends for my actions and decisions.

I was arrested a year after I killed Mr. Vuckovic, and in late 1998 I was convicted and sentence to Life With Out the Possibility of Parole. Let me express now, with all respect, what I have wanted to say for two decades. I’ve run this in my head thousands of times…. I mean, how do I express my remorse and say, “I am so sorry” to a man whose life and future I took, to a family whom I hurt, or to the community I damaged? It’s not enough, and I realize that I must do this in person, for words on paper can never be adequate to sincerely express my contrition.

Boom: Thank you for saying that, Tin. I know that you want to return to your remorse and desire to make amends for past actions. But before you had this realization, what was your life like in a maximum-security prison? Was there anything unique about it from a Vietnamese perspective?

Tin: At age twenty-six, I began my journey on the gravel yard track at Pelican Bay, California’s most dangerous state prison. On my first day, an elder Vietnamese convict approached me and said, “Welcome to Pelican Bay, we’re the worst of the worst in California. You’re with us. You run Asian.” As we approached a table full of Asians and Pacific Islander, he expounded on the first rule, concerning “the boundaries.” He explained that the Whites, Blacks, and Mexicans have their tables, workout areas, and basketball and handball courts, and approximately ten feet around those areas was an invisible line that I was not to cross without their permission—if I did, my well-being would be at risk. Likewise, I was not to allow any other race to cross over our line; my job (and the job of all Asians and Pacific Islanders) was to stop the other races from crossing over, and if necessary, to “take flight” (i.e., stab them). So, that was the creed I lived by for many years. In prison, racial segregation was (and is) the norm; this was one of the many rules I had to abide by.

Here, there are two sets of rules. One is the Administration’s. As a prisoner, if you violate those, then you’ll be put in “the Hole.” The other set of rules is the convicts’. If you violate them, then you’ll have holes put in you.

As for the Vietnamese culture in prison, we might be small, but we’re no less vicious than the other races. Maybe it’s the pride we have. I’d read in a Vietnam War book that there are two nationalities that never stop fighting: one is the Irish; the other, the Vietnamese. At Pelican Bay, we Vietnamese were a tight group, and we helped each other with most things, like food, clothes, etc. Even though we had divisions among ourselves, such as North Cali versus South Cali, we united when troubles came our way—we bowed down to no one, even at the risk of our lives.

barbed wire


Boom
: That life seems a long way behind you now at Lancaster. Tell us about the man you are today, Tin. How did such a remarkable transformation take place?

Tin: This leads me back to the beginning of this interview. I believe there was someone up above divinely watching over me. When I was once surrounded and it looked like it was going to go badly for me, suddenly a big, muscular African American guy and his friends approached the crowd. These guys were Bloods, and they intervened and had a side meeting with the Crips surrounding me. Ultimately, the situation was resolved, and I survived another day. The Good Samaritan’s name was Jimmy, and we eventually became best friends, a big African American and a little Vietnamese. Today, Jimmy and I are both Golden Eagle classmates at California State University, Los Angeles.

Now, during my incarceration, I’ve experienced much pain, and I would shut this pain away, because to feel pain was to be weak, and early in my incarceration I chose never to be weak so that I would not be preyed upon. With this attitude, I felt dead, and in a way I was dead, just a walking corpse with no purpose, hope, or love. Approximately two years ago, I was in a very dark place. I know this sounds cliché, but a dog saved my life. It was part of the Paws for Life Program.[2]

I used to be petrified of dogs— definitely not a dog person. However, all that changed one evening when a Boxer put his head on my lap. Before this happened, my ex-girlfriend had left me. A broken heart is never easy, especially while doing “Life,” and it is not uncommon to feel depressed. However, it should not make one feel hopeless, or even destitute. In hindsight, I realize that this was the pivotal point of my life; whether I was going make it or break it. All the pains of my life, that I had carefully locked away, came rushing out. The pains of my childhood, the regret and remorse of my crime, the loss of my freedom, and the death of my father and brother during my incarceration came back to haunt me. The break up was the key that unlocked my miseries. The pains were excruciating. I wanted to end it one way or another, wanted the pain to go away. I’d kept on like this until I was so broken that I couldn’t deal with it anymore. Once again, I contemplated the forever night, the long sleep. However, an angel came to rescue me. It didn’t come with its majestic wings or divine presence, nor even a halo, but rather with four paws and a mean mug. My angel turned out to be “Vic,” a battered Boxer-breed dog who’d been used as bait for fighting pit bulls. My encounter with Vic happened in a most unusual way.

