The Master of Nasty

by Jonah Raskin

From Boom Winter 2012, Vol. 2, No. 4

A homage to Raymond Chandler

Raymond Chandler relished finding names for his quirky characters, including Philip Marlowe, the pipe-smoking, chess-playing private eye—a literary kinsman to Sam Spade, Dashiell Hammett’s solitary sleuth—whom I first met in the pages of fiction as a teenager and whom I have known more than fifty years. Sometimes the names are dead giveaways about the morality or immorality of the character, sometimes they’re opaque, but I’ve always found them intriguing and an open invitation to try to solve the mystery myself. In his first novel, The Big Sleep (1939) Chandler calls the bellicose gangster Eddie Mars, the smut peddler Arthur Gwynn Geiger, and the top cop Captain Cronjager. In The High Window (1942), Lois Magic is the femme fatale, Linda Conquest is a torch singer, and Leslie Murdoch is the effete son of a nasty heiress who has murdered her own husband and brainwashed Merle Davis (a wholesome girl from the Midwest and a victim of sexual assault) into thinking she’s guilty of the crime. Nice people, Marlowe observes wryly.

Born in Chicago in 1888, near the end of the Victorian era, raised in England among elite Edwardians, and transplanted to Los Angeles in 1913, Chandler saw California through the eyes of an English eccentric. A veteran of World War I who was wounded in action in France, and a child of Prohibition and Depression America, he recognized that crime was an industry in both boom and bust times, and a rich field for a writer. Then, too, as a displaced person and an alien in the Southern California world of cars and freeways, among phony and lonely people, he tapped into a vast reservoir of mass discontent. In his seven novels, all of them set in and around Los Angeles, he depicted the world as a vile place inhabited by loathsome people. A cynic, he envisioned no way to escape nastiness—certainly not by going to the movies, which, in his view, offered much the same trite boy-meets-girl story over and over again and trivialized psychological issues and social problems.

“Twenty-four hours a day somebody is running, somebody else is trying to catch him,” Chandler wrote of LA. He added that it was “a city no worse than others, a city rich and vigorous and full of pride, a city lost and beaten and full of emptiness.” Chandler loved and hated LA in much the same way that Balzac loved and hated mid-nineteenth-century Paris and F. Scott Fitzgerald loved and hated Jazz Age Manhattan. He learned a great deal about the craft of fiction by reading Fitzgerald, and Hemingway, too; then he created a style of his own that borrowed from the tabloid newspaper and the modernist poem, fusing The Daily News and The Waste Land.


To a large extent, Raymond Chandler has gone out of fashion, his novels and stories unread by the Facebook Generation, and the movies based on the books also unknown to twenty-somethings. On the cusp of the 125th anniversary of his birth, he’s a cult writer once again, as he was at the start of his career in the 1930s writing stories for Black Mask, the premier crime magazine of the day, founded by H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan. In the 1940s, British intellectuals such as J.B. Priestley, Hollywood directors such as Howard Hawks, and lovers of down-and-dirty fiction discovered him and turned his paperbacks into best sellers. Today, a whole new school of Southern California detective fiction has pushed Chandler to the sidelines. The newcomers include Walter Mosley, James Ellroy, and Michael Connelly, the creator of Los Angeles Police Department Detective Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch and criminal defense attorney Mickey Haller.

In the company of Bosch and Haller, Chandler’s Marlowe is an odd fellow. Granted, once upon a time he worked in the district attorney’s office, and he knows cops he can turn to for information—but Marlowe’s not a company man nor a cog in a law enforcement machine, and he’d never work for the LAPD, just as Sam Spade would never accept a job, however well paid, with the San Francisco Police Department. For Hammett and Chandler, cops belong to the criminal injustice system. They never solve mysteries or apprehend killers, blackmailers, or thieves, although they’re persistent and enduring and won’t simply up and disappear. In The Long Goodbye, Marlowe says of cops as a species, “No way has yet been invented to say goodbye to them.”

Nasty sex, nasty money, nasty murder, and nasty cops are the volatile ingredients Chandler mixed together to cook up books that could be called noir fiction, detective stories, murder mysteries, or a combination of all three. Marlowe the detective is deep in the world of crime, corruption, and venality, as he recognizes at the end of The Big Sleep: “Me. I was part of the nastiness now,” he exclaims. In the pages of the novels, Marlowe isn’t the virtuous character that Chandler described in his 1950 essay, “The Simple Art of Murder,” in which he wrote famously, “down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.” Throughout the novels Marlowe is a tarnished knight and mean, too, though on the whole critics, readers, and biographers haven’t noticed this fact.

Nasty place

“Hardboiled” fiction and “mystery story” were the two main terms that Chandler himself used to describe his work. In his fiction there are always multiple murders, always the dogged detective who empathizes with the little man and the little woman who haven’t basked in Jazz Age glamour, haven’t enjoyed steady employment in the Depression, and who aren’t part of the California Dream. In the novels there’s always a dark, ominous atmosphere, even though his detective, Marlowe, operates in the sunny “have-a-nice-day” world promoted by the greater Los Angeles tourist industry.

It doesn’t really matter how the novels are labeled. They’re works of literature, as critics and reviewers such as Joyce Carol Oates and Carolyn See have pointed out, and if anyone tries to force them into a strict genre, they just won’t fit comfortably. Call them pulp fiction, too, if you will. They radiate real genius, especially the author’s uncanny ability to write crisp dialogue that leaps off the page and to conjure up Southern California’s mean streets, derelict office buildings, and transient hotels.


All creative writers, even Shakespeare, rely at times on literary formulae, Chandler pointed out. Writers of detective fiction were no exception. Moreover, they could also write truly original works that might change the world of fiction. Now and then, as Chandler recognized, a novel such as Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (1930), created its own space, exploding nice, neat literary categories. “Hammett took murder out of the Venetian vase,” Chandler wrote, “and dropped it into the alley.” The Big Sleep, too, exploded literary categories. As the contemporary novelist Paul Auster observed, “Raymond Chandler invented a new way of talking about America, and America has never looked the same to us since.”


But Chandler had something more specific than America in mind. True, the titles of the novels don’t refer to exact geographical locations but rather to places, and to times, and to characters, as well, that could be found almost anywhere: the lady in the lake, the high window, the little sister, and the long goodbye. Much of the dramatic action occurs in a fictional town that Chandler calls “Bay City,” where the police are rough and the residents are rich. We know, however, that Bay City is based on Santa Monica, a place he knew intimately well because he lived there for years.

In an early story, the femme fatale leaves LA for New York, but neither Marlowe nor Chandler follow her there; she might as well have fallen off the face of the earth. New York isn’t on Chandler’s map of the United States. Los Angeles is nearly his whole universe, and his LA is the epicenter of the dark, soulless civilization he saw sprawling everywhere. In 1950, when he looked back at his own early work and at the pulp fiction published in Black Mask, he observed that it depicted “a world gone wrong, a world in which, long before the atom bomb, civilization had created the machinery for its own destruction, and was learning to use it with the moronic delight of a gangster trying out his first machine gun.”

Nasty world

As a long-time aficionado of Chandler’s hardboiled narra-tives who grew up reading his novels on the East Coast, I refused to allow Californians exclusive bragging rights to his work. As a lecturer in English in the 1980s, in a class I called “The Mysteries of College Composition,” my students read Chandler, Hammett, and James M. Cain. They also wrote their own murder mysteries, making up crimes and criminals. Then, in the 1990s, as a professor of communication studies, I taught a film noir class in which students viewed the cinematic versions of Chandler’s, Hammett’s, and Cain’s novels, as well as neo-noir classics such as Chinatown, Blade Runner, and Body Heat, which rekindled my love of the noir form. In fact, I read so much noir fiction and saw so many noir films that the world came to look like a noir movie with femme fatales, fall guys, corrupt cops, and big-time crime bosses. Noir helped save me from becoming a hopeless romantic and a starry-eyed idealist. Raised in a liberal-left East Coast family, I imbibed progressive ideas and values about the perfectibility of society and human beings. I needed a healthy dose of Chandler’s cynicism to balance my optimism, and I was delighted to learn that Dashiell Hammett, the author of The Maltese Falcon, with its cast of back-stabbing characters, had been a member of the American Communist Party. Knowing the venal nature of the world and wanting to change it were compatible.

I’ve been collecting Chandler’s books for nearly fifty years, but I only have one first edition. I prefer the cheap paperbacks with the lurid colors and the cartoon-like sketches of Philip Marlowe wearing a fedora and carrying a gun, or, as he calls it, “a gat.” In the 1990s Vintage republished the novels in their “Crime/Black Lizard” series, but those covers are too arty and elegant for my taste. More recently, the Library of America issued an essential two-volume set of Chandler’s complete works. Volume One includes early stories that were dress rehearsals for the novels, with catchy titles: “Red Wind,” “King in Yellow,” and “Trouble Is My Business.” In one novel after another, Chandler went out of his way to look for trouble, leading his narrator and existentialist antihero into labyrinths of nastiness from which there appears to be no escape—especially when he’s drugged and unconscious—or not until the proverbial last minute.

My two favorite Chandler novels, The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye, were both made into Hollywood movies, the first directed by Howard Hawks, the second by Robert Altman. Both were changed substantially, the venality toned down. Those who have only seen the movies don’t realize that the novels paint indelible portraits of nasty California mobsters and nasty California monsters, most of them wealthy and white; the women, more often than men, play staring roles as consummate killers. Wealthy men, like General Sternwood in The Big Sleep, hire gunmen to do the dirty work while they live vicariously and die quietly. Women commit the crimes themselves, and they don’t get away with murder. Marlowe is often, though not always, a misogynist and a racist. Sometimes misogyny and racism are essential parts of his character and integral to the story, and sometimes he learns not to be a racist and a misogynist; he knows better.

Nasty people

Part of the pleasure of reading Chandler is watching him peel away the layers that surround seemingly virtuous characters. The plot is usually far too tangled for its own good, and at times it doesn’t matter who has killed whom. The bodies just pile up. Hawks and Humphrey Bogart once telegrammed Chandler to ask him if a character was murdered or if he committed suicide. Chandler wired back saying he didn’t know. Occasionally, Marlowe will explain who pulled the trigger and disposed of the corpse, but his explanations are the least entertaining aspects of his stories. The quirky characters—gangsters, movie stars, rich playboys, and playgirls—keep the reader turning pages.

Chandler maintains the suspense by moving his private eye or “peeper” as quickly and effortlessly as he can from luxurious mansions and swank swimming pools to smoky gambling dens, and by connecting the nasty rich to the nasty down-and-outers. Sexual tension mounts, sexual sparks fly, and Marlowe uses his wits more than his fists to fend off adversaries, whether they’re male or female. There are as many fictional Southern California doctors, and especially insidious psychiatrists, as there are crafty lawyers and brutal cops. That’s fitting, because Chandler was fascinated by the workings of the human mind—the deceptions, the lies, and the psychological warfare that takes place in poisonous marriages and in toxic families such as the Wades in The Long Goodbye, the Sternwoods in The Big Sleep, and the Murdocks in The High Window, who are covering up for an old, cold case of murder.


Nasty thrills

The High Window, Chandler’s third novel, holds a special place on my shelf because it was published in 1942, the year I was born. I didn’t discover it until I was nineteen, and when I did I realized that the world that I saw all around me was the world according to Chandler. He invented it before I was old enough to recognize it.

At nineteen I was also reading Marcel Proust, Thomas Mann, and James Joyce, intoxicated by Swan’s Way, The Magic Mountain, and Ulysses, but reading those books, which were assigned in literature classes at college, felt like entering distant cultures unlike my own.

With Chandler, I experienced something very different. Reading The High Window was like wandering in a world simultaneously familiar and strange. All of his novels were more than a tad shocking. The main characters belonged to nuclear families, but they didn’t behave like the well-behaved members of the families I knew. In The High Window, the innocent young girl is sexually molested by an older married man. In The Big Sleep, Marlowe tells the beautiful daughter of a wealthy client, “kissing is nice, but your father didn’t hire me to sleep with you,” a line that Sherlock Holmes or Doctor Watson never would have uttered. Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple wouldn’t utter it, either.

In 1961, when I first read Chandler, the sexual revolution of the 1960s was yet to come. Pillow Talk, with Doris Day and Rock Hudson, was the movie of the year the year I graduated from high school, and, though it offered pillows and talk, the dialogue and the plot weren’t explicitly sexual. Chandler connected perverted sex to big money, organized crime, and patriarchal power, and when the sexual and political revolutions of the 1960s arrived, his novels reached rebels such as myself and my contemporaries who were eager for sordid details about old money and old men who, Chandler explains in The Long Goodbye, were “[a]ll Victorian dignity on the outside” and “inside…as ruthless as a Gestapo thug.”

The High Window exudes sexuality from beginning to end. The characters also offer a steady stream of cruel comments about one another, as when Leslie Murdock tells Marlowe, “My mother hates to spend money. She thinks money is part of her skin.” In another scene, Lois Magic, the novel’s blonde beauty, advises one of her admirers, “Sit down and rest your sex appeal.” There’s something of Mae West’s cheeky sexuality in Chandler’s novels, and, while some of the quips about sex are humorous, in the spirit of West, the sexual overtones and undertones can be plain hurtful. Marlowe, the protagonist, is as hurtful as anyone else. Of Merle, the silly, sweet, innocent girl in The High Window, who has been brainwashed into thinking she’s a killer, he says, “She will probably turn out to be one of these acid-faced virgins that sit behind little desks in public libraries and stamp dates in books.”

Marlowe can’t resist making snide comments about women, much as Chandler can’t help but make his women characters into far more seductive, dangerous, and often more lethal figures than his male characters (with the notable exception of Marlowe, the loner who never marries, who doesn’t have a wife, a family, or even a long-lasting friend in the wilderness of LA).

Mrs. Eileen Wade, one of the last major women characters that Chandler created, is as vicious as any other in his oeuvre, and in many ways she’s similar to Carmen Sternwood, one of the first female characters he created. They’re both man-killers, insanely jealous, possessive, and neurotic. Not the butler, but the wife, daughter, or sister is often the killer, though it’s the chauffer in an early story Chandler published in Black Mask.


I stumbled on The High Window on my own and read it without the help or hindrance of literary critics and book reviewers. The cover of my copy of the novel sported a blurb by someone I had never heard of before, named Erle Stanley Gardner, who said, “Raymond Chandler is a star of the first magnitude.” The High Window introduced me to noir, that elastic term coined by French critics to describe Hollywood’s “B” movies that has been defined and redefined ever since the 1940s. Anita Monga, a well-versed film buff who regularly put on noir festivals at the Castro Theater in San Francisco while I was teaching noir, noted that noir films are often bleaker than gangster pictures, with no redemption at the end and with, as she put it, “an inner feeling of fatalism.” (Noir and gangster novels and films overlap. The Big Sleep and Farewell My Lovely both include big time mobsters.) Monga also observed that the first wave of noir films from the 1930s and 1940s were often filmed at night, with dark scenes, ominous shadows, and odd camera angles that made the characters look literally bent and twisted.

