Tag: Latinx


Vol. 6, No. 3, Fall 2016



Read the latest from Boom California, Volume 6, Number 3, Fall 2016.  All articles from this issue are free and open to read.


From the Editor’s Desktop
Jason S. Sexton

The Boom List
What to do, see, read, and hear this fall in California
Boom Staff

What Are the Urban Humanities?
Anthony Cascardi, Michael Dear

Urban Humanities and the Creative Practitioner
A manifesto
Dana Cuff, Jennifer Wolch

A Boom Interview
In conversation with Jonathan Crisman and Jason S. Sexton
Karen Tei Yamashita

Practicing the Future
Exercises in immanent speculation
Jonathan Crisman

The 43
Remembering Ayotzinapa
Maricela Becerra, Lucy Seena K. Lin, Gus Wendel

Monumental Hydraulics
Diego Rivera’s Lerma Waterworks and the water temples of San Francisco
Rafael Tiffany, Susan Moffat

Relocating Romare Bearden’s Berkeley
Capturing Berkeley’s colorful diversity
Lauren Kroiz

A Boom Interview
In conversation with Jennifer Wolch and Dana Cuff
Mike Davis

The Battle of the Bulb
Nature, culture and art at a San Francisco Bay landfill
Susan Moffat

Waves of Data
Illuminating pathways with San Leandro Lights
Greg Niemeyer

Hanging Out with Cyclists
Noam Shoked

Seeking Literary Justice

La Caja Mágica in Boyle Heights
Maricela Becerra, Cat Callaghan, Will Davis, Grace Ko, Benjamin Kolder, Alejandro Ramirez Mendez

Neither Here Nor There
Engaging Mexico City and Los Angeles
Dana Cuff, Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris

Learning the City
Developing new networks of understanding

Jonathan Banfill, Angélica Becerra, Jeannette Mundy

The Inside-Out Museum/The Inside-Out University
A Conversation
Walter Hood, Shannon Jackson

Urban Humanities Pedagogy

The classroom, education, and New Humanities
Jonathan Banfill, Todd Presner, Maite Zubiaurre


Proposition 47

by Marisa Arrona

Reimagining justice, opportunity, and healing

From Boom Summer 2016, Vol 6, No 2

Rochelle Solombrino was sixteen when she got her first DUI, the same age as her first suicide attempt. A year later, she nearly died from alcohol poisoning. When she was twenty-four, she almost died of a heroin overdose.

“I was on a suicide mission,” Solombrino, now forty-nine, says ruefully. “It wasn’t normal to think like that, but, back then, it was hard to understand what ‘normal’ was.”

She had her first drink at age six and was encouraged by an uncle to start smoking marijuana at a young age. Her stepfather sexually molested her.

She also knew she was gay, but because her family was conservative, and included an uncle who was a conservative pastor, she was scared to be true to herself. Alcohol and drugs were the only things she knew would numb her pain. By fourteen, she had tried not only marijuana but also PCP, LSD, and cocaine.

It should be little surprise, then, that Solombrino’s story includes a period of incarceration. After being arrested a number of times for nonviolent crimes such as petty theft, drug possession, and disorderly conduct driven by her addictions, she was sentenced to eighteen months in state prison. Solombrino became a victim of California’s misguided prioritization of incarceration over crime prevention programs like drug treatment.

“It never made any sense to me that people like myself who were convicted of nonviolent crimes were serving time in the same place as people serving twenty-five-to-life sentences for violent crimes,” she says.

Solombrino’s story is not unique.

Over a three-decade period from 1981 to 2011, the money California spent on prisons and on incarcerating people increased by more than 1,500 percent. During this time, the state also reduced the number of behavioral health treatment beds by nearly half. Meanwhile the recidivism rate skyrocketed to nearly 70 percent, meaning two out of three people released from prison committed new crimes landing them back in prison within three years.



At a fair in South Los Angeles, people get help applying to have their records changed.

Much of our criminal justice system has proceeded aggressively with the idea that locking up criminals for as long as possible is the most effective way of dealing with crime. But it has become increasingly clear over the years that this approach has failed.

No matter how tough we made the punishments, too many people have cycled in and out of our justice system, But we know now there are much better ways to improve public safety than locking up people like Solombrino in our jails and prisons where they not only don’t receive rehabilitation services but then, upon release, are prevented from successfully reentering society because of their criminal records. After decades of soaring prison costs and recidivism rates, it is imperative that California does whatever it takes to improve our approach to safety and justice.

We have learned a lot over the years about how to deter crime and change criminal behavior. While prison is the proper punishment for the most violent criminals, it often does more harm than good for people convicted of nonviolent offenses, increasing the chance they will keep committing crimes, perpetuating the cycle.

Many California voters believe this, which is why 60 percent of them in November 2014 approved Proposition 47, a measure that changed simple drug possession and five petty-theft crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. Polling done a year after the law went into effect shows that support for Prop. 47 has grown to 67 percent.1

In strong complementary ways, the law helped continue to address the severe overcrowding in the state prison system that the Supreme Court ruled in June 2011 was unconstitutional, and which led to a court-ordered population cap. In the eighteen months since the law went into effect, the population of the state’s overcrowded prison system has been reduced by more than 5,000 people.2 Similarly, California’s overcrowded county jails have also seen their populations reduced as a result of Prop. 47: a recent report by the Public Policy Institute of California found that in the first year after Prop. 47 was approved, jail populations decreased by about 9 percent.

The initiative has also saved the state and counties tens of millions of dollars—money mandated by the law’s language to be reallocated to community-based crime-prevention programs like drug and mental health treatment that help break the cycles of crime, risk prevention, education programs for at-risk schoolchildren, and trauma recovery services to help victims of crime. Now that Governor Jerry Brown’s Department of Finance has calculated the savings generated by Prop. 47 during the first full fiscal year the law has been on the books, the money will be put into the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Fund and dispersed early next year to local jurisdictions by the Board of State and Community Corrections as part of a grant process.

To be sure, Prop. 47 did not decriminalize misdemeanors, nor did it take away law enforcement’s ability to hold defendants accountable. Law enforcement and the legal system can still arrest, detain, and jail for up to a year someone convicted of a misdemeanor—including the six crimes impacted by Prop. 47. If someone is convicted of multiple misdemeanors, that person can be sentenced to multiple years in jail.

Significantly, the law is also retroactive, meaning that anyone in California with a felony conviction on his or her criminal record for one of the six low-level crimes impacted by Prop. 47 can apply to the courts to have that felony reduced to a misdemeanor. It’s the largest opportunity in the history of the United States for people to change past felony convictions on their records—indeed, as many as one million Californians may be eligible.

In California today, nearly 5,000 restrictions are placed on people with felonies on their criminal records, and more than half of those restrictions are employment-related. Someone with a felony conviction on his or her record, no matter how old it is, cannot obtain a cosmetology license or receive college grants, for example. As a result, many people find it hard or impossible to secure and maintain employment, housing, financial aid to go back to school, and other factors that are key to achieving economic security and family stability.

Solombrino knows this well. Upon being released from prison, she was enrolled in a twelve-step program at Fred Brown Recovery Services in San Pedro, which helped significantly as she found her feet back in society. After successfully completing the program, she started working for Fred Brown, first as a sober-living manager at one of its residential homes and then as an office manager. Today she is the operations coordinator for the entire organization.

Having experienced sober living for seven years now, Solombrino is saving to buy her first home. Four years ago, she achieved a major milestone: getting her driver’s license back. She bought herself a used Jeep—her dream car.

But her criminal history became an issue last year when Fred Brown applied for a county contract. To qualify, no one on the organization’s staff could have a felony conviction on their record. Suddenly, despite all the work she’d done to turn herself around and get her life back on the right track, Solombrino was in danger of having all of it taken away.

But then, at a job fair, she met Prop. 47 advocates who told her about the chance she had to reduce her old felony convictions to misdemeanors. She confirmed that she was eligible and immediately filed an application for relief under Prop. 47. Hers was one of nearly 250,000 applications that have been filed to date.

“I was feeling completely defeated before Prop. 47,” Solombrino says. “Even though I’d done all of this positive stuff in my life, the county could’ve taken away my job even though I’d already paid my debt to society.”

The experience was reminiscent of one from years earlier, when Solombrino applied for Section 8 housing but was denied because of her criminal history.

“That was another defeat,” Solombrino says. “That was just another reason to get drunk.”

Increasingly, policymakers are recognizing the futility of sitting around and waiting for crime to happen and then going after the people who commit those crimes. They’re beginning to invest more into programs that seek to prevent crime from happening in the first place.

In Los Angeles County, for example, the Board of Supervisors has created a task force comprised of officials from the Probation and Sheriff’s departments, as well as other key county representatives. They were tasked with developing a plan for reaching out to as many people as possible in Los Angeles who are eligible to change an old felony on their record to a misdemeanor. County leaders are also working to create jobs and provide services to people once they have received Prop. 47 relief. They’re keeping tabs on the amount of money Prop. 47 saves the county, and they are engaging community members to help decide how that savings will be reinvested.

But in Los Angeles and jurisdictions across the state, more needs to be done.


Rochelle Solombrino


Proposition 47 requires new approaches, and everyone in the justice system needs to be committed to adapting to the change in state law.

Local justice agencies should be expanding best practices in diversion, targeted deterrence, supervised probation, treatment, collaborative courts and neighborhood problem solving, and other strategies that can help protect public safety without wasting costly state prison beds.

Prop. 47 is a historic opportunity to get smart about our justice resources. Adapting to reform is what Californians voted for, what they expect, and what needs to happen now. The old way of doing things busted our budgets and didn’t do anything to improve the health and safety of our communities. Returning to the ways of the past will only waste resources and fail to stop the cycle of crime. We can do better than we’ve done in the past, and Prop. 47 is beginning to show the way.

“I can positively say that although I began my road of recovery from active addiction the day I entered treatment at Fred Brown Recovery Services, it wasn’t until I embarked on Prop. 47 that I started to truly believe I wasn’t a bad person trying to get good, but a good person trying to get well,” Solombrino says. “I began to feel real hope that I could clear the wreckage of my past, redeem myself, and restore my future.”


1. The California Endowment, Californians Back Prop. 47; Want Investments in Prevention,November 2015 (available at www.calendow.org/survey-californians-back-prop-47-want-investments-in-prevention/).

2. State of California, Office of Governor Edmund G. Brown, California State Budget 2016–2017(available at www.ebudget.ca.gov/FullBudgetSummary.pdf), 44.


Reflections from Inside

Carlos Adrian Vazquez, Jr.

Editor’s Note: Tucked away in the northern part of the San Fernando Valley at the intersection of the 5 and 210 freeways sat sixteen-year-old Carlos Adrian Vazquez, Jr. in Sylmar’s Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall. He was facing thirty-five-years-to-life for a gang-related murder.

His is an all-too-common story of California youth living fast and dangerous, searching for identity, causing trouble while hoping to survive, and getting caught up. Nearly two years in, he eventually pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter, giving him an eleven-year prison sentence that he’s begun serving in state prison now at age eighteen.

