Reviews

Backs to the Well

by Michael Ziser
From Boom Spring 2011, Vol. 1, No. 1

David Carle, Introduction to Water in California, 2nd ed., California Natural History Guides series. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009, 292 pp. $19.95

Brenda Hillman, Practical Water. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2009, 124 pp. $22.95

William T. Vollmann, Imperial. New York: Viking Press, 2009, 1,344 pp. $55

boom-2011-1-1-66-ufigure-1The preeminent California missionary Father Junípero Serra (1713-84) is famous for his erudition and religious zeal, but we might never have heard of him (or been here to hear) had these qualities not been combined with a keen nose for water. Serra, who spent decades in the arid expanses of Baja California and Querétaro (home to a massive aqueduct) before coming north, applied the hydrological wisdom he had acquired to finally make a success of Spanish colonization efforts in the upper part of the state. As records of his labors reveal, he was careful to site his California missions to take maximum advantage of the comparative abundance of fresh water that poured into the Pacific from coastal rivers, even going so far as to relocate the San Carlos Borroméo mission from Monterey to a better spot along the Rio Carmel. Irrigation was as much on Serra’s mind as salvation, and these twin obsessions have come to define the territory and state whose mythic purpose is to water the parched hopes and germinate the dreams of wave after wave of immigrants from north, south, east, and west. From the hydraulic mining that underwrote the gold fever of the 1850s to the massive drainage, flood-control, and irrigation projects that commandeered vast human resources and laid the groundwork for the agricultural fortunes of the twentieth century to the ongoing legal and political contests by municipalities, developers, and agribusiness for shares of a water empire that now extends far into the territory of other states, the Golden State has always been understood through its other official color: blue.

That we are utterly dependent on the presence and proper management of freshwater resources is something Californians have frequently been told, in tones by turn bureaucratic, boosterish, and apocalyptic. The explorer John Wesley Powell, surveying the far western territories in the 1860s and 1870s, was clear-eyed about the value of surface water for transport, power, and limited irrigation, only to be outlobbied by the railroad barons, who stood to profit from more optimistic views of the habitability of their vast landholdings (over 180 million acres). The writer Wallace Stegner, historians Donald Worster and Norris Hundley, Jr., and journalist Marc Reisner have since drawn upon Powell to tell widely read cautionary stories about violence, graft, and disenfranchisement associated with struggles to control water in the West. Collectively, these authors and others like them were responsible for a shift in conventional wisdom away from the boom mentality that fueled nineteenth-century projects of drainage and levee-building and massive twentieth-century investment in the Central Valley Water Project. From them we are fortunate to have inherited a growing cultural emphasis on conservation of both water resources and the often wild lands where they originate.

It remains for twenty-first-century water writers to find a means for the state’s citizens to come to terms with damage that has already been done, to learn how to live in the hydraulic mess that now defines contemporary California. The best place to begin that task is with David Carle’s contribution to the California Natural History Guides series, Introduction to Water in California, which offers the most concise summary available of the state’s current water situation. Helpfully laying out the entire story in fewer than three hundred small and copiously illustrated pages, Carle presents the fundamental geological and ecological facts underlying our waterscape before conducting an eye-opening tour of the reengineered system we have built atop it. All of the major water issues are here-from giardia parasites to global warming, soil subsidence to selenium contamination-briefly but accurately conveyed in accessible prose. Want to know what water supplies your community depends on? Check Table 3, which lists them in order of importance for the 400 or so largest cities. Ever wondered how water from the far northern part of the state makes it over the mountain ranges south of Bakersfield? Carle includes graphic charts and photographs detailing the massive penstocks that use 7.5 billion kilowatt hours per year to pump water to southern coastal and Mojave communities. If California high-school students were required to study this inexpensive treasure as part of their fundamental curriculum, the state would be well on its way to more effective water policy.

For more advanced courses, though, we need the humanities. The poet and teacher Brenda Hillman’s most recent collection is the third installment (after Cascadia, 2001, and Pieces of Air in the Epic, 2005) in her series of meditations on the four elements. Practical Water is just what its title proclaims: a staged confrontation between our traditional and even mythic understanding of water and the reality of California’s endlessly plumbed, intensively managed, and anxiously watched water systems. Mindful of the powerful vision of untroubled human oneness with an interfluent Nature— “whate’er / I saw, or heard, or felt, was but a stream / That flowed into a kindred stream,” wrote Wordsworth—Hillman starts by establishing the conventional connection between the stream of consciousness and the flow of water:

The mind was split & mended
Each perception divided into more

& there were in the hearts of the water molecules
little branches perpendicular to thought

But this commonplace analogy (linked by Hillman to the Romantic version of modernism favored by Wallace Stevens) quickly transforms itself into a dare to take the metaphor with utter literalism, to accept the often tragic and absurd career of those water molecules as they flow around the geological, architectural, historical, and political facts that are conventionally excluded from the poetic page. As Angela Hume Lewandowski has elaborated in her penetrating discussions of Practical Water and the phenomenon of “contaminated” poetic form, the reader of Hillman’s poem is asked not to indulge in a flight of fancy but to face facts: to prepare, in Hillman’s words, to be “Uncomfortable & act like you mean it.”