I became so enthralled with Marlowe on the screen and in print that I came to think of him as a real person. I was disappointed when I read one of Chandler’s letters (collected by biographer Frank MacShane) in which he insisted that Marlowe was a fictional character. “He is a creature of fantasy,” he wrote. In the 1990s, when I met real detectives in San Francisco, I was delighted to hear that they learned about detective work by reading Chandler and by investigating crimes as doggedly and as fearlessly as his character Marlowe does. Of course, none of the real detectives I met talked about cases as candidly as Marlowe; he breaches confidentiality at every opportunity, while they didn’t.

The High Window persuaded me that Chandler’s dark view of the world was as fascinating as any intellectual’s, including Karl Marx’s, and it turned me for a time into a kind of noirish Marxist. In the pages of film magazines, I discovered that I wasn’t the only one to appreciate noir as social criticism. Some of the grandest theorists and the most astute writers about noir, such as the director Paul Schrader and the American film critic Robert Warshow, pointed out that noir movies and books were eminently suited to present a subversive view of the bourgeois world and its dangerously seductive illusions.

The author himself seemed to think along Marxist lines, though he could also “crack wise”—to borrow one of his own expressions—in the manner of Groucho Marx. In The Big Sleep, a beautiful, sexy, rich, young white woman cracks wise with Marlowe. “I was beginning to think perhaps you worked in bed, like Marcel Proust,” she says. “Who’s he?” Marlowe asks. Proust, she tells him, is “a French writer, a connoisseur in degenerates.” Of course, Chandler knew about Proust and his work. He assumed that readers would get his inside joke about the highbrow author of In Search of Lost Time. He had a bookish chip on his shoulder and enjoyed taking shots at the big authors of his day who were acclaimed as the masters of something called literature. Chandler could be mean about fellow writers and about reviewers and critics.

There’s more overt social criticism in The Long Goodbye than in any other Chandler novel. A millionaire named Mr. Potter sounds like the Marx of Das Kapital when he says, “There’s a peculiar thing about money. In large quantities it tends to have a life of its own, even a conscience of its own. The power of money becomes very difficult to control.” Potter also echoes the American sociologist Thorstein Veblen when he explains, “You can’t have quality with mass production. You don’t want it because it lasts too long. So you substitute styling, which is a commercial swindle intended to produce artificial obsolescence. Mass production couldn’t sell its goods next year unless it made what it sold this year look unfashionable a year from now.”

Chandler clearly enjoyed hearing his own ideas emerge from the mouth of a millionaire. He also enjoyed the scene in which his district attorney, Bernie Ohls, tells Marlowe, “There ain’t no clean way to make a hundred million bucks . . . Big money is big power, and big power gets used wrong. It’s the system.” When Marlowe replies, “You sound like a Red,” Ohls quips, “I wouldn’t know. I ain’t been investigated yet.” Published in 1953, in the aftermath of the Hollywood Ten, and before Senator Joseph McCarthy was tarnished on TV, The Long Goodbye captures the tenor of the anti-Communist crusade that infected the film industry and Washington, D.C. Though Chandler was never questioned about his political affiliations, he called the hearings on Reds in the film industry “the Hollywood show in Washington,” and argued that “the Founding Fathers” did not intend that it be “conducted with microphones, flash bulbs, and moving picture cameras.” He understood the power of the media to shape public opinion and to make or to break politicians. Working in the film industry provided him with an intimate glimpse into the links between public relations and mass marketing. In Hollywood, Chandler saw the future of an America in which images would have the magical power to manufacture conformity.

Hollywood nasty

Working as a screenwriter in Hollywood turned Raymond Chandler into a cynic about the movie studios. “They do not like to deal with honest men,” he told his publisher, Alfred Knopf. Not surprisingly, he never cared for the cinematic versions of his novels. Hollywood cannibalized his plots, glamorized and sanitized his sinister women, and turned Marlowe, a lonely drunk and misogynist, into Marlowe the sentimental lover. Bogart filled the idealized Marlowe role admirably in Hawks’s version of The Big Sleep. Lauren Bacall was smart and sexy as the older, wiser, and more virtuous of the two rambunctious Sternwood sisters, and Hawks’s happy ending made for happy audiences and big box office revenues.

Chandler made significant contributions to two major motion pictures, Double Indemnity (1944) and Strangers on a Train (1951), but directors, Billy Wilder and Alfred Hitchcock, rejected much of what he wrote, leaving him feeling bitter and resentful about making movies. His novels—The Big Sleep, Farewell My Lovely, The High Window, Lady in the Lake, The Little Sister, The Long Goodbye, and Playback—were too harsh, too real, and too noir even for the studios that made noir films. Over the last few years, I’ve returned to those seven novels again and again as welcome and necessary antidotes to the kind of cheap, facile optimism that’s mass-produced in Hollywood—and elsewhere in AmericA&Mdash;and that usually makes me feel more depressed than the noirest of noir novels and films. I’ll take Marlowe over the current wave of detectives who have wives, girlfriends, husbands, and children, and who have a nice day even when it’s cold and gray outside. Chandler’s brand of California noir is so down and so dark that it’s positively inspiring and elevating, and as timeless, too, as Nathaniel West’s novel The Day of the Locust, published in 1939, the same year as The Big Sleep. At the conclusion of The High Window, Marlowe enjoys playing chess with himself—“beautiful cold remorseless chess, almost creepy in its silent implacability.” At the end of the day, he is always alone, always eager for a new case, and always sharpening his razor-sharp mind.


The Accidental Archives of the Royal Chicano Air Force

by Stephanie Sauer

From Boom Winter 2012, Vol. 2, No. 4


RCAF pilot’s scroll map [detail]. Smithsonian Air & Space Museum.

In California, there is a group of pilot-artists, largely unknown yet renowned for their fleet of adobe airplanes and their key role in the Chicano civil rights movement. As Cesar Chavez’s bodyguards and poster makers for the United Farm Workers Union, they created a vast repertoire of silkscreen posters, murals, poetry, performances, and public ceremonies that served to counteract the shame that once surrounded all things indigenous. Their air force stance and self-mythologizing has enshrined them in California lore.

I was first introduced to the history of the Royal Chicano Air Force through Steve LaRosa’s original PBS documentary, Pilots of Aztlán. The story goes: The Rebel Chicano Art Front (RCAF) was created in 1969 by art professors José Montoya and Esteban Villa, along with a handful of committed students from California State University, Sacramento, whose ranks grew to include hundreds of artists, activists, community members, academics, politicians, and pilots. Intent on honoring the spirit of a true collective, they signed all their work with only the acronym RCAF. Soon the RCAF became confused with the Royal Canadian Air Force, until one day someone said: “No man, we’re the Royal Chicano Air Force!” And the mythology grew from there.

There is no way to write an accurate historical account of the Royal Chicano Air Force; in fact, conducting official and unofficial research over the last ten years has led me to understand that there is no way to write an accurate historical account of anything. You may not agree with me, and that is exactly what I mean. We live in a world filled with multiple, coinciding, collapsing, reconstituted truths, a world in which “truths” are used to justify. The ways I see our world and its history are directly related to my own lived experiences and contexts, as are the ways you see them. You chose the historical narrative sequence that validates your life choices, world view, actions, and privileges, and I do the same.

Despite our best efforts to remain “objective” or “scientific” or “rational,” our perceptions remain shaded, even if by objective scientific rationale. Worldwide, we have yet to fully investigate the cultural damage done by Victorian-era archeological practices and dominant Western lenses through which notions of otherness are viewed, studied, and explained. Cultural institutions adopt—and indeed pay for the rights to use—Indiana Jones-inspired stories in attempts to engage young learners of history. And, in general, we agree to believe that those fantasies are facts.

I am not interested in perpetuating this narrative. This is not a colonial fantasy in which I forsake my cultural inheritance in order to prove my allegiance to an indigenous or urban noble savage population, and then report back to you, dear reader. This is my cultural inheritance. This is the United States of America, and we are messy.

In Pilots of Aztlán, RCAF member Stan Padilla says, “In a world that is out of balance, adding beauty and harmony does not restore the balance. Sometimes you have to add more craziness. That is the message of The Sacred Fools, the tricksters.” Stan Padilla did not say exactly this, but that is how I remember hearing it. The following excerpts are my hymn to this sacred locura (craziness). They are part of a larger book, a catalogue of field research conducted in the neo-traditional RCAF locura lo cura (craziness cures) method. Using this approach and performing the character of La Stef, a turn-of-the-century World’s Fair archaeologist, I blend myth and historical documentation without prioritizing one over the other. Here I offer but one truth that is not entirely fiction.

A Brief Introduction to the Royal Chicano Air Force

RCAF: [r c a f ] orig. SacrAztlán 1. acronym of the Rebel Chicano Art Front 2. acronym inscribed in place of individual artist’s names on numerous silkscreen posters announcing various causes, boycotts, and fiestas found throughout Aztlán, beginning in the year 1969 of the Christian calendar 3. acronym of the Royal Canadian Air Force 4. pertaining to a widespread confusion between the Rebel Chicano Art Front and the Royal Canadian Air Force, resulting in a subsequent name change of the former to the Royal Chicano Air Force 5. acronym of the Royal Chicano Air Force 6. Cesar Chavez’s Air Force 7. an independent graphic arts wing of the United Farm Workers Union also employed to guard Cesar Chavez during speeches and pilgrimages in the greater Sacramento region 8. independent publishers in the silkscreen poster medium 9. an air force within which rank is fluid 10. referring to a close knit group of pilots not at the exclusion of the larger troops that made up the organization of the Royal Chicano Air Force 11. media reference to “The Robin Hoods of the barrio” 12. “. . . a footnote in history” 13. founders of the Barrio Art Program, Breakfast for Niños and La Raza Bookstore & Galeria Posada 14. phenomenon of international recognition while being ignored in country of origin

CON SAPOS is an archeological collective over 500 years in the making. Founded by world famous archeologist La Stef, our mission is to record, collect, and preserve history in the Americas as it happens. Since the colonial period, our approach has been unique in combining techniques of preservation indigenous to this continent, as well as those introduced by European archivists in recent centuries.

Con Sapos’ current team is led by Quetzalcoatl, who pioneered tlacuiloismo (the historian’s art), and includes John Rollin Ridge, Jean Charlot, Bertolt Brecht, Erich von Daniken, and cartographer Miss Ella. Among our noted services to the field are the recovery of lost and stolen Royal Chicano Air Force ephemera and our pioneering applications of mitoarqueología.

A Close Call as Cesar’s Security

This map, which was originally used in the cockpit of RCAF Commander José Montoya’s C-29 adobe aircraft, is unique to the fleet of the Royal Chicano Air Force in that it was later utilized as a scroll to document one of the Force’s near lethal encounters while serving as security for Cesar Chavez at a United Farm Workers Union rally in Davis, California. The map itself blends the standard French aeronautical map and holder model with that developed by the Eagle Knight Warriors serving under Moctezuma II, allowing pilots to steer the aircraft with one hand while turning the scroll map with the other. It is the same model used in World War I, El Movimiento Chicano, and the Maguey Wars of 2012.

With the help of a handful of code-switching scholars and a series of meticulously transcribed oral history accounts, the Con Sapos archeological team has deciphered the pictographic language in which an unnamed scribe recorded the day’s events. We have carefully translated its contents here and included archival annotations when necessary:

RCAF pilot’s scroll map [detail]. Smithsonian Air & Space Museum.

United Farm Worker Union leader Cesar Chavez had made his way to Davis, California, to address a crowd of sympathetic listeners. Members of the Royal Chicano Air Force (identified by their green uniforms with the exception of General “Confusion” Esteban Villa, who came attired in his usual lunar exploration suit) were providing security for the union organizer, whom they affectionately referred to as “The Little Guy.” Chavez’s personal secretary Richard Ybarra secured the stage. During a rousing speech on walkouts in Yolo County, the union leader became so impassioned by his commitment to La Causa, or the plight toward social justice for all farm workers, that the body guards noted a visible shift in the crowd that now rallied behind him after having been so moved.

At that moment RCAF pilot Ricardo Favela, positioned imperceptibly in the crowd for Chavez’s protection, noticed two snipers poised atop an apartment complex just across the street from the park with a missile aimed straight for the union leader’s chest. The pilot motioned another Air Force member on Chavez’s right, who made the leader aware. “The Little Guy” immediately “went limp,” says fellow pilot Juanishi Orosco, then turned himself inside out so that all that was visible of his once petite but formidable self was his heart, exposed and beating for all to see. As another witness described the change, “it was as if he were just tempting the assassins to make a martyr of him in front of all those folks.” According to scholars, Chavez, following in the Aztec and Mayan traditions of human sacrifice, had updated the practice and used, instead of another human, himself as sacrificial victim. In the few split seconds—though it is recorded that all temporal measurement devices actually paused—the vulnerable heart tissue was swaddled in gauze and taken under the protection of two federal agents charged with avoiding the union leader’s martyrdom. They cleared a corridor in the crowd as pilots Louie ‘The Foot’ and Ramón Ontiveros hurried the organ into Chavez’s beat up Dodge Dart, summoning the RCAF squadron to follow, for they were legend to be useful in the reconversion process.

The Ancient Documentaries of Southside Park

Near the end of the Fourth Sun, when the world was about to split open and make way for the Fifth, members of the Royal Chicano Air Force, informed by scholars and elders, reinvigorated a series of ancient ceremonies, including Día de los Muertos, Fiesta de Tonatzin, Fiesta de Colores y Fiesta de Maíz. The freestyle interpretation of the sacred rites infuriated some indigenist activists engaged in more authentic reenactments, but the RCAF and their comrades continued with their belief in the greater need. The organizers had been informed by Dr. Reynaldo Solis, who in his own sociological research had come to the hypothesis that certain cultural and historic wounds that plagued the local Chicano community and continued to cause ingrained psychological, spiritual, and even economic damage could be healed in part by updating and reinstating ancient cultural ceremonies that both marked individual rites of passage and affirmed and connected one in a positive way to the whole of one’s cultural history. He wanted to test this hypothesis and the RCAF was ready.

Miss Ella and La Stef at Zapata Park in the search for the sacred scrolls. (PHOTO COURTESY OF JANELL LACAYO).

The Sacramento Concilio, led by Josie Talamantez, Tere Romo, Rosemary and David Rasul among others, took on the strategic planning for the ceremonias, including the securing of required legal permits and fundraising. For Day of the Dead, they even chartered a flight to Mictlán to extend personal invitations to key ancestors and submit a request for sacred visions from Mictlantecuhtli and Huitzilopochtli without the need for sacrificial cannibalism, which they reasoned would complicate the already controversial use of public space with too much illegality.

Others, including Privates Stan Padilla, Gina Montoya, and Juanishi Orosco, prepared a sweat lodge on Stan’s property in the Sierra Nevada Foothills—a place believed to house potent spiritual energy, as well as being the site of historical atrocities associated with the European discovery of gold and other minerals. The group gathered green willow branches, pine resin, and stones in preparation for the cleansing.