While in juvenile hall, Carlos benefited from a stream of volunteers including some of California’s leading juvenile justice reform advocates—Scott Budnick of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition and Javier Stauring among them. Rev. Michael Kennedy with the Jesuit Restorative Justice Initiative encouraged Carlos through Jesuit meditation practices, which helped Carlos begin to transform his life. Through these things, and by taking responsibility for the pain he caused, Carlos began actively seeking forgiveness from a number of places—society, his family, the family of his victim, God, and even Pope Francis, to whom Carlos wrote after encouragement from Kennedy. To Carlos’s surprise, on 21 January 2016, the Pope wrote him back.1

The forgiveness Carlos sought was something he’d already begun to experience inside, in part through the writing with help from volunteers with InsideOUT Writers. Through self-reflection, he began recounting his story, pinpointing major disappointments, and resketching his narrative in ways that have helped him cultivate humility, understanding, and empathy. Carlos’s writing provides a unique look at restorative justice in action from the perspective of one young offender trying to turn his life around in prison. What follows are excerpts from a twenty-two-page autobiographical essay by Carlos, written in his own hand.




Carlos writes that, in elementary school, he was “surrounded by positive influences” that enabled him to learn and grow, understand his limits, and become “a less self-centered child.” He started to change when, as a preteen, he was confronted by what he calls “bubble poppers,” people who put him down and told him he would never achieve his dream of becoming a professional soccer player.


The magnet program Carlos was in would not graduate a student who failed any class, and Carlos managed to pull his grades up in all but one: English. The teacher told him that no matter what he did, he would never pass the class. He did not graduate from high school.



Carlos had a few minutes with his lawyer before being ushered into court, where, in a brief hearing, he learned his case would be filed to adult court. He never had a hearing to determine whether he was likely to rehabilitate himself in the juvenile system.




In his first months in jail, Carlos fought repeatedly with the other incarcerated juveniles and was put in “The Box” as punishment. Scott Budnick visited him there often, and he told Carlos he believed in him and that he would not give up on him. Carlos writes that “not only did he give me my life back, he gave me hope again.” Later he writes, “If you’re reading this Scott my boy, I got nothing but love for you.”


Carlos credits Rev. Michael Kennedy for beginning to heal his “corrupted soul” through prayer and meditation. Kennedy also sparked Carlos’s interest in reflecting and writing about his own life by giving him pamphlets asking him to consider the pain of his childhood and the pain he inflicted on others.


Through conversations with Javier Stauring, Carlos learned to take responsibility for his role in the murder. He explains that he and many of the people he is incarcerated with defend their actions by saying “it wasn’t me,” because they weren’t the ones holding the knife or the gun that caused the fatal injury. But now he understands that that is not a valid defense, legally or morally.



With the help of his therapist, Carlos explored his early childhood and the rage for which he could find no outlet other than violence. For a time, Carlos blamed bad parenting for his violence, until a conversation with a friend helped him see things differently. “People stop feeding you and you start feeding yourself these lies. It’s your mind and mentality that has you thinking like that,” the friend told him. Carlos writes that “reality felt like a slap in the face. My mind wanted to deny it because it’s always been use to denying the truth.”



1. “Pope replies to letter from juvenile gang member jailed in Los Angeles,” cnn.com, 4 March 2016, http://www.cnn.com/2016/03/03/us/pope-francis-mercy-letter-los-angeles-juvenile-inmate.







Healing the Broken

by Javier Stauring

From Boom Summer 2016, Vol 6, No 2

In more than two decades of working with incarcerated children, their families, and victims of crime, I have seen a lot of change in American crime and punishment. Recently, the chant of “tough on crime” has become “smart on crime” and a bipartisan issue. It is now politically safe to advocate that those with nonviolent and drug-related offenses be released from prison. I am profoundly grateful for the positive changes that allow some of our brothers and sisters to come home. However, some of these people should never have been in prison in the first place. Passing laws to give them a better chance of being released from prison is less an act of generous humanitarianism than an attempt for society to regain its sanity and correct some terrible legislation.

The United States is the only country in the world that sentences children to life in prison without the possibility of parole, but that horrifying practice is beginning to wane. Over the past five years, state and federal Supreme Courts have ruled that mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles is unconstitutional, and California has enacted legislation that allows most of those sentenced to life as juveniles to petition for a new sentencing hearing. The hope generated by these efforts, giving a second chance to those who committed serious crimes at a young age, is transformational. This pendulum shift is the hard-won result of the organizing and advocacy efforts of passionate, resilient people who have lived with the ramifications of the gross failures of our justice system.

When a teenager is sentenced to life in prison with no chance of ever securing release, it is a signal that society has given up on that person. But what good does that do the wider community from which he or she came? It creates a new family destroyed by crime, ripped apart by loss. When you consider that most victims and perpetrators of crime come from the very same communities, it compounds the tragedy. I have met too many moms who visit one son in prison on Saturday and another son in the cemetery on Sunday. Instead of inflicting further injury on already traumatized communities, we must find a way to help them heal. This has been my life’s work, first as a chaplain at Central Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles, then as a minister at the Office of Restorative Justice of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, and finally as executive director at Healing Dialogue and Action.

Juvenile Justice in Los Angeles

Photograph of Javier Stauring by Joseph Rodriguez/Redux.

David hardly ever gets any visitors. All his relatives have moved back to Mexico. But Javier comes to visit, and that means a lot.
“I never had a father, so Javier filled that spot. At first I was suspicious, but he didn’t give up on me. He kept in contact. He tells me things I never heard before. He gives me hope and has the expectations of me that I don’t even have for myself. Javier makes me feel that I have not been forgotten.”
Calipatria State Prison, Calipatria, CA 10.14

In our society, some try to reconcile a fixation on extreme punishment by making simplistic claims such as, “I stand with the victims.” The implication is that, in the name of justice, we should pick a side: the victim or the offender, the good person or the evil one. But it’s not that simple.

At Healing Dialogue and Action, we bring together the families of murder victims and the families of youth who were tried as adults and given lengthy adult prison terms; the two groups that every written and unwritten rule says should never meet. Every convention asserts that they have nothing in common; the criminal justice system reinforces the belief that they have only opposing interests.

Healing Dialogue and Action starts with the idea that families of victims and families of offenders have experienced loss, violence, trauma, disenfranchisement, and being voiceless in a system that affects their lives. We believe those experiences harm people emotionally and physically. Our model is grounded in the concept that both personal interaction and the opportunity to act for the greater good through advocacy create pathways of healing.

At a recent Healing Dialogue and Action gathering, I sat in a small circle with six mothers who shared stories of loss, pain, and the desire to heal. Three of the mothers had children who were murdered, and the other three had children who were sentenced to life in prison for participating in a murder. Juana described the unimaginable day in which her life changed forever when her twenty-three-year-old daughter and four-month-old granddaughter were murdered. Next, it was Monica’s turn to share, although she could barely speak after listening to Juana. Monica said, “I feel like I don’t deserve to cry because my son murdered someone; you, Juana, deserve to cry because your children were taken from you.” Monica went on to talk about the paralyzing guilt she felt, which made it impossible for her to leave her house for two years following her son’s trial. Juana then got up, embraced Monica, and said, “Of course, you deserve to cry. You lost your son as well, and I want to do whatever I can to help you bring your boy home one day.” Two mothers, connected by shared pain, listening to each other with open hearts, leaning on one another and finding a piece of themselves in each other to become the best version of human beings we could all aspire to be.

Despite the inconceivable pain shared by Monica, Juana, and our brothers and sisters in prison, I have hope. My hope comes from accompanying young children who grow to realize they are more than the labels placed on them. It comes from attending to the families of homicide victims and being inspired by their ability to transform their loss and help others heal. It comes from accompanying resilient men and women who have spent decades in the most dehumanizing places ever built and who refuse to give up on their humanity. It comes as a product of the many lessons learned from the people who’ve taught me who God is.

These lessons include a number of principles that have shaped my work in seeking justice in California among both victims and offenders, so called. They may indeed serve as theses for our future as we seek a more just California.

Crime plus punishment does not equal justice. While vengeance and retribution might show the measures of our resolve, compassion and love are the measures of our humanity.

The greatest impact crime and our systemic response to crime have on our society is immense human suffering.

The severe effect of our justice system on both the offender and the victim parallels the pain and trauma that is endured by family relationships and communities of both.

Communities cannot regain health simply by throwing people away when they violate laws.

The government is responsible for maintaining order; it is the communities’ responsibility to build peace. The moral turf of justice cannot be left to law enforcement and politicians.

The cliché is true: hurt people hurt people. But similarly, healed people also heal people.

To build a justice system that promotes healing of people that are hurt by crime, we need to move into closer proximity to the individuals who are wounded.

There is no “us” and “them.” There is only us.

In closing, my greatest hope comes from praying that our society will one day realize the gift that people who have suffered the most have the greatest potential to teach us about our own humanity. If crime hurts, justice should heal.



Latino Urbanism

by David Butow

From Boom Spring 2016, Vol 6, No 1

Editor’s note: In his 1994 review of the newly redesigned Pershing Square in downtown Los Angeles, architecture critic Leon Whiteson noted that LA is an “intensely private” place where public spaces “seldom serve as real meeting places for the population of a fractured city.” It was hoped that the park’s design, by Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta and landscape architect Laurie Olin, with its bold colors and forms and nods to local history, would be a public gathering place for both the mostly Anglo community that worked west of the park and the mostly Latino commercial district just to the east. In his review, Whiteson asked, “Can an act of architecture change a city’s ingrained social habits?” The answer, at least the one provided by Pershing Square, was no. Whether it was the lack of trees and shade, awkward access points, or a general allergy to Legorreta’s postmodern design, people did not flock to the park.

But can social habits change a city’s architecture? James Rojas, an urban planner who pioneered the idea of “Latino Urbanism,” says that’s exactly what is happening in California’s cities and around the country. Latino Urbanism describes the myriad ways that immigrants from Latin America are remaking American cities to feel more like the places from which they came. It describes a culture in many ways the opposite of the “intensely private” city Leon Whiteson described, with an emphasis much more on sociability and extending private and commercial realms outside and onto the street. Perhaps there’s no better example of this than LA’s CicLAvia—modeled on Bogotá’s Ciclovía—the open streets festival that brings tens of thousands of pedestrians and cyclists out onto temporarily closed streets.

Latino Urbanism is remaking California not by demolishing and rebuilding—as Legorreta’s Pershing Square did—but by adapting what already exists. Metal fences are erected in front of low-slung ranch houses, murals are painted on shop fronts, informal markets crowd sidewalks, and the streets spring to life.

We sent photographer David Butow around California to capture some of this spirit.


The Land of Baseball Opportunity

by Dave Simpson

“The balls are American, the bats are American, the bases were bought in America, the shoes that we have on, the New Balances, I got them because I have a contract with them,” says Pooky Gomez, who’s also American, as we watch the teams warm up at the beautiful Estadio Gasmart in Tijuana. “So the only thing that’s done in Mexico is the uniforms.”