Hillman embraces this challenge most directly in the longest poem in the collection, “Hydrology of California: Toward an Ecopoetical Alphabet,” in which she travels across the state watershed by watershed, meditating on the future of poetry while coming to grips with the environmental and historical details of its rivers, the Klamath, the Smith, the Mattole, the Navarro, the Trinity, the Sacramento, the Feather, the American, the Putah, the Cache, the Cosumnes, the Napa, the Tuolumne, the Merced, the Owens, the Mojave, the Kern, the San Joaquin, the Fresno, the San Gabriel. . . . Along the way, the speaker of the poem limbers up her mind and tongue to cope with the paradoxes and complexities of the hydroscape before her.

They had to shower / They had to eat  i said to main Brenda
Now don’t start just ignorantly criticizing state  dams  the
whole time
You drink gallons of it you know you do

There have been moments before in nature writing of this kind of unanswerable self-indictment, but Hillman’s goal is not just to register the banality of her (and our) complicity in the disruption of the environment but to steep her poetic practice in it, to really think through the ways that poems are made of stoppages, cataracts, and trickles of breath, the tongue damming and diverting the often polluted spirit like the levees, check-dams, and irrigation ditches that define our physical landscape. Something rare, the voice of poetry here is in sustained alliance not with the pure and wild nature so easily imagined but with the far less picturesque and perhaps ultimately incomprehensible reality of sewage-treatment plants and algal blooms coexisting with sulphur butterflies and fluff grass. The “future of poetry,” a refrain through Hillman’s poem that ties the aesthetic avant-garde to the environmental status quo, lies in imagining the real flowing and pooling of the world we already inhabit:

Future of poetry  there’s a stream  between a & b as i write
this   a dream
of a west   that would outlast us

To judge from William Vollmann’s Imperial, time is already running out on the West our plumbing has created. Sprawling over 1,300 pages, hundreds of informants, and several genres, the most recent book of contemporary American literature’s most excessive author focuses on the precipitous rise and steady decline of the vast agricultural region surrounding Imperial County in the southeastern corner of California. This was a sparsely populated corner until 1901, when the first in a long series of projects diverting water from the Colorado River capitalized on its fertile soil, perpetual growing season, and nearby railway to turn it into a major food-exporting district. Within a decade investors and immigrants—from Japan, China, the Philippines, Mexico, and later Oklahoma—began to pour into the area, launching a classic California boom, this one in lettuce and other warm-season row crops. The All-American, still the world’s largest irrigation canal, was built in 1930 to bring more water to the southern end of the Salton Sink, where it begins a gravity-fed journey northward through ditches and aquifers and two manmade rivers (the New and the Alamo), watering cantaloupe and cotton fields en route to the saline basin of the artificial Salton Sea, 226 feet below sea level. “WATER IS HERE,” crowed the boosters of the time, a phrase Vollmann repeats in lamentation and irony throughout the transcript of his ten-year exploration of the world this water made possible. Within a few generations irrigation projects led to overproduction, soil salinity problems, and labor exploitation and unrest. The consequences of the boom and slow bust are written all across the physical landscape, from the border fence erected to keep out Mexican workers drawn to the onion fields and date groves to the communal ejido farms south of it that are drying up because of water diversions to San Diego to the maquiladora factories and the narcotraficantes that have become stock figures in representations of the borderlands. As a social and environmental experiment, the Imperial Valley has few rivals even in a state as radically transfigured as twentieth-century California. And though Vollmann surely owes some of his popularity to the public’s impulse to voyeuristically consume the misery of the underclass, the true value of a work like Imperial lies in the way it witnesses and documents the human and environmental consequences of our gritty water history.

boom-2011-1-1-66-ufigure-2Vollmann’s accomplishment lies partly in his documentary depth and extensiveness (his report on the longstanding Chinese community in Mexicali deserves its own book-length treatment), but it is also in the perspective that slowly emerges from his disciplined unwillingness to screen out centrifugal personal histories, literary citations, or historical details in surrender to the requirements of argument and narrative. In the numerous and prominent reviews of Imperial there is a shared note of disappointment at the sheer bagginess of the book, its uncouth manner of repeating itself, revisiting its own toxic history apparently without much regard for the patience of its readers. Our understandable desire to round off the problems Vollmann confronts, even if only in aesthetic terms, can breed irritation not just at the interminability of the prose but at its stubborn refusal to dig deeper into causes and possible solutions. But—and here is the lesson that the new writers on California water are bringing to us—there is nowhere left to dig. We have tapped the accessible aquifers, dammed the available rivers, built the impossible canals, tiled the vast marshlands. There is no Carmel River down the way where we may begin again with our grand mission. Imperial does not tediously attend to the minutiae of raw sewage, pesticides, and border crossing in order to prescribe a solution that will rinse them away and allow us to go back to our legendarily carefree form of utopianism. Its unprecedented feat is rather to forcibly immerse us in the turbid waters of our shared California, present and future. Whatever we do after such a rebaptism, there can be no more evasions of the past.