Día de los Muertos sacred scroll of the Royal Chicano Air Force. Excavated by the Con Sapos team at Southside Park cenote.

The following narratives describing the first ceremonies held in Sacramento were recently excavated from the Southside Park cenote by La Stef and local historian Miss Ella. A major find in the field of RCAF scholarship, three of the four sacred scrolls were found encased in wooden boxes with cut out holes for viewing. Read from top to bottom by turning the handles, it is not unlike watching film in a prehistoric television set. Indeed, it has been confirmed that these Ancient RCAF Documentaries are the missing link between the ancient scroll book form and contemporary film media, proving that they are indeed the precursor to movies and television. Thus, it can be concluded that these dominant forms of art and entertainment have originated entirely in the Americas.

There was no physical record found of the Fiesta de Jaguares, a ceremony said to have been developed by danza azteca leader Chuy Ortiz to honor and establish a rite of passage for young men.

While a fourth box was found in pieces, the scroll pertaining to Fiesta de Tonantzín was missing.

Día de los Muertos scroll. (click to enlarge)

[Translation of First Scroll: Dia De Los Muertos/Day Of The Dead]

As read from left column to right, up and down:

1. The First Dia de los Muertos.

2. Pilot’s hold council in Stan [Padilla]’s sweat lodge.

3. Las Guadalupanas receive visions from Mictlán / and begin to organize.

4. Senior Airman Rudy Cuellar pilots a special / mission to retrieve pyramid and coffin.

5. Chuy’s danzantes lead procession down 64th / to the cemetery,

6. carrying the (almost) interred Elvia Nava.

7. The neighbors complain.

8. Finally, they arrive at the cemetery.

9. They offer blessing at the four directions. / In reverse.

10. Las Mujeres perform an interpretive ‘Birth Dance.’

Fiesta de Maiz scroll. (click to enlarge)

[Translation of First Scroll: Fiesta De Maiz/Corn Festival]

As read from left column to right, up and down:

1. The First Fiesta de Maiz

2. Held on the summer solstice / with the sun at its zenith

3. in Southside Park

4. where / a few / months / prior / . . .

5. a visiting Tibetan monk / discovered a crystal bed

6. beneath the pond / that was really a cenote

7. that had a vein that ran / from SacrAztlán all the way to Hopi.

8. When the elders arrived / they burned copal.

9. They blessed the dancers / who began to dance.

10. They / danced / . . .

11. and / they / danced

12. until some out-of-town performers / passed out.

13. Maria de Maíz appeared / atop a pyramid.

14. Xilonens – dressed in white – / enter the sacred circle.

15. They receive the blessings and the palabra.

16. They had prepared all year for this.


Echoes of Magón

by Rubén Martínez

From Boom Winter 2012, Vol. 2, No. 4

The march between two cities

I grew up in Los Angeles, but my family’s far-flung roots instilled in me the idea that I had the birthright to live in more than one place at a time. My mother emigrated from El Salvador to California in the late 1950s. My father was born an Angeleno but spent his formative years bouncing between Los Angeles and Mexico City. As a child and as a young adult, I traveled on a north-south axis between Los Angeles, Mexico City, and San Salvador. At one point I told friends I was living in all three places, but of course that was untenable. After a while, I contented myself with shuttling between Mexico City and LA.

My father’s tales of his days in “el DF” (Distrito Federal, akin to District of Columbia) were enthralling to me when I was growing up. The family legend is that he, an adolescent at the time, walked wild enough on the streets to get kicked out of school. My father lived with his parents in an apartment in the heart of Colonia Roma, a much-storied bohemian district with classy Belle Époque and Deco architecture. It has proven captivating to generations of expats, including William Burroughs and several of his Beat friends, who lived there at precisely the same time my family did. I like to imagine my father, a tall, pudgy kid with slicked back hair, strolling down Álvaro Obregón, the neighborhood’s main drag, rowdy with his friends, while Burroughs and Kerouac floated by, high and drunk.

Stirred on by these romantic notions and my own adventures in the city, el DF and I have had quite the affair over nearly three decades. There have been some long separations (the longest lasted nearly seven years), but right now we’re close—as is the relationship between my two cities, whose histories have been intricately braided over the last century. Migration has made LA a palpably Mexican place that gazes southward, while el DF has been avidly following northern popular trends for generations. They certainly share some difficulties: chronic traffic congestion, pollution, a transportation infrastructure that fails to make their far-flung geographies easily navigable. The differences are complementary, too. Los Angeles gives Mexico City, a place that can feel yoked by history, a sense of the future through an eternal pop present. And el DF provides LA, the pastless paradise, historical depth. Migration is movement through time and space, a perpetual becoming that is both a fleeing from and reverence for the past, and it’s a force that transforms the point of origin as much as of arrival.


There is also a fluid communication in art and youth styles. A year ago, our friends José Luis Paredes Pacho and his partner Graciela Kasep took my family to see ¿Neomexicanismos? at the Museo de Arte Moderno, where Graciela is a curator. The exhibit featured several artists who had worked and lived between LA and el DF; it included multimedia artist Rubén Ortíz-Torres and “performancero” Guillermo Gómez-Peña, both of whom happen to be chilangos (Mexico City natives) who became obsessed with Chicano culture in Los Angeles even as Chicanos, like me, were heading in droves to Mexico City, climbing the Pyramid of the Sun to authenticate our identities. The exhibit underscored that Mexican identity increasingly has been shaped not in the center but on the periphery—that is, not in Mexico City, but on the border that Mexico shares with the United States and beyond it, “México de afuera” (as Douglas Monroy and other scholars call it), “Mexico outside,” a vertiginous dialectic of movement and constant hybridizing.


The roots of the process go back decades. In the 1940s, Mexican American youth imitated and transformed American gangster styles, becoming “pachucos” (later “cholos”), who soon enough appeared in the border towns and, through reverse migrant currents, wound up on the streets of el DF, which is Mexico’s own Hollywood producer of its celluloid imagination. It was only a matter of time before icons of Mexican cinema, like Tin Tan, were popularizing “pocho” (bilingual) slang—a representation that would eventually make its way back across the border to flash on the screens of the Mexican theaters of LA.

The crises and opportunities of the global moment we live in reverberate loudly both north and south. Needless to say, the drug war profoundly unites my cities, sometimes in rather surreal fashion. Although in LA I can walk into a dispensary and be presented with a menu of designer marijuana, I know that much of the immigrant population in the immediate vicinity is traumatized by the violence across the border that results from, among other things, the massive, repressive, and corrupt machinery of prohibition. On the other hand, I’ve witnessed the politics of hope in both places. A little over half a year after I toured Solidarity Park, Occupy LA’s encampment on the steps of City Hall, I stood beneath the great arches of the “Monumento de la Revolución” in el DF as students pitched tents and began holding nightly general assemblies, all part of the burgeoning #YoSoy132 student movement. Of course, LA and el DF belong to a much greater uprising—from Tahrir Square and the indignados of Spain to the students of Chile —that echoes other, as we say in Spanish, “coyunturas” (there is no perfect translation: “juncture,” or “moment,” but a critical, maybe even historic one). The year 1968 certainly comes to mind, which just happens to be well represented by an iconic image from Mexico City’s past—Tommie Smith and John Carlos of the American Olympic team raising their fists in a Black Power salute at the Estadio Olímpico Universitario, not far from the birthplace of #YoSoy132. But lately I’ve been imagining another political palimpsest, which connects the LA and DF of exactly 100 years ago, through the story of Mexican revolutionary Ricardo Flores Magón.


The barest outline of Magón’s story is part of institutional revolutionary memory in Mexico. Because his agitation in Mexico City predated the uprising of 1910 by several years, he is known as the “Precursor” of the Revolution. There is a boulevard named after him and a prominent grave in the Rotunda de Personas Ilustres. But even though he spent the better part of two decades in LA, there are no statues or streets bearing his likeness or name in my hometown, whose media and political elites perfected the erasure of radical history in the twentieth century. Magón’s legend in Los Angeles lives on largely in Chicano Studies and anarchist circles, where his figure wields powerful influence. You can hear Magón’s ideas in Rage Against the Machine songs, see his visage on murals in East LA, and his titles sell briskly at the annual Anarchist Bookfair.


Born in a largely indigenous community in Oaxaca in 1874, Magón moved to Mexico City to study and first marched against dictator Porfirio Díaz when he was just seventeen years old. He started up his own newspaper, Regeneración, intially a liberal journal that called for democratic reforms. Díaz’s forces arrested him repeatedly, and it became apparent that each term at the infamous rat and spider-infested Belem Prison only served to further radicalize him. The regime decided that it would abide no more impudence and banned Ricardo and his brother Enrique, who had joined the cause, from publishing anything at all, ever. This display of brute power shoved the Magón brothers and several of their sympathizers into exile and ultimately to Los Angeles.

Poster design by Jesus Barraza.

It is no coincidence that Ricardo Flores Magón wound up in the City of Angels. Even though it is over 100 miles from the US-Mexico line, during the revolution it essentially qualified as a border town, receiving hundreds of thousands of refugees, more than any other place in the American Southwest. This massive influx laid the foundation for what would become the most important and mythologized Mexican barrio in American history: East LA. There is an ideological symmetry to Magón’s arrival, as well. In the early 1900s, the city was a hotbed of radical organizing, notwithstanding its open shop reputation and the reactionary screeds of the Los Angeles Times. Emma Goldman spent several months in the city giving speeches, and socialist visionary Job Harriman nearly won the mayor’s office in 1913, eventually founding the Llano del Rio commune in the Mojave Desert, which Mike Davis famously proclaimed an “alternative future” in the opening pages of his classic City of Quartz.


In Los Angeles, Magón promptly set up shop a few blocks from the Old Plaza, where radical agitators exhorted the masses from soap boxes. He continued publishing Regeneración, including sections in English and Italian, which he smuggled back into Mexico and also distributed it on this side of the border. It is here that his definitive ideological identity is forged: now he turned to anarchism, and his dream was of revolution not just in Mexico, but across all borders. In “Manifesto to the Workers of the World,” published in 1911, he called upon the “comrades of the entire world” to “break the dorsal spine of tyranny, which is capitalism and authoritarianism.” The revolution was at hand, Magón wrote, a “universal cataclysm which will soon break upon the scene all over the planet.”

When Occupy LA was born in the late fall of 2011, Ricardo Flores Magón’s ghost hovered over the encampment. A young activist unfurled a large banner stenciled with his signature slogan “Tierra y Libertad”—Land and Liberty, which was soon taken up in Mexico by Emiliano Zapata. And the “commune” of Occupy tents recalled Magón’s own experiment in sustainable living. In between arrests and prison terms, in the LA neighborhood of Edendale, he and his closest collaborators ate what they sowed, sold surplus at market, and enacted equitable gender roles.


Six months after Occupy LA was evicted, my wife and I, along with our twin daughters, marched alongside the students of #YoSoy132 on the streets of Mexico City, and we saw Magón’s bespectacled face undulating on another banner. A century after his death, Magón continues his peripatetic march between my two cities.

For his trans-border political activities, Magón gained the enmity of Harrison Gray Otis, the conservative publisher of the Los Angeles Times (rather the Rupert Murdoch of his day, he counted among his vast holdings upwards of a million acres of land in Baja California) and the LAPD, which arrested him several times, each conviction leading to a longer prison sentence. He died at the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas, in 1924, and his body returned to Mexico City in a cortège that was received by tens of thousands of mourners.

My two cities are intimately bound together, but traveling between them is no easy thing. There is the matter of immigration policy and border walls and the drug war and the generalized wave of crime in Mexico. Communes in both places still meet the same fate as all anarchist experiments under capitalism: they are violently dismantled by the state, or they disintegrate from within, often because of state infiltration.

Am I bequeathing my daughters a quixotic passion that they’ll rebel against or embrace, only to have their generation’s dream of a continental commune crushed?

I know how Magón would have answered that question.


Screen Captures: Americans on Google Street

by Spring Warren

From Boom Winter 2012, Vol. 2, No. 4

An interview with artist Doug Rickard

Doug Rickard is a photographer from Sacramento, California, whose ambitious project “A New American Picture” incorporates images of contemporary American Life from across the United States. Rickard, however, spent thousands of travel hours logged for this project sitting in a darkened studio and virtually driving the byways of Google Street View (GSW). He has moved through and captured images from desolate areas reeling from the effects of racial inequality, the grim effects of poverty, and the failures in social history. The images both indict the barbarity of power and evoke the strange beauty of a shattered environment.

Spring Warren: An introduction to your work reads that you “present a startling photographic portrait of the socially disenfranchised, providing deeply affecting evidence of the American dream inverted.” Was this your aim when you began?

Doug Rickard: I am the son of an evangelical preacher that had a church in largely white, affluent Los Gatos in the eighties that had grown over twenty-five years from 100 or so members to over 6,000. My father was very conservative, and his view was our Christian nation had been specifically blessed by God to lead the world. When I went to school at UC San Diego and studied slavery, the Civil Rights movement, Jim Crow-era laws and customs, I saw the nation in a light quite different than I had seen it growing up. This collision of world views informed where I would take “A New American Picture.”

The project started with a focus on African American communities to see what they looked like on the heels of our history. I wanted to see what slavery and Jim Crow did to development in the here and now. I used “Martin Luther King Jr.” as a search criteria to find areas of the city from which to start, [that is] the streets named MLK Blvd. or Road or Ave. These areas were typically the most devastated. This didn’t surprise me, given our history, but still, it was incredibly sad that a beacon of hope for our nation now served as a symbol for blight.

Following that, I became interested in the broken areas as a whole. From the beginning, I used the description of the American Dream inverted. My working title was actually “Empire,” and I saw a segment of our nation as sort of the pawns on the chessboard of this empire. For those without economic or educational power, the American Dream is often a myth.


Warren: The places in the images are much emptier than one would expect to see. Further, though the locations span the country, each place strongly resembles the other. Concrete, asphalt, grass, and weeds growing through cracks in the sidewalk and not growing much elsewhere, old cars, graffiti, peeling paint, boarded windows, rust, and disrepair seem to happen in the same way no matter where. In light of this, what were the ways you saw different areas of the country distinguish themselves?

Rickard: To be fair, I wanted to load the work with a feeling of alienation, and I sought pictures out that reflected this. But at the same time, these places—Detroit, Fresno, Camden, Buffalo, Gary, South Dallas, Baltimore, Memphis, etc.—are in fact this way. And in the smaller cities—Wasco, California; Helena, Arkansas; Port Arthur, Texas—there are endless blocks of shuttered businesses and homes. Burned carcasses of architecture and people wandering around trying to survive and exist. And the color lines are still severe and based on economic conditions.

