Category: Reviews

Reviews

The Machete of Memory: Roberto Lovato’s Memoir Unforgetting

Steven Osuna

It has been 13 years since I first traveled to El Salvador. My father, Ramon, left his homeland of El Salvador for the U.S. in the late 1970s. Ramon was always in and out of my life. The last time I saw my father was in 2004. By the time I took this trip, I had completely lost contact with him. This trip to El Salvador was my way to connect with Ramon’s home country without having a relationship with him. It was my way of searching for an opaque past.

While in El Salvador, I learned the significance of “memoria histórica” (historical memory). To know history, is to know oneself. As Italian socialist, Antonio Gramsci, once said: “The starting-point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is, and is ‘knowing thyself’ as a product of the historical process to date which has deposited in you an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory.”[1] My yearning to trace my history would not bring me closer to Ramon, but it would help me understand him and myself. It permanently informed my political consciousness and commitments, and the love I have for El Salvador.

In Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs, and Revolution in the Americas (Harper Collins, 2020), scholar, activist, and journalist Roberto Lovato takes us through his own journey of re-membering the infinite traces of his life as a child of Salvadoran migrants in the Mission District of San Francisco. By navigating through history, borders, silences and half-truths, Lovato excavates his family’s past, his participation in the Salvadoran revolutionary process, and the “gangs-as-cause-of-every-problem-thesis” in El Salvador. While mainstream media, law enforcement, and U.S. presidents point toward gangs such as MS13 as the culprit of Central America’s social problems, Lovato complicates this claim. Unforgetting is an urgent demand to sit with the beauty and messiness in our lives, our traumas, and the historical moments that shape our present and possibly our futures.

This morning, my neighbor was gardening. His tool of choice? The machete he brought back from visiting his family in El Salvador. As I heard him hacking away at the branches of a tree, I was reminded of the first words in Lovato’s memoir: “The machete of memory can cut swiftly or slowly.”[2] The machete, a cultural reference to El Salvador for many of us, is the tool of choice Lovato uses to conjure the memories that have shaped him, his family and all Salvadorans. With this machete, Lovato cuts and slices through over 80 years of Salvadoran history. Rather than a simple, linear narrative beginning in the past and ending in the present, Lovato travels through distinct instances of his father’s life, his own life, and the historical events that connect towns and cities in El Salvador to San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Karnes County, Texas. The machete of memory, Lovato reminds us, is versatile. It can summon pain, love, and nostalgia. The memories shared by Lovato in his memoir invite us to feel a collage of emotions while grounding us in their material conditions.

The Lovato Family on Folsom Street in the San Francisco Mission District. Courtesy of Roberto Lovato

“My story is apocalyptic in the original sense of the term in Greek: apokaluptō…to uncover, lay open what has been veiled or covered up.”[3] Like a finely made braid, Lovato interlaces his family’s history with the history of El Salvador. Through the Matanza of 1932, the migrations of Salvadorans to Mexico and to the U.S., the revolutionary struggles of the 1980s, the criminalization of youth, and the caging of Salvadoran refugees during the Obama and Trump administrations, Lovato and his family are always present. Rather than bystanders, Lovato shows how he, his grandmother, his father, his mother, his aunts, and cousins, were all active agents in the making of El Salvador and the Mission District of San Francisco. Through memoria histórica, Lovato shares his journey of uncovering his father’s intimate connection to the 1932 massacre of over 30,000 indigenous people and communists. The moment his father shares his testimonio is one of the most powerful images in the memoir: “At that moment, my eight-eight-year-old father became the nine-year-old boy who’d witnessed one of the worst massacres in the history of the Americas.”[4]

Roberto Lovato in Chalantenango, El Salvador, 1991. Courtesy of Roberto Lovato

If you have followed Lovato’s journalism and activism throughout the years, you know he does not shy away from showing us his rage. “Rage is my vocation,” he states.[5] By way of Cuban musician Silvio Rodríguez’s lyrics in “Días y Flores,” we learn the origins of Lovato’s rage and how it shifted from his family, El Salvador, and himself to U.S. empire. Through Lovato’s intimate and comradely relationship with a Salvadoran revolutionary named G, we are taken through scenes of U.S. imperialism in El Salvador, its support of death squads, and the revolutionary struggles for Salvadoran dignity during the 1980s civil war. Revolution is a major theme in Lovato’s memoir. Although the word revolution might be outdated for some, Lovato reminds us its ideals and necessity live on. 

Instead of reifying gang violence in El Salvador, Lovato urges us to think deeply and try to understand what turns kids into violent, even murderous gang members while also holding space for the child victims of this violence, what he calls a “double helix of death,” that condemns many in El Salvador.[6] In many scenes of the memoir, Lovato forces us to reckon with a whirlwind of emotions that does not explain away the violence, but rather helps us understand it. Through his own investigations, Lovato argues the violence we often hear about through the corporate media “is no small part, an expression of forgotten American violence.”[7] He reminds us that the most destructive agents in El Salvador are not the youth gangs, but the gangsters in suits who are “protected by even more violent gangsters in military uniforms.”[8]

According to Central American Studies scholar Ester E. Hernández, “the process of transmitting cultural memory brings to light the history of diaspora.”[9] Through her use of the concept “working memory,” Hernández shows how U.S.-based Central Americans use film, murals, and performances to revisit complex and contradictory narratives of war, migration, and resistance.[10] Adding to this working memory and history of the Salvadoran diaspora, Lovato’s Unforgetting contributes to U.S.-based Central American cultural production, activism, and the growing field of Central American Studies. It is part and parcel of a growing tradition of U.S.-based Central Americans writing their own radical histories of U.S. empire. This memoir is an ideal text for undergraduate courses and people interested in Salvadoran history.  

Roberto Lovato at the Instituto de Medicina Legal, 2015. Courtesy of Roberto Lovato

Unforgetting is an invitation, or more like a demand, to remember the violence of settler colonialism, anti-communism, and imperialist interventions in El Salvador. Simultaneously, it is a refusal to forget the love, hope, agency, and struggles of Salvadorans and Central Americans. It is a timely memoir that should be studied on your own or with a study group. As we continue to hear, see, and organize against the caging, raiding, and deporting of our people, let us remember Lovato’s call to action. We must never forget the roots causes of the trauma, forced displacement, and criminalization. We must never forget the dignity of our people. Salvadorans have a rich history. Lovato urges others to read, listen, and learn from them.


Notes

[1] Gramsci, Antonio. Selections from the Prison Notebooks, 2nd ed. Edited by Quintin Hoare and Geoffret Nowell Smith. New York: International Publishers, 1999, 324.

[2] Lovato, Roberto. Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs, and Revolution in the Americas. New York: Harper Collins, 2020, xvii

[3] Ibid, 300.

[4] Ibid, 275.

[5] Ibid, 190.

[6] Ibid, 47.

[7] Ibid, 304.

[8] Ibid, 57.

[9] Hernández, Ester E. “Remembering Through Cultural Interventions: Mapping Central Americans in L.A. Public Space,” in U.S. Central Americans: Reconstructing Memories, Struggles, and Communities of Resistance. Edited by Karina O. Alvarado, Alicia Ivonne Estrada, and Ester E. Hernández. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 2017, 144.

[10] Ibid, 144. 

Steven Osuna is an educator, researcher, and activist based in Los Angeles. He is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at California State University, Long Beach. 

Copyright: © 2020 Steven Osuna. 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/

Reviews

Lunch Ladies and the Fight for School Food Justice: A Superhero Origin Story

Christine Tran

Plagued by unsavory stories in American popular culture, the lunch lady has been a mocked and villainized figure for decades. Yet, as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds in real-time, lunch ladies across the country are emerging as unassuming superheroes feeding millions across the United States.

Because of school closures and an economic downturn, school food is assuming a major role in providing emergency meals for their communities. Some are doing so independently and others have partnered with local food banks, faith-based organizations, and the Red Cross. With nearly 75 million children under the age of eighteen across the country,[1] coupled with families losing their incomes at a startling rate, more and more people are in need of food. In the first three weeks of shelter-in-place orders, sixteen million Americans filed for unemployment[2] while in nearly the same three-week period, the Los Angeles Unified School District served five million meals to children and adults.[3]

Arroyo Knights. El Monte.

Arroyo High Schools in El Monte, California

Yet unlike the origin stories of comic book heroes, the history of the lunch lady has been almost entirely erased. Moreover, their collective stories have fallen victim to historical amnesia. As a result, school food, as a sector, is invisible to and undervalued by society. For decades, most lunch ladies held some of the lowest paying jobs in school systems, making hourly wages with little to no benefits—creating a lasting impact on their economic and social worth. This is the underappreciated workforce that the United States now looks to for support.

More than ever, it is important to elevate the origin story of the lunch lady. As comic books have taught us, we can’t undo the past but we can learn from it as we move on to create future narratives, where lunch ladies (and gentlemen, or more gender non-conforming “food folks”) are acknowledged and respected for the essential workers that they are, during and outside of a pandemic. To bring those narratives to light, Jennifer Gaddis gives us their origin story in The Labor of Lunch: Why We Need Real Food and Real Jobs in American Public Schools (UC Press, 2019).

In her book, Gaddis addresses implicit biases the reader may hold about lunch ladies by guiding us through a richly-layered history of school food and labor. Using archival photos and first-hand stories, she connects us with narratives that have been withheld from our collective consciousness. She addresses the inequities of this work head on by laying out the historic role that racial and economic discrimination, capitalism, and patriarchy played in perpetuating stereotypes of school food service workers.

Gaddis sets the stage for the book not in faraway time or even in a cafeteria. She starts the book in 2004 with Lisa, a 48-year-old assistant cook, testifying in front of a local school board: “Good evening, distinguished board members and all in the room who have an ethical obligation to our children. I see some faces whose children I have had the honor of personally feeding. I use the word honor because it is the highest trust a parent can give, letting someone else care and nurture their children” (1). In her own words, Lisa addresses the board as an advocate and labor union member, identities not often associated with lunch ladies.