One evening as I was talking to my friend Bernik, I noticed a Boxer dog full of anxiety. He stood there constantly watching as if something might attack him. Then all of a sudden, he came over and laid his head on my lap. I was scared, yet touched. Then he proceeded to lay down, and Bernik said, “Wow!” It didn’t seem out of the ordinary to me, so I asked why all the excitement. Bernik explained that the Boxer named Vic was a bait dog, who had come here all scarred up with a smashed paw. He had a rough life. Bernik said that since he came in, he hadn’t been able to relax, so lying down and sleeping at my feet was amazing. This broke through me in a way I did not think possible. I knew that I couldn’t help him amid my own pain, but he was offering his pain for me to help with. So I reached down, put my hand on his head, and whispered, “I got your back, bud. No one on this yard is going to hurt you.” From then on, I made sure that I spent as much time as I could to comfort him, train him, and protect him. Through this relationship, Vic got better, and that was the goal. However, though I thought that I was there for him, it was also the other way around; Vic was there for me. He comforted me when I was down and out. He trained me to be strong and get back up, and protected me from my destructive self. The funny thing was that I believed that when Vic came over to me, he was thinking “that guy is suffering like me; maybe I should help and protect him.”

What PFL did for me is extraordinary. PFL not only saved my life, but it also gave me life.

Interview-8.jpg

Though Vic gave me love, I was still somewhat lost, still believing that I was irredeemable and doomed to a life of constant bad decision-making. Then through PFL came a second angel—you Dr. Roy. With your kindness and untiring passion to see the good in all, in everyone, you amazed me and became for me the role model that I’d never had before. No words can express my full appreciation for what you have done for incarcerated people, me especially. You looked at us not through the eyes of an enemy or through hate, but through the eyes of love, and with respect for our humanity. As a result, you gave us confidence, hope, and purpose.

Now I’m a student on this extension campus inside this prison, and I’m on my way to attaining my dream of obtaining a BA degree. I once thought I was irredeemable, meaning that I thought I had to die first and be reincarnated or something else if I were to have any hope of ever being a good person again. Now, the professors and faculty and students at Cal State LA have taught me that I can take down those walls that I built around my heart. Even if it’s day by day, I can take down those walls, because I am the builder. I don’t need them to protect me from pain, failure, or disappointment, because I’m not inherently bad. I know now that being good is a choice that I’ll be faced with making every day of my life. I once was an advocate of all that’s dark and hate surrounded me with those walls. I promoted the Black Dragon and Vietnamese gangs’ lifestyles to other Vietnamese youth, but now, I encourage them to get their education, to transform their lives and live with hope and goodness.

I’m serving a sentence of Life Without the Possibility of Parole, which means that if the laws do not change or society has no mercy for me, then I will die in prison. “Life Without the Possibility of Parole” is a death sentence—the only difference between it and lethal injection is that Death Row prisoners get a final meal and a team of lawyers. Still, as bleak as my circumstances are, I find myself happier than at any time in my life since childhood. That little Vietnamese kid with his little red wagon that was imprisoned as P24706, today I walk my dog in the evening on the prison yard, and no longer feel the cold concrete walls with their sharp razor-wire, nor the tower with its gunner and Mini-14. Here, it is just me and my dog… and I feel free.


