Category: Postcards Series

Postcards Series

Cima Dome, East Mojave National Preserve

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


Courtesy of Fernando Mendez Corona

Ruth Nolan

–After the Dome Fire, August 2020

It’s a hot, late September Day, and I’m driving alone into the East Mojave Preserve from the south, following Kelso Road off of Interstate 40.

I’m on my way to view the impacts of the recent, devastating 43,000-acre Dome Fire, which ripped through the Cima Dome area, formerly home to one of the world’s healthiest and most stunning Joshua tree woodlands.

I’m not intimidated by these vastly remote spaces of the Mojave Desert. In fact, I feel quite at home. Every mile I drive, past granite outcrops, ragged rock peaks, the massive Kelso Sand Dunes brings me closer to the heart of memory and home.

This is where I worked on many wildfires during the late 1980s, based at the Bureau of Land Management California Desert District Apple Valley Fire Station a 2-hour drive to the south. I worked one season on Engine Crew 6365, and a second season as a Helicopter 554 helitack/hotshot crew member.

As the miles melt into one another on this lonely, two-lane road, I’m embraced with memories that are both reassuring and unsettling as I remember firefighting moments and memories from time spent and shared with family and friends in the subsequent years.

“Joshua Tree woodlands at Cima Dome, 2017” by Ruth Nolan, from Fire On the Mojave: Stories from the Deserts and Mountains of Inland Southern California.

“Ruth Nolan with Flight Crew 554, Bureau of Land Management Apple Valley Fire Station, 1987” photo courtesy of Ruth Nolan.

This is where I fell in love with my daughter’s father, who I met and worked with on the engine crew, another fire crew member. This is where we battled several vehicle fires, and stopped the spread of any adjacent brush fires, using water hoses from our fire engine and the occasional shovel and chainsaw.

This is where I flew many times during the summer of 1987 on Helicopter 554, dropped off with six other crew members, high up in the Granite Mountains to control a lightning-torched blaze in a pinyon pine forest and spent a surprisingly cold night to make sure the fire was completely out.

Every desert fire, past and present, especially ones I worked on and even now, feels deeply personal to me. As I watched media coverage of the Dome Fire play out online, I reacted as I usually do during every major desert fire event over the years. I was frustrated and felt displaced to not be there in person, doing something to help with fire suppression operations – shovel work cutting fireline, perhaps, or helping with helicopter operations at the makeshift helicopter operations base.

The East Mojave Preserve – a large part of my firefighter turf for two fire seasons – in particular, feels like home to me. My memories and lingering physical presence are seared into the landscape itself. With every new fire, I have felt a familiar rush of adrenaline, a huge responsibility to be there, participating in the teamwork and makeshift firefighter community to help mitigate the damage from the burn. Many of my former desert wildland firefighter friends tell me they feel the same way.

There’s the ruts of the Old Mojave Road heading west towards a harsh area known as the Devil’s Playground, route for many 19th century pioneers heading west to the Promised Land of California citrus and sunshine, layered over a centuries old trail established and used by indigenous people traveling across the Mojave from one rare and precious water source to the next: places such as Marl and ZZYZX Springs, often up to thirty miles apart. My daughter – now a young adult raising a family of her own in Minneapolis – and I explored out here in my Jeep years ago to search for and photograph 30 different species of desert wildflowers for her high school biology class project.

“Joshua Tree woodlands at Cima Dome, 2017” by Ruth Nolan, from Fire On the Mojave: Stories from the Deserts and Mountains of Inland Southern California.

I drive past the Kelso Depot, an historic train station that’s been recently refurbished to its early 20th century glory, and head north towards Cima Road. Slowly, to the west, I begin to see the massive bulge of Cima Dome, a part of the area out here known as the Cinder Cones National Natural Landmark. The remains of eroding granite that formed under the earth’s surface millions of years ago, it rises 1,500 feet (460 m) above the volcanic plain and covers 70 square miles.

It is the color of charcoal today. The size of the Dome Fire slowly reveals itself, and the searing impacts of its black wrath are obvious. Teutonia Peak, once covered with part of one of the world’s most expansive Joshua tree forests, has taken on the tones and look of a cinder cone.

As I slow the car down and pull into the small dirt parking area at the trailhead to Teutonia Peak, I look up: a red-tail hawk circles above, riding on a fit of ash-strewn wind that is spinning into a dark dust devil.

I put the car into park, turn off the ignition. Complete silence. I’m in a desert graveyard, and the most obvious dead appear to be the ghosts of charred Joshua trees.

My mind goes into a sort of firefighter mode as I begin to walk through the ashy remains, grateful I wore my oldest hiking boots, which area already getting charred. I imagine how this fire played out, what it would have been like to have worked on the Dome Fire.

I was, and still am, often asked why I, as a woman, would “do that kind of work.” And to me, it’s always been simple: it is work that I felt incredibly at home with, at one with a working family, and a job that allowed me to express my love and need to nurture and care for the land that I deeply loved. By tending to wildfire, and its immediate and enduring impacts on the land.

First and foremost is a feeling of performing a job that is layered in domestic terminology and structure. The firefighting community is as tightly knit and mutually interdependent as a family unit. Crew members, whose lives depended on the vigilance and support of one another, and who typically

Even many of the terms in the firefighter’s lexicon are domestic: there’s the endless chore known as “mopping up,” which involves spending many slow and tedious hours walking through areas that have burned and stirring and cooling layers of hot ash. There are the times we’d spend “babysitting a fire,” usually at night, when many fires tended to slow down, or “laid itself down,” where fire crews would spread themselves 10 or 20 feet apart along a fireline at the edge of the burn to prevent spot fires from starting up in the green vegetation. And, the activities that include “putting a fire to bed:” wrapping up a wildfire event with a fire under control and operations winding down. There are also the “widow makers,” trees that have partially burned or whose roots are smoldering that occasionally fall down without warning as crews work below, sometimes lethally.

“15 years after the 2005 Hackberry Complex Fire, just south of Cima Dome” by Ruth Nolan, from The Deserts and Mountains of Inland Southern California.

Even though I wasn’t a mother yet then, I operated in a mama bear mode, ready to protect life and limb of my beloved desert and western wildlands, as well as human lives and homes, without hesitation.

We were firmly guided by critical principles, such as the 10 Basic Firefighter Rules, that are imprinted into my brain to this day and often serve as a guiding survival template in day to day living and have informed my work as a parent and educator in many ways.

For example: Be alert, keep calm, think clearly, act decisively. Know your escape route at all times. Give clear instructions and ensure they are understood. Fight fire aggressively, having provided for safety first.

I’ll never forget the scorching summer day working on a desert fire when a crew member, a friend to this day, turned and yelled, “Rattlesnake!” just as I was about to step on a huge Mojave Green.

I learned, through vivid and immediate experience, that sometimes, fires are mostly out of firefighters’ control. That things don’t always turn out the way we would have expected them to. And that we have to learn to live with that. We can’t save everything. And firefighters sometimes get injured. Some even die.

As I and walk along the edge of the ragged, hastily-cut fireline at the edge of the burn zone, I search for what firefighters may have left behind: boot prints in the ashes, not erased by away by rain; fragments of charred fire hose; perhaps a broken boot lace or someone’s crumpled bandana. I can almost hear the whine of Helicopter 554’s rotors and feel the wash of wind and sting of dirt kicking up in my face as I guide it to land for another water bucket refill, a gritty taste in my mouth.

The jagged caw-caw of a raven perched atop a black bristle of burnt Joshua tree pulls me out of my reverie. I look to the sky, which is slowly turning into a hazy brown as smoke from multiple other wildfire events across California and the Western U.S. works its way across the Mojave Desert.

As I survey the hulking charred ruins of the Joshua tree forests stretching beyond me farther than I can see, I can’t help but wonder, like a fretful parent soothing their little one’s feverish brow while trying to work out how their child has gotten seriously ill, what happened out here? Why and how did this desert fire get so big? Why was did it take four days for helicopter support?

“Joshua Tree woodlands after the Dome Fire, 2020” by Laura Cunningham

It’s a tragedy that the Dome Fire grew to the size that it did. It’s inexplicable to me that H554 didn’t get out here as an initial attack crew and get this fire under control immediately. I know it was possible, had resources been available on August 12 when a lightning strike started this blaze. Then again, there were so many things out of anyone’s control that day. Fire resources were already stretched thin as multiple major fires played out across California, an unfortunate situation worsened by the sharp reduction of available inmate firefighter crews due to the coronavirus pandemic.

I’m reminded, as I look for signs of life, and recovery, and don’t see any yet, that many expectations in my personal life haven’t turned out the way I thought they would.

It wasn’t long after my time working on fires out here that my daughter’s father began his lifelong stints in prison – first working for Susanville fire camp, and later, as his crimes became more serious, time in maximum prison. I haven’t communicated with him in years.

My boyfriend, ten years ago, dying by suicide not long after we took our beauty-love drive through here and added to the stories. My friend I collected soil samples with and bonded over our appreciation for the nuances of how to get unstuck from deep sand, died several years ago in a terrible highway accident.

And so it is that I stand alone out here, embraced in a collective grief that is not mine alone. I also share it with many friends and desert lovers who also express their dismay at the Joshua tree loss on social media.

It’s awkward that the trees are still here, they still stand, and many will soon tumble to the ground, their limbs strewn across a suddenly emptied land space like human bones, and the recovery in this arid land will evolve slowly, as slow as the movements of a desert tortoise, as all ecologies in the desert do. And fire regimes – long-term burn and recovery impacts and adaptations/regrowth in Mojave Desert ecologies are still not entirely known.

But standing in loss is not enough. What will I tell my grandchildren when I bring them here?

Wildfire, one of the four basic elements, even at its most terrible, works its magic in the desert in ways we do not understand. I have enough knowledge from experience to know that fire on the land is both a blessing and a bane, and I’m nourished by my growing understanding, layered atop my firefighting work and my ongoing research for my humanities project, Fire on the Mojave: Stories from the Deserts and Mountains of Inland Southern California, that beauty and restoration will come.

So many desert stories, mine, and those who passed through here before me, those I worked alongside on fire crews. Today, I’m bound to honor these stories, and keep their visages alive, just as the Joshua trees have not simply disappeared – they have been transformed, even if it’s not what I want to see.

I refuse to resign myself to the circulating, apocalyptic idea that climate change has destroyed this place forever. That at the whim of a lightning strike and a resulting massive fire fueled by climate change alone, this cherished and well-tended place, turned into an eternal place of death.

I’ll bring my little grandchildren here next spring, and as with other Mojave Desert wildfire remains, we’ll look for places on this altered landscape that may have been obscured before the fire. Perhaps we’ll find sleeping circles, or petroglyphs on the rocks at one of the area’s springs, now revealed after the underbrush around them has been burned away. We may even discern, and follow, the faint traces of forgotten trails, where so many of our ancestors have walked before us.  

And if we come at the right time, we’ll surely see wildflowers carpeting the burn zone, with or without adequate winter rain, purple, yellow, white and orange, as a direct result of the fire – as occurred in the site of the nearby 2005 Hackberry Fire – as well as the resprouting of other native shrubs. We may even see the tiniest of resprouts of some of the Joshua trees, needling their way towards the sun, one slow and sure inch at a time.

And I’ll bring a stack of makeshift fire tools – small, foldable shovels – and teach the kids how to cut a small fireline, how to stir the ashes and make sure the hot coals are completely out, and how to work as a team. We will learn how to tend the land by fighting fire, even it’s a make believe one for them, and how to care for our desert land, together, as a family. Together, we will build relationships with wildfire and the long-established fire ecologies here in the Mojave Desert, where fires will always, inevitably burn, as part of the natural processes of lightning and flame and transformation spelled out upon the land.

Ruth Nolan grew up in California’s Mojave Desert and worked as a wildland firefighter for the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service during the 1980s. Her California-desert based writing has been published in LA Fiction: Southland Writing by Southland Writers (Red Hen Press;) Women Studies Quarterly; Rattling Wall; Desert Oracle; Sierra Club Desert Report; the Desert Sun/USA Today; News from Native California; New California Writing/Heyday; KCET Artbound L.A. and KCET Tending Nature. Her fiction has been nominated for a PEN Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers and received an honorable mention award in Sequestrum’s editor reprint contest. She is curator of the ongoing humanities project Fire on the Mojave: Stories from the Deserts and Mountains of Inland Southern California. Ruth is coeditor of Fire and Rain: Ecopoetry of California (Scarlet Tanager), which placed as a finalist in the 2018 Eric Hoffer Independent Book Awards, and editor of the critically-acclaimed No Place for a Puritan:  the Literature of California’s Deserts (Heyday.)She is also the author of the poetry book Ruby Mountain (Finishing Line.) She is the recipient of grants from the California Arts Council; Bread Loaf Writers Conference; Phi Kappa Phi and the California Writers Residency/1888 Center program. Ruth isProfessor of English and creative writing at College of the Desert.

Copyright: © 2020 Ruth Nolan. 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/.

Postcard Series:

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

South Bakersfield’s Confederate Remains

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


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Nicholas Belardes

I. The Battle of Chester Avenue

We gather south of Chester Avenue’s railroad tracks. Air murmurs with violence. Everyone’s hungry for the blood of what’s taken place, a battle between freight train and car. We gaze at the aftermath. A hellscape. A nightmare. A car mangled in near darkness a few dozen yards from where Dad often takes us for burgers. A&W Root Beer. This is the periphery of how far me and my siblings are allowed to wander from our home on Geneva Avenue.