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UNITE HERE Local 1 workers gather in protest outside Chicago Public Schools head-quarters in April 2012 as part of a series of actions in their real-food, real-jobs campaigns.Courtesy UNITE HERE

Further so, she aptly titles the first chapter of the book, “The Radical Roots of School Lunch.” This foundational section to the book disaggregates the history you may find on the internet when you search for “school lunch.” Gaddis tells a history of a movement that began half a century before the passing of the 1946 National School Lunch Act, by firmly rooting school food history alongside feminist history, calling it a “product of generations of women’s activism.” In fact, school lunch started out in the 1890s  as a localized “penny lunch” program as part of a “nonprofit school lunch movement.” It was born out of a public necessity to feed extremely poor children, “not as private, gendered responsibility” (18). School lunch, along with kindergarten and public kitchens, were just some approaches advocates used to create new forms of public caregiving to support the changing roles of women during this industrializing era.

A federal policy that paves the way for the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) can appear to be a win, but who is actually benefiting from the program? Gaddis examines the systemic racial inequities that excluded many populations of color under the federal school lunch program. In the chapter, “The Fight for Food Justice,” Gaddis discusses the role of the Black Panther Party in organizing local support for poor black communities whose needs were unmet by the government. In 1968, a group of Oakland mothers worked alongside the Panthers to start the very first Free Breakfast for Children Program. This program resulted in a national movement of localized expansion in poor black communities that would feed tens of thousands of poor black children across the country while exposing inequities, and demonstrating to the American public “a working example of how social reproduction could be collectivized at the neighborhood scale in a truly egalitarian fashion” (62).

In addition to social and political movements, the chronology of school food is also heavily influenced by the industrialization of food and rise of the cheap food economy, as well as the government’s role in regulating what goes into school meals. In 1981, the Reagan administration reduced the school food budget by one-third, resulting in the need to cut costs by changing regulations to include cheaper substitutes. A task force was convened to discuss cheaper alternatives to certain meal components: “Suddenly corn chips, pretzels, doughnuts, and pies could all pass as ‘bread’ in the NSLP” (98). Gaddis also describes the shifting labor of school lunch, as more central kitchen models were being constructed and for-profit Big Food factories began receiving more contracts to turn commodity foods like chicken into nuggets. These shifts led to reheating already prepared foods and diminishing a school cafeteria’s capacity to cook from scratch. This period, according to Gaddis, had a stark effect on the school food programming across the country.

Gaddis_Fig1

Workers making prepack sandwiches in a central kitchen facility. Records of the Office of  the Secretary of Agriculture, 1974-ca. 2003, National Archives and Records Administration.

Despite the challenges that exist in school food, Gaddis positions a lofty goal for the school food sector: “Empowering school kitchen and cafeteria workers to cook real food from scratch using locally sourced and school-grown ingredients can transform the entire culture of [NSLP]” (174). Rather than one-off solutions or one-size fits all approaches, Gaddis offers several examples to realize this “real food economy.” One approach is farm-to-school, by which schools can connect and buy directly from local farmers. This type of programming effectively builds relationships with food so that we know where it comes from. This requires coordinated efforts and investments: “Establishing comprehensive farm-to-school programs that combine local food procurement, school gardening, and classroom education takes significant effort that is difficult to sustain without grant funding and personal donations” (196). Identifying and working with local partners is key to making this change. Gaddis reminds us of this shared responsibility: “The NSLP is a public program. And we, the public, can reimagine and ultimately transform it into an engine for positive social and economic change” (214). We must remember that to feed children, we must also employ people to serve, cook, transport, and grow food. In effect, this would stimulate the economy, not take away from it.

Making these sweeping changes to the school food system requires a greater shift in society. Gaddis positions the notion of a real school food system into a new economy of care. How do we care about school food and the labor behind it? Gaddis reminds us that the value of school food and labor is dependent on our collective respect for it: “It’s up to us to change the paradigm. Cheapness is not synonymous with public value.” (228). Now more than ever, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, food service workers across the country need this paradigm shift as they risk their own health to feed millions of children. By valuing their labor and school food we can better support them on the frontlines of this public health crisis.

Notes

[1] https://www.childtrends.org/indicators/number-of-children

[2] https://apnews.com/20a7e14dada836862b250b54a11305dd

[3] https://civileats.com/2020/04/07/with-schools-closed-some-districts-are-feeding-more-people-than-food-banks/

 

Christine Tran is a food and education advocate from South El Monte, California. She is passionate about people, places, food, and stories that connect us all. Her diverse background in education, food justice, communities, and policy has taken her across the country and around the world. As a multimedia storyteller, she aspires to spark dialogues to deepen our understanding of each other, the food we eat, and the world we share. Christine is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Washington studying Educational Leadership, Policy & Organizations. She obtained her bachelor’s degrees in Asian American Studies and English, as well as a Master of Education from UCLA. She also holds a Master of Arts in sociology from Columbia University in the City of New York.

Copyright: © 2020 Christine Tran. 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/.

Reviews

The Politics of Living and Dying

Rachel Grace Newman

Lupe Gómez migrated to California from a small town in Zacatecas, Mexico when he was very young. It might seem that he chose to make his life north of the border, where he went to college, became a U.S. citizen, and established a business (86). But as he took these steps to settle in the United States, he was also building connections to Mexico. He became active in hometown associations (HTAs), migrant organizations that raise funds to make improvements in the communities they left behind. In 2009, as a migrant candidate, he ran for a congressional seat in Zacatecas’ state legislature. Affiliated with Mexico’s right-wing Partido Acción Nacional, his campaign focused on “education and development,” promising to create jobs to reduce the need for people in his state to emigrate (87). Gómez described himself as an anti-establishment figure: in his words, he was “a humble ranchero who left Zacatecas a long time ago and now has returned to do things better than today’s politicians” (89). His opponents argued that Gómez’s long absence from his home state had eroded his identity as a Zacatecano and left him “out of touch” with everyday politics (90). Gómez lost the election, which was widely criticized for corruption and irregularities, but he promised to continue to seek office in Mexico (91). As recently as 2018, he was running for a federal deputy position, again as a migrant candidate, with the newer political party Movimiento Ciudadano.[1]

Though Lupe Gómez is not a household name, his story has periodically appeared in California and Mexican media over the past twenty years. In 2000, the Los Angeles Times ran a profile of Gómez with the title “Expatriates are True Patriots in Mexico.” [2] The phrasing catches the reader’s attention because it inverts a commonplace that migrants leave the homeland behind and betray their country of origin in doing so. But in Adrián Félix’s portrayal of Gómez in Specters of Belonging: The Political Life Cycle of Mexican Migrants (Oxford University Press, 2018), the Zacatecano features not as a surprising or strange case but as an example of a broader phenomenon that Félix calls “the thickening of transnational citizenship.” Mexican migrants, he argues, “simultaneously cultivate cross-border citizenship claims” both in the country where they were born and raised and in the United States, where they work and raise the next generation (3). Transnational citizenship can “thicken” over the course of migrants’ lives, especially in our current context. In the past generation, institutional and legal changes have made it increasingly possible for Mexicans in the United States to be civically and politically active on both sides of the border. Naturalizing as a U.S. citizen no longer requires Mexicans to renounce their status in Mexico. It is now legal, though practically difficult, for Mexicans abroad to vote in Mexican elections. And there are new laws in Mexico that seem to embrace the transnationality of Mexican citizens outside the national territory: there are government programs that match funds raised by migrant HTAs, as well as recent provisions for electing special migrant candidates such as Lupe Gómez. Félix focuses his work on the subjectivity of the transnational citizen living in this age of institutional transformations. He asks how Mexican migrants today make choices that thicken their web of formal and sentimental ties and expand the scope of their political struggle beyond national boundaries. More specifically, he considers how migrants’ political choices are made in the context of violent, racist hostility in the United States and exclusionary apathy in Mexico. How do they imagine and struggle for their vision of the future in this unforgiving transnational setting?

9780190879372 (1)

The book is organized around three stages in what Félix calls the “migrant political life cycle,” with chapters documenting the process of naturalizing as a U.S. citizen, the campaign strategies and policy objectives of migrants seeking political office in Mexico, and the bureaucratic and emotional intricacies of repatriating the bodies of deceased migrants for burial in their hometowns. The life cycle is an evocative metaphor to capture the changing nature of migrant politics over the course of individual trajectories. In each process examined in the book, migrants come into contact with Mexican or U.S. state institutions, but the author’s focus is on the ways that migrants experience and talk about these encounters. Félix’s relationships with his informants were built over years of his involvement in migrant political activism and as a teacher in citizenship classes (5-6).

Although migrant political activism has long garnered scholarly interest, Félix offers a novel approach by expanding the focus beyond HTAs and U.S.-focused migrants’ rights struggles. This book shows that naturalization and postmortem repatriation, clearly not instances of organized, grassroots activism, are nonetheless sites of where citizenship is “enunciated” and “embodied.” Migrant candidates supported by clientelistic political parties in Mexico, such as Lupe Gómez, expose what Félix calls “the contradictions of transnational citizenship”: while their visibility as political candidates engages progressive or leftist observers, their platforms and affiliations can be unappealing (86). He asks readers to reconsider rigid understandings of national citizenship that assume that migrants’ political engagement in Mexico is a sign of disengagement in the United States, and vice versa. In terms of concrete practices of citizenship and more abstract expressions of belonging and identity, Félix finds simultaneity and complexity.

In the chapter on U.S. naturalization, he argues that this moment of “political baptism” does not indicate a migrant’s assimilation to U.S. dominant culture or renunciation of Mexico. Migrants instead articulate the desire for the practical benefits of U.S. citizenship for themselves and their families. Félix emphasizes the context of xenophobia and racism in which migrants make choices about seeking a new political status. U.S. citizenship can shield them from deportation (although the certainty of citizenship has eroded since Félix’s book went to press), but naturalized citizens are not protected from perennial assumptions of foreignness and illegality on the part of the white supremacist state (and a sizeable part of the U.S. public). Given this, many Mexican migrants express their loyalties as did one of Félix’s informants: “When I see the American flag, I feel joy, but I don’t feel the same way as when I see the Mexican flag. I think that even if you become a [U.S.] citizen, you will never stop being Mexican. No matter what you say in the oath” (48-49).

