Tag: Art

Articles

Our Lady of La Vang

Thien-Huong T. Ninh

Every two years, more than 200,000 pilgrims make their way to La Vang, a poor farming village in central Vietnam. They come from the around the world to pay homage to the Virgin Mary, whose apparition visited the village in 1798 and gave comfort to persecuted Catholics. From Vietnamese American Catholics to Thai Buddhists, they come seeking her blessings, solace, and comfort.

“She is not just the mother of Catholics in Vietnam but also anyone who comes and prays to her,” an Indonesian Protestant once told me during a visit to La Vang. His comment echoed the feelings of many who made the long, arduous journey to the Minor Basilica of Our Lady of La Vang. Although the Vatican has not recognized the historical apparition, Our Lady of La Vang has become a global religious and spiritual symbol.

Over the course of a few days, pilgrims pray to a large statue of Our Lady of La Vang holding a figure of the baby Jesus. She stands under three large banyan trees, adjacent to an old church building, wearing traditional Vietnamese attire composed of an áo dài and a crescent-shaped headpiece. With her black hair, dark eyes, and porcelain skin, she reflects an ideal image of beauty in Vietnamese society.

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This Vietnamese representation of Our Lady of La Vang can now be found wherever Vietnamese people have emigrated, including: Japan, Taiwan, Canada, France, Australia, and the United States. This Vietnamization of the Virgin is a recent development. Until 1998, statues of Our Lady of La Vang were modeled on French representations of another Virgin Mary figure, Our Lady of Victories. But the new Our Lady of La Vang did not come from Vietnam. She came from Orange County, California.

Vietnamese Americans represent the largest Asian American Catholic group in Orange County. In 2010, there were nearly 70,000 Vietnamese Catholics in the region, according to the secretary of the Bishop of Orange. They constitute the largest Asian Catholic group in Orange County. The community has been growing since the fall of Saigon in 1975, when the first large wave of 125,000 Vietnamese refugees arrived in the United States.[1] Many Vietnamese chose to resettle in Orange County due to its warmer climate, employment opportunities, and close proximity to Camp Pendleton, where many Vietnamese refugees first arrived.

As Vietnamese Catholics struggled to rebuild their lives in the United States, many sought comfort from the Virgin Mary. In 1978, more than 1,500 Vietnamese Catholics across the country attended the largest Feast of Assumption celebration in Carthage, Missouri, during a blazing hot August.[2] The multiday pilgrimage became known as “Marian Day,” attracting mostly Vietnamese of different religious backgrounds from throughout the world. In Carthage, pilgrims worshipped a statue of Our Lady of Fatima and one of Our Lady of Peace (Đức Mẹ Nữ Vương Hòa Bình). For many Vietnamese Catholics, the statues symbolize miracles but also have strong anticommunist connotations.

Like the original Our Lady of La Vang, the statues of Our Lady of Fatima and Our Lady of Peace depicted the Virgin Mary with European features. European images of the Virgin Mary had long been the norm in Vietnamese Catholicism.

Then in the 1990s, when multiculturalism was being promoted by the Catholic Church in the United States, the bishop of Orange County permitted Vietnamese Americans to create a Vietnamese statue of the Virgin Mary. In 1994, this image, known as Our Lady of Vietnam, was completed and placed at the entrance to the Vietnamese Catholic Center in Santa Ana. Our Lady of Vietnam joined a growing collection of ethnic representations of the Virgin Mary in Orange County, including Our Lady of Guadalupe, a Korean Virgin Mary, and Our Lady of Czestochowa from Poland.

Created by sculptor Van Nhan, the white statue represents the Virgin Mary dressed in the Vietnamese national costume. She holds the baby Jesus in front of her with both hands, “as if she wants to hand her most beloved child to Vietnamese people in order to save them and their race,” according to the Vietnamese Catholic Center. She represents the “peace and tranquility” that Vietnamese American faithful seek as they adapt to life in a new country.

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Our Lady of Vietnam also reflects Vietnamese American Catholics’ connections to coreligionists in Vietnam during a time in which the country was isolated from the United States after the Vietnam War. She stands on a grotto in the shape of an S that depicts Vietnam and its mountainous ridges. The Vietnamese Catholic Center explains that this representation of the Virgin Mary “guides the spirit of Vietnamese people to return to their homeland roots” and to pray for their coreligionists who are suffering under communism. This is another reason she is referred to as Our Lady of Peace.

In 1995—three years before the two-hundredth anniversary of the apparition of Our Lady of La Vang—the United States reestablished diplomatic ties with Vietnam. This timing helped to revive interests among Vietnamese American Catholics to reconnect to their homeland. In an article published in 1996, Vietnamese Americans were urged to visit the Our Lady of La Vang in Vietnam: “Now is the time for overseas Vietnamese Catholics to be spiritually united and connected with the Catholic Church in the homeland. This is our affirmation that, despite being far away from the homeland, we will never forget our spirituality as a Vietnamese faithful and a citizen of a country and a peoplehood.”[3]

Our Lady of La Vang became Vietnamized through collaborations and agreements that reached across the Pacific. Clergy from Vietnam had seen the Our Lady of Vietnam statue during a visit to Orange County following the US-Vietnam normalization. They were impressed by Vietnamese Americans’ commitment to the well-being of Catholics in Vietnam, and their commitment to the preservation of Vietnamese Catholic culture and history despite decades of separation from their homeland. As a result of the trip, the visiting Vietnamese clergy commissioned Nhan Van, creator of Our Lady of Vietnam, to create another Our Lady of La Vang for the anniversary of her apparition.

Pope John Paul II blessed this Vietnamese Our Lady of La Vang statue in Rome on 1 July 1998. He also proclaimed Our Lady of La Vang the patroness of the Catholic Church of Vietnam. Although this religious honor did not officially recognize the apparition of Our Lady of La Vang, it was a source of inspiration for Vietnamese Catholics throughout the world. For the first time in history, a Vietnamese icon of the Catholic faith was officially introduced to the global Catholic community. On 13 August 1998, two hundred years after the apparition, more than 200,000 attendees gathered in La Vang to worship Our Lady of La Vang as represented by a Vietnamese woman.

Since her transformation, there have been several visual reinterpretations of Our Lady of La Vang to represent the unique faith and experiences of Vietnamese Catholics. In La Vang, in 2002, the Vietnamese Our Lady of La Vang was replaced with a new version wearing a headdress decorated with twelve stars. Although some believe that the stars are an allusion to the twelve apostles of Jesus, Vietnamese Catholics abroad have interpreted them as the stars that Vietnamese refugees used to guide themselves to their new homes. In the National Shrine of Our Lady of La Vang in Washington, D.C., completed in 2005, stars are used as a decorative motif throughout the sanctuary as reminders of the Vietnamese diaspora.

Today, statues of the Vietnamese Our Lady of La Vang are popular diplomatic gifts often exchanged between Vietnamese Catholic communities in different countries. In 2002, Pope John Paul II blessed six statues of Our Lady of La Vang in Rome and gave them to Catholics in Orange County, who were responsible for distributing them to representatives of six different continents. Through the Vietnamese representation of Our Lady of La Vang, Vietnamese Catholics throughout the world have become reconnected to each other and have transformed the face of the Catholic Church in their image. In 2010, a stone engraved with the phrase Cộng Đồng Hải Ngoại (Overseas Diocese) was placed at the Our Lady of La Vang Pilgrimage Center during the start of the Holy Year. It recognizes the Vietnamese Catholic diaspora as the twenty-seventh diocese of the Catholic Church in Vietnam.

The growing global popularity of Our Lady of La Vang has spurred the construction of a number of parishes named after her outside of Vietnam, including two in California. These transnational ties are not simply nostalgia for the homeland but an effort among Vietnamese Catholics to heal the wounds of war and displacement. The Vietnamese Our Lady of La Vang represents re-connection among Vietnamese Catholics in the diaspora and the homeland after decades of separation.

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Notes

[1] Min Zhou and Carl I. Bankston, Growing Up American (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1998), 29.

[2] Peter Phan, “Mary in Vietnamese Piety and Theology: A Contemporary Perspective,” Ephemerides Mariologicae 51 (2005): 457–472.

[3] Van G. Bui, “Huong Ve La Vang” [Toward La Vang], Ky Niem 12 Nam Thanh Lap Cong Doan La Vang [12 Year Anniversary of the Establishment of the La Vang Community] (Orange County, CA), 13.


Thien-Huong T. Ninh
is an assistant sociology professor at Consumnes River College and a scholar with research interests in race, gender, religion, and in immigration, particularly forced displacement as in the case of refugees. She is the author of Race, Gender, and Religion in the Diaspora: Ethnic Vietnamese in the U.S. and Cambodia (Palgrave Macmilllan).

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

ArticlesPhotography/Art

Tattoo

NHM Tattoo-Pano 1

Sydney Santana
Jason S. Sexton

Californians need to find ways to mark their identity. This stands true for newcomers and longtime residents, in spite of the amnesia that often befalls ordinary California life. When lines traced from the past prove insufficient for cultivating this, Californians sketch the way forward with the tools available. Very few of these tools are from here, and yet they readily find their way in the regular use of Californians who aim to be themselves, charting new courses, transmogrifying into new narratives they start to see.

This is the story of tattoos in California, and the roles they’ve played in the lives of many. They didn’t start here, but originated with Oceanic and Asianic cultures, especially the Japanese, gamely reaching the California shores from the Pacific world. Various world cultures have long marked bodies with scarring, piercings, and other features meant to enhance the skin’s rich historical and cultural context.[1] From the ancient world to today, tattoos canvassed the body with information: denoting rank, status, meaning, replacing the natural with new data, displaying and communicating an ongoing openness to fresh, transformative possibilities. Artists ink this information onto bodies, like painting on a canvas, or a mural.

The mid-twentieth century saw a cultural development in California during and after World War II and the Korean War, where the relaxed “California lifestyle” provided a fitting environment for what would soon emerge. It was carried by figures like Sailor Jerry, Ed Hardy, Cliff Raven, and Freddy Negrete.[2] Perhaps the only place capable of integrating, nurturing, and disseminating the phenomena so quickly, California was “the global center of the Tattoo Renaissance.”[3]

It makes sense, then, for our reflections to finally be grounded in Los Angeles, where cultural objects and modalities are “rife with contradiction, conflating artificiality and authenticity.”[4] We leave to our readers and those who interact with and experience the Natural History Museum’s exhibition, “Tattoo,” to determine which bits of this new tattoo culture—especially in California but also beyond—reflect the artificial projection or the genuine reality, the stories of the past and future to live into, both of the artists and those inked. Marking identity in California has never been a simple task, but with the power to make bodies into new texts in a moment, tattoo culture remains one of the truest California things happening.

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“Early in the 20th century Chinese tattoos imitated American, European, and Japanese designs. More recently, Chinese and Taiwanese tattoos are integrating traditional Chinese imagery—the Buddha, lion, and dragon, which are all important cultural symbols.”

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Left: Charlie Wagner, from the series “Homage to Tattooing Icons,” Switzerland, 1990, Acrylic paint on canvas, Artist: Titine K-Leu (b. 1968). Right: Anna “Artoria Gibbons, from the series, “Homage to Tattooing Icons,” Switzerland, 1990, Acrylic paint on canvas, Artist: Titine K-Leu (b. 1968).

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“Before there were shops offering black-and-gray tattoos, many tattooers in East L.A. worked out of their kitchens and garages. A homemade tattoo machine, some batteries wrapped in white paper, stencils, black Higgins ink, cigarettes, artistic ability, and a willing friend was often all it took to get started.”

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Left: Clay Jar, Casas Grandes, Chihuahua, Mexico, 1200-1450 CE, Ceramic. Right: Clay Figurine (possibly Mayan), Mexico, Date unknown, Terracotta.

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Left: Flash sheet (eagle and serpent), Long Beach, California, USA, Circa 1950, Reproduction of color drawing, Artist: Lee Roy Minugh (b. unknown). Right: Flash sheet (roses), Long Beach, California, USA, Circa 1950, Reproduction of color drawing, Artist: Lee Roy Minugh (b. unknown).

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Smile now, Cry later, Los Angeles, California, USA, Late 20th c., Drawing on paper, Artist: Freddy Negrete (b. 1956).

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Shamrock Social Club, Sunset Blvd, West Hollywood.

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Freddy Negrete, Shamrock Social Club.

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Isaiah Negrete, Shamrock Social Club.

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Freddy Negrete, Shamrock Social Club.

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Isaiah Negrete, Shamrock Social Club.

 

Notes

[1] See Nina G. Jablonski, Skin: A Natural History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013).

[2] See Jason S. Sexton, “Black-and-Gray Realism,” Los Angeles Review of Books, 20 July, 2017, https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/black-and-gray-realism/.

[3] Arnold Rubin, “The Tattoo Renaissance, in Marks of Civilization: Artistic Transformations of the Human Body, ed.  Arnold Rubin (Los Angeles: Museum of Cultural History, UCLA), 236-41. See also,

[4] David L. Ulin, Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles (Oakland: University of California Press, 2015), 83.

Tattoo is an exhibition on display at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County until 15 April 2018. With ongoing special events related to the exhibit, the exhibit may be seen daily from 9:30 a.m. – 5 p.m.

 

Sydney Santana is Photographer in Residence (2018-2019) at Boom California. Follow her on Instagram @sydney_santana or on her website, http://www.sydney-santana.com/.

Jason S. Sexton is the Editor of Boom.

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

Articles

A Traveler Comes to a Bridge

Waldie-5a

D. J. Waldie

You are looking west from the white bluff of Boyle Heights, to opposite bluffs, backlit by an autumn sunset, mid-October 1877.[1] A panorama of green shadow—grape vines and fruit trees in apple-pie order—fills the valley below, tessellated by farm roads and a rail line that binds the right bank of the river to its left and Los Angeles only recently to the rest of America.[2] Northwest of the bluffs, between the mesa of East Los Angeles and the lip of Reservoir Ravine, thick with white sage and thyme, a ridge of the Santa Monica Mountains that rises behind the city is split by a gap. The Los Angeles River runs through it. Sycamores and laurels step down to the stream. Willows and tule reeds touch the water. Herons wade for fingerling trout and toads that will one day give Frogtown its nickname.

South of here, the Los Angeles River is slower, wider, braiding, making and unmaking gravel islands, and wandering into and out of orchards and vineyards and finally out of anyone’s caring. There is no Fourth Street descending from the heights to the east bank of the river with its own orchards and rows of vines. There is no Fourth Street Bridge across the river.

The falling afternoon light strikes the cupola opposite of the new high school on Fort Moore Hill.[3] It strikes the cross on the new Cathedral of Saint Vibiana and the tower of the county courthouse. The valley is filling with night. The city’s 136 gas streetlights are being lit.[4] Still in sight are the three bridges that finger across the river: a railroad trestle northward, and southward the Aliso Street Bridge. Between them, a slab sided, pitch roofed, wooden bridge, lit with kerosene lamps, stolidly crosses at the river’s narrowest point. No one calls it the Macy Street Bridge. It is just the “covered bridge.”[5]

From the crest of Boyle Heights all of this is visible—bridges, ridge, river, roads—even the loom of Catalina Island, like a band of fog on the southern horizon. It is near the end of that time when all of Los Angeles can be taken in one long glance.


February 16, 1887, looking south
from the trestle of the Southern Pacific Railroad, every river crossing, except for the covered bridge at Macy Street, has been damaged by yesterday’s storm. Part of the trestle fell during the night. A stone bulwark, put up last year, collapsed. The trestle of the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Valley Railroad stands, but a hundred feet of its western approach washed away. The eastern end of the Downey Avenue bridge went into “a howling chasm” when the riverbank was undermined. A thousand feet of levee further south is gone. The foot of the Aliso Street Bridge disappeared, a hundred feet of streetcar track, “still attached to the western stump of the…  bridge, trails disconsolately down the river.” Gaps, with the river running through, separate the western and eastern ends of the First Street Bridge from solid ground. Without all of its bridges, western Los Angeles is nearly cut off. Although the storm passed this morning, at 4:30 a.m. the “hoarse roar of the river, audible all over the city,” continued to frighten residents.[6]

They had good reason to be frightened. The river had flooded in winters of 1782, 1811, 1814, 1825, 1851, and 1861. After the flood of 1867-1868, water lay over the Cahuenga Valley for weeks, with the hills of west Los Angeles like islands in a sea. Flooding in 1876, 1884, and 1886 (with several deaths) began the river’s channelization that will try to confine it to an “official bed” (which is only some lines drawn on a map).[7]

The river will flood again in 1891, 1898, 1914, 1917, 1921, 1924, 1927, and 1934 (killing 40 in La Cañada). It will flood catastrophically in 1938 (killing forty-five in Los Angeles alone). Even after 1938, when concreting the channel begins, portions of the Los Angeles River will flood in 1943, 1956, 1969, 1978, 1980, 1983, and 1995 (eventually killing a total of twelve in all).

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Ruined railroad bridge shows the result of flooding along the Los Angeles River in 1914. Phot courtesy of the Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library, 1914.


December 4, 1891, looking north
from the First Street Bridge, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times pauses in his streetcar tour of Los Angeles.[8] Above him is Boyle Heights, “on a high mesa which terminates in a bluff, at the foot of which the river formerly ran.” This, he tells his readers, is the city’s most “airy and healthy residence section.” Elevation, he says, is important from “a hygienic point of view.”

An elevated point of view is important because of the persistent flooding of the Los Angeles River, something the reporter leaves out of his description. The heights are doubly “hygienic” because their uneasy residents are safely across the river from the tenements of Sonoratown and Chinatown, and the immigrant Italian and Russian neighborhoods around the old plaza.

The reporter has one regret as his tour of the city ends (and he will not be the last to feel it). “Much of Los Angeles is almost a terra incognita to many of our residents, in spite of the fact that rapid and frequent transit has to a great extent annihilated distance.” The reporter takes a last look at Boyle Heights. “The large brick building on the crest of the bluff, which is almost as prominent a landmark as the high school and the courthouse, is the Catholic orphan asylum. The rays of the setting sun cause the gilt cross on its summit to shine out like the evening star.”


January 12, 1905, looking east
from the newly built Fourth Street Viaduct, the members of the city council’s bridge committee (here to approve the work) can see the trees of Prospect Place and the houses along the crest of Boyle Heights. At their feet is acreage to be developed, now that the carriageway of the new viaduct connects the heights to the downtown business district.

It had taken ten years of political pressure by Isaac Van Nuys, Moses Sherman, James Lankershim, William Workman, and other men with a stake in real estate to engineer the transformation of this acreage into house lots and storefronts. Workman, former mayor and now city treasurer, had reminded the members of the bridge committee that the river lacked a vehicle and pedestrian crossing between First and Seventh Streets, a distance of a mile, and those who live in Boyle Heights and beyond “were of necessity greatly inconvenienced.” The lack of a bridge greatly inconvenienced Workman. The profitable development of his fifty-five acres of floodplain below Boyle Heights depended on building the Fourth Street Viaduct. Workman depended on the sale of lots to wipe out years of debt.

It had taken some weeks of city council politics to get construction of the viaduct started. The sale of municipal bonds in 1903 had raised $100,000, which was not enough to repair old bridges and build a new one. The city engineer advised city councilmen to spend the bond revenue on repairs. He was skeptical of the proposed Fourth Street Viaduct. “It winds around like a snake, and I doubt if it would be satisfactory if finished,” he complained. The councilmen traded votes, cut appropriations for the promised bridge repairs, and the city engineer was overruled.

5 Sinuous Geometry

The sinuous geometry of the Fourth Street Viaduct, required to connect the offset ends of Fourth Street in the Arts District and Boyle Heights, was labeled “basically intolerable” by the Federal Highway Administration’s National Bridge Inventory in 2014. The Fourth Street Viaduct over the Los Angeles River was built in 1930-1931 with seismic retrofitting in 1998 that gave the structure improved lateral stability. Image courtesy of Library of Congress, Historic American Engineering Record Fourth Street Viaduct, HAER No. CA-28.

It had taken the J. D. Mercereau Company seven months to build the viaduct. The footings of the western end lay at Santa Fe Street, followed by 200 feet of wood trestle connecting to five wood and steel spans over the railroad tracks on the west bank and 300 feet of steel truss to cross the river, plus another 500 feet of wood trestle over more tracks to reach the edge of Boyle Heights where Workman’s acreage waited to be developed.

The new Fourth Street Viaduct is 2,000 feet long. It has a six-foot-wide footpath for pedestrians who now have slightly more than a mile walk from Boyle Heights to reach the freight depots, warehouses, and factories that crowd the western bank of the river. The viaduct has a twenty-foot-wide carriageway for farm wagons and shays, and increasingly also for motorcars.[9] The Tourist, the first automobile to be manufactured in Los Angeles,[10] is the most popular; 2,692 will be built between 1902 and 1910. The new bridge across the river is paralleled a few feet away by its twin—the Los Angeles Traction Company’s steel trusses erected in 1898. The spindly supports and thin girders of the two bridges—emblems of an unpretentious, readymade aesthetic—will soon be described as ugly.