I agree there are very common physical [visual] elements at play here that are linked perhaps to poverty. I would see the same things in the areas of our nation that are devastated . . . what you just listed and also broken-down cars with people peering under the hood, liquor stores and churches, emptiness whether in the streets, the land, or the business buildings and homes. But beyond these common themes I was looking for representation of our nation’s diversity as well. I wanted to use both color and geographical markers, weather and architecture to build out a feeling of “America”—so you see urban areas that are entirely cement but also the rural and entirely overgrown, the brownstones and tall buildings, and the palm trees and ranch-style homes too, all guided by my own perceptions of the places. Even though I have never been in those places, I have a “feeling” of Detroit and of Dallas and Miami which comes from the media and the stories we hear.


Warren: There is a certain 1970s-esque palette to this work and so many old cars and buildings in the landscapes that, but for knowing that the street view project was begun in 2007, it would be difficult to pinpoint the time in which these pictures were taken. It is interesting that technology that shouts NEW creates a visual confusion as to time. Was this something you tried to heighten?

Rickard: Absolutely. I was drawn to the less clear imagery, the “lower res” if you will. What this means in literal terms is that I only took pictures where the images were taken by Google’s early cameras. Luckily, this was most of the country at the time, and certainly the economically broken areas. I suppose that this is interesting in itself as the project is dealing with technology and yet I limited the views that I would show to the most broken-down and “painterly” of visual images. Much of this is really due to how I associate beauty. I favored the broken images as I felt that they were beautiful and contained a certain poetry. Finally, these broken-down images helped me load the work with the type of emotional feeling that I wanted to impart. I was looking for pictures to reinforce notions of the entropy that you mention, along with isolation, abandonment, neglect, alienation. So in a sense, this work is very much controlled by me and loaded by me. It contains some elements of a document but also really functions as art.

Warren: Speaking of art, there’s been a lot of uproar about the fact that you didn’t physically take the images with your own camera, though found object art has been accepted since Duchamp took it on. The problem seems these are photographs not of your making—but screen captures. How do you answer when people accuse you of not being author of your art?

Rickard: Yes, as you mention, the history of art from Duchamp to Richard Prince and others is filled with the reuse and recontextualization of material, be it physical objects or images. In this case, the ability to affect the work itself for me was particularly pronounced. In essence, GSV is a frozen work that you navigate within, that you move within, and travel through. You have a massive amount of influence over what you ultimately choose to do within this world. This includes the composing of the pictures—you have 360-degree movement, also up and down, also the geometry skews with your movement, which you can control to affect “feeling”—the editing of what you look for and choose to show, and finally how the whole of these pictures functions itself. In my case, I was able to use these elements to embed many layers of meaning. These elements were so pronounced as to connect me strongly to photography as a history and a whole. I wanted to do something here that paralleled Robert Frank, Walker Evans, and others who have turned their eye on the American experience. The movement and scale of reach within this platform allowed for this to occur. You have outlined some of the results in your own questions, and there are more that exist for each individual viewer and what they bring to the equation when viewing.



Warren: How much does the idea of your work add to the perception of it? I guess I’m asking if you feel a single image could stand without the tapestry of the entire project, and more importantly, without any explanation of the concept that “A New American Picture” is embedded in?

Rickard: The concept here was, of course, very important, but I felt that the actual pictures had to stand as individuals. I think that concept alone is typically thin—though there are times in art’s history, of course, where concept is strong enough to stand alone; and I want idea to be married to strength of the images—that was much of the point.

Warren: I love the term “screen capture.” It conveys the sense of the hunt, of tracking down these images on the Web. But doing so seems more of a treasure hunt, of searching out inert objects, than it is akin to tracking live images that one shoots with a camera. Talk to me about the different feel of the two processes and where some of the same skills intersect in these two ways of taking images.

Rickard: This is an interesting area of intersection. With GSV, both elements form a crossroads of sorts, as GSV has a great deal of movement that one can impart on to a frozen world. What I mean is, with Google taking nine images every ten meters and stitching them together, one is left with the ability to compose a scene. Not freely as one does with a camera out in the world, or with the naked eye, but somewhere in between. I needed this movement to create this body of work. It allowed me to get the same feeling that I would get out in the world doing photography on the street. And yet, something else was contained that was fascinating to me . . . the ability to encounter subjects that were unaware or semi-aware of the camera itself. That left certain feelings embedded into the work that would not be there if done by traditional means.

I am certainly also very interested in the use of entirely static images. The Internet is expanding so quickly. I have heard that 30 billion pictures will be taken next year alone with a good portion of those ending up on the Internet. This dynamic, the ability to take unlimited pictures from millions and millions of devices, is changing the way that we see the world. Photography and art will undoubtedly be affected and in my view, it is extraordinary and fascinating. This is an area that we could talk about for hours, this topic alone.

Warren: Yes, the Digital Age seems to be in a position of remolding not only our ideas of art, but privacy, time, and even reality. We are caught in the process not only in GVS but by surveillance cameras, and we no longer own or control our own image. Do you feel a little itchy recognizing how much we are at the mercy of other people’s electronic and possibly voyeuristic gaze? Are you concerned with the way your art may conflict with personal privacy?


Rickard: In the era of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, we trade the power that is contained in these tools for our own control of our privacy. I don’t think that you can have both. We are in an era where privacy will continue to erode and all of us will live a partially “public” life whether we want to or not. The technologists would say, “If you don’t like it, simply unplug and don’t use those products.” But we mostly will continue to use these products. I think that there will be pros and cons to this in the future. We just don’t yet know the severity of it.

Art tends to stem perhaps from all of the implications in any given era and the Internet is a decidedly strong implication. Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment” plays a part in what I did. It doesn’t translate necessarily into a certain thing happening in that moment—a man falling down, a house burning—in fact, I avoided anything that was “dramatic” in terms of the scene. Instead, the decisive moment translates into how things are visually and aesthetically reading in that moment. Where the sunlight is coming from, where the subject’s gaze is directed, where the subject is in the frame versus the building outline, etc. What that really translates into then is a certain beauty or perhaps a transcendent moment.

As to voyeurism, I think that photography itself and those who are drawn to it have a particular curiosity about how things look, how things play out and operate around them. I am always in the moment visually, looking and absorbing and remembering. The way I take in faces and things and databank them I also do with images from the Web, hoarding and archiving and retaining their elements in my mind. I probably have 100,000 images plus from the Web, organized by topic and category.


Warren: You do have a couple of amazing photography sites. “These Americans” launched in March 2012 has home-shot Polaroids of Richard Pryor, crime scenes photos, road trips, and sex images, to name only a few categories. The other, “American Suburb X,” you call a “fiercely edited look at photography’s massively relevant past, dramatically shifting present and rapidly unfolding future.” Tell me about “fiercely edited” and about the different muscles it takes to be a collector, an artist, and an editor, and how these things work together.

Rickard: Editing is crucial. Within photography this is certainly the case, but it goes beyond that and into design, into details, into content itself, into how things play against each other. Editing is ultimately about making decisions, and those decisions directly determine the strength of anything that you do as an artist or otherwise.

These things should work together and in fact, in this era, they may end up as one and the same. Ultimately [the Internet] may change the way that museums and art silos function. The lines are being blurred. At the forefront of this blurring is an ability to edit. I think that it may end up as the crucial cog in an artist’s wheel.

“These Americans” is really an extension of my head. I collect and archive images both physical and digital on a scale that is scary in size. My conflicting views of our nation, its past, its present, its horrors, and its heroics, all play out in my mind, and visually, you can see evidence of my experience as an evangelist’s son, the realization of our nation’s darkest deeds which has given me direction. I don’t see myself doing any body of work that does not include some element of America as its foundation.

Warren: Californians seem to spend a great deal of time in their vehicles. Have you done a great deal of actual traveling as well as your impressive amount of virtual traveling?

Rickard: It’s true, our state seems entirely designed for automobiles and in most cases one can hardly even get a candy bar without driving to it. But I haven’t traveled much. I do plan to. I had only been to the East Coast once as a child and to the Northwest a few times. Now my wife and I have fourteen- and nine-year-old boys and a new baby girl, age seven months. They are always around when I’m working, lots of coffee and music; it’s really perfect, but not for travel. So part of this body of work was driven by necessity. I had no ability to go out and spend months on the road, but I was determined to do something on a broader America. That led me to GSV. Great things can come out of restraints. The limitations force you to innovate or find a new way of doing something.

This work kept me in a dark room behind a computer for a thousand hours or more, over three years making 10,000-plus pictures for this body of work—of which ultimately around eighty stood; California pictures number at twelve. This speaks loudly to the power this project held over me. I acclimated myself to this method of “driving.” I could go from the inner city of Camden, New Jersey, to the borderlands of southern New Mexico in the same evening. This constant ability to explore new areas was for me a thrill and pull. Of course, the real world is something on another level, but there were entirely powerful elements at work here.

Warren: Where will GVS take us from here? What other uses might be made of it?

Rickard: I am not sure. We’ll have to wait and see. I don’t see myself continuing to work with it for bodies of work beyond “A New American Picture.”

Warren: With fuel costs rising and reserves dwindling, the future does not bode well for the future average citizen who would like to travel. Artists have long brought far-off places within sight of those who couldn’t get there. What do you think it means when GSV, an automated image-maker, plays such a part in this?

Rickard: It is interesting, the point you make. I think that you would look beyond GSV to frame this. Technology itself is replacing travel in many cases. We are moving to a world that allows communication without travel on an unprecedented scale. This is only going to increase. So, while economic components may play a substantial role in the volume of travel, it is really the technological elements that are rapidly shifting our world. Certainly, only a certain percentage of the world touch technology, but almost all seem to be impacted. I suppose we can just call this impact by the heavily used word “globalization.”


Warren: Does it create a more true vision of the world, or less so?

Rickard: This is hard to answer. I think perhaps it does both things simultaneously, makes clearer and also diffuses or obscures. People now have access to information on a mind-boggling scale and literally at their fingertips at any moment. This is in the form of data, audio, and also visual information—pictures and video, if you will. At the same time, people may be experiencing “real life” less and relying on the representation of life on the screen at home and in their hands as a substitute for real life. Perhaps then we are on a road to “know” more but experience less. What that does for our vision of the world is perhaps yet to be determined.


The Last Gun of Tiburcio Vasquez

by Georgia Jeffries

From Boom Fall 2012, Vol. 2, No. 3

Whose California?

The ancient rifle of a long-dead Californian arrived without warning. Unsolicited. Uninvited. A surprise bequest from an elder cousin who earned his master’s in history from Claremont College and took pride in his role as the family archivist. The weapon, empty of shells and unexpectedly elegant, is sequestered in our upstairs closet. To protect the oak stock and copper case, it came cradled in soft white bunting, which we have unwrapped only a handful of times. A shrouded ghost, it stands in a dark corner behind winter coats and a faded bridesmaid dress as one year, then another, flows by.

Five years now since it arrived. A sobering time for family and neighbors faced with the ills of our state’s recession. Almost 136 years have passed since the gun killed game or human beings. No longer used for the reason it was created, the gun still serves a purpose. Like all trophies collected after armed struggle, it is a symbol. A symbol of danger contained, loss justified, greater crisis averted. And like all sacred relics saved by the generations that came before, it comes with a story.

This handsome Henry rifle, one of thousands of repeating firearms first manufactured during the Civil War, was taken from Tiburcio Vasquez after his capture by Los Angeles Sheriff William Rowland on 14 May 1874. A public servant eyeing his odds for reelection, Rowland presented the rifle as a “token of friendship” to Judge Stephen C. Hubbell, one of the leading citizens of the anglicized El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora de los Angeles who had urged authorities to put a stop to the robber’s raids on new settlers’ ranches. After two infamous decades robbing banks and rustling horses in the northern part of the state, Vasquez had traveled south. Many feared he would target downtown Los Angeles next.

Judge Hubbell, my husband’s great-grandfather, was an Ohio native who came west to prosper, serve society, and raise a family. All historical accounts indicate he fulfilled his dream. A cofounder of the University of Southern California, he was elected the school’s first treasurer. Also a respected philanthropist, he donated a substantial portion of his land, Westlake Park, to city fathers (who would later rename it MacArthur Park in honor of the World War II general). He was a generous man, once his property was secured and no longer under threat by a notorious, lawless “Mexican,” as Vasquez was called in the press coverage of the time.1


Along with the rifle, we received original front-page clippings from the 29 December 1889 edition of the Los Angeles Times. Dry and amber with age, “The Robber Vasquez” headlined columns had been pasted with care on sturdy cardboard. The article profiled eyewitness “reminiscences” of San Francisco Chronicle correspondent George Beers, who accompanied Rowland’s posse on its historic adventure. Beers interviewed Vasquez, only thirty-nine, shortly before his death in San Jose on 14 March 1875. Convicted of murdering three unarmed men while his band robbed a general store in Tres Pinos, he had been sentenced by a jury of norteamericanos to hang on the gallows. (Accounts differ as to whether Vasquez or members of his gang bear responsibility for the actual killing. He admitted the robbery, but denied committing murder on that occasion or at any other time during his twenty-three-year outlaw career.)2

“I had a good opportunity to study his character,” Beers reported. “A remarkable man … his original boyish idea was that he could incite a revolution among the Spanish-speaking population and recover Southern California from the United States… .”

Truth? Romantic revisionism from the lips of a man about to die? A blending of both? When I look at Vasquez’s rifle, preserved by Anglos he once terrified, I consider Faulkner’s admonition: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”3 And I wonder what the bandido would think of his beloved homeland now.

A net of despair

Outsiders, outcasts, and outlaws have always been the real creators of the California dream. When there is less to lose, it is often easier to make the risky move. Like our ancestors, contemporary residents will need courage to transform a less than happy present into a better tomorrow. They will also need a bold vision, one that trades the historical glory of rugged western individualism for pragmatic commitment to the larger common good.

The despair that has always danced among the have-nots in the hills and valleys of California is expanding its dark net. Since 2005 more people have left California than have arrived from the rest of the country.4 And for good reason. The state of our state is foreboding.

According to the Los Angeles Times, six million Californians, 16.3 percent of residents, already live in poverty, and many more are perilously close.5 Twenty percent of the population has no health insurance, and extreme cuts to Medi-Cal are planned.6 Over 2.2 million are unemployed.7 In 2010 the state’s median household income fell 4.6 percent, the largest decline in a single year since record keeping began. According to a recent poll by the Public Policy Institute of California, nearly half of California adults now consider themselves among the have-nots.8 These figures are even more alarming because, as the pundits often note, ours is a bellwether state. As California goes, so goes the nation.


This is not what my parents would have predicted when they left Illinois to take an intercontinental gamble on the long road west in the sixties. Everybody was making the trek and making good, according to a dreamy Technicolor cover story in the LOOK magazine prominently displayed on the mahogany coffee table—a table that, as it happened, did not make the cut when our small U-Haul was packed to the ceiling with heirlooms, china, and three toys from my childhood bedroom. (Only three, my mother insisted.) The rest were sold at our suburban front yard auction along with sofas, chairs, an antique rolltop desk, patio furniture, and assorted tools. Like the pioneers who had gone before, my parents thought it wise to lighten the load. Our family was moving to the Golden State to better ourselves.