We heard the crash from our living rooms and front yards and now the community mobs the street. Years later I think this must have been what watching the Civil War was like: a community coming together to observe the collision of gunpowder, steel and flesh. Only, this is our poor man’s take. The barrio version. The working class.

It will be decades before I have any kind of worldview or identity. This is the summer of ‘77. California’s Central Valley. South Bakersfield. A few months before a gargantuan dust storm swallows everything.

Our mixed community as a whole doesn’t seem conscious of itself. Not tonight as we fume and buzz over the train wreck.

I’m small in the crowd. A thing. A feeling. A spore. A lost boy, decades from his struggle to fight political and social forces much greater than this metaphor of rails and blood. Before all the immigration reform marches and rallies. I’m in fourth grade. I don’t realize I’m fighting against this train. It’s smashing into my identity every day, the same way it barrels through Russian thistle and ghosts of. I’m not aware of my hopelessness. I don’t realize I’m the car. I only know I’m here. I want to see the remains of this disaster.

The police won’t allow anyone near the tracks. Not unless you’re a firefighter or detective. From the driver’s seat of our van, Dad, a self-professed ex-Bay Area cop watches the scene with a kind of calm. A vato with a mission. Somehow wanting to teach his kids that our world is violent, mercurial, dangerous. He seems attracted to the pull of violence, like he has to be in the middle of it. And since my brother, sister and I feel safe around him, we’re eager as we slowly park alongside this mass of bodies that fills this usually busy thoroughfare.

The freight train sprawls across Chester Avenue in semi-darkness. The car twisted and smashed against its engine. Detectives hunt with flashlights further down the tracks.

Parents, teenagers, and kids have congregated. What makes this crowd special is all the forgotten hate between neighbors. These people live next door to each other but never talk. They secretly throw rocks at each other’s windows when they’re not home. All the bullies are here too. The ones who pick on me at school—friendly during this snapshot of violence. All making up stories as fast as their mouths can yammer. They want to be heard. Even if only a half peckerwood like me is listening.

Necks crane to see what might happen next, whether ghosts might rise from rocks and dirt. Whether bodies might slip out of the mangled car and stumble herky-jerk down the rails.

“They’re looking for a hand,” says Ruben, a bully with a mouth scar that looks like his lips had once been sewed together.

Other rumors fly like bats. The train smashed into the car on purpose. The car flew across the tracks on a dare. A semi pushed the car into the train. Black, white, Japanese-American, Mexican-American—doesn’t matter who makes up each conspiracy. This could have been a meteor strike or space alien invasion and these people would have banded together to talk shit like it really happened. This is something I’ve never seen in the neighborhood. Something I will never see again except at South High School football games when families from the projects and low-income housing come to root on their racist mascots made in the image of Confederate militants. It’s insane if you think about it: Confederate imagery in the mixed-race neighborhoods of South Bakersfield.

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The Belardes family in the 1970s. Photograph courtesy of author.

II. A White Mythology

Confederate and Civil War imagery surround me. It’s 1982. I’m fourteen, a freshman at South High School. Home of the Rebels. The Blue & Gray. The Merrimac Yearbook. Johnny and Jody yell leaders in military-style grey uniforms and Confederate hats. Our mascot is a cartoon Confederate soldier. I don’t understand what I’m seeing. I don’t understand racism, slavery, war, who fought what or when, and for what cause. I’m so caught up in our school spirit I pin a tiny Confederate flag to a Confederate soldier hat my Mexican-American dad brings home from a swapmeet. He thinks it’s cool. I think this is what high school is all about. Rebel soldiers. Like Star Wars. Like The Empire Strikes Back. I don’t realize a cartoon mascot is a symbol for retaining an economic system that allows for the horrific right to own slaves. I somehow think I’m one of the good guys.

Street names around South High are all Civil War-inspired. Sumter, Merrimac, Monitor, Rebel, Raider, Evelyn. Evelyn might be Evelyn Magruder DeJarnette, a white nineteenth-century writer. She taught slave kids on a Virginia plantation. She culturally appropriated them by writing stories in slave dialect. Her husband was a captain for the Confederate Army, a farmer who owned slaves.

Take a turn down White (Supremacist) Lane onto Monitor Street and you’ll reach Plantation Avenue. An elementary school by the same name still stands there (So do the street names).

III. The Gridiron Race Riot

Sometime between 1984 and 1986 I’m in the stands above our school’s sunken gridiron battlefield for a matchup between North and South high schools. I’m tossing confetti, chanting cheers. I’m really into it when both football teams transform gridiron to full-on mob violence. Karate jump-kicks. Flying fists. Helmets swung like morning stars. A football coach gets smacked with a clipboard. Students and parents run from the stands. Not to break up the fight but to join in. If ever there’s a melee fueled by racism this is it, our twisted fabrication of North versus South. On one side, South High—empowered with its white mythology, though a mixed race school. On the other, North High, embedded in a mostly white community called Oildale, firmly empowered with its own white superiority complex and racist intentions.

While this is a mixed-race school versus a white school, I suspect South High football players of color had images in their heads of being shot if they enter the wrong side of town, of crosses burning in yards, of kids getting lynched outside the dirt-floor shanties of Oildale, California. This is the fear fed to us about the northern suburbs of Bakersfield. If you’re brown, you stay out of that town.

I can only imagine what’s been said on the field, what parents of either team have been feeding the minds of their children. Decades later a Black former South High football star tells me the n-word had been dropped regularly by North High’s feeder teams in years prior during peewee games. “We knew the level of hatred against our melting pot of a school,” he said. “That [North-South] game had been eagerly anticipated.”

IV. A Racism Origin Story

By the time Dad moves us to Geneva Avenue in 1976, the area is fairly mixed: Black, Mexican-American, Japanese-American, white. A wave of Vietnamese immigrants is on the way.

Our neighbors are Mexican-American on one side and white on the other. After the Mexican-American couple moves out, a Black man moves in. Dad doesn’t use that word when referencing him. He uses the n-word. There’s a clear hatred from my old man. Our neighbor avoids Dad, avoids all of us. You can see it in how quickly he enters his house, how he’s never outside, never greeting us. We never have a conversation in the four or five years we share the neighborhood.

I always wonder if Dad had ever really been a cop. In 2019, two decades after his death, one of my uncles says Dad’s cop stories were lies. I’d already seen photos of him in a uniform. Then a retired cop checking in to see if former academy members had died, phoned. Dad’s name had been on a list. Dad had definitely enrolled at the San Jose Police Academy in the 1960s. One of the first Latinos there, no less. Proof that he hung out with and had been influenced by powerful white men.

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But had he been an actual cop?

And if he had been a cop, why hadn’t he stuck with it? One family member said he couldn’t pass the height requirements at the time. Maybe he didn’t want some low-paying security gig as a result. That wasted police education maybe not only put that killer look in his eye, perhaps it transformed him into the assimilationist he was.

That means I was assimilated. No Spanish was taught in the home. Dad constantly told me I was white. He bought Confederate flags for my bedroom wall. Mostly American foods were put on the dinner table. Racist epithets were used in conversation and jokes. “Chicano” was never uttered.

Truth is, we’re a dual-ethnic family in our south Bakersfield neighborhood during those mid 1970s and early 1980s. The streets are rough for me as a result. Neighborhood fights get fueled by kids with giant boy egos and petty racial differences. More than a few punches get thrown. I usually just receive them. Terrified, I stand my ground, take some licks, never really understanding why fists matter. I toss a lunchpail at one kid’s head who fights my brother over us “peckerwoods” being in their hood. I’m too stupid to argue that I’m Mexican-American, Latino, or Hispanic. I think I’m white though my father’s brown as an oak-stained table. I run for my life. I hide in my room. I’m afraid of black vampires outside my window.

Dad just wants me to fight. He’s bragged for years that he was a cop. I want him to be a cop, my cop. But he doesn’t help or show me how to fight. He orders me to “straighten up,” to “be tough” with those n-word boys down the street. He talks tough, but what else is he? A brown cowboy? Some white image he’s pulled from American cinema? He loves John Wayne, Charles Bronson. He worships Dirty Harry, Billy Jack. Blazing Saddles. He wears a black cowboy hat. He drives a tanker truck hauling gas for an oil company. I later refer to him as mothertrucker. He carries a gun in a shoulder holster. He buys me and my brother cowboy hats and boots. He wants us to be him. He wants us to be what he isn’t.

V. Yell Leaders, Mascots and Monuments

Johnny and Jody Rebel stand on podiums on the edge of a stadium racetrack. All eyes on them in their Confederate uniforms as they lead cheers. It’s 1986. Johnny is a Mexican-American kid named Gabe. Jody is a Black girl named Georgia. Together they upend the image of the Confederate South. At the same time, they become a mockery, performing a bizarre cultural appropriation of oppressive white heritage that transforms students into puppetry. An entire mythology has been reproduced on the backs of Black and Mexican-American children. In this white thuggish military garb that literally screams enslavement, kids are transformed. They lose self-identity in the supremacist imagery before the crowd. They’re reduced to monuments. Symbols of a war meant to oppress, that sought to continue a way of life that made Southern planters wealthy.

The Confederate flag once flew over South High School. It was banned in 1968, the year I was born. No Confederate imagery is retired during my education there. Not the school mascot. Not the rebel military uniforms on yell leaders. Not the street names. Not the school names. Not even Plantation Elementary School.

Killing a flag wasn’t ever going to erase its shadowy image of oppression. Not with all the blue and grey. Not with all the misplaced school pride placed upon so many high school kids screaming rebel chants. A school’s fanatical pride isn’t unlike Southerner pride suggesting that times have changed when they haven’t.

VI. Marching

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Author, second to the right, marching.

On March 30, 2006, students from Bakersfield area high schools, including South High pour into downtown. I’m documenting the march for my blog wishing I’d been one of these high school kids as their throng enters a wide plaza outside the Rabobank Arena and Civic Auditorium.

Part of me is ashamed. Not for the kids. For me. But I don’t have time to reflect on South High, why it’s still seeped in Confederate mythology, or why my past haunts me. Right now it’s just me and a KERO news crew. We’re the only ones documenting this historic moment akin to the 1968 East L.A. blowout.

Then a car speeds alongside the curb. Out jumps Kern County’s controversial District Attorney Ed Jagels, mastermind of 25 false convictions during the Satanic Panic. Well-known for his ridiculous media posturing, he plants his face in his hands in mock desperation, as if the kids now swarming the plaza are about to climb the battlements and lay siege to a fountain.

A few days later I’m at Jastro Park documenting another rally alongside an AP news photographer. We’re on the same stage as Dolores Huerta. An ocean of red farm worker flags wave in front of her as she she dances with CSU Bakersfield professor Gonzalo Santos during a ranchera melody. I’m pulled into this. I’m feeling this intersection between farm workers, immigrant rights and the Chicano Movement. There’s something here I need to fight for.

By May 1st I’m taking part as an honored poet, hands shaking on stage at Beach Park, reading “Immigration! Interrogation!” to a sea of 10,000-15,000. It doesn’t enter my mind to think, Here I am, former South High Student on stage! Not at all. By this time, South High is lost to me, a place that should have corrected itself long ago. I take no pride in my connections to that institution, only shame. If anything, I close my eyes and see my street, Geneva Avenue. I see the paths I walked to school. I see the dirt fields and hear the train crashing over and over again.

Eleven years later it’s May 1, 2017. I text my youngest son Landen to see if he’ll come to Mill Creek Park to listen to me present, “The Mother of All Bombs,” a poem less about Donald Trump’s propaganda war machine, and more a revelation about ironies of oppression, the anger that is connected to it in relation to the southern Central Valley. I realize that one portion of the lengthy poem feels so much like it’s from where I grew up in South Bakersfield. Though about the oppression of place, I’ve generalized my own streets. I’ve hidden my old school, my old haunts, even my old living room on Geneva, with Dad inside telling me how white I am.

The Mother of All Bombs is the woman down the street
laughing at my words then waking up tomorrow realizing
she’s felt the heavy weight of America too.
How long did it take her to understand
she’d taken on the characteristics
of the oppressor, that she was insane, drooling
with madness in the Church of Intolerance,
while her own children were hungrier than ours
under the continued shame of Make America Great Again,
which here in the San Joaquin Valley is a
new special blend of McCarthyism.

After a long line of us march downtown, those of us who carried the American flag walk onto the stage. Music blasts from speakers. Some start dancing. I gaze into the crowd and see my son. I feel a pride I can’t explain. A connecting point. A circle re-attached. Landen and I were part of that march nearly eleven years before. He’d walked out with all those high school kids in 2006. We’d both later attended President Obama’s speech at La Paz, a historic dedication of Cesar Chavez’ resting place as a National Monument.

Prior to, and after that day in 2017, my son and I continue to share father-son discussions about art, words, music, taking risks, about not being afraid to make a statement about the world, and to the world. He’s often working on songs and sends rough cuts. Sometimes we call each other afterwards, talking about his latest lyrics, drum beats and guitar riffs. As we often do, we shift our focus to peoples and behaviors, to speaking up for others, to ways in which we can inject a more purposeful truth into our art. Inevitably, during these moments, I drift. Sometimes for only a second. That’s all it takes. The place is usually the same. I’m back in that old living room on Geneva Avenue. I see Dad’s face but I don’t hear anything as he talks to me. I see his eyes. I see that grim mouth. And I see change coming.