About a mile north of the ballpark is the Foxconn factory where 4,500 employees make LCD screens for American phones, televisions, and computers. Tijuana is a city that typically offers itself to its northern neighbor—its wild nightlife and its cheap labor force—its baseball team relies on American goods and workers hopping the border in the opposite direction.

Lew Ford, who lives in Long Island most of the year, is hitching his hands back and down — shades of Ted Williams, mechanically — then mashing batting practice pitches into the Tijuana hills, two green backdrop bumps.

Ford, 39, played in a low-paying independent league in the States during the regular season but was signed as a well-paid mercenary for the Tijuana Toros’ playoff run.

For baseball-obsessed Americans like Ford and Gomez, Mexico is the land of opportunity.

Back in Los Angeles, Gomez, 35, drives a truck delivering 7Up to retailers 32 hours a week for the health insurance.

Down in the Mexican League, a minor league branch of Major League Baseball in name only, he’s a respected broker, someone who understands baseball on both sides of the border.

During the game, he sits directly behind home plate, sporting nice sunglasses, sharing the box with scouts and Toros executives who rely on him for his knowledge of American ringers like Ford. He also sells MaxBats for the Minnesota-based company, a job that gives him access to locker rooms and front offices throughout the United States and Mexico. “They would call me for bats,” he says, “but then they’d be like: you came from America, do you know any players available?”

Today is the fourth game of the semi-finals and Gomez, whose parents came to L.A. from El Salvador, where they play even less baseball than in Mexico, is leaning on the railing of the dugout with a veteran’s calm as the sunset’s afterburn plays off the hills just like it does at Dodger Stadium. There’s a baseball-addicted pain behind his eyes. It’s common, I think, among the American players and agents in Mexico.

Lew Ford, who garnered an MVP vote after an excellent season with the Minnesota Twins in 2004, looks haggard on the sidelines but more alive than most people when he’s in a batter’s box.

“The money is better here than in independent leagues,” says Ford, a father of three, “but if you’re in the independent league you’ve got a better chance to get picked up by an affiliated team. If you think, ‘hey I’m probably done MLB-wise,’ you can come down here and make some money.”

It’s different for Mexican-born players who, though paid well—$2,500 to $10,000 per month—are trapped by never-ending contracts that often keep Mexican talent from making it to the MLB.

“My opinion, it’s manageable,” Gomez says of the contracts for the Mexicans. “Why is it manageable? Because you still make a living. At the end of the day you look at it like what else are you going to be doing? Are you going to be driving a taxi?”

The league itself is a bizzaro version of the major leagues. In the United States, Mario Mendoza gave his name to the “Mendoza Line,” a batting average of around .200, below which a hitter is considered to be incompetent. In Mexico, where he spent much of his career, he’s a Hall of Famer with the nickname Manos de Seda: hands of silk. It’s a league where a team stacked with former MLB heavyweights Kyle Farnsworth, Armando Galarraga, and American League MVP Miguel Tejada failed to make the playoffs. It’s a league where Jorge Cantu, who once signed a $4.5 million contract, rides a bus through a lonely desert mountain pass to play in a 9,000-seat stadium.

Baseball is, at best, the third most popular sport in Mexico, behind soccer and boxing—a convenience store clerk a mile from the stadium had never heard of the Toros. But for the playoffs, hundreds of dedicated fans show up.

Before game four they are tailgating outside or watching the entertainment behind the grandstands, which consists largely of scantily clad women in thigh-high boots repping various local brands. A man without legs is wheeled out to the center of the plaza and placed on the ground to sell sodas. The music is a mix of banda and American pop songs. The smell of burning radiator fluid mixes with the smell of overfried churros.

By the second inning, every one of Estadio Gasmart’s 16,000 seats is filled. Petco Park—which, to be fair, has many more seats—was only at half-capacity for the San Diego Padres game twenty miles north that night.

The roving vendors are a glorious hodgepodge, a far cry from the corporate hawkers in the States. One man with a graying beard, wearing a black leather vagabond hat, sells nuts and local candies. A kid wearing a pot leaf shirt takes michelada orders. An old woman adds hot sauce to Styrofoam plates of fruit salads topped with crackers and pineapples.

Beyond the fence are flecks of light move up and down the hills, hundreds of them. It’s unsettling at first. An ignorant gringo, I assume desperation in the large swaths of people moving at night in Tijuana. Later, I learn they’re hikers taking in the view from atop Cerro Colorado.

The game itself is unremarkable. Offense is strong in the league because pitching is weak, or vice versa; most pitching prospects are quickly gobbled up by major league clubs. There are lots of calls to the bullpen so the game lags in the late innings.

Fans pump air horns and plastic trumpets in unison, sounding like the staccato discordant soundtrack from a horror flick. Cheers are loud throughout, though more likely to erupt for a long fly ball, mistaken, at first, for a home run, rather than quieter plays like a ground ball that advances a base runner.

“Blurred Lines” is blasting on the stadium speakers. It cuts abruptly as the pitcher comes set. He winds up, pitches, and the moment the ball hits the catcher’s mitt, the song resumes exactly where it left off, like musical chairs. On the field a chicken and monkey mascot make obscene gestures at one another. Everybody get up!

“It’s kind of like a constant party,” Toros pitcher Barry Enright tells me. Lanky with red hair, the Northern California native was drafted high by the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2007. He ascended quickly to the big leagues, where he struggled and was ultimately cut.

After a big strikeout in an earlier game, I saw Enright storm off the mound screaming like he was pitching in the World Series.

American minor league games are essentially tryouts for players fighting to make it to the next level. The centerfielder might be competing with the leftfielder, a teammate, for the same roster slot. The great players are promoted, gone from the team before the playoffs. The competition and camaraderie just isn’t there.

In the Mexican League, the players aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. They stick around for decades. Chemistry develops. And while the level of play is often worse than the American minor leagues, the games are more competitive. “This is their big leagues,” Enright tells me, “so it’s my big leagues.”

He pitched well during the season, something he attributes, in part, to being able to forget about the never-ending fight for a spot in the majors.

“Being here has helped me stay in the moment and just enjoy it,” he says. “I’ve always loved baseball and getting back here and being around a fun atmosphere has let me kind of clear my head. Who knows if I’ll ever go back over there or play in the big leagues again but it’s helped me not think about next year.”

Many of the players, including Ford, live out of the team hotels but Enright got himself an apartment in San Diego.

“Passing the border’s pretty easy,” he says, “I’m always going the opposite direction of traffic.”

After the Tijuana series, I was fairly certain I had everything I needed for the story I was working on at the time (about a now-erased blacklist) but I kept traveling to games. As a middle-schooler, I’d wake up every morning at 5 a.m. to lift weights in the hopeless pursuit of playing professional baseball. It’d been more than a decade since that dream died and I think I kept traveling to games because I liked being able to stand, as a member of the press, on the field with the players.

In the desert between Monterrey and Monclova, a baseball-crazy steel town with a fire-spewing mill whose flames could be seen from behind home plate, my bus broke down. I’d read, the night before, on the State Department’s website, that Americans should “defer non-essential travel” throughout almost the entire state of Coahuila, where I was stranded.

“The state of Coahuila continues to experience high rates of violent crime, including murder, kidnapping, and armed carjacking,” it said.

Gomez, Ford, and Enright make road trips like this all the time for a chance to stand out on the field. Mexican immigrants make even more astounding trips across similar landscapes to make it to the United States.

Sitting on the side of the road, a dusty mountain pass, I tried to define the word “essential.”


Image at top by Eric Frazier.


CaliMeXina or Bust, Cabrones!

by Gustavo Arellano

Learning to love our Latin-Asian-Pacific future

From Boom Spring 2015, Vol 5, No 1

From 5 May 2115, hologram of the Associated Buzzfeed Times:

Today, California Governor Sofia Miranda-Nguyen signed a historic trade agreement with Chinese Premier Zhou Sanchez-Smith. From now on, China will favor the state with reduced prices for the soy needed to sustain California’s everlasting-tacos industry. In turn, California has agreed to sell everlasting-tacos at reduced rates to China’s remaining 1 billion customers.

“We welcome this historic arrangement between the two regions,” Miranda-Nguyen told the press corps, recently desegregated so that androids could ask questions alongside humans instead of having to wait for the governor’s drone to deliver the news. “We offer our deal as a good-faith present for China not attacking us during the recent Sino-Seattle War, and to apologize for recent geo-engineering experiments that reversed the movement of the Pacific Plate, triggering massive earthquakes and damages on the other side of the ocean we share.”

Sanchez-Smith, for his part, was equally magnanimous. “This represents the latest gesture of friendship between California and China,” he said in English, Spanish, Mandarin, Spanglish, Chinglish, and Chinespañol. “China remains happy to accept California’s gold, in any form, including crispy taco shells, just as it embraced my grandparents from Boyle Heights so many decades ago during the Great Mexican Migration to China.”

Both Miranda-Nguyen and Sanchez-Smith reaffirmed their commitment to wipe Texas off the face of the Earth.

More than a decade ago, I dated a Vietnamese American girl from Irvine. It didn’t work out because I was insufficiently leftist for her (true story: the guy she ultimately left me for called himself Lenin). But that wasn’t the best memory I have of that relationship: that would be her parents, mild-mannered refugees who were horrified that their college-educated daughter was dating a Mexican like me. It didn’t matter that I was a graduate student at UCLA at the time; for them, I was little better than a cholo with glasses.

My parents, on the other hand, embraced my girlfriend, in the way only Mexican immigrants could: they called her a chinita, a little Chinese girl. Even when I’d explain that she was Vietnamese, and that Vietnamese weren’t Chinese, they’d pause for a minute, then exclaim, “¡Que linda chinita!” (“What a beautiful Chinese chick!”)

Illustration by Juan Pablo Baene.

Just another episode in California’s lotería of racism, right? The relationship between California and its Asians has been notoriously fucked up throughout our history, from lynchings to internment, exclusion acts to good ol’ fear-mongering, with nearly every other group getting in on the act. But one group has always embraced Asians more than others in California: Mexicans, and in this unlikely-but-growing relationship lies California’s future, a future already present. Together, we will make California the nexus between Asia and Latin America, with the knowledge and relationships that ensure not only the future of California, but of the United States too—bigoted parents be damned.

It’ll be a beautiful coda to an unlikely pairing of California’s two most loathed ethnic groups. We already have a history: various Asian groups have settled across Latin America—Chinese in Peru, Koreans in Argentina, Lebanese in Colombia, Japanese in Brazil, Indians in Trinidad and Tobago—almost from the moment Cortés and Pizarro went on their merry conquistador ways. While those groups have integrated into their respective countries, integration came after centuries of segregation, exclusion, and even mass killings—let’s not forget that the US Border Patrol was established to guard against the Chinese trying to migrate into the United States, fleeing pogroms in Mexico.