Beneath the tracery of wood and steel beams, the river sprawls. Dry most of the year, the riverbed is a tumult of sand ridges and gravel flats, some of them mined to make concrete for the tall buildings that have begun to crowd Broadway. At the foot of Boyle Heights, the bed of the river is a dump where the city’s garbage and its trash are hauled, some of it to be set afire, the rest to be raked through by the hogs that belong to a Mr. Clemmons. He sells the hogs to the city’s abattoirs. The city’s butchers sell the pork as “the finest corn-fed.”[11]


A traveler comes to a bridge.
As the traveler starts to cross, one foot is still earth bound. Empty space is beneath the other. The next step requires trust. The traveler is uplifted less by concrete or masonry and more by forces kept in balance with the void waiting below. The bridge seems static, but every footfall must be absorbed, its effects distributed by tension or resisted by compression. The bridge responds. Its span springs to the traveler’s step in order to seem unmoved.

The traveler is unimpressed by the daring that manages hidden forces to make it possible to walk above the earth. The traveler prefers to see a sculptural gesture, a vault from known to unknown, and a hope. But a bridge also marks faithfulness and a constraint. Mid-stride, the traveler cannot veer off the bridge to wander along the green bank of the river passing under. The traveler cannot choose a new path of desire. No meanderings on a bridge. The traveler can only depart from one commonplace and return to another—mid-span, exposed at the space in between. There is no refuge on a bridge. A fleeing traveler can only run back to what was left or run toward whatever is ahead.

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The traveler pauses, leans against the parapet, and takes in the elevated view. A bridge affords perspective but also detachment. What happens under the bridge happens without the traveler’s intervention. Water flows or trains pass or cars make their way below. Above, the traveler is more than suspended. Daydreams of flight await on a bridge. So do nightmares of vertigo, of falling, and of suicide. The bridge itself is vulnerable if the balanced forces that keep it standing shift. Every bridge is uneasy. If a bridge falls, what seemed a trivial gap becomes a barrier again, and the landscape the bridge assembled disconnects. Overcome a bridge, and communities at either end are estranged. A bridge is a promise that a broken world can be whole.

(Although every bridge inevitably goes somewhere, not every bridge is necessary. Mere connection is not sufficient reason to build a bridge. Sometimes separation is better.)

The traveler knows only the upper half of a bridge. Unlike most structures, bridges have an above and a below that are intimately joined, but separate, places. Rising from its piers is a different bridge, secretly and elegantly utilitarian. The footloose traveler could abandon the bridge’s flow and settle underneath with others who have given up progress toward the destination imposed on those overhead. Instead of support, the poetic interconnection of uprights, struts, and parabolas arching overhead—beauty more legible to the homeless and the urban forager—could be shelter. The traveler could exchange a vista on top of the bridge for an encampment under it.

Instead, the attractive force of the opposite end of the bridge—its constant offer of novelty—leads the traveler on a contradictory path, perpendicular to the events and possibilities under the traveler’s feet. The bridge has taken the traveler to a phenomenological encounter only to take the traveler from it.


The public demands a harmonious and graceful design,
Louis Huot tells readers of Architect and Engineer magazine.[12] Huot is a member of the city’s Department of Public Works under Chief Engineer of Bridges Merrill Butler. (Butler will oversee the engineering of six river crossings between 1924 and 1932. Huot will design the ornamental features for most of them.)[13] The only public that Huot finds demanding are the five appointed members of the city’s Municipal Art Commission. The commissioners’ goal is “to work for the gradual elimination of ugliness,”[14] and the humble wood trestles and girder trusses over the Los Angeles River are “about as ugly as they can be.”[15]

The commissioners feel that a better Los Angeles can be evoked through civic architecture in the classical style. City Engineer John A. Griffin agrees. The character of these bridges “will be such as to excite comment from visitors who enter and leave Los Angeles,” Griffin tells the city council in 1923. They will “raise the status of Los Angeles as an enterprising, properly developed city.”[16]

It is an extraordinary epoch, defined by bridges. The Los Angeles Times, the Automobile Club of Southern California, and the railroads persuaded voters (many of them new motorists) that replacing narrow trestles and truss bridges would relieve traffic congestion and give the city monuments to its ambitions. With new bonds approved, eleven improved river crossings are built: Ninth Street in 1925, Macy Street and Franklin Avenue in 1926, Fletcher Drive in 1927, Fourth Street over Lorena Street and North Spring Street in 1928, Glendale-Hyperion in 1929, and now the Fourth Street river crossing, begun in 1930 and finished two months ahead of schedule. (Still to come are bridges at Washington Boulevard in 1931, Sixth Street in 1932, Figueroa Street in 1937, and Riverside Drive in 1938.)

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These improvements are made for an accelerating regime of speed. “These bridges, especially over a stream of this character, should seem as little like bridges… and as much as possible like improved bits of street,” landscape architect Charles Mulford Robinson had told the city council.[17] A bridge should be “conformable to the automobile which it carries across the chasm,” according to Huot.[18] They are horizontal monuments for a horizontal city.

The material of ambition—of monumentality and liberated movement—is the steel-reinforced concrete of the arches that supports the bridge decks and in the pylons, parapets, light standards, brackets, and balusters that decorate their roadways. Mixed on site, the concrete is poured into temporary wooden forms over supporting wood framing called falsework. Smoothed, the concrete will look like well-finished limestone. In less visible parts, after the concrete has set, the impression of the forms will be left as they are. Parallel ridges the length of individual boards and the knots and grain in the wood will still be visible, a permanent shadow.

Huot’s design vocabulary comes from imperial Rome, Renaissance Italy and Spain, and the Paris of Louis Napoleon. Nearly all the new bridges are variations on the classical tradition, except for the Fourth Street Viaduct, where the design is Gothic Revival.[19]

Wooden forms (in any shape a carpenter can fit together), poured concrete, and the conservative aesthetics of the Municipal Art Commission have made monuments of desire out of utilitarian bridges over the city’s problematic river.


What nature divided has been brought together,
David Faries of the Los Angeles Traffic Association tells the women of the Hollenbeck Ebell Club, who are waiting on the new Fourth Street Viaduct for speeches about progress to end. A locomotive whistle interrupts. The Playgrounds Department band waits to play “Sidewalks of New York” with its refrain about “east side, west side, all around the town.” Officials from the three railroads that pass under the approaches to the bridge are next to speak, happy now that the last wood and girder viaduct over their tracks is gone. Celebratory banners hang from the catenary wires that carry the electrical grid powering the streetcars that share the viaduct with pedestrians and motorists. Dedication day—Thursday, July 30, 1931—is overcast and hot.[20]

Nature’s divide, for Faries, refers to the Los Angeles River, bracketed with earthen levees but not yet bound in concrete, hummocked with sand mounds, dusty most of every year but prone to sudden flooding, and no longer a city dump.

The river is the least of the bridge’s concerns. Most of the 2,700-foot length of elevated viaduct from Molino Street to Anderson Street at the foot of Boyle Heights crosses two industrial roadways and a braid of rail lines connected to repair shops, freight yards, and passenger terminals. The bridge itself, supported on graceful, open spandrel arches that leave the west bank of the river to touch down at what had been William Workman’s fifty-five acres, is only 254 feet long. Just as the city engineer in 1903 had warned, the new viaduct snakes through a tangled section of riverside street grid, splits in two at its western end (anticipating street alignments that will not happen), and bends as it reaches the foot of Boyle Heights to connect with Fourth Street.

Although every bridge inevitably goes somewhere, not every bridge is necessary. Mere connection is not sufficient reason to build a bridge. Sometimes separation is better.

Seen from the air, the viaduct appears uncertain about its start and uneasy about where it must end. Fourth Street on the west side of the river angles southeast, generally conforming to the 36 degrees of disorientation in the city’s colonial street grid. Fourth Street on the Boyle Heights side angles northeast. The two ends of Fourth Street, offset where they should face each other across the river, cannot be made to line up, as if the western and eastern parts of Los Angeles were never meant to be in one city.

The division was not natural, and the viaduct’s sinuous geometry could not overcome the forces keeping the halves of Los Angeles separate. A report sent to the board of the Federal Home Loan Bank in 1939 will explain why. Boyle Heights “is a ‘melting pot’ area and is literally honeycombed with diverse and subversive racial elements. It is hazardous residential territory….”[21] The Fourth Street Viaduct seems to have something to say, but none of the Los Angeles papers will ever ask residents of Boyle Heights what message to them the imposing new viaduct is intended to carry.

There is a long flight of steps that takes pedestrians up from Santa Fe Avenue to a streetcar stop where the western end of the viaduct splits to drop one leg down to Mateo Street while the other leg bends further west and north. After the dedication, streetcar passengers will stand there, in the middle of the roadway in a rectangle of white lines painted on the new asphalt. Motorcars will pass on either side while streetcar passengers wait within the white lines of the “safety zone.” The speed limit for motorcars is twenty-five miles an hour.[22]

The streetcar fare is seven cents.[23] 1931 is the second year of the Depression, and not many workmen have seven cents to spare. Some of them will continue to walk from homes in Boyle Heights to jobs in the rail yards, factories, and warehouses between First and Sixth streets along the river. When those men, lucky to still have a job, return in the evening over the Fourth Street Viaduct, one or two might pause to rest on one of the small benches that Louis Huot placed on either side of several of the light standards that spire from the parapet railing. The resting men probably no longer notice, in the fading golden light, the decorative elements that Huot had cast in concrete and made to be appreciated at twenty-five miles an hour.

12 Somberly Gothic

The Fourth Street Viaduct, somberly Gothic, crosses the not-yet-concrete Los Angeles River in 1931, from the Ralph Morris Collection, Los Angeles Public Library, 1931.


Evergreen Cemetery is at the end
of the streetcar line that the Fourth Street Viaduct in 1931 carries over the river—Main Street to Third Street, east to Traction Avenue, a south on Merrick Street, another turn at Fourth Street, across the river to Fresno Street in Boyle Heights, north to First Street, and then a stop at the cemetery gates.[24] The dead could take this way by streetcar; two had been available for charter, specially designed to carry a coffin in a separate vestibule, screened by a stained glass panel, while mourners sat beyond in silence.[25] More recently, automobile corteges cross the river with their burdens and turn off Fourth Street to Evergreen Avenue and the cemetery. A solitary driver arrives by the same route to walk among the headstones to find one and leave flowers.

The new bridges and viaducts Merrill Butler and his engineers have built north of Fourth Street allude to an antique imperial grandeur, confirming with reinforced concrete that the westward course of empire had arrived triumphantly at its destination. The style of the Fourth Street Viaduct is different and solemn in its Gothic Revival details. The pylons at each end of the bridge evoke a memorial cenotaph. Their lancet openings suggest the entrance to a nave. The columns of the light standards, which support the catenary lines of the streetcar power grid, rise above an acanthus leaf capital to taper like the finals atop a medieval cathedral. They intend to lead the eye heavenward. The frames of the streetlight lanterns are banded by a row of primroses, topped by flourishes in the form of leaves, and crowned with a final that could be mistaken for a cross. The parapets lining the viaduct are decorated with alternating equilateral triangles. A trefoil opening pierces each; its three-part shape represents stylized leaves of clover. Both triangles and trefoils are reminders of the 3-in-1 of the Christian Trinity.[26] The Fourth Street Viaduct crosses the Los Angeles River with a pastiche of ecclesiastical architecture and Christian iconography.

The mourner crossing to Evergreen Cemetery by streetcar and the businessman bound for Montebello or Whittier by automobile see one bridge. The train passenger below sees another. The mourner and the driver see a road that rises only slightly at the river crossing, framed by the four pylons. The passenger sees, as the train slows on arrival or picks up speed on departure, a regular pattern of arching ribs overhead, uprights connecting the bridge’s deck to the arches, and cross members connecting the arches to each other. Above is somber decoration, the simplified memories of somewhere else made tangible. Below is structure with no past, beautiful in its economical management of invisible forces.

There is something else to see, perhaps best understood by the occasional pedestrian who pauses to lean against the parapet or sit on one of the small benches. Nearly every outward facing surface, above and below, in the penetrating light of Los Angeles, is patterned with areas of sun-struck brightness and bands and panels of knife-edged shadow. In the moving light, while the pedestrian watches, the surface of the concrete moves too, projections dripping shadows, moldings shedding darkness over plane surfaces, incised grooves stacking alternating white and black bars, changes in profile edged by shadow declaring the three dimensions of pillar, pilaster, corbel, and column.

The Fourth Street Viaduct, gleaming in the sunlight in 1931, is a bright thing for a city that wishes to be only white. As the shadows pass over it, it finds its life in the absence of whiteness.


Empty in 2018 except for a stream
of processed wastewater[27] in the low-flow slot that perfectly centers its concrete floor, the Los Angeles River passes beneath the bridge that barely interrupts the almost level deck of the Fourth Street Viaduct. Belvederes, set into the arches of the sentinel pylons that mark the bridge’s place, overlook an engineered void. In the months with no rain, under a sky the color of dried urine, the river is a mirror that reflects the city’s disregard of it. Given two or three days of winter rain, however, the river will carry four times the flow of the Colorado, and dark water, passing with the speed of a freight train, will reach up the slopes of the channel.[28] The river is an artifact of desire as much as the bridges that span it.

What Los Angeles sought, after its river was crossed at Fourth Street by rail and highway viaducts, is hard to discern. For William Workman, the ambition might have been marketable real estate; for city planners, to untangle a transportation grid; for the railroads, to secure uninterrupted approaches to the city; and for downtown business associations, to ensure the daily flow of workers and shoppers. Each of them, in different ways, wanted a city of greatness to satisfy the demands of their desire. They constrained a river because of them and built bridges to make the fulfillment of their dreams seem inevitable. (In the name of other desires, this image has begun to change, as the river channel northward is restored and as parts of its floodplain are reclaimed by parks.)[29]

Evergreen Cemetery is the furthest Los Angeles extended across the Boyle Heights mesa. The future was not in the modest houses and two-story shops along Fourth Street as it rose to the crest of the bluff. The future was south of downtown and then west, away from the threat of the river and beyond the historical claims the old plaza made. East of the river is where the city housed its lepers and syphilitics, where its orphans were asylumed; where the city sent its aged and infirmed, and where its paupers are still cremated and buried in a mass grave as each year ends.[30] East is where the city has sent its dead, not just to Evergreen Cemetery, but to the Odd Fellows and Masonic cemeteries (where lodge brothers lay together companionably), and to the cemeteries (segregated by prejudice and theology), for Catholics, Serbians, Chinese, and Jews.

The viaduct’s Gothic Revival details were intended to inspire melancholy recollection in 1931, although they were not generally the memories of the multi-ethnic communities of Boyle Heights, dispersing even then into a second generation of diasporas. (Did sons and daughters of Jewish immigrants, returning at the yahrzeit, notice that the way to Mount Zion cemetery and Home of Peace was now marked by remembrances of English cathedrals?) In 1939, federal housing surveyors, as a warning to lenders, redlined all of racially mixed Boyle Heights. In the 1950s, the California Department of Transportation, taking advantage of redlining, began cutting rights-of-way along the bluff that the Mexican residents of Los Angeles in the 1830s had called, because of its whiteness, the Paradón Planco.[31] Freeways replaced rows of wood-frame houses where Russians, Italians, Japanese, Latinos, and Jews had lived together and left together for work across the Fourth Street Viaduct. In 2017, and mostly Latino now, the community of Boyle Heights remembers the freeways’ dislocation and the indifference behind it.[32] East has been what the city, in its haste toward the future, chooses not to remember.

Waldie-2


The Fourth Street Viaduct bears desires
across railroad tracks, across access roads, across the blank surface of the Los Angeles River channel, and across time. Some are desires you may not recognize today or want anymore. But the viaduct cannot do otherwise, or be other than what it is, so well made was it, with skill and an eye toward the effect of its repeating elements of arch and trefoil, pylon and spire, light and shadow. These elements, which framed the city’s aspirations in 1931, are still available today as a borrowed elegy for a city full of anxieties about its place.

The contained river below and the stylish viaduct above were intended to be monuments of Anglo triumph over nature and space, achievements that need thoughtful translation if we are to bridge the abyss made by the city’s subsequent erasures of memory. Recovery of the commonplace is sensuous: the sight, smell, sound, and touch of things that might be the prelude to an embrace or a blow, that might make us cringe at their maker’s motivations, that might require humility—even love—instead of fury or contempt when considering the history of these things. Crossing over a bridge is risky.

A traveler comes to this bridge, an articulate framework suspended between its past and our future, to cross over its consort river that divides Boyle Heights from the Arts District. The number of pedestrians is fewer now, and the passengers waiting for streetcars are gone. A Metrolink train rumbles under one of the viaduct’s arches. A tree, rooted within or under the roadway deck, tops the parapet where it crosses Santa Fe Avenue.

A homeless man is living on the belvedere that projects from the arch of the first pylon as the bridge prepares to leap east. A shopping cart and plastic sheeting make a barrier in front. The sidewalk here is only five feet wide, and the footing is uneasy because the metal grates that provide access to conduits under the sidewalk are uneven. Pearly grit, enough to support a few shoots of grass, has gathered along the parapet edge as if a slow-moving river had passed over the bridge, dropping silt. The belvedere beneath the arch of the opposite pylon stinks of urine. The streetlight lanterns here are missing glass panels, so only the skeletal arch remains in the metal frame. Time and the vandalism of indifference both work on the Fourth Street Viaduct every day, which is part of the pathos of things in our lives. Yet insulators for the streetcar wires on the light standard next to the pylon and a catenary holdfast over the arch remain as the viaduct’s memories of itself, not yet erased. The banister under the traveler’s hand has the feel of stucco. The thread of water in the low-flow slot below glints and murmurs. The advent of something terrible or beautiful seems to be near. Some birds wheel overhead.


In 1998, the Fourth Street Bridge was retrofitted
to improve the lateral stability of its arches in an earthquake.[33] In 2014, the National Bridge Inventory of the Federal Highway Administration determined that the entire Fourth Street Viaduct met the “minimum tolerable limits to be left in place as is,” although the geometry of its roadway deck is “basically intolerable.” The report added that the viaduct is “functionally obsolete.”[34]

Waldie-5

 


Notes

  • The drawings and paintings accompanying this essay are by Roderick Smith and Richard Willson, and are part of the exhibition, “Positively 4th Street: An Encounter with Los Angeles Viaduct,” on display at the Don B. Huntley Gallery, Cal Poly Pomona, through April 12, 2018.

[1] This description is based on Brooklyn Land and Building Company, “View of Los Angeles from the East,” 1877.

[2] Connection to the transcontinental rail network (through San Francisco) began in September 1876.

[3] The high school was completed in 1873, the cathedral in 1876.

[4] City of Los Angeles Bureau of Street Lighting, “History,”, http://bsl.lacity.org/history.html, accessed December 8, 2017.

[5] Water and Power Associates, “Historical Notes,” http://waterandpower.org/museum/Early_City_Views%20(1900%20-%201925)_5_of_8.html, accessed December 8, 2017.

[6] “The Storm: The Situation of Yesterday Fully Set Forth,” Los Angeles Times, February 18, 1887, 1.

[7] Blake Gumprecht, The Los Angeles River: Its Life, Death, and Possible Rebirth (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001). Gumprecht details episodes of flooding along the Los Angeles River through the 1990s.

[8] “Ten Years: The Story of a Decade,” Los Angeles Times, December 4, 1891, 1.

[9] City council’s bridge committee; 2000 foot length; “Big Bridge Accepted,” Los Angeles Times, January 13, 1905, 14. Bridge advocates; of necessity greatly inconvenienced; “More Interest in Los Angeles Real Estate,” Los Angeles Herald, November 24, 1901, 7. Not enough to repair; it winds around like a snake; “Calls It a Steal: Kern Fights for Fourth Street Bridge,” Los Angeles Herald, July 19, 1903, 8. Sale of land benefits Workman, “Bridge Street Tract Sold, Los Angeles Herald, September 20, 1903, 1. Construction details, “Plans for Fourth Street Bridge,” Los Angeles Herald, October 8, 1903, 14. City council politics; “To Submit Plans for New Bridges,” Los Angeles Herald, January 3, 1904, 6.

[10] Some references claim 5,000 automobiles were produced between 1902 and 1910. The lower total is cited by the Los Angeles Almanac, “First Production Motor Vehicles in California,” http://www.laalmanac.com/transport/tr10a.php, accessed December 8, 2017.

[11] “City’s Garbage Turned into the Pork We Eat,” Los Angeles Times, June 24, 1906, 13.

[12] Louis L. Huot, “Modern Lines Are Reflected in New Los Angeles Viaduct,” Architect and Engineer (October 1933): 27.

[13] Stephen D. Mikesell, “The Los Angeles River Bridges: A Study in the Bridge as a Civic Monument,” Southern California Quarterly 68 (1986): 365-86. Mikesell describes both the engineering and the aesthetics of Merrill Butler’s bridge program.

[14] “Art Commission to Beautify City,” Los Angeles Times, October 31, 1903, 2.