 

 

Nicholas Belardes’ work has appeared or is forthcoming in Latino Rebels, The Latinx Archive: Speculative Fiction for Dreamers (Ohio State University Press), Southwestern American Literature (Texas State University), Carve Magazine, and others. Read more at nicholasbelardes.com. Follow him on twitter @nickbelardes

Copyright: © 2020 Nicholas Belardes. 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/.

Postcard Series:

  1. Jenise Miller, “We are our own Multitude: Los Angeles’ Black Panamanian Community”
  2. Toni Mirosevich, “Who I Used To Be”
  3. Myriam Gurba, “El Corrido del Copete”
  4. Jennifer Carr, “The Tides that Erase: Automation and the Los Angeles Waterfront”
  5. Melissa Hidalgo, “A Chumash Line: How an old email and five PDFs revealed my Native Californian Roots” 
  6. Brynn Saito with Photographs by Dave Lehl, “Acts of Grace: Memory Journeys Through the San Joaquin Valley”
Postcards Series

Acts of Grace: Memory Journeys through the San Joaquin Valley

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


 

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Original Art by Fernando Mendez Corona

Brynn Saito with photographs by Dave Lehl

Places are alive like ghosts are alive: subtle, unpredictable shape-shifters, infused with memory and emotion. The spirit of a place—the genius loci, as the ancients called it—rises from the land’s stories, its unique matrix of weather, struggle, celebration, and blood. There are places we return to again and again to find our stories. We change; they change. The stories we tell take on lives of their own.

The story of my Korean American and Japanese American families begins in Dinuba and Reedley—two rural towns in the heart of California’s agricultural basin, each about 13 miles east of Highway 99, which runs midway between the Pacific and the Sierras. Sometimes, the tale begins in the aftermath of war and incarceration: my father’s parents, Alma Teranishi and Mitsuo Saito, returned to California to resettle in Reedley after their release in 1945 from the Gila River concentration camp in southern Arizona—the place where they met, married, and gave birth to their first child. My mother’s father, Samuel Oh, returned from the European frontlines to his hometown of Dinuba where a divorce awaited him—a separation that, ultimately, set the stage for his meeting and marrying my grandmother, Marilyn. Sometimes, the story begins earlier than that: the first generation arriving on Angel Island then laboring their way to the southern San Joaquin Valley—a place that would, over the course of the 20th century, become the source of 25% of the nation’s harvested food. Almonds, olives, stone fruit, citrus, vegetables, berries alfalfa, winter wheat: crops planted and picked by migrant and immigrant workers, generations of laborers making their lives in the shadow of the distant Sierras.

On a gray, post-rain November morning, I travel with my folks from our home in Fresno back to Reedley and Dinuba. Rows of vine fruit wind along a diverted Kings River and mountain slopes sport majestic, white-painted letters signifying small farming towns: the “R”, the “S”, the “D.” We visit the church where my mother grew her faith; the stadium where my father captained his high school football team; the side lot location of the tree my father and his older brother set fire to—with a boy still in the branches (who, luckily, survived the prank); the old home, where Dad’s dad carved, in their front yard, a stone pond for koi.

What follows is a reflection in prose and photographs tracing the morning’s journey.

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Gregg Saito, downtown Reedley, CA.

“In the summers, your dad used to run barefoot through the streets to get to the town pool,” says my mother as we drive the streets of Reedley, my father’s hometown. I imagine Dad young and running, his little-brother spirit, his charming, mischievous smile—all of the energy of someone totally beloved by his mother, occasionally scolded by his volatile father, teased by his older brother. High school football captain, eventual P.E. teacher, basketball ref, football, basketball, track, and golf coach—and trainer of two, lazy teenaged daughters: I remember my dad up at dawn, cheering us into shape. At 72 years old, my father still runs—many miles each week in the morning’s winter cold. My father has been running his entire life.

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Janelle Oh Saito, Iglesia Nueva Esperanza on K Street, Dinuba, CA.

There are close to 20 churches in less than two square miles in Dinuba. My mother came of age in the Dinuba Presbyterian Church, now the Iglesia Nueva Esperanza. Graced by palms and pistache trees, the formidable building towers above us, as we wander along K and Merced Streets. My mother’s grandfather, Tai Eun, fled Korea for America at the height of the brutal Japanese occupation, eventually establishing himself as a lay leader in Dinuba’s tight-knit Korean Christian community. After it disbanded, my mom and her two brothers started their Sundays at Dinuba Presbyterian, a mostly white congregation. In her day, the Korean American population in Dinuba was larger than in nearby towns, though much smaller than in urban centers like LA or San Francisco. As the decades passed, my mother’s faith continued to anchor her—eventually, she became a lay leader in the Japanese American Christian church (a story for another essay). “Mother, I watch,” begins a poem I wrote for her. “Strong, you walk tall reflecting mountains. / Water grows more sure of its strength as rain rushes beneath / cool elm winds. / You are not / anymore a shard; history’s strong song makes us whole.”

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Gregg Saito, Reedley Buddhist Church, 15th Street.

Dad, storytalking in front of the Reedley Buddhist Church on 15th Street, the church where he was raised. The story of Buddhism in North America reaches further back than the zen and meditation movements of the 1970s. First-wave Asian immigrants in early 20th century brought with them Buddhist belief systems rooted in the Jōdo Shinshū, or “Shin” (True Pure Land) tradition—the tradition of my father’s family. The Reedley Buddhist Church was built in 1936, then rebuilt, in 1952, after the wartime incarceration of the west coast Japanese American community. Neither my father nor I remember what exactly he was pointing to beyond the church gates—most likely, a story of some prank or mischievous behavior—though I do learn that, as a young person, my father was the president of the Young Buddhist’s Association (YBA), the youth group of the Buddhist Churches of America. Both of my parents were shaped early on by spiritual traditions anchoring the lives of the first, second, and third generations; both continue to live lives grounded in service to community.

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Janelle Oh Saito, Grandview Elementary School, Dinuba, CA.

“That’s where I had to sit when I got in trouble for talking too much!” says my mother, pointing at the ledge where her and her girlfriend sat giggling, punished by their teacher for their classroom disturbances. Eventually, both of my parents earned their teaching credentials at Fresno State—education, another inherited legacy.

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The farm where my mother was raised, Avenue 400 and Road 64, Dinuba, CA

Sometimes, my mother walked alone from the family farm to Grandview Elementary—days when her mother, a professional social worker, was working in the nearby town of Visalia and her father was deep in the fields. She’d dive into the side ditch to avoid being sighted by oncoming cars, ashamed to be seen walking alone like that. Her father grew grapes; my mom and her two brothers were often left to their own devices, making their way through the ups and downs of ranch life. As we drive down Avenue 400, my mother points out the location of the surrounding family farms, many once owned by Japanese Americans: the Kawanos, the Nagatas, the Yamamotos, and so on—families who, I imagine, labored hard in the post-war years to rebuild their economies. Always, my mother’s two wishes were: (1), to never marry a farmer, and (2), to move to the city suburbs, both of which she accomplished.

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Jefferson Street, Reedley, CA.

We slowly approach the home on Jefferson street where my father was raised, where his parents—Alma and Mitsuo—settled and lived following their release from the Gila River concentration camp. Grandpa worked for Otani’s market, a farming supply store; Grandma managed the home and children, worked in the local department store; everyone worked in the packing sheds in the summer. Neither of my Japanese American grandparents spoke much about their time in the camps or their reentry into civilian life; it’s taken me decades to understand the shape and nature of this silence. Many families lost everything—farms, homes, land, assets—and returned to communities that were, at best, indifferent to their reappearance. While driving by the Jefferson street house, we glimpse the outline of the koi pond dug out in the front yard—commissioned by my grandfather. It looks just like the pond remnants my father and I witnessed at the Gila River camp this past summer: dusty, stone-specked ghosts from another era, signifying beauty, tradition, struggle—life.

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Janelle Oh Saito and Brynn Saito, Reedley Cemetery

Under a bright gray sky, we wander the Reedley Cemetery grounds on Reed Avenue, paying tribute to the dead, lingering at each marker for more storytalk. Three times more Korean immigrants and Korean Americans are buried in the Reedley Cemetery than in Dinuba’s Smith Mountain Cemetery, despite the fact that Dinuba had a much larger Korean community. This was, in part, due to Smith Mountain’s policy of segregating minorities into designated blocks, which discouraged burials there. My mother’s parents, Marilyn and Samuel, are buried beside their son, Timothy—my mother’s oldest brother, who was killed in a car accident at the age of 25. “He died on Raisin Day,” she says, Dinuba’s annual harvest festival, September of 1976. “Raisin Day didn’t have the same meaning after my brother died.” Nine months after that, my parents were married. “Life is short, we realized,” says my mother. “Why don’t we just get engaged now, and get married? My Auntie Marie would always say: it’s so good that you’re getting married, your mom and dad are so happy, and it gives your mom something to focus on,” those months following Tim’s passing. “42 years later,” says my mother, through tears. “Didn’t work out so bad…”

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Gregg Saito, Reedley Cemetery

Grandmother Alma Teranishi Saito (my father’s mother) is also buried in the Reedley Cemetery, along with her parents and siblings. Her husband’s—Mitsuo’s—ashes were scattered by my father in the Sierras. Both of my parents have already secured their lots there, “overlooking the Kings River,” says my mother. Three generations, one resting place.

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I Street, downtown Reedley, CA

Driving the South Valley streets, much has changed and much hasn’t. Don’s Shoe Store is still Don’s Shoe Store; the site of the old library is now Rose Ann Vuich Park; Otani’s market is now Valley Foods Supermarket, a carniceria and taqueria. I’m curious about life in Dinuba and Reedley in the present, so I ask a couple of friends and former students to share memories with me. “I loved to stop at Table supply in downtown [Dinuba] and grab my monster energy drinks, and then go to Mega Video for a frito boat and a Diablito, which is shaved ice with chili, lime, and chamoy,” says Aidan Castro. “It’s really good. A lot of my memories are in the back yards of my friends’ homes, but I would have to say Rose Ann Vuich park was the place we went to the most. We would go there so often that whenever the cholos would show up to have a smoke session, they would just come up to us and greet us before they went their own way.” If you were to describe Reedley to someone not from California, how would you describe it? “If I had to tell them what Reedley is over all, I would say tradition,” says Edgar Medina. “Reedley values tradition among many things as well as spirit. The people in Reedley work hard to make our name be known around the US, not just from school sports but also for the work we put in growing fruit for the world.” “It’s a beautiful place,” says Alex Flores, of Dinuba. “The view of the Sierra Nevada mountains on a clear day is astounding. It used to be more common; every time the view is clear people talk about how you used to be able to see it all the time.”

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Janelle and Gregg Saito, Iglesia Nueva Esperanza (formerly the Dinuba Presbyterian Church)

On July 23, 1977, my parents were married at the Dinuba Presbyterian Church, with over 300 people in attendance. A reception at the Dinuba Memorial Building on Alta Avenue followed. People—those who know the history of Japan’s occupation of Korea—often ask me how my grandparents felt about my parents’ relationship. No animosity reported, according to my folks—perhaps a testament to generational change, or a swiftly growing Asian America, or the card games hosted by each set of grandparents, where smoking and laughing and storytalking diffused any possibility of cultural tension.

Fresno was the big city my parents escaped to; the place where they met, in college, and made a home; the place from which my sister and I fled for even bigger cities; the place I’ve returned to, decades later, to make life. “Dinuba feels so far away,” my mother said once, despite the relatively short, straight-shot drive down the 99. But I think I’m beginning to understand what she meant. We grow far from the lands of our childhoods, expanding our inner and outer geographies with each day, place, and decade. We become doorways to memory; though so much lies dormant in us—each former self, sparked to life by a place’s spirit, animated again by the scent of a riverbed, the sight of a winter orchard.

I love how my father eventually proposed to my mother—so much so, that his proposal made its way into a poem.

Acts of Grace

Young in the Central Valley
recovering from football season
and summer fires, your mother
and father linger in the lot
outside his apartment.

“Maybe we should go
look at rings,” says your father
and the river is set
the road unwinding.

In a small valley town
twenty miles east of here
your mother as a girl
cut grapes, braved spider fields
in the harvest heat.
Your father in the meantime
rumbled through boyhood
on the heels of war and his mother
and father’s swift incarceration.

How is it they made their way
into each other’s futures—
two tough, bright souls
enduring the crush of July
each in their own child ways?

They found each other.
They decided on each other
and a life with a garden
and two little girls practicing freedom
there in the walled space
with the jasmine and sparrows.
Notes:

The phrase “ignite the silence” is from “Flint and Tinder – Understanding the Difference Between ‘Poetry of Witness’ and ‘Documentary Poetics’,” by Sandra Beasley

Thanks to writers and Fresno State students, Aidan Castro, Alex Flores, and Edgar Medina for sharing their south valley memories with me.

 

Brynn Saito MA, MFA, is the author of two books of poetry, Power Made Us Swoon (2016) and The Palace of Contemplating Departure (2013), winner of the Benjamin Saltman Award from Red Hen Press and a finalist for the Northern California Book Award. She’s the curator of an online project and chapbook entitled, “Dear—” and she co-authored, with Traci Brimhall, the poetry chapbook, Bright Power, Dark Peace (Diode Editions, 2016). Brynn teaches in the Creative Writing program at California State University, Fresno and co-directs the Yonsei Memory Project (YMP) with Nikiko Masumoto. Brynn was recently featured in Vogue.com in “The Memory Keepers.”