These new writers on California water have begun to recognize that, for all of its age-old associations with the stream of time’s endless renewal, the purification of the body and the soul, and the mysteries of the unknown, water ultimately speaks to us of the inescapability of history, our unavoidable contamination by the world, and the patient accumulation, somewhere, of all that we have pretended to discard. In the world that Father Serra set in motion for us, water molecules descend like a heavenly host to dissolve, transport, and redeposit the unattended truths of our existence—the flushed pharmaceuticals, bits of rubber tire, heavy metals from border factories, the sweat of migrant workers—and then, evaporated by that storied sun, abandon the desert to us. B

Articles

Listening to Art Laboe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(album cover image property of Original Sound Sales Corporation)

Articles

Undocumented and Unafraid: Tam Tran and Cinthya Felix

Kent Wong
Matias Ramos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Notes

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

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

3. Film, Seattle Underground Railroad, 2007.

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

 

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

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

Articles

Religion by Lottery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

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

Photography/Art

Images from the Central Valley

by Tracy Perkins, Julie Sze
From Boom Spring 2011, Vol. 1, No. 1

Above photo: Earlimart, CA, March 7, 2008: Teresa DeAnda stands on the narrow strip of dirt and road that divides her home from the fields next door. Pesticides regularly drift into her yard. (photograph © Tracy Perkins)

When Californians think of the Central Valley, they often think of its problems: poverty, pesticides, disputes over the allocation of irrigation water, farmworker deaths, and, most recently, a cluster of babies born with birth defects in the small town of Kettleman City. These are some of the ways this region makes the statewide news. But the Central Valley also has a rich history of community organizing and its own stark beauty. These photographs by Tracy Perkins and the oral histories she collected to accompany them document an important aspect of life there: environmental-health problems and the diverse network of advocates who are fighting to solve them.

Practically speaking, the Central Valley is all but invisible to those who live outside it. Over the course of the twentieth century, legislators and growers turned this 500-mile-long stretch of land into one of the most intensively farmed regions in the world, watered by one of the world’s most ambitious irrigation systems. Although California leads the nation in agricultural production, many Californians have little sense of what goes on in the agricultural regions of their state. This invisibility helps to explain why California has located two of the state’s three hazardous-waste landfills and many of its prisons there, while also continuing to allow high levels of toxicity in the air and water.

Nonetheless, the politics of the Central Valley have implications outside the region’s boundaries—as its history shows. From farm families migrating there in search of a haven from the Dust Bowl of the 1930s to César Chávez and the farmworkers’ movement in the 1960s and 1970s, the Central Valley has played an important role in shaping California and the nation. More recently, Central Valley advocates have entered the debate about global warming as part of a statewide coalition that has sued the state on the grounds that its landmark new law, the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, would, ironically, increase air pollution where they live. Under the law’s current implementation plan, new energy plants would likely be built in the Central Valley to phase out older, less efficient, and more polluting energy plants in other parts of the state. New incinerators that burn imported wood debris would also be built to create “renewable energy.” Both types of plants would add to the toxic burden residents already bear from pesticide drift, diesel exhaust, toxic waste, drinking-water pollution, and high air pollution levels. You may be surprised to learn that in 2007 the Environmental Protection Agency listed the small Central Valley town of Arvin, population 16,200, as having the worst smog levels in the US. Arvin continues to be smoggier than Los Angeles. Residents already suffering from asthma and other health problems linked to air pollution are unlikely to welcome new pollution sources. This struggle is surely being watched by other states as they consider their own responses to global warming.

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Tulare County, March 8, 2008: Anhydrous ammonia flows into an unlined irrigation canal. Later it will find its way through a sprinkler system onto the fields. It provides nitrogen to the crops, but also seeps into the groundwater that Central Valley townspeople drink. (photograph © Tracy Perkins)

Nor is this the only national issue in which the Central Valley plays an important role. In the 1990s, advocates pioneered the use of civil-rights law to reduce pollution in communities of color. This strategy was first used as part of a campaign to stop the building of a toxic-waste incinerator in the largely Latino town of Kettleman City, which was already neighbor to the largest hazardous-waste landfill west of the Mississippi River. Civil-rights litigation has since been incorporated into environmental struggles in communities of color across the country. Similarly, between 2008 and 2010 pesticide buffer zones were created in Tulare, Madera, Stanislaus, and Kern Counties. All of these counties banned the aerial spraying of restricted pesticides within a quarter-mile of schools, and three counties protected farm-labor camps and residential areas as well. Environmental and farmworker groups have petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency to create similar buffer zones across the nation, and have recorded 42,000 statements of support for the cause.

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Visalia, November 17, 2007: Tap water samples from small towns in the vicinity of Visalia. Their contents include nitrates from fertilizers and cow manure from the area’s mega-dairies, as well as dibromochloropropane, a pesticide banned in 1977 but still present in groundwater, and arsenic. Some of the water smells like sewage. (photograph © Tracy Perkins)

The region also represents demographic shifts that are important beyond its borders. White people became a minority in the Central Valley long before they did so in the state as a whole. However, the racial makeup of Valley politicians has yet to follow suit. According to Jonathan Fox, a scholar at the University of California, Santa Cruz, many Latino citizens in the Central Valley are not yet voting regularly and large numbers of those eligible to become citizens have not yet done so. If both groups became active voters, they could replace many of the area’s traditionally conservative elected officials with more progressive representatives of their interests and have a hefty impact on state politics.