IMG_0376

The humble monument to the migrant in Jerez, Zacatecas, erected in 2002 by the mayor’s office. Courtesy of Adrián Félix

Félix then turns to a group of Mexican migrants who seek political office in the country of their birth. These politicians are virtually all naturalized U.S. citizens and registered Democrats, with prior experience in migrant civic and political organizations, who are also affiliated with Mexican political parties across the ideological spectrum. There is a paradox, for Félix, in this form of transnational citizenship: though U.S.-based migrant activism is broadly progressive and often radical, when activists become candidates, they become cogs in a political machinery that is “notoriously corporatist” (57). Félix suggests that the leftwing Mexican parties that could coherently adopt a radical pro-migrant agenda cannot actually deliver the votes to elect a migrant candidate. Instead, the elected migrant officials he interviewed belonged to the establishment parties, particularly the rightwing Partido Acción Nacional. A follow-up study could show how things have changed since a newer “antisystem” party (Morena) has taken over the political establishment, having ascended to power with President Andrés Manuel López Obrador in 2018 (7).

By definition, life cycles conclude with death, and Félix pays attention to the choices migrants make around end-of-life rituals in a chapter on postmortem repatriation. Those choices are spiritual and personal, but they are also deeply political. “At least for a considerable subset of migrants, who very well may have been settled in the United States for decades, cross-border loyalties live on and often materialize after death,” he writes (133). The desire to be buried in one’s native land is hardly unique to Mexican migrants, but Félix shows that this particular wish is widespread and culturally significant in the diasporic Mexican community. He recounts stories told in conversations with rural Zacatecanos about their transnational maneuvers to bring family members back to their hometowns for burial. Community members contribute to the expense of postmortem repatriation. This commitment to a smooth farewell means that the dead do not always travel alone. In one story, a young migrant murdered in Colorado was returned to his rancho by a co-worker, and in another, no fewer than 52 family members, filling an airplane, accompanied the body of a migrant going back home (127). Migrants’ desires for a posthumous return are tepidly supported by the Mexican state, but resources are distributed as a form of humanitarian aid that is inconsistently allocated (122). The migrant family network and transnational community are the most important support systems for postmortem repatriation.

As Félix concludes, “Mexican migrants are tenaciously transnational, defying the border in life and death” (141). After three decades of scholars documenting evidence of migrant transnationalism, Félix’s finding might seem unsurprising at first. But by calling attention to migrant tenacity, he draws readers’ attention to the many barriers to acting or feeling transnationally that migrants struggle against and shows how they do so at an intimate scale. The bureaucratic hurdles of naturalization demean Mexican nationals even as they are formally admitted to the citizenry. Yet migrants overcome those hurdles to obtain a legal status that can produce tangible improvements in their lives. The Mexican state has its own ways of including migrants only to show that they do not and cannot really belong, as migrant candidates have discovered as they seek to effect change from within, navigating mainstream Mexican party politics. To be a politically active migrant requires determination, and his revelations about U.S. and Mexican institutional mechanisms of exclusion indict political elites on both sides of the border.

In telling these stories, Félix also opens up new avenues for additional studies of migrant politics. Félix makes clear that his informants are not meant to be statistically representative of the diverse population of Mexican citizens in the United States: most people we meet in the narrative hail from Zacatecas, are “mestizo” (of mixed indigenous and European heritage), and are legal permanent residents or naturalized U.S. citizens. Mexican migrants to the United States are a highly diverse group that today includes members of indigenous communities and people coming from states whose migration histories do not stretch back as far as that of Zacatecas; these migrants are far less likely to have a path to legal status of any kind. These differences matter a great deal when looking at cross-border mobility: as Félix recounts, undocumented family members of deceased migrants in the United States cannot go to Mexico to accompany the body or attend the funeral (127). Though women appear periodically in the narrative, Félix notes that the exercise of transnational citizenship is always gendered. Félix is careful not to generalize from male migrant experiences. While many migrant women naturalize as U.S. citizens, migrant political candidates in Mexico are overwhelmingly male. Among migrant bodies repatriated to Mexico, women’s cadavers are underrepresented (111-112). His brief vignette about a young Mexican woman, based in Las Vegas, who sought political office in Mexico only to be targeted by misogynistic vitriol, suggests that there are many more migrant experiences to document to render the full repertoire of transnational citizenship. Félix’s book will be an important touchstone for the scholars who take up that work.

Notes

[1] http://pulsodelsur.com/noticias/quiero-ser-la-voz-de-millones-de-migrantes-radicados-en-estados-unidos/

[2] https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2000-jul-01-me-46794-story.html

 

Rachel Grace Newman is a Lecturer in the History of the Global South at Smith College. She earned a Ph.D. in International and Global History at Columbia University. She writes about education, inequality, and migration in twentieth-century Mexican history. Her website is rachelgnewman.com.

Copyright: © 2020 Rachel Grace Newman. 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/

Reviews

In Search of Home: Cherríe Moraga’s Native Country of the Heart

Sandra Ruiz

In the opening line of her memoir’s prologue, Native Country of the Heart: A Memoir (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2019), California native and Chicana writer Cherríe Moraga introduces her mother, the central figure with very little fanfare: “Elvira Isabel Moraga was not the stuff of literature” (3). And yet, “the stuff of literature” she does become. Elvira serves as a medium from which Moraga explores what appears to be lifelong questions regarding belonging and homeland(s). One can look back at Moraga’s prolific and scholarly work within the fields of Chicana literature and Performance and Queer Studies, to find that similar questions regarding what is home: who has the right and power to claim a home, and which home claims us in return. For example, in her seminal essay “Queer Aztlán: the Re-formation of Chicano Tribe” (1993)[1] she and a friend reflect on the alienation they felt within the Chicano Movement. Her friend concludes that what is needed is a “Queer Aztlán,” to which Moraga responds, “Of course. A Chicano homeland that could embrace all its people, including its jotería” (147). The memoir works to provide potential answers to this search.

If Moraga has had a lifelong quest to find and identify home, then her very first home, her mother is an organic starting point. Early in her writing career Moraga identified Elvira as home, one that fills up the senses, very much like an aroma that instantly transports us to a long-forgotten childhood memory or location. “There was something I knew at that eight-year old moment that I vowed never to forget—the smell of a woman who is life and home to me at once. The woman in whose arms I am uplifted and sustained. Since then, it is as if I have spent the rest of my years driven by this scent toward la mujer” (86).[2] But what happens when that home is ephemeral and can no longer identify and claim you as their own? The memoir lets its readers know early on that Elvira’s own memory will lapse due to Alzheimer’s, forcing Moraga to ask herself a painful question on what is left when your first home no longer recognizes you: “If we forget ourselves, who will be left to remember us?[3] (6). What prospects does the writer have in finding home when “there is no one there to assure me against the prospect of my oblivion: my life without a Mexican mother” (132).

Moraga

The memoir’s incorporation of this mother-daughter lens to tell a particular history, while not necessarily unique, goes beyond the stereotypical relationship dynamics, as recent literary research has demonstrated. In her study, Contemporary Chicana Literature: (Re)writing the Maternal Script (2014)[4], literary scholar Cristina Herrera asserts how the mother-voice filters via the Chicana daughter narrator. Highlighting that “Chicana writers’ efforts to rewrite the script of maternity outside existing discourses, which present Chicana mothers as passive and servile and the subsequent mother-daughter relationship as a source of tension, frustration, and angst” (7). If Moraga’s memoir serves as a rewrite to the Mexican/Mexican-American mother-daughter script, then the rewrite also performs a kind of mapping, where the writer is plotting points, keeping track of the steps she has taken in order to find her home. Her mother’s physical and spiritual presence permeates the memoir, and the writer simultaneously works out her own quest.

Moraga’s memoir deftly moves between various time periods along with two Californias: Alta and Baja. Beginning with Elvira’s early life as a young border-dwelling child working the cotton fields in the Imperial Valley of California, into the last stages of her life, where she resided in a different valley, an ethnoburb at the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. We see Elvira the young cigarette and hat-check girl, working during the height of Tijuana’s casino-hotel industry during the 1930s in order to ensure her family’s survival. We also witness Elvira, the Huntington Beach hotel owner and manager, working to near death while raising her three children without any assistance. There is also Elvira in the Mexican capital, where Moraga almost disbelieves how much at home her mother appears to be in la Ciudad de México. In one of their intimate mother-daughter moments, their Spanish flows much like Elvira’s memories of her mexicanidad, expressing her añoranza, a yearning for the life she had left many years ago in the streets of Tijuana. Ironically, Mexico does not provide that same comfort for Moraga as a second generation Mexican-American. She later recalls a later trip to the “homeland” without her mother, the isolation and homelessness she felt is magnified:

“I was a long way from home. México reminded me, in a Spanish I struggled to perfect; masked in a light-skinned face that betrayed my loyalties to a country of which I longed membership but held no right to. How I wanted to blend in as one of them. But I was not one of them and I was not gringa, but something/someone other than either. This is what brought the fever to the surface of my skin: the trepidation that who I was would never find home again” (98).

Moraga’s words bring about a familiar sting, especially for those of us who identify as Mexican-American/Chicanx and have searched within Mexico the embrace saved for prodigal children, only to find out we will not be claimed as such.  And so, we return, “I knew I had to get back home to California; not to her, but through her” (99).

After one of Elvira’s hospitalizations, Moraga returns to her empty childhood home, a place to which she admits as the origin site of her breaking away from her family in order to find her own freedom. Reflecting upon what her mother has been able to do with this small, suburban space, the writer recognizes it as her mother’s country, a place where she has been able to be the reina supreme. What becomes of this place without Elvira? “Are these the small plots of lot and land what is left of memory as Mexicans in the United States? Is this how ancestral memory returns to us, indifferent to the generation and geography of borders?” (163).