Copyright: © 2020 Brynn Saito. 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/.

Postcard Series:

  1. Jenise Miller, “We are our own Multitude: Los Angeles’ Black Panamanian Community”
  2. Toni Mirosevich, “Who I Used To Be”
  3. Myriam Gurba, “El Corrido del Copete”
  4. Jennifer Carr, “The Tides that Erase: Automation and the Los Angeles Waterfront”
  5. Melissa Hidalgo, “A Chumash Line: How an old email and five PDFs revealed my Native Californian Roots”
Postcards Series

A Chumash Line: How an old email and five PDFs revealed my Native Californian Roots

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


PHOTO-2020-02-18-11-14-24

Original art by Fernando Mendez Corona

Melissa Hidalgo

I.

The woman at the reception desk gave us a map and told us exactly where to go.

“Park by the utility shed near the Whittier Boulevard entrance here, in front of 579,” she said, drawing our route with a highlighter pen. “Go four rows up and over to the right. You should find her here,” circling the spot on the map, way in the corner.

We knew Calvary Cemetery well. We had visited the graves of other long-gone Calzadas, relatives in my mother’s maternal line. But today, we were nervous newbies. We were looking for a special Calzada, the one from the old newspaper clippings my Auntie sent us in an email over ten years ago.

My mom, sister, and I dutifully followed the receptionist’s directions. We found the shed, parked, and walked over gingerly, not just because of my mom’s bum knee. I think we all had butterflies, anticipating something profound after years of talking with our mom’s extended family and grandmother’s relatives about our newfound Chumash roots. We stepped lightly, with quiet reverence, reading names out loud until we found hers.

CALZADA                                                                                                                                    Querida Madre y Abuela                                                                                                            Maria Antonia G.                                                                                                                             Jun. 13 1863 – Nov. 11 1952

The three of us looked down at our ancestor’s grave for the first time. Tears, smiles, laughs, hugs. My mom, sister, and I took turns saying hello, saying how happy we were that we found her. Our voices overlapped as we wondered things out loud, like who was Cipriano, the “Querido Hermano y Tio” she was buried with, and would Maria Antonia even know who we are. “I’m sure she does, m’ija,” my mom assured. But I felt the need to clarify, more for myself than for our ancestor. I needed to connect the dots, draw the Chumash family line that began in San Luis Obispo and ended right here in East L.A.

“Hola, Maria Antonia,” I said in a voice like I’m in church. “We are your granddaughter Petra’s family,” I said. I shivered with goosebumps. “We are your descendants.”

II.

Back in March 2010, I received an email from my Auntie, who also sent it to my mom and their seven other siblings. The subject heading announced, “we are chumash!!” Five mysterious PDF attachments accompanied her brief message. They were all labelled “Maria Antonia Calzada” and numbered one through five.

I had first heard of these “Chumash papers” two years before, when my Auntie and mom told me about their cousin in Ventura who used some of these documents to get her kids some kind of Chumash Indian scholarship. At that point, I emailed my mom’s cousin to ask for more information, and she wrote back. She answered my questions but did not immediately send the documents. It would take almost two years for those “papers” to reach my Auntie in 2010, when she passed them on and my mom, her other siblings, and I would see them for the first time.

My Auntie sent them to me thinking that I, too, could use them to get money for school. I was deep into dissertation mode at the time, one year from becoming the first Ph.D. on both sides of my big Mexican American family. I was also deep in grad school debt and always in need of financial aid or just plain cash. I could almost hear Auntie telling me, ‘Hey m’ija, check it out, you never know, our cousin did it, see if you can get a scholarship or something to help you out, doctora-to-be.’ Chicana Chumash power, que no?

Cashing in on a tenuous Chumash bloodline so I can finish my dissertation was one thing, and I felt a little guilty even entertaining the idea. Plus, as a Chicana, by definition I knew I already had “native blood” of the indigenous peoples throughout the land we know today as California, Arizona, Texas, Chihuahua, and Michoacán. My one direct ancestor, who by now probably had double the 268 descendants she left in 1952, I felt, was not necessarily going to qualify me for Chumash scholarships or anything of monetary value. That was fine.

But I did recognize these documents’ historical value, and not just for my mother’s large extended Calzada family. I knew what these five files meant to me as a California-born scholar of Chicana/o/x cultural histories and cultures, as a writer, and as a teacher in our public universities. One by one, I opened the “Maria Antonia” PDFs numbered 1 through 5. Up popped news clippings about our ancestor, maps, photocopied pages from a library book, and a family crest. It was like a DIY version of “Finding Your Roots” with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Together, these five scanned pages represented a small but mighty archival batch of Calzada family stories and histories that place my mother’s maternal family line in California before the Spaniards invaded this land to build their missions, before Mexico ‘won’ this territory post- independence, and before any Anglo Americans showed up to dig gold from land that was not theirs. For us colonized Mexican Americans in the 2010s, these papers also raised a lot of other questions about ancestral indigeneity, land, borders, and the meaning of claiming “Native Californian Chumash blood” via our ancestor born in 1863.

III.

Of the five attachments my Auntie emailed to us years ago, one page stands out. “Maria Antonia Calzada” PDF 1 shows three documents photocopied together, arranged for context and correctness. At the top, a Spanish-language church bulletin from Nuestra Señora de La Soledad announces the funeral mass for “Sra. Maria Antonia Calzada, a la edad de 89 años,” who passed away in Los Angeles, California, on “Noviembre 11 de 1952.” Under the funeral notice, two old newspaper clippings from undated and unidentified Los Angeles area newspapers, placed side by side, report the death of one “Maria Antonia Calcada.” They couldn’t even get her name right.

One headline shouts, NATIVE CALIFORNIAN, 96, DIES IN EAST L.A. HOME.

Another one simply says, Belvedere Woman Dies at 96; Leaves 268 Living Descendants.

Calzada funeral announcement and newspaper clips

The articles contradicted the church bulletin. Was she 96 or 89? Which dates were correct? Which newspapers are these articles from? And why was the death of Maria Antonia Calzada, my mother’s great-grandmother, newsworthy in 1952 Los Angeles?

My mom, Auntie, their cousins and their aunts confirm that “the Church is right,” that our ancestor, the “Native Californian” Maria Antonia Calzada (not Calcada) was 89 (not 96) when she died at the house on Zaring Street in East L.A. She was born in San Luis Obispo, California, in 1863, not in 1856 as the newspapers claimed.

The papers did get other things right about Maria Antonia. She married Pedro (my grandmother’s grandfather and her namesake) in 1880 at the Old Plaza (La Placita) Catholic Church, across from today’s Olvera Street, although it was not clear when and why they left San Luis Obispo for Los Angeles. She had thirteen children, twelve survived. Her husband died in 1935 during one of their frequent trips “below the border” to Altar, Sonora, Mexico, where the couple owned a small plot of land. Maria Antonia’s parents, Francisco and Maria Guerrero, were also born in San Luis Obispo, most likely “Mexicanized Indians”[1] who became U.S. citizens under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, twenty-five years after the end of the Spanish mission period.

I never saw the word “Chumash” in either of the news articles, nor do they identify the name of Maria Antonia’s “Native California” tribe or membership. PDFs 3, 4, and 5 included a few pages of Kroeber’s 1925 Map of Native Tribes, Groups, Dialects, and Families in California in 1770, photocopied by our Ventura cousin. They showed maps with lists that enumerated eight bands of Chumash tribes whose villages stretched from San Luis Obispo to Malibu. One map showed numbered parceled plots in and around San Luis Obispo. PDF 2 was a copy of the Calzada family name history and crest explained the following: “The Spanish surname Calzada is of local or locative origin, derived from the place where man once lived or where he once owned land.”[2]

Where he (or she?) once owned land. Were we always Calzadas?

I went back to the email I kept from the Ventura cousin who did the research at Ventura College Library and Mormon Church archives (“they keep really good records”) to verify our ancestral line. And now I had the maps she previously described. According to records, at least three generations of Calzadas were born in San Luis Obispo between the 1820s and 1890s before they migrated south to East Los Angeles. According to our cousin, the land Maria Antonia, her parents, and later, her children (including Juan, my grandmother’s father) were born on, corresponds to area “14a” on the Kroeber map. “We located the parcel that we were pushed off of during the treaty [1848],” our cousin wrote. “It turns out that our land was what has now become known as Pismo Beach…and yes, we are CHUMASH.”[3]

Where we once owned land. The border did more than cross us, I thought.

Chumash Land Los Alamos CA

IV.

July 2019. My mom, sister, and I kneel at our ancestor’s grave, just a few steps away from Whittier Boulevard and a mile from where she died on Zaring Street, in a house that no longer exists because it was razed by CalTrans in the sixties to build the 60 freeway. We pull weeds, dust off dirt, polish the marble with spit and shirt sleeves. We brush ants away, a futile effort. Let them crawl.

“Imagine if we still had our land in San Luis Obispo, in Pismo Beach. Or in Santa Ynez or Los Alamos,” I say to my mom and sister. I hear their murmurs, their agreement. “Yes, imagine, m’ija,” and I do. What if the Calzadas were not pushed off Pismo Beach in the 1840s? Then other, colossal “What ifs” flood my head. What if the pinche Spaniards never came and built their damn churches, what if there was never any Mexico or United States of America or militarized national borders or broken treaties, and Maria Antonia Guerrero and her parents, husband, children and their children got to keep their land, their homes, their lives, their birthright, in their native California?

Who would we be? Who were we, before we were “Mexican,” “American”?

At the end of her memoir, Native Country of the Heart (2019), Chicana writer Cherríe Moraga reflects on her mother’s lineage and ancestral ties to the land of the San Gabriel Valley. Moraga’s research revealed that her mother’s Moraga family could be traced back to the “first recorded baptism of ‘un indio’ en la Misión de San Gabriel,” and that the baptismal register was signed by none other than Fray Junipero Serra in “the nearby Tongva village of Juyuvit” in November 1778. As Moraga writes, “This matters to me somehow: the proximity of Serra’s ethnocidal signature, my maternal family name, and the indigenous words for places I once knew as home. It is my own personal record that testifies to a complex system of mixed-blood misnomered historical erasure.”[4]

Like Moraga, I am drawn to my mother’s side and the indelible paper trail of our Chumash line that cannot be erased. I seek proof of our existence before we were misnamed, reborn as Spanish, as Mexican, as American. It means something to be able to draw a bold, magic marker line between me and the woman whose grave we finally found, to connect these particular dots. Who needs DNA tests when we got PDFs?

The Chumash part of my maternal grandmother’s side represents but one branch of my proverbial family tree. “Your Nana Cruz was Yaqui,” my Auntie reminds me, “And your grandfather was from Michoacán,” evidence at least of some kind of “Mexican Indian” ancestry. There is the mythical Nana Josefa, who they say was Russian and the reason why my sister and some of the aunties have light eyes, hair, and skin. This is just my mother’s side. My father’s El Paso/Chihuahua side—his mother’s Cepedas can be traced all the way to 1520s Spain, as one tío did in the 1980s and 1990s before the internet made it easy—is a whole other story.

“Today, there isn’t a single full-blooded Chumash left, according to scholars.”[5]

My sisters, our partners, and I often visit Solvang, Los Olivos, Santa Ynez, Los Alamos, towns in Santa Barbara county not too far from the Chumash reservation and casino. We celebrate birthdays, enjoy long teachers’ weekends off, and mark important life moments together in those parts. My youngest sister even got married in Los Alamos, a testament to the power of the land and the meaning of our own ancestral connection to it. We feel it.

Chumash land calls us twice, maybe three times or more a year. Even though we grew up in the concrete suburbs east of East L.A., the rolling hills and valley oaks and wine country roads up there feel like home to us because maybe, as Chumash descendants, it was once. It still is. Our spirits know that is our land, even if it is not ours in the colonial-Western-moneyed-private-property-real-estate sense.

At the grave, my mind drifts back to my Auntie’s email and the “Native Californian” in the newspaper clippings. When Maria Antonia Guerrero Calzada died in my grandmother’s tía’s house in East L.A. in 1952, so, apparently, did the last ‘full-blooded’ California Chumash Indian on record. That’s why her death was newsworthy. (What is blood quantum anyway but a metaphor, another colonizing tool?)[6] Whether or not she was the last one, my great-great-grandmother Maria Antonia Calzada remains my ancestral connection to our Chumash line.

 Notes

[1]See Rubén G. Mendoza, “Indigenous Landscapes: Mexicanized Indians and the Archaeology of Social Networks in Alta California,” in Indigenous Landscapes and Spanish Missions: New Perspectives from Archaeology and Ethnohistory, eds. Lee Panich, et al. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2014. p.114-132. Mendoza describes the “Mexicanization of Indians” in Alta California “as a process of cultural rationalization by which the derivative trappings of the primary tradition are absorbed as local indigenous reformulations of elements that compose the presumptive or apparent ethnic source. Like mestizaje, Mexicanization constitutes a wholly new hybrid and, thereby, an amalgamation of local and introduced cultural forms adaptively recapitulated and captured so as to facilitate the survival, albeit attenuated persistence, of local indigenous traditions and lifeways.” (Mendoza 118-9)

[2] “Calzada Family Name History,” The Historical Research CenterTM (1973-1980).