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Earlimart, March 7, 2008: Josefina Miranda shows her daughter how she protects herself when she works in the fields. When Miranda was four months pregnant with an earlier child, she and her coworkers were sent to work in a field still wet with pesticides. By the time they left, her clothes were so soaked that she could wring the pesticides out of them. She miscarried the next day. (photograph © Tracy Perkins)

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Kettleman City, July 18, 2009 (photograph © Tracy Perkins)

The growing advocacy networks in the Central Valley are key to helping people link their everyday problems to the political process. The pages that follow offer a window into their lives and labor, from an activist for prison reform to a woman whose town was poisoned by pesticide drift to a community leader who helped defeat a proposal to build a toxic-waste incinerator just outside her town. These photographs and stories are taken from “25 Stories from the Central Valley,” a multimedia project that documents the women leaders of the Central Valley environmental justice movement. Visit http://twentyfive.ucdavis.edu for additional photographs, stories, and teaching tools to use in college classrooms.

Debbie Reyes, Fresno Central Valley Coordinator
California Prison Moratorium Project

There were folks that came from all over the state to the Central Valley to discuss the issues. It was pretty empowering for our Valley to have something like that in Fresno, the place that I left many years ago because I thought there was nothing for me— “That place will never change,” you know? I’ve seen a tremendous change from the first year I got back, thirteen years ago to now. Then, the Ku Klux Klan was standing on the corner of a gay pride parade; now, in 2007, we have Rally in the Valley, which is like a peace march. We had the Environmental Justice Network Conference. We’re having the Uncaging the Valley Prisons conference, Black and Brown Unity marchers. And now, here I’m sitting at a table with folks that are working to create change in the state to regulate pesticide spraying in communities. So inside I was going, “Yeah, finally!” It’s taken twenty-five years but here we are.

Teresa DeAnda, Earlimart
Central Valley Coordinator
Californians for Pesticide Reform

Our street was the first street to get evacuated [after the pesticide drifted off the fields and into our neighborhood]. I’d driven to Delano, and when I came back there was a sheriff standing at our gate. It had just gotten dark, and my husband said, “We need to get out, because there’s something happening.” I smelled it a little bit, but I didn’t smell it that strong. But I was still very disturbed. It’s a horrible feeling, getting told you’ve got to get out, that there’s something that you shouldn’t be smelling. I got the kids, and we left in the van. My husband got my blind uncle and my 87-year-old compadre, and then we drove. But I was just so fearful for the people that were staying.

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Wasco, CA. January 30, 2009 (photograph © Tracy Perkins)

Days later, we found out what happened to everybody. I had read the newspaper, but it didn’t mention what happened to the people that Saturday night, November 13, 1999. On Wednesday the UFW [United Farm Workers] had a meeting and they had all the agencies there: the county air commissioner, the fire department, an expert on pesticides, Pesticide Watch. It was just packed with mad, angry people. That night, I found out what had happened when we left.

[When the pesticide drifted over the town] the people who were the sickest, they were told to go to the middle school. And at the middle school they told the men, women, and children to take off their clothes and go down the decontamination line. Keep in mind: these people were vomiting and had burning eyes, just coughing and coughing, and so they were scared to death. They were given no privacy, just two tarps on either side, and they were told to take off their clothes. And the people didn’t want to.

One lady said, “Where’s my rights? Where’s my rights?” They told her, “Listen, you have no rights tonight; you’ve lost your rights.” And so she took off her clothes, and she said that that was the worst feeling in the world, because her kids had never seen her without her clothes, and they could see her. This is indicative of how they did the decon [decontamination]. She took off everything, absolutely everything, but she wouldn’t take off her underwear, so they yanked it off. They yanked off her Nikes, and so there she goes through the decontamination line, which was a fire-department water hose, on a cold November night. A fire-department water hose with a guy standing there holding it. She went through one line and then the other, but they didn’t wet her hair. At the end of the decon line they were supposed to have ambulances waiting, but the ambulances weren’t there yet, so they just gave them little covers and told them to sit on the ground.

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Buttonwillow Park, Jan. 30, 2009 (photograph © Tracy Perkins)

So I’m finding all this stuff out at the meeting. All these mad people are just yelling at the agencies, telling them, “How could you do this to us?” And then they told us what had happened at the hospital. The people did get transported to the hospital. Some went to Tulare Hospital, some went to Porterville Hospital, some went to Delano Hospital. Well, the lady with a lot of kids, she was baby-sitting kids too, they couldn’t take all of her kids to the same place, so they wrote their phone numbers on their stomachs, like they were animals. At the hospitals, they took their information, their names, their number, their address, but they didn’t even triage them. The doctor called poison control, and poison control said, “There’s nothing happening to them, just tell them to go back home but to try not to get re-exposed.” That’s all poison control told them. So they were sent on their way and they were given the clothes that they had been in before they got decontaminated. They just gave them back to them. Didn’t have them cleaned.

