Tag: History

Articles

Vietnamese Adoptions

Allison Varzally

As part of targeted evacuation efforts from Southeast Asia in 1975, the U.S. government arranged for military and commercial planes to transport Vietnamese children to the United States. In theory, the airlifts simply facilitated adoption proceedings already in motion. Children selected for the airlifts were already paired with suitable American families who eagerly awaited their arrival. And the efforts were bolstered by collaboration with social welfare and adoption agencies such as Holt International, Welcome House, United Catholic Relief Services, Friends for All Children, and Friends of the Children of Vietnam (FCVN). However, in its rushed execution, the program resulted in confusion and tragedy. One of the first official flights, carrying an estimated three hundred children and adult caregivers, exploded in mid-air; only half of the flight’s passengers survived.

The horrific accident only strengthened the resolve of organizers to get children out of Vietnam. While expressing sorrow for the victims of the crash, President Ford insisted, “our mission of mercy must continue…. This tragedy must not deter us but offer new hope for the living.”[1] In prioritizing the plight of Vietnamese children after years of relative inattention, the U.S. government adopted the rhetoric of responsibility long articulated by left-leaning Americans. Admitting the nation’s culpability in the destruction and dissolution of Vietnamese families, officials sought not simply to atone for American sins and relieve the suffering of Vietnamese children, but to control the peace.

Yet Vietnamese would disrupt these efforts and dispute this message, reappearing as refugees who endeavored to have familial reunion within the United States. Seeking to preserve life amidst unfathomable loss, death, and ruin, Vietnamese mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents strategically chose Operation Babylift as a means of assuring the safety of their young kin, hoping they would be able to reunite with them if they were able to migrate to the United States successfully. Many of the children airlifted from Vietnam appeared to have family members who hoped to reclaim them—they were not all orphans. Vietnamese had seized the evacuation as a necessary, if desperate, step in a larger process of migration that could mitigate their grief and disorientation. Those fortunate enough to reach the United States and initiate their plans of reconciliation, however, were confronted with the contrary ambitions of American families, agencies and government officials who viewed adoption and the assimilation of Vietnamese children as both an apology for the nation’s wrongs and affirmation of its material and moral worth. In arguing for their parental rights and introducing Americans to the forms and obligations of the extended Vietnamese family, these refugees rejected American interpretations of the war in favor of their own. Such interpretations had challenged expected performances of Vietnamese women as either helpless victims or scheming enemies, which came to shape how they settled in the United States, how they sustained ties to Vietnam, and even how this would influence future foreign policy.

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California played a leading role in this intense drama that was unfolding across the United States. Not only did Californians, Vietnamese and American, receive and process the largest number of airlifted children, but they also originated and organized the loudest opposition to American adoptions and benevolent representations of its war in Vietnam. In the process, the state provided a foundation for the establishment of Vietnamese communities and reinforced a tradition of protest and trans-pacific relations.

San Francisco’s Presidio, the largest of the reception centers, swiftly mobilized to process children airlifted from Vietnam. Indeed, of the over 2,000 children hastily removed as part of Operation Babylift, more than 1,500 passed through the military installation that was aided by more than 5,400 California volunteers who provided communication, shelter, food, security, and medical assistance. Among those Bay Area residents who answered the call (specifically for those fluent in Vietnamese) were Muoi McConnel, a Vietnamese nurse married to a former U.S. servicemen; Nhu Miller, a Vietnamese-born, European-raised, and American-educated (Barnard and University of California, Berkeley) woman who described herself as a revolutionary in later interviews; and Mai Chaplin, a homemaker of Vietnamese descent. While caring and conversing with children at the Presidio, the trio came to express such surprise that some of the youth did not appear to be orphans in their own right. Such youth had confessed confusion about their whereabouts and a longing for living Vietnamese parents and kin. Muoi asserted that of the twenty-three children whose names she recorded, three reported having two living parents in Vietnam, fourteen asked about their mothers, and two described grandparents residing in the United States.[2] Mai recalled her exchange with two sisters who claimed their parents were alive and well in Qui Nhon. Reportedly, they had placed their daughters—two of their nine children—in a Catholic orphanage whose director agreed to send the girls to the U.S. until they might return to Vietnam.[3]

Dismayed and determined to resolve the seeming problem of the non-orphans, Muoi and Nhu approached U.S. officials who straightaway ignored their appeals for assistance. However, Nhu’s husband, Tom, a Stanford trained lawyer, former staff member of the U.S. State Department, and long advocate for Vietnamese children who had helped establish the Children’s Medical Relief International and the Center for Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery in Saigon, listened closely to the women’s concerns and chose to act. Drawing support from a network of California based, anti-war attorneys and the Center for Constitutional Rights,[4] Tom helped file an action, Nguyen Da Yen et al. v. Kissinger et al., in the U.S. District Court, Northern District of California, charging Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger, Attorney General Edward Levi, and seven adoption agencies with bringing children to the United States who were not orphans properly released for immigration. Plaintiffs demanded “the accumulation of defendant’s records to determine each child’s adoptive status and enable any living parents to be located,” a process predicated upon halting the adoption proceedings of American families whom they conceded may be “concerned and loving” but “no substitute for biological parents.”[5]

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While expressing sympathy for adoptive families and eschewing political motives, the plaintiffs emphasized the superiority of Vietnamese families, the harm done to displaced Vietnamese children, and proposed the fundamental flaws of the U.S. Government. In its motion for preliminary injunction, lawyers asserted that they did not intend to challenge the wisdom of admitting children during the last days of war, a clarification that seemed to remove the question of child custody from the context of controversy about the war’s closure. However, over the course of the trial, they struggled to maintain an apolitical stance and refrain from a broader commentary about the perceived injustice of the war and the ignorance of American couples. In its complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief, the plaintiffs’ attorneys aired their grievances, accusing the government of orchestrating Operation Babylift “to create a climate of opinion favorable to the continuation of unconstitutional and illegal U.S. involvement in the war in South Vietnam to the end of securing from the United States Congress authorization and appropriation of additional funds to militarily support the war, and to provide a cover for United States military intervention.” In other documents, the plaintiffs found fault with adoptive parents, along with the officials and agencies who facilitated their efforts. “It is not difficult to imagine the pain and suffering the plaintiff children have already undergone, living their entire lives in a country torn by war, ripped from their families and home, brought thousands of miles away, held on military bases to be placed with families, no matter how well intentioned, of an alien culture with whom they are unable to communicate,” insisted lead attorney for the Plaintiffs, Nancy Stearns, in a court memo. To further support this reading, she offered the testimony of Joyce Ladner, a sociologist and civil rights activist who studied transracial adoption. Although Ladner acknowledged, “Asians may not experience as much hostility in the predominantly white American society” as African Americans, she believed that “they do experience subtler forms of discrimination.” Additionally, she anticipated how such Vietnamese adoptees would come to “face additional hostility as a result of feelings of anger in many Americans regarding the Vietnam war” and would suffer “a racial identity crisis comparable to that in black children.” Claiming the virtues of Vietnamese families, she concluded that “even if the circumstances to which they return are less economically secure than the American homes they are presently in, emotional security must not be traded for a middle class life style where racial and cultural gaps are so broad and so often ignored.”[6] She portrayed Americans as a group whose false faith in material advantages blinded them to the problems of transracial families. This exposed a broader, leftist opposition to capitalism that had founded the antiwar movement and informed the plaintiff’s case, but which members of the Center for Constitutional Rights strategically preferred to understate.

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 It is not difficult to imagine the pain and suffering the plaintiff children have already undergone, living their entire lives in a country torn by war, ripped from their families and home, brought thousands of miles away, held on military bases to be placed with families, no matter how well intentioned, of an alien culture with whom they are unable to communicate.