One of the most significant chapters in Native Country of the Heart comes in the form of “Sibangna,” the Tongva name for present-day city of San Gabriel, where Cherríe Moraga digs through the California archives to excavate her possible roots in this occupied land. As a formerly educated Catholic school girl whose classrooms were on the grounds of the San Gabriel Mission, the experience of having been educated where ethnocide and colonization occurred in the name of religion weighs on her, prompting Moraga to examine: “Ostensibly in search of my mother’s history, it was my own buried remains I sought. But how do you dig up amnesia?” (174). In her search for home, she returns to the ancestral history of Alta California, acknowledging that this land belonged to the Gabrieleño-Tongva people, whose dead reside in the grounds of the Catholic mission. With Elvira no longer able to contain a home for Moraga due to her illness and eventual passing, the writer turns to another site of origin, that of California indigeneity. She contemplates on the original name for the place her mother called home, Sibangna and its possible connection to her family history. She pointedly states, “I kept suffering the question of ‘home’ and whether I was truly up to the tasks of this queer and makeshift familia, reconstructed from broken promises and spurned hopes” (214). By performing figurative and literal digging into San Gabriel’s historical archives, Moraga is able to veer towards an arrival to home. The memoir challenges historical amnesia superimposed through acts of conquest and settler colonialism. Through her own research, the writer finds her mother’s family name as part of the historical records of indigenous people who were forced into Catholic baptisms. Moraga posits, “We were not supposed to remember” (238), and yet, through her own constructions of indigenous memories and a corporeal return to her mother’s “country”, the small piece of land nestled in the San Gabriel Valley foothills, she encounters an additional home  “…it came to me that we are as much of a place as we are of a people; that we return to places because our hands served as tender shovels in that earth” (236-237). What better act to honor the memory of her mother, Elvira Isabel Moraga, and the many lives lived than to confirm that Elvira had been right in choosing her final home among the gardens she had planted in the former Tongva village of Sibangna.

Notes

[1] Moraga, Cherríe. The Last Generation: Prose and Poetry. Boston: South End Press, 1993.

[2] From the essay, “A Long Line of Vendidas” in Loving in the War Years: Lo que nunca pasó por sus labios. Cambridge: South End Press, 2000. Print.

[3] Italicized quotes are from the author.

[4] Herrera, Cristina. Contemporary Chicana Literature: (Re)writing the Maternal Script. Amherst: Cambria Press, 2014. Print.

 

Sandra Ruiz is an educator and scholar of Mexican and U.S. Chicanx/Latinx literatures, cultures, and histories as well as Spanish heritage and second-language acquisition. She was born and raised in Los Angeles, is a UCLA alumna, and resides in South East L.A. She is an Assistant Professor of Spanish and Vice Chair of Modern Languages at West Los Angeles College where she is collaborating and working to establish the campus’ Chicanx Studies and Social Justice Studies transfer degree programs. She is currently working on a book manuscript about Mexican and Chicana feminist crime writers.

 

Copyright: © 2019 Sandra Ruiz. 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/

Reviews

California Calls You

Leslie Lodwick

In 1919, then unemployed Viennese architect Richard Neutra had not yet immigrated to the United States and was disillusioned from his military service in World War I.  So the story goes, Neutra saw a bright travel poster in a gray Zurich train station whose text spelled, amidst palm trees and glistening blue water, “CALIFORNIA CALLS YOU.”  It was then that Neutra, who would become one of the most influential twentieth century architects in Southern California designing dozens of private homes and public buildings throughout the Greater Los Angeles area, was first called west.  Nearly ten years later Neutra, and countless others, ultimately heeded the call to California as a promised land of pure sunshine, curative climate and good health—a place that could cure all your ailments.  Lyra Kilston’s Sun Seekers (Atelier Éditions) traces the often-intersecting characters who took up this call—architects, artists, designers, sanitorium operators—as well as those involved in the return to nature (Zurück zur Natur), utopian, and healthy body movements in the US and Germany, in order to try to figure out the origins of that quintessentially Californian relationship to health, body, nature and technology.

 

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Richard Neutra, R.M. Schindler, Dione Neutra, and Dion Neutra, at the Kings Road house they briefly shared, West Hollywood, California. Courtesy of the R. M. Schindler papers, Architecture & Design Collection. Art, Design & Architecture Museum; University of California, Santa Barbara

As a self-described fourth generation Angeleno, Kilson’s stake in the game often reads like a reconstruction of a personal history of “California-ness.”  As she roots her own familial connection to a California lifestyle based around fitness, diet, celebrity, technology and industry, Kilston looks for the link between these disparate ideas in order to historicize a California whose identity is also seemingly premised on a perpetual quest for the contemporary, the new, the innovative—a certain subconscious refusal to be historicized.  Kilston contextualizes Californian lifestyle as part of a larger simultaneous movement in Europe and the United States which found a foothold in California in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.  Due to its oft-mythologized Spanish colonial-era reputation as a space capable of healing through space and climate alone, people began to congregate in California in order to collectively devote their lives to healthy living.  Somewhere between art book and academic text, Kilston’s robustly researched volume is conversational in tone, richly illustrated and accessible to wide audiences, and sheds new light on the inspirations and contexts for the already widely told tale of California modern architecture.  Kilston forges a link between health seekers and modern architecture that articulates a construction of California-ness itself, which instead of functioning as merely a happy backdrop to movements around healthy living, demands its own story be told.

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Boys sunbathing circa 1928 at an open-air “preventorium,” a school for “pre-tubercular” boys that opened in 1922 in Pasadena. source: Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Early in her research for the book, Kilston discovered references to a ‘Highland Springs Resort’ just outside of Los Angeles, in Beaumont, CA in the pages of a one-hundred-year-old newspaper.  The newspaper described a resort which claimed to be based on the austere principles of an obscure German dietician named Arnold Ehret.  Dr. Ehret promoted a disciplined personal regimen of “no caffeine, alcohol, meat or processed foods, daily exercise, sun baths, and regular bouts of fasting to clear the body of toxic, disease-causing matter.”[1]  With followers claiming cures, Dr. Ehret amassed tremendous popularity and arguably influenced modern health and lifestyle movements. Kilston traveled to the still functioning resort (and one-time summer camp—my own former sixth grade camp!) to look for lingering traces of the early health movements or Dr. Ehret’s teachings, but found it instead transformed to a soon to be wellness center and working educational farm; disappointingly no one there had ever heard of Dr. Ehret.  Kilston offers this anecdote to introduce the purpose for writing this text: California may be discursively hyper aware of its existence as a mecca for all things “healthy,” but it has a short, often revisionist, memory when it comes to its own history and formations. Kilston argues that this California story of healthy living begins with the tuberculosis epidemic which primarily affected residents of dense urban areas in continental Europe and the East Coast of the US in the late nineteenth century.  She traces a fascinating history of the sanitorium movement in Europe and the northern United States in which doctors promoted healthy lifestyles, natural light, sunbathing, exposure to fresh air and restricted diets as cure for early stage tuberculosis (which, in reality, had mixed success).  European architects responded in turn by articulating that buildings too, when placed and designed correctly, could aid in recovery and thus designed dozens of sanitoriums, notably Alvar Aalto’s Paimio Sanatorium in Finland, the Klinik Clavadel in Davos, and Jan Duiker and Bernard Bijvoet’s Sanatorium Zonnestraal (whose name means ‘sunbeam’) in the early twentieth century.  This was taken up in the Sanitorium Belt, an unofficial area of land stretching from San Diego to Los Angeles which showcased dozens of sanitoriums believed to have architecturally curative properties (sun roofs and skylights, large windows, local materials meant to connect to nature, planned vistas, and painted in calming colors).

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View of the Lovell ‘Health House’ designed by Richard Neutra. Photo by Julius Shulman. © J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute

Health seekers from mostly Germany and the US, often doctors or naturopaths who had contracted tuberculosis themselves and believed that California’s climate itself when harnessed through a building could cure the disease, built and operated dozens of these sanitoriums in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in the primarily agricultural Los Angeles area.  Kilston notes that Richard Neutra’s later 1929 Lovell Health House was built in the spirit of these European and California sanitoriums for health and also indicated a Le Corbusier-ian desire to design the home as a “machine for living”–the implication for both Le Corbusier and Neutra being healthy and correct living.[2]  She marks a rupture in modern architecture when “healthy lifestyles” became linked to daily life and spaces for daily activity, and were no longer just something to think of in the context of disease; healthy, disease-free lifestyles could now be for everyone through means of prevention (like diet and exercise) and through homes, schools and other buildings which would harness the healing powers of the natural landscape and climate.  It was in this moment that a healthy lifestyle became foremost preventative as opposed to curative, and therefore accessible to all who sought it.  Kilston spends a fair bit of time describing the concurrent trends in modern architecture in both Europe and California and suggests that architect Neutra himself was the link between nearly identical health-related movements within architecture in both Europe and California.  The second half of the book is dedicated to a cast of characters crucial in defining the sun seeker movement in California: the hermit in Palm Springs, the Nature Boys, the raw vegetarian cafeteria owners and cookbook authors in downtown Los Angeles, the German Zurück zur Natur movement, eugenics scientists, exercise regimen developers, those with beards and a certain idealized cooptation of indigenous lifestyles as manifest in both German and Californian social organizations.  She knits together otherwise disparate characters and groups in Germany and California and suggests their reciprocal relationship is an often unremarked upon component of the California identity of health and the “natural.”

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The Nature Boys in Topanga Canyon, California, August 1948. source: Estate of Gypsy Boots

Sun Seekers offers a relatively comprehensive narrative of the construction of the mythologies around “healthy and natural lifestyles” and offers hints at the psychological motives of health seekers flocking to California while proffering a specific reflexive relationship between Southern California and Germany.  Kilston acknowledges the grotesque, the obscene, the weird, and the cult-like within the construction of the healthy lifestyle narrative with neither reverence nor disdain.  Instead, Kilston suggests that a false dichotomy between nature and civilization creates something special for those who struggle to reconcile it and suggests that this is perhaps essentially Californian; this concurrent search for the “machine in the garden”[3] and the purely “natural” is the paradoxical Californian trope that inspires and repels, and its quite complex lineage and European roots suggest there is actually more to the story, which this text just only begins to scratch the surface of.