[15] Charles Mulford Robinson, “The City Beautiful: Suggestions,” in Los Angeles, California (Los Angeles Municipal Art Commission, 1909), 3.

[16] Engineering Department, Annual Report (City of Los Angeles, 1923), 30.

[17] Robinson, “Suggestions,” 3.

[18] Huot, “Modern Lines,” 26.

[19] Merrill Butler, “Architecture and Engineering Are Harmonized in Fourth St. Viaduct.” Southwest Builder and Contractor (August 7, 1931): 50.

[20] “Fourth Street Span Dedicated,” Los Angeles Times, July 31, 1931, 1.

[21] Home Owners Loan Corporation City Survey Files, “Area D-53, Los Angeles” (National Archives, Washington, D.C. 1939), 7, quoted in George Lipsitz, Time Passages: Collective Memory and American Popular Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990), 137.

[22] Al Parmenter, “Change in Motor Law Goes in Effect Friday,” Los Angeles Times, August 9, 1931, 1.

[23] Laurence M. Benedict, “No Review on Fares,” Los Angeles Times, January 7, 1930, 1.

[24] “Route Map of the Los Angeles Railway,” 1934.

[25] The Descanso (Spanish for “rest”) was built by the Los Angeles Railway in 1911, followed by the Paraiso. Descanso and Paraiso would often make as many as seven trips a day. The service ended in 1921. See City Lab, “A Funeral Car Named ‘Descanso’ or When Death Rode the Rails in America,” https://www.citylab.com/transportation/2013/05/funeral-car-named-descanso-or-when-death-rode-rails-america/5478/, accessed December 9, 2017.

[26] William Durandus, The Symbolism of Churches and Church Ornaments, ed. John Mason Neale and Benjamin Webb (Leeds: T. W. Green, 1843): lxli.

[27] About 20 million gallons of treated wastewater are discharged into the Los Angeles River each day from the Tillman Water Reclamation Plant in Van Nuys.

[28] Joe Mozingo, “Watery Giant Roars to Life,” Los Angeles Times, January 6, 2016, 1.

[29] For the status of river restoration and associated riverside improvements, see “Los Angeles River Revitalization,” http://lariver.org/.

[30] Doug Smith and Ryan Menezes, “Evergreen Cemetery is Awash in History and Drowning in Blight, Los Angeles Times, November 28, 2014, 12.

[31] George J. Sánchez. “What’s Good for Boyle Heights Is Good for the Jews: Creating Multiracialism on the Eastside during the 1950s,” American Quarterly 56 (2004): 634.

[32] Eric Jaffe, “The Forgotten History of L.A.’s Failed Freeway Revolt,” CityLab https://www.citylab.com/transportation/2014/07/the-forgotten-history-of-las-failed-freeway-revolt/374843/, accessed December 9, 2017. The residents of Boyle Heights today are concerned about further loss of their community identity as the process of gentrification in the downtown core reaches crosses the river.

[33] National Park Service, Historic American Engineering Record, Fourth Street Viaduct, HAER No. CA-280 (National Archives, Washington D.C., n.d.), 7.

[34] Extracted from the National Bridge Inventory, July 2014 inspection data at https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/bridge/nbi.cfm.

 

D. J. Waldie is the author of six books of non-fiction dealing with aspects of everyday life, including Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir. His commentaries on California history and politics have appeared in the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times.

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

Articles

Lines and Fences

Marcel Brousseau

Gloria Anzaldúa delivered a presentation called, “A Crosser of Borders,” on 10 April 1983 at a conference at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. Just a week earlier, on Easter Sunday, Anzaldúa visited Border Field State Park in San Diego. “That place,” Anzaldúa related to conference attendees, “has a fence that runs from the top of the mountains all the way to the edge of the sea. And that fence divides the United States from Mexico. I started writing a poem beside that fence.”[1]

The chain-link and barbed wire fence that Anzaldúa saw, touched, and translated into verse in 1983 has been replaced by an array of forms and materials over the past three decades. In 1992 a perimeter of steel landing mats, running 14 miles from the base of the San Ysidro mountains due west to the Pacific Ocean, supplanted the barbed wire and chain link. In the intervening years steel mesh, and finally, twenty-foot-high steel bollards were installed on the south edge of Friendship Park, where Anzaldúa once stood. Meanwhile, multi-layered mesh and landing mats continue to shadow the rest of the line.

It is not hard to imagine that the border fence will change again in the coming months and years: Fall 2017, the U.S. government built eight prototypes of 30-foot border walls on Otay Mesa, adjacent to the extant landing mat fence. These historic and ongoing changes to the form and media of the California border fence/wall are not incidental. Each fence or wall rewrites the horizon line and the surface of the land itself, as it also revises the political and cultural narrative of the borderlands. By reading Anzaldúa’s poetic drafts about the fence in comparison with Friendship Park photographs from Joe Burkeholder, Peter Goin, and María Teresa Fernández, this essay critiques the inscriptions made by the very presence of the California fence. While the future of the California fence/wall is being written, in legislation, steel, concrete, and dirt, the representations of the fence provided by Anzaldúa, Burkeholder, Goin, and Fernández critically document the fence as a violent yet vulnerable discursive medium. Whether as a shifting poetic symbol, or as an evolving iconic sign, the fence appears as an assemblage of materials and semiotic associations—in other words, as a kind of written text—capable of being replicated, transformed, critiqued, and destroyed through countervailing acts of writing. These acts of writing, like the fence itself, encompass the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, but are centered on California, where the border fence has long been a palimpsest of U.S. line drawing and cross-cultural revision.


Poetic Revisions

In the years after her visit to Border Field State Park, Anzaldúa wrote a few more drafts of the poem that she “started…beside that fence.” Then, in 1987, she published the poem in “The Homeland, Aztlán/ El otro México,” the first chapter of her book, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. As Anzaldúa drafted her poem, its content and form changed, and the semantics of the fence shifted. At first a metonym for the bureaucratic violence of boundary marking, the fence also became an analogy linking the brutality of land division with acts of sexual assault, and with agricultural techniques. One draft of “Del Otro Lado”—which we might assume is a typed version of the poem Anzaldúa began beside the fence due to its being labeled, “Begun 3 Abril 83/ Easter Sunday/ Border Field Park/ Beach, San Diego”—ends with the lines, “They build a fence across her body, Mexico,/ a wall called El tratado de Guadalupe-Hidalgo./ Thousands are sacrifieced [sic] to that Barbed wall.”[2]

Figure 1

An early draft of Gloria Anzaldúa’s poem “Del Otro Lado,” written in response to her experience at Border Field State Park, in San Diego. Image courtesy of Benson Latin American Collection, University of Texas at Austin.

In this draft, bodies are rendered geographically, and the fence is conflated with the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which resolved the U.S.-Mexico War and officially redrew the U.S.-Mexico borderline. By characterizing the peace treaty between the two nations as a barbed wall, Anzaldúa characterizes the border not as a legal concept, but as nomos, as an act of land appropriation that forecloses Mexico from its territory, or its body. In this frame, “law and peace” in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands “[rests] on an [enclosure] in the spatial sense” dividing the body of Mexico, and enforcing the sacrifice of Mexicans to the United States. The fence symbolically and technically perpetuates this sacrifice by maintaining the historic foreclosure of Mexico from itself.[3]

In another draft of “Del Otro Lado,” Anzaldúa further qualifies the nomos of the border fence in terms of gender and sexual violence, writing, “She looks at the Border Field fence/ feels them stick posts into her throat, her navel,/ shove barbwire up her cunt./ She and the land were one./ Her body torn in two, half a woman on the other side/ half a woman on this side, the right side.”[4] While the earlier draft qualifies Mexico as a female body dismembered by a treaty signifying a wall and by a wall signifying a treaty, Anzaldúa’s later draft enacts a more personalized and localized violence in which a female observer is violated and dismembered by the apparatus of fencing as she speculates upon the fence. While the specific components of the “Border Field Park fence”—“fence posts” and “barbwire”—are implicated in the dismemberment of the female body, the fence’s particular geography is generalized to a binary of “the other side” and “this side.”

Figure 2

Another draft of “Del Otro Lado” elaborates upon the themes of sexual violence, dismemberment, invisibility, and silencing, in relation to the “Border Field Park fence.” Image courtesy of Benson Latin American Collection, University of Texas at Austin.

The fence’s repression of national and cultural markers is revealed by the poem to be one dispositif among a system of discipline, as half of the dismembered female protagonist gains subjectivity by educating herself in language and classification techniques. She only commemorates her historic wounding “At night when no one is looking.” Meanwhile, the other half of the dismembered protagonist is further dissected, viscerally “scattered over the deserts,/ the mountains and valleys,” until her “mute voice” is transmuted to a wind “whisper[ing] through grass stems” in echo of her other half. In its narrative of dismemberment, invisibility, and silencing, this poetic draft forces the reader to consider the poem as a document that communicates yet cannot resolve the multivalent ”struggle of flesh, [the] struggle of borders…[the] inner war” symbolized by the “Border Field Park fence.”

Yet another draft of Anzaldúa’s poetry states, “In—Park in South San Diego/ staring at that rust colored fence/ 2,100 miles long from the mouth/ of the Rio Grande in my valley to/ the Pacific/ Nature had gashed a hole in the wall/ Did not ask are you an American citizen/ Where were you born/ can we see your papers.”[5] This draft also extends the fence, from its localized site of witnessing, across the entirety of the borderline, symbolizing the historic foreclosure of Mexico. Where, in past drafts, the fence/wall enacted violence, in this draft the wall is made vulnerable. Rust eats away and “colors” the metal; “nature” breaches the wall, undermining its physical and discursive formations. However, despite the emerging precarity of the fence, this handwritten draft, taped together from three separate fragments, attributes another loss to fencing—the “ancient myths” of “sacred history.” In this revision, the fence encloses a system of mental concepts—“fence posts on which the mind/ is strung out”—away from the “land of creatures/ primal instinctive.” With this representation, Anzaldúa relates the California fence to “archaic cultural techniques,” such as “corrals, pens, and enclosures,” that “accentuate[d] the anthropological difference between humans and animals.”[6] In concert with the other drafts, the ancient delineation between humans and animals is implicated in the histories of colonization and sexual assault represented by the fence.

Figure 3

Another contemporaneous handwritten draft of Anzaldúa’s poetry introduces a vulnerability to the border fence and addresses dichotomies between natural and mental systems. Image courtesy of Benson Latin American Collection, University of Texas at Austin.

The many meanings of the fence worked through by Anzaldúa in her drafts ultimately cohere in her published revision, with a twist: She reformatted the conventional typography of the drafts to express spatial and emotional conflicts in the physical arrangement of lines and words, as well as in their linguistic semiotics. The poem’s second, third, and fourth stanzas, which rewrite the image of waves attacking the fence, slant and arc back and forth, in successive enjambments that resemble the careening tides of the shoreline. The seventh stanza, which continues the trope of the fence stretching the entire length of the U.S.-Mexico border, connotes a cartography of the Americas in its formatting, while also embodying a twisting form that resembles the barb of a barbed wire fence:

Untitled-3
In refining her poetic visions of the California fence, Anzaldúa declares the fence to be an inscriptive object: a technology that is not only representative of, and represented by, writing, but that also functions as writing, in its marking of space and time. As she twists her poetic lines in shapes across the page, Anzaldúa replicates the fence “unrolling” in space, “dividing” and “split[ting]” the terrain until at the end of the poem the fence has indeed been blown down, and Indigenous land is restored.[7]

In reckoning with the border fence, Anzaldúa indirectly presented the fence as a counter symbol to the figure of the bridge, the guiding motif of her and Cherrie Moraga’s landmark collection, This Bridge Called My Back, which was published the same year Anzaldúa visited Border Field State Park. However, just as the bridge is a complicated symbol of burden and connection, so too is the fence a paradox. “That fence” in Border Field State Park in San Diego ultimately functioned for Anzaldúa as a deeply referential infrastructural text. While her poetry provides a rich document of the California fence, cataloguing its diversity of forms and materials in relation to its violences and its vulnerabilities, the fence also provided a motif for Anzaldúa’s self-reflection. The fence aided Anzaldúa’s understanding of the ways in which she felt displaced and split among different cultural locations and coalitions, and it connected her struggle to monumental histories of hominization and conquest. Although she prophesized the fence’s destruction, her readings of the fence would continue to inform her conceptualizations of artistry and “consciousness.” The fence eventually became central to her idea of nepantla, the transitional process through which one “question[s] old ideas and beliefs, acquire[s] new perspectives, change[s] worldview, and shift[s] from one world to another.”[8]


Photographic Revisions

“In the beginning was the fence,” writes Jost Trier, asserting the enclosure of space as the basis of law.[9] Anzaldúa, in her characterization of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo as a fence, concurs that the accord between the U.S. and Mexico is fundamentally an inscription that divides, or forecloses, Mexico from itself. In this context, the actual fences and walls that have risen over the borderline during the last century are indexes of this original diplomatic, postwar enclosure. However, as Anzaldúa’s poetry shows, fences and walls on the U.S.-Mexico border are also representative of animal economies, of gender violence, and of artistic techniques and transformation.

A 1909 range fence installed by the U.S. Bureau of Animal Industry to eradicate the fever tick’s infestation of cattle herds between California and Baja California is among the first documented fences on the borderline.[10] Thus, in the beginning of the U.S.-Mexico border fence was the California fence, which Anzaldúa’s poetics inspire us to see as a work in revision, an object continually rewritten in reference to law and to commerce, to xenophobic rhetoric, and to discourses of fear. A 1974 photograph of border monument 258, taken by Joe Burkeholder and used by the National Register of Historic Places, shows that roughly a decade before Anzaldúa began her poem, a simple range fence with three to five strands of barbed wire also crossed Friendship Park, in what was then known as Border International Park. The labeling of Burkeholder’s photo with the toponyms of Mexico and the United States, on either side of the fence, gestures toward the ambiguity of the borderline, as it also indicates a bureaucratic investment in reinforcing the distinction between the two nations.

Figure 4

Friendship Park, in Border Field State Park, on the border of San Diego and Tijuana, as photographed by Joe Burkeholder on 21 March 1973. It is not clear when or by whom the photo was marked. Image courtesy of United States Department of the Interior.

In dedicating the park three years earlier, first lady Pat Nixon stated, “I hope someday there won’t be a fence here at all,”[11] but in monument 258’s registration as a National Historic Place, the stakes of the California fence are literally and figuratively made clear. The photograph of the site, and its accompanying paperwork, document a fragile borderline, at which the legal marker—the border monument—had, by the end of the nineteenth century, been subject to erasure, or “mutilat[ion] by visitors [until] its outlines were nearly destroyed, and its inscriptions partly obliterated,” at which point it was renovated and itself protected by a fence.[12] This brief history of the border as a site of textual revision corroborates Anzaldúa’s poetic exploration of the unresolved violence underwriting the borderline. Apparently, for bureaucratic readers, neither the border monument, nor the barbed wire fence are depicted in Burkeholder’s overwritten photograph, effectively demarcated the nomos, or the enclosure, of the United States from Mexico. In the hypertextual discourse referenced by Burkeholder’s photograph, the borderline inscribed by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo is rewritten by the monument, the fence, the photograph, and the markings on the photograph, each a separate mediation correlating to the others, while also implying the limitations of the others.

The overwriting of Burkeholder’s photograph demonstrates why Nixon’s hope for an unfenced border was never honored in any official manner: The fence, as Anzaldúa would later indicate in her poetry, functions as a form of writing used by the U.S. to both demarcate the borderlands and the bodies that inhabit it. The barbed wire fence that bisects Burkeholder’s photo also bisects two bodies, and forecloses them from the photographer’s point of view. The subsequent overwriting of the photo places these individuals on the Mexican side of the fence, as it places the photographer on the U.S. side. The importance of the fence in underlining the distinctions between “this side” and “the other side” is made official in the filing of Burkeholder’s overwritten photograph as evidence of a National Historic Place, namely the “southwestern corner of the Continental United States,” as it is described in the site’s nomination paperwork.

By 1987—the year Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera was published—the barbed wire fence at Friendship Park had itself been overwritten by chain link and wire mesh, as documented by photographer Peter Goin in Tracing the Line, his photographic survey of the U.S.-Mexico border from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean. At the time, Goin’s fieldwork revealed that “most of the [border] fence [remained] barbed wire, usually three to five strand.” However, he also learned that during the late 1970s, the Immigration and Naturalization Service had selectively “constructed an ‘impenetrable’ fence… twelve feet high… of metal webbing (much like chain link) topped with barbed concertina wire,” between Calexico and Mexicali and San Ysidro and Tijuana.[13] Goin’s photograph of a heavily-fenced Friendship Park, in comparison with Burkeholder’s earlier official image, indicates the escalation of the enclosure of the “southwestern corner of the Continental United States,” as it also provides context for Anzaldúa’s semiotic shift between symbols of barbed wire and chain link in documenting the different forms of the borderline. Goin writes in Tracing the Line, that “Each photograph must represent an area far greater than the parameter of its rectangle,” arguing for, not unlike Anzaldúa, a metaphorical yet material reading of the borderlands, in which “path, roads, bridges, and fences with barbed wire become line [which then] creates tension by dividing the space, both visually and culturally.”

Figure 5

Friendship Park, as photographed by Peter Goin for his 1987 book Tracing the Line: A Photographic Survey of the Mexican-American Border. Image courtesy of Peter Goin.

Lines—or fences—structure Goin’s photographs, revealing the 1980s borderlands to be a “web of boundaries.” In his image of Friendship Park, the rewriting of the fence as a chain link wall with locked gates becomes a multiplication of lines blotting the horizon and the ground, and casting the sunlight into shadows. The area labeled “Mexico” in Burkeholder’s photograph is not actually visible as land in Goin’s photograph, but rather only as tracings or shadows, as visual effects of the crosshatched lines of the California fence. The rewriting of the California fence in steel mesh and chain link was, in narratological terms, rising action in the now-long story of the U.S.-Mexico border fence. Contextualizing Goin’s image, Anzaldúa’s roughly coeval poetry indicates that the fortified fence remained symbolically plurivalent yet materially ambivalent: A culturally divisive, physically imposing, historically onerous enclosure, albeit vulnerable to the elements and to transborder economies and human migration. The slab of chain link seen in Goin’s photograph of Friendship Park is replaced by a broken and patched web of metal in his photos taken further East, in areas derogated as “lawless” by the Border Patrol.[14]

The slab of chain link in Friendship Park is also replaced by a twenty-foot bollard wall, clad in steel mesh, in a photo taken by María Teresa Fernández thirty years after Goin and Anzaldúa’s books were both published. Since the end of the twentieth century, Fernández has been photographing Friendship Park, and families “torn in two”—to use an Anzalduan phrase—who meet there to talk and bond through the California fence/wall. Her photography has regularly documented a correlation of events on the borderline: The capricious expansion of the border fence to a larger and more tortuous wall, and the constancy of families and friends—a binational community—in negotiating the nomos enforced and reinforced by the growing fence/wall. What would Anzaldúa write about the scene depicted by Fernández? What would she say about a fence so large that it obliterates the southern horizon, about the steel bollards dissecting the faces and bodies of people on the south side of the borderline, about the thick layers of metal and mesh that now commemorate “el tratado de Guadalupe-Hidalgo”? “I am tired of borders,” Anzaldúa said at that 1983 conference talk in Illinois, “I am tired of nationalist thinking.” She cast her vision forward: “I think we will grow to have respect for one another, that we will listen to each other… [and] tear down that iron fence.”[15] This growth of respect and compassion is, beside the shadow of the California wall, the other subtext of Fernández’s photography. Despite the fact that the fence has not been torn down—quite the opposite—patterns of filiation and amity have emerged at Friendship Park that implicate the fence into “act[s] of fellowship [and] strategic coalition” by families, friends, law enforcement, and local activist groups such as Friends of Friendship Park.[16] Although Fernández’s photo documents Friendship Park as a dystopian enclosure, it also depicts the results of dedicated binational activism to write a communal narrative around, through, over, and, indeed, beside the fence—a narrative that seeks to erode the enclosure and revise the nomos foreclosing Mexico from itself and the U.S. from its others.

Figure 6

Friendship Park, as photographed by María Teresa Fernández on 10 September 2017. Image courtesy of María Teresa Fernández.