But throughout twentieth-century California, any Latino resentment toward Asians or vice versa quickly disappeared as the two groups realized that they were in the same, nonwhite, discriminated-against boat. Through the decades, Asians and Mexicans joined to fight the good fight, in various battlefields in California (not to mention segregated platoons in World War II). If the following paragraph reads like a bullet-point presentation, it is: these facts need to be recited ad nauseam and entered in the official California record.

In the Central Valley, Sikh men married Mexican women because the era’s xenophobic immigration laws largely prohibited Asian women from coming to this country. Filipinos famously started the grape strike that launched the United Farm Workers, and manongs, such as Phillip Vera Cruz and Larry Itliong, were influential leaders in the union for many years. In the 1940s, when the Munemitsu family of Westminster were sent off to the internment camps, it was a Mexican American farmer named Gonzalo Mendez who tended the land while they were gone; the money earned from that good deed helped Mendez and other families pursue the famous school segregation case, Mendez, et al. vs. Westminster. And this is my favorite story, only because it’s so telling: Guy Gabaldon grew up with a Japanese American family in East Los Angeles, learning how to speak Japanese in the process. His language skills helped the Marines secure the surrender of more than a thousand Japanese soldiers in the Pacific Front during World War II. Hollywood made a movie out of it…and Gabaldon was played by the very gabacho Jeffrey Hunter.

Many more examples exist, of course. But my favorite example of the Asian Mexican partnership is in food. Studies have shown that Mexicans are among the world’s top consumers of dried ramen, and Chinese restaurants are a staple of barrios across the Golden State. The popular seafood dish ceviche came to Mexico via Peru via Japanese immigrants; at any Mexican supermarket, you’ll find cacahuates japoneses, Japanese peanuts, so named because a Japanese businessman introduced the soy sauce–soaked treats to Mexico City during the 1950s. One of my favorite meals growing up was teriyaki bowls, except the stands in my Anaheim neighborhood had essentially Mexicanized the dish by making the beef cuts lean like carne asada, throwing in cebollitas (grilled green onions) instead of scallions, throwing in containers of Tapatío hot sauce with every to-go order alongside the teriyaki sauce, and offering horchata to wash everything down with its sweet kick.

Using food as proof for the future of California might seem trite, but food is always at the vanguard of mestizaje and shows the beautiful possibilities of cultural exchange and fusion. Consider the story of the Kogi Korean BBQ truck, already legendary despite the fact that it’s only eight years old. Chef Roy Choi literally changed America’s perception of what race could be by doing something simple: offering Mexican foods like burritos and tacos with Korean ingredients. He never claimed to have invented that mash-up. Indeed, the Kogi origin story openly admits that the team got its inspiration to open such a truck from a blogger reminiscing about his undergrad days at University of California, Irvine, in the early 2000s, and how during a Korean American frat party, the students began stuffing Korean barbecue into leftover tortillas because all of the carne asada had run out. (How telling about Asian Mexican California is it that Korean students would not only grill up carne asada alongside Korean barbecue, but finish it first?) While the world was taken by the novelty of Korean tacos, Choi just brushed it aside; to him, Asian Mexican fusion was as naturally Southern Californian as traffic on the 405.

“We’re Korean, but we’re American, and we grew up in LA,” Choi told a reporter shortly after unveiling his truck. “It’s not a stigma food; it’s a representation of who we are…that was our goal. To take everything about LA and put it into one bite—it’s Mexican, it’s Korean, it’s organic, it’s California.”

We’re a century away from 2115, of course, but simple demographics dictate Choi’s definition of his food will manifest itself. California will become a living, breathing Korean taco: Mexican in structure, Asian in essence, wholly American, and spicy as hell. The two groups will intermarry, will become neighbors—more so than now, that is. Our respective ties to our ancestral homelands will become more important as the United States seeks closer relationships with the folks we left back home—we did globalization before it became popular. Foreign investment from Latin America and Asia will increasingly turn California into a global crossroad for the world economy, which it has been for a long time already; remittances back home will help modernize countries, while residents here will influence politics there—and here too. Our mutual love of bilingualism and multiculturalism won’t be so exotic by the twenty-second century, but rather the only way for California and America to survive.

Illustration by Juan Pablo Baene.


It’s going to get bumpy before we get to this bright future, of course—but we’re getting there. Last year, two Latinas were convicted of manslaughter in the beating death of Kim Pham, a young Vietnamese American woman who died outside a nightclub in downtown Santa Ana. People on both sides wanted to bring race into the mix to light a fire. Longtime Latino residents complained that out-of-town Asians (mostly students from UC, Irvine) were gentrifying their neighborhoods, while Asians complained that they were making the area “safer” (read: less Mexican) by being there.

A generation ago, such back-and-forth between ethnic groups in Southern California could have led to riots. What happened in the aftermath of the Pham verdict? Absolutely nothing—peace reigned, Asians returned to Santa Ana’s downtown scene, joined by Latino hipsters.

While this was a huge news story in Orange County, the biggest Asian Mexican news for me last year was the marriage of my second cousin to my childhood friend, a son of Chinese parents. I hadn’t spoken to him in twenty-five years.

But how the hell does a chinito marry a girl from my ancestral village?

Only in California, cabrones!


East of East

by Wendy Cheng

The global cosmopolitans of suburban LA

From Boom Spring 2015, Vol 5, No 1

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt of Wendy Cheng’s essay “East of East” from our Spring 2015 issue. 

Welcome to the San Gabriel Valley—America’s first “suburban Chinatown.”1 A typical-looking twentieth-century suburbia a few miles east of downtown Los Angeles, the San Gabriel Valley—or SGV, as residents call it—has been transformed in recent decades by ethnic Chinese investment and settlement from both sides of the Pacific.2 In some parts of the valley—places such as Monterey Park and Rowland Heights—more than half of the population is Asian, and English is often a secondary—or tertiary—language in the plentiful strip malls that line the main thoroughfares. It’s a regional and global hub for Asians from all over Southern California and the world. Then there’s the restaurant scene, which is how many Angelenos have come to know the valley. You will find some of the best Chinese food in the world in the San Gabriel Valley.

But while true in many respects, the well-known image of the SGV as a global Asian suburb obscures a vital fact: the valley is a vibrant, sprawling, mixed-up multiethnic community with a complex, layered past.3 In those majority-Asian cities, almost one-third of the population is Latino, making the valley as a whole more than 80 percent Asian and Latino now. In other SGV cities, such as El Monte and South El Monte, the balance flips: Latinos constituting the majority and Asians the next largest group. It is that mix that makes the San Gabriel Valley a revealing place for seeing the Pacific world as an Asian-Pacific-Latino world.

Consider this: A comedy hip-hop group called the Fung Brothers sings about the SGV, “Let me tell you about a place out east / Just fifteen minutes from the LA streets / Hollywood doesn’t even know we exist / Like it’s a mystical land, filled with immigrants.”

And this: A small, local, street-wear brand based in Monterey Park called SGV has produced a T-shirt with a design that blended the elements of the flags of the People’s Republic of China, Mexico, and the United States. The brand’s website states: “The SGV is a region of America where a lot of Chinese and Mexicans have learned to live together, most of the time in harmony. Welcome to Chimexica.”4

Or this: Other SGV brand designs have featured repurposed logos for Sriracha, a well-known hot sauce created in Rosemead by an ethnically Chinese-Vietnamese immigrant, as well as Tres Flores, a hair cream popular with working-class Chicano youth, and woven sandals popular with older Asian immigrant men.

And this: Another T-shirt features curse words in Chinese, Vietnamese, Spanish, and Tagalog.5

This diversity is not always harmonious. As the SGV brand creator Paul Chan, a child of immigrants from Hong Kong who moved to Alhambra as a young child in the 1980s, told a reporter, “I…learned quickly that in the SGV you play your position and don’t over step your boundaries. I’ve always had a huge appreciation for that. The way those unwritten rules work….It was part of survival to know about all the different cultures so I don’t end up disrespecting people and getting my ass kicked.”6

Yes, you’ve got to have a clue, but for the most part these playful pop culture expressions of cosmopolitanism embrace living together, coexisting, with mutual respect for difference, without denial or exclusion. The SGV is a great place to experience the emergence of this new global cosmopolitanism.

Paul Gilroy, a cultural studies scholar who has studied the multiethnic dynamism that came out of the reach and subsequent collapse of the British empire around the world, has publicly wondered about how such an everyday cosmopolitanism “from below” could be magnified and given greater purpose: “The challenge of being in the same present, of synchronizing difference and articulating cosmopolitan hope upward from below rather that imposing it downward from on high provides some help in seeing how we might invent conceptions of humanity that allow for the presumption of equal value and go beyond the issue of tolerance into a more active engagement with the irreducible value of diversity within sameness.”7

This is a cosmopolitanism that does not look to states or nations for the realization of its hopes, but “glories in the ordinary virtues and ironies—listening, looking, discretion, friendship—that can be cultivated when mundane encounters with difference become rewarding,” Gilroy writes,8 It is a “radical openness,”9 a “planetary consciousness”10 made even more real and important by its awareness of the harms done by racism and inequality. Ideally, it does not stop at awareness but rejects xenophobia and violence, and “culminates in a new way of being at home in the world through an active hostility toward national solidarity, national culture, and their privileging over other, more open affiliations.”11

Gilroy, whose work has largely focused on cosmopolitanism and diaspora across the Atlantic,12 could come to the SGV to see similar patterns playing out around the Pacific Rim. In the SGV today, I found a similar sense of cosmopolitanism among many residents while working on my book The Changs Next Door to the Díazes. It is also increasingly apparent among artists, writers, poets, scholars, and activists who are beginning to express their own visions of the valley and in the process creating a collective, imaginative vision and language that may well have the power to alter what it means to be American. Their vision is of a suburban, cosmopolitan ethos that will be increasingly relevant to broader swaths of the United States, and it challenges long-held associations of whiteness, middle-class, and suburban as normative ideals that were tightly bound together. At its best, this is an explicitly antiracist cosmopolitanism that does not gloss over differences between cultures or violent histories to create a false universalism, but instead reckons with formative histories and still-present realities of racism and colonialism.13

The South El Monte Arts Posse, an arts collective led by historian Romeo Guzmán and artist Caribbean Fragoza, is one organization playing with the possibilities of an emergent SGV identity, one that they refer to as “east of east.” The “east” to which the collective known as SEMAP identifies itself as “east of” is East Los Angeles, long the symbolic and political core of Chicano Los Angeles. Reflecting on this geographical adjacency, iconic Chicana writer Cherríe Moraga, who grew up in the SGV, has written of that state of being near, but separated from, the Chicano Movement in East LA, “just ten minutes from my tree-lined working class neighborhood in San Gabriel.”14

Similarly, SEMAP sees itself as adjacent to, but distinct from, the urban core sensibilities of East LA. “East of east” is “everything that exists outside the reach of the city of Los Angeles,” Fragoza told me when I spent the afternoon recently with her and her partner Guzmán to explore the role of artists, writers, and activists in this emerging SGV cosmopolitanism.15

“East of east” sounds as if it could be a description of this new cosmopolitanism emerging on the West Coast, on the eastern edge of the Pacific Ocean, east of East Asia. But the phrase also has a defiant local edge. This interpolation of the global and the local is a characteristic of these new cosmopolitans. Guzmán grew up visiting relatives in South El Monte from his home in Pomona, even further east. He and Fragoza remember starting to use the phrase when they were both undergraduates taking Chicano Studies classes at University of California, Los Angeles, in the early 2000s. As Fragoza told me, in “Chicano rhetoric, everything would happen in East LA.” There were “a lot of people that I met there who were from East LA and that were very proud of it,” she added. “And then they were like, ‘Well, where are you from?'” When Fragoza responded that she was from El Monte, she would be met with derision. She would then respond emphatically, “‘Dude, we’re so down, we’re east of East LA!’…So I think that’s at least how I started using it.”16

Guzmán added that they would “sort of get annoyed….It’s like, to make culture you have to go to East LA. But why? Why do we all have to go there? Why can’t we do stuff where we’re from?”17

SEMAP’s home terrain, the cities of El Monte and South El Monte, have emerged as key nodes in the burgeoning SGV arts and culture scene. “People from El Monte are really into El Monte,” Guzmán told me.