 
Editor’s Postscript:
When the interview was completed at the end of the third meeting, without explanation Tin prostrated himself before Dr. Roy in the middle of the prison yard in front of all the guards and other prisoners. He performed a deeply meaningful ritual, later explaining it in the following way, asking that it be included in this interview to honor the family of Stanko Vuckovic—the man whose life he took.

Tin: I may never have that chance to apologize in person, so I’d like to do this now at least.
I would like to do this in the Vietnamese traditional way.
I am on my knees, and bow my head, prostrating myself, three times.
With each: “I am so sorry, please forgive me.”
I promise for the rest of my life, as a living amends, I will do my best to impact others’ lives for the good in homage of you, your family, and your community. Thank you for allowing me to be honest and express my remorse.

 

Prison_Card_4_215_Final

Notes

[1] These numbers, while a bit dated, are provided by the Asian Prisoner Support Committee, https://apscinfo.wordpress.com/2010/10/06/apis-in-ca-prisons/. More up to date details can be found in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s offender data points demographic, comprising the most recent demographic information for those incarcerated in CDCR, https://www.cdcr.ca.gov/Reports_Research/docs/Data_Points_Dec_2016.pdf. From December 2016, the “Others” population (which includes American Indian, Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, and Asians, many of whom are Vietnamese) consisted of 8,907 individuals incarcerated in the state system (6.9% of the total population of incarcerated people). Of this number, 598 were born in Vietnam (in December 2014, it was 660). See pp. 10, 17, 85 of the report.

[2] Paws for Life (PFL) is a therapeutic program and unique partnership between the organization Karma Rescue and the California State Prison–LA County that began in 2014. See http://karmarescue.org/paws-for-life/ and also Jackie Fernandez, “CSP-Los Angeles County launches Paws For Life program,” Inside CDCR, 3 July 2014, https://www.insidecdcr.ca.gov/2014/07/csp-los-angeles-county-launches-paws-for-life-program/.

 

 Tin Nguyen has been incarcerated for nineteen years, serving a Life Without the Possibility of Parole sentence. A son, brother, uncle, and capable of change. He is a student in Cal State LA’s BA program, as well as a dog trainer in the “Paws For Life” dog program at Los Angeles County Prison, Lancaster.

Bidhan Chandra Roy is an associate professor of English Literature at California State University, Los Angeles. He is the founder of WordsUncaged, a platform for men sentenced to life sentences in California prisons to dialogue and critically engage with the world beyond the prison walls. He is also the faculty director of Cal State LA’s BA program at Los Angeles County Prison, Lancaster, as well co-chairman of the board of Karma Rescue, an organization that runs the “Paws for Life” dog rescue and training programs in prisons throughout California.

Copyright: © 2018 Tin Nguyen and Bidhan Chandra Roy. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

 

ArticlesInterviews

Best of Boom 2017

Looking back on the year that’s been, with the countless number of untold stories of resistance and life made meaningful, especially in California, we remain grateful especially to our readers! For a quick outro to the year, then, we wanted to gather some of the best of what they found to be the most interesting reflections on California culture from some of the most-read interviews and articles in Boom California for 2017. Thanks for reading—see you in the new year!

Year end list v3


Most read interviews:

A Boom Interview: Kevin Starr

The late, great chronicler of California gives one of his last interviews with Boom editor, Jason Sexton, reflecting on religion, life, and his changing views about California.

Starr


Michel Foucault in Death Valley: A Boom interview with Simeon Wade

Heather Dundas sits down with the (now) late Simeon Wade, gathering his reflections on the 1975 Death Valley experience with Michel Foucault, which the philosopher called “a great experience, one of the most important in my life,” and sat as the backdrop to his thinking about California.

Foucault

Photo by Simeon Wade.

 

Most read articles:
Gary Reger, “The Deserts of Los Angeles: Two Topologies”

This sweeping long-read demonstrates the problematic with sustained literary attempts to mythologize Los Angeles as a desert out there or underneath it all.

Reger

Photo by Matt Gush.

 

D. J. Waldie, “What Does It Mean to Become Californian?”

The great historian and essayist of L.A. suburbia gathers together memory, imagination, and experience in a meditation on what the California dream means for the ordinary and every other possible kind of Californian.