In her April 1975 Affidavit, Nhu Miller further elaborated these points. She noted that Americans misunderstood the structure and strength of Vietnamese families, creating an unnecessary and self-serving crisis. Vietnamese practiced an extended system of family so that “if you lost your father, you still have your uncle. If you lose your mother, your aunt will still nurse you.” Rather than asylums, she explained, orphanages were used as places for boarding children during times of economic or political crisis…. Foreign adoption is an alien and repugnant notion to the Vietnamese.” Nhu countered a picture of neglected or absent Vietnamese mothers, chastising “foreigners, who see only orphanages and assume the Vietnamese don’t care for their children, do not hear about mothers struggling alone to care for ten children or women caring for children left in their care permanently who would never consider putting them in an orphanage.”[7] Nhu’s portrait of maternal struggle and adoption disrupted prevailing images of Vietnamese women that had shaped U.S. assertions in South Vietnam. Perpetuating a habit of feminizing Asian nations and casting Asian women as victims or vixens, U.S. media, soldiers, and policy makers alternatively imagined themselves as protecting or punishing a vulnerable, if sometimes treacherous, South Vietnam. Lost within these gendered constructions and justifications of military action were the real Vietnamese women whom Nhu depicted: individuals making tough but deliberate choices amidst arduous circumstances.[8] So confident in her conception of caregiving customs and the will of Vietnamese mothers was Nhu that she and her husband, Tom Miller, long resisted assuming fuller responsibility for Oktober, the son of a Vietnamese woman, A, who had pleaded for their help. Nhu’s mother, BachLan, had first supported the boy, but when she died, Nhu felt compelled to help A “take care of her own child.” Nhu removed Oktober from an orphanage where he spent some of his days after determining its operators “were essentially selling the children.” And when she finally accepted A’s pleas “to take care of him” on a permanent basis and bring him to the United States, Nhu made certain that Oktober sustained a relationship with his Vietnamese mother.[9]

The cases of Vietnamese families who endured separations and sought reunions in the United States seemed to underscore Nhu’s picture of caring Vietnamese kin and Americans’ propensity to sin. Li The Hang, whose work as an interpreter in a U.S. hospital in Vietnam familiarized her with American personnel and regulations, placed two of her five children, Phuong and Holly, with Catholic Charities and begged the organization “to get them out” before conditions deteriorated further in 1975. As she said her farewells, Li The Hang pressed into their hands a photo inscribed with a message intended to reassure and inspire: “My wish is for you to grow up free. We would rather be away from this country and live in freedom then be together under Communism.” When Li and her remaining children arrived in the United States four months later, she began hunting for Phuong and Holly. Despite the reluctance of an Oregon-based foster family to release their charges, the adoption papers they had filed were not yet processed and Li was able to recover her children with the help of a Catholic Priest. During a 2011 interview, she recalled the joy of the trio’s reunion. Her antipathy to Communism not only animated her plans of dividing, migrating, and eventually reuniting her family, but her service to other Vietnamese refugees. After settling and opening a successful restaurant in Decatur, Georgia during the 1980s, the Hangs would sponsor as many as 150 Vietnamese families.[10] Reclaiming her children within a context of virulent anticommunism and diaspora, Li confirmed an American narrative about the downfall and doom of Vietnam. However, her assertion of maternal rights as a refugee sheltered by the United States also underscored the failure of modernization and militarization in South Vietnam; rather than rescued or reprimanded under the discipline of American masculine power—fantasies that propelled American policy in Southeast Asia—Vietnamese women surfaced as independent forces seeking place and persuasion as parents within their new nation. Despite the trauma of dislocation and migration, experiences that many refugees have sublimated with silence, these women spoke out. Their declarations repurposed Vietnamese social norms and cultural types. Vietnamese society had valued women’s reproductive and motherly talents. The war both intensified the importance of and imperiled their duty to protect and prepare the next generation. While men’s contributions to the nation were typically connected with their military service and camaraderie, Vietnamese women demonstrated service by enduring separations from their adult children, especially enlisted sons, and waiting for peace. These gendered interpretations persisted in postwar Vietnam. Women were honored for surrendering and mourning their lost sons, a form of reverence that elided the less passive and broader roles they had played in combat and in daily life by managing households, businesses, farms, and family.[11]

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Like the Hangs, many refugees replayed and refined Vietnamese constructions of gender and family within the United States using the lawsuit spearheaded by Californians to reunite them with their dependent relative. After the death of one son and one daughter in 1968, Nguyen Thi Phuc feared for the future of her remaining children. “If I don’t let [my sons] go out, then when they grow up the boy have to go military, had to go fighting. They die. I know that,” she stated during court testimony. Resisting the trope of sacrificial mother and risking retribution as disloyal to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, Thi Phuc sent her boys to the United States in 1972. Two years later, she heard “the bomb and rocket shoot very close to Saigon,” which led to her placing her daughters in the care of a Mr. Jacobs who agreed to bring the pair safely to the United States. Thi Phuc insisted that she had never signed relinquishment papers and secured the promise of Mr. Jacobs that “if I stay in my country, later where I stay I be safe, he return my children to me.” However, eighteen months later, when she arrived at Fort Chafee, Arkansas—a domestic military base much like California’s Camp Pendleton that processed Southeast Asian refugees—and attempted to recover her four children, she was faced with significant hurdles. Her sons’ foster parents wished to adopt them, rather than to surrender the boys. Despite her queries to immigration officials, the United States Catholic Conference, and local press, she could not determine her daughters’ whereabouts.[12]

Dang Thi Hao showed similar resolve and met similar hindrances as she solicited assistance in winning back the two-year old daughter, whom a Catholic organization had brought to the United States, from Camp Pendleton, California officials. Fear, not neglect, prompted Thi Hao to yield the girl. She pleaded, but her pleas soon fell on deaf ears. One authority supposedly even urged her “to have another child,” a deeply disrespectful, even if not premeditated, remark that betrayed an insensitivity to the histories and individuality of Vietnamese refugees. Thi Hao told Miller, “there were other women seeking the return of their children, but they were being intimidated by the military and voluntary agencies.”[13] Char Thi Lan also portrayed American bureaucrats, specifically those employed at the California Department of Health and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, as anything but helpful. Despite her appeals, she had failed to recover her four-month-old niece whose mother had not consented to the airlift.[14] In these three cases, and others beyond, Vietnamese women not only found fault with the American government and demanded reflection on its responsibilities to refugees, but desperately tried to configure their authority and relationship to the United States through intense parental terms. They drew upon a respect for mothers in Vietnamese culture, while criticizing a war and regime that had compromised their ability to fulfill that particular function. Rather than shore up the Socialist Republic of Vietnam by gifting their children, these women had dispatched the youth to the United States where they now expected to retrieve and enact their maternal powers.

One authority supposedly even urged her “to have another child,” a deeply disrespectful, even if not premeditated, remark that betrayed an insensitivity to the histories and individuality of Vietnamese refugees. Thi Hao told Miller, “there were other women seeking the return of their children, but they were being intimidated by the military and voluntary agencies.”

Adoption agencies and adoptive parents, including those in Cupertino, California who organized the Council for the Rights of Adoptive Families to protect their interests, had come to counter that Vietnamese children were legitimately abandoned, suffering, and available, that agencies had followed proper protocols, and that “the lawsuit was politically motivated and had nothing to do with the children.”[15] In their defense, they outlined the chaotic conditions of a war-torn Vietnam, the free will of Vietnamese mothers who chose, rather than were coerced, to relinquish their children, as well as the opportunities that these Vietnamese children would come to possess in the United States.

Confronted by conflicting reports and divisive testimonies, the Judge ultimately ruled that “the case was not properly a class action suit,” due to the fact that “each child’s situation [proved] so individual that common questions did not predominate over individual issues.” He represented the cases as being so complex and dizzyingly unique to defy the kind of generalization the plaintiffs desired. While acknowledging the confusion and occasional duplicity that had shaped the removal of Vietnamese children, he expressed skepticism about the plaintiff’s broad advocacy of reunification: “While beyond the scope of this court’s inquiry in this litigation, it is possible, in the individual circumstances peculiar to certain children, that the best interest of the children would be to not return them to their biological parents. It is not necessary to ruminate too extensively to imagine many situations where, for emotional, psychological, medical, or other reasons, a child would be better off remaining with the adoptive parents.”[16] Disappointed, but not dissuaded, select Vietnamese families initiated and often won individual custody battles in state courts—sometimes with the aid of Tom Miller and the California team who reached out to Vietnamese refugees in the U.S. and pressed the State Department to locate families in Vietnam seeking lost relatives.[17]

California, once a place of concentrated social protest where Asian immigrants had come to historically struggle and settle, soon assured that concerns of cultural autonomy, responsibility, and imperialism that were once raised during the American War in Vietnam were sustained. Debates about the constitution and influence of Vietnamese and American families exposed the long and difficult entanglements wrought by American power in Southeast Asia. As time passed and the Vietnam War became a memory to implore rather than a war to fight, Vietnamese children were reunited with their biological kin, adopted by American families, or belatedly invited to immigrate as young Amerasians. They would soon mature and become actors, as well as symbols of discussions of being representative of war legacies, constructions of ethno-racial communities, and proud patterns of assimilation.

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Notes

  • This article is adapted from Allison Varzally, Children of Reunion: Vietnamese Adoptions and the Politics of Family Migrations (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017).  

[1] “Ford Vows to Continue Operation Babylift,” Los Angeles Times (4 April 1972): 4.

[2] RG 276, Box 11 Reporter’s Partial Transcript, 19, 20 May 1975, RG 276 United States District Court of California, San Francisco, National Archives at San Francisco (RG 276, NARA-SF). Note, the author accessed court records stored at the National Archives in two visits separated by two years. During this interval, the court records were reorganized and the box numbers changed. Box numbers in the 500 range reflect the most recent iteration.