Political Revisions

“This sagging wire fence is conclusive evidence of the present cordial relations between the two countries,” John A. Ryan writes, unironically, for Westways magazine in June 1958, captioning a photo of the “lonely” borderland above the Pacific Ocean, which would become Friendship Park. By Ryan’s logic, the California border fence is an index of international diplomacy, a barometer of the political consensus between the U.S. and Mexico. Where Anzaldúa later reads and writes the fence as a permanent trace of animalization, war, and sacrifice, Ryan sketches an idyll finally emerging “after bloodshed and hate… after a war of empire building through force of arms.” Strangely, to look backward at Ryan’s wild, windswept border site is to look forward to Anzaldúa’s proleptic flood, in which waves wash away the California fence. In this comparison, there is the intimation that the revision of the border fence is circular, not unilinear; that what has been written over and over will also someday be erased. However, Ryan’s article also documents another fence, the barbed-wire topped, chain-link fence discretely surrounding the border monument. Despite Ryan’s diagnosis of binational cordiality in a withered barbed-wire border fence, the sacrificial nomos of the border prevails: “U.S. Government Structure,” a sign reads on the east side of the monument’s chain-link fence, without specifying the fence, the monument, or the borderline it/they represent, “do not molest under penalty of law.”[17]

“Access to the monument is easy,” Ryan wrote, urging his auto-club-members-cum-readers to detour west down Monument Road and experience “the never-to-be-forgotten feeling of somehow being part of history.”[18] A quarter-century later, Anzaldúa, divided by history, urged us to go farther: “I propose we become a crosser of borders,” she declared in her 1983 conference talk, encouraging her audience “to start within yourself and reconcile [gender, racial, cultural, emotional, sexual, spiritual] borders,” and ultimately to “open ourselves up to what the other person is saying—to feel the other person’s presence.”[19] In this call to restore the self and to be marked by the other, the border fence has become, it seems, sublimated into a passionate political metaphor. This semantic shift, however, cannot be understood without acknowledging Anzaldúa’s insistence on the materiality of the symbolic, on the stages of revision that inform and deform ideas and visions to make personal and social change. Tired as she was of borders, Anzaldúa continued writing and rewriting her poetic fence, until it became a symbolic medium for self-reconciliation and communication with the other, a written object that she would live in and through, and not merely beside.

In her artistic destruction—or deconstruction—of the California fence/wall, Anzaldúa anticipated the ways in which the U.S.-Mexico border fence/wall writ large has become a medium of transborder culture, a palimpsest for binational expression. Photographers, poets, activists, academics, families, and friends: At Friendship Park in San Diego, on most any Saturday or Sunday, countless people are literally or figuratively beginning poems “beside that fence,” as Anzaldúa did, writing themselves and each other in and through the fence, over the line where lawmakers continue to write with the fence. Of course, in Tijuana, and elsewhere del otro lado, people are free to write on the fence. One weekend in Playas, having crossed to volunteer with Dan Watman, of Friends of Friendship Park, in the Binational Friendship Garden of Native Plants, my wife and I watched schoolchildren cover the fence in writing, in pithy post-its that would have made Anzaldúa proud. “Di no al amor con fronteras” read one. “¡No Separan a las Familias!,” said another. Given a few years of revision, one can only imagine what these fence-post post-it poems might become. Likewise, one can only imagine what the California fence/wall will look like by then. Maybe it will be gone.

Figure 7

Student post-it poems affixed to the south side of the fence at Friendship Park, in Playas, Tijuana, 15 November 2014. Photographs by the author.


Notes

The author would like to thank Dan Watman, María Teresa Fernández, John Fanestil, Jill Holslin, and the Friends of Friendship Park, Peter Goin, Carla Alvarez, the staff of the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection, Domino Perez, Rita Raley, Katherine Kelp-Stebbins, and the Gloria Evangelina Anzaldúa Literary Trust. Quotes and images of Anzaldúa’s poetic drafts are copyright of the Gloria Evangelina Anzaldúa Literary Trust and may not be reproduced without permission of the Trust.

[1] Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, Pre-draft early notes, Box 32, Folder 4, Gloria Evangelina Anzaldúa Papers, 1942-2004, Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection, University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin. The conference was called “Feminism: Cross-Cultural Perspectives.”

[2] Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, Manuscript, discards, Box 32, Folder 3, Gloria Evangelina Anzaldúa Papers, 1942-2004, Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection, University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin. It should be noted that a poem specifically addressing queer identity and oppression by Anzaldúa, called “Del Otro Lado,” was eventually published in 1987’s Compañeras: Latina Lesbians (An Anthology), ed. Juanita Ramos. See Anzaldúa, The Gloria Anzaldúa Reader, ed. AnaLouise Keating (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009), 99.

[3] Carl Schmitt, The Nomos of the Earth in the International Law of the Jus Publicum Europaeum, trans. G.L. Ulmen (New York: Telos Press, Ltd., 2003), 74-75.

[4] Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, Manuscript, discards, Box 32, Folder 3, Gloria Evangelina Anzaldúa Papers, 1942-2004, Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection, University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Bernhard Siegert, “Cultural Techniques: Or the End of the Intellectual Postwar Era in German Media Theory,” trans. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young, Theory, Culture & Society 30 (2013): 56.

[7] Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands-La Frontera: The New Mestiza (San Francisco: Aunt Lute Book Co., 1987), 2.

[8] Ibid., The Gloria Anzaldúa Reader, ed. AnaLouise Keating (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009), 248.

[9] Schmitt, Nomos, 74.

[10] United States, Bureau of Animal Industry, Twenty-Sixth Annual Report of the Bureau of Animal Industry for the year 1909 (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1911), 290. This report by the U.S. BAI frankly conflates humans and cattle, stating, “with this fence installed, eradication [of fever tick infestation] will soon be accomplished…Such a fence will also assist customs officials in preventing illegal traffic between the two countries.”

[11] “Legacy of Parks,” The Washington Post. Washington, D.C., 20 Aug 1971: B4.

[12] United States, Department of the Interior, National Register of Historic Places Inventory – Nomination Form for Federal Properties: Initial Point of Boundary Between U.S. and Mexico, 6 September 1974, https://npgallery.nps.gov/NRHP/AssetDetail/3a5a9b80-bb6d-479e-a006-e2e18bb2ed4d?branding=NRHP

[13] Peter Goin, Tracing the Line: A Photographic Survey of the Mexican-American Border (Reno: Library of the University of Nevada-Reno, 1987), n.p. The “impenetrable fence” was also installed between El Paso and Juárez.

[14] See Joseph Nevins, Operation Gatekeeper: The Rise of the “Illegal Alien” and the Making of the U.S.- Mexico Boundary (New York: Routledge, 2002), 63-65; and Peter Andreas, Border Games: Policing the U.S.-Mexico Divide, 2d ed. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009), xi

[15] Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, Pre-draft early notes, Box 32, Folder 4, Gloria Evangelina Anzaldúa Papers, 1942-2004, Benson Latin American Collection, The University of Texas at Austin.

[16] Jill Holslin, “Saving Friendship Park A History of the San Diego Coalition Friends of Friendship Park,” in Wounded Border/Frontera Herida (San Diego: San Diego City Works Press, 2011), 133.

[17] John A. Ryan, “Lonely Monument on the Border,” Westways, June 1958, 14-15. The photos do not reveal if the monument’s fence contained a similar sign under the aegis of the Mexican government, on the west side.

[18] Ibid. Ryan also quotes a sailor, employed at what was then the U.S. Navy’s Border Field, who assures him that the military installation does not deter visitors, stating, “We can’t keep the people from their monument.” Absurdly, the current fence installed by the U.S. at Friendship Park seals the monument on the south side, away from U.S. visitors.

[19] Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, Pre-draft early notes, Box 32, Folder 4, Gloria Evangelina Anzaldúa Papers, 1942-2004, Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection, University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin.

 

Marcel Brousseau is a lecturer in Mexican American and Latina/o Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. From 2015 to 2017 he served as a Carlos E. Castañeda Postdoctoral Fellow in UT’s Center for Mexican American Studies. He earned his Ph.D. at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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

ArticlesPhotography/Art

Southern California Science Fictional Thinking in Mundos Alternos

UCR Arts Block-28

Tyler Stallings

History is written in retrospect. Patterns are sought among seemingly unrelated events at the time of their occurrence. There is never just one historical narrative. Historians make choices about what events to represent and from which perspective, often to the disadvantage of people on the losing end—for example, the colonized or enslaved. Mundos Alternos: Art and Science Fiction in the Americas provides a space-time continuum for reimagining the past from the perspective of the “alienated” and the “other,” from the peoples marginalized by the powerful. The exhibition includes over thirty contemporary artists who explore interactions of science fiction and the visual arts in Latin America, the U.S., and the intergalactic beyond; collectively laying out a provocative view of arts in the Americas told in the present but with an eye toward future, alternate Americas.

Mundos Alternos is an 11,000-square-foot exhibition, with an accompanying book of the same title, presented at University of California, Riverside’s downtown UCR ARTSblock, which includes two adjacent venues: the California Museum of Photography; and the Barbara and Art Culver Center of the Arts. Myself and the two other co-curators, Robb Hernández and Joanna Szupinska-Myers,[1] have brought together works from across the Americas that use science fiction to imagine new realities and alternate worlds, utopian and dystopian. The exhibition is part of The Getty’s Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA initiative, which is an exploration of the global intersections of Latin American and Latino art in dialogue with Southern California, with many of its seventy-plus exhibitions opening Fall 2017.

ARTSblock’s project was inspired by two facts: UCR Library’s Special Collections and Archives possesses the Eaton Science Fiction and Fantasy Collection, one of the world’s largest archive of its kind; and UCR is designated as a Hispanic-serving institution (HSI), defined by 25% or more of its student body falling within that demographic.[2] The power of nomenclature is an important aspect of the Mundos Alternos title. The use of the word “Americas” in its subtitle was significant in order to point to a hemispheric approach in which the exhibition’s original location, the United States, is realized in a broader milieu of cross cultural connections including Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and South America.

In the exhibition, artists employ science fiction tropes in their works, most created in the last two decades, such as alternate history and time travel, organized under themes such as “Post-Industrial Americas” and “Indigenous Futurism,” suggesting diverse modes of existence and representing “alienating” ways of being in other worlds. Latin American, Latina/o, and Chicana/o science fiction is a burgeoning area of study that has gained momentum within the past ten years, with an emphasis mostly in literature and film. In light of this, our curatorial team selected artists from across the Americas (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Cuba, El Salvador, Mexico and Puerto Rico, as well as California, Florida, New Mexico, New York, Virginia, and Texas) who have created artworks that point to mundos alternos (“alternate worlds”), where self-determination and autonomy can occur in a present that is quickly becoming a past pointing to a future.

Considering that dystopia and utopia are often two polarities of a single, metaphorical world, the artists in Mundos Alternos explore equally multi-faceted issues around immigration, queer futurism, indigenous futurism, information control, the border, and so on. An underlying concept is the “alienated alien,” or the “other,” and how they reimagine themselves in a world in which they are not marginalized anymore.

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Simón Vega (La Libertad, El Salvador), Tropical Mercury Capsula, 2010/ 2014, Sculptural installation (wood, aluminum, tin roofing sheets, cardboard, plastic, TV, fan, icebox, boombox, found materials; 67 x 129 inches (capsule), 118 x 236 inches (total floor installation area). Collection of the Pérez Art Museum Miama, Gift of Mario Cader-Frech and Robert Wennett.


The Eaton Collection of Science Fiction & Fantasy, UC Riverside

Before I rewrite the history of my own writing, I would like to loop back around to a major source of inspiration for Mundos Alternos and a significant resource in California for science fiction studies scholars: The Eaton Collection of Science Fiction & Fantasy.

It is one of the largest publicly accessible collections of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and utopian literature in the world, and is housed in the UC Riverside Library’s Special Collections & University Archives in the Tomás Rivera Library on the main campus. It features more than 300,000 holdings that include over 100,000 hardback and paperback books; full runs of pulp magazines; nearly 100,000 fanzines; film and visual material, including 500 shooting scripts from science fiction films; comic books, anime, and manga; and collectible ephemera and regalia, including cards, posters, pins and action figures.[3] The Collection contains several manuscript collections of essential Southern California-based speculative fiction writers, including papers of UC Irvine physicist and science fiction writer Gregory Benford’s, and those of David Brin who wrote Uplift War and Sundiver.

Another major science fiction collection is held at the University Archives & Special Collections of California State University, Fullerton’s Pollak Library,[4] which includes original science fiction manuscripts, books and related materials of several U.S. authors including Philip K. Dick, Frank Herbert, and Ray Bradbury. As a side note, Dick died in nearby Santa Ana, and I once made a trek to his last known address. It is the site where he supposedly received the pink beam of light from God that revealed that the Roman Empire had never ended.[5] Additionally, The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino holds the papers of Octavia E. Butler,[6] author of Kindred (1979), and arguably the most prominent African-American woman in the field of science fiction.

Over the years there have been periodic academic conferences of science fiction studies held in Riverside, sometimes connected directly to the Eaton Collection and other times organized by faculty like Sherryl Vint, a professor in UCR’s Media and Cultural Studies Department, who specializes in technoculture and science fiction film history.

These conferences are usually less for the fan and more for the scholar of science fiction and fantasy. Without the exuberance of Comic-Con[7] or the World Science Fiction Convention[8] that has been going strong for seven decades, no one dresses as their favorite Star Wars or anime character; rather, unkempt clothes and mussed hair are the scholarly fashion. Additionally, it is not a gathering spot for Hollywood’s film industry, which is one aspect of Comic-Con’s metamorphosis. Instead, it is the serious underbelly to the glitz, and a place for the absorption of true cutting-edge ideas and writing in the field of science fiction, or speculative fiction, studies.

The most recent conference at UC Riverside in 2016 was sponsored by the Science Fiction Research Association (SFRA).[9] Its overarching theme, “Unknown Pasts/Unseen Futures,” was meant to stimulate reflection on the future of scholarship of marginalized authors and subjects. It also reflected upon how science fiction studies at UCR are challenging the genre’s canons. This is exemplified with panel papers that included titles[10] like Cole Jack Pittman’s “Crip (Community) Futurism: Science Fiction as a Method for Analyzing Disabled Community Building, Networking, and Resource Sharing”; Joshua Odam’s “Fear of a Black Universe: Afrofuturism, Speculative Fiction, and the Black Liberatory Imagination”; Joan Haran’s “California Dreaming: Dystopian and Utopian Calls to Action in Parable of the Sower and The Fifth Sacred Thing”; and Kathryn Page-Lippsmeyer’s “Excessive Cyborging: Using Techno-Orientalism to consider Oshii Mamoru’s Ghost in the Shell: Innocence.” Additionally, the conference’s keynote speaker was author Nnedi Okorafor, writer of fantasy, science fiction, and speculative fiction, who is perhaps best known for her Binti series that entwines African culture into a future imaginary. Okorafor’s work can also be couched historically under Afrofuturism, which underpins Mundos Alternos.

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Sun Ra in California and Afrofuturism

Afrofuturism uses science fiction and cyberculture in a speculative manner, just as cyber-feminism does. It is an escape from the externally imposed definition of what it means to be black (or exotically African) in Western culture, and it is a cultural rebellion drawing on techno-culture, turntables and remixes as technological and instrumental forms. By placing black man in space, out of the reach of racist stereotypes, Afrofuturism allows for a critique of both the history of the West and its techno-cultures.

The tenets of Afrofuturism became a foundation on which notions of Mundos Alternos have been built. Coined in 1994 by Mark Dery in his essay, “Black to the Future,”[11] Afrofuturism refers to a creative and intellectual genre that emerged as a strategy to explore science fiction, fantasy, magical realism, and Pan-Africanism, perhaps best exemplified by African-American musicians such as Sun Ra and George Clinton, and writers like Ishmael Reed, Amiri Baraka, Steven Barnes, Octavia Butler, and Samuel Delany.[12]

Space Is the Place, organized in 2016 by New York City-based Independent Curator’s International, traveled the U.S. as a group exhibition with artists’ work inspired by nostalgia and speculation about outer space. The title was taken from a 1974 science fiction film of the same name that featured Sun Ra and his Arkestra.

During the late 1960s and early ’70s, Sun Ra traveled to California and taught a course titled, “The Black Man in the Cosmos,” at UC Berkeley. The film is based, in part, on the lectures he gave there in which he articulated many nuanced views like “I’d rather a black man go to Mars… than to Africa… because it’s easier,”[13] referring to the difficulty of a westernized African-American seeking roots back in Africa. The basic plot is that Sun Ra lands on a new planet in outer space and decides to settle African-Americans there. Seven years later, in 2013, the Studio Museum in Harlem presented The Shadows Took Shape, an interdisciplinary exhibition exploring contemporary art through the lens of Afrofuturist aesthetics.[14] Since then, one of the exhibition’s curators, Naima J. Keith, has become the deputy director for exhibitions and programs at the California African American Museum in Los Angeles. In one of the exhibition catalogue essays, nearly twenty years after Dery, Tegan Bristow updates a definition of Afrofuturism:

Afrofuturism uses science fiction and cyberculture in a speculative manner, just as cyber-feminism does. It is an escape from the externally imposed definition of what it means to be black (or exotically African) in Western culture, and it is a cultural rebellion drawing on techno-culture, turntables and remixes as technological and instrumental forms. By placing black man in space, out of the reach of racist stereotypes, Afrofuturism allows for a critique of both the history of the West and its techno-cultures.

Afrofuturism uses science fiction and cyberculture in a speculative manner, just as cyber-feminism does. It is an escape from the externally imposed definition of what it means to be black (or exotically African) in Western culture, and it is a cultural rebellion drawing on techno-culture, turntables and remixes as technological and instrumental forms. By placing black man in space, out of the reach of racist stereotypes, Afrofuturism allows for a critique of both the history of the West and its techno-cultures.[15]

These examples stretching between 2001 and 2015 indicate how the visual arts have historically looked at race and social difference through a lens of science fiction cultural production. Mundos Alternos proceeds from here.

As one reads the book and peruses the exhibition, we hope viewers feel like their thoughts and experience become part of proto science fiction Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges’ unbounded library, or that inklings of the Aztec empire existing on the Moon are experienced. Or perhaps participants may walk the streets of Los Angeles anew and feel moments of being part of the first Xicano science fiction novel by East L.A. born Ernest Hogan, where in Cortez on Jupiter (1990)[16] Pablo Cortez sprays graffiti across L.A. and paints in zero gravity, all in an effort to make a masterpiece for the universe and his barrio.

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Erica Bohm (Buenos Aires, Argentina), 21 works from the “Planet Stories” series, 2013, Instax Fujifilm, 12 x 11 inches each (framed). Courtesy of the artist and THE MISSION, Chicago.


How A Meteorite Inspired Twenty Years of Curating from the Cosmos

I came to the recent realization that a particular news story affected many exhibitions that I organized over the past twenty years, which touched upon outer space themes: it was the possible discovery of fossilized Martian bacterial life in 1996, based on the observation of carbonate globules in a small section of a meteorite called the Allan Hills 84001 (usually abbreviated as ALH 84001). It was found several years earlier in Allan Hills, Antarctica in 1984 by U.S. meteorite hunters, but it was not until much later that careful analysis was applied to it.[17] In September 2017, with the opening of Mundos Alternos: Art and Science Fiction in the America, I now realize the impact that the meteorite has had on my curatorial endeavors.

My first curatorial venture inspired by the Martian meteorite was Are We Touched, Identities from Outer Space (1997). It coincided with NASA’s first lander on Mars and the 50th anniversary of the reported U.F.O. crash in Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947. The exhibition featured a range of artists, including those fascinated by the cultural phenomenon of U.F.O.’s but would not label themselves as believers, such as Southern California artists Deborah Aschheim and Connie Samaras, to artists who felt they may have had an unexplained experience that provided inspiration for their work, but would not admit to it openly for fear of rejection. And there were also people who would not call their work “art” but rather a visual representation of an experience that they felt they did occur, like with alien abductee and artist David Huggins.

The pop cultural highlight for me was when Huggins was invited as a guest on a daytime talk show based in Los Angeles, Leeza, which is no longer in production. The artist claimed to have interbred with an extraterrestrial that he named Crescent, as she came to him only when there was a crescent moon, producing upwards of 200-plus hybrid human/extraterrestrial offspring. In 2014, a documentary was released about his alien sexual encounters, Love and Saucers: The Far Out World of David Huggins. Huggins states, “The reason why extra-terrestrials are interested in me is not because of my physical body but what’s inside—my soul.”[18]

Are We Touched was followed by Cyborg Manifesto, or The Joy of Artifice (2001), which featured twenty-six artists who explored changes in a tech-driven age. Theorist Donna Haraway coined the first part of the title, “Cyborg Manifesto.” I found kinship with her viewpoint of the cyborg as a metaphor for discussing hybridity, whether in terms of gender issues, genetics, or cross-cultural encounters. In other words, I was less concerned with thinking of the cyborg as a humanoid robot in which human and machine merged. Rather, I was interested in the impossibility of the notion of purity.

Accordingly, I thought it possible that Martian meteorites landed on an ancient earth and provided an important element to the primordial soup that gave rise to life. So, when looking through a telescope at planet Mars, we actually see an abandoned home. In this way, any human sense of feeling pure dissolves. Once we consider ourselves apart from Earth, we are all aliens and immigrants.

In 2009, I co-organized with artist Rachel Mayeri, Intelligent Design: Interspecies Art. It was a group exhibition of twenty international artists exploring human interaction with animals through a collection of provocative video installations, photographs, paintings, and sculptures. I saw this exhibition having a further development of the desire to make contact with other sentient beings. In this case, ones already present on Earth.