Waldie

Photo by Matt Gush.

 

Richard L. Hindle, “California’s Legacy of Swamplands”

Surveying the early patent technology that enabled California to develop the area around the California Delta once known as swampland, and all the challenges that remain with this way of rendering the environment.

Hindle

 

Lynell George, “State of Being: Envisioning California”

Flashing from an erstwhile Los Angeles to an erstwhile San Francisco to today and back again, Lynell George accounts for trying to hold onto these distinct California places in their ever-shifting phantasmagoria.

George

Photo by Lynell George.

 

Susannah Sayler and Edward Morris, “What is a River in California?”

Drawing from Syracuse University’s Water Gold Soil project, Sayler and Morris offer Heideggerian reflections on the danger of utilizing technologies for the fantastic making of modern California, its rivers, and their consequences.

Salyers

 

Lori A. Flores, “Seeing Through Murals: The Future of Latino San Francisco”

As San Francisco evolves in the hands of the technocrats, displacing Latino families in the Mission and effecting a “cultural eviction,” Lori Flores wonders what role to Latino murals play in this narrative?

Flores

 

Manuel Pastor, “Undocumented Californians and the Future of the Golden State”

Kicking off our Undocumented California series with sociologist Manuel Pastor reflecting on California’s constantly changing attitudes toward undocumented immigrants, and the role they may yet play in California’s future.

santaana_undoc-2ed4

Interviews

Revisiting L.A.’s Floodpath: A Boom Interview with Jon Wilkman

Jon Wilkman


Editor’s note
: Over the past seven years, Boom has focused much of its attention on water in California. In 2013, commemorating the centenary of the Los Angeles aqueduct’s opening on 5 November 1913, our previous editor Jon Christensen and others spent some time reflecting on water and L.A. And so it’s no surprise that we’ve come back to it now. California’s life will be forever intertwined with the innovative use of water for its existence, which is perhaps as relevant for Los Angeles as anywhere. Here we sit down with Jon Wilkman, the author of Floodpath: The Deadliest Man-Made Disaster of 20th-Century America and the Making of Modern Los Angeles (New York: Bloomsbury, 2016), which received the Historical Society of Southern California’s Martin Ridge Award for Best Book of California History after 1848, and was also an Amazon 2016 Nonfiction Book of the Year.


Boom:
You published a book recently, Floodpath, which has been optioned for a television mini-series by Joel Silver Productions. You also gave a recent talk on this at the Mechanics’ Institute in San Francisco, and earlier this year published an article in Southern California Quarterly.[1] What brought you to this subject of water in California history in the first place? And specifically in Los Angeles?

Wilkman: I grew up in the San Fernando Valley, not too far from the ruins of the St. Francis Dam in San Francisquito Canyon, fifty miles north of downtown L.A. and northeast of Santa Clarita. But like many Americans, Californians, and even Angelenos, I had never heard of the disaster that killed well over 400 people. In the fourth grade I built a Spanish mission model, but there had been no classroom mention of the St. Francis Dam when I graduated from North Hollywood High School. As an elementary school kid, heading north on family vacations, we passed the Cascades, the concrete chute that disgorges water from the Owens Valley. When I asked what it was I was told, “That’s where our water comes from.” After college in the Midwest and the beginning of a career as a documentary filmmaker in New York, when I returned to Los Angeles in 1978 I rediscovered my home town, and especially its often overlooked and underappreciated history. I was hooked. While developing a public television series, “The Los Angeles History Project,” I ran across Man-Made Disaster: The Story of the St. Francis Dam, a 1963 book by Ventura County historian, Charles Outland. That set me and my late wife Nancy on a 25-year-long quest to document and tell the story of the St. Francis Dam in a modern context. As early as 1990, we began to videotape interviews with eyewitness and survivors. Some of them are included in Floodpath, and can be seen in a short film I made to promote the book.[2]


Boom:
Most people who are not historians may probably know the name Mulholland from the 2001 David Lynch film, Mulholland Drive; many Angelenos will have even driven the winding road with the same name. But who was William Mullholland and why does he matter today?