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Earlimart, May 7, 2008: Orchards in bloom present a beautiful vision of agriculture in the Valley. At certain times of the year, pesticide applicators are required to notify beekeepers within a one-mile radius of their targeted spraying areas so that hives can be moved away. In most cases, however, human residents receive no such notification. (photograph © Tracy Perkins)

So I started learning more and getting more and more angry. I couldn’t sleep at night, ’cause I was so upset at how it had changed my kids’ health and my health. When I was growing up, my dad had always said, “Trust the government. The government’s never going to lie; the government’s good,” and all that. And I thought, “No, they’re not,” because they really let us down that night, they really, really let us down. So much for trusting the government. I couldn’t sleep at night because it bothered me so much that it happened and that still nothing was being done about the people who had gotten sick. I learned a lot about pesticides. And then at press conferences they would always ask me to speak. Even though I wasn’t one of the victims that got deconned, I was one of the ones speaking all the time. They were calling me for meetings and conferences and stuff to talk about what had happened.

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Kettleman City, July 18, 2009: Alejandro Alvarez touches the image of his daughter, Ashley, one of a cluster of children born with a cleft palette and other birth defects in Kettleman City and neighboring Avenal. Residents fear that the hazardous-waste landfill located between their towns may be causing the birth defects. Alvarez got the tattoo shortly after his daughter died in January 2009, age 10 months. (photograph © Tracy Perkins)

What happened in Earlimart was in November, so by September UFW and us, we had formed El Comité Para el Bienestar de Earlimart [Committee for the Well-Being of Earlimart]. All of the people were victims of the accident. They were all mostly farm workers. Just a couple weren’t. We started having meetings, our own meetings without UFW, still supporting UFW in any press conference they wanted us to, but then we started having our own meetings.

And then in September of 2000 we asked the farmer and the chemical applicator to pay the medical payments for the people that had asthma. It was coming out that people had gotten asthma—didn’t have it before that night in 1999—just like that, from that night, that exposure. And it had gotten in their mucus membrane and then in their lungs. And so they needed long-term treatment. We got Wilbur-Ellis [the company hired by the farm to apply the pesticide] to pay for that.

We had a big press conference, right here at the house. And that was a big victory. The State of California Department of Pesticide Regulation gave Wilbur-Ellis the biggest fine that had ever happened. It’s still peanuts compared to other fines for toxic spills and stuff, but it was the biggest for pesticides. [Note: Pesticide specialists later told the activists from Earlimart that the particular chemical they had been exposed to is activated by water and that they should not have been hosed down as part of the decontamination process.]

Mary Lou Mares, Kettleman City
Organizer, El Pueblo para el Aire y Agua Limpio
(People for Clean Air and Water)

I remember people that lived in town, [where a toxic-waste incinerator was planned], they would say, “Well, Mary Lou, if you don’t like it, why don’t you move out?” Because I like it here; this is my town, this is where I bought my house, and I want to be here. You can’t always just move and go away from the problem and just leave it there; it’s going to follow you. No matter where you go, this kind of stuff is going to follow you, so you might as well stay and fight. Can’t do anything else. You have to. B

Interviews

Talking with Tenants Together

by Sasha Abramsky
From Boom Spring 2011, Vol. 1, No. 1

The journalist Sasha Abramsky talks to Gabe Treves, one of the organizers of Tenants Together, the San Francisco-based advocacy group, about the impact of the foreclosure crisis on rental tenants.

California has always been defined by its bubbles—and almost as much by its busts.

The state was birthed in the Gold Rush as tens of thousands of Americans stampeded west in search of a quick fortune. In the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, dreamers seeking to reinvent themselves and carve out new destinies have flocked into the state by the millions and California has floated on Hollywood money, defense contracts, technology booms, and real-estate speculation.

The corollary of the outlandish boom is the crippling bust. In the 1870s, following a devastating financial crisis, unemployment soared, political discontent escalated, and eventually a constitutional convention was called to rewrite the state’s fundamental operating procedures. California’s “peace dividend” at the end of the Cold War was a mixture of unemployment, social-service cutbacks, and rage, resulting in a populace increasingly hostile to government and unwilling to part with tax dollars to fund social infrastructure. When tech stocks crashed a few years later, the effects ricocheted through Silicon Valley—some of the wealthiest counties in all America. Today, in the wake of the housing collapse that began in 2006 and the financial meltdown that followed in 2008, one in eight Californian workers is unemployed; a similar number are underemployed (working part-time, despite wanting and needing full employment); and property owners by the thousands have gone into foreclosure or simply walked away from underwater mortgages, sometimes devastating whole communities.

Long defined by an anything-is-possible mindset, Californians are having to adjust to the realities of hard times. For generations, real estate in California has offered a route to prosperity; now, for millions of Californians it is an albatross. Five of the ten cities with the highest foreclosure rates in the country are in California: Modesto, Merced, Stockton, Riverside/San Bernardino, and Bakersfield.