As Sun Seekers toes the line between art book and academic text, some might suggest its audience could be more clearly formed were it to more clearly identify as one or the other.  On the contrary, though Kilston’s limited framing can feel sparse, it does allow the text to fill a niche in writing about architectural history.  That is, it is neither pedantic in tone nor does it assume a cultivated relationship to design itself, but instead offers a reading of architectural spaces which argues for their integral role in social history and in constructing collective mythologies/discourses, while inviting readers to take up the relationship between the built environment and the construction of Californian identity in a clear and joyful tone.  Possible extensions of the text might consider a more explicitly political lens through which to consider this relationship between German and American health seeking and architecture movements, particularly their mutually shared relationships with colonial and territorial expansion and racism which are arguably integral to foundations of the respective movements themselves.  Likewise, the definitions of “nature” and “the natural” are wholly untroubled and suggest a universalized understanding of how these various actors involved with the narrative interpreted conceptions of “the natural,” which I suspect, is not the case.  Kilston does briefly allude to both the roles of race and colonialism and the arbitrary construction of nature in the construction of Californian identity, but her analysis ends there.  Instead, Kilston frames and names the ways in which the persistence of a certain kind of California exceptionalism is discursively insisted upon and Sun Seekers offers some clear pathways to unpacking that exceptionalism through making clear the limitations of a supposed a-historicalness of healthy living and relationship to nature.  That Californian aesthetic of a sunkissed natural world of innovation, ingenuity and healthy living is a construction much older, and much more complicated than it seems.

Notes

[1] Lyra Kilson, Sun Seekers, pg 6.

[2] The Lovell Health House was designed by Neutra for physician and naturopath Dr. Phillip Lovell as a house whose spaces themselves would contribute to physical health of inhabitants.

[3] Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America.  London: Oxford University Press, 1964.  The “machine in the garden” refers to the tension between the pastoral ideal of the natural American landscape with industrialization and its need for land, constant expansion and natural resources.

 

Leslie Lodwick is an educator, historian and doctoral student in the History of Art and Visual Culture Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her research is concerned with issues of race, gender and education in histories of 19th and 20th-century architecture, planning and design.  Her work also explores the visual culture of childhood, school, and play. She is assistant managing editor of Refract: An Open Access Visual Studies Journal.

 

Reviews

Inland Shift: Towards a Radical Intercommunalism in the Inland Empire

J.T. Roane

During a speech delivered at Boston College on November 18, 1970 Huey P. Newton extended Marxist-Leninist material dialecticism as a mode of theoretical and practical inquiry through his critical neologism “intercommunalism.” Describing two variants of intercommunalism, one reactionary and the other revolutionary, Newton premised his analytic on an understanding that American empire had eclipsed the nation-colony model of European imperial integration in a similar fashion to the ways that system eclipsed the “primitive empire” Romans built within the world as they conceived it in the Classical period of the West. “North America,” he argued had been “transformed at the hands of the ruling circle from a nation to an empire,” changing “the whole composition of the world.” As a result, the elite of the United States “necessarily control[led] the whole world either directly or indirectly.” Intercommunalism, in its reactionary variant, created a world defined by the dislocation of finance, production, and consumption across increasingly dispersed and mediated geographic system of resource-siphoning in which automation would give way to “cybernation [and] probably to technocracy.” The primary effect of reactionary intercommunalism, according to Newton, was the creation of a permanent class of expendable people the world over with no access to the benefits of technological transformation and who were forced to bear the worst effects of global integration.1

In contrast to reactionary intercommunalism, Newton proposed and adopted “revolutionary intercommunalism.” As a result of “nations hav[ing] been transformed into [the] communities of the world,” revolutionary organizers could also make it a “time when the people seize[d] the means of production and distribute[d] the wealth and the technology in an egalitarian way to the many communities of the world.” Newton’s interpretation of the revolutionary variant of intercommunalism justified the shift of the Black Panther Party toward its Survival Programs. Without the basics of subsistence in food and healthcare and without critical education, there would be no ability to survive, let alone to throw off the technocratic elite, he reasoned. Revolutionary intercommunalists could shut down the draining of collective resources to line the pockets of Empire’s elites. Using the capacity of the new technological age, which had taken a person to the moon but which refused to end hunger and depravation, revolutionary intercommunalists, including the Panthers, could create a global sense of the world based not on exploitation but rather on the power to extend human happiness and wellbeing equitably.2

These key turns in Newton’s thought, his analysis of both the reactionary and revolutionary versions of intercommunalism, as well as the Black Panther’s organizational praxis responding to these novel theorizations, remain important theoretical and practical points in challenging globalization—the hegemonic financial and cultural integration of the earth that has continued since the era of Newton’s theorization. This, our age of the orange autocrat in the U.S. and of multiple neo-fascist regimes around the world, is defined by unprecedented technocratic monopoly and the devastating expansion of the permanently jobless, homeless, and nationless who can make no claim to the advances associated with globalization and who face the brunt of the negative effects of this order. Extending Newton’s concept, we currently face the rise of what I call reactionary, reactionary intercommunalism—a variant in which the façade of integration accompanying multicultural neoliberalism has given way to the explicit embrace of autocracy in and through technological, economic, and political integration. Across disparate human geographies a technocratic elite—ranging from logistics capital to social media tycoons—dictate the lives of ordinary people, deciding if they work, live, or die and under what conditions.

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Basil D, Soufi, “Aerial view of the Inland Empire overlooking San Bernardino and Rialto, California,” Courtesy of Soufi via Creative Commons

Juan D. De Lara’s important new book Inland Shift: Race, Space, and Capital in Southern California (UC Press, 2018), garners for readers analytic purchase not only on the dynamics of the technologically integrated commodity chains shaping contemporary reactionary, reactionary intercommunalism, but also on the potential for labor organizing and politics to extend the practice of Newton’s revolutionary intercommunalism. One of the powerful aspects of De Lara’s study is that, like Clyde Woods’ work in the context of the Mississippi Delta, he takes the region as his point of analysis. Foremost, as De Lara argues, the region provides a frame through which to analyze the ways that “[c]reative destruction is…woven into the fabric of capitalist development” and provides “solution to the devaluation of fixed capital by reconfiguring spatial-temporal relationships to create new investment options.” Emerging from a “speculative growth regime” the Inland Empire as a distribution center for global commodities emerged as corporate boosters and politicians beginning in the 1980s justified the expenditure of collective resources to extend Southern California’s port, warehouse, and distribution infrastructures into the region encompassing cities east of Los Angeles like Riverside, San Bernardino, and Ontario. As De Lara demonstrates, these changes were sold to ordinary people as the tide that would lift all boats, as the collective potential for prospering after the devastation of the region’s rapid deindustrialization in competition with emerging production centers around the world. Elites reasoned that the expenditures, as well as the environmental-health threats related to concentrated diesel pollution, would be worth the enhancement of the region’s position in the mounting competition for increased commodity imports. They argued that these developments would improve the lives of the region’s ordinary residents by providing them with stable incomes and concomitantly with access to the housing market as owners. In effect, however, these processes further entrenched vulnerability in communities exposed to global market fluctuations. Indeed, the cost of speculatively-growing Southern California ports and the Inland Empire distribution networks to make them competitive with others around the nation, was the extension of tedious and poorly compensated labor under conditions of often cyborg-like surveillance, as well as environmental degradation, and racial violence.

As it chronicles the rise of a regional elite, De Lara’s work holds onto material dialecticism, introducing points of possibility for the subversion of regional logistics hegemony through the narratives of predominantly Latinx warehouse workers. In particular, he includes, along with his analysis of the dominant social-spatial features of the Inland Empire, the “counter-mappings” of workers, or the “collective stories provid[ing] insight into how people make sense of the world” which are also the “seeds of opposition to dominant systems.” Importantly, De Lara credits ordinary people with the ability to generate theoretical and cartographic insights useful in analyzing and thwarting this reviling and destructive system. In chapter five, for example, De Lara shows the ways that ordinary Latinx warehouse workers, “José,” “Angelica,” and “Marta” make sense of vulnerability within the wider geography of the region. He connects their analysis with their attempts to defy the imposition of a system of technologically enhanced management in which workers are wired to track productivity (or the lack thereof) as part of the wider coordination of production, commodity importation, warehousing, and distribution for corporations like Walmart. De Lara places these everyday forms of analysis and resistance on a continuum with the efforts of organizations to combat vulnerability. For example, these mappings helped to drive the inroads made by unions to end temporary work and also undergirded efforts to halt raids, detentions, and deportations undermining local Latinx communities. The rudimentary coordinates of worker’s alternative vistas on the matters of labor, place, and politics, served as the substrate out of which activist consciousness emerged. Union and community organizers drew together people by highlighting their shared narratives and common geographic analyses.

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De Lara’s book provides an excellent addition to the growing work in critical human geography. It would be particularly effective if paired with important works of regional analysis and Marxist geography including Clyde Woods’ work and Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s in Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California. These works, taken together, help us to gain purchase on the development of the geographies of gendered racial capitalism in state and global capital formations and also to take stock of resistance. These works also remind us of the vital place of what Newton understood as “the left of the proletariat.” In a world, increasingly defined by reactionary global integration, it is only the everyday and organized subversions on the part of ordinary people that can dislodge the tyranny of technocracy, giving expression to a world free of borders wherein the advances in technological capacity can be distributed to address crises such as the environmental catastrophe, in order to insure our collective wellbeing rather than our collective destruction. As De Lara’s work effectively illustrates, we must recover the radical potential of Newton’s analysis, forwarding it into the nascent order. We must also organize shoulder to shoulder with the potentially revolutionary intercommunalists across the world if we are to survive the terrifying juncture of environmental destruction, technocratic monopoly, and global integration. The people of the Inland Empire have led the way in demonstrating the place of ordinary people can incapacitate technocratic power and fighting fascism, the political analog of an economy based in technocratic monopoly.

May the revolutionary intercommunalists of the world unite!