Wilkman: There would be no modern Los Angeles without William Mulholland. Some City of the Angels bashers might say no modern L.A. wouldn’t be such a bad thing, but Mulholland’s life and legacy are larger than life and Shakespearean in their rise and fall. An Irish immigrant to Los Angeles, he started as a ditch-digger in 1878, became a self-taught engineer, and in 1913 was responsible for the completion of the 233-mile-long Owens River Aqueduct, at the time, the longest in the world. With this great achievement, and others afterward, came legendary status and over confidence that led to the misjudgments that caused the failure of the St. Francis Dam. To me, his biography is filled with insights into the growth of Los Angeles, and even the United States, and warnings and lessons that have never been more relevant.

Dirt_via_Flickr user John Davey

Dirt via Flickr user John Davey.


Boom
: The leading L.A. writer David Ulin wrote a piece in Boom a few years ago, under the same title as Mullholland’s infamous phrase, “There it is! Take it!” highlighting both something of a wild ambition as well as an exploitation, what some have referred to as L.A.’s Original Sin. But could you tell us what the innovation of the Los Angeles Aqueduct meant for Los Angeles at the time when it opened? What did it also mean for California and the world?

Wilkman: To get to your question in a roundabout fashion, aside from a widespread lack of knowledge about the full extent of Los Angeles history, there’s a long tradition of “noir L.A.,” which I believe originated in a 1920s east-coast-based belief that Los Angeles was somehow an unjustified urban aberration, built on fraud and shallow values—certainly not a “real” city like New York, Boston, or even San Francisco, where hucksterism and chicanery were considered colorful, not foundationally sinister.  Frankly, I think it’s time to give L.A. noir a long vacation, if not a trip to a rest home.  Good, bad, and otherwise, the history of Los Angeles is too fascinating, influential, and important to be summed up in a popular novel and movie genre. To make a fresh start, I can’t think of any better story for a deep dive than the tragedy of the St. Francis Dam.

Frankly, I think it’s time to give L.A. noir a long vacation, if not a trip to a rest home.  Good, bad, and otherwise, the history of Los Angeles is too fascinating, influential, and important to be summed up in a popular novel and movie genre.

“There it is! Take it!” is often cited as the short speech that encapsulates a legacy of quasi-criminal usurpation that’s the history of water in Los Angeles—as you say, L.A.’s “Original Sin.” The facts, as they tend to be, are multi-faceted. Mulholland’s five words occurred at the end of a longer less punchy oration, interrupted when water from the Aqueduct began to flow, and eager Angelenos rushed to dip tin cups into the city’s man-made river. The classic film noir, Chinatown, draws upon the mix of truth, half-truths, and conspiracy theories that followed. The business insiders who hugely profited by early investments in the San Fernando Valley had lots of power and influence, but at the time funding for the Aqueduct wasn’t assured, and unlike the plotting of Chinatown, they didn’t have to con other Angelenos by dumping water to fake a drought (something Mulholland would have never allowed). As we know from recent history, droughts were regular and real and the vast majority of the city’s citizens believed more water could benefit everyone in Southern California, as it ultimately did. Former city engineer and mayor Fred Eaton, representing Los Angeles as well as himself, indeed used surreptitious tactics to conceal his true intentions when he convinced Owens Valley farmers and ranchers to sell land with access to the Owens River. Even if the water was purchased, sometimes at inflated prices, not “stolen,” it was an unprecedented transfer of resources from one region to another in an era of small town localism. In the context of the Progressive politics of the day, with the backing of President Theodore Roosevelt, the acquisition was justified as providing “the greatest good to the greatest number.” But for the residents of the Owens Valley, the results had damaging and long-term ecological and economic consequences. They fought back with a water war that continues to this day. In the process, Valley activists repeatedly dynamited the Aqueduct, then, and even now, seen as a heroic act of defiance, although others might consider it terrorism. For Los Angeles, with water available beyond the elusive Los Angeles River, nearby independent communities were willing to be annexed to greater L.A., quenching thirst and irrigating crops. As a result, the city grew from forty-three square miles in 1913 to 442 by 1930. Combined with opportunities for trade, made possible by a new man-made harbor, which opened in San Pedro in 1907, by 1920 Los Angeles was poised to become the preeminent economic center of California, and eventually an important world capital.