[3] Dana Sachs, The Life We Were Given: Operation Babylift, International Adoption, and the Children of War in Vietnam (Boston: Beacon Press, 2010); Reporter’s Partial Transcript, 25 June 1975, Box 11, RG 276, NARA-SF.

[4] The Center for Constitutional Rights was established in 1966 by civil rights activists seeking to advance popular, progressive causes. https://ccrjustice.org/home/what-we-do/historic-cases?page=19, accessed 11 January 2018.

[5] Plaintiff’s Memo in Support of Entry of Preliminary Injunction Incorporating Provision of Consent Order and Petition for Rehearing and Suggestion for Rehearing En Banc, RG 276, NARA-SF.

[6] Ibid., Complaint for Declaratory Relief, RG-276, NARA-SF; Affidavit of Joyce Ladner, 20 January 1976, RG 276, NARA-SF.

[7] Affidavit of Tran Tuong Nhu (28 April 1975), RG 276, NARA-SF.

[8] Heather Marie Stur labeled the competing types of Vietnamese women conceived by Americans as “damsels in distress” (those in need of rescue from communist aggression) and “dragon ladies” (those whose duplicitous behavior compromised U.S. ambitions and invited censure). See Heather Marie Stur, Beyond Combat: Women and Gender in the Vietnam War Era (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 176.

[9] Oktober is the boy’s “Berkeley, California” name. Author’s Interview with Nhu Miller 29 May 2012; “A” is a pseudonym for Oktober’s birth mother.

[10] Author’s Interview with Le Thi Hang, 13 October 2011.

[11] Helle Rydstrom, “Gendered Corporeality and Bare Lives: Local Sacrifices and Sufferings during the Vietnam War” Signs 37.2 (January 2012): 275-299; Lan Duong, Treacherous Subjects: Gender, Culture, and Trans-Vietnamese Feminism (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2012); Nathalie Huynh Chau Nguyen, Memory is Another Country: Women of the Vietnamese Diaspora (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2009.)

[12] Reporter’s Transcript, Box 12, RG 276, NARA-SF. Although excluded from the specific class represented by Tom Miller because the children had arrived in the United States earlier than 1975, their stories resonated and Nguyen Thi Phuc’s had stepped forward because of the law suit, RG 276, NARA-SF.

[13] Affidavit of Thomas Miller, July 1975 box 6, Folder 2, RG 276, NARA-SF.

[14] Certificate of Attorney, 24 March 1976, Box 33, RG 276, NARA-SF.

[15] Cherie Clark, After Sorrow Comes Joy: One Woman’s Struggle to Bring Hope to Thousands of Children in Vietnam and India (Westminster, CO: Lawrence and Thomas Publishing House, 2000).

[16] Nguyen Da Yen v. Kissinger. 528 F.2d 1194. U.S. Court of Appeals, 9th Cir. 5 Nov. 1975. The Judge’s concerns about the emotional costs of searches likely shaped his decision to seal the case files rather than appoint special masters to review the files. This effectively frustrated the efforts of plaintiff’s attorneys, in cooperation with the International Red Cross and Vietnamese government, to help families in Vietnam locate children in the United States. Author’s correspondence with Tom Miller, 11 July 2015.

[17] The County of Adams, State of Colorado, Dependency Action No. J6-5679-N; The People of the State of Colorado in the interest of Le Thanh Tung, aka Vo Huy Tung, aka Hoang Tung, aka Brice Zenk; Duong Bich Van v. John T. Dempsey, individually and as director of Social Services and the Michigan Department of Social Services and David and Barbara Pederson, jointly and Severally Civil Action No. 76-140 499 (23 June 1976); Peter Brennan, “Tug of Love: A Boy’s Tough Choice Between Two Mothers,” US Magazine (28 June 1977): 71-73; Le Thi Sang v. Knight, California Superior Court, San Joaquin County, docket No. 125898.

 

Allison Varzally is a professor of history at California State University, Fullerton. Her publications include Making a Non-White America: Californians Coloring Outside Ethnic Lines (University of California Press, 2008), which won the Theodore Saloutos Award from the Immigration and Ethnic History Society, and most recently Children of Reunion: Vietnamese Adoptions and the Politics of Family Migrations (University of North Carolina Press). She is Book Review Editor of Southern California Quarterly.

Copyright: © 2018 Allison Varzally. 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

There and Back Again

Cu Chi Tunnels Tour

Cu Chi Tunnels, Ho Chi Minh City, via Flickr user David McKelvey.

Andrew Lam

Some years ago, I did the touristy thing. I went to see the Cu Chi Tunnel in the Tay Ninh Province of Vietnam and found myself in a van full of American vets. A few of their friends had died while trying to find the headquarters where the Viet Cong operated during the war. For them, it was a powerful moment. At the entrance of the famed tunnel, one of them openly wept.

Dug up two decades after the war ended, the tunnel was initially intended for malnourished Vietnamese guerrilla fighters. It was once a well-hidden, tight crawl space with entrances submerged underwater. The new version, however, was an open cave and widened considerably to accommodate extra large Westerners. The underground headquarters for the National Liberation Front (where guerrilla tactics were planned against the south) had, in peacetime, turned rather capitalistic and kitschy, all for a tourist dollar. The new version came with a shooting range nearby for those who, emerging from the dank and the dark, wished to shoot an AK-47 or an M16 at some target or another. The price was somewhere around a dollar a pop.

The middle-aged vets teared up gazing at an old war wound, but the young tour guide was all smiles when she and I chatted. Like the majority of her countrymen, she had no direct memories of the war. She readily confessed that, for her, the tunnel was a relic about which she knew nothing until she got her job. She reminisced with me about a friend’s son, a third generation San Franciscan who scrambled for history lessons for his summer job as a tour guide of the city’s famed Fisherman’s Wharf, a tourist trap he had long avoided.

“So you live in California?” she whispered, barely containing her excitement. “My dream is to go for a visit. I have friends over there.” The young woman crawled through Cu Chi 2.0 with foreigners on a regular basis to save money for her own adventures.  She rattled off dreamy destinations: Disneyland, Universal Studios, the Golden Gate Bridge, Yosemite. If given the opportunity, she would like to study for an MBA in the United States.

For some the tunnel runs toward the bloody past. For this young woman, it leads toward a cosmopolitan future. The middle-aged men saw war and trauma and senselessness, a bloody memory that bore unfinished grief. This young ambitious woman saw a particular light at the tunnel’s end: The supposed Magic Kingdom.

But for me, where do I stand? I straddle the cave’s mouth as if an indecisive time traveler….

Born in the middle of the war to a military officer who served in the South Vietnamese army, I reached puberty in California a few months after the war ended. I was a refugee boy who quickly transformed into an American teenager. My voice broke that first summer in Daly City, south of San Francisco. I learned English fast enough to start devouring American novels by the second. In time, and with some struggle, I became an American journalist and writer. I traveled the world…

… and it was only then, standing at the far end of the cosmopolitan continuum, that I fully accepted that in the aftermath of the Vietnam war, the two countries are no longer separable for me. The ocean had become a nuisance in my imagination. California (where I spent the bulk of my American life) and Vietnam (my once lost homeland) had both deeply intertwined themselves, fusing, changing, melding, battling for my soul. They offer no final resolution.

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Vietnam and the Myth of California

During my first few years in America, I learned many English words. My favorite was that odd, yet open-ended conjunction, “whereas.” I learned it in the eighth grade when I had to write compare and contrast essays.

The Vietnamese take holidays on Emperors’ death dates. I was told on my first school year in Daly City, at the southern end of San Francisco, that students get a day off for Washington’s birthday. Poor Vietnamese were reed thin, whereas poor Americans were hefty and meat eaters. Vietnamese don’t look at you in the eyes unless it is intimate or confrontational, whereas Americans expect eye contact, unless you appear to be untrustworthy. Americans talk about their apparent vision of the future. Vietnamese prayed to their ancestors’ spirits nightly. Americans say, “What do you do?” at cocktail parties, whereas Vietnamese ask, “Are you married?” and “Where is your hometown?”

California was geometrically sound with clean lines for borders, whereas Vietnam was all frills, a convulsed “S” with its messy borders that spoke of aggressions from and losses against China, Laos, Cambodia, and other ancient kingdoms. Vietnam was dirty and damp and its sidewalks were uneven. Its walls mildewed and rooftops curved and caved, its landscape pockmarked and cratered by bombs, whereas California was endless highways and full of concrete and glassy high rises. Its agricultural lands emulated a checkerboard pattern, like math.

Vietnam and California are both long and coastal. They both hug their own continent, framing the Pacific from opposed ends, seeming cursed to serve as one another’s opposed ideas in my child’s mind. If one represented sadness and loss, a country riddled with poverty and warfare, the other offered hopes and dreams—the freedom to remake.