Artists in the exhibition collaborated with cockroaches, pigeons, dogs, cats, ants, bears, baboons, rats, spiders, and trout, which may have been domesticated, imaginary, laboratory, modeled, or wild. Curious about the animal’s point of view, artists designed their projects as a form of conversation or inquiry about the nonhuman world. Their artwork challenged the anthropocentric perspective of the world, placing human perception on par with other animals. Inspired by Darwin, the environmental movement, and species collapse, Intelligent Design envisioned a paradigm shift in which human beings are no longer the center of the Universe.

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Rigo 23 (Los Angeles), Autonomous InterGalactic Space Program, 2009—resent (ongoing). Mixed media, dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist and Anglim Gilbert Gallery, San Francisco.

Another paradigm shift, this time in U.S. policy, that would allow private companies to go into outer space inspired the 2013 exhibition, Free Enterprise: The Art of Citizen Space Exploration,[19] which I co-organized with artist Marko Peljhan. Civilian space travel and space exploration represents a major political and cultural shift away from sponsorship by the federal government and toward a private enterprise model. The possibility of fulfilling the human dream to fly into space has been encouraged by a major political and cultural shift away from state-sponsored space activities, which were controlled by agencies such as NASA in the USA, JAXA in Japan and RKA in Russia, towards a private enterprise model.

Its presentation in 2013 arrived at a time when several private enterprise ventures had come to fruition. They included the successful launch in May 2012 of the Falcon 9 vehicle and the Dragon space capsule by Elon Musk’s Space X company based in Hawthorne, California, which rendezvoused with the International Space Station, the soon-to-be-completed spaceport in New Mexico that will be the launch site for Virgin Galactic’s space tourism program, and the burgeoning efforts of XCOR Aerospace, a Mojave-based company, north of Los Angeles near Edwards Air Force Base.

These developments signal that we are at a dawn of a new radical change in near-Earth space exploration. Engaging artists directly in this discussion at an early stage is extremely important: it is the technology and capital that allow for exploration, but it is the imagination and the spiritual capital that create a new state of mind open to a broader awareness of humanity and other life, both on Earth and beyond.

One of my favorite projects in Free Enterprise was by artist Richard Clar, based in northern California, which links back to my interests developed with Intelligent Design. He turned toward art-in-space in 1982 with a NASA-approved art payload for the U.S. Space Shuttle, Space Flight Dolphin (SFD). Approved by NASA, SFD was an interdisciplinary art-in-space SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) project designed to be deployed in low-Earth orbit from the cargo bay of the U.S. Space Shuttle. The dolphin sculpture/satellite would have transmitted a signal modulated by dolphin “voices” that might have been detected or sensed by extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI). As the sculpture/satellite orbited the Earth, the dolphin voices would have been monitored in various museums around the world and on the Internet, providing a link between different peoples and cultures on our own planet. The project suggested that humans might first consider trying to communicate with other very intelligent beings on Earth before considering extraterrestrial communication.

Mundos Alternos: Art and Science Fiction in the Americas represents the most recent project inspired by the 1996 Martian meteorite bacteria imaginary. Perhaps it is the meteorite’s transcendent materiality—an object likely older than humankind—that has stuck with me. Mundos Alternos focuses on the materiality of being present in artists’ studios and exploring science fiction, not through literature and film, but through the uncanny presence of an art object that seems transcendent too.


Slipstream Islands of Strange Things: Building Mundos Alternos in the Americas
[20]

World building is a major element of the science fiction genre. History, geography, economics, demographics, physics, cosmology, transportation, religion, technology, food, and the culture of an imaginary world are elements under consideration by authors, filmmakers, and game makers. The test for a reader, viewer, or participant is to suspend their present-day logic so that they can feel present in a virtual future. The challenge for the maker is to reconsider ongoing tropes, like anything called “Empire” being absolutely evil; an entire world being defined as if it had one purpose, such as the desert world of Arrakis in Frank Herbert’s novel Dune (1965); and then the altogether prevalent, homogenous alien race that may populate an entire planet or galaxy. Embracing diversity is a major underlying theme of Mundos Alternos.

It is hard to say whether there is a particular genre of science-fiction fine art, per se, at least within the context of the international, contemporary art world that the Mundos Alternos artists inhabit. Here, I separate the world of the more familiar cover art, movie posters, comic books, and illustrated stories, arguing that the contemporary art-making endeavor represents a kind of science fictional process that results in a slipstream artifact, or strange thing.

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Gyula Kosice, Maquette I, Maquette K, Maquette L, 1965-75, Exhibition prints. Courtesy of Kosice Museum, Buenos Aires.


Slipstream Immigration

“Slipstream,” a phrase coined by science fiction author Bruce Sterling and colleague Richard Dorsett in 1989, applied primarily to literature that includes elements of science fiction, also called speculative fiction, in order to create a sense of the uncanny, of weirdness in the world, of dissonance between what one thinks is real and the feeling that other layers exist beyond the senses upon which we rely. More than twenty-five years ago, Sterling wrote in the essay in which he coined the term, “It seems to me that the heart of slipstream is an attitude of peculiar aggression against ‘reality.’ These are fantasies of a kind, but not fantasies which are ‘futuristic’ or ‘beyond the fields we know.’ These books tend to sarcastically tear at the structure of ‘everyday life.’”[21]

A recent and notable Latin American slipstream example is Junot Díaz’s novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007). Its settings range from New Jersey to the Dominican Republic, featuring a science fiction-obsessed boy who eventually dies, though the reasons for the death are ambiguous. The result of a fukú curse? The lingering vestiges of a corrupt society as result of the Dominican Republic’s former dictator, Rafael Trujillo? Or perhaps an inseparable mixture of both family, political scourges, and colonialism as filtered through the allegory of the science fiction genre?

Commenting on his falling for science fiction, Díaz said in a recent interview, “I fell for [the] genre because I desperately needed it—in my personal mythology, [the] genre helped me create an operational self. I suspect I resonated with the world-building in many of these texts because that’s precisely what I was engaged in as a young immigrant.” He then added, “Alien invasions, natives, slavery, colonies, genocide, racial system, savages, technological superiority, forerunner races and the ruins they leave behind, travel between worlds, breeding programs, superpowered whites, mechanized regimes that work humans to death, human/alien hybrids, lost worlds—all have their roots in the traumas of colonialism.”[22]

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Beatriz Cortez (Los Angeles). Memory Insertion Capsule, 2017 (in progress). Mixed media, c. 144 x 144 inches, exact dims tbd. Courtesy of the artist.


Contemporary Art as Speculative Technology

For a visual artist, the magic of their own making occurs when a preconceived notion takes a different turn during the process; leading them down a road that they could not have expected without taking the first step of manipulating materials with their hand. It is a method that intertwines haptic, optic, and cognitive processes. In regard to contemporary visual art, an artist’s methodology of process and product are inseparable from one another and therefore slipstream inherently. This slipstream aspect in visual art to which I allude is where the difference lies between it, writing, and filmmaking. There is a physical manifestation of the artist’s idea into the world—that is, it does not remain an imaginary one in a reader’s mind nor an untouchable screen image. Rather, it is a physical object that rests in a world where viewers can interact with it through touch, smell, and sound, or perhaps walk back and forth from it, around it, or through it.

Los Angeles-based art critic Jan Tumlir expressed a similar notion about the relationship between contemporary art and science fiction when he wrote about the Orange County Museum of Art’s 2007 California Biennial. He said, “The young artists on the West Coast are operating in an idiom closely linked to science-fiction.”[23] He goes on to list some of the science fiction tropes with which they are engaged: future and alien civilizations, time travel, colonization, “the redefinition of the idea of the human in response to the other, either alien or handmade,” and so on. More specifically, he wrote that, due to the materiality of visual art, “Intensive concentration on these various artifacts is aimed at somehow ‘breaking through.’”

The emphasis on artist made physical objects, or slipstream, science fictional artifacts, is the major reason for the absence in the exhibition and book of classic visual memorabilia that one associates with the science fiction genre: book cover art, comic books, and movie posters, to name a few. This is as opposed to the unique object generated by visual artists that can exist in only one location; thus, it requires a pilgrimage to the site, such as a gallery, museum, collector’s home, public plaza, or artist studio.

A turn towards re-engagement with materiality, and its place within an increasingly screen-based cultural environment, is underscored by a recent exhibition at the Leopold Museum in Vienna, Austria. The Poetics of the Material (2016) was a group exhibition in which “contemporary art, which can be regarded as being aligned with ‘new materialism,’ attempts to give expression to the interpenetration of material phenomena and immaterial aspects of reality. The latter reveal themselves in the meaning of language or in the influence of cultural narratives on the perception of reality.”[24]

In a sense, I have felt often, throughout the visits with artists for Mundos Alternos, that I have engaged in a type of “retro-labeling,” as described by Rachel Haywood Ferreira in her seminal book, The Emergence of Latin American Science Fiction (2011). She outlined the process towards defining a science fiction genre in Latin American literature in light of the genre’s already prescribed nature in the United States and Europe. Haywood wrote, “Although the genealogy of science fiction has been actively traced in its countries of origin since the moment Gernsback formally baptized the genre, in Latin America this process did not get underway until the late 1960s and continues today.”[25] Initially, her process identified texts in the late 19th and 20th centuries in Latin America, primarily in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Colombia, due to the strength of publishing in those countries, where there were science fictional tendencies. The most immediate and prominent examples of retro-labeled works were the ubiquitous and highly marketed “magic realism” novels and short stories of Argentine Jorges Luis Borges’s A Universal History of Infamy (1935), Colombian Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), and Chilean Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits (1982).

In this regard, my two co-curators and I sought contemporary visual artists in Mundos Alternos who employed science fictional or slipstream thinking rather than literal science fiction elements. Driven by the theme of the show, we saw in their work, and through conversations during studio visits, that they demonstrated a commitment and influence from science fiction literature and film. The main theme that occupied them was a consideration of the future, focusing on post-colonization, labor, surveillance, environment, and hemispherical connections, viewed through the lens of art. However, what remains to be the biggest difference, and what I hope to be the contribution of this exhibition and book to the burgeoning scholarship around Latino and Latin American science fiction studies, is the effect of the material nature of visual art whose subject matter is science fictional.

Visual art exists as though a magical or a yet-to-be speculative technology has in fact manifested itself from the future into the present. They are strange objects whose message(s) are ambiguous. It requires work on the part of its viewer, who must be willing to engage with said object in order to receive meaning from it. I am not suggesting that there is a single, hidden meaning to be ascertained, but that its meaning is determined in part through a viewer’s interaction with it, as if a close encounter of the third kind, in which contact is made with alien beings, whose language we not yet know.

Meaning being determined in part by a book’s reader, for example, is a characteristically postmodern notion that accounts for paradox, unreliable narrators, and undermining the authority of the writer through metafiction techniques. However, I employ it here in order to demonstrate that this postmodern methodology can be different when dealing with strange objects versus literature and film.

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Fighting for the Future

One difference between Anglo and Latino science fiction is that making it to the future is something that can’t be ignored. The future isn’t a given, it will have to be fought for. And if you don’t fight for it, you might not get there.

The artistic inclination to pastiche disparate materials and ideas together generates uncanniness through its physical manifestation. This technique creates a slipstream or science fictional effect of “cognitive estrangement,” to borrow a phrase from science fiction theorist Darko Suvin, where the material and conceptual smashups provide a platform for viewers to look at their immediate society differently. Suvin might suggest that one’s viewpoint could be shifted to the point that there is recognition of one’s oppression and therefore, with a new view of the world, begin to resist, which is the major subtext for Mundos Alternos.[26]

To illustrate further, East L.A. born Ernest Hogan, author of the seminal Chicano science fiction novel, High Aztech (1992), wrote ten years after its publication in his blog on Latino science fiction, La Bloga, “I’ve always been more interested in science fiction as a confrontation with changing reality rather than escapism. And as a Chicano, I’m plugged into cultural influences that most science fiction writers don’t have access to.”[27] Three years later, after participating in “A Day of Latino Science Fiction” symposium at UC Riverside, he wrote in another La Bloga post: “One difference between Anglo and Latino science fiction is that making it to the future is something that can’t be ignored. The future isn’t a given, it will have to be fought for. And if you don’t fight for it, you might not get there.”[28]

I would add that Hogan’s use of the phrase “plugged into” is embodied, literally, by Mundos Alternos with Los Angeles-based artist Alex Rivera’s film, Sleep Dealer (2008), which finds nodes inserted into one’s body to allow Mexican workers to work in the U.S. virtually, and thus the United States get its labor, but doesn’t have to deal with their bodies. It was preceded by Rivera’s more experimental videos that featured what he called, the “cybracero,” which is a clever, techno inflected twist on the bracero program in the U.S. from1942 to 1965 which brought millions of Mexican guest workers to the U.S.[29]

Sherryl Vint, UC Riverside professor of English, science fiction studies scholar, and Mundos Alternos research team members and contributor to this book, invited both Hogan and Rivera to UC Riverside’s campus. As organizer of “A Day of Latino Science Fiction,” she said, “Our event will foster discussion of the specific ways Latino writers negotiate science fiction’s relationship to the colonialist imagination, and its possibilities for imagining more ethnically inclusive futures.”[30]

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Rigo 23 (Los Angeles), Autonomous InterGalactic Space Program, 2009—resent (ongoing). Mixed media, dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist and Anglim Gilbert Gallery, San Francisco.


Accessing Gateways or
Las puertas

As curators, and with the visual arts in general, it is necessary to travel in order to see the work. This is a different experience than with film or literature where one can go to the local cinema or read in the comfort of a home where, theoretically, any engaged individual would be reading or viewing the same text or image shared by others. This is not the case in the visual arts where, at least in the context of this show, the materiality of a unique, strange object requires one’s presence. This means that, as a curator, my colleagues and I had to travel to the objects’ location. Rather than being deskbound or screenbound, footwork was involved to access gateways, or las puertas, to mundos alternos.

The future is their inseparability yet, at least for the moment, the artists in this show who focus on their slipstream artworks, present islands of materiality for salvation. For those of us who have not succumbed to screen-culture completely, we may commiserate on these islands throughout the Americas and plan the next world to build where water is free and flows.

Much further south of the border, a more recent revolution in Chiapas, Mexico, was explored by Portuguese-born, Los Angeles-based artist Rigo 23. For several years, he worked with indigenous groups in Chiapas, which aim for equal rights or autonomy from the Mexican government. Rigo 23 chose to extend Subcomandante Marcos and the Zapatista Army of National Liberation’s (EZLN) use of poetics through workshops with the Good Government Junta of Morelia, Chiapas.[31]

Through this art making with Rigo 23, they envisioned autonomy as having occurred already. They asked how they would then represent themselves beyond Earth, on an intergalactic level, emphasizing an indigenous, technoculture imaginary, calling their project the Autonomous InterGalactic Space Program (2012). Rigo 23 suggested that to imagine autonomy and to begin to materialize strange objects around this notion puts one on the path towards generating a new vocabulary in the present-time to be used in the future, similar to how indigenous communities in Chiapas might negotiate with the Mexican government.

In this context, Rigo 23’s cornhusk spaceship from the project, which arose from Southern Chiapas, was destined to become an interplanetary traveling vegetable that nurtured recognition of any being, whether on Earth, or elsewhere, as one who deserved freedom, justice, and equality. From an intergalactic sensibility, social justice for the indigenous in Chiapas translates to all Earthlings who become collectively indigenous in the context of encountering other beings beyond our blue dot in the solar system.

In an ART21 interview, Rigo 23 recognized the value of traveling and through his presence becoming a wormhole in which he collapsed geo-political events in order to generate kinship:

I have come to realize that, often, the further one comes from an area of intense conflict, the more likely the locals are to give you the benefit of the doubt. So, as one talks about Leonard Peltier in East Jerusalem, or about going to Palestine in Wounded Knee, links and kinships that are invisible to most manifest themselves in wonderful and affirming ways. There is a mutual recognition that one is globalized in an entirely different way.[32]

In kinship with Rigo 23, Salvadoran-born, Los Angeles-based artist and professor of Central American studies, Beatriz Cortez, created several projects in which she aimed to enunciate a positive, future imaginary for an Indigenous population.

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Guillermo Bert (Los Angeles), The Visionary, 2012; Tarn, natural dyes, wood, 82 x 52 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Cortez’s La máquina de la fortuna or The Fortune Teller Machine (2014) is an interactive sculpture, developed in collaboration with the Guatemalan Kaqchikel Maya collective Kaqjay Moloj, and prints fortune messages in Kaqchikel and in Spanish. When a viewer presses a button, a thermal printer ejects a message from their collective desires that were programmed into the fortuneteller machine. The messages are written in a future perfect verb tense, as if predicting what will become, hopefully, a reality soon. A sample list of possible, future-tense messages that a viewer may receive from this portal to the future include:

Xtik’oje’ jun raxnäq k’aslen
Habrá justicia
There will be justice

Xtiqetamaj achike ru ma xe kamisäx ri qawinaq
Sabremos la verdad
We will know the truth

Xtiqaya’ ruq’ij ri kib’anob’al ri qatit qamama’
Estaremos orgullosos de nuestro pasado
We will be proud of our past

Xti ak’axäx ri k’ayewal qa chajin
Nuestra voz será escuchada
Our voice will be heard

Chiqonojel xtiqil ru b’eyal ri qak’aslen
Tendremos oportunidades
We will have opportunities 

Xtik’oje’ jun qak’aslen ri man xkojyax ta pa k’ayewal
Seremos libres
We will be free

Brought together under the Mundos Alternos moniker, Beatriz Cortez and Rigo 23, the former from El Salvador and the latter from Portugal, demonstrate cross-cultural affinities as they engage technology closely tied to Indigenous communities. This approach is mindful of Indigenous knowledge and expertise with devices, which have often been cast as archaic and unsophisticated within Western colonization. Another Mundos Alternos artist, Guillermo Bert, born in Chile, but living in Los Angeles, has also worked closely with native communities to inform and realize their work. Bert’s Encoded Textiles tapestries were inspired by his observation that Quick Response (QR) code patterns often resemble the textile patterns woven by the Mapuche of Chile. He commissioned the woven works on view, which bear functional QR codes that link to dictums by tribal elders. He marries the encryption technologies of Indigenous woven textiles with contemporary digital ones, achieving the same goals but through different pathways.


Science Fictional Connectedness

From a curatorial perspective, the necessity of travel in cars, trains, planes, and by foot throughout the Americas became an experience in which the circulation of the kind of artwork that we sought became slipstream islands of materiality. Our radars were attuned to artists who viewed their art as platforms for investigating and questioning the immediate culture that surrounded them and the world at large, that is, embodying Suvin’s aforementioned cognitive estrangement.

In this regard, our visits became ones where citizens of alternative worlds found one another and cemented bonds through face-to-face meetings. We were surrounded by the artists’ slipstream artwork in their studios or their galleries, which became las puertas. It was by traveling through these wormholes, found throughout the Americas to islands of materiality (as opposed to “islands in the net,” to coin another phrase from Bruce Sterling’s 1988 novel with the same title), that I found an overall utopian experience of connectedness through material presence, rather than a dystopian one of disembodied connection through the telepresence of texts and screens. In other words, we were in true locations of the future, rather than just sensing, at an untouchable distance, the things to come.

In other words, we were in true locations of the future, rather than just sensing, at an untouchable distance, the things to come.

 


Notes

Mundos Alternos: Art and Science Fiction in the Americas is on view from 16 September 2017 through 4 February 2018. The opening party for Mundos Alternos is 30 September 2017 from 6:00 – 9:00 p.m. at UCR ARTSblock (http://artsblock.ucr.edu). UCR ARTSblock is open Tuesday – Thursday, 11 a.m. – 5 p.m.; Friday– Saturday, 11 a.m. – 7 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. – 4 p.m., and closed Mondays. Open late until 9 p.m. every first Thursday of the month. Admission is $5.

  • All photography taken by Sydney Santana.

[1] The Mundos Alternos curatorial team includes Robb Hernández, assistant professor of English at UCR; Tyler Stallings, artistic director of the Culver Center of the Arts at UCR ARTSblock; and Joanna Szupinska-Myers, California Museum of Photography (CMP) senior curator of exhibitions at UCR ARTSblock. Kathryn Poindexter, CMP assistant curator, is the project coordinator; and Sherryl Vint, director of the Speculative Fiction and Cultures of Science program at UCR, curated an accompanying film program and contributed an essay to the book. A heavily illustrated, 160-page book accompanies the exhibition, including original essays by the curators, contributions by Kathryn Poindexter and Rudi Kraeher, with additional essays by Kency Cornejo, Itala Schmelz, Alfredo Suppia, and Sherryl Vint, leading voices in science fiction studies and contemporary art of the Americas.

[2] The Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU), https://www.hacu.net/assnfe/cv.asp?ID=191.

[3] The Eaton Collection of Science Fiction & Fantasy, http://eaton.ucr.edu.

[4] University Archives & Special Collections, Pollak Library, California State University Fullerton, http://www.library.fullerton.edu/services/special-collections.php.

[5] See Philip K. Dick, The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick, Pamela Jackson and Jonathan Lethem, eds. (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011).

[6] The Huntington’s Octavia Butler archive, http://www.huntington.org/octaviabutler/.