Boom:
Obviously, the dam no longer exists, and your book and recent article accounts for these things in some detail, but can you briefly tell us what happened with the tragedy on 12 March 1928.

Wilkman: Construction of the 200 feet-tall arched concrete St. Francis Dam was officially completed on 4 May 1926. Over the next nearly two years, as the reservoir was slowly filled, cracks and leaks appeared. At first they weren’t a source of concern because such fissures are common with concrete dams as they cure and settle. When they happen they are patched with caulk. Despite this, on the morning of 12 March 1928, St. Francis Dam watchman Tony Harnischfeger was especially anxious when he discovered leaking water that appeared to be filled with soil, a sign the foundations of the dam might be dissolving. He called his boss, William Mulholland, who, joined by his assistant, Harvey Van Norman, drove from Los Angeles to investigate. When Mulholland examined the leak, he said he saw it running clear. It became filled with soil only after it encountered construction debris lower down. Convinced the dam was safe, Mulholland and Van Norman returned to Los Angeles. Only hours later, shortly before midnight, with no warning the St. Francis Dam collapsed catastrophically. In forty-five minutes the St. Francis Reservoir was empty and 12.4 billion gallons of water were rushing west through San Francisquito Canyon and the Santa Clara River Valley toward the Pacific Ocean, 54 miles away. In between, thousands of people in towns like Piru, Fillmore and Santa Paula were sound asleep. With downed telephone lines, it would take more than an hour before warnings were issued. To some, they never came. Well over four hundred died.


Boom:
What did that disaster mean at the time, for Mulholland, for Los Angeles, and California?

Wilkman: Mulholland was obviously devastated by the collapse of the dam he’d built in San Francisquito Canyon. He never really recovered, personally or professionally. Although he refused to accept independent engineering accusations of inadequate safety measures and faulty decision-making, probably believing a dynamite attack was to blame, he nevertheless took full responsibility. “If there was an error of human judgment, I was the human,” he said, adding, “The only ones I envy about this thing are those who are dead. “Aside from the tragic loss of life, the St. Francis Dam disaster couldn’t have come at a worse time for the future of water infrastructure in California and the American West. Plans for Boulder (Hoover) Dam were caught in a Congressional crossfire between those who believed in private enterprise and advocates of government support for new dams and hydroelectric projects. The failure of a city-built concrete dam near Los Angeles seemed to confirm that public agencies weren’t up to the task. In the end, a compromise between public and private interests allowed for the construction a series of dams that transformed the American West and Southeast. To put the matter behind as soon as possible, Los Angeles, without acknowledging blame, rapidly made restitution for loss of life and property damage. Most important, California established a dam safety regulation and review system that became a model for other states, and even countries overseas.

St. Francis Dam wing dike, The Greater Southwestern Exploration Company via Flickr

St. Francis Dam wing dike, courtesy of The Greater Southwestern Exploration Company via Flickr.


Boom:
Knowing what he knew after the disaster, what do you think Mulholland could have done differently? If he knew and had today’s technology, what would be different with what he did?