Better, that was the word. So powerful it serves as both verb and adjective. Better climate, better health, better job for my father, and better educational opportunities for me at the University of California in the years to come. No one leaves ancestral foundations to fall backward. But for many who arrived during the great California migrations of the last half-century, that “better” life has become a nightmare of diminishing returns.

Not everyone is suffering, of course. Multimillionaires formerly of Silicon Valley have reinvented themselves in the hot, new tech Valhalla of San Francisco, and bling-obsessed, reality-programmed “real housewives” are cropping up south of Beverly Hills in the McMansions of Orange County. What has gone missing in the last decades is the California middle class. Granted, there were many gradations in this vast middle—“almost” lower-middle, “about to be” middle-middle, “not quite yet” upper-middle—but there was only one acceptable direction on the ladder of prosperity: up. Hard-working, law-abiding, tax-paying folks could rely on collecting their just rewards in a rosy and very near future. Every few years, a new car, a new house and—yes!—a better job with a bigger salary and more benefits. That way of life went down the drain with five-figure entry-level first homes and tuition-free education for in-state residents at the best state college and public university systems in the country. (UC’s annual undergraduate tuition is expected to rise to $22,068 within the next four years.)9

Aristotle argued that true virtue lies in the median between extremes.10 Within that virtue blooms happiness. The great philosopher was no economist, but the principle holds: how can happiness exist without a certain level of balance and stability? Certainly, the California middle class loomed as the ideal for generations of immigrants from Dust Bowl Okies to post-World War II aerospace factory workers to displaced Vietnamese, Armenians, and Afghans seeking political asylum. Getting rich might be nice, but a solid middle-class niche, affordable mortgage, and college-educated children embodied the sweet smell of success. Eden has been lost. Again.

On 17 June 2011, the Pasadena Star-News reported that a group of homeowners, at risk of foreclosure, appealed to Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca for help.11 Representatives of the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment called for Baca to place a moratorium on foreclosure evictions. Unfortunately, the sheriff was out of town, and there were no later news reports that he might mount a posse on behalf of the frightened citizenry desperate to protect their property from forces they could not fight alone.

On New Year’s Day in Pasadena a few years ago, before the real estate market tanked and gave our state the dubious distinction of leading the nation in foreclosures,12 I was walking home among a large crowd of Rose Parade revelers after the last marching band headed north on Sierra Madre Boulevard. The air was clear and crisp, the view of the San Gabriels spectacular. A glorious January morning flooded with California sunshine and the fragrance of fresh blossoms. This is what our ancestors had traveled thousands of hard miles to enjoy. That’s when I overheard two women talking behind me. One was complaining to the other: “We finally get California back and then the Chinese come in and take it away from us. Who do they think they are?” As I turned the corner, I noticed the ladies were Latina. And I was pretty sure they were talking about the influx of Asian families moving into San Marino, Monterey Park, and other parts of the San Gabriel Valley.

Who do they think they are?

Well, “they”—whoever “they” are—assume they are entitled to carve out as large a wedge of the California pie as they can beg, borrow, buy—or steal—for themselves. Vasquez’s ancestors were immigrants too, loyal soldiers of the Spanish crown who occupied the fertile valleys that belonged to the original indigenous Californians, Tongas and Chumash, here long before European interlopers descended. Victorious conquistadores and pious mission priests made no apologies for taking what they wanted. They determined their needs came before other lesser beings, and after all, there was enough. Surely there would always be enough for the people that mattered.

The villains change. So do the innocent. The story does not. Bandidos or banks. Latinos or Asians. White or Black. Somebody somewhere is trying to take what we have … what we can no longer afford … what we cannot save because the forces we battle are too large and we are too small.

Or are we?

Anger—and the fear that fuels it—can do more than close ranks. It can also activate change and broaden the playing field. Witness the power of unified rage within the Occupy movement. Occupy Oakland. Occupy Los Angeles. Occupy the 2012 Pasadena Rose Parade? Yes, yes, and yes. To paraphrase Paddy Chayefsky’s furious prophet of the airwaves in the Hollywood film Network, some Californians are mad as hell about the state’s inequities and refusing to take it anymore. Between 1987 and 2009 more than one-third of California’s income gain went to the top 1 percent wage earners. Some of those remaining 99 percent are no longer simply festering in their discontent. They are organizing, protesting, “occupying” public property, demanding equal justice, and launching Facebook campaigns to challenge the abuses of corporate power.

A young California woman living in Echo Park, indignant about Bank of America’s announced plan to charge a five-dollar monthly debit card fee, spearheaded a national campaign to encourage people to move their money from large US banks to local nonprofit credit unions. Not only did thousands of depositors follow her lead, Bank of America abandoned their proposed fee hike a month later.13 The message? If you can’t beat the 1 percent bastards, join with like-minded instigators and call a new ball game.

Novelist James Cain, the East Coast transplant who became a master of California literary noir, once predicted that the “vaulting ambitions” of the Golden State would surely generate interesting social progress. “Streams are meeting here that ought to churn up some exciting whirlpools.”14 Indeed.

Riding out of the rocky hinterlands at the helm of a guerilla band of outlaws, Tiburcio Vasquez left a legacy that eclipsed his earthly crimes. A hero of resistance to his admirers, a thieving killer to his enemies, there is no question he made his mark on a land still divided today by discrimination, language, color, and class. Even the state map acknowledges his presence: Vasquez Rocks, a region in northern Los Angeles County where his gang used to hide out, is now a park named in his honor.


In 1939 Judge Hubbell’s daughter loaned the Vasquez rifle to her new son-in-law, Fred Runyon, a young publisher who wanted to display the historic firearm in the windows of his Pasadena Independent newspaper offices to impress readers. Sure enough, the bandit was still a headliner sixty-five years after his hanging. And yet, despite a notoriety that has stretched across three centuries, the man is long gone. It is the place that inspired his passion which endures. Ultimately, all of us who call ourselves Californians are merely visitors. Only the land, this vast earthquake-veined land of disastrous faults and breathtaking beauty, is eternal. The land …

… and the hope that one day there will again be enough.


1. George Beers, “The Robber Vasquez,” Los Angeles Times, 29 December 1889.

2. John Boessenecker, Bandido: The Life and Times of Tiburcio Vasquez (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2010).

3. William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun, Act I, Scene III.

4. Gale Holland and Sam Quiones, “Waving California Good-bye,” Los Angeles Times, 27 November 2011.

5. Alana Semuels and Duke Helfand, “6 Million in State Live in Poverty,” Los Angeles Times, 14 September 2011.

6. Noam Levy, “State’s Ills May Weaken Health Reform,” Los Angeles Times, 15 September 2011.

7. Alana Semuels, “Jobless Rate Hits 12.1% in California,” Los Angeles Times, 17 September 2011.

8. George Skeleton, “Lumps of Coal All Around,” Los Angeles Times, 19 December 2011.

9. Larry Gordon, “UC Tuition May Rise to 16% a Year,” Los Angeles Times, 15 September 2011.

10. Aristotle, Nichomean Ethics.

11. Erick Galindo, “Group Seeks Foreclosure Justice,” Pasadena Star-News, 17 June 2011.

12. Alejandro Lazo, “Housing Defaults Up In August,” Los Angeles Times, 15 September 2011.

13. Stuart Pfeifer and E. Scott Reckard “Interest Grows in Bank Transfer Day,” Los Angeles Times, 5 November 2011.

14. James M. Cain, “Paradise,” American Mercury, March 1933.


The Invasion of Echo Park

by Hsuan L. Hsu

From Boom Fall 2012, Vol. 2, No. 3

LA rocks on

The Madonnas of Echo Park by Brando Skyhorse, Free Press, 224 pages

In late 2011, the Occupy movement quickly became one of the most visible and viable means of sheltering and sustaining people who have been displaced by the unemployment, foreclosures, and evictions resulting from offshoring and rampant financial speculation. Violent police raids on Occupy encampments throughout the country bear witness to how difficult and vital it is for disempowered groups to access and lay claim to living space in US cities. Brando Skyhorse’s first book of fiction, The Madonnas of Echo Park, covers two historical moments that underlie contemporary struggles over public space in and beyond Los Angeles: the withdrawal of jobs, tax revenue, and services from the inner city caused by suburbanization and “white flight” in the decades following World War II, and the return of real estate speculation and middle-class residents to urban centers in recent decades. In addition to dramatizing the lives of characters caught between languages and cultures, Madonnas is a story about how gentrification affects the Mexican/Mexican American community in the transitional neighborhood of Echo Park.

First developed by real estate investor Thomas Kelly in the 1880s, Echo Park (then called “Edendale”) was a center of the LA film industry during the silent era and a middle-class neighborhood in the early twentieth century. As many middle-class white residents relocated to the suburbs after World War II, Mexican Americans moved into the area’s affordable homes, becoming Echo Park’s majority, along with smaller populations of Chinese, Filipino, and Southeast Asian immigrants. Brando Skyhorse has an unusual relationship to the neighborhood’s ethnic and cultural diversity: abandoned by his Mexican father when he was three-years-old, he grew up believing he was the son of his mother’s Native American boyfriend, a man named Paul Skyhorse Johnson. In interviews, the author explains that even after learning of his true genealogy in his early teens he continued to hide his Mexican identity because his mother, who was Mexican, was passing as a Native American (he did not publicize his Mexican identity until after his mother’s death in 1998). Drawing on this personal history of “passing,” Skyhorse’s novel offers an engaging meditation on displacement and its effects on a complex cast of characters.

The Great Wall of Los Angeles by Judy Baca and SPARC (Social and Public Art Resource Center) commemorate Chavez Ravine and the division of the barrios with freeways. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF THE CITY PROJECT.

An author’s note establishes the connection between the author and his characters by narrating Skyhorse’s own (possibly fictionalized) encounter with a girl named Aurora Esperanza at a grade-school dance. When Aurora asks him to dance to the tune of Madonna’s “Borderline,” the young protagonist refuses, saying “You’re a Mexican,” and Aurora leaves the school in shame. In the stories that follow, Skyhorse attempts to make restitution for that moment of unwitting self-rejection by creating a diverse group of nine Mexican American narrators, each of them facing identity crises associated with the challenges of assimilation: middle-class jobs, learning English, college educations, stereotypes in Hollywood films, cross-racial dating, and the messages of popular singers like Madonna, Gwen Stefani, and Morrissey.

The identity confusion featured throughout The Madonnas of Echo Park is complicated by the fact that there is no “authentic” culture or neighborhood to which these characters can return. Skyhorse exposes the fantasy of an authentic Latino ‘hood by repeatedly referencing the video for Madonna’s “Borderline”:

… Madonna, dressed as a classic “Low Rider” chola in a forties-style hair bonnet, white wife-beater, long drape coat, and baggy pants that came up past her waist, had been kicked out of her gringo photographer boyfriend’s fancy loft for spray-painting a streak on his sports car. Out on “her” streets again, Madonna walks past El Guanaco and is welcomed into the arms of her cholas hanging outside, who realize she has not abandoned her chicas or her ‘hood. They walk into the Mercado, and after a selection at the jukebox, Madonna dances into the arms of her former boyfriend, a young Mexican guy who has pined for her throughout the video and represents the Mexican roots, the Mexican life she cannot turn her back on (p. 47).

The idea of “genuine Mexican roots,” it seems, can be co-opted by white artists (and in this case an Italian-American pop star) who identify ethnic minorities with exotic neighborhood cultures and then commodify those cultures. But when Mexican characters look to Madonna to teach them about the appeal of Echo Park’s street culture and the importance of roots, the notion of a pure ethnic identity seems naïve. Instead, the novel’s central scene—which ties together most of its ensemble cast—features Aurora and several other girls dressed up as Madonna (that is, as Madonna disguised as a chola) dancing to the tune of “Borderline” in front of El Guanaco market, where the street scenes of the video were actually shot. In the world of music videos and their fans, there seems to be no borderline between Echo Park and Hollywood, Mexican and gringo, a rock star and neighborhood girls dressing up as the “Madonnas” of Echo Park because their parents cannot afford other forms of entertainment. But on a more material level, Skyhorse frequently stresses the effects of neighborhoods and national borders: one of the girls dancing in front of the market is killed by a stray bullet; Aurora’s father is deported at the end of the first chapter; and a city bus driver, though acutely sensitive to the racial dynamics of the different neighborhoods traversed by his route, is pushed to extremes.

All of this makes The Madonnas of Echo Park a strange instance of the LA ensemble narrative—a genre of fiction that fantasizes about personal encounters that counteract the isolation of sprawl and suburbanization. In the films Grand Canyon (1991), Short Cuts (1993), Magnolia (1999), and Crash (2004), and in novels such as T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain (1995) and Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange (1997), characters from different racial and ethnic groups encounter one another despite the fact that the layout of LA and its suburbs and its history of “white flight” have substantively minimized such encounters. In the wake of the 1992 LA uprising, these stories often feature interpersonal meetings that cross boundaries and heal racial fissures: random encounters and car crashes teach characters that everyone is connected.

With its cast of nine first-person narrators who cross paths in the neighborhood of Echo Park, The Madonnas of Echo Park certainly reads like an ensemble narrative—but it refuses to close with an upbeat lesson about interconnectedness. Instead of assembling characters through significant coincidences, Madonnas shows how the characters, most of whom are Mexican American and many of whom are related by blood, become so disconnected that they can continually miss opportunities to recognize and communicate with one another. In the novel’s climactic scene, Aurora encounters her estranged father, her half-sister, her mother, her grand-uncle, and her estranged grandmother at the annual Lotus Festival without recognizing (or being recognized by) any of them.

By organizing his book around moments where subplots and characters’ lives intersect without the characters being aware of their mutual connections, Skyhorse evokes the social and emotional distances intervening among broken families, provisional erotic relationships, and an increasingly scattered community struggling to maintain a cultural foothold in the gentrifying neighborhoods of Echo Park.

Madonnas traces the attrition of cultural identity and community ties to the actual eviction of Mexican American families from affordable housing in Chavez Ravine in 1959. Aurora explains that “My first name comes from the last woman evicted from the ground that would become Dodger Stadium” (p. 150). Skyhorse bases the character of Aurora’s great-grandmother, Aurora Salazar, on Aurora Vargas, whose forcible eviction from Chavez Ravine is the subject of several iconic photographs (she was fined and jailed for disobeying the eviction order). Growing up in the aftermath of LA urban planners’ assault on black and brown neighborhoods, the younger Aurora has no direct knowledge of the dirt trails and rustic hillside community of Chavez Ravine. She says, “I didn’t know those hills; I didn’t know that woman. What I knew were tunneled-out highways that unfurled like streamers tossed off a balcony from atop Dodger Stadium and endless days of riding my bicycle through its saucer-tiered parking lots, flat and featureless …” (p. 152). In documenting the aftereffects of the evictions at Chavez Ravine and the division of the barrios by freeway construction, Madonnas extends the explorations of recent works such as Helena Maria Viramontes’s Their Dogs Came with Them, Heather Woodbury’s Tale of 2Cities, and historian Eric Avila’s Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight.