Among the first few American songs I heard living in Vietnam during the war was “California Dreaming,” by the Mamas & The Papas, its cadence full of longing. It slowly dawned on me that even when you are an American living elsewhere, California still represents a dream-like destination. No wonder the Vietnamese had begun to dream the California Dream as the war raged on. In my mother’s “English for Today” textbook, which she studied intensely, she paid special attention to a lesson about San Francisco. My brother, sister, and I pored over her shoulders. She taught us about the gold rush and how it was gold that drew people from around the world. We learned that gold was so abundant that it fell out of pockets of drunken prospectors, and Chinese laundrymen collected gold dust in their jeans when they washed them. The Chinese even called it “Old Gold Mountain.” Gold made the place. I recall the first time crossing the Golden Gate Bridge on my seventh grade field trip. I was sorely disappointed when I was told by my teacher that no, it was not really made of gold.

Vietnam and California are both long and coastal. They both hug their own continent, framing the Pacific from opposed ends, seeming cursed to serve as one another’s opposed ideas in my child’s mind.

Stories told of California during my Vietnamese childhood bordered on the mythic. As a child, I imagined America as a world full of options. I saw it through the “31 Flavors” Baskin Robbins poster brought back by my visiting cousin, who was already living in San Francisco. One colorful scoop stacked on top of another, all on top of a single sugar cone, reaching an impossible height. The salivating child stared in wonder at those painted scoops of ice cream beyond possibility.

The family chauffeur, whom we called Uncle Phuoc, saw California as an open road. “Xứ Cali is so big that you can drive down this freeway,” he would tell us on those humid nights with nothing to do but tell tales. He referred to California as Xứ Cali, which is short hand for the nation of California. He’d never been out of the country, but Uncle Phuoc did business with American GIs on the streets on Saigon, buying and selling American stuff. Plus he saw photos. So for us, he was an expert: “And you can stop and pick an orange from an orchard or an apple to quench your thirst, and no one cares. Such a rich place.”

Whereas Vietnam….

The Vietnamese word for country is Đất nước, a combination of two elements: Earth and water. Put them together and what do you get? Mud, which is to say where rice grows. The paddies for millennia thus held the Vietnamese soul captive—bent back and conical hats and cyclical life, live and die by the land, something both at once essential and sacred. Even to this day, rural folks still bury the umbilical chords of their newborns in the land, a kind of spiritual registration. Ancestor’s graves still dot rural landscapes, even in the backyard of farmers’ homes. An old ethos: Live and die by the land. Vietnamese pray to the dead. We talk to ghosts.

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Alas, cyclical life gives easily to fatalism, imbued by a profound understanding that human suffering and loss are as inevitable as a norm. One accepted one’s fate. No happily ever afters, thanks. Children learn it early on: Vietnamese fairy tales often end tragically. The princess dies. The hero fails to marry the princess. The abandoned wife holds her babe in her arms and waits for her husband on a mountaintop nightly until both mother and child, pitied by the heavens, turn into stone.

The dead princess’ heart turns into a red ruby, refusing the cremating fire. The grieving king had it carved into a tea bowl. Whenever tea is poured into it, the image of the lone fisherman on his boat appeared, floating to and fro. He didn’t know. How could she have loved such a lowly commoner simply because of his singing voice? So he came back, too late, of course. But he cried. The fisherman’s tear fell into the bowl and it melted back into blood. It shimmered into nothingness.

Pati ergo sum? We suffer, therefore we exist. Tragedy followed Vietnamese narratives like Grimm, like Greek. To be acknowledged, to have one’s love requited, no matter how modest, how minuscule, a tear in a teacup was enough as a pay off. To be true to oneself was more important. Virtue was measured in term of stoicism, in endurance, which defined one’s characters, and wherein lived the divine. The rest? Up to fate. For a country invaded, steeped in warfare and losses, it was a luxury to think of happy endings.

One perhaps thinks why in the aftermath of that bloody embrace do the Vietnamese quickly shrug off the old fatalism (like the tour guide wanting her magic kingdom), and shift their gaze fixedly toward America. America’s powerful allure was self-evident through the story of progress of those who arrived in earlier waves, like those of my family.

Take my mother for instance. The letters and photos she diligently sent back home to relatives and friends, along with the care packages during the impoverished cold war years in the war’s aftermath, unwittingly became a powerful propaganda for Uncle Sam. They tell a story of wealth, progress, and transformation.

Sister, see my kids, see how they’ve grown!
Aunty, we bought a five-bedroom house with a pool…
Just came back from Paris to see Aunt D. Here we are at the Eiffel Tower.

Those photos and letters were siren songs. Vượt biên—to cross the border, to escape overseas—soon became a powerful verb, upending the Vietnamese sedentary nature. The old narrative faltered: Goodbye water, so long land; no more bent back, blazing sun, mud. A new migratory ethos was born on the back of boat people, with the birth of the Vietnamese Diaspora. What America had offered as possibilities, as opportunities, as dreams, over time became far more potent than any bullets and bombs.


Evolution of places, of movement

A community was born from both memory and ambition. And if I dance at the far end of that migratory story, so many of us now live up and down its streets.

Shh, listen! That man committed cannibalism when he vượt biên. A friend whispered this into my ear while we were eating pho in Orange County’s Little Saigon sometime in the late ’90s. My friend was a local resident. I stole a peek: The man looked just like everybody else in the restaurant, but he was marked. He was on an ill-fated boat stranded on a reef, crowded with people. It was abandoned by an American naval ship. After providing the boat people with some food and water, the American ship left for its mission, promising to pick them up upon its return trip. But it did not. A few days later, the stranded people ran out of food and water. People started dying. The boat’s captain and his squad, out of desperation, started killing the weak. They started eating human flesh and drinking their victims’ blood in order to survive. It’s a story that was featured in a 60 Minutes segment many years ago and later in a powerful documentary called Bolinao 52 by filmmaker Duc Nguyen.[1]

The man, the cannibal, so my friend told me, owned businesses. His children grew up to be tall and smart. They all prospered. That night, going home, and upon rereading an essay by Joan Didion about her California, it got me thinking: These pioneers—the Nguyens and the Trans of our modern time—those who risked death to find new homes, and those who crossed all sorts of boundaries and borders, who is to say that their stories do not rival that of the Donner Party?

Often survivors of a political fallout from another country become builders of another. Refugees and migrants have always helped themselves. It takes a special spirit and resolve, after all, to maneuver across boundaries and borders, risking death to reach the promised land. Given the right opportunity these people transform the world they enter. He walks across desert sands, she sails out to sea with her children, the teenager fleeing violence hops on a train and goes northward with nothing but a small backpack. Eventually in the new country, children are born, businesses prosper, and in time a community begins to form.

It is no exaggeration to say that California, home to the largest Vietnamese population outside of Vietnam, has been radically altered because of the Vietnamese Diaspora. Up and down the coast, Little Saigons bloom, transforming the California landscape.

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Just on taste alone: Take a look at my mother’s garden. Back in the ’80s, in her new suburban home at northern edge of Silicon Valley, she creates herbs from seeds and roots she got from friends who came later from Vietnam by boat. Now imagine that little garden spreading throughout California. Refugees and immigrants don’t just leave, they take seeds and roots with them, along with their culinary traditions and taste, and over time Southeast Asian tastes too come to be like the American taste. Go to a farmer’s market these days and see for yourself: Buddha fingers, lemongrass, mountain yam, coriander, bitter melons, mint, amaranth, buffalo spinach; even the air smelled of Southeast Asia.

No wonder the American taste buds demand more nuance, as some liking it hot, and others liking it even hotter.  This is why Iron Chef competitions sometime make Vietnamese the Banh mi sandwich. And why David Tran became a multimillionaire, making a chili sauce from his Saigon memory in Southern California, calling it Sriracha. So popular and ubiquitous now that it inspires copycats around the world, and even threatens to usurp ketchup.

I, for one, do not underestimate the power of immigrants’ nostalgia. In the Golden State, it often has ways of becoming retroactive. Buddhist temples now waft incense into the streets of San Francisco, San Jose, Westminster, Long Beach, Sacramento, and Los Angeles. So much longing for home changes the new landscape.

So here too are the familiar rags to riches theme to go with the Vietnamese Californian narrative: The family that started with one modest Banh Mi sandwich truck in Silicon Valley, hoping to serve Vietnamese Americans working as assembly workers turned the business into an international chain. A man who was a rice farmer in Vietnam discovered that he could start his own company assembling electronic boards and so he started a corporation. A Vietnamese woman who sold used clothes on the street of Saigon married an American who worked in the Foreign Service in Vietnam. In San Francisco, the once used clothing seller on the streets of Saigon helped her husband shepherd in a multibillion-dollar investment fund.

So many stories of transformation overseas indeed ends up transforming the erstwhile Vietnamese sedentary soul.