Notes

1 Huey P. Newton, “Speech Delivered at Boston College: November 18, 1970, To Die for the People, ed. Toni Morrison, (San Francisco: City Light Books, 2009): 20-38.

2 ibid.

J.T. Roane is assistant professor of African and African American Studies in the School of Social Transformation at Arizona State University. Roane is broadly concerned about matters of geography, ecologies, sexuality, and religion in relation to Black communities. He is at work on a manuscript under contract with NYU Press titled, “Dark Agoras: Insurgent Black Social Life and the Politics of Place in Philadelphia.” He serves as co-senior editor for Black Perspectives, the digital platform of the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS).

Copyright: © 2019 J.T. Roane. 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/

Reviews

American Fruit

California Citrus State Historic Park Visitor's Center, Riverside

California Citrus State Historic Park Visitor’s Center, Riverside

Elisabet Barrios Mateo

I grew up surrounded by a vast agricultural landscape in California. I never questioned the orchards’ beauty, or the sweetness of the apricots and cherries it bore. In Collisions at the Crossroads: How Place and Mobility Make Race, Genevieve Carpio peels back the history of the “Citrus Belt” in Southern California to reveal its unsettling past.

Reading Collisions at the Crossroads is like holding a hundred-dollar bill to a light and seeing its racial watermarks with a naked-eye. Through a deep analysis of literature, newspaper articles, maps, and legal and congressional records, Carpio exposes the many symbols of white supremacy embedded within these artifacts. She unapologetically argues that racial logics have been used to produce inequality via laws, regional policies, and cultural narratives in the United States.

With this book, readers will come to comprehend a dynamic portrait of how World War I and II, Dust Bowl migration, and the emergence of the automobile industry replicated the same racial hierarchies that nourished the Citrus Belt. It is a captivating read that weaves together athleticism, Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, and Route 66 in eye-opening ways. Her argument of spatial mobility as a human right, powerfully contributes to the debate on whether or not race produces inequality beyond economic stratifications. The first two chapters come to expose how land rights favored white settlers, and how they leveraged citizenship and belonging through historical myths. The middle three chapters transition to uncover how economic and cultural disadvantages were produced through immigration laws, policing, and housing segregation that targeted racial minorities. The final chapter concludes by connecting to past and present debates on U.S. identity and belonging.

Carpio uses racial triangulation throughout her book to unpack race as a relative construct. Like Natalia Molina in How Race is Made in America: Immigration, Citizenship and the Historical Power of Racial Scripts, Carpio argues that racial narratives are relational. Covering a longer time-period, she examines how Indigenous, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Puerto Rican, and Mexican communities were hierarchically positioned and selectively framed over the twentieth- century. White farmers entered the national debate on the Immigration Bill of 1924 to juxtapose Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Filipino workers to serve their economic interests while strategically framing people from all three groups as supposed threats to the Anglo racial landscape.

Carpio makes a resounding argument of mobility as a human right that cannot be divorced from the educational, residential, and economic outcomes that social scientists examine. She connects us to the past by drawing and expanding on old academic boundaries, while charting a new path for contemporary scholars and political leaders. Her book is a liberating piece that sheds light on the mechanisms through which non-white Americans have been excluded from full citizenship and belonging. It demonstrates the power of lies, storytelling, and the potential for reclaiming space through a collective narrative.

To varying degrees, each chapter provides evidence that communities of color have fought mobility constraints, which leads her to focus on resistance within legal and social institutions. Unfortunately, this leaves informal avenues of resistance unexamined. And yet we know that from common practices today, these informal avenues were likely also engaging spaces of resistance. For instance, contemporary undocumented immigrant communities use real-time communication chains to organize around police checkpoints and immigration raids. What might such informal strategies have looked like during the period Carpio examines? These could be crucial to understanding how non-white communities shift boundaries around physical and social spaces throughout everyday life.

Carpio’s book is a noteworthy contribution to our historical and present-day understanding of how racial hierarchies are used to curtail the rights and privileges of communities of color. She invites readers to learn about their not-so-distant past, while provoking them to reflect on the lies readers have imbibed and internalized. Reading a bit like a local version of Howard Zinn’s, A People’s History of the United States, her writing poetically uncovers racial inequalities in the legal system, while simultaneously portraying a dynamic human experience. By the end of the book, the reader can hear echoes of the narratives used to forge the Citrus Belt in the political discourse under the Trump administration.

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Elisabet Barrios Mateo
is a doctoral student in Sociology at the University of California, Irvine. Her research focuses on the ways federal law and state policy shape the sense of belonging for young immigrants in United States. She also writes poetry about social justice, the immigrant experience, and love.

Copyright: © 2019 Elisabet Barrios Mateo. 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/.

 

 

Reviews

Black Bruin Stories

2

Jackie Robinson, 1940. Photo courtesy of ASUCLA Photography.

Nickolas Hardy

James W. Johnson’s The Black Bruins maps the rise of five former Bruins’ athletes who not only helped further the integration of college sport, but each became trailblazers in their own right. While the legacies of Kenny Washington, Woody Strode, and Jackie Robinson rest with the integration of professional sports, Ray Bartlett’s and Tom Bradley’s reside with public service in a racially hostile environment.[1] Simply put, The Black Bruins notes the overcoming of racial roadblocks of the times, while presenting each man’s narrative as a non-monolithic experience. It illustrates how each man capitalized on his talents and opportunities, showing five separate works of art all displayed on the same canvas, and leaving with six unique perspectives—the whole and its parts. That is to say, conveying the breadth of multiple narratives in a few brush strokes.

For starters, the prologue transports the reader back in time by framing the socio-historical landscape of the 1930s American West—Los Angeles, in particular. This section showcases the significance of the first Great Migration shaping an optimism for many African Americans flocking to LA in the hopes of bettering their lives outside of the constraints of the Jim Crow South. Johnson emphasizes this point in addressing both the large African-American population of LA at the time and the White flight occurring from the South as well.[2] The idea of African Americans fleeing the oppression of the South, while White Southerners are also relocating to LA juxtaposes the idealism of the highway to progress with the reality of obstruction waiting at the next rest stop. Both Jackie Robinson (from Georgia) and Tom Bradley (from Texas) were children of the South, as their families were part of this African American migratory group.[3] Contrary to Robinson and Bradley, Bartlett, Strode, and Washington were born and raised in Los Angeles—not versed in the culture of de jure racism, but aptly familiar with de facto racism. However, common experiences do not always render common responses. This is key, as each man’s response to the times is distinct.

The five men were track and field teammates at one point, with Washington, Strode, Bartlett, and Robinson also playing football together. Additionally, Robinson played basketball and baseball for UCLA. Despite this, Johnson takes great care to ensure that the other narratives are given their due and weaves a larger tapestry for the reader to appreciate. Jackie Robinson’s rise from Pasadena City College to UCLA and finally the integration of professional baseball carries some prominence in the narrative. Yet, Kenny Washington’s and Woody Strode’s integration into professional football by signing with the LA Rams is one of the books’ several gems, and, Strode also became a moderately successful actor. Another gem is the coverage of Tom Bradley’s climb to become Los Angeles’ first African American mayor, serving the community for twenty years.[4] Although, Ray Bartlett’s star did not shine as bright as did those of his teammates, his legacy of public service is significant.

By interconnecting the narratives, Johnson creates an enjoyable web of “six degrees of separation” in a who’s who and who else of important people that contributed to the rise of the “Black Bruins” along the way. The Black Bruins succeeds in articulating the significance of UCLA’s often overlooked role in integrating college sports during a time when many universities (including USC) were either reluctant to recruit more than a few African American athletes, opposed to start African American athletes or simply observed the “Gentleman’s Agreement.” This is not to say that the roadblocks were minimal. Johnson enumerates multiple instances in which Strode, Washington, Robinson, Bradley, and Bartlett were subject to racism both home and abroad. Those familiar with the history of the era will note this as par for the course. It provides a legacy today that UCLA and other UCs can and must build upon, especially as the UC campuses maintain a significant underrepresentation of African American students.

The book presents a bit of a paradox. Johnson articulates five remarkable biographies, but the story still feels like it is told too quickly, a legacy still not adequately appropriated. Overall, The Black Bruins is a home-run for those unfamiliar with both UCLA’s modest—yet significant—contribution in integrating college sports in the late 1930s and the five former teammates who helped put UCLA on the map. The book also reminds readers that narratives are not singular, but intersect with others. Perhaps an existential take-away from The Black Bruins is one that compels us not only to consider more carefully how to appropriate and build upon such legacies, but also to better see how our own diverse and distinct California narratives connect to each other.

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Notes

[1] Kenny Washington and Woody Strode re-integrate the NFL in 1946. Jackie Robinson integrates Major League Baseball in 1947. Ray Bartlett was a Pasadena Police Officer (one of the first and few African-American police officers). Tom Bradley becomes the first African-American mayor of Los Angeles, serving twenty years.

[2] Both Southern African Americans and Southern Whites were leaving the South seeking opportunity during the early Great Depression Era. James W. Johnson, The Black Bruins: Remarkable Lives of UCLA’S Jackie Robinson, Woody Strode, Tom Bradley, Kenny Washington, and Ray Bartlett (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2018), 3.

[3] Johnson discusses Jackie Robinson’s “Black Belt” Georgia background (p. 7) and Tom Bradley’s Texas roots (pp. 18-19).

[4] Johnson articulates Tom Bradley’s transformative impact on Los Angeles that is significant in both his tenure and the city’s response (p. 211).

 

Nickolas Hardy is a retired U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) veteran and lecturer at Cal Poly Pomona.  His studies in Kinesiology include Socio-Cultural Perspectives in Sport, History of Sport, and Philosophy of Sport.  He is an avid researcher in the dynamic intersections between sport and society, emphasizing on the African-American experience.

Copyright: © 2018 Nickolas Hardy. 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/.