[3] Email communication with Monica Valenzuela, my mom’s/aunt’s cousin in Ventura, on September 23, 2008. Valenzuela conducted the research and provided the documents to my aunt, who would send them to me on March 23, 2010.

[4] Moraga, p. 236.

[5] “He claimed Chumash ancestry and raised millions. But experts say he’s not Chumash.” Los Angeles Times 23 December 2019.

[6] See “Myth 1: All the Real Indians Died Off” and “Myth 10: The Only Real Indians Are Full-Bloods, and They Are Dying Off” in Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Dina Gilio-Whitaker, “All the Real Indians Died Off” and 20 Other Myths About Native Americans (Boston: Beacon Press, 2016).

Melissa Mora Hidalgo holds a Ph. D. in Literature from UC San Diego. She has taught classes in literature, ethnic studies, and women’s/gender/sexuality studies at UC and CSU campuses around Southern California. Hidalgo is a recent Fulbright Scholar at the University of Limerick, the author of Mozlandia: Morrissey Fans in the Borderlands (2016), and a senior culture writer at L.A. Taco.

Copyright: © 2020 Melissa Mora Hidalgo. 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/.

Postcard Series:

  1. Jenise Miller, “We are our own Multitude: Los Angeles’ Black Panamanian Community”
  2. Toni Mirosevich, “Who I Used To Be”
  3. Myriam Gurba, “El Corrido del Copete”
Postcards Series

The Tides that Erase: Automation and the Los Angeles Waterfront

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


 

san pedro2 (1)

Original art by Fernando Mendez Corona

Jennifer Carr

Whenever I go out with my father anywhere in San Pedro, we inevitably run into someone he knows, from his school days (a long time gone), from the Cabrillo Beach Polar Bear Club, or from years of work spent on the harbor. That’s when San Pedro, with a population of 56,000, feels like a small town.

My dad, now a retired longshore worker and marine clerk, Locals 13 and 63, remembers faces better than names, and a casual—someone who takes jobs out of the casual hall and isn’t a steady at a particular dock—comes up to my dad as we sit down for burgers on Gaffey Street, asks, “Jack, you still down at Pasha Stevedoring?”

“Retired three years now,” my dad says, and I can tell he’s searching for the name to go with the face. But names don’t always matter, because there are now two workers from the waterfront in one place, two brothers in the union, which means they can have a full conversation in the shared language of the docks.

The San Pedro Bay Port Complex, comprised of the combined Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, makes up the ninth largest port in the world (the top eight are all in Asia). Realizing its potential value, Los Angeles annexed San Pedro as a part of the City of Los Angeles in 1909, and the complex has since been given the moniker (and a National Geographic Channel show along with it) America’s Port, since it handles more than forty percent of all containerized cargo that enters the United States. However, this distinction has an uncertain future with the dredging and widening of the Panama Canal, the fully-automated barge port in Louisiana, or the megaships that can carry over 20,000 twenty-foot equivalent unit containers. These container ships have a beam of about 193 feet—compared with the 100-feet bow-to-stern total length of the San Salvador, the flagship galleon of Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, who in 1542 became the first European to scout the San Pedro Bay, inhabited by the Tongva, whose settlement in the bay was named Kiinkenga.

APL Terminal (1)

Courtesy of Jennifer Carr

While waiting for our burgers, the longshore worker tells us, “I only get out three days a week now—work is down because of tariffs. There are no slabs at all.” Because I’m the daughter of a former longshore worker/marine clerk, I know that slabs are hunks of steel made from ingots rolled out on a belt in lengths between thirteen and forty-four feet, weighing between ten and twenty-seven tons. I know that the 1960 Modernization and Mechanization Agreement enabled containerized cargo, a move that prevented the union from rejecting any future technological advancements in the port but simultaneously negotiated the union’s ability to be trained on and operate the new technology. I know that my dad first got his start on the docks in 1959, just out of high school, and used a 9-inch metal hook to unload cargo onto pallets. I know the rhythms and the cadences of waterfront speak and its hopes and losses by heart.

The trade war is affecting everyone who isn’t currently pulling a retirement pension or already in the ground. A trade war means fewer ships in the harbor, fewer gangs called up for a shift—“Only two gangs ordered per ship!” our new friend tells us while we wait for our burgers, “And only two foremen now each for the day and night shifts, when before there were five!” I see both my dad’s relief at being out and guilt over getting the best deal out of his last contract before retirement.

Work on the waterfront has always been a tenuous balance between the members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union—my dad’s union—and the shipping companies represented by the maritime association. Bloody Thursday honors the flashpoint of the 1934 West Coast Strike that involved scabs and hired goon squads beating up (and shooting) striking union members, killing two of them. It’s now commemorated every July 5th with a harbor shutdown and branded t-shirts. In 1960, the Modernization and Mechanization Agreement meant that companies could containerize cargo, reducing physical labor, but that the union had to handle the movement and stowage from ship to dock. The union would have to be allowed the chance to modernize with the technology. In 2002, there was the weeks-long lockout after the union was accused of a slow-down, during which the union leveraged its power to negotiate a favorable contract with the association representing the shipping companies (despite George W. Bush invoking the Taft Hartley Act as a means to weaken the union, attempting to render them unable to strike); in January of 2015, I marched alongside my dad and thousands of other ILWU families in support of the union’s contract negotiations; and earlier in 2019, the union rallied once again to protest shipping giant Maersk’s addition of 130 robotic vehicles to replace human-operated machines to sort and move cargo on the docks. A lopsided agreement was made; though the union can be trained on the new automation, jobs will still be reduced, and the union has been leveled a devastating blow. It’s not the Matrix or Skynet—but there’s a real fear that in two generations, with automation potentially replacing most of the workforce, there will be few who know what it meant to work on the waterfront. Reactions range anywhere on the spectrum between hysteria to excitement, depending on which side of the labor vs. management debate you’re on.

ILWU Strike Signboard 600dpi (1)

Courtesy of Jennifer Carr

As for now—we don’t know what’s going to happen. Maersk uses microchips in the containers and even on the docks, plugged into robots to do the work my father spent hours of his week planning out. He’d come home, dusted yellow with spray chalk from marking steel slabs and coils, marking the yard for placing the steel slabs, coils, and plywood to be loaded onto trucks or rail cars, double checking bills of lading, somehow sorting cargo the way a conductor guides a symphony or the Sorcerer Supreme bends the world at his will.

The waterfront is the true official language of San Pedro, which otherwise has been a pidgin of Spanish, English, Croatian, Italian, and Japanese since Juan Domínguez was given the land grant by Spain for ranching in 1784 (and the subsequent US takeover of California after the Mexican-American War). Phineas Banning, an immigrant from the East Coast, dredged the harbor in 1871 to make it deep enough for ships to pass through, and two years later, as California State Senator, used government funds to build the first breakwater. My great-grandfather, an immigrant from Croatia (then the Austro-Hungarian Empire), found his way to San Pedro in 1914 in his purse seiner, The Agram, after freezing on the waters of Puget Sound. San Pedro looked similar to the Adriatic coast, Catalina Island a more distant Krk, the harbor town a larger iteration of Crkvenica and Rijeka. Familiarity and echoes of home bays and fishing communities drew most of the families that came to San Pedro during the twentieth century.

The stories of San Pedro are woven out of fishing nets, metal hooks, and family recipes. San Pedrans also retain their ties to cultural heritage—many of my friends still return to Croatia every summer—but even stronger is the Pedro heritage. Families remember who fished on the Sea Scout between 1950 and 1959, or how many owners the John R. had. The first boat my grandfather owned was also the first all-steel purse seiner on the coast, The Paramount. Starting in the 1930s, he spent months at a time off the Galapagos Islands fishing tuna, dropping off loads in Mexico, then motoring south again for another load. During World War II, he and the rest of the fishing fleet took turns patrolling the coast for submarines, then scooping up every last sardine and anchovy from the waters—whatever could be put in a can, stowed in musty holds, or shipped to the fronts. When the fishing dwindled, the men moved onshore, but not too far, from the boats to the docks, cargoes of bananas from Brazil, coffee from Colombia, sugar from Hawaii, cowhides from wherever it was the cowhides came in from. Bales of cotton loaded on pallets, hand-stowed, hand-offloaded, hand-sorted, with steel hooks in the hand to move the pulleys, separate the loads, throw the cargo onto trucks or railcars.

Some symphonies are played with violins and cellos and flutes—my family created them with hooks and pallets and the rhythms of human automation, smooth, choreographed, memorized, inherited. Water is in our blood and our bones, and our steps pulse with the low hum of the cranes that lift and pull cargo the way the moon pulls the tides and the way we pull stories from salt.

San Pedrans are wary, not necessarily of progress, not necessarily of being left behind, although that is a concern, but worse, of being erased altogether.

There’s a hole in my heart where Canetti’s Seafood Grotto used to be, down in the throat of 22nd Street, tucked behind the fish markets. It was an archive that sold fish, but the real draw was the characters inside, human libraries reciting their daily litanies, rimes of not-so-ancient mariners who didn’t measure days with coffee spoons but instead counted years by fishing boats: again, who fished on which boat and with whom, who partnered, who owned outright, was it longlining tuna or nets of sardines or anchovies or ligni—squid—conjured to the surface of the ocean with spotlights. After my grandfather died, I worked at Canetti’s for a time, absorbing the stories of other grandfathers, imbibing the sounds the way others who grieve sniff items of clothing. In the age of computer automation, this worked as a different kind of neural network, the individual stories binding us all in one greater story.

After sixty years, Canetti’s closed up shop, the larger-than-life Joe Canetti retired, and like my grandfather and so many others, he is now gone, lost to the tides of time. Canetti’s fish tacos and sandwiches were famous, but my dad and I often switched up our orders to get their burgers, a greasy-spoon diner type of burger, and the closest we can replicate (though still aren’t quite the same) we’ve tracked down to a sandwich shop on Gaffey Street. And here, just like at Canetti’s, the pulse of the harbor carries us to another thread of the collective story of the waterfront.

The man at lunch on Gaffey Street mentions a name I know, says this worker got laid off because work was so slow, and now had to take jobs out of the casual hall. “And he’s a good worker, too.”

Dad at work 1994 (1)

Jack Carr at work, 1994. Courtesy of Jennifer Carr

A good worker. Akin to the title of Sorcerer Supreme, it’s the highest compliment you can give someone on the waterfront. Though it may sound Bolsheviky, the good worker plaudit is an apolitical mark of distinction that is carried down generations. At Canetti’s, people would recall good workers who had been dead for ten or twenty years. Prime table position was given to Ray Patricio, one of the “best bosses” to ever work down at the harbor.

My dad is one of the good workers, a trait that imbued every part of his life. “You know how lucky you are?” his coworkers would tell me at holiday parties or the occasional run-in at Canetti’s, the movie theater, the Target parking lot. My dad’s vice president (on the management side) said on multiple occasions that he’d retire when my dad retired. When my dad did retire—at the age of seventy-five—two workers filled his position. Fifty-seven years he spent on the waterfront. Eight-, ten-, sometimes fourteen-hour days. In that time, he clocked in almost twenty orthopedic surgeries, his body given over wholly to the job.

Having a good worker in the family is a sense of pride. I didn’t earn it, but it sticks to me, a benediction, a membership card for respect. It’s the story that has framed my entire life, just like my grandfather’s story framed my father’s.

The port complex currently provides 190,000 jobs to human beings who pay taxes, buy homes, shop locally, send their kids to little league and soccer. Automation will change the complexion of the entire town, and it’s already changing. San Pedrans look around at places like this sandwich hangout on Gaffey Street, wondering which of us gentrification will bump off first. Without the language of the waterfront and the people who speak it, what will happen to the rest of the town? Losing this language is personal. It’s akin to losing my grandfather all over again.

Now, perhaps, is the coda, but maybe not. Maybe as the workers shift to fit themselves into the narrower machinations, they’ll forge new shapes and new rhythms that will be just as beautiful, though different, perhaps a little melancholic. The stories will go on, and there will be enough of us left who know even a few words of the old language to tell the stories of those who have come and gone: break bulk, hooks, casual cards, A books, long on hours, a good worker, the best worker, my grandfather, my father, my father. I repeat it like a prayer, a chronicle of what was, saying it often so there will be no end to the echo.

Jennifer Carr frequently explores how our jobs reflect or inform our identities, and what happens when the jobs are threatened by time, automation, and politics. Her work has recently appeared in Baltimore ReviewOrigins Journal, and Panorama Journal, among others. Though she sometimes regrets not getting her union card, she loves teaching creative writing at Chapman University and spends the rest of her time as a ghostwriter. In the gaps, she is completing her novel set on the Los Angeles waterfront.

Copyright: © 2020 Jennifer Carr. 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/.

Postcard Series:

  1. Jenise Miller, “We are our own Multitude: Los Angeles’ Black Panamanian Community”
  2. Toni Mirosevich, “Who I Used To Be”
  3. Myriam Gurba, “El Corrido del Copete”
Postcards Series

El Corrido del Copete

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


heads2 (1)

Original Art by Fernando Mendez Corona

Myriam Gurba

The only reason I was sitting at the bleachers was because I wanted to watch this bitch get her ass kicked. This bitch, Karen, happened to be my neighbor. She lived behind a wall of pines, in a two-story mansion you could kind of see from my parents’ biggest bedroom window.