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California in Vietnam

“A brand new country,” a reporter friend from Vietnam recently rattled off to me the other day when we spoke. The once isolated country is fast in becoming the most wired, and the highest user of cell phones. “The hottest market for iPhone sales, far surpassing sales growth in India and China….”

“Facebook entered Vietnam’s market six years ago and at one point it was adding a million signups a month… It is expected to have thirty-six million users this year, that’s out of forty million Vietnamese who even have access to the Internet!”

“The average age of the Vietnamese is below thirty.”

Therefore, it’s a country of amnesia. Three out of four don’t remember the Vietnam War. Its gaze is forward and relentless. A Pew study in 2014 found that of forty-four countries, Vietnamese were the most optimistic about their future. Whereas Vietnam was once a country made up of poverty and isolation, plighted by wars and bloodshed, it is now expressive—a beginning of cultural renaissance.

Vietnam finally emerged out of the old war to be deeply wired, running on high gear toward cosmopolitan life. Vietnam cleaned up and repaved its broken sidewalks, like their wealthy Chinese and Japanese counterparts, beginning to travel overseas—no, not to vượt biên, but to shop. And to study and invest. Meanwhile high rises spring up virtually overnight in Saigon and Hanoi and Danang. A few months ago in my newsroom in San Francisco, an intern fresh from Vietnam came to improve her English and learn American ways of doing business so that she could get into an MBA program and start her own media firm back home. She seemed to capture that world wariness of the new generation when she commented that, “At first I was impressed with San Francisco, but a few weeks here and it feels, well, nothing special. Just the same as Saigon.”

Just the same as Saigon…

Once upon a time the ocean was treacherous and leaving Vietnam once meant a risk of death, or starvation, or drowning, or falling into pirate hands. Once it took three to six months to send a care package home, and with a government officer reading the letter before it is distributed to the addressee. Today, coming to America for many is a matter of purchasing a ticket on an airplane, and instead of marveling at its grandeur, the wary traveler begins to see America, as the intern sees it: “not that big of a deal.”

An inverse effect is taking place. San Francisco has more pedicab drivers than Saigon, which had gotten rid of them, and so a juxtaposition can be seen along the Embarcadero: Young, strong white people pedal tourists up and down the sidewalk—many of them from Asia. San Francisco has more homeless than its sister city, Saigon, which has cleaned up its streets. The poor/rich gap in the Bay Area is staggeringly third world and the cost of living is stratospheric. One out of three residents here ponder departure.[2]

“You just have to realize that to vượt biên these days—the crossing of borders—doesn’t have to be outside of Vietnam,” a friend commented as he and I sat and drank artisan coffee in my hometown, Dalat, a few years back. Increasingly the dream can also be had at home. These days even middle class Vietnamese fly overseas to shop.

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Whereas once Vietnam stood in contrast to America, to California, today it is running on parallel tracks, with its multi-strata and multi-class society. The once old echoed ’90s phrase, “Vietnam is a country not a war,” has now become an old cliché. Vietnam hasn’t been a war for many years, but it’s more than a country. It’s becoming a global entity, a major exporter of rice and coffee and seafood products, a major tourist destination.

Vietnam is a country, but it has taken on various shades of California. Vietnam wants to become the opposite of its former self—it wants to be globally connected, cosmopolitan. It has run fast and furious from war to peace and so like bamboo shoots spring up after the rain, cityscapes in Vietnam looks more and more like SOMA here in San Francisco. Vietnamese cities exist in a new world dotted with Starbucks and McDonalds. Remember those wondrous scoops of Baskin-Robbins? They too have made their way to Vietnam. In his wildest dreams uncle Phuoc could never imagine freeways being built with overpasses in Vietnam, and high rises that radically change Saigon’s city scape.

So be warned: The more you long for California, the more it comes to you. Turn on the TV and see what I mean. A rural teenager appears; she’s nervous, full of self-doubt. But when she sings, a golden voice. Judges swoon. The audience tears up. Soon, a month or so, she has been transformed, grows in confidence and beauty. The awkwardness replaced by the studied gestures of shyness and elegance. She gives a flawless performance. The audience roars with approval. A new princess is born. In the back stage, her yokel mother hugs herself and weeps.

Welcome to Vietnam Idol. Or Vietnam The Voice (The Voice of Vietnam). Or Vietnam’s Got Talent. Regardless of which reality show it is, a golden thread of optimism runs unmistakably through. The new “happily ever after” motif has eroded old world fatalism, and shifted the collective psyche. The Emcee of Vietnam Idol seems to say it all: “We will transform your dream into reality!”


The Return

Why was it that I ran so far and so fast from the parochial, the sadness? For some years after the war, after migrating to America, I failed to speak Vietnamese. I failed to form Vietnamese sentences that would shock my younger self, the chatty kid who talked endlessly in his schoolyard in Saigon among his classmates. The child sang the South Vietnamese national anthem with fervor each morning. But the teenager fled from his Vietnam memories, and even changed his name along with his preferred tongue, and read so voraciously that he even began to dream in English.

Only in adulthood did I come to realize that the English language was not one to be used to escape; but instead, to fully claim wholeness, English needs to be applied to commemorate and to grieve. I began to write. I now tell stories about my lost childhood, the lost country, and about the painful exodus out of Vietnam. I began to travel. And I began to go back.

As so did many others.

Victor Luu, who fled Vietnam a day before Saigon fell to Communist tanks on 30 April, 1975, has become a successful software engineer who participated in several start-ups in California’s Silicon Valley. In 2006, he returned to his hometown and founded Siglaz, a software company with more than fifty employees. In his new office in a tall building in an electronic corridor area near the airport called E-Town, where many Vietnamese American expats open their high tech businesses, Luu could see, when he turned around from his desk, the runway from which his plane full of panicked refugees took off decades years ago. “I fully believe in Vietnam,” he added. “The future is here. And I want to help it happen.”

Diep Vuong, a cum laude graduate of Harvard University with a degree in economics, left Vietnam as a boat person in 1979, but came back a decade ago to help fight human trafficking in An Giang, her home province in the Mekong Delta. “I always remember once we came to America my mother saying to my sisters and I that we were born Vietnamese for a reason, and it is up to us to figure out what that reason is,” Giang said. Hers is that she can protect at-risk young women being sold into slavery. “Increasingly, Vietnamese Americans are playing central roles in the philanthropy sector,” she said. “As for me, I can’t just sit and do nothing. Any of those girls being sold to Cambodia or China could be a cousin or a child of an old friend.”

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A San Jose born Vietnamese American, known as Giay Giay, went back and married a local boy in Dalat. “Whenever I hear a chicken crow in the morning I get nostalgic for California. My mother raised chickens in the suburb.” Vietnam’s culture has moved toward an open sexuality, she told me, a new sexual revolution. Little Saigon continues to practice its conservative values left over from the time of the war. “The young here don’t care about history, about the past,” she said, “whereas I come back and I am obsessed with it. I want to know where my mother came from, the way she lived.”

The refugee becomes immigrant and then, it seems with opportunities, he, in the twenty-first century, turns into a cosmopolitan—someone who participates in multiple spheres and languages and cultural-geographical affiliations. It’s inevitable, too, for many Vietnamese abroad to take the journey home at some point.

In truth the Diaspora has always played an important role in Vietnam’s economic life, long before the Cold War ended, long before the return trip was possible. But over time, as borders became porous, as the forces of globalization swept over Vietnam after the Berlin Wall fell and the USSR unraveled, the Diaspora began to—individually, collectively—reach back to its homeland, investing, providing technological know how, sharing cultural knowledge, sponsoring others to come, repatriating, and performing philanthropic work, all forming a complex transnational network, becoming a bona fide global tribe.

In middle age, I too long to return. But each time I go to Vietnam I have to contend myself with several versions of my homeland.

There’s the visceral—that long lost country at war time, a world of clanship, intimate connections, of smallness, of a charmed and quiet provincial life of walled villas and servants, a childhood of slow rhythm in the tropical world, and romantic music Joe Dassin, Françoise Hardy, Silvie Vartan, Johnny Halladay, Christophe… and of little school kids in uniform streaming into the old lycée, and the distant echoes of bombs in those quiet Saigon nights after the rain. Even now, typing these words, I still yearn for all that—a world long gone, the fear and the wonders, and retrievable only in the recalling.

One refuses the singular narrative, marrying instead ideas and languages, living with many reference points. To return, one goes forward.

Then there’s that raging river called Vietnam, and it’s full of young, ambitious people wanting to transform the country and improve their lives. It’s consumerist. It’s hardworking. It’s highly wired and growing in sophistication. It’s a world of go-getters. It’s a long-dormant nation waking up, rejuvenating, it roars with sounds of millions of motorcycles toward an unknown future.

Do not get me wrong. Injustice remains. Human trafficking is a scourge. The rich/poor gap widened. But I also wish to tell you that it is a country made up of ambitions and an increasingly globalized landscape. And it’s an unknown country.