Wilkman: There were plenty things Mulholland could have done at the time. To start, building the dam in a less treacherous geological environment. I don’t think Mulholland’s culpability can be excused by a lack of modern technology. The latest explanations blame a massive landslide as the initial cause of the failure, a situation some have said couldn’t be discerned by geologists in the 1920s. In fact, after the collapse, ancient landslides at the dam site were clearly identified in 1928 by a Stanford geologist. Mulholland’s failing was hubris. He believed he knew best and didn’t consult others. Even if he included the latest safety measures in his design, most engineers believe the geology of St. Francisquito Canyon doomed the St. Francis Dam. Too often, though, the disaster is treated as an anomaly—the work of a self-trained engineer and arrogant old man. However, despite generations of university-educated engineers and computer-aided design, dams can still fail, and do. Most often, though, it isn’t a matter of faulty design, but a failure to anticipate and respond effectively to worst-case scenarios and especially inadequate maintenance.

However, despite generations of university-educated engineers and computer-aided design, dams can still fail, and do. Most often, though, it isn’t a matter of faulty design, but a failure to anticipate and respond effectively to worst-case scenarios and especially inadequate maintenance.

Boom: This Spring and Summer our levees were tested with both the Delta levees and the canals. Kingsburg had flooding of a resort, along with the Delta’s Treasure Island, Van Sickle Island, among others. Much of California actually sits in flood zone areas. My hometown of Tracy does, in the Delta region. And while I knew that Tracy had its problems, I didn’t realize that one of them was its low-lying situation until Kevin Starr pointed it out to me. But add to this our dams that sit above many communities—Lake Isabella above Bakersfield, Oroville Dam, Folsom Lake, and many others. Our infrastructure is also in need of great repair. What do you think California needs in terms of its water infrastructure repair?

Wilkman: I am not an engineer, so can’t respond with specifics. As I indicated in my previous answer, regular and adequate maintenance is essential. That certainly appeared to be an issue with Oroville, along with some design weaknesses. Recently, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the state of dam infrastructure in America a grade of D+.  Yet even in the best of circumstances, unprecedented acts of nature can be overwhelming, as sadly proved recently in Texas and Florida. Preparation for the worst is always a good strategy, including avoiding construction in known flood plains, but sometimes even that isn’t enough when flooding, as it was in Houston, is the greatest in a thousand years.


Boom:
What do you think is the future of water in California? How do you envision us better reckoning with it and its power. Should we be more aggressive or more conservative toward it? In short, more technology, or more work with nature? And of course, there’s no indication that there will be any less people in California in the foreseeable future. What sort of things worry you about the future of California water infrastructure? And what sort of things should we as Californians and also our civic and governmental leaders be thinking about that we and they are not currently doing?

Wilkman: I read an interesting statistic while researching Floodpath. In 2015 Los Angeles consumed less water that the city did in 1970, and L.A.’s population was a million more. In the aftermath of the recent drought, I don’t know if that’s changed for worse or better, but it shows there can be hope if we adopt effective regulations and technologies, as well as enlightened lifestyle expectations. Again, I’m a filmmaker and historian, but from what I know, efforts to work with nature, not attempts to remake or ignore it, are what a lot of thoughtful engineers and social planners are thinking about. New technology, sure, but also conservation programs, including capturing what rain we get for local reuse or stored in natural aquifers, not just uncovered concrete-lined reservoirs. Establishing resource allocation policies that deal with urban and agricultural needs is obviously vital too. Certainly there’s no excuse for the citizens of California to be ill-informed about the challenges we face. No matter what some political leaders at the highest national level may believe, the effects of global warming are real and they’re not going to wait for the next election for us to act.

BOOM SLO-1


Notes

[1] Jon Wilkman, “Floodpath: The Forgotten History of the 1928 St. Francis Dam Disaster,” Southern California Quarterly 99 (2017): 71-88, http://scq.ucpress.edu/content/99/1/71.

[2] https://vimeo.com/153180111.

 

Jon Wilkman is a native of Los Angeles and graduate of Oberlin College. A documentary filmmaker and author, his films have won numerous national and international awards. Books include Picturing Los Angeles and Floodpath: The Deadliest Man-Made Disaster of 20th Century America on the Making of Modern Los Angeles.  He is currently working on a new book, Screening Reality: How Real World Moviemakers Reimagined America.

Copyright: © 2017 Jon Wilkman. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/