[7] Comic-Con International in San Diego, http://www.comic-con.org

[8] World Science Fiction Convention, http://www.worldcon.org.

[9] Science Fiction Research Association (SFRA), http://www.sfra.org/sfra-annual-conference.

[10] Science Fiction Research Association 2016 conference program, http://www.sfra.org/Conference-Program.

[11] Mark Dery, “Black to the Future: Interviews with Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose,” in Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture, ed. Mark Dery (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994), 180.

[12] The passages in this section, “Sun Ra in California and Afrofuturism” are excerpted from Robb Hernández and Tyler Stallings, “Introduction” in Robb Hernández and Tyler Stallings, eds. Mundos Alternos: Art and Science Fiction in the Americas  (Riverside, CA: UCR ARTSblock, 2017), 13-14, 18-19.

[13] Recorded lecture from 1971 when Sun Ra served as artist-in-residence at UC Berkeley and offered the course, African-American Studies 198, “The Black Man in the Cosmos,” https://ubusound.memoryoftheworld.org/ra_sun/Ra-Sun_Berkeley-Lecture_1971.mp3.

[14] For more on “Shadows Took Shape” see, Naima J. Keith, and Zoe Whitley, eds. The Shadows Took Shape (New York: Studio Museum in Harlem, 2013).

[15] Tegan Bristow, “We Want the Funk: What is Afrofuturism to Africa?” in Naima J. Keith, and Zoe Whitley, eds., The Shadows Took Shape, (New York: Studio Museum in Harlem, 2013), 81.

[16] Ernest Hogan, Cortez on Jupiter (New York: Tor Books, 1990). Out of print. Now available for digital download at https://www.createspace.com/5026216.

[17] “Meteorite Yields Evidence of Primitive Life on Early Mars,” Jet Propulsion Laboratory, NASA, 7 August 1996, https://www2.jpl.nasa.gov/snc/nasa1.html.

[18] Sara C. Nelson, “Alien Abductee David Huggins ‘Lost His Virginity To Extra Terrestrial Woman Named Crescent’,” Huffington Post, 16 October 2014, http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2014/10/16/alien-abductee-david-huggins-lost-virginity-extra-terrestrial-woman-crescent_n_5995334.html.

[19] Online catalogue from 2013 for Free Enterprise: The Art of Citizen Space Exploration, http://sites.artsblock.ucr.edu/free-enterprise/.

[20] Excerpts from Tyler Stallings, “Slipstream Islands of Strange Things: Building Mundos Alternos in the Americas” in Robb Hernández and Tyler Stallings, eds., Mundos Alternos: Art and Science Fiction in the Americas (Riverside, CA: UCR ARTSblock, 2017), 130-143. An emphasis is placed on artists from California in these excerpts and includes additional text on artist Guillermo Bert that was not in the original published essay, along with a few additional comments that emphasize the California connection.

[21] Bruce Sterling, “Catscan 5: Slipstream,” sf Eye 5 (July 1989), online at https://w2.eff.org/Misc/Publications/Bruce_Sterling/Catscan_columns/catscan.05.

[22] Taryne Jade Taylor, “A Singular Dislocation: An Interview with Junot Diaz,” Paradoxa 26 (2015): 97-110.

[23] Jan Tumlir, “Sci-Fi Historicism, Part I: The Time Machine in Contemporary Los Angeles Art,” Flash Art 40 (March-April, 2007): 102-105.

[24] Leopold Museum, http://www.leopoldmuseum.org/en/exhibitions/78/the-poetics-of-the-material.

[25] Rachel Haywood Ferreira, The Emergence of Latin American Science Fiction (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2011), 1.

[26] Darko Suvin, “On the Poetics of the Science Fiction Genre,” College English 34 (December 1972): 372-82.

[27] Ernest Hogan, “Chicanonautica: Prophesy, High Aztech, and Nerve Jelly,” La Bloga, 5 February 2011, http://labloga.blogspot.com/2011/02/chicanonautica-prophesy-high-aztech-and.html

[28] Ernest Hogan, “Chicanonautica: Voyage to a Day of Latino Science Fiction,” La Bloga, 15 May 15, 2014, http://labloga.blogspot.com/2014/05/chicanonautica-voyage-to-day-of-latino.html.

[29] The Bracero History Archive, http://braceroarchive.org/about.

[30] “Latino Science Fiction Explored, UCR Science Fiction and Technoculture Studies Program hosts April 30 event,” UCR Today, https://ucrtoday.ucr.edu/21579.

[31] “The Good Government Juntas represent both the poetic, populist and the practical nature of the Zapatista struggle to build workable alternatives of autonomy locally, link present politics to traditional ways of organizing [sic] life in indigenous communities, and contrast with the ‘bad government’ of official representational politics in Mexico City.” See Paul Chatterton, “The Zapatista Caracoles and Good Governments: The Long Walk to Autonomy,” State of Nature (2007). http://www.stateofnature.org/?p=6119.

[32] Thom Donovan, “5 Questions (for Contemporary Practice) with Rigo 23,” ART21 Magazine, 20 January 2011, http://magazine.art21.org/2011/01/20/5-questions-for-contemporary-practice-with-rigo-23/#.Wb2PHtGX02x.

 

Tyler Stallings is artistic director at the Barbara and Art Culver Center of the Arts at UCR ARTSblock. He was chief curator at Laguna Art Museum prior to his arrival at UCR in 2006. He received his MFA from California Institute of the Arts. His curatorial projects focus on contemporary art, with a special emphasis on the exploration of identity, technology, photo-based work, and urban culture. For more information see http://tylerstallings.com.

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

 

 

Photography/Art

On the Road to the Summer of Love

Dennis McNally

Editor’s Note: In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love, the California Historical Society’s “On the Road to the Summer of Love” tells the story of this countercultural movement through an ambitious photographic exhibition. The selection of images and text included with this article are reproduced from the larger exhibition and highlight a portion of the cultural and contextual features that led up to the 1967 Summer of Love. The full exhibition will be on display through 24 September 2017 at 678 Mission Street, San Francisco.


The Summer of Love

The community that grew up in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood  from 1965 to 1967  was part of a vital tradition celebrating personal freedom and the right of peaceful protest that has traveled through American history since Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1954). The thread is intrinsic to San Francisco, which as Thoreau began his masterpiece was emerging during California’s Gold Rush. The forty-niners were not dutiful servants of the Protestant work ethic but rogues gambling their lives for gold, scamps who cherished an eccentricity uniquely American.

Today, fifty years from the Summer of Love, its impact—social, cultural, economic, political, psychosexual—continues its ripples through American culture. Its unabashed pursuit of liberation triggered all manner of questioning of gender identity. LSD challenged social hierarchies, which had a particular impact on engineers around Palo Alto; without the West Coast psychedelic ethos, Silicon Valley and the development of the personal computer may have happened in Boston. It also created sensitivity to what one put in one’s body that led to natural foods and the organic food industry. The music and graphic art of the subculture swept the globe and seized young imaginations everywhere.

All this and more remains with us: the origins of the revolutionary maelstrom begin with the tribal elders known as the Beat Generation, succeeding important political events and the mind-changing effects of a powerful avant-garde art scene. Combined with psychedelics and rock and roll, the result was the creation of a new consciousness, which we call the Summer of Love.


The Beats

3

Helen Haight and Don Graham at Grant and Green, 1958, Jerry Stoll (1923-2004); courtesy of Jerry Stoll Photography.

The roots of the Haight-Ashbury scene arose in a small cluster of disaffected writers repulsed by the monstrous death and destruction birthed from World War II. In 1944, a seaman and Columbia University dropout named Jack Kerouac fell in with Columbia students Allen Ginsberg and Lucien Carr and another man, William S. Burroughs. They created a “new vision,” a mix of transcendentalism and bohemianism that evolved into “Beat,”[1] a rejection of mainstream bourgeois American beliefs and an advocacy of art and spirituality pursued through intense experience.

Their friend Neal Cassady settled in San Francisco, and then Kerouac and Ginsberg followed. Here Ginsberg blossomed as a poet, producing Howl in 1955. He first read it at the Six Gallery along with sympathetic companions and fellow readers Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, and others, with the elder of the city’s poetry scene, Kenneth Rexroth, as master of ceremonies. Howl was published the next year by Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Press. Along with Kerouac’s 1957, On the Road, the poem inspired young artists to align with the idea of Beat, especially in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood.


Protest Movements

A succession of youth-dominated political events prepared the ground for the consciousness labeled the Summer of Love. In 1960, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) came to San Francisco’s City Hall to hold hearings, and the students of UC Berkeley and San Francisco State University demanded the right to attend. They were not only denied entrance, but forced down the hall’s grand staircase by firehoses. Outside, students and left-wing unionists mocked HUAC with Nazi salutes; the once-terrifying power of the committee would soon disintegrate.

In 1964, students from the two schools came together again, this time to challenge white-only hiring among the auto dealers along San Francisco’s Van Ness Avenue and at the Sheraton Palace Hotel. After nonviolent picketing and hundreds of arrests, they achieved victory when the car dealers and hotel owners agreed to integrate.

10

Barbara Dane, Vietnam Protest, 1964, by Erik Weber.

11

Auto Row Protest, “We Want Jobs,” by Joe Rosenthal, San Francisco Chronicle; courtesy of the San Francisco Chronicle

Later that year, students at UC Berkeley created the Free Speech Movement, as they named it, and challenged the limits on political free speech in the university’s Sproul Plaza in what developed into a countercultural critique of a technocratic university treating education as a product. The mass arrests and frequent violence surrounding the FSM presaged many more such incidents to come across the nation, as well as the ensuing reaction that helped elect Ronald Reagan as California governor and later US president, jumpstarting a nascent conservative movement still ascendant in 2017.

Coupled with an awakening sexual liberation stimulated by birth control and ongoing Vietnam War protests, many young people in the Bay Area evolved a very new perspective by the mid-1960s. The experiences, experiments, and beliefs of those “hipsters” or “hippies” would soon rock the world.

12

Mario Savio on top of Police Car, University of California, Berkeley, 1964, photo by Ronald L. Enfield (b. 1945).

13

Crowd led by FSM Banner through Sather Gate, Regents’ Meeting, University of California, Berkeley, 1964, photo by Ronald L. Enfield (b. 1945).


Arts Ferment

An underappreciated element of the cultural and intellectual flowering of the Haight-Ashbury scene is the role played by various avant-garde arts group and individuals over the previous decade. The Actor’s Workshop, the Tape Music Center, the Committee and Lenny Bruce, the Open Theater, Canyon Cinema—each had a heavy impact on young people whose minds had been opened by Beat poetry and political events. Two groups emerged as particularly significant.

The Actor’s Workshop would have a far-reaching impact, bringing serious theater to San Francisco with plays by Samuel Beckett, Bertolt Brecht, Harold Pinter, and Jean Genet. They sought, wrote co-director Herb Blau, to “shock, disturb, remind, tease and infuriate our audiences.” They succeeded. Among the veterans of AW was former assistant director Ronnie Davis, founder of the legendary San Francisco Mime Troupe.

The Tape Music Center, founded by Ramon Sender and Morton Subotnick with Pauline Oliveros, Bill Maginnis, and Tony Martin, would challenge the notion of what music was. It was central to the development of modern avant-garde music, and its propensity for interacting with other groups—for instance composing for the Actor’s Workshop, the San Francisco Mime Troupe, and avant-garde dancer Anna Halprin—made it an aesthetic nexus in the scene.

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Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter, 1962, by Jerry Melrose (b. 1939); courtesy of the artist.

Untitled [S.F. Mime Troupe] circa 1966

San Francisco Mime Troupe, c. 1966. Photo by Gene Anthony; from the collection of the California Historical Society.


The Catalysts

Poetry, politics, and avant-garde art were the elements in the alembic chamber (wherein alchemists tried to change base metals into gold). LSD and rock and roll were the final agents that catalyzed a remarkable transmutation in the minds of the Haight’s new citizens. The need for spiritual transcendence is a fundamental aspect of humanity, and LSD was a revolutionary agent of change, making the psychedelic experience exponentially more accessible—inexpensive, powerful, and easily obtained in San Francisco. It found a perfect partner in high-volume, visceral rock and roll.

In the summer of 1965, the San Francisco band the Charlatans took over the Red Dog Saloon in Virginia City, Nevada, and became the first band to routinely combine LSD, a light show, and rock and roll. Later that year, author Ken Kesey and his friends the Merry Pranksters began a series of parties where LSD was available, dubbing them Acid Tests. They grew very quickly, and reached their apogee in January 1966 at the Trips Festival at Longshoreman’s Hall, with thousands in attendance. Many of the avant-garde arts groups—the Tape Music Center, Anna Halprin, the Open Theater—took part, but it was Tony Martin’s light show and the rock and roll bands (the Grateful Dead, Big Brother, and the Holding Company) that people embraced.

16

Ken Kesey and Carolyn Adams at Courthouse, 1966, San Francisco Chronicle; courtesy of the San Francisco Chronicle.

17c

Hit of Blotter Acid, 1981; courtesy of Mark McCloud.

18

Avalon Ballroom, 1967, by Ben Van Meter (b. 1941); courtesy of the artist.

19

Jefferson Airplane at the Monterey Jazz Festival, 1966, by Stephen Rees (b. 1948); courtesy of the artist.

[The Grateful Dead on steps of 710 Ashbury Street headquarters,

Grateful Dead on steps of 710 Ashbury Street headquarters, c. 1966, photo by Gene Anthony; from the collection of the California Historical Society.


The Real Summer of Love

The true Summer of Love was not the public affair of 1967, but the private social experiments that took place largely in the Haight-Ashbury in 1966. Among the most fondly remembered of these was a pair of parties at Olompali, a large home in Marin County where the Grateful Dead had taken up residence for the summer. Inviting their friends—members of Jefferson Airplane, the Charlatans, Big Brother and the Holding Company, among others—they played, danced, and got quite high in the private, natural setting of the ranch.

Back in the city, a psychedelic neighborhood sprang up along Haight Street. Hip businesses like Mnasidika, the Psychedelic Shop, and In Gear opened. The Avalon Ballroom and Fillmore Auditorium presented music, poster artists advertised the shows with extraordinary creativity, and a community grew. By fall, the Haight had generated its own iconic social-theatrical-political visionary troupe, the Diggers, who would subvert the dominant paradigm with art and humor.

When LSD was made illegal on 6 October 1966, the Diggers and their friend Allen Cohen of the Haight’s newspaper the Oracle responded with the Love Pageant Rally, a celebration rather than a protest. At their request, the Grateful Dead played for free, and free music in the Panhandle and Golden Gate Park became a fixture of the Haight experience.

4

Fantasy Fair, Mill Valley, 1967, by Elaine Mayes (b. 1936); courtesy of the artist.

5

Cop Strings Orchids on Antennae, 1967, by Elaine Mayes (b. 1936); courtesy of the artist.

6

Jimi Hendrix at Monterey Pop, 1967, by Suki Hill (1941-2014); courtesy of the artist.


The Gathering of the Tribes

As 1966 drew to a close, there was a palpable sense of accomplishment in the Haight. Peace, joy, and love were actually working. A few hundred people had created something remarkably beautiful. It called for a celebration, and Allen Cohen and his artist friend Michael Bowen of the Haight’s Oracle newspaper conceived of a Gathering of the Tribes for a Human Be-In, to be held in Golden Gate Park on 14 January 1967.

Among those who came together, there were elder and mentor poets like Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, and Lew Welch; spiritual leaders like Timothy Leary and the apostle of Zen Buddhism in America, Shunryu Suzuki; various rock bands; and even the Berkeley radicals. They were celebrating, as someone remarked, nothing in particular. It was a truly wonderful day.

But it had enormous, unanticipated consequences. Up to that point, the Haight-Ashbury scene, whose members referred to themselves as “freaks,” had flown largely under mainstream society’s notice, not least because the group was actually quite small. But the Be-In attracted tens of thousands to the park, and the spell of invisibility vanished. The media descended, the phrase “hippie” became immortalized, and suddenly the trivial accoutrements of life in the Haight—long hair, flowers, extravagant clothing—were broadcast around the world.

[l to r: Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Allen Ginsberg, Freewheel

Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, and Alan Ginsberg at the Be-In, 1967, by Gene Anthony; from the collection of the California Historical Society.

8

Dizzy Gillespie at the Be-In, Polo Grounds, Golden Gate Park, 1967, by Erik Weber (b. 1940); from the collection of the California Historical Society.

[Winding down at the Be-In, Golden Gate Park, 1967 January 14]

Couple on Ground After Be-In, by Gene Anthony; from the collection of the California Historical Society.


Notes

[1] For a discussion of Kerouac’s understanding of “beat” as tramping along with a rucksack, and as beatitude, beatific, see Conversations with Jack Kerouac, ed. Kevin J. Hayes (Jackson: University of Mississippi, 2005), 31. With thanks to David L. Ulin for this reference.


Dennis McNally
is author, historian, and music publicist. He was the publicist for the Grateful Dead, is the band’s authorized biographer, and wrote the bestselling history of the band, A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead, as well as the recently published On Highway 61: Music, Race, and the Evolution of Cultural Freedom and Desolate Angel: Jack Kerouac, The Beat Generation, and America. He lives in San Francisco.

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

Interviews

A Boom Interview with California’s Poet Laureate

Dana Gioia

Editor’s note: Having served as chair of the National Endowment for the Arts from 2003 to 2009, Dana Gioia has long been known for his provocative essays, for his work in literary criticism, and especially for his poetry and advocacy of the craft. A native Californian born to Sicilian and Mexican immigrant parents in 1950 and raised in the southwest Los Angeles County industrial town of Hawthorne, as a first-generation college student, Gioia earned his BA from Stanford, MA in comparative literature from Harvard, and MBA back at Stanford, leading him into the business world decades before becoming a full-time writer.

With a seemingly ever-growing emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education in contemporary K-12 learning and in universities, a natural tendency has been to dismiss the arts and humanities as less important. This is as true in California as anywhere. And yet, as big questions remain and loom ever larger for California and its people, so does the importance of the arts and humanities for learning, for critical thinking, and for engagement with wider societal concerns. Consistent with California’s rich literary tradition, Gioia has contributed in many ways, with California Poetry: From the Gold Rush to the Present (Heyday), The Misread City (Red Hen), his essay “Fallen Western Star,” and in poems from his many collections including Pity the Beautiful (Graywolf) and 99 Poems (Graywolf). Together with his essays, Gioia takes up the task of the poet, for whom California reserves a special place.

While the title of State Poet Laureate has been held by California poets for over a century, the position became official in 2001 and is overseen by the California Arts Council, which conducts an intense nomination process, after which the governor chooses the poet laureate from three top candidates; then the appointee must be confirmed by the California State Senate. On 4 December 2015, Governor Edmund G. Brown, Jr. appointed Dana Gioia to this role. What follows is Gioia’s accounting of his work as California Poet Laureate, originally delivered to the California Senate Rules Committee and here revised with new questions for our Boom readers.

Boom:
You are California’s tenth poet laureate, serving a two-year governor-appointment. California has changed a lot over the years, as has the dynamic makeup of our state. What do you hope to accomplish in this role?

Gioia:
My goal as state poet laureate is to bring the power of poetry and literature to as many people and communities as possible across California. I especially want to reach people and places outside the major metropolitan areas. The state poet laureate should serve the whole state. For that reason, I have set the goal of visiting every county in California. Reaching all fifty-eight counties in two years perhaps may be too ambitious, but it seems the right target. With proper planning and the active partnership of county libraries and art councils, that goal should be achievable. I will give it my best effort.

Boom:
What are your plans to reach diverse regions and people in the state?

Gioia:
I want to reach all California. Our state is so large and varied that one needs to be systematic in covering the vast territory and meeting the diverse populations. That is why I have chosen the approach of trying to visit as many counties as possible. Of course, it will also be necessary to do multiple events in the metropolitan areas to reach different audiences. This second goal is easier since so many invitations come from urban areas. The key is to focus on invitations that reach different communities.

Boom:
Why is poetry significant, and why does it matter in today’s society?

Gioia:
Poetry is our most concise, expressive, and memorable way of using words to describe our existence. Poems awaken the imagination and memory to make us more alert to life. On both an individual and communal level, poems provide the language, ideas, and images to help us understand ourselves, our society, and the world. That is why poems are so often used to great effect at public occasions. They give people the words to articulate what they experience and feel. That is also why poetry has always been used in education. It not only develops a student’s mastery of language; it also enhances creativity, empathy, and emotional self-awareness.

Boom:
One of the functions of the California Poet Laureate, as with the United States Poet Laureate, is to create a cultural project during the appointment. Could you briefly describe your cultural project? How has it come to and involved artistically underserved communities?

Gioia:
My project has been to participate in at least one cultural event in every county in California—with a focus on creating a free event at each county’s public library. This approach is necessarily simple and flexible, then, and the events are either primarily literary or combine several arts, including poetry. In both cases, I have and will continue to involve local students, writers, musicians, and artists in each visit. I have already had local Poetry Out Loud high school champions participate in my public presentations and will continue to do so. By trying to visit every county, my public service, by definition, focuses on underserved communities.