 

Photography/ArtReviews

Lynell George Sings Los Angeles

Mike Sonksen

In the last few years, dozens of articles and think-pieces composed by cultural critics and urban pundits have discussed rising rents across Los Angeles accompanied by the transforming local landscape and built environment. Many of these pieces approach the city from a distant, more theoretical standpoint. The native Angeleno journalist Lynell George provides a much more personal and an even deeper perspective on shifts across Los Angeles because she’s been covering the terrain longer than just about anybody. Her new book of essays and photographs from Angel City Press, After/Image: Los Angeles Outside the Frame,[1] examines and explicates Los Angeles in search of place and belonging with an uncanny verisimilitude.

Rooted in personal experience, George catalogs the changing landscape, delving deeply into the city’s shifting districts and ever-evolving zeitgeist coming to rise because of these shifts. A lifetime of covering her hometown is distilled into eleven meticulous essays complemented perfectly by her own poignant, original photography. One of the key themes of this collection, as she states in the text, is that there are “‘many’ Los Angeleses swarming, each with stories that [tend to]) remain in the margins, territories that could only be accessed by someone familiar with its history and layout.” Another key idea she hammers home is that the Los Angeles depicted “on television or in the movies didn’t jibe with what [she] encountered daily, no matter where [she] lived.”

Quite simply, George knows Los Angeles better than almost anyone. City of Quartz author Mike Davis stated to me in an email late April that “L.A.’s written image has always been a predictable mixture of hyperbole, cliché and outsider ignorance, with boosterism and fear as two sides of the same coin. Lynell George comes from a different place entirely. With subtle love she explores the everyday to discover the extraordinary: the creative and rebellious spirits of the neighborhoods, the schools, and the true (not fake) bohemias. She truly sings Los Angeles.”

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The Many Los Angeleses

As Davis notes, George’s forte is revealing the many Los Angeleses and she’s been doing this for over three decades. A former staff writer at both the Los Angeles Times and LA Weekly, her writing has won many awards over the years, even a 2018 Grammy Award for Best Album Notes for writing the liner notes, “The Stomp Comes to the Strip,” for the six-CD set, Otis Redding Live at the Whisky A Go Go. In 2017, George also won the Alan Jutzi Fellowship from the Huntington Library for her work with the Octavia E. Butler archive.

Her first book, No Crystal Stair, published by Verso in 1992 peeled back the false facades of South Central Los Angeles to reveal the faces of the city: the mothers, fathers, extended families, the churches, the schools, and legions of teachers and social workers in the district that walked the walk. Her behind the scenes portraits of community pillars like community organizer and youth advocate Levi Kingston, jazz musician John Carter, filmmaker Charles Burnett, the Marcus Garvey School, and the Ward AME Church showed the real South Central Los Angeles, not the exaggerated misrepresentation that mass media promoted in the late 1980s and early ’90s. Her early essays are meticulously reported and stand the test of time. This new collection carries this spirit even further, matching her poetic prose with her equally skilled photography. There’s an organic unity in After/Image that radiates from every page.

Lynell George was born in Hollywood, raised in the Crenshaw District, and then moved to Culver City just before adolescence. Her parents were both teachers around inner-city Los Angeles and her father eventually became a principal. Both of her parents migrated to Los Angeles for opportunity during the early 1950s, the last wave of the Great Migration. Her father was from Pennsylvania and her mother, Louisiana.

After/Image revisits her formative years to paint an in-depth portrait of not only Black L.A.’s transformation, but the city at large. “The black L.A. where I grew up in the ’70s,” she writes, “was a territory built of dreams and defeats. A work-in-progress that was still being shaped by the unrest of the ’60s and the outsized dreams of our forebears.” After/Image maps these territories, “both physical and of the mind.”

After graduating from Culver City High School, she attended Loyola Marymount University (LMU) and studied with the great Los Angeles novelist Carolyn See. See praised her work right from the beginning. “Carolyn was a Mentor,” George tells me. “She was the first to suggest in college that I send one of the pieces I wrote for her class to either the Weekly or the L.A. Reader. Ten years later, that piece (or part of that piece), ended up being part of an essay in the Pantheon collection, Sex, Death and God in L.A.,[2] and entirely by chance, Carolyn had an essay in the same volume as well.”

After graduating from LMU, George went to graduate school for Creative Writing at San Francisco State. While in San Francisco, she met the novelist, essayist and professor Leonard Michaels. Michaels helped her sort out if she should continue in the Masters’ Creative Writing Program or take the leap of leaving grad school. “He gave me advice about what a writer should do: ‘Read. Write. Find someone who you trust to read and critique your work,’” she recalled. “He encouraged me to stay open to the world.” George ended up staying in San Francisco for only a year when a summer internship back home at the LA Weekly became a job opportunity. She listened to Michaels’ advice and sooner than later, she was doing cover stories for the Weekly.

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A Pioneer of Los Angeles Journalism

For about seven years George was a staff writer at the Weekly and eventually went on to become a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times for fifteen years. George was one of the first writers in the city to cover the rise of Leimert Park as an artistic enclave in the late 1980s and the first writer to spotlight the district in the LA Weekly. She also pioneered coverage for important topics like the Black and Korean Alliances before the 1992 uprisings happened and dozens of other issues that are now more widely discussed like public versus private schools, Black filmmakers, and gentrification.

These were the glory days of the LA Weekly and George was printed along with important L.A. voices like Wanda Coleman, Ruben Martinez, and Mike Davis, all of whom she became close confidantes with. She met Coleman sometime in the late 1980s and they remained in touch all the way until 2013 when the legendary poet and writer passed. Coleman even introduced Lynell to her brother George Evans and the artist Michael Massenberg, both of whom George has had fruitful collaborations with in recent years. “Wanda was a special force in my life,” George confides. “She was a solid sounding board and sat down with me to make sure that I paid attention to whom and what was around me. She always alerted me to good stories, good people I needed to know or have around me.”

Though Coleman was nearly two decades older than George, they shared many commonalities like both being African American women writers from South Los Angeles with parents who came to Los Angeles during the Great Migration, though Coleman’s parents were in the first wave and George’s at the end. “[Wanda] was a letter writer,” George remembers, “and I still have those notes, postcards and double-spaced typewritten letters she’d drop in the mail.” Their last meeting, shortly before Coleman passed “was a ‘lunch’ that went for seven hours. It was more than a lunch, it was a seminar—in research, history, writing, life, and of course Los Angeles. I’ll never forget it.”

Like Wanda Coleman, George has lived almost her entire life in Los Angeles County. In her adulthood, George lived in Echo Park and Pasadena. Though some of After/Image is autobiographical, it is a larger meditation on the rapid changes sweeping Southern California in the last few decades.

Throughout the text, George converses with a variety of local experts like Lila Higgins from the Natural History Museum who muses on the once-ample green space across the city now developed. The chapter with Higgins, “Urban Wild,” explains how Southern California is “a hotspot of biodiversity,” and what we need to do to preserve local ecosystems and restore the Los Angeles River.

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Recording A Vanishing Place

In the book’s opening essay, she writes: “I seem to have ‘lost’ Los Angeles. It’s as if the city were a set of keys I’ve somehow misplaced. I keep frantically retracing my steps hoping to locate it—something’s lost and must be found.” George embarked on this journey as a writer, and a photographer. She rose early every Sunday morning and began wandering all over the city to record “that vanishing sense of place.”

Another mission of the book is to not only locate Los Angeles, but also “to find and catalog what and who is still here. What is Los Angeles when you pull the image of the city away? What are you left with? What is the Los Angeles that lives inside of us? The one—the afterimage—that lingers in the mind’s eye.” The resulting essays, interviews and photographs presented in After/Image are a captivating panorama of 2018 Los Angeles. Among the many subjects covered, she highlights the shrinking size of Little Tokyo and rising rents in the Arts District and Boyle Heights. George shares her conversations with native Angelenos and neighborhood experts like James Rojas, Nancy Uyemura, and Evelyn Yoshimura for sharper insight.

The second chapter of the book, “Lost Angelena,” is a short section that gives insight into the collection’s genesis. For three years, George taught a journalism course at Loyola Marymount University called, “Telling Los Angeles’s Story.” In this class, she encouraged students to look deeper at the city and to analyze beyond the standard tropes and stereotypes that have characterized Los Angeles to outsiders and to followers of film and mass media. “As I encouraged students to look beyond facile definitions I found that I had to as well,” she writes. “My challenge was slightly different than theirs since I was teaching the class in the shadow of what home and place had once meant—and consequently means now.” She ended up diving back into “the city’s grid, drifting past old intersections and addresses.”

The third chapter is appropriately titled, “Arteries of Memory.” Revisiting her childhood home near 61st and West, George recounts her rite of passage growing up in the Crenshaw District. In between breaking down the backstory of streets like Slauson, she explains how the area transformed and the reverence so many residents then and some still feel for city streets. “My father used to recite the names of major surface streets like liturgy: Main, First, Washington, Western, Sepulveda, Exposition, Adams… and, closer to home, Slauson.” She even shares the old Johnny Carson joke: “Take the Slauson cut off, get out of your car and cut off your Slauson.”

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The inside story is one of a truer Los Angeles. Her family had been the first black family on their stretch of the street. For a time, she states, “That little stretch of 61st, in that moment, could have been a filmmaker’s backdrop for conveying the mirage of Los Angeles that existed in our collective imagination: white-stucco homes, built in the teens and twenties, with terracotta roofs and wrap-around porches, long driveways and yards that were a vivid sketchpad of shaggy palms and fruit trees and flower beds where the snapdragons fought for space among the succulents. Paradise—until we found that it wasn’t.”

George discusses her family moving from the Crenshaw District to Culver City in the early 1970s and the changing cityscape. Her observations on race are nuanced and from firsthand experience: “I started school with almost all black classmates. For a time, predominantly white. Then black, and by the end, tipping toward mixed again.”

As much as George covers the city’s history within the narrative, there’s a deeper insight embedded in every page. Well-documented topics like the 1965 Watts Uprisings, white flight, and neighborhood redevelopment are shown by George in a new light with greater context. Her conversations on the changing cityscape with longtime Angelenos like Frances E. Williams and Skira Martinez concretizes the topic and makes it more personal. George shows how “Gentrification begins with words. Language of erasure. There used to be nothing here…. That place is a ghost town after dark…. No one goes there anymore…. It’s a no man’s land.” The very language used to describe evolving neighborhoods, she points out, begins the process of erasure with words like “discovered” and “unearthed.” These terms are how the word “Columbusing” has recently emerged.