Most of Skyhorse’s book is set in the present, as gentrification gradually extends the earlier displacements epitomized by Chavez Ravine. As an anonymous flier titled “GENTRIFICATION” posted in an Echo Park laundromat explains, “People that grew up in echo park, had family and friends here, were forced out of there [sic] homes to welcome the new european invader. The Christopher and Christina Columbus of our time … The HIPSTER …” While boutiques, cafés, and other evidence of gentrification appear with gradually increasing frequency throughout the book, the chapter entitled “The Hustler” takes the measure of urban renewal by depicting a convict’s disoriented return to Echo Park after nearly twelve years in prison:

“Angustian Family Evicted from Home in Chavez Ravine, Los Angeles.” Los Angeles Times (May 9, 1959).COURTESY OF UCLA, SPECIAL COLLECTIONS, CHARLES E. YOUNG RESEARCH LIBRARY

On the starting tip of Sunset Boulevard (which is now called César Chavez Avenue—when did that happen?) I survey my territory—the new apartment buildings and stores, the fresh coats of paint on the doors and window frames on abandoned shops, new storefront signs in English covering the old sun-bleached Spanish ones[,] the odd presence of young bearded white men with coffee, not six-packs, on the street corners. Where are the Chicanos? Or the Chinos? (p. 113)

Freddy finds that a “white woman with short black hair and a tight T-shirt that somehow makes her look like a man” has moved into his lover’s home; notices a house being renovated “by some Mexican day-laborers”; is surprised to see graffiti in English in his ‘hood; and finally settles down to hustle a sucker at pool table. His mark—“a white guy in his thirties with thick Buddy Holly-style glasses, a short-sleeve shirt that changes color depending on what angle I look at it from, baggy black pants with a chain dangling from his right pocket, and spotless black ‘work’ shoes”(p. 120)—seems like a naïve hipster. But after Freddy wins some money and attempts a different hustle, the white man beats him up and takes his cash.

Overall, Madonnas does not take a one-sided stance against either cultural assimilation or gentrification. Aurora, too, feels disoriented upon returning to the neighborhood, “as if an antimatter explosion had detonated high above Echo Park, reconstructing decay into a glittering faux affluence, a Willy Wonka neutron bomb coating the landscape in radioactive smiley face yellows and Wellbutrin blues.” But she does not flee from the new condos, cafés, and boutiques although. she admits she feels lost, she concludes, “I guess it’s good for the neighborhood” (p. 189). After accidentally—and to her, miraculously—running into the singer Morrissey (who once said “I wish I was born Mexican”) at the Lotus Festival, Aurora decides to cast her lot with Echo Park. Popular culture and gentrification may have dislocated the cohesive Mexican American community, but Aurora believes it to be “a land rich with roots that grow, thrive, burn, are razed, heal, then grow again, deeper and stronger than before.” Only the reader knows—from assembling the threads of other chapters—that she has just walked past several family members without knowing it, and that her father is in the process of being deported at the very moment she thinks “This is the land we dream of, the land that belongs to us again” (p. 199). With such ironic dissonances filling the gaps between its chapters, The Madonnas of Echo Park records the promise of new forms of belonging as well as the loss that attends the violent uprooting of the old.


California Soul

by Kimberly Nettles-Barcelón

From Boom Fall 2012, Vol. 2, No. 3

Stories of food and place from Oakland’s Brown Sugar Kitchen

Oakland, California, has long been a place with an embattled food politic. In 1968 the Black Panther Party (BPP), a militant political organization founded in Oakland, initiated a series of “Survival Programs” designed, in part, to improve the public image of the Party and make more visible their work as practitioners struggling for social change within black communities. These “Survival Programs”—food and clothing giveaways, free breakfast programs, free clinics, and alternative primary schools—were part of the BPP’s 10 Point Program. Instituting these programs was central to a growing realization among some party members that the health and well-being of the BPP depended on the health and well-being of “the people” and the communities within which they resided. The “Free Breakfast Program” and the “Free Food Giveaways” received a good deal of media attention and, while the legitimacy of the BPP was always contested, this community work drew a lot of support from the Black elite, the white liberal Left, and political leaders within the San Francisco Bay Area.1

However, over forty years later, the social conditions that made necessary the BPP “Survival Programs” continue to plague many black communities in Oakland—especially the West and East Oakland neighborhoods, which nurtured the beginnings of the BPP. Today, poor and working-class residents of Oakland utilize food banks and other emergency food-assistance programs at disturbingly high rates. Convenience stores selling liquor and fast food restaurants dominate the landscape. For instance, until recently, there was just one grocery store, forty liquor/convenience stores, and a handful of fast food restaurants to serve about 30,000 Black and Latino residents.2 Indeed, the lack of access in this community to fresh and reasonably priced food stuffs (particularly fruits and vegetables) is representative of a phenomenon gaining greater visibility nationally: food insecurity within the industrialized “first world.”3 It is perhaps ironic that many of the foods considered subsistence foods in an earlier era have become increasingly unavailable to poor and working-class African Americans. The consumption of highly processed convenience and fast foods coupled with other risk factors, such as environmental pollution and racism, have been cited as central to a dramatic increase in the occurrences of obesity and diet-related diseases.4


It is within this context that I am interested in exploring the recent proliferation of both upscale and down-home “soul food” restaurants in Oakland; what a San Francisco Chronicle story termed a “soul food renaissance.”5 Although three out of the four restaurants profiled in that Chronicle story had closed their doors by the end of last year, others, such as Tanya Holland’s Brown Sugar Kitchen, were taking root. These restaurants are intriguing locations for thinking through the politics of food and place. They present food rooted in a Black Southern cultural repertoire—fried chicken, greens, sweet potato pie—with a twenty-first-century sensibility—local, sustainable, chef-driven, seasonal ingredients. Brown Sugar Kitchen takes its clues from this “new food movement” by emphasizing its use of fresh, local, and sustainably produced foodstuffs. Chef Holland seeks to bring the culinary influences of the Caribbean, New Orleans, California, and her classical French training to bear on soul food. In many ways, Brown Sugar Kitchen is part of a culinary movement that one might argue has its origins in Alice Waters’s “delicious revolution”6 of the 1970s and the Black Power Movement of the late 1960s.


In December 2011, I sat with Chef Holland in the dining area of her West Oakland restaurant for one of two interviews about her work as a chef, restaurateur, culinary entrepreneur, and nascent community leader. We followed up our conversation several months later, just as her restaurant was being featured in the June issue of O: The Oprah Magazine. What follows is a distillation of our conversations.

Kimberly Nettles-Barcelón: Chef, talk me through your signature dish—the fried chicken and cornmeal waffles.

Chef Tanya Holland: The chicken and waffles came about as a sort of accident, and was in many ways dictated by the space. We have one griddle and six burners, so doing pancakes or French toast for breakfast wasn’t feasible. But it’s easy to plug in some waffle machines. And then we added the cornmeal to the waffle to capture the sense that people often eat fried chicken with cornbread. So it really marries the sweet and the savory sides of the dish well. And then we wanted to make something that sourced good ingredients, like organic chicken, dairy, and so on, and do the chicken and waffle really well. We wanted to make it unique.

Nettles-Barcelón: And what about the vegetarian jambalaya?

Holland: You mean dirty rice … yes, that was also something that came out of being in this place in this area. I know that there are a lot of people who are limiting their meat intake or are vegetarian, and while I love the whole chicken gizzards and liver you normally find in dirty rice, I knew that I wanted to make a dish that had all of those flavors without the meat. That dish is something I actually created before the restaurant happened and I brought it onto the menu because I thought it would work.

Nettles-Barcelón: How did you come to feature soul food? And do you find yourself constrained by the category?


Holland: Before I started this restaurant, I would say that I was cooking multi-ethnic cuisine. My cooking, like most chefs, has been influenced by cuisines from all over the world. I’ve cooked all over the place in many different types of restaurants and just my own palate leads me to pick-and-choose from the variety of cuisines out there in terms of the foods I prepare. So, ‘soul food’ as a genre. When I made the decision that this is the direction I was going in, I realized that I wanted this to be my mission—to do for soul food what we’ve seen done in other cuisines. To really elevate it, to bring it to a level of sophistication that is not expected for ‘soul food.’ Soul food has the reputation of not being seasonal, of being full of animal fat, etc. And I wanted to show that it is and can be seasonal and less reliant on smoked pork and still be flavorful and true to those authentic soul food tastes.

Nettles-Barcelón: Is doing soul food or the expectation that you will do soul food connected to your being an African American woman?

Holland: Some of it is that. After doing the Food Network show [Melting Pot: Soul Kitchen, cohosted with Cheryl Smith] and my cookbook, I got sort of pigeon-holed. And I think that black male chefs have been able to break out of the soul food genre more so than black women. But really I have found it a marvelous way to make visible a cuisine that is not thought of in certain ways. You don’t see chefs of soul food restaurants being nominated for James Beard Awards, for example.

Nettles-Barcelón: Tell me about the restaurant’s space. You said before that there is often a difficulty in restaurants where either the space is right or the food is, but not both. What does it mean for you to get the “space and the food right”?


Holland: I wanted to create everyday food for everyday people. I can’t help but bring my background, in terms of my formal culinary training and sophistication, into the food. But, I wanted to make it really accessible and authentic to whatever the dish is. You know how you go into restaurants and food can be off-putting? I didn’t want that; I wanted people to be able to come in and really enjoy and connect to the food and the experience. We inherited the space—how everything is configured—and so we decided to work with what was here and create the sort of atmosphere that would shape the kind of experience people may have been missing in Oakland. We are like a food oasis in a food desert. Something here makes people trek long distances to get here to get our food.

Nettles-Barcelón: I’m remembering that when I came early on a Sunday I was struck by how people were milling about outside waiting to get in. Then, at some point, a guy with a piano set up outside and started playing music. People were sitting on the curb, drinking coffee, talking to each other. It was quite the scene … and this is before even getting inside to eat!


Holland: Yes, and there again, that just sort of happened organically. The space itself is small and so during our busy times it can be a wait to get a table. And people don’t just leave and go down the street to the next restaurant—there is no next restaurant—instead, they treat that wait time as part of the experience itself. And so we started making coffee available to folks who are waiting outside… and it’s sort of like an adventure. Like people are saying to themselves: “We’re here in the midst of industrial West Oakland hanging out and socializing!” So the outside serves as an extension of the experience inside the restaurant.

Inside the restaurant I had a vision about how I wanted the space to feel. So I spent a lot of time choosing paint colors, art for the walls—by a local artist, Amanda Williams—new rugs, the music we play. All of that. We haven’t been able to change the table tops yet, but we got new chairs. And then the small things like the salt and pepper shakers. I wanted something in particular—somethingthat could hold the courser-grained sea salt and freshly ground pepper—which we grind ourselves here. Shakers that were rustic, yet elegant. And choosing Tabasco and Crystal hot sauces. All of those small things are intentional. They are designed to create an atmosphere that invites people in and that they know what to expect when they come in.

Nettles-Barcelón: I understand people travel from all over the Bay Area and beyond to come to the restaurant, but I can also imagine that there are a lot of local people who are regulars.

Holland: Yes, yes. I kind of get to do a bit of sociology by being a restaurateur. And what I’ve found is that people are really particular about their breakfast foods, lunch too, but especially breakfast. We like certain things, and once we find them, we don’t like to deviate too much. I think people are more adventurous at dinner time. We’ve got regulars who come in every week and we know who they are sometimes not by name, but by what they order. So like “Here comes two pieces with a side of biscuits.” You know?

Nettles-Barcelón: So, is there a lot of variation in your menu?

Holland: No, that’s the thing that’s been an adjustment for me as a restaurateur. The menu doesn’t change much at all. We have some daily specials that shift in and out, but the core of our menu stays the same. And what I’ve found is that Brown Sugar Kitchen is an exercise in perfection and consistency. And that’s really the name of the game in this business. People have to know that when they come in, whenever they come in, and order their favorite dish, that it’s going to be as good if not better than it always is. So we are seeing ourselves as becoming a sort of institution in this area, through the consistency our food.


Nettles-Barcelón: I like this idea of your becoming an institution in this town. I know you came to Oakland without a whole lot of planning to be here.

Holland: I’ve lived in Oakland the longest I’ve lived anywhere other than Hartford, Connecticut, where I grew up. And I landed here through a process of testing out various areas in California. I lived for a time in San Francisco, and I just didn’t care for that. I thought about Napa because I just love wine country, but I didn’t think it would be a good place socially; there’s issues of lack of diversity there. And I considered Berkeley for a while. But I settled in Oakland because I feel really at home here in ways that I never felt even in Manhattan or Brooklyn. The thing about the East Coast is that the pace of life is so fast, and it’s more difficult to slow down and really connect with people. Here I feel like the pace is more European. People care more about other people, and there’s an idea that we should strive to cultivate some work-life balance. Of course, that’s difficult to do in this industry—achieve balance—but there’s more of an expectation that we should do more in our lives than just work.

Nettles-Barcelón: How do you deal with people’s ideas about Oakland as dangerous and poverty ridden?

Holland: Oakland has a bad reputation. But, again, I’ve felt so at home here. Ever since my husband and I decided to move into West Oakland and then set up the restaurant here, I’ve felt like it’s part of my mission to bring Oakland good press. And that’s what I see the restaurant doing: creating a positive buzz about Oakland, about it being a good place to be an entrepreneur, a good place to do interesting things.

Pictured from left to right are Mayor Jean Quan; Vice Mayor Nancy Nadel; Chef Tanya Holland, and Phil Surkis, husband of Tanya Holland and co-owner of Brown Sugar Kitchen. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF JIM DENNIS

You know, I’m not that politically oriented. Meaning I don’t want to engage in politics directly, but what I do like to do is use my role in the community to empower people. But because I have been seen as someone who can get things done, I have been called upon to host political events and activities, to sit on various boards and be involved in the Chamber of Commerce. I actually have good relationships with the current Mayor, and several City Council members have come to us about issues or asked to use our space. But I try to maintain a very nonpartisan approach. I am for the improvement of Oakland, for allowing dialogue and change to happen organically.

I’ve been involved in two organizations that have meant a lot to me both personally and professionally. I was one of two women of color inducted into the local chapter of the prestigious Les Dames d’Escoffier. I don’t know that there are any other women of color locally or nationally within that organization. That means a lot to me and the work that I’m trying to do here. And, then, more locally I sit on the board of the Women’s Initiative for Self Employment. This organization really strives to empower women to think about what’s possible for them … and provides them with tools to help them make some of their ideas come to life.

Nettles-Barcelón: Speaking of these sorts of leadership roles, how do you approach mentoring within your restaurant? I remember in our last conversation you said that people still walk in and comment on how it’s good to see brown people in the kitchen … that this is not a common sight in upscale or higher-end restaurants. And, then you also mentioned how you wanted to mentor others in ways that you were not always mentored. Can you speak a bit more about that?