Boom:
You teach in the university, but how does poetry become accessible rather than a mere academic pursuit for cultural elites?

Gioia:
I have spent most of my working life outside the university—in business, government, and journalism. I believe the pleasures and enlightenment of poetry are open to most people, not simply to an academic elite. Although I take myself seriously as an artist, I don’t see much point writing in ways that exclude the average intelligent person. Art without an audience is a diminished thing. This is one reason why I have been and plan to continue working with local civic institutions, especially libraries and art centers—local venues that are open to everyone. They are the best avenues to reach a broad and diverse audience. Mixing poetry with music and the other arts also makes events more accessible to the average person.

Boom:
How do you see poetry connecting to the minds of individuals in leadership and innovation throughout California, in both public and private sectors?

Gioia:
I have been and will continue to be open to invitations to meet and speak with leaders in both the public and private sectors. I have both held and have scheduled several talks at statewide or regional gatherings for librarians and high school teachers, with one for county officials. I also believe that our state finals for Poetry Out Loud in the Capitol building allows our elected representatives a chance to see the transformative power of poetry programs in the lives of students in their districts.

Boom:
Do you plan to collaborate with your predecessor, Juan Felipe Herrera, now the US Poet Laureate, or the State Librarian of California Greg Lucas, or any other government group

Gioia:
It is impossible for me to be an effective state poet laureate unless I collaborate with arts councils, libraries, schools, parks, museums, and city book festivals. As chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, I learned how much could be accomplished through partnerships. I consider myself a member of the State Arts Council team, and I involve them in everything I do. I am currently working with Greg Lucas to find an effective way of partnering with county libraries to help reach my goals. His support is essential to my success. As for the US Poet Laureate, I have also already done two public events—in Sacramento and Los Angeles—with Juan Felipe Herrera and have an invitation out to him for a third event in partnership with State Parks.

Boom:
Who among our California poets do you believe have had the greatest influence in California?

Gioia:
California has an extraordinary poetic tradition. When I led an editorial team to create the anthology California Poetry: From the Gold Rush to the Present, I found it challenging to limit our selections to only 100 poets. If I had to pick a central poet for the state, I would choose Robinson Jeffers. His vision of California’s landscape and wilderness has inspired three generations of writers, artists, and environmentalists. There has also been a great bohemian tradition with writers such as Kenneth Rexroth, William Everson, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Charles Bukowski. I also admire the great Theodor Geisel of San Diego, better known as Dr. Seuss. Among my favorite living California poets are Al Young, Shirley Geok-lin Lim, Ron Koertge, Juan Felipe Herrera, and Kay Ryan. Pulitzer Prize and MacArthur Award winner Ryan, who also served as US Poet Laureate, is probably my favorite living American poet. A master of ingenious, short poems that mix wisdom and surprise, she is California’s answer to Emily Dickinson.


Note

Dana Gioia is the ex-chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts and Poet Laureate of California. He received an MA in comparative literature from Harvard University and has published five full-length collections of poetry between 1986 and 2016.

Articles

Seeing Through Murals: The Future of Latino San Francisco

Lori A. Flores

In 1964, British sociologist Ruth Glass coined the term “gentrification” in her study of young creative professionals moving into the working-class, largely West Indian neighborhood of Islington, London. She explained, “Once this process of ‘gentrification’ starts in a district it goes on rapidly until all or most of the original working-class occupiers are displaced and the whole social character of the district is changed.”1 The late twentieth- and twenty-first-century tech-boom-related gentrification of San Francisco has undeniably changed the city’s character and its accessibility to the diverse groups—writers, artists, activists, the working class, queer people, and people of color—who have made it such a unique city in California and the world. In contrast to poet George Sterling who called San Francisco a “cool grey city of love” in 1920, writer Rebecca Solnit now deems it a “cold gray city of greed” as the incursion of new wealth has rapidly and violently displaced longtime residents.2

The predominantly Latino neighborhood of the Mission District has been particularly affected. In the longer historical view, San Francisco’s Latino demographic is highly distinctive because it has been strong and variegated since the nineteenth century. Central Americans, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, and Latin Americans of other nationalities moved there beginning in the Gold Rush era; the only other city to have such a diverse Latino population so early on was New York City (which claimed more of a Caribbean demographic), to be followed much later by cities like Los Angeles and Miami. The Mission District has been San Francisco’s “Latin” neighborhood since the 1940s, but now many fear it will lose that label as thousands of its Latino residents are evicted to make room for tech titans and their employees. While some may characterize this moment of gentrification as more economically than racially consequential, the data on tech industry hiring points to the contrary. A whopping 94 percent of Facebook’s employees are white or Asian while only 3 percent are Latino, 2 percent are mixed race, and 1 percent are black. Meanwhile, blacks and Latinos together comprise only 6 percent of Twitter’s workforce and 5 percent of Google’s.With little overlap between the Latino and techie demographics, the threatened dilution or disappearance of Latino San Francisco is very real.

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The Virgin of Guadalupe shares space in the Mission District with a sign of the sharing economy. “La Virgen De Guadalupe” by Francisco “Twick” Aquino, 2007.

A long-defining characteristic of the Mission District has been its public murals, which first appeared in the 1970s in response to various local and global events as well as new city funding for public artwork. Located mostly in Balmy and Clarion Alleys, the murals infuse the neighborhood with color, creativity, and visual interest. Ironically, the cultural vibrancy that newcomer techies, investors, and young professionals value so highly in their choice to move to the Mission is exactly what will be eliminated over time with continued evictions, takeovers, and buildup. This essay offers a brief history of Latino San Francisco, using the murals of the Mission as the lens from which to examine Latinos’ historical presence in the city and to interrogate what part they will play in its future.

Historically, Latino artists in San Francisco and elsewhere have used murals as vehicles for, and symbols of, their social and political activism. They have articulated their stances on local and global issues—civil rights at home, civil wars abroad, racism, policing, and now gentrification—with paintbrushes and spray cans, and in the process have helped to cultivate a sense of Latinidad, or cultural interconnectedness between Latinos that surmounts differences in nationality and citizenship status.This essay showcases older and newer change of Mission murals, both of which comment on the simultaneous persistence and precarity of Latino artistic production on San Francisco’s streets. Many early murals have disappeared either through a lack of restoration funding or new property owners’ decisions to whitewash them. What does the erasure of some murals, and the survival or appearance of others, help reveal about the future of Latinos in the city? A few years ago, journalists and demographers questioned the future of black San Francisco (and now African Americans comprise only 6 percent of the city’s population).As one of the first big “Latino” cities of the US West, San Francisco is becoming so economically inhospitable that it is in danger of losing that historical title. With the exodus of Latinos to suburban and rural Northern California, we may be witnessing a shift back to pre-World War II demographics in that region, as well as the creation of a marginalized commuter class of Latino workers who will continue to serve an influential city but no longer be able to call it home. Do murals and the fight for their preservation have the potential to mobilize a diverse population of Latinos who want to push back against being pushed out?

• • •

Living in San Francisco even before it became San Francisco, Spanish-Mexican (Californio) rancho-owning families established deep roots in the area near the present-day Mission District. After the end of the US-Mexican War in 1848, however, these families lost their land grants to white squatters and even their own lawyers.The next year, the Gold Rush attracted migrants from all over the world and anti-Latino violence spiked. “Whether from California, Chile, Peru, or Mexico…all Spanish-speaking people were lumped together as interlopers and greasers,” and Latinos were either chased away from the gold fields by white miners or lynched by vigilante groups.In response to these attacks, Latinos turned inward and formed community with each other, constructing a Spanish-language Catholic church in the “Latin Quarter” of North Beach in 1875. When San Francisco became a leading processer of Central American coffee, Central American migrants added to the community’s diversity, as did Mexicans fleeing the Mexican Revolution of the 1910s and Puerto Ricans transitioning from jobs on Hawaiian plantations during the 1920s.8

After World War II, increasing rents in North Beach and urban development pushed Latinos to the South of Market Street Area (SoMA) and the Mission. The German, Irish, and Italian residents who had been living there began moving to newer housing in San Francisco’s western neighborhoods, which facilitated Latino settlement in the Mission along with small numbers of African Americans, Native Americans, American Samoans, and Filipino and Chinese-origin peoples.The first significant cluster of Latino restaurants, bakeries, and specialty shops soon appeared along 16th Street, and the neighborhood absorbed more newcomers, including Mexican farmworkers escaping the Bracero Program, Puerto Ricans who jumped ship instead of becoming Hawaiian sugar workers, and Nicaraguans and Salvadorans recruited by shipyards and wartime industries. By 1950, San Francisco’s Latino population totaled approximately 24,000 people, with almost a quarter of them living in the Mission.10

As San Franciscans heard more Spanish spoken on Mission streets, the perception of the neighborhood as a “poverty area” solidified.11 If one looked closer, however, multiple Latino political and social organizations had been founded by the 1950s, and a Latino-centric economy of small businesses, restaurants, grocery stores, record shops, and bookstores was thriving. When the 1960s ushered in War on Poverty initiatives and urban redevelopment, many Mission Latinos resisted the plan to build two Bay Area Rapid Transportation (BART) stops in the neighborhood. In city authorities’ eyes, BART would ostensibly revitalize and sanitize a district “well on its way to becoming a slum,” but residents rightly predicted that this infrastructure building meant displacement from several homes and businesses.12 As new waves of Cold War–era migrants—mainly Asian and Latin American refugees fleeing invasions and civil wars—moved into San Francisco, they increased the Mission’s percentage of Latinos to 44.6 percent and its foreign-born residents to 33.5 percent by 1970.13

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Details from the mural “Mission Makeover” (2012) by Lucia Ippolito and Tirso Araiza.

A concurrent influx of internal migrants, including Puerto Ricans and Mexican American farmworkers leaving California’s San Joaquin and Salinas Valleys, boosted the 1970 citywide Latino population to over 101,000.14 Still attractive for its affordability and proximity to industrial and service jobs, the Mission cost residents an average monthly rent of $105.15

Two major phenomena of the 1970s that kickstarted mural production in the Mission were the Chicano civil rights movement and the multiple civil wars taking place in Latin America. In 1970, local artists active in the Chicano Movement founded La Galería de la Raza, a nonprofit community arts organization intended to foster public awareness and appreciation of Chicano/Latino art. When the city of San Francisco began commissioning murals in the 1970s that depicted events, people, and images associated with Latino communities, Galería-affiliated artists and others painted at least fifty major murals in the Mission by 1985. Inspired by Chicano Movement graphic art as well as older Mexican artists like Diego Rivera and David Siqueiros, muralists paid tribute to a wide array of subjects including the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexican cinema stars, farmworkers, zoot suiters, and Vietnam veterans. A great number of the Mission’s early murals were painted by a group of Latinas called Las Mujeres Muralistas who fought for their place in the male-dominated world of mural-making and pointedly included women and children in their pieces. Their 1974 piece Latinoamérica intentionally strayed from the style of Mexican master muralists and paid homage to Peruvian, Venezuelan, Bolivian, and other Latin American cultures, as well as US-born Latinos, in an effort to affirm the Mission’s pan-Latino identity.17

Often the product of several artists’ work, murals are collaborative and collective art pieces that can function as an empowering mode of social bonding and an assertion of a community’s presence in a certain space. In requiring people to gather and decide what kind of art they want to live with, murals work to—as Cary Cordova argues—“solidify local and transnational communities.”18 Indeed, murals are landmarks of belonging and texts to be read for their expressed social values, political stances, or emotional responses to certain events. During the 1980s, some Mission murals commented on the farmworker movement in California. Juana Alicia’s Las Lechugueras/The Women Lettuce Workers depicted a group of women harvesters, including a pregnant worker, being sprayed with pesticides. Meanwhile in Balmy Alley, artists painted twenty-seven murals that addressed the United States’ intervention in the Nicaraguan, Guatemalan, and Salvadoran civil wars and communicated the trauma and violence experienced by these Central Americans.19 The pieces Culture Contains the Seed of Resistance and A Past That Still Lives feature ominous military police, critique economic disparities between the United States and Latin America, and express a hope for sanctuary.

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As much as the 1980s witnessed intra-Latino mixing in the Mission, they also witnessed intra-Latino tensions. Central American and Mexican day laborers jostled each other figuratively and literally as they competed for work. Branches of the Sureño, Norteño, and MS-13 gangs staked out territory and engaged in open violence. The Mission’s reputation as an increasingly dangerous neighborhood resulted in heightened police surveillance. This, however, did not diminish the area’s real estate value. After the 1989 earthquake, white and Asian residents unable to buy property elsewhere in the city flocked to the Mission, where they beat out Latinos (who made a median annual income of $11,400 compared to $26,222 for whites) for housing. By 1990, Latinos accounted for 51.9 percent of the Mission’s population, while whites comprised 30 percent and Asians 13.1 percent.20 The later 1990s ushered in the dot-com boom, and as housing prices continued to soar, entrepreneurs erected high-end restaurants and boutiques next door to taquerias and thrift shops. Taking advantage of the fact that the Mission had the highest concentration of renters in the city (70 percent), landlords raised rents, evicted tenants through owner move-in evictions (OMIs) or the Ellis Act, chopped up buildings into multiple units, and converted warehouses into live/work lofts coveted by tech startups.21 In a land grab reminiscent of the post–US-Mexican War era, many Latinos were displaced and those who remained struggled to meet the median rent of $1,600 a month for a two-bedroom apartment (a price that only about 38 percent of all San Francisco households at the time could afford). “People who have been the heart and soul of this city for decades—artists, writers, musicians, senior citizens living on pensions, blue-collar workers, students, people on welfare and disability, and service-sector employees—are increasingly in danger of becoming an endangered species,” journalist Daniel Zoll wrote.22

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Details from the mural “Mission Makeover” (2012) by Lucia Ippolito and Tirso Araiza.

This endangerment was reflected in a particular episode involving a beloved Mission mural. On 25 July 1998, the colorful four-story piece Lilli Ann by Jesus “Chuy” Campusano (commissioned by the city in 1986 for $40,000) was whitewashed after the building was sold to the Robert J. Cort Family Trust. A major real estate investor, the Trust wanted to provide ad space for its new tenants’ multimedia game company. According to the federal Visual Artists’ Rights Act (VARA), the mural’s copyright holders (Campusano’s children and fellow muralist Elias Rocha) were entitled to ninety days’ notice before any alteration. They ultimately sued the Trust for $500,000 and won their case, but the mural had already been lost with no planned replacement. This destruction of a Latino-produced mural came to symbolize the whitewashing of a larger Latino presence and culture in the Mission, or what scholar Nancy Raquel Mirabal has termed “culture deletion.”23 With one stroke of a delete key in the digital gold rush, the many strokes of a Latino artist’s paintbrush were rendered invisible.

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Detail from Josue’ Rojas’s 2014 mural “Dedicated to the Migrants of the Mission,” which depicts a young Honduran boy crossing into the U.S. where he is met by a welcoming embrace to San Francisco.

By 2000, the Mission was making headlines for the tensions erupting between the new Silicon Valley digerati and older residents who were organizing themselves into anti-gentrification and anti-displacement coalitions. Accusing newcomers of taking advantage of the Mission’s low-income renters of color (in 2000, the neighborhood was 62 percent Latino and 83 percent renter, with a per capita income of $20,112 versus $32,441 citywide), activists added that many Mission residents were undocumented or could not speak English, making them more vulnerable to intimidation and being pushed out of their homes.24

Furthermore, on a national scale, Latinos had been deemed “the furthest behind in the race to become connected to the Internet,” and therefore lacked desirable cultural capital in the digital era.25 By the year 2000, more than one thousand Latino families had been displaced from the Mission; and between 2000 and 2005, the Latino population of San Francisco decreased from 109,504 to 98,891, making it the only major city in the United States to experience a loss in its Latino population.26

The national media continued to discuss, but not always with informed nuance, the Mission as a space of Latinidad. In a 2008 travel article on San Francisco, The New York Times praised the “wonderful mishmash” of the neighborhood. “Where else can you find epicurean vegan cafes, feisty nonprofits, and a Central American butcher shop?” the author asked, disregarding the community tensions keeping these nonprofits “feisty.”27 Along the same vein, a 2016 USA Today contributor living in the Mission sentimentalized her “discovery” of her local Mexican restaurant:

I had burritos delivered from Pancho Villa twice before I ever stepped in the well-known staple in my Mexican-influenced neighborhood.…I felt the energy of the staff wrapping perfectly cylindrical burritos at light speed and heard each order called out in Spanish and English. The burrito tasted better when I could appreciate the soul that went into making it.28

Essentializing Latinos as soulful workers who rapidly met her needs with a comforting bilingualism, the author extolled her choice to personally interact with this Latino business rather than rely on a food delivery app. This ability of newcomers to choose whether to interact with residents closely or distantly through technology is what many Mission Latinos decry as an uncomfortable and even hostile social environment.

In response, La Galería de la Raza and Precita Eyes Mural Center artists have produced powerful anti-gentrification pieces. The 2012 mural Mission Makeover hits upon the gentrification-related consequences of racially-targeted policing and price gouging. As young Latino and African American boys are detained and arrested by police, eviction notices and For Sale signs hang in windows while coffee shops fill to the brim with laptops and expensive lattes. Looming riot police don helmets with Facebook and Google logos; a Mexicana Airlines airplane flies overhead (presumably taking San Francisco–weary people back to Mexico); a blonde woman holds a Dia de los Muertos mask in a sign of cultural appropriation; and a faceless figure in the center symbolizing the Latino working-class majority proclaims, “Aquí estamos y no nos vamos! (Here we stay and will not leave!).” The directional landmarks in the mural—street signs reading Uan Wey and Otro Wey (wey meaning “dude” or “dummy” in Spanish)—communicate a frustration and hopelessness with what the neighborhood has become.

This explicitly anti-gentrification mural, and others like it in the Mission, works to counterbalance the disappearance of the older, historically significant Latino murals that came before it.29 Community action around mural preservation has increasingly become the way for Latinos in the Mission to keep their voices heard. In 2013, when the owner of a new wine bar decided to paint over the building’s large murals that depicted scenes from Latin American history, he incited vociferous protest. In the summer of 2015, hundreds of people rallied outside La Galería in support of Por Vida, a digital mural depicting two Latino same-sex couples and a transgender man that had been repeatedly defaced. Defending murals has become shorthand for defending Latinos’ presence, diversity, and deep history in the Mission. Murals have marked Latinos’ past and present in San Francisco, and therefore efforts to protect them stand as acts of community cohesion and persistence in the face of what feels like cultural warfare or erasure. With such a heterogeneous population of Latinos living in the Mission, no one civic, social, or political organization can represent them all. Yet, arguably, murals have helped to create a more tangible sense of Latinidad through their creation and subject matter.

By that token, if murals have played a key historical role in the making of Latinidad, do they hold the potential to mobilize and preserve San Francisco’s Latino community? By virtue of being visually provocative or beautiful, murals may be easier magnets for community support and thereby effective political tools. Nicaraguan immigrant and longtime San Francisco resident Erick Arguello has recently convinced the city to create the Calle 24 Latino Cultural District because of the number of murals in the area. If city authorities proceed to grant Twenty-Fourth Street special-use district status, local residents would have more say in decisions concerning further residential and commercial development.30 By tying the murals’ survival in the city to their own, Latinos could use historical preservation arguments to maintain the landscape they created as well as their place within it. While numerous cultural districts and street art conservation programs exist in the United States from Los Angeles to Harlem, to date Calle 24 seems to be unique in its fight to preserve not only particular works of art, but the right of a particular ethnic community to keep living among them.

• • •

Because the Mission District was not always a Latino neighborhood, some might argue, it should make sense that it will not always be one. People move in, people move out, and environments change. In 2015, studio apartments in the Mission were renting for $2,700 a month, and the neighborhood was more popular than any other area of San Francisco on Airbnb.31 As San Francisco city budget authorities predict that the Mission will lose 8,000 Latino residents by 2025, Latino organizations like the Mission Economic Development Agency are holding free computer and coding camps in the hopes of giving Latino youth a better foothold in the tech world.32 Local architect Evan Rose has argued that the Mission’s transformation simply reflects “the nature of a city. Cities grow and respond to growth pressures.”33 Mission artist and evictee Tony Breaux opines, however, that once tech monoculture takes over, “you are dealing with a dead city, creatively.”34 If city authorities give only certain groups the opportunity to grow and be creative, other groups—in this case artists, working-class people, immigrants, and people of color—will not be included in the future of San Francisco. In fact, they will be rendered as even more foreign and powerless outsiders.

Writ large, Latinos crisscross all of these vulnerable positionalities. If they will no longer be able to reside in the city unless they possess a certain amount of wealth, what will result—and what has already begun to emerge—is a large Latino commuter underclass living on the periphery of San Francisco. Latinos and blacks have already moved to suburbs like Richmond, Vallejo, Sacramento, Antioch, Tracy, and Stockton. Though superficially cheaper, these new homes result in more expensive work commutes and profound disconnection from old places, people, and routines. This shift in San Francisco will no doubt shape the future of California as more people of color move to suburban or agricultural communities that may or may not be accustomed to their presence. In some cases, Latino families with farmworker heritage that worked their way out of the fields in the post–World War II era are returning to places like the San Joaquin and Salinas Valleys out of economic necessity, a move which likely provokes anxieties about re-experiencing racial and social marginalization and downward mobility.