“Yeah, we are,” Fragoza laughed. “But I still feel like we’re SGV, we’re part of the SGV.”

In the past fifteen years, street wear brands, literary novels and short stories, a mystery set in the world of Asian American parachute kids, and comedic rap songs have all emerged from the SGV.18 This past fall, a play about Toypurina, the Gabrielino woman who led a failed revolt against the Spanish at the San Gabriel Mission, was mounted at the Mission Playhouse, and a feature film set in El Monte is in the works.19 These developments signify the coming of age of a multiracial, majority-nonwhite, place-specific culture, on its own terms. As a region apart from central Los Angeles, large portions of the SGV have been able to retain their class heterogeneity and multiracial, majority-nonwhite populations for multiple generations now, without suffering the degree of gentrification and displacement to which central city neighborhoods are vulnerable.

Like the members of SEMAP, writer Michael Jaime-Becerra, who grew up in El Monte and still lives there now, balances multiple sensibilities at once. His outlook is deeply local and connected to a specific place, but he also has an expansive openness to the complexities of the SGV in the world. His world is El Monte, but it isn’t only El Monte. In his two books set in and around the city—Every Night is Ladies’ Night (2004) and This Time Tomorrow (2010)—Jaime-Becerra renders the mundane landscapes of the SGV with tremendous love, name-checking places and streets without commentary throughout his narratives, as though to assert to readers that they should know these places. While his characters are primarily working-class Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans—truck drivers, mechanics, forklift operators, fast food workers—they are always also Goth teens, former prisoners, brothers, sisters, uncles, lovers, and dreamers.

While earlier generations of Chicano writers were writing with justifiable urgency about “field labor, immigration, our parents’ struggles to feed the family,”20 growing up in El Monte as the son of a union meat-cutter and an elementary school clerk, Jaime-Becerra realized that he could “hang with low riders and skateboarders, groove to Juan Gabriel and Siouxsie and the Banshees.”21 Like so many Latinos and Asian Americans in the SGV, he was able to carve out an ethnic identity apart from dominant ideas about race: “Everybody around me, they were either Mexican or Mexican American or Vietnamese,” he has said. “I didn’t really identify in terms of race in LA.”22

There is freedom in the ambiguity that comes with loosened cultural boundaries, where old stereotypes aren’t used to keep people in place, and where people are comfortable crossing cultural lines to find their place in a community. The place where they feel they belong, not where they are told that they do. This is the “east of east” ideal, in which working- and lower-middle-class people of color are able to simply be—and be seen by the wider community—in their full and complex personhood.23 This is what Jaime-Becerra described as his coming-of-age experience and is apparent in the world he creates for his readers.

El Monte writer Salvador Plascencia also riffed on this theme in his 2005 novel The People of Paper, set in the author’s hometown. His “meta-fiction” was intended “partly as a parody of traditional immigration narratives”—or as one reviewer put it, is “part memoir, part lies.”24 This is how Plascencia introduces the locale: “The town was called El Monte, after the hills it did not have.”25 A page later, he elaborates: “El Monte was one thousand four hundred forty-eight miles north of Las Tortugas and an even fifteen hundred miles from the city of Guadalajara, and while there were no cockfights or wrestling arenas, the curanderos’ botanica shops, the menudo stands, and the bell towers of the Catholic churches had also pushed north, settling among the flower and sprinkler systems.”26

The transnational migrants settled among the suburban “flower and sprinkler systems,” but they made the landscape their own. Throughout the book—which also playfully busts genre conventions with scribbled-out words, blocked text, blank pages, and graffiti—an assortment of vivid characters including migrant lettuce pickers and gang members battle against the godlike Saturn, who is gradually revealed to be the author, Salvador Plascencia. Saturn/Plascencia loses control of his characters and the narrative because he is languishing over a break-up with his girlfriend, who has left him for a white guy. Plascencia’s El Monte is both grounded and surreal, his portrayal of its denizens heartfelt and absurd. “In a way,” Plascencia has said, both he and Jaime-Becerra “are trying to talk about an El Monte that’s not the news copter, watching a cop kick a gangster in the head.”27 That is El Monte as a place grounded in its true range of subjectivities, experiences, and imaginative possibilities, not constrained by externally imposed stereotypes and power hierarchies.

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Details from El Monte Legion Stadium Nocturne and In the Meadow courtesy of Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

1. See Timothy Fong, The First Suburban Chinatown: The Remaking of Monterey Park, California (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994), and Wei Li, Ethnoburb: The New Ethnic Community in Urban America (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2009).

2. See Min Zhou, Yen-Fen Tseng, and Rebecca Kim, “Rethinking Residential Assimilation: The Case of a Chinese Ethnoburb in the San Gabriel Valley, California,” Amerasia Journal 34: no. 3 (1 January 2008): 53–83); among others.

3. This dates back hundreds of years to indigenous Gabrielino/Tongva settlement in the area and travels through Spanish colonization, the Mexican period, and US conquest, each of these with its concomitant, racialized regimes of land dispossession, and labor exploitation.

4. Former SGV brand website, http://www.sgvforlife.com, accessed July 2012. To see the SGV brand’s current website, go to http://sgvforlife.bigcartel.com/ (accessed 24 November 2014).

5. Ibid.

6. Daniela Gerson, “SGV for Life?” Alhambra Source, 30 November 2011; http://www.alhambrasource.org/stories/sgv-life.

7. Paul Gilroy, Postcolonial Melancholia (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), 67.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid., xv.

10. Ibid., 75.

11. Ibid., 68.

12. See Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993).

13. Gilroy, Postcolonial Melancholia. Also see Michelle A. McKinley, “Conviviality, Cosmopolitan Citizenship, and Hospitality,” Harvard Unbound 5: no. 1 (1 March 2009): 55–87.

14. Cherríe Moraga, “Queer Aztlán: the Re-formation of Chicano Tribe,” The Last Generation (Boston: South End Press, 1993), 146.

15. Interview with Carribean Fragoza and Romeo Guzmán, El Monte, California, 12 October 2014.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid.

18. These include: Alex Espinoza, Still Water Saints (New York: Random House, 2007); Michael Jaime-Becerra, Every Night Is Ladies’ Night (New York, NY: Rayo/HarperCollins Publishers, 2004); Michael Jaime-Becerra, This Time Tomorrow (New York: Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 2010); Salvador Plascencia, The People of Paper (Orlando: Harcourt, 2006); Denise Hamilton, The Jasmine Trade (New York: Scribner, 2001). Also see Daniela Gerson, “SGV for Life?” Alhambra Source, 30 November 2011; http://www.alhambrasource.org/stories/sgv-life, accessed 15 October 2014; and the Fung Brothers website, http://fungbrothers.com, accessed 15 October 2014.

19. Mission Playhouse website, http://www.missionplayhouse.org/event/toypurina, accessed 15 October 2014; and “Varsity Punks” website, http://varsitypunks.com/, accessed 15 October 2014.

20. Vickie Vértiz, “El Monte Forever: A Brief History of Michael Jaime-Becerra,” 6 December 2014, Tropics of Meta, http://tropicsofmeta.wordpress.com/2013/12/16/el-monte-forever-a-brief-history-of-michael-jaime-becerra/, accessed 10 October 2014.

21. Reed Johnson, “Writers Salvador Plascencia and Michael Jaime-Becerra share a city and common inspiration: El Monte,” 25 April 2010, http://articles.latimes.com/2010/apr/25/entertainment/la-ca-el-monte-20100425, accessed October 10, 2014.

22. Ibid.

23. On complex personhood, see Avery Gordon, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997).

24. Johnson, “Writers Salvador Plascencia and Michael Jaime-Becerra.”

25. Plascencia, The People of Paper, 33.

26. Ibid., 34.

27. Johnson, “Writers Salvador Plascencia and Michael Jaime-Becerra.”


Paradise Transplanted

by Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo

From Boom Fall 2014, Vol 4, No 3

“¡Comadre, tanto tiempo!. . . Comadre, it’s been a long time!” It’s the monthly Saturday morning cleanup at the community garden, and it’s a happy and unexpected reunion when Susana and Elvia spot Bertila. The three of them had squeezed tomatoes, chiles, corn, radishes, and herbs into a tiny garden plot, sometimes working together, sometimes taking turns cultivating and watering this ten-by-ten-foot patch of earth. But Bertila stopped coming to the garden for two months over the summer because of personal problems, which include a husband in immigration detention and juggling new housecleaning jobs while looking after her own rambunctious sons, ages eight and ten. While she was gone, Susana and Elvia watered her papalo—even though they both dislike this pungent herb, a favorite of people from Puebla and Oaxaca—and now like good friends everywhere, they pick up where they left off, joking and laughing as they pull out the remains of summer’s bountiful corn stalks and tomato plants. On this Saturday morning, about twenty adults, all of them from Southern Mexico and Central America, participate in the cleanup while children run around, with the little ones digging up worms and roly polies and older kids helping out with the composting.

After the cleanup, all the gardeners run to their apartments—located in the few surrounding blocks—to gather ingredients for a late lunch in the garden. There is no kitchen counter, no sink, and no built-in barbeque here, but that doesn’t stop them—these women are accustomed to improvising and making do with what they have. They rinse tomatoes in plastic bags, expertly mince onions, chiles, and garlic with dull knives, and pick squash and herbs. They knead masa over a rickety folding table, and from the toolshed they drag out a propane stove and paper plates. Helicopters fly overhead and sirens wail, but here in the garden, on rustic benches below a shade structure, the morning turns into a long, delectable afternoon of squash and mushroom-stuffed quesadillas. Laughter stretches out until dusk.