And here’s the third home—a landscape made of one’s invention and many points of connections. The only way back is therefore in going forward. One cannot go home again, not to relive the long lost world, or capture the past, but one can take up mantle in that familiar, yet entirely new country. One learns to see the many dimensions of the world simultaneously. One refuses the singular narrative, marrying instead ideas and languages, living with many reference points. To return, one goes forward. One marries opposed ideas and creates points of synthesis. One hears a new symphony over the cacophony. One commits all to memories. One is open to the flux, to change.

Last year in Saigon, not far from where I used to live, I went to a karaoke party with some friends. Not much of a singer, I nevertheless was, after a few beers, coaxed to sing. I selected “Feeling Good” by Nina Simone, which I know by heart. As friends watched in astonishment, I belted its lyrics out with gusto, especially this verse:

And this old world is a new world
And a bold world 
For me
For me… 

Because, well, that’s how I felt about new Vietnam, and it does feel good.

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Notes

[1] “52” refers to the number of those remaining from the one hundred ten people who survived their saga in a boat on the high seas before being rescued by Filipino fishermen from the seaside town of Bolinao, the Philippines.

[2] Peter Fimrite, “One-third ponder leaving Bay Area amid costs, congestion,” SF Gate, 2 May 2016, http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Cost-of-living-traffic-have-a-third-of-Bay-Area-7386717.php.

 

Andrew Lam is the author of two books of essays, Perfume Dreams, Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora, East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres, and a collection of short stories, Birds of Paradise Lost. He is a recipient of Creative Work Fund to write a series of stories exploring the relationship between Vietnam and California.

Copyright: © 2018 Andrew Lam. 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).

2 Railroad Bridge

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.

Waldie-1

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]

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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/.

Reviews

The Latin American Aesthetic of L.A. Music Culture

Kun-4

Benjamin Cawthra

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

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

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

Kun-2

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

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

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

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

Kun-3

 

Note

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

 

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

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

 

Articles

The Big Siesta

Siesta_Chandler-2

Blake Allmendinger

In Playing In the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992), Toni Morrison studies the impact of African slaves and their descendants on “canonical American literature,” primarily produced by white male writers. This “black presence” is often absent in works that celebrate the United States as a nation of free and equal citizens. The myth of America as the New World can only be sustained by the refusal to acknowledge people who were brought to this country against their will and as enslaved individuals more than four hundred years ago. By enforcing the ideal of “invisibility through silence,” writers create ghostly lacunas, allowing “the black body a shadowless participation in the dominant cultural body.”[1]

Hispanics have posed a similar problem in the U.S. West, where people of Spanish and Mexican descent are sometimes referred to as “undocumented workers” or “illegal aliens.” The politicians and voters who use these terms imagine immigrants sneaking into the country and disappearing into ethnic neighborhoods and communities, undetected by legal residents and law enforcement agencies. The Hispanic presence is also depicted as a menacing absence in regional western literature. One such case is Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (1939), a classic example of American noir that features a Mexican American family living in Los Angeles during the Great Depression.

Chandler portrays the city as a place where desperate people do anything to ensure their personal and economic survival. While working for his client, General Sternwood, private investigator Philip Marlowe discovers that nothing is what it seems to be. A rare book store is actually a front for a pornographic lending library. A dilapidated mansion houses an illegal gambling den. A seemingly innocent woman is really a dangerous femme fatale. Wherever Marlowe goes, he encounters serpents in the Garden of Eden.

The Sternwood family gives truth to the saying that behind every great fortune lies a great crime. The General is an oil baron who lives in a modern-day castle, symbolizing his wealth and social respectability. His daughter Carmen is a drug addict being blackmailed by a man with a glass eye. Meanwhile, his other daughter, Vivian, is cheating on her husband. The estate is designed in the faux Spanish style—with tile floors and wrought-iron railings[2]—referencing the European empire that once ruled California. It also resembles Greystone Mansion, built by real-life oil tycoon Edward Doheny (Greystone/Sternwood). The property later became notorious as the site where Ned Doheny, Jr. and his male secretary (as well as rumored lover) died in an alleged murder-suicide pact.[3]

The Big Sleep exposes the guilty deeds and sordid histories of the city’s so-called upper-class. Yet one mystery still remains unsolved: the origin of the Sternwood family. The first clue appears in the opening chapter when Marlowe arrives at the Sternwood estate, and a butler ushers him into the main hallway. The detective notices a large oil painting hanging below “two bullet-torn or moth-eaten cavalry pennants crossed in a glass frame.” The picture features a man posing in a military uniform. Marlowe identifies the subject as someone who fought during “the Mexican war. The officer had a neat black imperial, black mustachios [and] coal-black eyes…. I thought this might be General Sternwood’s grandfather” (4).

Caucasian writers have been fantasizing about the elimination of the Hispanic presence since the conclusion of the Mexican-American War.

The black eyes and swarthy appearance indicate that the officer is a non-Caucasian. Mexican cavalry commanders often remained in California after the war, marrying wealthy white women in order to maintain their economic standing and social status. This theory explains another unanswered question of why the current General has given one daughter the Anglo-Saxon name Vivian and the other one the Hispanic name Carmen.[4] The painting is also a subtle reminder that Catholic missionaries and military leaders used religious iconography and visual symbols of authority to convert and subdue non-Spanish-speaking natives when they first arrived in California.[5]

Unions between high-ranking Mexican military officers and daughters of prosperous American families created “ethnic alliances,”[6] allowing whites to gain access to Mexican wealth, while enabling the newly defeated Mexican aristocracy to become absorbed within the expanding white power structure.[7] One historian views these matrimonial mergers from a noir perspective, suggesting that women were essentially trafficked “between the old and the emerging ruling classes,”[8] or even sold into sexual slavery.

Siesta_Chandler-1

This model of interethnic relations is consistent with Chandler’s portrayal of California as a site of contested space where races and empires have battled for centuries to control the region’s people and natural resources. The Spanish colonization of Native America was followed by Mexico’s brief period of rule, its secularization of Catholic missions, and the enrichment of its landed gentry. The Mexican-American War ended with whites and rancheros continuing to struggle for economic and political dominance. The subsequent Gold Rush led to a new form of environmental exploitation. It was succeeded by the discovery of oil in the late nineteenth century. By the time Chandler published The Big Sleep that industry had begun to decline.

Evidence in the novel suggests that the original General married his daughter to a white man named Sternwood to secure the fortunes of the newly dispossessed Mexican gentry. The couple had a son (Marlowe’s employer) who at some point in the past married for money. In the first chapter, the reader learns that Sternwood got married in his fifties to a younger woman, who bore him two children and later died (13). Chandler never explains what caused the wife’s premature demise, thus creating another unsolved mystery. But he indicates that the wife had money of her own, which she bequeathed to her daughters in her will (14). The General is unable to access this money, though he may have invested part of her remaining fortune in the oil business. The Sternwood derricks appear in the background throughout the novel, uneasily coexisting with the palm trees and Southern California foothills.

The Spanish colonization of the region “conferred upon Mexicans a ‘white’ racial status.” Thus, anti-miscegenation laws, which prohibited marriage between Caucasians and blacks or Asian Americans, wouldn’t have applied to the Sternwoods.[9] Indeed, Chandler had written an earlier short story entitled “Spanish Blood” (1935), featuring Los Angeles policeman Sam Delaguerre. The protagonist is proud of his grandfather, deeming him “one of the best sheriffs this county ever had.” He is equivalently proud of his European lineage, claiming, “My blood is Spanish, pure Spanish. Not nigger-Mex and not Yaqui-Mex.”[10]

Some Americans questioned the purity of the Mexican gentry, who identified as white Europeans.[11] Chandler portrays Delaguerre as one of the good guys—a prototype for Marlowe, “who is neither tarnished nor afraid.”[12] But he also describes the character as “very brown” (22). Delaguerre pursues a Filipino man called the Caliente Kid, a Spanish-speaking criminal who is dark like the hero (44, 46). The similarity between the “spig” and the “flip” (53, 46) blurs the distinction between Spaniards and Filipinos. Chandler also portrays General Sternwood and his daughters as if they were the products of miscegenation, with the alleged mental and physical defects sometimes attributed to mixed-race people. Confined to a wheelchair, Marlowe’s employer blames his poor health on a life of debauchery (9). Unlike Vivian, his Spanish-named daughter, Carmen, has certain abnormalities, including pointed incisor teeth and thumbs that lack the prehensile ability to grasp objects, a quality found in the most evolved species of mammals. Members of the Mexican ranchero elite were referred to as gente de razon (people of reason), suggesting that they were more refined and intelligent than mestizos and working-class peons.[13] However, Carmen is intellectually stunted, as well as subject to seizures (220), indicating that she is either epileptic or mentally “abnormal” (223, 229).