And the damage is not limited to homeowners. Increasingly, California’s renters are being hammered. Landlords default on their mortgages and disappear with their tenants’ security deposits; banks reclaim delinquent homes and become absentee landlords; investors buy these properties at auction; and all illegally evict the old tenants. Tenants who have spent years carefully building up good credit find that they have an eviction on their credit report and their ability to borrow money—for example, to buy a home for themselves—disappears.

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Gabe Treves at work (photograph © Sasha Abramsky)

At Tenants Together in San Francisco, fielding calls from desperate renters being evicted as a consequence of a landlord going into foreclosure has become a full-time occupation for the staff.

Sasha Abramsky: Can you tell readers who you are?

Gabe Treves: I’m the program coordinator at Tenants Together. Among the many things I do is manage the foreclosure hotline, which we launched early in 2009. While a lot of attention is given to the plight of homeowners facing foreclosure, for the most part tenants are forgotten victims. However, it turns out that one out of every three foreclosed properties in California is a rental. In 2008, over 200,000 tenants were in foreclosed properties and were facing displacement. We haven’t yet run the numbers for 2009. But we assume it’s right around the same level.

Unfortunately, the reality for most tenants is that once the house they’re living in is foreclosed and the property is acquired by a bank or private investors, they want the tenants out as soon as possible—really by any means necessary. They contact real-estate agents whose job is to get rid of these tenants. They knock on their doors, misinform them, harass them, and bully them into leaving as soon as possible. They succeed in many cases. But the tenants are actually entitled to certain protections under federal law, state law, or in some cases city-level ordinances. Our counselors explain to them what their rights are and how to go about asserting them. The idea is that if tenants know their rights they will be able to stay in their homes for as long as possible and can use that time to find another suitable living situation—or in some cases actually stay in their houses.

SA: How many tenants do you work with?

GT: Since we launched in March 2009 we have counseled over 3,000 tenants.

SA: Where are most of them from?

GT: Well, you know, we get a lot of our calls from San Diego, a lot from Los Angeles—just because it’s such a big county—from parts of the Central Valley being very hard hit by the foreclosure crisis, from the San Jose area. Really from all over the state.

SA: Didn’t Tenants Together work with many people in the desert town of Ridgecrest? What happened in that community?

GT: It’s a great example of how our hotline can help tenants in foreclosure situations. In 2009 we started getting a lot of calls from tenants in Ridgecrest, most living in a handful of apartment complexes in the same couple of streets, all telling the same story. Suddenly, despite paying their rent on time, they learned their home was being foreclosed and they were facing eviction. Ridgecrest is a small city in Kern County, one of the most conservative counties in California. We decided to go down there, talk to the tenants, and find out what was going on. Onsite we were able to identify a few great tenant leaders and help them pressure their city government, the board of supervisors, to pass an ordinance protecting renters. With a lot of hard work and organizing they succeeded; the Ridgecrest City Council passed the Central Valley’s first Just Cause for Eviction ordinance in September 2009. It lists all of the reasons for which tenants can be evicted: if they don’t pay their rent, if they are disruptive, if they do anything illegal on or with the premises. Of course, it does not list foreclosure. This meant that when those properties were acquired by a new owner, the new owner could not evict the tenants. As a result, a huge number of tenants in Ridgecrest are now able to stay in their homes—the new owner has to serve as their landlord.

SA: But many cities in California don’t have these protections.

GT: Unfortunately, only sixteen cities in California have Just-Cause ordinances. That means in most of the state tenants have limited protections. Most are protected by the Protecting Tenants at Foreclosure Act, a federal law passed in May 2009. It was a major victory, but it’s still not as good as the city-level ordinances. It just extends the amount of time tenants can stay in their home after it is foreclosed. In some cases, if the tenants have a long-term lease, then it gives them the right to stay in their homes through the term of the lease.

SA: How has the foreclosure crisis changed California?

GT: What it changes is the way people perceive their sense of stability. A lot of tenants thought they had earned the right to claim that stability, that because they always paid their rent on time and did everything by the book they effectively had the right to their home. The foreclosure crisis has been a really harsh lesson about the illusory nature of that sense of stability. It’s been very demoralizing for a lot of people.

SA: How has it changed people’s behavior?

GT: People are more cautious, less trusting. It’s changed the relationship of many people with their landlords. The crisis, which has displaced so many people, makes a lot of people reflect on their communities. When they get suddenly displaced and are forced to move away, they have to reassess all the things they used to take for granted—the value of living near their jobs, near their schools, things like that. I’ve noticed that poor, working-class tenants have dealt with the situation differently from well-to-do tenants. A lot of poor tenants are resigned to this kind of thing; the foreclosure crisis just reinforces that they don’t have a lot of control and even when they pay their rent on time that doesn’t mean they’ll be able to secure the stability that their families need. A lot of them tell me, “Oh, that’s just the way it is.” They understand that security, stability, well-being are not in their domain, because they’re the working poor.