Karen’s pro-life mom drove a talking sedan and in a robot voice, the car would condescend to passengers, nagging Put on your seatbelt, whining Door ajar! I secretly hoped the car would kill Karen and her mother and I learned of its existence when a few of us missed the bus and Karen’s mom chauffeured us to the front steps of the shit show known as Orcutt Junior High.

Kids who went to Orcutt lied. Most of them claimed they went to school in Orcutt but according to zip code, these fools really went to school in Santa Maria. I knew why they said Orcutt. Claiming Orcutt was a way of claiming whiteness, a coded way of saying that you lived in the “unblemished” part of town. The assertion distanced you from Santa Maria. Santa Maria was “over there,” it was practically Tijuana: it was where “the Mexicans” lived.

Itty bitty Orcutt prided itself on not being brown and it styled itself as a low rent Mayberry replete with old timey storefronts that gave the place a settler vibe. When I ditched, I’d stroll Orcutt, noting its stock characters: the toothpick-sucking old white man shuffling about in dark denim overalls, the skinhead zooming downhill on his skateboard, the Christian youth group leader drooling over thirteen-year-olds eating fries in front of Charlies Burgers.

On clear days, you could see the ocean from Charlies. On even clearer days, you could see Casmalia, the toxic waste dump.

Karen wore the trappings of an oppressor. A pastel sock cascade devoured her cankles. Her denim shorts matched her denim vests. A scrunchie choked her half ponytail into place.

Scrunchie girls were the worst, scrunchies signaled a commitment to adolescent fascism, and Karen unleashed her KKKalifornia girl kuntiness on me the afternoon we first exchanged “pleasantries.” We were walking home from the bus stop, eucalyptus trees mentholated the air, and Karen eyed me like I was less than sirloin. The look gave me goosebumps, the ominous kind.

“What are you?” she blurted.

Dad had taught me to answer this question by declaring, “Chicana!” My intuition told me to keep it simple for my interrogator.

“Mexican.”

“Are you sure?”

Karen’s doubt took me aback. “Yeah. Why?”

“You have green eyes. Plus, you look Filipina.”

I remembered the Filipinos I’d played tag and kickball with up until last year, sixth grade. One playmate, Ted Aguinaldo, even told me that I was a very good kickball player for a girl. Ted’s family worshipped at the same church we did, Saint Mary’s, and Filipinos worked side-by-side with Mexicans in many places, including the hospital, the schools, and strawberry and broccoli fields surrounding town. Santa Maria was serious about strawberries, so much so that we had an annual festival where we crowned a Strawberry Queen. Such was our aristocracy.

I wondered how the fuck Karen was such an expert on Filipinos given that she lived in Orcutt’s whitest barrio: Lake Marie Estates. Yeah, I lived there, too, but I was, demographically speaking, the new non-White kid on the block.

“We had a housekeeper who was Filipina,” Karen continued. “You look like her.”

“Your housekeeper isn’t my mom.”

Karen kept staring at me, eyeballing my mustache, and I was on the verge of snapping, WHY DON’T YOU TAKE A FUCKING PICTURE?! when Karen’s attitude changed. In a fake friendly tone, she asked, “Have you seen Dirty Dancing?”

I shook my head.

“Don’t!” Karen barked. “It’s satanic!”

Karen was finally saying something interesting.

“Satanic!” I echoed. “Tell me more.”

Karen explained that since its plot involved abortion, Dirty Dancing was the devil’s film. Being twelve, I didn’t know what abortion was. I did, however, know the word abort and I wanted to abort this interrogation, go to the movies, get refreshments, and sin.

Karen and the rest of Lake Marie’s kids earned our distrust fast. Its preppy thugs welcomed us, the second Mexican-American family to take up residence there, by annihilating our mailbox with a baseball bat, aiming what the sheriff determined was a pellet gun at our windows and blasting them full of holes. I’m almost positive it was Karen and her flat-assed friends who snuck onto our property the night of the pentacle.

“Myriam!” Dad hollered one morning. “Go get the paper!”

I hurried across our porch, past Mom’s roses, and down our steep driveway. The paper had landed near a large agave. A mockingbird smiled at me from its perch, our new, still-intact mailbox. White caught my eye. I turned to see what it was and surveyed a dewy mess. Toilet paper mummified our oak trees and flannel bush. It draped the ceanothus Dad had planted along our hillside and a wet glob of it crapped from a branch, splattering whiteness across the soil. I snatched the newspaper, looked up, and saw an epithet written across our driveway. Its letters were made of something white, maybe sugar.

Skirting the words, I sprinted to our front door, threw it open, and screamed, “Dad!”

Dad appeared in ladies’ sweats. He prefers the variety of colors they come in. Wearing a worried look, he asked, “Is the mailbox still there?”

“Yeah but…just come look.”

Dad followed me to the bottom of our hill. He surveyed our yard. “Shit,” he said.

I pointed behind us, at the driveway. “Look.”

Colorless letters spelled EVIL BITCH. Beneath the accusation was a sugary star held by a sugary circle.

Through his angry beard, Dad asked, “Who do you think did this?”

“The bitch with the talking car.”

Ignoring my profanity, Dad said, “Go the garage. Get the push broom and clean this stuff up. Also, please bring me my chainsaw.”

I cleaned trees and shrubs and swept EVIL BITCH away while Dad found solace in cutting things up.

//

DSC03003-bw

Photo by Geoff Cordner

I hated the gym but I was in it anyways. The metal bleachers felt cold against my pompis. Down below, on the court, a boy dribbled a ball. Threw it.

He was not interesting.

Jenni was. I was focused on her.

Jenni was lighter skinned than me but definitely not White. She was sitting in the bleachers facing ours, and she practically glowed.

All of the social rejects hanging out in the gym were there for her.

We were TEAM JENNI.

Word on the street, and by street I mean our abusive-as-fuck campus, was that Jenni was going to discipline Karen. The bitch needed to be checked since she’d violated an important rule: Karen had shit-talked a chola. A Chicano, Freddy, had inspired the vendetta. Both Jenni and Karen had the hots for him, but Karen believed he belonged to her. She told everybody so. She also told everyone that Freddy deserved a classy girl, not a trashy whore like Jenni.

Now, because of her mouth, Karen might die.

I heard through the grapevine that to catch the violence, I should keep an eye on Jenni at lunchtime. After wolfing down tuna sandwiches, my friends and I spotted and tailed Jenni. She led us to the gym and we played it cool. Nobody wanted to tip off to the administration that an act of guerilla barbering was about to take place. It excited me that the fight was going to involve hair and apparently Jenni had told someone who had told someone who had told a tall Mexican girl named Summer that Karen was going to get jumped. During the attack, Jenni would use scissors and abscond with Karen’s dirty blonde copete.

I couldn’t wait for the de-banging, the hacking of a non-consensual mullet, and the promise of Karen’s assault gave me hope: squadrons of Karens and Matts tormented so many of us at Orcutt Junior High and for once, the meek might inherit the campus.

Amidst a sea of White teachers, a solitary Chicano taught science. White girls gossiped that because of his brownness, one should avoid being alone with him, he probably raped. And while shit-talking dark-skinned people was a popular campus pastime, woe unto those who talked shit in the righteous direction.

“Who do you think you are?” my White history teacher scrawled beside the F she wrote on an essay I’d done for homework. “How dare you write these things about Manifest Destiny?! Manifest Destiny is a sacred doctrine! Its why we’re here. What do you suggest White people do? Move? There are too many of us! Your suggestions are very offensive and unrealistic!”

Our male faculty were worse. They watched and did nothing when White boys lunged, pointed, and hissed the n-word at my beautifully fat lips. Sneering at my mustache, boys groaned, Ew. Yuck! The worst of them jammed their hands between my legs, trying to rape me with fingers lubed by chip grease. They didn’t hide their violence, it went down al fresco, and about once a week, marauders crept up behind me, grabbed my hem, and yanked my skirts up past my ribs.

One little gang turned my torture into a two-for-one. On their way toward me, they slammed a skinny Mexican boy against the wall, shoved their backpacks at him and turned on me. Our audience froze. Once I was scrambling to cover my private parts, the predators sauntered back to the Mexican. After snatching back their stuff, the burliest one drawled, “Thanks, faggot.”

My witness showed racial solidarity: he ratted my attackers out to our vice principal. Our vice principal told him nothing could be done about my constant degradation but he was lying, something could be done. Lore I hadn’t learned in school, lore I’d learned from books with bandits on the covers, pointed the way. These books belonged to Dad, they lived on our living room’s bookshelf, and they clued me into stuff my White history teacher pretended hadn’t happened. Gringos had been pushing Mexicans to the edge since they first trudged into California. Desperation turned us into desperados and after they laid claim to our land, money, and bodies, they left us a single valuable to defend: our reputations.

//

From the moment I first saw her shuffle across our playground, I’d admired Jenni’s walk. She moved pussy first, her clit was a bloodhound’s nose and Jenni dressed like my favorite gang-affiliated prima, la Green Eyes. Stretchy black jeans so tight her camel toe hung like lop rabbit ears. Nike Cortez. A black sweatshirt. Si hacía frío, a Raiders jacket cocooned her from neck to knees. La Jenni ratted and teased her locks identical to Green Eyes and her cynical baby face peered out through un huipil grandote de tehuana. Instead of lace and linen, the huipil’s ingredients were Chicana hairs shellacked into place by Aqua Net.

(If you don’t know what un huipil grande de tehuana is, picture a big-ass crunchy sunflower framing a güerita’s face. That was Jenni’s hairstyle. I worshipped it. It is possible to worship hair, especially when it communicates aristocracy and reaches for the gods.)

Karen was watching Freddy play basketball. Jenni was watching Karen. She sat a few yards away from her, glaring at her hair. Karen felt Jenni’s eyes and turned around. When she turned back, she was wearing a fuchi face. Once her eyes landed on Freddy, her cara de fuchi vanished. Adoration replaced it.

Jenni looked at her audience, at all of us gathered in the opposing bleachers. Slowly, she tugged her jacket’s zipper down. By their handle, she pulled out a pair of large shears, displaying them so that they glinted. The spectacle stoked our bloodthirst. I trembled. I was on the verge on making pipí in my bicycle shorts. Anticipatory states often make me wet myself a touch.

Cluelessly, Karen stood. She smoothed her sweater. She adjusted her socks. She walked. Her best friend, Sarah, followed her. After they disappeared into the courtside restroom, Jenni smiled. She stood. An entourage of girls followed her. Tracing Karen’s path, they entered the restroom. Those of us there for the reckoning held our breaths. We feared tipping off grown-ups. This desire forced us to play it cool. My sense sharpened. De repente, a scream like a demon giving birth to a two-headed Medusa interrupted the basketball game.

Most of the boys playing froze. Freddy kept dribbling.

Jenni emerged. A worried crease lined her forehead. With her hands in her pockets, she scurried along the court’s edge and flew out of the gym. Sarah tore through the restroom’s doorway, flailing onto the court. She grabbed the teacher refereeing the game by his shirtsleeve and shouted into his ear. His eyes widened and he shoved his whistle between his non-lips, blowing and blowing and blowing.

Euphoria filled me.

We had a hero.

//

During mi niñez bilingüe, two severed heads enthralled me.

The first was female. I met it in Anaheim.

For vacation, Dad drove us to Disneyland and at the Haunted Mansion, we boarded Doom Buggies that spun us around a house filled with ghosts like in the novel Pedro Páramo. My favorite specter was nothing from the neck down. From the neck up, she was Madame Leota, a pretty dead clairvoyant. Her head floated in a crystal ball at the center of a round table, overseeing a séance, and Leota’s makeup was spectacular. I wondered who did it. She had no hands.

The second head was actually several heads which had, and had not, belonged to Joaquín Murrieta. I’d learned about him, a Mexican bandit, from those books I mentioned earlier and when I mentioned my admiration for Murrieta to Dad, Dad filled me in on a chunk of the desperado’s tale that the books omitted: Murrieta’s executioners had decapitated him so that they could collect the high bounty that the state of California offered for his capture. Afterwards, some enterprising gabacho tossed his head in a jar, pickled it, and charged people a buck to see it.

According to certain audience members, the head in the jar wasn’t Murrieta’s. Vigilantes decapitated the wrong Mexican but really, aren’t all Mexicans the same? Aren’t we all bandits?

I’m a bandit.

The Mexican boy who watched my attack was a bandit.

Mom was a bandit.

Dad was a bandit.

My brother was a bandit.

My sister was a bandit.

Jenni was a bandit.

And because of that, the cops came and took her away. La copetóna never came back.

I would’ve paid at least a dollar to ogle her pickled piece of Karen.

//

The afternoon of the chopping, Karen didn’t ride the bus home.

The talking car came and got her.

The bus felt different without her.

Lighter.

The kids who typically did the torturing, the White boys who spit on girls and called us hairy cunts, the White girls who sneered at those of us with “hard to pronounce names,” acted a bit more reserved. Timidity had replaced viciousness.

I sat up straight in my seat, smiling, enjoying my ride home.

“This is how school should feel,” I thought to myself.

The bus sped along Clark Avenue, across the 101 Freeway, and up a slight grade. I looked out the window, toward the Solomon Hills. Dad liked talking about them. In 1901, William Warren Orcutt had struck oil there but that detail didn’t excite Dad. What did was the legend of Salomón Pico, cousin of California’s last Mexican governor, Pío Pico.