Holland: My approach with leadership and mentoring is to lead by example. I always tell my staff that we are an open book here. So they are able to see all aspects of how the business is run, from testing recipes, to costing/financials, to working with the press, to direct customer service. All of that is part of this industry. And since I have been successful in working with the press to get our story out there, the staff are able to see other aspects of this industry—like for instance for the O Magazine spread we had a photo shoot with them and some of the staff got to experience what happens in food styling. All of these sorts of opportunities are available for my staff so that they can see ways to advance themselves within this profession. It’s not always just about the cooking. There’s so much more.

One of my staff members is interested in the fashion industry and she learned of the Women’s Initiative for Self-Employment through my work with them and she’s going through their program. My husband and I gave a small business loan to help her pursue that. I recently had some conversations with one of the cooks here who was considering the hospitality program at a college, looking to get his bachelor’s degree. And I was able to suggest people I knew who could talk to him about whether that particular program was a good one, or whether he should consider a different program. I mean we are almost like an extended family here because we spend so much time at the restaurant it becomes like a family. With the way things are now, families are so splintered with people living all over the country or even the world … such that the workplace becomes that. My husband and I work hard to make it not so much a dysfunctional family, but a functional one: one where we can support and nurture each other’s strengths and help people to work on their shortcomings. We try to make it a place where people want to come to work and feel supported in this environment.


At the City Council meeting in Oakland City Hall, 5 June 2012 was named Chef Tanya Holland Day by special decree from the Mayor and Vice-Mayor. Chef Holland (joined by more than twenty of her friends and supporters) received recognition for the community-building work she does as Chef/Owner of Brown Sugar Kitchen and the newly opened restaurant B-Side BBQ. The Resolution lists ten actions of distinction (such as employing over twenty Oaklanders, using local/organic/sustainable ingredients, garnering positive media attention for Oakland, and creating the celebrated and much imitated cornmeal waffles) and culminates with the following statement: “The City of Oakland hereby honors Tanya Holland for her significant role in creating community and establishing Oakland as a culinary center recognized through the City of Oakland, the State of California, and the United States.”


1. On the Black Panther Party and its Free Breakfast Program and Free Food Giveaway programs, Andrew Warnes’s brief, but compelling, analysis is worth reading—Hunger Overcome? Food and Resistance in Twentieth-Century African American Literature (Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press, 2004). See also the striking photo collection of Stephen Shames, The Black Panthers (New York, NY: Aperture Foundation, 2006) and Alondra Nelson’s meticulous investigation of the BPP’s work on issues of health care in Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2011). The politics/pleasures of “soul food” is also well-discussed in Amiri Baraka’s “Soul Food” (from Home: Social Essays. Ecco Press, 1966), Marvalene Hughes’s “Soul, Black Women, and Food” (in Counihan and Van Esterik’s edited volume, Food and Culture: A Reader, Routledge, 1997), Nettles’s “’Saving’ Soul Food” (in Gastronomica, 7, no. 3), T. Poe’s “The Origins of Soul Food in Black Urban Identity: Chicago, 1915–1947” (in Counihan’s edited volume, Food in the USA: A Reader, 1999), and Doris Witt’s Black Hunger: Food and the Politics of U.S. identity (Oxford University Press, 1999).

2. Christine Ahn, “Breaking Ground; The Community Food Security Movement.” Backgrounder, 10, no. 19, 2004. Last accessed: 14 May 2010.

3. Young activists and activist scholars have been on the ground in communities like West Oakland trying to facilitate change, create, and illuminate avenues of resistance through their “food justice” work. See Alison Hope Alkon and Julian Agyeman’s edited volume, Cultivating Food Justice: Race, Class, and Sustainability (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012).

4. This is an issue with considerable complexity and has been debated quite heavily in the popular and academic literatures on “food deserts,“ “obesity epidemic,” “urban agriculture,” and so on. Geographer Julie Guthman’s latest work on this topic is quite useful: Weighing In: Obesity, Food Justice, and the Limits of Capitalism (Berkeley, University of California Press, 2011).

5. Scott Hocker, “Oakland in Midst of Soul Food Renaissance.” San Francisco Chronicle, 18 August 2004; Karola Saekel, “Long-Cooked Greens Warm the Heart,” San Francisco Chronicle, 12 January 2005.

6. See L. Brenner’s American Appetite: The Coming of Age of a National Cuisine (Harper Perennial, 2000).


Pepper Spray and Politics

by Ami Sommariva and Louis Warren

From Boom Fall 2012, Vol. 2, No. 3

An interview with radical student activist Ian Lee

While protecting a tent encampment of student protesters on 18 November 2011, UC Davis freshman Ian Lee was pepper-sprayed by campus police. Boom assistant editor Ami Sommariva and Boom executive editor Louis Warren sat down with Lee to talk about his experience with the Occupy movement, his radicalization, and the relationship between activism and education.

Ami Sommariva: Could you tell us a little bit about where you grew up?

Ian Lee: I’m from Temple City, which is a suburb of LA, a really small suburb east of LA. I was born and raised there, went through the whole school system. A quiet Asian kid growing up in a suburb … that was me. When applying for colleges, I really wanted to do environmental work. I don’t know if I still want to do that, but that’s why I chose UCD. Both of my parents are from Hong Kong. They came to the US near the end of the Vietnam War. My dad was part of seventies community organizing after the war. He entertained ideas of becoming an artist.

Sommariva: How did you get involved with the Occupy movement? Where did it all begin for you, and how did you end up on the Quad that day?

Lee: At that time, I saw myself as a standard Democrat, a regular little sort of person. Then this Occupy movement started happening and I started to hear about it from classes, from certain professors and friends, and so I decided I should probably check this out. I was involved with the original campus marches; not as an organizer or anything, but participating in part of it. I was involved because it’s something that interested me and that’s not because I understood anything. I didn’t live at the camp in the beginning.

Louis Warren: Did you help set up the Occupation on the Quad?

Lee: Yes, but I didn’t sleep there because I wasn’t serious about anything at the time. Then, on November 18th, I heard through Facebook that cops had shown up on the campus. That was really disconcerting to me, and so I just rushed over from the dorms. And that’s when I started to really get into it and really understand. People were getting arrested. I linked arms with the people forming a protective block around the tents. Eventually, I found myself in the front row.

Sommariva: You said that before all this happened you started hearing about the Occupy movement from professors and friends, and it interested you. What interested you about it?

Lee: Well, you should understand that at the time, a guy who’s just been in college a couple of days … he doesn’t really understand what’s happening. I was just this sort-of-Democrat, and apparently there’s this liberal—or what’s perceived to be liberal—huge movement going on. I think: Oh, I should probably get involved with this and try to find out what’s going on. And that was my perspective. At the time—and I have different views now—but at the time, it seemed to me to be a sort of symbolic protesting as to what happened at Berkeley when the students were trying to defend their encampment there. And also sort of symbolic protests against tuition increases.

Sommariva: Those were the factors that motivated you to rush right out from the dorms?

Lee: Well, yeah. But also, I didn’t and still don’t understand about why riot cops should be called down to a tent encampment. It didn’t make sense to me, and so I wanted to protect that camp.

Warren: So, you guys linked arms to protect the tents. What did you see then?

Lee: Students were screaming. People were being thrown around. Just a lot of chaos caused by, of course, the presence of riot cops.

Sommariva: They were being thrown?

Lee: Or pushed aside.

Warren: And the cops were in full riot gear?

Lee: Right. They had different sorts of guns, batons, those plastic handcuff things, fully dressed in black and helmets.

I couldn’t really see from my perspective, but what I assume happened was that the cops went through the protestors and took down certain tents. There was a lot of screaming and hectic chaos. The circle of students kept on tripping and tripping and tripping, so we think it’s a good idea to sit down. That’s a common way to de-escalate a potentially violent situation, so we sit down.

And Lieutenant Pike [the officer in charge] says we should know we shouldn’t move. He stepped over us and pepper-sprayed us. I’m really angry about that. I mean, I was furious. I just got assaulted by riot cops for no reason. Before the pepper-spray incident happened, it was my understanding that we would maybe be shot with rubber bullets and that was really scary to me. My heart was just shaking like crazy.

Warren: Why was that your understanding? Did somebody threaten to shoot you?


Lee: Lieutenant Pike came over to the person sitting next to me and said, we are going to shoot you—or something to the effect of that—if you don’t leave. And so that’s why I thought that we were going to be shot with rubber bullets. You can’t really think when you’re that afraid.

Warren: So then they pepper-sprayed you. What happened?

Lee: There were shouts from the crowd that we should close our eyes, so I closed my eyes and there was this intense burning and it’s like fire on my face and in my eyes. Then I was actually pulled out of the chain and …

Warren: Who pulled you out?

Lee: Well, I didn’t know at the time, but in looking at videos, it was Lieutenant Pike. He pulled me out first and he pinned me to the ground for a while. But I didn’t resist.

Warren: Face-down?

Lee: Face-down. Like, while I was totally incapacitated, which doesn’t make sense to me.

Warren: The degree of violence in the story you’re telling, it’s just so astonishing.

Lee: Yeah. The entire last couple of months are totally absurd on so many levels. So, since I’m pinned on the ground, I don’t resist. He decides after a while, hey, I’m not gonna pin this kid down; I’m gonna pin that guy down, and that guy ended up actually being arrested. And he was pepper-sprayed. Like, why are you trying to arrest this kid who is not really resisting and is totally incapacitated? And to my understanding he apparently wasn’t even treated in the police car.

Warren: In the video of the events on YouTube, one of the most astonishing things is that you guys don’t appear to move after being coated with pepper spray. You do not budge. I noticed some of you begin to slump, but you didn’t move until people come over and start pulling you apart. Why didn’t you move?

Lee: I might not call it meditation, but I was concentrating really hard to try to slow my heartbeat. Also, we were committed to maintaining our ground. Someone who eventually would become a good friend led me to a firefighter who cleaned out my eyes. I went back to the dorm. I took a shower and my face got on fire again. I went to the Student Health and Wellness Center, and got treated, and that was the extent of my day.


Sommariva: Then the huge rally on Monday [21 November] happened. How did that come about? I mean, it was a huge event that seemed very well organized. There must have been work involved in putting that together.

Lee: Well, at the time, I didn’t know anybody, but incidentally I sort of suspected that a huge rally would happen and so I prepared a speech. What happened on Monday with the rally was that the people who were pepper-sprayed gave presentations and speeches. I actually made the first speech. It’s a speech I somewhat regret now… . But then we reestablished the tent encampment.


Warren: Why do you regret the speech now?

Lee: The way I framed the speech was that the incident was some sort of horrific and totally unexpected breach of our First Amendment rights. But now I realize that this is common. This is part of a chain of events of UC brutality that stems from privatization and all that other jazz.

Warren: All that other jazz?

Lee: Privatization and militarization are inherently linked. Whenever oppressive economic forces are created, a military force is needed in order to maintain that.

Warren: Do you see this as part of a broader trend?

Lee: There have been attacks at UCLA, UC Irvine … There’s this pervading theme among the Occupy movement: “Make no demands.” I think the reason for this is that there is nothing the systems that we are living in can do for us. It is the existence of those systems, in the first place, that is our contention.

Sommariva: What does it feel like, at this point, to be on campus after the pepper-spraying and after all of the direct action that you’ve been involved in? Has that changed your experience of being on campus?

Lee: It’s gotten me to think more about my function as a student on a UC campus. I perceive my position differently and that has caused me to be involved with discussions and organizing. It’s become a core part of being a student for me. Without watching and participating in direct action, I would never have started the thinking process—I would have never experienced a truly painful existential crisis, I would have never realized all the contradictions that exist in our systems, I would have never started reading and thinking and reading and talking with others and reading and thinking and reading—that led to my radicalization.


Warren: And before you got to UC, you’d never thought of these things in this way? You had actually not thought of being a student in those terms before you came here?

Lee: Right. So if we’re framing this as a before and after … before, I was a student who performed in the narrative of being a student, and now, I realize that there’s something wrong with that narrative and that I need to highlight the contradictions within it. I think confrontation is a really good thing in terms of getting radical ideas out there. An example: UC Davis had a contract with US Bank that gave them a monopoly on banking services on our campus. Our student IDs, which can be used as debit cards, have the US Bank logo on them, and the bank has a lot of other advertising on campus. There was only one bank on UC Davis property, and it was a US Bank at the Memorial Union, which is the central meeting place of our campus. What some involved in Occupy UC Davis have done is to protest the bank-university partnership in front of the US Bank on campus. This protest, which became well known and led to the arrest of several protesters, spurred a lot of debate about the contradictions between the missions of public universities and private corporations. So radical tactics and direct action are useful.


Sommariva: Do you think that kind of confrontation and debate can be brought into the university classroom as a pedagogical tool?

Lee: Well, here’s the thing about direct action: when protesting the US Bank, we’re directly fighting the forces of privatization within the university. The classroom isn’t built for that.

Sommariva: What would the ideal university look like to you?

Lee: It’s a question I think about quite a lot. I’m still in my first year of college, and I’ve got a lot of research and learning ahead of me. So I can’t really answer the question of what the ideal university looks like. I can say some broad things, such as I would like to see, at the very least, radically less privatization of the university. I would like to see the university return to being a public good. Ideally, at least from my perspective right now, I would like to see all capital off campus. I don’t know what this means in terms of how universities would function in that sort of world.

Warren: What do your parents think of your work here at UC Davis, what you’ve been through, and the work you’re doing with Occupy?

Lee: Like I said, my dad was involved with seventies community organizing as a teenager. I think I’ve suddenly exceeded radicalism in terms of what my dad thought. My definition of the word “radical” is vastly different from my dad’s definition of it. I think my mom’s really uncomfortable with a lot of the things I’m doing.

I want to emphasize the complete absurdity of my narrative. This quiet Asian kid grows up in the suburbs and then goes to college for a couple of weeks and becomes part of an international news story and he’s making passionate political speeches in front of thousands of people. I mean, everything does seem absurd. I think it was in my junior year in high school that I was the treasurer for a school club called the Future Business Leaders of America. And now, I would look at this high school kid who is the treasurer of a business club and say, that guy is evil.

Warren: Is he really evil, or is he just young? It sounds like you’re saying your perspective shifted pretty remarkably after the incident on the Quad.

Lee: I am sort of skeptical of narratives where a person’s one way before some profound event, then the profound event happens and then after that he’s totally different. I’m really skeptical.

Warren: The speed and degree of change that you experienced in yourself makes you skeptical of the whole thing?

Lee: It’s something that I think about quite a lot. Sometimes you read particular stories and you’re like, this is bullshit. That’s become my life.

Sommariva: You feel as if you are a story that has already been told? A cliché?

Lee: A story that doesn’t make sense. Sometimes it feels like I’m a character in a melodramatic novel: beforehand, being this quiet Asian kid and afterwards, being someone who is really sympathetic towards anarchists and radical socialist ideas after becoming an international news story. Like, that doesn’t really happen. It’s just absurd, and that’s who I am.