But a lot of well-to-do tenants, who felt they had earned that right and were entitled to some protections, are learning that they’re not. And that’s been very hard for a lot of people. It creates a lot of anxiety, a lot of mental stress. When that sense of security is violated and the sense of home is damaged or destroyed, it’s going to be very difficult for them to ever really reclaim it.

SA: Are you seeing towns where people are just leaving?

GT: There are whole towns, whole neighborhoods that have been blighted. They’re vacant. When people think about the foreclosure crisis they think about the individual occupant, but it can affect entire communities, businesses. If all the tenants in a community leave, it affects the businesses in that community, the schools, the social services. I’ve gotten calls from tenants: “The house to the left and the house to the right of me have been vacant for months.” They’re getting pushed out too, and they know their home will just join all the other vacant houses sitting on the block.

SA: If you compare what’s happening in California to what’s happening nationally, it looks like California’s bubble was bigger and now the bust is bigger. How is this changing the psyche of California?

GT: It comes back to Californian exceptionalism. I think Californians have always held a belief that if they work hard, do things by the book, they can claim that sense of stability, security, well-being. And now that sense is being deflated for a lot of people. They start feeling like the rest of the country—that they’re not exceptional, that they can just as easily fall victim to these massive national trends and institutions. I hope it helps people realize that their best chance to achieve real security is to pressure their city governments and the state and federal governments to pass more sensible legislation to protect tenants. And I hope that tenants will start holding the banks accountable for what they do and will pressure them to adopt more sensible policies and more humane policies. Because otherwise everyone loses. B

Interviews

Interview with Randall Grahm

by Carolyn de la Peña
From Boom Spring 2011, Vol. 1, No. 1

boom-2011-1-1-20-ufigure-1Carolyn de la Peña of Boom recently sat down with Randall Grahm, proprietor of Bonny Doon Vineyard, to ask him about biodynamic winemaking, his views on California wines and their aficionados, and the past and present of his vineyard. Grahm is author of Been Doon So Long: A Randall Grahm Vinthology, winner of the James Beard Award and the Georges Duboeuf Best Wine Book award. He describes organic winemaking as a wabi-sabi approach to the craft, an approach that embraces imperfection as an essential element of the beautiful and the natural. It is through their flaws, he argues, that wines become haunting, revelatory, and capable of directing our attention to new places and ideas. Bonny Doon’s first biodynamic vintages, grown in San Juan Bautista, will debut in two or three years.

Carolyn de la Peña: When and where did your fixation with wine begin?

Randall Grahm: I grew up in Southern California, in West Los Angeles. When I was twenty years old I had the great fortune to accidentally wander into a wine shop two blocks from my parents’ house. The first thing they asked me was, “Would you like to open a charge account?” And I said, “Absolutely, yes, thank you very much.” My calculation was that I would never be able to afford to drink great wines on a regular basis and if I wanted to experience those kinds of wines pretty much all the time, I would have to learn how to make them myself.

CDLP: What do you think of California wines?

RG: In the New World and anywhere else where wine is studied as a science, what we study is how to control the process, and we’re very much in the realm of “wines of effort,” stylized wines. This has been the strength of the New World, our consistency, our reliability. We don’t have clunker vintages; we don’t have clunker wines. That’s the upside. The downside, however, is that because everything we do is so controlled, we also don’t have the radical, revelatory surprises. We seldom astonish ourselves.

CDLP: You sound like you’re bored with California wines—were they ever astonishing?

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Randall Grahm swirls the wine at Bonny Doon (photograph © Louis Warren)

RG: I don’t know if California wines were ever astonishing, but at one point they were certainly more soulful, more impressive, but perhaps in a quieter way. Right now the wine business is deformed by financial considerations, everything is so corporate; everything is business, everything has to work financially, so that there is an enormous self-consciousness about what one does and this leads to a great conservatism in winemaking style, real aversion to risk-taking. In the old days no one had the expectation of making tons of money in the wine business. You did it just because you loved it. Land was not crazy expensive, and if you didn’t sell your wine one year you’d sell it the next. Winemakers would say back then, “If nobody buys the wine, fuck ’em; I’ll drink it myself.” Nobody says that anymore. Nobody dares do anything without talking to a consultant, and the consultants have consultants. There’s really no room for mistakes or even for experimentation. I think that leads to a sort of homogeneity of product and not to real breathtaking originality.

I don’t think you can make great wine and also do it as a business. I think it has to be a kind of calling, or a subsidized activity.

CDLP: What do you mean when you say that California wines have a “meaning deficit”?

RG: They don’t come from a place; they’re Stepford wines, if you will. They’re technically perfect but there’s nobody home, in the sense that they’re not coming from somewhere discernible.

I think the more personally connected a winemaker is to his or her wine, the more interesting it is. I’m not the only person who’s said this, but God save us from technically perfect wines. I do sincerely prefer slightly flawed wines. Not grossly flawed wines, but wines that are not quite perfect.

Most California wines you can like but not love. They’re not what I would call haunting; they don’t have this deep, infinitely changing, infinitely multifaceted aspect, which I think only comes from the intelligence of nature. If everything is controlled, there’s no room for nature to insert her qualities.