Gringos killed Pico’s wife, so to avenge her, Pico killed gringos. He ambushed travelers along the windy camino real, robbing them, dumping their corpses wherever he wanted to. Legend had it that he collected his victims’ ears and my mind’s eye conjured Pico resting in the shade of an erotic oak, humming to himself, petting his shriveled trophies, one or two still tufted with blood-matted blond hair.

The bus pulled up to my stop.

I disembarked Karenlessly.

I walked home Karenfree.

 

 

Myriam Gurba is a writer, podcaster and artist who lives in Long Beach, California. Her most recent book, the true crime memoir Mean, was a New York Times editors’ choice. Publishers Weekly describes her as a “literary voice like none other.” Gurba co-hosts the AskBiGrlz advice podcast with cartoonist, and fellow biracialist, MariNaomi. Her collage and digital artwork has been shown in museums, galleries, and community centers. Follow her on Twitter.

Copyright: © 2019 Myriam Gurba. 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/.

Postcard Series:

  1. Jenise Miller, “We are our own Multitude: Los Angeles’ Black Panamanian Community”
  2. Toni Mirosevich, “Who I Used To Be”
Postcards Series

Who I Used To Be

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Original art by Fernando Mendez Corona

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


Toni Mirosevich

I can tell, from the start of my walk on the beach promenade in Pacifica if he’s at his post, can spot the top of his faded baseball cap in the distance. The rest of his body is obscured by a cement casement housing a trashcan but as I get closer I see his legs sticking out, crossed at the knee, his tan gams, his flip flops. A few more steps and up pops his face, florid, flushed, eyes at half-staff, smile on full beam. He’s where he is every day, all day, in his spot at the end of a bench, kitty corner to the Chit Chat Café and the Pacifica pier. Where he holds forth, holds court, holds my attention whenever I pass.

His spot. One morning, a few months ago, I mentioned to Crystal, the counter person of the Chit Chat, that the guy sitting on the bench outside told me that the weather was about to change.

“You must have been talking to Tommy Bench,” she says. “That’s what we call him. That’s Tommy out there and that’s his bench.”

She went on to tell me that he was once a checker at Safeway. As soon as she said it I remembered seeing him when my wife and I first moved to this town, standing behind the checkout counter, dressed in the official Safeway uniform; short-sleeved shirt, navy blue apron, blue tie, shiny name badge. Bantering with the customers as he scanned the groceries. Crystal says he lost that job and never found another.

That was years ago. What does he live on now? I’ve noticed his buddies often bring him a can of beer when his supply gets low. “Got to keep hydrated,” he once yelled out, then raised his can in a bag and toasted me as I passed by.

Tommy and I have our own form of chitchat. I’ll say something about the weather or about the local baseball team, what about those Giants? and he’ll have some funny comeback. I laugh, give a short wave and carry on with my walk. I never hang around for a longer chat. My wife says it’s because I’m a solitary but maybe it’s that I just don’t know where the conversation might lead. We’re from such different worlds. I toss out writing lessons to students at the university, a privileged post. Tommy tosses out bon mots to the seagulls, his privileged perch. It is true that I’ve worked lots of blue collar jobs in the past. Truck driver, laborer, swimming pool operator, attic insulation, but that was before I landed a job in the spotless halls of academia. Would he and I have anything in common now, something that would tip the scales and convince me that getting to know him was worth the gamble?

Last week, the scales tipped with a woman in my neighborhood. When my wife and I first moved onto the block I thought, “Now there’s a happy-go-lucky type.” Her front yard was dotted with cutesy lawn ornaments; A plywood dog barking up a tree. A plastic statue of Mickey Mouse. On Valentine’s Day, smiley-faced red hearts hang from her front door. On St. Patrick’s Day, smiley-faced four-leaf clovers. But something was off. She was too cheery, too upbeat. As if all that front yard whimsy was out there to cover up a mess of anxieties. In person she was tense, as tight as a tick. There was that clipped little wave she always gave—quick and noncommittal—and how she quickly turned back to watering her garden as soon as our eyes met.

Whenever I passed by her house with my dog, I just waved and smiled and kept on going. She has a small yappy dog and whenever our dogs saw each other through the slatted fence they’d start barking and cause a big ruckus. Oh, sorry, sorry, I always called out before quickly moving along.

Last Tuesday, as I was walking by the dogs started up again. I apologized, but before I moved on I noticed her garden was in full bloom. “My god, you have such beautiful roses,” I said. And she does. Pink tea roses and long stem reds and orange ones with fluted edges. Floribunda roses, that’s what my wife called them. Abundantly florid.

As soon as I made the comment about her roses she stopped what she was doing and said, “Oh let me pick you some!” And I said, “Oh no, you don’t have to,” but she already had her garden clippers in hand. She snipped a huge blood red rose off of one bush, then a yellow rose off of another, a transformer, one of those roses that change color over time, that continue to deepen as the bloom shifts through the color spectrum.

I walked home with the two roses in hand and over the next few days watched as the transformer rose turned from yellow to pink to orange to red. Something else had turned too. When she clipped those roses, when she reached over the fence and handed them to me, when I reached my hand out to take them, I knew in that moment that things would never be the same between us. Even if we backslid and went back to hand waving pleasantries. Still, we’d both remember the day she offered me roses and I accepted. The day was transformed from an ordinary walk to something extraordinary. The day colored up, as they say.

Tommy has colored up too. It’s obvious he’s a drinker, an alcoholic, or, as my wife once called him, a drunkard. I told her drunkard was such an archaic word. That the word harkened back to Skid Row and Prohibition and songs like “Little Brown Jug How I Love Thee.”

“Well, ‘harken’ isn’t too modern now either, is it?” she replied.

The glassy eyes, the unfocused gaze. The slurred speech. The ever-present brown paper sack at his side, crinkled around a beer can. There are the obvious signs. Tommy sits on his bench, every morning and afternoon, deeply pickled, in a Hawaiian shirt, cargo pants, a baseball cap, dressed as if we’re living in Southern California instead of the cool Northern California coast. Propped up against his bench is the driftwood walking stick he carries with him wherever he goes, more like a staff than a walking stick. Like the staff a drunken apostle would use to lead his flock; that gang who sits next to him on that bench.

There’s Permit Man, who has a running feud with a brake repair shop near his house. Something about the shop not having a permit. He made a plywood cut out of a not so cutesy clown, nailed it to his backyard fence that faces the shop. The cartoon bubble coming out of the clown’s mouth reads, “Got Permit? Call 1-800-Scumbag.” There’s the Chewer who talks out loud to himself as he walks, a running stream of conspiracy theories about the government, (“Jesus Christ, Richard Nixon, Medicare fraud, Medicare fraud”) who chews and spits sunflower seeds, leaving a trail of split seeds in his wake. There’s Happy Day, who always says those two words, and only those two, whenever I see him. I hear he used to be a merchant marine.

Everyday each one finds a spot on the bench to chat with Tommy. To chew the fat, shoot the breeze. Tommy’s always at the head of that welcome wagon. He’s always ready to share a sip and a smoke. He’s rarely alone on that set of bar stools. With a black magic marker he’s inked each person’s name on the bench where they always sit. Like place cards set out for a fancy dinner party.

*

It’s late afternoon by the time I get down to the shore. I button up my jacket, start my walk, and spy Tommy’s cap in the distance. It would take an arctic blast to keep him from his bench.

When I reach him I stop, say hey, and we start bullshitting about nothing important. How the Giants lost again, how they blew it in the 9th. I compliment him on his fall outfit, plaid flannel shirt, khaki Bermuda shorts, a royal blue baseball cap I haven’t seen him wear before. This one sports the logo of the Golden State Warriors. The cap has a small tear in the brim.

“Like the cap,” I say.

“Got it at Goodwill. As is,” he says, pointing to the tear. “Like me.”

“As is,” I say, “Or is it as you were?” I give him a quick salute and start to move on. Then I stop. I don’t know why. My wife says I always have an exit strategy. Maybe it’s this feeling I have about not wanting to get too close. Or it could be that only when I’m alone do I feel free to think my thoughts. Maybe that’s what my neighbor feels when she’s alone, at peace, in her rose garden.

“Got something I wanna show you,” he says. He’s slurring his speech a little but I catch his drift. He reaches into his shirt pocket and pulls out a small square photograph. His hand is shaking as he holds the photo up to me. “Here. Take a look.”

I take the photo from his hand. Staring back at me: A handsome young guy, in his twenties or early thirties. Full head of hair, big grin. Clear-eyed, confident looking. The look of a guy who can handle whatever life throws at him. It’s Tommy like I’ve never seen him. Like I’ve never known him.

“I used to own a house,” he says. “Up on Milagra Ridge. Beautiful deck and everything. The wife got that. And everything else.”

I try to picture him years ago, in his prime, with his dreams and hopes and plans for the future. With his life still ahead of him.

“You cut quite a figure,” I say and smile.

But Tommy’s not smiling. He looks me straight in the eye, as if to say, look again, dammit. Look again. You’re missing something. He gives a cough, like he’s clearing his throat. Then, in a voice as serious as I’ve ever heard him use, says:

This is who I used to be.”

Who he used to be. Not just a guy on this bench with a half can of beer, hanging out with the rest of the beach gang.  A man who had a life, with a wife, a house, a job, and responsibilities, with cash coming in. A person with a pension plan and health coverage and whatever other benefits a lifetime of indentured servitude to Safeway offers.

As if I need more evidence he lifts his shirtsleeve. There, on his skinny forearm, a tattooed column of blue letters run down to his wrist. I try to decipher the code but the letters don’t combine to make up any word I know.

“One initial for the name of each member of my family. Mia familia,” he says, proudly.

A photo, an arm, a beer, the sea. Who we used to be. Who was The Chewer in a former life? Or Permit Man? Or Happy Day? Or me? I don’t tell Tommy that I once worked all those blue-collar jobs, then went to school, wrote some stories, and now that I teach at a university. That I never wanted to follow the rules; academic or otherwise. That I used to be married, then divorced, then came out and married the love of my life. That, when I was young I wanted to grow up and sit on the sand all day watching the waves roll in. That I was once that person, and that person, and that person. Now, this is who I am, a woman walking alone by the sea. A person who is soon to call it a day on that cush university gig, ready to leave that all behind. All of who I used to be is still in here, tucked inside my shirt pocket, tucked inside this skin.

A grocery checker becomes a drunkard. A truck driver becomes a professor. A merchant marine becomes the minister of happiness. Transformers, every one of us.

I hand his photo back to him, watch as he slips it back in his shirt pocket. He looks up and gives me a grin. There’s nothing here to fear. What if I joined Tommy on the bench, if I sat right down next to him? If I didn’t rush on and instead left behind my monkish ways? If I went to the local liquor store and brought back a bottle of Four Roses to share? What if, like the old timey song, I harkened back to another gentler time and realized, “…there is no separation in that land beyond the sky,” and then went a step further, believed there is no separation right here on earth? If, I had a revelation, like the monk Thomas Merton once had on the streets of Louisville, that “I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers.”

Would Tommy accept me, as is? Would the others?

I make my move. I walk over to Tommy and sit down. I sit right next to him. He laughs, a nervous laugh, then scoots over a bit and laughs again. We both fall silent. We sit there, staring out at the sea. Two surfers are trying to catch a few waves. A guy on the pier is pulling up a crab and the other crabbers send up a cheer.

“Hey Tommy. Why here, every day, this spot? Always this same spot?”

“Well, I don’t have anywhere else to be. I don’t have a job,” he says. I don’t mention that I know he once did.

“You know, that’s not quite true,” he adds and gives me a wink. “I’m in the coast guard.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah, I guard the coast.”

“Well, don’t let your guard down.” I toss back and he laughs.

After a moment he says, “Hey. What are you sitting on?”

This must be his lead up to a joke so I say, in high English, “My arse, kind sir.”

“Well, always look down before you sit down. You never know what you’ll find.”

Maybe he’s nervous about us sitting so close. Or maybe he’s stuck chewing gum on the bench. I get up, make a big show of looking down where I’m going to sit. That’s when I see sit. New letters inked onto the bench.

My name. With a drawing of a tiny anchor.

There, right there with all the others in the row. With the inked names of the Dude and Lupe and the Chewer and Permit Man. With Kite Man, who died from a heart attack last year, his name beginning to fade. Here it is, the proof, the acknowledgement. What I’ve wanted all along. To be accepted. To be in with this out crowd.

“Jesus, Tom. You have no idea what this means to me. No greater honor…” and I can’t finish, tear up. Tommy turns red, takes a swig from his can. He’s embarrassed, as am I. To lighten it up I offer him a line I learned from the Crab King: “Listen. If I’m lyin’ I’m dyin.”

I sit back down and put my arm around his shoulder. I don’t move on. We sit there together, silently, for the rest of the afternoon and watch the sunset take the sky through the color spectrum, color after color after color.

 

Toni Mirosevich has spent the last few years lyrically documenting an overlooked community at the edge of the sea in Pacifica, California. “Who I Used to Be,” is from a new manuscript of nonfiction stories that have accrued, malo po malo, Croatian for “little by little.” She is the author of six collections of poetry and prose, including “Pink Harvest,” winner of the First Series in Creative NonFiction Award and a Lambda Literary Award Finalist. She is the recipient of grants and fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, Astraea Foundation, among others and work has received multiple nominations for Pushcart Prizes. She is a professor of Creative Writing at San Francisco State University.