In inner-city Los Angeles, just west of the downtown high-rise buildings and trendy upscale restaurants is a poor, densely populated neighborhood where most households get by on less than $20,000 a year. Here at the garden, the mujeres weed, water, and cook to feed their families, but they are also tending to themselves, forging new relationships and support networks, and re-creating scenes from homes left thousands of miles behind. Men and children come here too, but this is really a women’s place. After all, men can congregate on street corners, by the driveway of an apartment building, or at one of the larger public parks in the Westlake area; many of these women told me they feel they cannot comfortably do so. They are all navigating life in a new nation and city, trying to chart the best possible paths for themselves and their children. The garden is a place of growth for plants and people. But an unexpected conflict over the administration of the community garden prompted several of these community gardeners to lose their parcelas, and others departed too. This is a story about these women and the challenges of supporting nature and community in the inner city.

I am an ethnographer. I spent over one year conducting participant-observation research and in-depth interviews at two small community gardens located in the Pico Union and Westlake neighborhoods of Los Angeles. I was assisted by Jose Miguel Ruiz, a young man who grew up here, and who had just returned to the neighborhood after graduating from University of California, Santa Cruz. We attended community meetings and women’s empowerment classes. We raked, weeded, pruned, and swept at the collective clean-up events, joined impromptu birthday celebrations, contributed food, and enjoyed shared meals. I also spent many hours sitting on benches, chatting with whoever happened to be there.

Everyone knew we were there as researchers, and I obtained consent from the gardeners and institutional review board authorization from the University of Southern California, where I teach. Under what are known as “human subject” rules in academia, I promised to protect people’s privacy through preserving their anonymity, so in this essay I use pseudonyms for the people, the garden, and the nonprofit that eventually took it over, even though many people in Los Angeles will recognize parts of this history.

Like the women in the garden, I am Latina and I speak Spanish. But my comfortable, professional class life as a professor insulates me from the daily hardships insiders in this community face. Through ethnography, I strive to study practices—what people do—and to understand how they see the world, the meanings that develop as they interact with one another.

Urban community gardens have always faced uncertain property rights and often only a tenuous right to exist, but these threats typically came from property owners, developers, and city authorities. As recently as 2006, one such dispute ended in the bulldozing of what is believed to have been the largest urban community garden to ever take root in the nation, the South Central Farm. Until its demise, over 300 families, the majority from Mexico and Central America, and many of them from indigenous Mayan, Mixtec, Zapotec, and Triqui backgrounds, grew food on a 14 acre tract in an industrial warehouse district of what we now call South Los Angeles, near Watts and Compton. These urban gardeners tended substantial parcels, each averaging 1,500 square feet, big enough for families to build small shelters or casitas where they gathered for socializing and eating. Some people grew enough produce to sell to taco trucks and restaurants or to families seeking their beloved papalo.

The Academy-award-winning documentary The Garden chronicled the conflict that resulted in the demolition of the South Central Farm. It was essentially a struggle between the legitimacy of private property held by a multimillionaire (who continued to leave this large property vacant) and the illegitimacy of poor people’s collective claims to the right to productively grow food on that land. Gardeners and activists organized an energetic campaign to save South Central Farm, drawing the support of celebrities and getting Annenberg Foundation funds to make a bid to buy the property, but they lost the battle and it was bulldozed.

There is now a renaissance of urban community gardens and urban agriculture sprouting in cities across the nation, fueled in part by hard times brought by the global financial crisis and by the ongoing dearth of fresh fruits and vegetables in poor, inner-city neighborhoods. Community gardens may also serve as incubators of social capital and as catalysts for organizing campaigns to promote low-cost housing, stop neighborhood violence, promote awareness about breast cancer, or any of a number of public projects.

Today many community gardens are protected from demolition by nonprofit organizations, land trusts, parks departments, and municipal lease agreements. Countless individuals and organizations have worked tirelessly to establish the mechanisms and institutions for expanding and protecting community gardens. While community gardens often start informally with a group of enthusiastic neighbors and activists deciding to grow food on a vacant lot, the logistics of running a collective urban garden are complex. A web of local nonprofits, regional coalitions, land trusts, and a national consortium, the American Community Garden Association, offer institutional support to community gardens, providing guidelines, technical assistance on handling water bills, testing soil quality, securing liability insurance, governance, annual fees, and the like. With this formal support, however, new tensions and trade-offs have emerged.

The Franklin Community Garden—a pseudonym—is a pocket-sized oasis of trees, flowers, and Mesoamerican vegetables and herbs growing in an otherwise very cemented part of inner-city Los Angeles. It’s open to the public from dawn to dusk, 365 days a year, and the front section serves as an informal gathering spot and the site of many community meetings. On late afternoons, comadres (co-godmothers and female friends) gather to chat on benches or under the shade of the casita, a dirt-floor patio that serves as the communal hub. Time takes on an elastic quality in late afternoons and especially on Saturdays, with storytelling, gossip, and laughter. When I first visited during the summer of 2010, I found clucking chickens and a spectacularly plumed rooster roaming freely. Around the perimeter of the garden, bananas, sugarcane, avocado, hoja santa, a mango tree, and three small papaya trees gave the garden a tropical feel. The back half of this standard-sized city lot had raised vegetable beds, rented out to parcel holders at the rate of $30 a year. Only people renting the parcelas and their family members were technically allowed to enter this area behind a locked chain link fence.

Women gathered at the garden in the late afternoons to relieve the stress and strain of their lives. At home, in their small crowded apartments, some said they felt as though the walls and their problems were closing in on them. Some were caring for sick family members, or had husbands and sons in detention, facing deportation or prison—between 1997 and 2012, the US government carried out 4.2 million deportations and removals, and nearly all of these deportees were Latino men from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, creating a crisis of widespread social suffering in Latino families and communities.¹ These women were on the front lines of holding things together, patch-working medical services and education for their families. At home, all of them worried about bills.

A Guatemalan mother of five children whom I will call Victoria, one of the most accomplished gardeners, sometimes spent two hours traveling home on the bus after cleaning a house in Venice or Santa Monica. After work, she sought a moment of peace puttering in her parcela or chatting with friends. “Sometimes I get home really tired from my job,” she explained, “and I tell my husband, ‘Ay, I’m going to rest a while at the garden.’ And then I come here, and I feel calmer.” Her friend Elodia, a shy Salvadoran single mother of four, worked only a few hours taking care of other people’s kids in the neighborhood. She scarcely ever left the local vicinity, but in her apartment, she often felt, she said, as though “I’m going to have an attack. . . I sometimes feel asphyxiated from thinking about things, all my problems.” Coming to the garden relieved her worries. “When I come here,” she said, “I relax really well. I feel really good, and sometimes I don’t feel like leaving. I’d like to sleep here!” Gustava, a mother who had left four children in Guatemala and suffered bouts of depression and nervous anxiety, credited the garden with helping her find emotional well-being. “When the nervios hit me, I would always seek this out, I sought out the garden.”

The garden also connected women to vital information and resources that helped them navigate and consolidate their family lives here in Los Angeles. “Comadre, what is a charter school, which ones are the good ones, and which to avoid?” “What dental clinic should you visit when you have a toothache?” “Where is the best place to buy masa?” “What can I expect from la nueva reforma migratoria, the new immigration legislation?”

The garden made them feel they belonged. Even when they weren’t physically in the garden, these women still felt connected to others and tethered to the place. Ceci, a Salvadoran single parent of two was stressed out about coming up with enough money to cover the renewal of her visa and childcare, but she said that friendships and connections at the garden helped her. “Even when I’m not here I’m thinking about the people who come here to the garden. And these images come to me like photographs or videos, like memories. . . There are conversations you recollect at home, and sometimes you laugh, sometimes you worry. The fact that you are at home doesn’t mean you are separated.”

Inside the Franklin garden, Monica, a charismatic mother of three, was the nucleus of community life. She was the official gatekeeper, paid a nominal fee to open and close the front garden gates daily at dawn and dusk, and to organize the collective cleanups. She welcomed newcomers, connected people, and provided advice on everything from herbal remedies, to the necessity of carefully reading the fine print on rental contracts, what vegetables to plant when, and what month to harvest the sugar cane or prune the avocado tree. But managing a community garden is complex, and a nonprofit organization—which I will refer to as Green Spaces—had purchased the property in 2007, offering three reforms: 1) land security (there was no risk this garden would be bulldozed); 2) resources for programming, materials, and for paying Monica to serve as gatekeeper and overseer; and 3) new rules and tighter administration of the garden.

Green Spaces rejuvenated the garden by building up the plots, provided for shared garden tools, and gifted sacks of soil amendment and mulch. They also funded a smorgasbord of free community workshops, classes, and holiday celebrations. By far the most popular class was the women’s empowerment class, taught by a Latina life coach on Saturday mornings under the casita shade structure. Community gardeners, neighborhood residents who did not garden, and even a handful of men participated in these classes, from which I too graduated, twice. To prevent the children from interrupting their mothers during class, Green Spaces paid another woman to lead arts and crafts classes for kids in another area of the garden.

Green Spaces collected information on how many people participated in workshops such as these and holiday parties featuring free food. They required all plot holders to attend monthly community meetings. Like other nonprofits, Green Spaces must supply information to their granting institutions, showing how many people they have served. The community garden meetings, where I was often asked to take minutes and read the rules in English and Spanish, were led by a Green Spaces staff member, a Mexican immigrant with years of community organizing experience whom I shall refer to as Teresa. She always started the meetings with an ice-breaker, encouraging everyone to say something. She then facilitated the meeting, typically focusing on governance issues—Was everyone following the rules? Participating in the cleanups? Who left the gate unlocked that one night?— as well as planning upcoming events and holiday gatherings and assigning volunteer work teams. I sat through over a year of these monthly meetings and witnessed the tensions that emerged.

First, there were problems around the selection of new parcel holders. This is a familiar issue at urban community gardens, where demand often outstrips the supply of parcels open for cultivation. At Franklin, the vegetable beds were small, but many of the mujeres found that competing demands with family and work precluded them from regularly watering and weeding, and that the $30 annual fee was too expensive. So in some cases, two or three women would agree to share a parcel. That way, when Bertila, for example, had a crisis in the family, her friends could take over tending the plot. This seemed reasonable enough to the community gardeners, but it was against one of Green Spaces’ many rules, and Green Spaces’ organizer, Teresa, had begun cracking down on this practice. Community garden members tried in vain to fudge the issue, but it became “illegal” to cultivate a plot if your name was not on the official contract. Some garden members, including Bertila, Elvia, and Susana, ultimately lost their parcelas.

Green Spaces took away these shared plots and raffled off the parcelas to individual newcomers. For a professional nonprofit, this was the democratic way to do things, as they wanted to guard against the formation of cliques. But the community gardeners had a different vision of justice. For them, it was all about connection with land and people. They thought that neighborhood residents who had already put in their time and sweat—sweeping, planting, and watering—should have first dibs. They had so little, and now even the land they tended in this little oasis might be ripped away from them. Monica and others tried to defend Bertila’s and Susana’s right to share the plot with Elvia, the only one who had signed the contract. At one of the meetings, Monica had insisted that there should be another metric of parcel holding. “Susana ya sembro una mata de chile. . . Susana already sowed a chile plant,” she had declared, “and with that plant you create a connection.”