In the penultimate chapter, “Flow,” she explores what race means in Los Angeles by celebrating the “in-between spaces where new identities formed.” Beginning with her own high school experience she grew up with a “black kid that surfed,” “the white kid that pop-locked,” and the “Japanese-American kid who played basketball with a J.J. Walker comic back-bend.” To further illustrate these stereotype-defying individuals, she remembers an old high school confidante, an Irish-Catholic girl. In the late 1970s and early ’80s, the city was still very segregated, and yet her friend “was part of an emerging new crop: those who were bold enough not to run from, but to step out and embrace what was new; what we would be in conversation with each day.”

Furthermore, George writes, “Before we used words like ally or accomplice, [the Irish-Catholic girl] found a way to stand shoulder to shoulder in ways that mattered most—being quiet, listening, defending, reaching out. She spoke a passable schoolyard Spanish, well enough to be understood, and perhaps most critically, to understand. What was most important to me was she had your back.” The second half of “Flow” spends time with another genre-bending native Angeleno, the bass player Wil-Dog Abers from the iconic L.A. musical group, Ozomatli. Wil-Dog was a white kid within the racially tense 1980s who used music to find an identity, “his portal into enclaves, neighborhood, hidden outposts, and intimate friendships.” People like Wil-Dog and her old friend represent how Angelenos embraced the world around them and flowed along with the changes in the city.

A final word also needs to be said about After/Image’s photography. The last section of the book, “The Spirit of Place,” is almost exclusively photos for sixteen pages. There’s a three-paragraph introduction to the chapter and then five quotes from Angelenos like recent poet laureate Luis J. Rodriguez and the Japanese-American writer and activist, Traci Kato-Kiriyama, interspersed through the images.

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The spirit of Los Angeles

George’s opening sentence of the final passage says it all: “The most evocative features of Los Angeles can’t always be put into words. Sense of place is a connection that takes root. It flourishes deep inside. That spirit of place may come in a quick glimpse or along a periphery. Maybe it’s a mood. A hidden vista. The scale of a street. The bend of a skyscraping fan palm.” The book’s cover image of Union Station with the glowing purple sky in the background is a perfect example of a picture beyond words.

George’s photos throughout After/Image capture the evocative moods and hidden vistas nested within the fabric of the city. Influenced by Roy DeCarava, the iconic Harlem-born photographer who used his photography to celebrate everyday life in Black America, her photos of everyday Los Angeles extend the moment with the same kind of authenticity. George has been taking photos as long as she’s been writing, but in her recent explorations walking across the city over the last five years, she “began to take along a camera to record specific details—front steps, attic windows, a tangle of succulents, the remnants of backyard incinerators, hand-drawn signs, lost lists, long shadows, the play of light, details or moments that forced [her] to look twice or ask questions.”

The overall work provides a powerful portrait of Los Angeles in 2018 and over the last half century. She admits, “I can’t quite say if this narrative—the photographs, the testimonials—is a love letter or a Dear John note.” Ultimately, the book is a remarkable ode to Los Angeles and the sweeping arc of her narrative is compelling to natives and nonnatives alike. Her final sentence before the extended photo essay summarizes both the book and her intentions: “I walk to remember to tell and honor these stories—what still lies outside the frame and the images of Los Angeles that live inside of me. And us.”

In March and April of 2018, George has been appearing across Southern California supporting After/Image in venues like Vroman’s Bookstore, the Annenberg Beach House, and the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. She also has essays in two forthcoming books: L.A. Baseball: Photographs from the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection; and Radio Imagination: Artists and Writers in the Archive of Octavia E. Butler. George’s meticulously prevalent writing and research combined with her personal insight proves why she is one of today’s best voices singing Los Angeles.

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Notes 

* All photos courtesy of Lynell George, used by permission.

[1] https://www.angelcitypress.com/products/aila.

[2] David Reid, ed., Sex, God and L.A. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994).

 

Mike Sonksen is a third-generation Los Angeles native whose prose and poetry have been included in programs with the Mayor’s Office, the Los Angeles Public Library’s “Made in LA,” series and Grand Park. Most recently, one of his KCET essays was nominated for an Award with the L.A. Press Club. Sonksen teaches at Woodbury University.

Copyright: © 2018 Mike Sonksen. 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/.

 

Reviews

The Latin American Aesthetic of L.A. Music Culture

Kun-4

Benjamin Cawthra

In the middle of a series of fascinating interviews with Latin American Los Angeles session musicians, the editor of this volume, Josh Kun, puts a series of questions to the great Brazilian percussionist Paulinho da Costa. In the midst of these, he lets his thesis slip. “You can tell musical history through the artist,” he says. “But you can also tell it from the back end, from the perspective of the session player. How does that change musical history? Suddenly Brazilian music is no longer this marginal exotic sound but at the center of virtually everything people are listening to.”[1]

Finding a new center, or a new listening point, for the history of popular music is at the heart of The Tide Was Always High. Kun’s wide-ranging introductory essay and the more particular contributions from a variety of writers display just what a substantial and ambitious task this book is to undertake. In order to pull it off, Kun asks us to rethink not only what is Latin American about Los Angeles culture, but also what is truly “Los Angeles” about the work of Latin American musicians? In order to make the argument, he is willing to rethink how hierarchies of taste and value are established and revised. In arguing for the pervasiveness of the Latin influence on American music, he is less interested in pitting genres against one another, or even determining critical value within a genre, than he is in showing connections among them all. Los Angeles session musicians like da Costa, whom some in the music press over the years have held in a sort of mild contempt as slick guns-for-hire, provide the intellectual model for Kun’s project. They treat each session, no matter the artist nor the context—whether commercial jingle, Hollywood soundtrack, jazz, pop—as an opportunity to make an important and distinctive cultural contribution, one rooted in their own ethnic backgrounds but functioning as anchor points for someone else’s music. In doing so, Kun argues, they essentially are remaking American cultural expression with a Latin American cast.

But The Tide Was Always High does far more than send music geeks who actually read session credits (this reviewer included) back to their record collections to be reminded of just what da Costa, Alex Acuña, and their compatriots have been doing in Los Angeles studios over the past several decades. John Koegel takes a deep dive into the history of Mexican musical theater in pre-1930 Los Angeles. Walter Aaron Clark’s study of Carmen Miranda and Carol Ann Hess’s on Disney’s Saludos Amigos reveals the ways Hollywood has played with concepts of ethnic or folk authenticity. We learn of Latin music at the high end of the musicians’ union schedule (Agustin Gurza on the Hollywood Bowl) and also at the low end, and begin to understand the very short cultural distance between the two (Daniel F. Garcia on the Paramount Ballroom in Boyle Heights).

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The question of what is real and what is not is, of course, fundamental to modern entertainment, from Barnum and coon shows to lip-synched pop concerts. One of the great values of this volume is the ways it reveals the layers of Latin American music in Los Angeles, from the personae of performers—Portuguese-born Carmen Miranda as a representative of exotic Brazil and Latin America in general; Yma Sumac’s Inca princess character defining the Peruvian—to the very permutations of the music and the mixing of audiences for various styles of Latin American sounds. What might be considered the ersatz seems to matter as much as the real thing, if for no other reason than that such categories are made moot by the eclecticism of the musicians themselves, with bandleader and composer-for-all-seasons Esquivel! as a prime example—Hans Ulrich Obrist’s interview with the effervescent pianist, Juan García Esquivel, is especially valuable for this reason alone.

Kun and his talented colleagues—poets, musicians, and journalists are every bit as welcome as scholars here—document a time of racial segregation when musical borrowings and syntheses seemed to be less problematic. The boundaries of cultural territory seem to have been less closely policed in the twentieth-century decades covered by this volume, even as reckonings with racism kept getting pushed into the future. Years ago, Eric Lott published Love and Theft, a book on minstrelsy. The book’s title came to stand for an entire history of white appropriation of black cultural forms. Kun not only comes to celebrate the various pop manifestations of this in relation to Latin American music, but he also names the book after one of the highest-charting examples: Blondie’s “The Tide Is High.” (I don’t hold it against Kun at all that it has now become my earworm of several weeks’ standing.)

The catholicity expressed by Kun, the seeming lack of interest in aesthetic judgment that has, for better or worse, determined the character of popular music history, is perhaps appropriate in uncovering a Latin American Los Angeles not dominated by blues-based African American styles. You cannot read the history of music in New Orleans or Chicago or New York without large helpings of African American influence and performance, almost always with the assumption that there are hierarchies of quality and authenticity involved that are almost as clear as Du Bois’s color line. That model, whatever its merits and shortcomings, is a suit that does not fit well on Los Angeles, and Kun is an open enough thinker to find a new way of examining ethnicity in popular music made in Los Angeles by editing a volume where jazz and rock orthodoxies are absent (and Los Lobos, perhaps pointedly, is not mentioned). It is in fact the latest iteration in a long-running reimagining of the place of music in American culture going back at least as far as Kun’s Audiotopia (2006).

Befitting a companion volume to an exhibition, Kun provides numerous album covers and other vibrant visual ephemera that are still stirring up curiosity about the sounds under discussion. There is probably more to say about the imagery associated with Latin American recorded music, but that could easily become another project entirely. Kun’s willingness to listen—to listen deeply not only to music but to musicians—results in a rethinking of his subject and a jumping-off point for new conversations not just about Los Angeles and its cultural history, but about the assumptions and goals of such conversations that encompass implications that go well beyond California.

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Note

[1] Josh Kun, ed., The Tide Was Always High: The Music of Latin America in Los Angeles (Oakland: University of California Press, 2017), 186.

 

Benjamin Cawthra, Professor of History and Associate Director, Lawrence de Graaf Center for Oral and Public History, California State University, Fullerton, is the author of Blue Notes in Black and White: Photography and Jazz. He teaches cultural, public, and visual history and has written on Duke Ellington and Miles Davis.

Copyright: © 2018 Benjamin Cawthra. 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/