Copyright: © 2019 Toni Mirosevich. 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/.

Postcard Series:

  1. Jenise Miller, “We are our own Multitude: Los Angeles’ Black Panamanian Community”

 

Postcards Series

We are our own Multitude: Los Angeles’ Black Panamanian Community

Ilustracion 1 RGB

Courtesy of Fernando Mendez Corona

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


Jenise Miller

On a Saturday morning in late October, public workers in downtown Los Angeles block off the stretch of Broadway from Olympic Boulevard to Hill Street. Around 10 am, a crowd gathers, donned in blue and red garments, shirts embroidered with mola, white polleras with bright-colored pom-poms, or Panama flags draped across their backs, to celebrate the Annual Panamanian Independence Day Parade. Distant relatives and former neighbors spot each other and greet with air kisses on each cheek. The crowd travels with the parade down Broadway and ends with a battle of Panamanian bands at Pershing Square. By activating spaces like downtown, a small but significant, interconnected community of Black Panamanians made Los Angeles their home.

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The 2018 Senior Queen of the Parade waves at attendees along Broadway in downtown Los Angeles. Photo courtesy of Ernesto Edwards.

While some have lived in Los Angeles since the 1960s, many Black Panamanian families moved to L.A. from Panama and other states such as New York, to live alongside African-Americans with roots in the American South during the 1970s and 1980s. As they sought housing in areas where other Black Panamanians already lived, a constellation of Black Panamanian families and individuals grew in South Los Angeles, North Long Beach, Watts, and Compton. Decades before they migrated to the United States, their grandparents left countries like Barbados, Jamaica, Guadeloupe, Martinique, and other Caribbean islands for Panama. Like them, they relied on family, friendship, and cultural practices.

Settling into their new city, they moved to affordable homes and several apartment complexes in Compton, including an apartment complex my mother, a canteen cashier at an aerospace company, managed. Known as “The Blvd,”because of its location on Long Beach Boulevard, one of Compton’s major thoroughfares, Black Panamanians came to occupy over half of the complex’s units. Its layout—apartments that faced each other with a communal space in the front and a walkway in the back that led to the next building—encouraged neighbors to interact and kids to play together. On Saturday mornings, music poured from every apartment: Anita Baker, Johnnie Taylor, Ruben Blades or Tabou Combo. The aroma of fried, sweet platanos and collard greens drifted between the apartments. During the summer, one neighbor sold duros, juices frozen in plastic cups, with flavors like tamarindo, ginger-infused jamaica, and, my favorite, coco, made with fresh coconut milk and shredded coconut, sweetened with cinnamon and nutmeg. If someone had a party, we all partied and feasted on delicacies such as saus (pickled pig feet with onions, cucumber, and white vinegar), chicheme (a drink made with sweetened milk, corn, and cinnamon), and Panamanian tamales (a spicy, reddish masa filled with green peas, peppers, a bone-in piece of chicken, and a prune, tripled wrapped, first in a banana leaf, then wax paper, then aluminum foil). For Nochebuena, my mother made pineapple glazed ham for everyone and rang in Navidad with the songs of Ismael Rivera, Oscar D’León, and Ruben Blades. Though the apartment’s location placed us in the cross-hairs of both gang violence and pedestrian-involved car accidents, we created spaces of joy by sharing Black Panamanian and African-American culture and resources.

On weekends, the Black Panamanian community throughout Los Angeles came together. The physical and social proximity of Compton, Watts, North Long Beach, and South Los Angeles, made it easy to gather in each others’ homes or in local, public spaces. On Saturday afternoons, a group of women, which included my mother, gallivanted to local or cross-town casinos, Compton’s Ramada Inn or Inglewood’s Hollywood Park and Casino, to play bingo. On Sundays, they headed east, out of Los Angeles County, to San Bernardino’s San Manuel Casino. If they didn’t want to drive, they got together in someone’s home, but kept the stakes high and brought their plata. The men played straight dominos in the dining room or backyard or joined the women in the living room, where you could hit on two or three in a row, before winning with the traditional five in a row. Their children commandeered the kids’ room to play video games or listen to hip-hop and dancehall music, growing hungrier as time passed before the evening’s host finished cooking rice and peas (red beans), guandú (also called gandules or gungo peas), or lentils, fried, sweet platanos, stewed chicken, and salad – potato or coleslaw. At times, food inspired the gathering, and someone prepared and sold dinners or fritura, fried finger foods such as hojaldas (a fried bread, also known as hojaldres/dras), empanadas, fried yucca, patacones (twice-fried green plantains), or carimañolas (mashed yucca filled with ground meat then fried). Whatever the occasion, we all ate and ate together.

Outside Shop hanging victor in hat and others

Victor and friends outside the shop. Photo courtesy of Victor

Some Saturdays I accompanied my father to Victor’s Upholstery Shop (known to everyone simply as Victor’s shop); this meant peeking into the shop to say hello then sitting in the car for what felt like hours while my father hung out. Initially located on Washington Boulevard in L.A.’s Arlington Heights, the upholstery shop occupied the corner unit of a large, white brick building, with peeling paint, no windows, and one front metal gate. Named for its proprietor—a slim, brown Panamanian, with a gold tooth and a Caribbean accent (like many Black Panamanians), who often dressed in a natty fit and cap—Victor opened the shop in 1965 and availed his business to the local Panamanian community. For decades, the shop doubled as a communication hub and hang-out spot. If you wanted to confirm information about an event, you called Victor’s shop. If you needed to purchase pre-sale tickets for the upcoming boat cruise or dance, you could buy them at Victor’s shop. When the Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega was ousted in 1989, the local news stations came to Victor’s shop to interview the Panamanian community. The layout of the space itself reflected its many functions. Bolts of fabric lined up like wallpaper on one wall, shelves with binders upon binders of swatches stacked on another wall, and a wide wood work table occupied the center; it sat atop a carpet of wood dust. A dim corner room, across from the work table and behind Victor’s desk, housed a large TV and chairs. The walls were plastered with posters of athletes and bikini-clad women selling alcohol. While the sounds of Victor pounding sofa upsides with a mallet echoed through the shop, the TV room rang with the raucous laughter of men who planted themselves to talk politics and bochinche (gossip) in a mix of Spanish, English, and Patois, drink rum and milk or Cerveza Panama, and watch boxing matches, especially ones that featured Panama’s pride, Roberto “Manos de Piedra” Duran. In exchange, they helped Victor make deliveries. As they aged, they gathered for potlucks and quieter moments.

Across from Victor’s shop was Jucy’s Jamaican restaurant, one of L.A.’s few sit-down Caribbean restaurants, which has operated for over thirty-five years.[1] It serves typical Panamanian cuisine like chicken soup with dumpling, stewed meat dishes, and chicken curry. Sometimes we drove down Crenshaw to indulge in a beef patty from Stone Market. Opened in the 1970s, we first frequented Stone Market because it carried typical food items and brands that local stores did not, such as guandú peas, Malta Hatuey (a sweet, carbonated beverage), and bacalao (salted codfish).[2] Outside, men sat on folding chairs or milk crates, talking and playing dancehall and old school reggae that you could purchase.  Over time, it became a staple in the Black Panamanian community.  Located next to the market is the star of the operation: a take-out, cash only, food kiosk, where dinners, patties, and, the best carrot juice I’ve ever tasted, are prepared and sold. It is a small structure, with just a kitchen and front counter, a floor fan circulating heat and noise, and a dry-erase board that displays the menu of the day. Upon entering, the smell of coconut, butter, and cinnamon from the loaves of Coco bread and bun welcomed you the way the cashier will not. What was written on the board is what they had in stock; if an item was marked out or erased, they ran out of it for the day. If it wasn’t on the board, one shouldn’t ask for it (these were the unspoken rules). When an abuelita or other keepers of the homemade bun recipe went on a cooking hiatus, families settled for purchasing buns for Easter or Christmas from Stone Market.

During summer holidays like the 4th of July, we celebrated at Scherer Park in Long Beach. Nicknamed “Parque Del Amo,” for its location off Del Amo, between Long Beach Boulevard and Atlantic Avenue, some families arrived as early as six am to claim one of the limited numbers of picnic tables, while others brought folding tables, lawn chairs, or blankets. Each family prepared meals at home and brought them to the park: cole slaw, potato salad, rice and peas or guandú, baked barbecue chicken, and even hotdogs and hamburgers. Occasionally, my father set up a fryer and sold patacones and codfish cakes. Children would go from table to table to meet-up with friends. Asking for or accepting a plate from a table other than your own was a faux paus; my mother insisted that doing so constituted begging and set the trap for a good piece of bochinche. Folks might say that your mother did not care for you properly. The Scherer Park gatherings grew in size; at one point, someone hired an official DJ and a Panamanian ballet folklórico group performed on a portable dance floor. As Panamanians began to move to cities within San Bernardino County, festivities like an annual end of the summer picnic, were held east of Los Angeles at Frank Bonelli Park in San Dimas.

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Couples dance close at a Father’s Day Dance at the Shatto Banquet Hall. Photo courtesy of Ernesto Edwards.

Parties worthy of a formal venue took place at Shatto Banquet Hall, a rental hall on Slauson Avenue, which was popular among L.A.’s Louisiana Creole community.[3] We had our own version of formal wear. For men, it consisted of a button-down blouse, silk slacks, and dress shoes with no socks. Women wore glittered or sequined body-hugging dresses, extra-high heels, and a slather of gold – gold bracelets, anklets, earrings, and necklaces with placas (name plates or plates in the shape of the Panama Isthmus) or an Ojo de Venado (a round ball/amulet wrapped in gold letters). No matter the type of jewelry, it had to be gold, as the women deemed anything else chichipatti (cheap). At Shatto Hall, I witnessed my first and only quinceñera, another second-generation Black Panamanian girl, who body rolled down the two lines of Black damas and chambelanes to Raven-Simone’s rap song “That’s What Little Girls are Made of.”

The predominant narrative about the Afro-Latinx community in L.A. claims that we suffers from isolation and are disconnected. However, it is clear that a network of Black Panamanians nurtured and created a strong sense of identity for the next generation, including myself. As an Black Panamanian in Los Angeles, I was not a anomaly. Instead, I was part of a community that held and named me.

Yet, as the places and spaces known to the community changed, so did the community. Panamanians no longer live on “The Blvd.” Encounters with violence[4] and the lack of opportunity due to divestment and the loss of jobs once provided by large industries,  pushed African-American and Black Panamanian families out of Los Angeles. Many followed the out-migration of African-Americans east, to cities like Rialto, Upland, Fontana, and Rancho Cucamonga. Folks no longer gather at Scherer Park. After decades of running his upholstery business out of Washington Boulevard, Victor had to move. This was likely a result of rising commercial rent costs and gentrification. The original location of Victor’s shop is now an art gallery. He retired soon after his shop relocated. Jucy’s and Stone Market have managed to weather the changes and will perhaps benefit from the planned Crenshaw light rail running next to Stone Market. [5]

Outside Shop today 2

The entire building has experienced a transformation, with new tenants replacing old ones

While many families moved out of L.A. County, some families,[6] including my own, remained. We moved from Compton to Long Beach, and finally, to Watts. My family arrived to these places without the community that once enriched us and made these places home. I long for that community –my mother does too. Now, as a mother, I desire for my children to experience the affirmation that I did growing up in a Black Panamanian Los Angeles. Yet, in the face of change, we remain resourceful and look to the past for guidance. As the child of migrants, I am able to do things that my parents were not able to: I can take my children to Panama. I can take them to the annual parade, the place where we still gather, and introduce them to our neighbors from “The Blvd” and our friends like Victor. Those of us who grew up nurtured by this community of Black Panamanians, and those who are just discovering it, know that in any place we gather, we are our own multitude.

Notes

[1] Linda Burum, “Getting Down Home JAMAICAN,” Los Angeles Times. Sep. 10, 1989. Accessed at  https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1989-09-10-ca-2664-story.html

[2] Ibid.

[3] Steve Lopez, As L.A. riots raged, she was shot before she was even born. Now 25, she embodies survival and resolve” Los Angeles Times, Apr. 29, 2017. Accessed at https://www.latimes.com/local/california/la-me-lopez-king-evers-0430-story.html.

[4] “Natraliart, A Meaty Jamaican Spot in Arlington Heights,” Eater Los Angeles, Jul. 11, 2014. Accessed at  https://la.eater.com/2014/7/11/6188189/natraliart-a-meaty-jamaican-spot-in-arlington-heights.

[5] Lynell George, No Crystal Stair: African-Americans in the City of Angels (San Francisco: Verso, 1992) pp. 239-40.

[6] Steve Lopez, As L.A. riots raged, she was shot before she was even born. Now 25, she embodies survival and resolve” Los Angeles Times, Apr. 29, 2017. Accessed at https://www.latimes.com/local/california/la-me-lopez-king-evers-0430-story.html.

Jenise Miller is an urban planner and poet. She is the great-granddaughter of Black Panama Canal builders and a native of Compton and Watts. A recent Voices of Our Nations Arts (VONA) fellow, her poems have been featured in The Acentos Review, Dryland Literary Journal, and Cultural Weekly.  She received her M.A. in Urban Planning from UCLA and B.A. in Black Studies and Sociology from UC Santa Barbara. She lives in Compton with her family. You can find her on Twitter @jenisepalante and www.plannerpoet.com.

Copyright: © 2019 Jenise Miller. 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/