Another familiar problem at all community gardens is the pilfering of peppers or tomatoes. One day, after an unsupervised child had picked someone’s ripening tomatoes, I watched the gardeners talk out the conflict amongst themselves, not in a formal meeting but in the aisles between the parcelas, during one of the collective cleanups. But in response to a complaint, Green Spaces imposed a new rule: no more than three people per family could now gather back by the parecelas. One Sunday morning I found rule-abiding Hortensia, there with her husband and three children, ready to prepare the soil on their newly acquired plot. This was an exciting day for them. Almost as if memorializing the moment she explained, “Es la primera vez que mis hijos van a tener contacto con la tierra. . . It’s the first time that my kids will have contact with the soil. Back there, we all grow up working the land, but this is something new for my kids.” Here, finally, she would be connecting her children not only to la tierra, but to an ancestral tradition of the past, and her younger self at home in Mexico. But in order to follow the rules, she and one child had to remain outside of the chain-link fence, while the husband and two of the children turned the soil. As I watched, it looked as if this family was divided by a border fence or something like a prison visitation window.

For Green Spaces, the garden was a public space that had to be open to all, even those who do not live in the immediate neighborhood or who may have never previously set foot in the garden. As a nonprofit organization initially funded by the City of Los Angeles and now supported by foundation grants, Green Spaces had to ensure that garden membership was not personal or particular, but rather followed formal, generalized procedures, which included abiding by the rules of conduct, and signing a formal contract. The contract, not the community, defined membership rights.

These sorts of tensions over membership and decision-making intensified when Green Spaces obtained substantial public funds for infrastructural improvements. In anticipation of spending a jaw-dropping $350,000 acquired from public and private sources, the Green Spaces community organizer asked garden members how they wanted this spent. The gardeners had been instrumental in helping to get the garden improvement funds, as they were trotted out to testify in front of the granting agency. Over and over again, in endless community meetings, the gardeners said they wanted just three things: a toilet, chickens, and a brick barbecue, preferably with a faucet too for rinsing vegetables and a counter surface for preparing meals. Those simple features were what the gardeners needed to make the garden a truly homey place in the image of their own homelands. After spending many six or seven hour stretches in the garden where I was often slightly dehydrated because I tried not to drink water, I too enthusiastically testified to the need for a toilet. Green Spaces staff told us that a toilet was too expensive and dangerous—it might attract prostitution and drug selling—and it would require maintenance staff. They said chickens were incompatible with gardening and possibly illegal in the city. While no good excuse was offered for not building cooking facilities, even a brick barbeque, these were also denied.

During 2010 and 2011, we met monthly to discuss these matters, moving to a church basement during the winter. Sometimes Green Spaces sent young, well-meaning landscape architects to the meetings, and they presented different ideas and options for new garden amenities. They projected photos taken from suburban public gardens, where families gathered to watch big screen movies in an outdoor space or played chess with giant-sized pawns and queens. These looked like images out of Sunset magazine, and the ideas fell flat with the community gardeners.

In the end, here’s how the democratic design process went: We were handed Post-it notes and asked to walk to the front of the room and cast our votes by choosing between terra-cotta and brown brick pavers, picnic tables with yellow trim or blue trim. The chickens, a toilet, and a built-in barbecue never appeared on the ballot.

The Franklin garden shut down for nine months beginning in January 2012. At the final garden clean-up day in December, the mood was somber and bittersweet. Monica placed two big tables together and draped a plaid tablecloth across them. A dozen of us gathered around an enormous pot of chicken soup seasoned with chile and flecks of hierba buena, a mint plucked from the garden. Everyone was sad about the temporary closing of the garden, and some expressed anger with the types of infrastructural improvements that were coming. Gustava denounced the proposed changes. “Es la globalización del jardín. . . It’s the globalization of the garden,” she declared, by which she meant the garden was being made over into a homogenous, characterless space. The casita just as it was made her feel as though she were at home where she had grown up in rural Guatemala. Months before she had told me that it was precisely this rustic, homeland quality that drew her to the community garden. “I come here and I feel like I’m back in my country, here in this little patch,” she said. “I see the dirt floor in the casita, I see the flowers at the entrance, I see the trash, the sticks, and I think, it seems like I could just be sitting back there in a pathway. . . that’s what attracts me here, to this place.” But now this rustic paradise was about to be lost. Monica chimed in, too. “No queremos un parque moderno. . . We don’t want a modern park,” she said. “We like a disorderly garden, one with a lot of plants, just like where we were raised.”

Eight months later, the garden reopened. The street was blocked off to traffic, and folding chairs, tables, a podium, and microphone were set up on the street directly in front of the locked garden gate. Youth from the LA Conservation Corps were cleaning and setting up, together with a few remaining volunteers from the community garden, including myself. I was given the task of hanging crepe paper for the ribbon-cutting ceremony. Many dignitaries spoke, including the executive director of Green Spaces. “The community came to Green Spaces,” she said, “and all of these new garden designs came out of the community voice.” That word, “community,” was repeated many times by those who spoke at the microphone.

After the ribbon cutting, we marched into the reconstituted garden to have a look. It now had a cleaned-up, slightly institutional look. The enormous chayote plant that provided a cubbyhole of shade was gone, and so were a lot of the trees and the jumble of flowering bushes. The new garden featured new pavers, electricity, lights that Jose Miguel described as “prison lights,” cinder-block walls where the rustic casita had once stood, terracing to allow for better drainage, a new shed, and miniature picnic tables bolted to the ground.

Looking around the sea of people that day, I recognized only a handful of the stalwart community gardeners who had brought so much life to Franklin Community Garden. Monica, Armando, and about half of the women, all key outspoken core community members—not to mention the chickens, a toilet, and the barbeque—were nowhere to be seen.

At the grassroots level, the community garden is elemental and material, a place to transform soil, plants, seeds, and water into food and foliage, and a place where friendships, alliances, gossip, and support form among people with no access to land or to the financial and legal power valued in our society. We need nonprofit organizations, land trusts, and government agencies to combat the privatization of all social life and property so that more community gardens, public parks, and urban agriculture can flourish in the city. But protecting these spaces is about more than protecting the land. Each garden serves its particular community, and each community has its own particular set of needs and challenges. Bringing more people in is a worthy goal, but a garden must serve its own community or it’s not a community garden at all. Any approach that excludes the very gardeners who cultivated the community to begin with is a failure as sure as losing the garden to private developers would be.

Social inequality and power on the land have always been part of the story of Southern California, with successive waves of conquest, colonization, property disputes, land development, and labor exploitation etching the garden-like landscape of California. The immigrant community gardeners who gather in inner-city Los Angeles, like their peers in Seattle, Boston, or New York City, are actively reshaping the landscape too now, producing food and reinventing possibilities for themselves and their families and communities. But their quest for community autonomy and transcendence is constrained by powers beyond themselves—well-intentioned and not so well-intentioned.

The spatial theorist Henri Lefebrve used the term “representational space” to refer to places that have been collectively and organically created by daily use.² The community gardeners created their own idealized representation of nature and community in their inner-city garden paradise, and when Green Spaces funds became available, they were open to accepting change. Throughout the design process, the community gardeners remained loud and clear on what would constitute improvements—chickens, a bathroom, and cooking facilities—but instead, they got a different “representation of space,” one imposed from above by Green Spaces and the landscape architectural firm. They no longer felt truly represented.

Some landscape architects and scholars recognize the importance of informal practices such as those of the Franklin gardeners and advocate for “a collaborative model of placemaking in which citizen groups and city agencies have equally important roles.” But as we saw in the Franklin Community Garden, differences in power make collaboration difficult at best and at worst impossible.³ The design process was only superficially collaborative, and the creativity of the women’s informal community was overruled by formal procedures and expertise.

Gardens are inherently messy. Struggles over the rules of the game—who can cultivate parcelas and under what terms, what infrastructural improvements are desirable, and which ones can be implemented—reveal fundamental power inequities and trade-offs. Organizational benefactors such as Green Spaces ensure that community gardens like Franklin will never be razed as the South Central Farm and so many others have been—and that is a laudable achievement. We need more formalized agreements and institutions to support public community gardens and urban farms. Formal organizational support and protections, however, come with strings attached, creating new tensions and trade-offs.

The experience of the Franklin gardeners suggests that there is still a lot of spadework to be done before this new era of professional organizations cultivating urban gardens can fully respect and support community among these transplanted paradises in the inner city.


First and last photographs by Robbert Flick, all others by the author.

1 Tanya Golash-Boza and Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo, “Latino Immigrant Men and the Deportation Crisis: A Gendered Racial Removal Program,” Latino Studies 11(3): 271–292.

2 Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell).

3 Jeffrey Hou, “Making and Supporting Community Gardens as Informal Urban Landscapes,” The Informal American City, Vinit Mukhija and Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, eds. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006), 79 –96. Randolph T. Hester, Design for Ecological Democracy (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006).


Serigrafia: A Reflection

by Carlos Francisco Jackson

Posters, art, and the Chicana/o consciousness.

Serigrafia is an exhibition of Chicana/o posters from California that is touring California, and has already been exhibited at the UC Davis Design Museum, Arte Américas in Fresno, and the Pasadena California Museum of Art. I served as one of the cocurators of Serigrafia. Recently, I stepped back from the exhibition and contemplated the significance of this collection of Chicano posters from 1969–2011. In doing so I was reminded of my initial encounter with Chicano social serigraphy (screen printing) through a class I took with Malaquias Montoya, professor emeritus of Chicana/o Studies and Art at UC Davis. Malaquias Montoya was one of the founders of Chicana/o social serigraphy, and his posters are well represented in the exhibition. He developed a Chicana/o community-based art curriculum that included a poster workshop and a mural workshop. Malaquias instituted both of these courses in the newly created Chicano Studies Program at UC Berkeley in 1969. The poster and mural classes are still taught today, where I teach, in Chicana/o Studies at UC Davis, which is a direct result of this curriculum created in 1969. The work on view in Serigrafia charts the work of some of the most prominent printmakers to have emerged from the Chicano Movement and the development of a Chicana/o consciousness. The posters on view are representative of a “space” where Chicana/o identity and consciousness have been explored, expressed, and challenged while simultaneously serving the community through advocacy and engagement. Chicana/o identity has often been framed as an essentialist category for which people are either included or excluded racially. Yet, like the posters on view in Serigrafia, Chicana/o identity has been transforming ever since the initial idea for its framework was written in 1969 in the founding document of Chicana/o Studies, El Plan de Santa Bárbara. The posters, as “spaces,” mirror Chicana scholar, Rosa Linda Fregoso’s framework for Chicana/o identity as she defined it in 1993 stating, “Chicano refers to a space where subjectivity is produced (p.xix).” If the posters on view in Serigrafia are spaces where subjectivity is produced, then Chicana/o consciousness and identity has, since its inception, been overwhelmingly forward-thinking and visionary in representing a more just future for communities that have been historically marginalized and underrepresented.