CDLP: Doesn’t nature, in California, just want to give us bad wine? Why should we trust her?

RG: The paradox is that in California staying within the realm of the safe, staying within the realm of the controlled, generally gives you excellent results. So it’s a little bit irrational to try to pursue more “natural” wines. As much as you esteem them—and I do—the path is fraught with danger because the supposition is that you’re going to have the wit to discover an appropriate terroir and you’re going to have the further wit to discover what are the appropriate grapes and root stocks and spacing and trellis system and irrigation strategy and vine orientation and that you’re going to discover this all within a relatively short lifetime, which is dwindling away even as we speak. Are unadorned wines going to be greater? I don’t know. I’ve just reached a point in my life where I don’t have the same need to please people that I once had. But I do have to please myself absolutely.

CDLP: Is it possible to produce good California wine in a way that is ecologically sustainable?

RG: It’d be nice if there were a little more rainfall in the summer; that would really go a long way. As a biodynamic practitioner you really don’t want to import anything from off the site if you can avoid it. Sometimes you have to bring in some specialized biodynamic preps that are just too hard or too tedious to make yourself. But you don’t want to be importing fertilizers or soil amendments in any substantive way. If you’re making any changes to the soil you want it to be done in this very gentle, gradual way, and you’re really doing that through the compost. So your initial choice of a site is very important if you want it to be self-sustaining. And there aren’t that many places in California where everything’s pretty much balanced to start with.

CDLP: What do you mean by saying we need “revelatory” wines in California—and why do they have to be biodynamic?

RG: Well, we always need revelation—about all things. I don’t think biodynamic practice will necessarily lead to the production of wines expressive of terroir—everything else, from the selection of the site to farming practice, has to conduce to that. But it is a powerful methodology that explicitly addresses the question of the individuation or originality of a particular site. When I say “revelatory” wines, I’m talking about wines that will begin to change our vocabulary, the language that we use about quality in wine. I want the language to move in the direction of a discussion of the life force of the wine, the vitality of the wine, not simply in the current parlance: the wine’s voluptuousness or its hedonistic aspects. Rather, does the wine have the ability to age? Does the wine have the ability to change and evolve? Is it going to live for twenty or thirty years? And is the wine wholesome? This is a really dicey area, but wine should not only taste good, it should make you feel good. It should make you feel good while you’re tasting it, and it should make you feel good the next day after you’ve drunk it.

CDLP: Even if you can produce these new wines, the price tag will be well beyond what most typical consumers are used to paying now. Why will they buy Bonny Doon?

RG: Many wine consumers think wine comes out of a wine store and food comes out of a grocery store. When you visit the place where the wine is made or food is grown, you understand it in a different way. I think Napa Valley’s reputation kind of trivializes that. People think, “Oh, yeah, wine country, the place where they’ve got all those spas and restaurants, that’s where wine comes from.” I would love to see a consumer who comes out to look at my vineyard and says, “How come there aren’t any pipes out here for irrigation? And those vines—they look a little different from those other vines. They’re head-trained and they’re kind of close to the ground and they’re kind of small and they’re kind of scraggly. I wonder if that has any relation to how the wine tastes?” Just going into a cave and feeling the physical presence of a cave and how friggin’ cold it is and looking at how the wine is made—this makes an impression that you could never learn from a book or a magazine article. If I could educate people onsite as to what makes my wine different from 98 percent of the wines in California, that would go a long way toward their understanding why it might cost fifty or sixty bucks. Just simply tasting it I don’t think is quite enough to get why it’s distinctive.

Ultimately, you want the vinous equivalent of farmers’ markets; you want to reach people who go to them and who also love wine. The problem is that normally these are two different populations. You’ve got people who buy organic because they’re ideologically committed to organic produce and then you’ve got people who buy stuff just because they like the way it tastes. And these two have not yet merged. If you tell the average wine consumer that the wine is organic or biodynamic, they’ll generally run top speed in the opposite direction. They don’t want wines that are organic; they don’t want wines that are biodynamic. That means funky. That means weird. They want wines that are perfect, or at least wines that won’t embarrass them when guests come to dinner.

CDLP: But didn’t you help create this consumer aversion to biodynamic, slightly flawed and “revelatory” wines in the first place?

RG: I’ve always tried to make wines that were “pleasing,” fruity, maybe not so obviously challenging. And maybe I’ve been more focused on the exterior of the package—the clever labels and marketing. I’m not exactly ashamed, but slightly chagrined by having been such a slick marketer, producing wines that were essentially commodity wines. They were confectionary wines. I’m not saying that they were better or worse than anything else in California, but I wish I hadn’t done it for quite as long as I did. These were perfectly reasonable wines but there was nothing original about them, there was nothing natural about them, and there was nothing necessary about them. The world didn’t need any of these wines. I truly think that original wines—wines that scratch the sense of place—make the world richer. I think they add to the ecological complexity of the world and are therefore worthwhile. It’s like a new species, a new bird or butterfly. The world is better for it. B

Articles

California Sueños

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Articles

The Antidote to the Trope State

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

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

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

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

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

Articles

Subduction Zone

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

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

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

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

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