Chandler was an admitted Anglophile and the non-white characters who appear in his fiction are usually associated with deviance, decadence, and moral corruption.

Westward expansion seemed to confirm that the U.S. had a divine right to the land stretching from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Coast. However, one historian has argued that “the desperate effort of the vanquished to maintain their birthright even in defeat [explains] the central meaning of Manifest Destiny.”[14] That effort appears to be doomed by the end of The Big Sleep. The oil wells are “no longer pumping” (218), suggesting that the general’s fortune has been depleted. His daughters are childless, and have failed to make matrimonial alliances that would secure the fortunes of the next generation.

A Protestant, Chandler once admitted that he “grew up with a terrible contempt for Catholics.”[15] But noir has more in common with the Catholic notion of eternal sin than with the Protestant belief in the improvability of the human race and Manifest Destiny’s triumphal narrative of predestination. As a side note, the title for the Spanish version of the novel, El Sueño Eterno, equates death with eternal oblivion. In The Big Sleep, California is a postlapsarian Eden, inhabited by people who are deeply flawed. “Vivian” alludes to the Lady of the Lake, an enchantress who ruled the mythical kingdom of Avalon. Ironically, “Carmen” means “garden” in Spanish. The novel is a contemporary urban version of the medieval romance. Marlowe is the knight who has been hired to rescue the general’s daughters, and Los Angeles is the corrupt Arthurian realm in which these seductresses masquerade as damsels in distress.

This Anglo-Saxon myth also has its counterpart in Spanish renaissance literature. The name “California” was first used to refer to the region by Garci Rodriguez Ordóñez de Montalvo in his sixteenth-century medieval romance, Las sergas de esplandián (The Exploits of Esplandián).[16] Fittingly, the novel’s climactic scene occurs in an abandoned oil field, which appears “lonely as a churchyard” (218). The Catholic missions have been replaced by Sternwood’s derricks, and at the bottom of one of the wells lays the body of a white man whom Carmen has killed.

The foreshadowed extinction of the Sternwood family may be a form of white wish-fulfillment. Caucasian writers have been fantasizing about the elimination of the Hispanic presence since the conclusion of the Mexican-American War. Morrison suggests that the alleged savagery of African slaves, and later African American men and women, made it necessary to erase their existence in literary and artistic works that depicted idealized versions of American civilization. White authors who wrote about California and the U.S. West were faced with the opposite problem. Many of the Spaniards and Mexicans who had earlier resided in the region—the Catholic clergy and military elite, the wealthy rancheros and other landed gentry—were more “civilized” than poor whites who immigrated there in the late 1840s and afterward, squatting on property they didn’t own and plundering the area’s mineral resources. Writers had to ignore this historical fact, or reimagine Mexicans after the war as being members of a supposed inferior race.

Chandler was an admitted Anglophile[17] and the non-white characters who appear in his fiction are usually associated with deviance, decadence, and moral corruption. In addition to the Hispanic presence, there are numerous references to the Orient, which contributes to The Big Sleep’s sinister atmosphere. However, most of the characters in Chandler’s novels are white, and they commit the majority of violent acts and criminal misdeeds. The hard-boiled detective novel can be read as the second chapter in frontier history, indicating how the land-grabbers, cattle rustlers, and gunslingers in the early U.S. West moved to cities such as Los Angeles, where they evolved into the blackmailers, bootleggers, and gangsters of the 1930s and ’40s.

In part, Chandler blames members of the degenerating Sternwood clan for the evils in society, pitting the characters against a white private eye and police department in a racial conflict that has continued since the end of the Mexican-American War. Frequently, noir examines issues about “national belonging” and racial dispossession. As a nation with competing claims to the region in The Big Sleep, Mexico serves as a “spatial other to the United States.” It is “American noir’s geopolitical unconscious,” its dark double; an invisible threat to the nation—not only in Chandler’s fiction, but in our current culture as well.[18]

 Siesta_Chandler-4

Notes

[1] Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), 4-5, 10.

[2] Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep, 1939; (reprint, New York: Vintage, 1988), 4. Subsequent references to this edition appear within the text of the essay.

[3] Chandler worked for a California oil company from 1922 to 1932. He was fascinated by the Doheny murder case, which Marlowe alludes to in The High Window (1942). See Robert F. Moss, ed., Raymond Chandler: A Literary Reference (New York: Carroll and Graf, 2003), 88-98.

[4] Despite her name, Vivian also has dark and wiry hair, as well as the same “hot black eyes of the portrait in the hall” (17).

[5] Lisbeth Haas, “Indigenous Peoples Under Colonial Rule,” in Blake Allmendinger, ed., A History of California Literature (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 37.

[6] Leonard Pitt, The Decline of the Californios: A Social History of the Spanish-Speaking Californians, 1846-1890 (Berkeley: UC Press, 1966; reprint, 1998), 124-25.

[7] Tomás Almaguer, Racial Fault Lines: The Historical Origins of White Supremacy in California (Berkeley: UC Press, 1994), 58. William Deverell also suggests that these unions were seldom based on mutual affection. “Many of the genteel Californios… displayed unusual, though largely unspoken, hostility toward Americans. It was rumored that they washed their hands after touching American money.” See Whitewashed Adobe: The Rise of Los Angeles and the Remaking of Its Mexican Past (Berkeley: UC Press, 2004), 15.

[8] Ibid., 59.

[9] Ibid., 4, 58.

[10] Raymond Chandler, “Spanish Blood,” 1935; reprint. in The Simple Art of Murder (New York: Vintage), 40. Subsequent references to this edition appear parenthetically within the text of the essay.

[11] Almaguer, Racial Fault Lines, 4.

[12] Raymond Chandler, “The Simple Art of Murder,” in The Simple Art of Murder, 18.

[13] Miroslava Chávez-García, Negotiating Conquest: Gender and Power in California, 1770s to 1880s (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2004), xiv; and Almaguer, Racial Fault Lines 46.

[14] Pitt, The Decline of the Californios, xiii.

[15] Raymond Chandler, in a letter to Charles Morton, dated 1 January 1945. As cited in Moss, Raymond Chandler, 15.

[16] Vincent Pérez, “Spanish and Mexican Literature,” in Allmendinger, ed., A History of California Literature, 43.

[17] See Frank McShane, The Life of Raymond Chandler (New York: Dutton,1976); William Marling, Raymond Chandler (Boston: Twayne, 1986); and Judith Freeman, The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved (New York: Pantheon, 2007).

[18] Jonathan Auerbach, Dark Borders: Film Noir and American Citizenship (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 15, 24, 123.

 

Blake Allmendinger is professor of English at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he specializes in western American literature. His books include The Cowboy (Oxford, 1992), Ten Most Wanted (Routledge, 1998), Inventing the African American West (Nebraska, 2005), The Melon Capital of the World: A Memoir (Nebraska, 2015), and A History of California Literature (Cambridge, 2016).

Copyright: © 2018 Blake Allmendinger. 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/

Articles

The Américas: Chapter the Fifth

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David Kipen

“As I was saying,” Navarre said, breathing a little heavily, “the gold was everywhere—nuggets the size of muskmelons, gold dust in drifts, dunes of it like anthills. On a large anvil, I saw the misshapen coins and lumpy ingots of a small forging operation that stretched farther back into the mountain, lost from sight.

I won’t lie. I plunged my hands into the nearest heap up to my shoulders. I’d been galumphing in rain and muck all day. All I wanted was to roll around in all that dust till it stuck to me like breadcrumbs on a rainbow.

If somebody had piled up this much gold in a cave, there must be mountains of it still out there. Rivers of it, just waiting. Enough gold for me to tell Greeley to go hang. Enough to buy the Tribune out from under him and rouse the whole world with it. Enough to buy out Sutter and give his blamed valley back to the Miwoks, to buy off every American soldier on Mexican soil and—

Mexican soil. Oh, shit.

In a flash, I saw it as if I were there. I saw the Guadalupe-Hidalgo estate, the generals and their secretaries gross from last night’s capons, fingers too sticky from the morning’s pastry to hold their pens upright, signing it away, signing it all away.

Forget the gold. I had to warn Mexico now, be it a thousand miles away…

 

TO BE CONTINUED,— NAY, ALREADY CONTINUING

 

Note

This is part five of five from a new short story. See also part onepart twopart three, and part four.

Artwork by Jacquelyn Campaña.


 

David Kipen is the founder of the nonprofit Libros Schmibros Lending Library in Boyle Heights, a lecturer on the UCLA faculty, and a Critic-at-Large of the LA Times. His Dear Los Angeles: The City in Diaries and Letters will be published Fall 2018 by Modern Library. The Américas will be his first novel, and he welcomes your kibitzing at kipend@gmail.com.