Blood and Sand

by Rubén Martínez

From Boom Fall 2012, Vol. 2, No. 3

Making the victims visible

There are many deserts, and many deserts within each of them. The desert I write about here is both physical and subjective, of flesh and spirit, and it is the reason I wound up living in the Mojave: the desert of drugs and the “drug war.”

I have spent the last several weeks working with the Movimiento por la Paz con Justicia y Dignidad (MPJD) (Movement for Justice with Peace and Dignity), led by Mexican poet, essayist, and novelist Javier Sicilia. Upon the cartel-related murder of his 23-year-old son, Juan Francisco, in March of 2011, Sicilia became the mostprominent public figure who has suffered the loss of a loved one to question the entire premise of a war that has claimed some 60,000 lives—with up to 10,000 disappeared and 160,000 displaced. Since his son’s murder, he has led dozens of mass marches and caravans across Mexico, “visibilizando víctimas,” as he puts it, making the victims visible.

The MPJD is a bona fide force in Mexican politics today, and it has greater moral authority than any political party. Sicilia and his fellow survivors met with former President Felipe Calderón on more than one occasion, held an unprecedented public dialogue with all four major presidential candidates shortly before the July 1st election, and helped to win passage in the Mexican legislature of the Ley de Víctimas, which will create a national registry of the dead as well as offer recompense to survivors.

Yet Sicilia and the MPJD know that any comprehensive solution to the bloodshed cannot possibly be enacted by Mexico alone. By the time you read this, a caravan led by Sicilia will have crossed the border at San Diego, passed through Los Angeles headed east along the borderlands, toured the Deep South, and curlicued through the Midwest before arriving in Washington, D.C. The goal: to place on the American political agenda the idea that the “drug war in Mexico” is an international problem— globalization gone awry through a tangle of legal and illicit market forces in collusion with state power—and that its end can come about only through international solutions.

What does all of this have to do with what Mary Hunter Austin famously called the “land of little rain”? The most enduring American imaginary of the desert is the Western: cowboys and Indians, the Big Empty that must be crossed before arriving in the Canaan of California. Modern denizens of coastal California think of the desert as an escape from the urban edge—the ancient aura of the desert as a place of healing or spiritual encounter. It is hard to reconcile these notions with the experience of today’s desert borderlands, which are a place of blood and sand. Northern Mexico and the southwestern United States, after all, are the corridor of drug and human trafficking (thoroughly linked now, since cartels have expanded their portfolios far beyond cocaine and marijuana). The Big Empty, in other words, is filled with an increasingly phantasmagorical scene of violence and addiction. Migrants crossing the desert are given methampehtamine (produced in everlarger quantities in Mexico) to push them across the deadly trails. Native American reservations in the borderlands have seen a sharp rise in rates of drug use.

Mexican poet and peace activist Javier Sicilia at Our Lady Queen of the Angels Church in Los Angeles. Photograph by Betto Arcos.

Adding surreal irony to the tableau is the 800 miles of new fencing along the border mandated by the Secure Fence Act of 2006, which ran roughshod over dozens of environmental and historical preservation regulations (and hideously slashed the sublime and iconic vistas of basin and range country). It is a wall in name only. It doesn’t stop drugs from flowing north and weapons from heading south, the latter mostly via illegal trafficking but some through official channels, such as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives’ “Fast and Furious” operation, which absurdly and tragically funneled weapons to cartels for the sake of intelligence gathering.

While the horrific mutilations associated with cartel turf battles have remained south of the border, extortion and kidnapping are increasingly playing out on this side of the line. I can attest to this. The day after returning to Los Angeles from our annual family trip to Mexico last year, we received a “fraud alert” call from our credit card company. We were asked if we’d made a $10,000 purchase in Mexico, which of course we hadn’t. Within an hour of that call, the phone rang again; a male voice spoke in Spanish and addressed me as “Señor Martínez.” He asked me if I knew who he was. I didn’t. Then he asked if I knew of the “Familia Michoacana,” the infamous cartel that at the time held much of the western Mexican state of Michoacán under seige and was responsible for several acts of public terror, such as the deadly grenade attack during an Independence Day celebration in the capital of Morelia. The utterance of the name stunned me, although I managed to stutter a lame response: “No, what family are you referring to?” Then the line went dead. The fraudulent charge and the phishing phone call indicated how far the tentacles of cartel “business” reach. We’d used the card only at well-known eateries in Mexico City—one of which apparently employed someone funneling card numbers to digital racketeers. The credit card company let us off the hook, and there were no more phone calls.

Of course, my experience was just a mere brush with the darkness. In California people whose lives have been ravaged by it live all around us in the immigrant barrios. They mostly suffer in silence because they fear that by going public, they will endanger their missing loved ones (if indeed they are still alive) or themselves. In Mexico there are many stories of people who demanded justice and then became victims themselves (the assassins could just as easily be connected to the military or corrupt government entitites as to the cartels).

But with Javier Sicilia’s example, and his call for making the invisible visible, more and more family members of the victims are losing their fear. During Sicilia’s visit to Los Angeles last spring, dozens turned out to accompany el poeta at Our Lady Queen of the Angels Church, popularly known as La Placita, at the site of the original pueblo church downtown. Standing alongside the poet, they held enlarged photocopies of their loved ones, precisely as the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina had done during the Dirty War and precisely as refugees from the wars in Central America had done here at La Placita in the 1980s, when the late Fr. Luis Olivares declared it a sanctuary for undocumented migrants and those fleeing political persecution.

And so the desert arrives in the city: both its modernday horrors and its ancient symbolism as a place of restorative power. I was baptized at La Placita, as was my father before me. For well over a century, it has been known as the church of the immigrant poor, the unwanted, the desperate (dozens of homeless sleep on the streets surrounding it). It once again receives those traumatized by violence, an oasis in the desert that soothes with the waters of solidarity.

As a young man I returned to La Placita and was baptized in political activism by Fr. Olivares and the crew of radical organizers he led. But even as I was fighting the good fight, I was struggling in a personal desert—long before I lived in the Mojave. It’s a typical story. Young adult child of an alcoholic not-so-innocently experiments with ever more volatile combinations of alcohol and proscribed substances, all in the name of bohemianism, “experience” (ostensibly, to fashion into literature), only to destroy relationships with the people I most loved. Broke and broken, I moved to Joshua Tree in the late 1990s not because I thought of joining a hip art colony (that would come later) but because it was cheap, and one of the last friends I could count on lived there. I also believed I could heal in the desert, which made eventually falling off the wagon there all the more devastating.

And so it was that this recovering addict felt summoned to the cause of the MPJD and organized Sicilia’s visit to Los Angeles. I’d spent a good part of my adult life consuming the drugs that were among the major factors for the violence in Mexico and Central America today—the drugs moved by the cartel gangsters who took the life of Javier Sicilia’s son.

I spoke at length with Sicilia during his days in Los Angeles. He is a poet who no longer writes poetry, having penned his final verses as an ode for his son a few days after his murder.

El mundo ya no es digno de la palabra
Nos la ahogaron adentro
Como te (asfixiaron)
Como te desgarraron los pulmones . . .

(The world is no longer worthy of the word / they drowned her inside of us / like they (suffocated) you, like they shredded your lungs. . . .)

Most of the poetry Sicilia had written before his son’s death was about the desert, the mystical one where flesh meets spirit, and which finds its metaphorical contours in the vast otherness of the arid lands. In a profound way, the poetry continues in his caravans and marches, which are themselves desert rituals tracing primeval paths and summoning the ethics of hospitality—Sicilia, like Gandhi, like César Chávez or Martin Luther King, is calling for, as he puts it, a “spiritualization of our politics.”

What unites Los Angeles to Cuernavaca (Sicilia’s hometown and where his son was killed) is the desert—its silence and our apprehension upon being immersed in its dense darkness, the human horror enacted there; the koan of reconciling its sublimity with its psychic and corporeal nightmares. The desert by definition is a borderland, both separating and uniting distinct realms. Ocean and savannah . . . turmoil and peace.

I am following Javier Sicilia, like many years ago I did Fr. Luis Olivares, deep into the desert. It is a mournful, terrifying pilgrimage—and unavoidable. The desert tells you to pick up and move on, no matter how heavy your heart or body feel. It tells you to keep walking to the other side.


Ikea-fying Los Angeles

by Alex Schmidt
Photographs by the author

From Boom Summer 2012, Vol. 2, No. 2

Financing the Familiar

On a sunny day in northeast Los Angeles, you could take a slow drive around comfortably run-down streets that wend through gentle hills and see it all through the eyes of Steve Jones.

“There’s another one,” Jones says under his breath as he spots the work of a competitor. “Hilarious.”

When Jones started flipping homes (purchasing houses with the goal of selling them for a profit) three years ago, as principal of his design and development company Better Shelter, he was one of few people in the area doing this work. Today, a flipped home can be found on nearly every block in the neighborhood, thanks to at least a dozen small developers or individual flippers getting in on the game—a fact that titillates Jones.

Photograph by Alex Schmidt

The houses aren’t difficult to spot. They usually follow some variation of the following pattern: gray or greenish-gray paint, white or brick red trim, a colorful door—mint green, orange, red—and sometimes a colorful accent mailbox. Instantly recognizable horizontal wood-slat fencing is the final touch.

While the push of gentrification eastward from Hollywood is well known—Los Feliz, Silver Lake, Echo Park, Eagle Rock—this area has yet to “turn.” Rising property values and the disappearance of renters as higher-income residents move in—telltale social signposts of gentrification—have not fully arrived. Yet there are other, aesthetic signposts of a coming turn visible to anyone who cares to look. The business-minded are remaking this neighborhood in what many of them call an “Ikea-like” style of development. If the trend continues, it could have ramifications for the neighborhoods well into the future.

The neighborhood

The last pocket of affordable housing stock in that eastward gentrification wave, before you hit long-upscale Pasadena and abutting downtown LA, which sits to the south, includes the neighborhoods of Highland Park, Mount Washington and Glassell Park.

There are a few larger commercialized streets in the neighborhoods, with small corner markets here and there. Three years ago, Highland Park was two-thirds Latino, and many of the businesses have Latino names and sell Mexican or Central American food or products. Several of the homes are surrounded by chain link or iron fences. There are lots of dogs—nearly everywhere, you can hear them barking.

The area was one of the first to be subdivided as Los Angeles spread out beyond its downtown heart in the late 19th century. Like much of LA, there’s no single architectural style here. The homes range from stucco boxes to Craftsman bungalows to Spanish colonial revival, and others. There are a few streets with larger homes, but mainly, the houses are modestly sized, middle-class affairs. The size is perfect for picking up and turning around in a short period of time, and the location makes sense for developers looking to cash in on the gentrification push.

Photograph by Alex Schmidt

Why they look the same

Developers are notoriously risk averse. A house flip is a gamble to begin with, but a new design adds on cost, plus the possibility that it just won’t sell. Going with a tried and true design is simply a more secure bet in the grand scheme. Beyond that, though, today the cards of the home ownership system are stacked against individual middle-class property owners looking to create their own design. That’s because banks (at least until very recently) won’t lend to them.

Every buyer wants a deal, and in the real estate world, the best deals are distressed properties. With a relatively small investment, a home buyer could turn a dump into the pretty nest she’s dreamed of. But banks refuse to finance sale of these properties to the average borrower. Chris Redfearn, a professor of real estate at USC, says that banks won’t do lending for construction redevelopment: “A house for 200K that [I] plan to put 70K in – I can’t get that loan and I don’t have the equity. So who’s left?”

People like Jones, who have the money. He can spend about $190,000 in cash, put in $80,000 of work, and turn it around four months later for around $400,000.

“Right now, we’re working on about 10 homes,” Jones says. “A lot of them are not financeable because they lack bathrooms or heating systems . . . so we take them and fix them up.” Those fix-ups, rather than reflecting the tastes of individual buyers, are the formulaic ones of developers.

Why people like them

Simply put, the style of these homes appeals to a pervading mindset. With their little plots of land, bucolic, fenced-in yards, fragrant citrus trees, and attractively simple staging furniture, the homes seem to represent the world before complications of contemporary life.

Dana Cuff, professor of architecture and urban planning at UCLA, believes the recent foreclosure crisis may have something to do with their appeal: “Maybe the American Dream, which we’ve seen so heartily crushed in 2008, is coming back writ large in iconic form. No one [today] really believes they’ll ever own their house, you’ll never get a loan, you won’t have the same spouse, and you’re certainly not going to get old in these houses. You need a more heavy symbolism in these houses to make them work.” The formula for their appeal, she says, “follows the pattern of nostalgic home desires—it’s sort of a pre-nuclear thing . . . The colors are pre-war—they hearken back to 1890 to 1940.”

Photograph by Alex Schmidt

Jones concurs. “A lot of what our homebuyers are craving, even if they don’t know it, is authenticity and integrity.”

Yet how authentic is a home that looks similar to so many others nearby? Pricing and construction details reveal that this is in fact a mass-produced, ready-to-wear authenticity. It can be shed easily when the whims of the buyer—or the winds of the economy—change.

A different kind of neighborhood change

The style and staging of the homes suggests that people moving into them are a different crop of homeowner than those who have lived in these neighborhoods in the past. Indeed, homeowners of today are different from homeowners of the past. That’s because the average length of stay in a home in America is no longer a generation.

Photograph by Alex Schmidt

Andy Wu, a media consultant, and his wife recently bought one of Steve Jones’ flipped homes. Wu is 38, his wife 35. They only plan to stay about 10 years, until they have a family and outgrow the house. He says they liked that everything was designed attractively and in move-in condition; if you don’t plan to stay long, it’s great to have a lifestyle ready upon arrival.

This may be a different kind of neighborhood change than has been seen in the past. It’s not just that higher-income folks are moving in, but that they are moving into homes they plan to leave. The downturn in the market, lending policies of banks, and the spirit of our age have created design-friendly Ikea-esque homes on every corner of this L.A. neighborhood, ready to be bought and not long after, sold again.

A new house or storefront here or there, slowly changing the visual landscape, is the way neighborhood change and gentrification begin. But those early signposts can stay invisible, says Jerome Krase, a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College who has studied gentrification. “Local residents are often oblivious to a single store or home that looks different, or a few young people who move in,” he notes.

Indeed, Highland Park homeowner Gerardo Borja lives next door to a Steve Jones flip. He has lived in his home, a nondescript off-white box with a brown roof and green artificial turf in front, for 46 years. Though the house next to his is about to change, and though the roots of his neighborhood may be shallower than the ones he’s grown in his own home, he says he hasn’t noticed many differences in the area: “We don’t really have time to look around.”

Neighborhood change is incremental until it isn’t. In a city as diffuse as Los Angeles, it can be hard to spot, unless you know the signposts to look for. How will our future neighborhoods look and, more importantly, feel? At some point, probably not too far off, we’ll find out.