San Francisco has rebuilt itself several times after natural and economic disasters— this time, is it doing so without imagining Latino residents in the picture? Or, as some believe, are intentional disasters being created to erase this population? After BART’s establishment in the Mission in the 1960s, 133 fires erupted within a three-block radius of the Sixteenth Street station, eliminating low-income properties and paving the way for redevelopment. In an eerie echo of the past, mysterious Mission fires over the past few years have displaced hundreds of people.35 Latinos’ historic contribution to San Francisco’s social diversity and cultural production is profound, yet the threat of their (as artist Rene Yañez terms it) “cultural eviction” looms large.36 Murals have given Mission residents access to beauty, creative work, and cultural pride amidst the local and international political turbulence of the past fifty years. This current moment of turbulence is about who can claim access and belonging to this influential California city. By painting and pointing to murals, Latinos are engaging in a type of community cartography, fighting to map themselves onto the past, present, and future of a changing San Francisco.

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Detail from Josue’ Rojas’s 2014 mural “Dedicated to the Migrants of the Mission,” which depicts a young Honduran boy crossing into the U.S. on La Bestia, the infamously dangerous train used by undocumented immigrants where he is met by a protective angel on the journey.

Notes

The author gratefully acknowledges Francisco Aquino, Lucia Ippolito, Tirso Araiza, and Josué Rojas—the artists whose work is featured in this essay—along with Tatiana Reinoza…along with Tatiana Reinoza, Susannah Aquilina, and an anonymous reader for their feedback and suggestions.

1 Ruth Glass, London: Aspects of Change (London: MacKibbon and Kee, 1964), xiii–xlii.

2 George Sterling, “Cool Grey City of Love,” The San Francisco Bulletin 133/31 (11 December 1920), 1; Rebecca Solnit, various Facebook posts—for example, 7 May 2016.

3 JP Mangalindan, “How Tech Companies Compare in Employee Diversity,” Fortune, 29 August 2014, http://fortune.com/2014/08/29/how-tech-companies-compare-in-employee-diversity/; Kurt Wagner, “Facebook Employee Demographics: A Little Less White, A Little Less Male,” Recode, 25 June 2015, http://www.recode.net/2015/6/25/11563890/facebook-employee-demographics-a-little-less-white-a-little-less-male; Donovan X. Ramsey, “Twitter’s White-People Problem,” The Nation, 6 January 2016, https://www.thenation.com/article/twitters-white-people-problem/.

4 For more on Latinidad in San Francisco, see Tomas Summers Sandoval, Latinos at the Golden Gate: Creating Community & Identity in San Francisco (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013).

5 Jaimal Yogis, “What Happened to Black San Francisco?” San Francisco Magazine, 18 January 2008, http://www.modernluxury.com/san-francisco/story/what-happened-black-san-francisco; Thomas Fuller, “The Loneliness of Being Black in San Francisco,” The New York Times, 20 July 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/21/us/black-exodus-from-san-francisco.html?_r=0.

6 Brian Godfrey, “Ethnic Identities and Ethnic Enclaves: The Morphogenesis of San Francisco’s Hispanic ‘Barrio,’” Yearbook: Conference of Latin Americanist Geographers 11 (1985): 48.

7 Abraham P. Nasatir, “Chileans in California during the Gold Rush Period and the Establishment of the Chilean Consulate,” California Historical Quarterly 53/1 (Spring 1974): 62.

8 Godfrey, “Ethnic Identities,” 46; Cecilia Menjivar, “Immigrant Kinship Networks and the Impact of the Receiving Context: Salvadorans in San Francisco in the Early 1990s,” Social Problems 44/19 (February 1997): 111.

9 Eduardo Contreras, “The Politics of Community Development: Latinos, Their Neighbors, and the State in San Francisco, 1960s and 1970s,” unpublished Ph.D. diss. (University of Chicago, 2008), 6.

10 Menjivar, “Immigrant Kinship Networks,” 111; Godfrey, “Ethnic Identities,” 46, 50; Contreras, “The Politics of Community Development,” 6.

11 Godfrey, “Ethnic Identities,” 50.

12 Contreras, “The Politics of Community Development,” 32.

13 Godfrey, “Ethnic Identities,” 49.

14 Contreras, “The Politics of Community Development,” 6; Godfrey, “Ethnic Identities,” 46. This is likely a conservative and low number because there were many undocumented Latinos working in San Francisco’s underground, informal, and cash economies.

15 Contreras, “The Politics of Community Development,” 7; Godfrey, “Ethnic Identities,” 52.

16 Godfrey, “Ethnic Identities,” 49.

17 Caille Millner, “In the Mission, Murals are More than Décor,” San Francisco Chronicle, 3 July 2015, http://www.sfchronicle.com/art/article/In-the-Mission-murals-are-more-than-decor-6364161.php.

18 Cary Cordova, “Hombres y Mujeres Muralistas On a Mission: Painting Latino Identities in 1970s San Francisco,” Latino Studies 4/4 (2006): 356.

19 Timothy W. Drescher, “Street Subversion: The Political Geography of Murals and Graffiti,” Reclaiming San Francisco: History, Politics, Culture (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1998), 235.

20 Menjivar, “Immigrant Kinship Networks,” 110–111. Again, because the Census has historically undercounted Latinos due to the population’s undocumented immigrant element, 51.9 percent is a conservative number. African Americans (4.5%), Native Americans (0.3%), and Other (0.3%) comprised the remainder of the neighborhood’s population in 1990. Simon Velasquez Alejandrino, “Gentrification in San Francisco’s Mission District: Indicators and Policy Recommendations,” Mission Economic Development Association Report (Summer 2000), 18.

21 Nancy Raquel Mirabal, “Geographies of Displacement: Latina/os, Oral History, and the Politics of Gentrification in San Francisco’s Mission District,” The Public Historian 31/2 (Spring 2009): 13–15.

22 Daniel Zoll, “The Economic Cleansing of San Francisco: Is San Francisco Becoming the First Fully Gentrified City in America?” San Francisco Bay Guardian, 7 October 1998, 17.

23 Mirabal, “Geographies of Displacement,” 23–24; Bob Armstrong, “Developer Whitewashes Mural,” The Progressive, April 1999, 13; Lynda Gledhill, “Mission Mural Now a Whitewashed Wall,” SF Gate, 5 August 1998, http://www.sfgate.com/politics/article/Mission-Mural-now-a-Whitewashed-Wall-2998669.php; Lynda Gledhill, “Mission Mural Rescued From Wipeout by Judge, Artists Gets a Chance to Protect Wall Art,” San Francisco Chronicle, 4 September 1998, http://www.sfgate.com/news/article/Mission-Mural-Rescued-From-Wipeout-by-Judge-2992620.php.

24 Evelyn Nieves, “Mission District Fights Case of Dot-Com Fever,” The New York Times, 5 November 2000, http://www.nytimes.com/2000/11/05/us/mission-district-fights-case-of-dot-com-fever.html.

25 John Jota Leaños, “The (Postcolonial) Rules of Engagement: Advertising Zones, Cultural Activism, and Xicana/o Digital Muralism,” Street Art San Francisco: Mission Muralismo, Annice Jacoby, ed. (New York: Harry Abrams, 2009), 205.

26 Mirabal, “Geographies of Displacement,” 13–14.

27 Chris Colin, “36 Hours in San Francisco,” The New York Times, 11 September 2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/14/travel/14hours.html?_r=1.

28 Natalie DiBlasio, “Welcome to S.F., the Premier Assisted Living Community for Millenials,” USA Today, 17 May 2016, http://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/columnist/2016/04/05/welcome-sf-premier-assisted-living-community-millenials/80206798/.

29 Millner, “In the Mission, Murals are More than Décor.”

30 Joe Garofoli, “Erick Arguello: Cultural Preservationist Scrambles to Save Neighbors’ Homes, Jobs,” San Francisco Chronicle, http://www.sfchronicle.com/the-mission/arguello/.

31 Carol Pogash, “Gentrification Spreads an Upheaval in San Francisco’s Mission District,” 22 May 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/23/us/high-rents-elbow-latinos-from-san-franciscos-mission-district.html

32 Caleb Pershan, “Mission to Lose 8,000 Latino Residents by 2025,” SFist, 28 October 2015, http://sfist.com/2015/10/28/mission_to_lose_8000_latino_residen.php.

33 Mirabal, “Geographies of Displacement,” 15–16.

34 Ted Andersen, “A Dying City for Artists?” Mid-Market News, 2 May 2016, https://mid-marketnews.com/2016/05/02/a-dying-city-for-artists/.

35 Juan Cruz and G. Roginsky, “Mission Fires: Urban Renewal Made Simple?” El Tecolote, April 1977, 1; David Campos, “Why Is the Mission Burning?” San Francisco Examiner, 28 June 2016, http://www.sfexaminer.com/why-is-the-mission-burning/.

36 Sarah McClure, “Benefit for Mission Artists Attracts Latino All Stars,” 26 October 2013, http://missionlocal.org/2013/10/benefit-for-chicano-mission-artists-attracts-latino-all-stars/.

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Details from the mural “Mission Makeover” (2012) by Lucia Ippolito and Tirso Araiza.

Lori A. Flores is an assistant professor of history at Stony Brook University specializing in the histories of US Latinos, immigration, labor, and the US-Mexico borderlands. She is the author of Grounds for Dreaming: Mexican Americans, Mexican Immigrants, and the California Farmworker Movement (Yale), which was named Best History Book by the International Latino Book Awards. Her scholarship engages the public through advocacy for underrepresented groups in higher education and immigrants and farmworkers in the United States.

Articles

Lying in Plain Sight: La Jolla’s Assemblage of Religious Art

Rick Kennedy

On 8 September 2016, the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals decided that the cross on Mount Soledad in San Diego, which may be the most litigated religious symbol in America, is here to stay. Set aside for a moment matters about separation of church and state on the coast of California and specific features that were part of the recent controversy, and an opportunity emerges to reflect on the role of the Mount Soledad cross in La Jolla’s larger assemblage of religious art, which includes University of California, San Diego’s Geisel Library, Snake Path, and the neon Virtues and Vices.

Assemblage is the art of proximity. Objects that individually evoke one meaning or experience when put in proximity to other things can change or expand that meaning or experience. Assemblage art can be a flower arrangement, a collage of images framed on a wall, or the placement of buildings or sculpture in artistic relationship to each other. Few people notice that in 1992, Alexis Smith, one of California’s most famous collage/assemblage artists, pulled together her grandest assemblage by uniting two buildings and the cross with her Snake Path on the ridge above La Jolla.

The Snake Path that unites the work was the last part constructed. The first was the cross on Mount Soledad; at 824 feet, it stands as the highest promontory on the coast that sits south of Orange County’s San Joaquin Hills. At 422 feet, Point Loma rises only half the height of Mount Soledad; and further north, Palos Verdes rises only a quarter the height (220 feet).

La Jolla was a bit of a bohemia before settling into its wealth. Molly McClain, a historian at the University of San Diego, quotes Ellen Scripps describing La Jolla as “a woman’s town.”As a progressive colony, it was friendly to spiritualists, scientists, theosophists, painters, and poets. But bohemia symbolically gave way to mainline Protestant culture when in 1913 a large wooden cross was placed in a reigning position on Mount Soledad. In 1954, the wooden cross was replaced with the twenty-nine-foot-tall concrete cross of mid-century modern design drawn by a prominent local architect named Donald Campbell. Like many of the coastal enclaves founded by progressive-minded, university-trained folks, La Jolla has a long history of racism, especially against Jews and East Asians. As a kind of post-1960s university-town backlash against its racist history, La Jollans, concerned about civil rights and separation of church and state, started in 1989 what became a long-standing ruckus demanding that the cross be taken down. Like all good art, the work is too meaningful. It communicates too much too well.

The UC San Diego library opened in 1970 and is a stunningly sculptured building. Its shape has become the UCSD brand image, designed by California’s most famous mid-century modernist, William Pereira. His work on the California Bight includes the initial designs of University of California, Santa Barbara; University of California, Irvine; the Malibu campus of Pepperdine University; the urban plan of Irvine; and the unfulfilled island plan for Santa Catalina Island. His most iconic buildings in California are San Francisco’s Transamerica Pyramid, the spider-like Theme Building at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), and UCSD’s central Library. Describing his design for the UCSD library, Pereira said he was sculpting a building inspired by hands joined at the wrist, fingers spreading wide, “holding aloft knowledge itself.”2

How did the library turn from cupped hands into the tree that is now the image most often associated with the library? Pereira thought up the cupped hands, and it fit his mental conception of a university; however, the site of the library screams trees to those who visit and listen. UCSD was built in the midst of a large forest of eucalyptus trees, and in 1983 the Stuart Collection of public art commissioned Robert Irwin’s Two Running Violet V Forms, an installation designed to enhance the experience of UCSD’s eucalyptus trees. A few years later, one of Robert Irwin’s students from when he taught for a short time at UC Irvine, Alexis Smith, was asked to produce another installation for the Stuart Collection. Irwin and Smith had studios near each other in Venice where, in the decades after World War II, a new artistic bohemia gathered that shared many ideas about how to think about art and themselves as artists.

Robert Irwin wrote in 1985 about how a sculpture should be “conditioned/determined” by its site. “This means,” he wrote, “sitting, watching, walking through the site, the surrounding areas…the city at large or countryside.”At UCSD, Irwin sat, watched, walked, and understood that it was the forest of eucalyptus trees that would determine his work. In the same way, Alexis Smith would have felt the same thing sitting, watching, and walking around the library, which itself in turn became conditioned and even determined by the trees; and the library as a tree—the tree of life, the tree of knowledge—would then condition and determine the Snake Path.

Another aspect of their thought was that an artist needs to get out of the way of art. Irwin in the late 1950s and 1960s became very interested in Zen Buddhism and went so far in his anti-individualist notions of art that he stopped signing his paintings. Art must increase, and the ego of the artist must decrease.Sharing in these artistic ideals, Alexis Smith, in a 2010 interview available on YouTube, says that she thinks of herself as a novelist who lets a story lead her rather than the other way around. She wants art to reveal itself through her work. The meaning of art, she declared, should be cultural, not personal. She tells viewers that she is not interested in herself or what she thinks. In her work as an assemblage artist, she works within the “pool of cultural information,” the stories that cultures carry through time.In the video, she talks specifically about the small-framed assemblages she creates; but at UCSD, she tapped into the great tradition of a snake at the center of Western culture’s religious story of sin, disease, health, salvation, and redemption.

To those of us who visit the UCSD library, the Snake Path sucks everything around it into its narrative. Deep culture calls out in a religious tableau of tree, snake, and granite statue of a book marked clearly as Paradise Lost. That Smith so obviously calls visitors to John Milton’s classic story of the birth of sin and sickness also demands, artistically, a fuller story of the tree in Eden being linked to the cross on Golgotha. Get above the eucalyptus trees that encircle the Snake Path in the upper floors of the library and the Mount Soledad cross rules the skyline. Tree and cross, in the deep literary culture derived from the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, there are types and antitypes that link history together. Early on, soon after the death of Christ, the stories of tree and cross were linked as antitypes: through the tree of disobedience in Eden came sin and death, and through the cross/tree of obedience on Golgotha comes salvation and life. Add to this someone standing at the end of the snake’s tail and looking away from the library is staring directly at another piece in the Stuart Collection: Bruce Nauman’s Vices and Virtues, the seven-foot-tall neon banner finished in 1988 that wraps the Charles Lee Powell Structural Systems Laboratory with Christianity’s seven vices and seven virtues. The snake’s body, then, links artwork about humanity’s ethical choices to the ultimate choice of disobedience or obedience at the snake’s head and in the distance on Mount Soledad.

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It is significant that Smith inscribed a quote onto the granite oversized sculpture of Paradise Lost that stands, encircled, half way up by the snake’s body. The quote offers some meaning to the whole assemblage: Then Wilt Thou Not Be Loth To Leave This Paradise, But Shall Possess A Paradise Within Thee, Happier Far. When my students—and probably most passers-by—read it, they usually assume this is what the snake says to the biblical character Eve and believe that it is a promise to individuals about finding happiness—but it is not. In Paradise Lost, an angel says this line to Adam in a manner that draws in all creation. The quote on the book sculpture, then, hints to the cross on Mount Soledad off in the distance. This quote comes at the culmination of Milton’s epic when the archangel Michael tells Adam about the future coming of Christ and the eventual salvation of all creation. The angel Michael tells him of the redemption of the Earth:

…for then the Earth
Shall all be Paradise, far happier place
Than this of Eden, and far happier daies.

Adam then declares, speaking for himself and all who follow him, his final speech:

Greatly instructed I shall hence depart.
Greatly in peace of thought, and have my fill
Of knowledge, what this Vessel can containe;
Beyond which was my folly to aspire.
Henceforth I learne, that to obey is best,
And love with fear the onely God, to walk
As in his presence, ever to observe
His providence, and on him sole depend,
Merciful over all his works, with good
Still overcoming evil, and by small
Accomplishing great things, by things deemed weak
Subverting worldly strong, and worldly wise
By simply meek; that suffering for Truths sake
Is fortitude to highest victorie,
And to the faithful Death the Gate of Life;
Taught this by his example whom I now
Acknowledge my Redeemer ever blest.

Did Alexis Smith in 1992 plan to use the Snake Path to link the engineering building to the library in the context of the Mount Soledad cross? Maybe. By her own standards, it does not matter what she thought. The Mount Soledad cross is the dominant work of art that towers over Smith’s Snake Path. If Smith sat in, walked, watched, and listened at the site, then the cross, the library shape, and the Vices and Virtues might have consciously or unconsciously conditioned/determined what story would be artistically told on that site without her fully knowing it. A novelist can set up a story without knowing its ending or its full meaning. The La Jolla ridge itself might demand something about which an artist has only an inkling. Whatever the initial consciousness, we can recognize today that the La Jolla ridge has inscribed into it a massive work of religious art on the California coast. Although today it is hard to see all four parts from the ground, the whole assemblage is readily visible to airplane pilots, UFOs, angels, and anyone with access to Google Earth. Maybe it is best to think of this assemblage as a grand quadrapartite-geoglyph, bigger than the ancient Blythe Geoglyphs in the desert near the Colorado River and the ancient Serpent Mound in Ohio. However one thinks about it, we should recognize that the cross on Mount Soledad has a larger role as religious art than merely proclaiming Protestantism’s supposed cultural dominance over La Jolla.

Notes

1 Molly McClain, “The Scripps Family’s San Diego Experiment,” The Journal of San Diego History 56 (2010): 17.

2 James Steele, ed., William Pereira (Los Angeles: University of Southern California, 2002), 148.

3 Robert Irwin: Primaries and Secondaries: With Essays by Hugh M. Davies and Robert Irwin (San Diego: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2008), 180.

4 Lawrence Weschler, Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees: A Life of Contemporary Artist Robert Irwin (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), 41–85.

5 “Alexis Smith – Revealing Art in the Studio – The Artist’s Studio – MOCAtv,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0VsNvgj8k8A (24 October 2016).

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Rick Kennedy is a professor of history at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego. Educated at UCSB, mostly under cultural and architectural historian Harold Kirker, he recently published The First American Evangelical: A Short Life of Cotton Mather (Eerdmans).

Articles

Seeing California Vol. 6, No. 4

boom-6

SEEING CALIFORNIA

Read the latest from Boom, Volume 6, Number 4.  All articles from Boom: A Journal of California are free and open to read.

Contributors
(p. iii)

From the Editor’s Desktop
Jason S. Sexton
(pp. 1-3)

Boom List
What to do, see, read, and hear this winter in California
Boom Staff
(pp. 4-5)
Elegy
California, 1980
David L. Ulin
(pp. 6-9)

From the Green of Vietnam to Toes Painted with Nirvana
Susan Straight(pp. 10-15) Seeing Through Murals
The Future of Latino San Francisco
Lori A. Flores
(pp. 16-27) A Boom Interview
Kevin Starr
(pp. 28-33)

Through the Heart of California
Seeing the “other” California through a relief map
Alex Espinoza
(pp. 34-38)

State of Being
Envisioning California
(pp. 39-51)

Between Journalism and Fiction
Hunter S. Thompson and the birth of Gonzo
Peter Richardson
(pp. 52-61)

The Smell of Gold
Passing time on the Yuba River
Caitlin Mohan
(pp. 62-69)

A Boom Interview with California’s Poet Laureate
With “A California Requiem”
Dana Gioia
(pp. 70-73)

Lying in Plain Sight
La Jolla’s assemblage of religious art
Rick Kennedy
(pp. 74-79)

Anthropologist as Court Jester
Civil disobedience and the People’s Café
Nancy Scheper-Hughes
(pp. 80-91)

What Does It Mean to Become Californian?
D.J. Waldie
(pp. 92-98)