Copyright: © 2017 David Kipen. 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

The Américas: Chapter the Fourth

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David Kipen

“Last week,” he began, sleep forgotten, warming to the story as if from memory, growing more loquacious the while, “for all anybody knew I could’ve been dead a year. A year ago I was traveling with Frémont’s army, supposedly writing a profile of him for the Tribune.

Boy, that man knew how to treat a reporter. I wasn’t in any hurry to finish. I guess I took too long, because Mr. Greeley sent word I was to file immediately or not bother coming back.

I was mulling the choice when I heard a story from an old Miwok woman about gold in the foothills of the Sierra. So I stuffed my Frémont notes into my saddlebag, waited till lights-out, lammed out of that man’s army and made for the mountains. If I didn’t get rich, at least I’d get a better story. Maybe I’d get both.

So I knocked around California for a few months, chasing down one rumor after another. I rode south almost to Placerita to check out the gold strike from ’42, but it was pretty well played out.

All the time I kept hearing about this fellow Sutter, a Swiss colonel who’d gone up the Americano from Yerba Buena and set himself up king of the Sacramento.

Last month I figured I’d go and see for myself. On my way, I met a talkative Mexican—begging your pardon—who’d heard that there was gold up below Tahoe, but that Sutter’s marshal hadn’t got around to checking it out yet.

Once we pulled in, who do I see but Jim Marshall, the best carpenter in Frémont’s army. He was on his way up the trail as foreman to a pack of Mormons, aiming to build Sutter his first sawmill that wouldn’t fall over if you pissed on it.

Well, Jim remembered me. He’s a good guy—a little soft, maybe, but honest. So I made him a deal. He wouldn’t have to lie, I was very specific about that. But I’d work for him at half-wages if he’d keep it off the books. He assumed I was on a fresh story, and so I was.

All the while, I sought out whatever news came to hand. The war—call it Mexican, call it American, or call it what they all are, a Real Estate War—the war was over, but the peace talks in Mexico City were taking forever. Typical diplomats. Every Sabbath an announcement was expected, and every Sabbath, none came.

Lately, though, the negotiators at the Guadalupe-Hidalgo villa looked to be putting on steam again. If they didn’t sign something, the war might flare back up. If that happened, the Washington delegation might get recalled home in a hurry,— where the winds were colder, their wives closer, and a good mole nowhere in evidence.

Anyway, Marshall and a bunch of us traipsed up into the foothills, with all our equipment banging and clanging off the wagon like a jug band. He picked out a riverbank for the mill,— a pretty place, well-forested and sheltered from the wind. Next day we went to work.

I kept my eyes open the whole time. Every chance I got, which wasn’t often, I wandered off with a fishpole, creel and a dipper hanging off my belt, ransacking the terrain for a sparkle. Mormons probably thought I had a wench up there.

Those Mormons worked pretty fast once the Miwoks taught ’em upstream from down. Young Charley Bennett finally figured out which end of a saw was which, and Scotty the carpenter was almost ready to start in on the mill wheel.

And then the sky opened. It rained for a week, let up for a day and rained some more. I borrowed an oilcloth slicker from the cook and took to squelching around the foothills.

At first there was nothing. I trudged through the mud and underbrush in circles. By the second day, I could go a full hour without getting lost. But my creel stayed empty, with nary a nugget or even a trout to weigh it down.

On the night of the full moon, I resolved to stay out after dark. Either it’d be bright enough to shine up a nugget, or dark enough to stumble across a bear,— by this time, I didn’t much care which.

Once the sun dropped behind the ridgeline, I made out a mossy cliff nearby, just starting to glisten in the moon. Halfway up the side, a jagged spot showed itself, darker than the cliff around it. I tear-assed over to the riprap under it and looked back up.

Just as I’d thought, it was a cavern. I scrabbled up the scree toward it. With every step, a tiny gravel avalanche slid me back almost as far. Finally I gained a purchase at the very top of the pile and chinned myself over the lip.

There in the cave, dim in the infiltrating starshine, I saw a hoard of gold beyond counting.”

“How much?” I interjected, stirring as if from a trance.

“Didn’t I just say it was beyond counting?”

“About how much?”

“Am I telling this story or you?”

“I thought you were sleepy.”

“Second wind.”

“Windier by the minute, to my ear. Monsieur Vignes always says to avoid ten-dollar words. He says they’re just showing off.”

Navarre looked pained, as if from an old wound.

“Ten-dollar words. Kee-rist. Just because you don’t have ten dollars for one of my words doesn’t mean the whole world is broke.”

“If your word is ten dollars and mine is five, where are most customers going to shop?”

He considered.

“Look, kid. If this shed caught fire, which book would you save?”

“That’s easy. Monsieur Vignes bought me the whole Martin Chuzzlewit, bound in buckram. With deckle edges.”

“How much did it cost?”

“I don’t know. A lot, I bet.”

“Is that why you’d save it from a fire?  Because it cost a lot?”

“Partly. Partly I just like it.”

“Pretty big book for a little kid like you.”

“Who’s little?”

“You understand every word in it?”

“Most of ’em. I look up the rest.”

“He looks up the rest. What in?”

“Monsieur Vignes gave me a Webster’s. It’s a library all by itself.”

“Webster’s, eh?” Navarre smiled. “I were you, I’d hang on to that one. Let Vignes hang onto his Dickens til the fire burns out. May I continue?”

I let him, and kept any further interruptions to a minimum. That may have been a mistake. By degrees, his telling grew purple as a hanged man’s tongue.

 

Notes

This is part four of five from a new short story. See also part one, part two, part three, and part five.

Artwork by Jacquelyn Campaña.


 

David Kipen is the founder of the nonprofit Libros Schmibros Lending Library in Boyle Heights, a lecturer on the UCLA faculty, and a Critic-at-Large of the LA Times. His Dear Los Angeles: The City in Diaries and Letters will be published Fall 2018 by Modern Library. The Américas will be his first novel, and he welcomes your kibitzing at kipend@gmail.com.

Copyright: © 2017 David Kipen. 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

The Américas: Chapter the Third

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David Kipen

“What’s your name, kid?” the sodden wayfarer asked.

“Francisco P. Ramirez.”

“What’s the P. stand for?”

“Not Pancho.”

“Not Pancho. Fair enough.”

“What’s your name?”

“That’s complicated.”

“Your name is complicated?”

“I’ve had a few.”

“Pick one.”

“We don’t have much time.”

I had plenty of time.

“Why do you need La Jefa?” I asked.

“I need to get a message to la capital.

“Racing homers only fly one way. Monsieur Vigne has had La Jefa for years. He had a sweetheart once in Mexico City, yet he never sent her a message for fear no one would bring La Jefa back. La Jefa is for an emergency only, and love isn’t an emergency.”

“Shit, you are twelve.”

“What’s the message?”

“Do you know about the Mexican War?”

“Fourteen-year-olds must be very stupid where you come from. I know from the newspapers.”

“Newspapers. What good are newspapers in the West? By the time you read about war, there’s peace. By the time you read about peace, there’s war. You might as well study ancient history. At least Gibbon gets the dates right. The daily press is just fast enough to be wrong.”

“So why are you a journalist?”

“I ask myself the same thing every day. All right, what does the press tell you about the Mexican War?”

“Depends on the paper. The Mexican ones call it the American War.”

“A war doesn’t care what you call it. What’s the last newspaper you read about this ‘American War’?”

“Someone left a Santa Fe New Mexican from Christmas on the Friday stage. The driver saves them for me. He brought me one from New Year’s the week before. It gets confusing sometimes. But the New Year’s one said the treaty talks in la capital broke down. What’s the last you read?”

“It’s all out of date,” he sighed. “All of it. That’s why I need your Jefe. I know something about Mexico that even Mexico doesn’t know.”

“Something that fits around the leg of a pigeon?”

“Could be.”

“Is that what you had in your hand? When you tried to free La Jefa?”

“Hijo, enough with the questions. Do I get the bird or don’t I? I haven’t slept two hours together for three nights straight.”

“Then you’d better tell me the story while you’re still awake.”

“You’d better let me sleep or you’ll never get the story.”

I thought fast.

“Tell me the story or I’ll throttle the bird myself, and then where will you be?”

“You’ve been reading more than just newspapers, haven’t you? Put some coffee on. Have they heard of John Sutter’s Fort down here? Oh, and call me Navarre.”

 

Notes

This is part three of five from a new short story. See also part one, part two, part four, and part five.

Artwork by Jacquelyn Campaña.


 

David Kipen is the founder of the nonprofit Libros Schmibros Lending Library in Boyle Heights, a lecturer on the UCLA faculty, and a Critic-at-Large of the LA Times. His Dear Los Angeles: The City in Diaries and Letters will be published Fall 2018 by Modern Library. The Américas will be his first novel, and he welcomes your kibitzing at kipend@gmail.com.

Copyright: © 2017 David Kipen. 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/