“Festival de la Raza” mural in Tijuana by Malaquias Montoya, 1986. COURTESY OF MALAQUIAS MONTOYA.

I initially encountered Malaquias Montoya in the fall of 1996 when he came to give an evening presentation to a group of Chicano students at a theme dorm called Casa Cuauhtemoc on the UC Davis campus, where I was a first-year student and resident. Malaquias Montoya had come to Casa Cuauhtemoc to give an hour-long slide presentation on his work. He presented on a mural that he had conducted and completed in Tijuana in 1986 as part of the Festival de la Raza. His slide talk outlined the entire mural process from conception to completion. The swiftness in which he painted the mural is what I recall being the most striking thing about the presentation. The actual painting of the mural took no more than a few days to complete. He spent as much time engaging with the community before he began the scaled drawing as he did working on the actual painting. His prep work included scanning the environment, meeting with residents in the nearby community, talking with community leaders and activists, and entering into dialogue with community educators and cultural workers. Fundamentally, the slide talk—and I didn’t realize this until later—emphasized that the work of a Chicano artist is rooted in community engagement through culture as a means to empower, educate, and foster transformation. Malaquias engaged the community, a community he was a member of, and yet he also challenged that community to reimagine itself through the imagery in this mural. The mural ultimately was a discussion of the historical legacy of colonialism, imperialism, and the struggles that the Mexican, Mexican American, and Latin American diasporic communities had faced through multiple layers of conquest.

It was because of this presentation that I sought out Malaquias the following year. As a nineteen-year-old second-year student, I was active in several Chicano student programs and would spend quite a bit of time in the Chicana/o Studies department. In the fall quarter of 1997, I introduced myself to Malaquias while he was standing in the hallway of the department after a faculty meeting. I asked him if I could enroll in his upper-division course titled Chicana/o Poster Workshop. This course was quite popular with many of the active Chicana/o students. The class was designed to teach students how to create silkscreen posters by requiring them to represent prescient topics in posters, which would ultimately be distributed within the local community or a community-serving organization. Students were widely aware of the importance of this course, which is why the course would fill its enrollment cap within the first few hours of open registration. When I saw Malaquias in the Chicana/o Studies department hallway and walked up to him to ask his permission to enroll in the poster workshop, I did so because enrollment was restricted with a prerequisite that students needed to have taken Survey of Chicana/o Art. If you had not taken that course, you could enroll but you had to seek permission of the instructor first. I introduced myself to Malaquias and quietly asked for his permission to enroll. When Malaquias asked if I had taken the prerequisite, I responded that I had not. Hoping to convince Malaquias that I was worthy of enrollment, I explained that I was a member of MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán) and active in several Chicano student-serving programs. Malaquias was not swayed and said that if I was to enroll in the poster workshop I would need to take Survey of Chicana/o Art. I walked away defeated, as I had no intention of taking an introductory course on Chicana/o art. I did not understand how Chicano art related to my interests in community-engagement and activism. Clearly, I was naïve and uneducated regarding the history of the movement’s importance. Malaquias’s denial of my request to enroll in his poster workshop turned out to be a gift, one that would transform my life.

When I approached Malaquias, I did not understand why it was important for me to take Survey of Chicana/o Art before enrolling in the poster workshop. At the time, I was interested only in raising my consciousness, political activism and engagement, and enrolling in classes to help me understand the reasons inequality existed back home. To me, these were found in lectures and seminar courses in Chicana/o studies and in departments such as history, political science, and sociology. I was not aware of any value the arts would have on my educational path at the university. But, to ultimately enroll in the poster workshop, which I was anxious to do, I needed to take Survey of Chicana/o Art. So, in the fall of 1998, a little less than a year after I initially asked for permission, I enrolled in Malaquias’s survey course. The only way I can describe the experience of that course is to say that I left it completely transformed—transformed as a person in every way.

The Survey of Chicana/o Art course led students on a path to understanding the influences and context in which the Chicano Art Movement emerged. Malaquias’s students had to read articles about the importance of representation and resistance to the dominant culture that had structured inequality for marginalized communities, and he shared examples of community-engaged art practices such as colectivas and talleres. The class ultimately left students with an appreciation of why the silkscreen poster and community mural were two unique Chicana/o visual art forms and why these practices were still taught within a Chicana/o studies department like that of UC Davis. In this course, Chicano identity was never presented as a race-based category. Rather, in the context of this course, being a Chicana or Chicano was to be a person committed to community engagement, social justice, antiracism, and equality. Had I not been required to take the survey course first, I would not have developed a full appreciation of the significance of the Chicana/o Art Movement and the role of the poster within it. A poster would simply have just remained a poster. For me, I know that the poster would not have developed into what it has become, a space where Chicana/o consciousness is recorded and expressed.


“Constitución del 17″ by Elena Huerta, ca. 1935. Relief print. COURTESY OF UNIVERSITY OF NOTRE DAME, SNITE MUSEUM OF ART.

My transformation began during the survey course when Malaquias showed the first set of what would be several sets of slides of Chicana/o artists. I most looked forward to the days when Malaquias showed slides of the artists’ works we were discussing in the readings. The slides that Malaquias showed initially were about the influences to the Chicana/o Movement, which included images of the Mexican Mural Movement, Jose Guadalupe Posada’s broadsides, the Taller de Gráfica Popular, and printmakers from revolutionary Cuba. As the quarter went on. Malaquias showed more and more work by Chicanas and Chicanos. I remember Malaquias sharing drawings and prints by Ester Hernandez and Yolanda Lopez. I was incredibly moved by their work and by the respect with which Malaquias presented it. Malaquias was a towering figure to me and many of the Chicana/o students on campus. It was incredibly powerful to see him humble before the work of Ester and his contemporaries. I now understand that this humility was an expression of respect for those who are engaging culture within the framework of the Movement. I remember looking at the images that were projected out of the slide carousel in our darkened classroom, wondering why I had not seen these images before, wondering why they were not part of my upbringing. Today, as a faculty member in Chicana/o studies, what I most often hear from students who are engaged in our curriculum is, “Why didn’t I know this earlier? Why wasn’t I taught this before I arrived on campus?” The common frustration is one that I experienced as a student. Why did I have to come to UC Davis, 400 miles from home, to learn about who I am? The knowledge and history of who I am and where I come from rightfully belongs to me. There is a feeling of frustration and anger that more people haven’t had the opportunity to learn about this heritage and see these images.


“La Retirada” No. 16 from 1973 XX Aniversario portfolio by Rene Mederos, 1973. COURTESY OF THE CHICANA/O STUDIES DEPARTMENT AT THE UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, DAVIS.

These images represented my family, my mother, my uncles, cousins, grandparents, and community. The works were not simply mirrors for their likenesses; they were images that transformed their likenesses to represent gods, heroes, leaders, and monuments. Yolanda Lopez’s Margaret F. Stewart: Our Lady of Guadalupe and Ester Hernandez’s Virgen de las Calles presented as people what I saw represented in their work—my family and community. These artists represented who we are. They revealed to me the extent to which I, and my family, had not been properly represented in the dominant culture and even in the daily encounters of the Mexican American experience. I thought to myself, “Where were these images? Where could I find them? How could I make them my own? How can I share them with others?” To discover the answers, I went to the library and looked for books. In 1998, very few library books had reproduced images of Chicana/o art. I found the CARA catalog, checked it out, and carried it with me wherever I went. I found the 1969 edition of El Grito that had a portfolio of images of the newly formed Mexican American Liberation Art Front. One night when I was at LA Pena Cultural Center in Berkeley I found two copies of Malaquias Montoya’s Adeline Kent Award Catalog for sale for $15 each. I bought both copies. I leafed through these catalogs so much that I wore down the edges of the paper and had started to wear down the quality of the reproductions. Words cannot express how important those images were to me.


“Margaret F. Stewart: Our Lady of Guadalupe” by Yolanda Lopez, 1978. COURTESY OF YOLANDA LOPEZ AND THE CHICANO STUDIES RESEARCH CENTER AT UCLA.

Malaquias did not present his own artwork in Survey of Chicana/o Art until the end of the quarter. On the second to last day of class, he showed a full slide carousel of artworks that described his trajectory as an artist, from the earliest Yo Soy Chicano posters created in San Jose and Berkeley between 1967 and 1969 to his most recent series of pastel drawings on paper that commemorate the recent passing of Cesar Chavez. On the last day of class, we discussed and debated Eduardo Galeano’s article, “In Defense of the Word.” I recall, quite vividly, the emotion in our classroom as we attempted to comprehend Galeano’s words: “We are what we do, especially what we do to change who we are: our identity resides in action and in struggle. Therefore, the revelation of what we are implies a denunciation of those who stop us from being what we can become (Galeano, p.190).” I left that day knowing that my identity had the opportunity to be defined not by what I am, but rather by what I do. At the time, I did not have the language to describe what I felt inside or what I knew about myself and what I needed to do. Retrospectively, I can say that at that point I knew I wanted to contribute to this movement of cultural workers. I didn’t know how. I simply knew that in some way my life was going to be dedicated to fostering the expansion of the arts to represent the breadth and weight of the Chicano experience so that the broader community would have access to the arts, not as an activity of leisure but rather as an indispensable part of creating equal representation for a community that has been, too often, rendered invisible.


“La Virgen de las Calles” by Ester Hernandez, 2001. COURTESY OF ESTER HERNANDEZ.

This essay began when, as I was walking through Serigrafia experiencing the posters on view, I recalled feeling the same as I did when I attended an exhibition that was recommended in the Survey of Chicana/o Art syllabus. Malaquias had placed several local and regional Chicana/o art exhibitions in the course syllabus so students could see and experience the artwork being discussed in class. I was able to attend one of the exhibits of Malaquias’s posters at Laney College’s art gallery in Oakland. I drove with a friend to Oakland to view the exhibition. I was not able to attend the exhibition opening, which undoubtedly was a powerful event with historical activists and cultural workers as attendees. Laney was the community college that Malaquias and Manuel Hernandez worked with to support their community art silkscreen centers in East Oakland during the 1970s. I visited Laney during the week on a normal business day. The gallery was empty. My friend and I quietly walked around and experienced the artwork in a very private and quiet manner. On view at Laney were twenty of Malaquias’s most iconic screen prints: his poster addressing Wells Fargo’s support of the dictatorship in Chile in the 1970s, Argentina’s dirty war, and the Bakke decision. All of the posters were framed in simple, natural-colored wood frames with basic mats laid on top to crop out the very outer edges of each poster. The uniform nature of the frames created a consistency among the works that was not present in the diversity of imagery and wide breadth of topics represented in the posters. Malaquias created each of the posters, so he is represented in each poster. But, as a whole, they were diverse as a collection of artwork. The exhibit included posters using oil-based inks and other posters using acrylic inks. Some were created using only an X-Acto knife, creating hard edges throughout the imagery, and some were made using loose drawing techniques and hand-cut lettered stenciling. Posters addressed the inhumane conditions of farmworkers in the Central Valley and valorized the decolonizing efforts of activists in Angola. The works were transnational yet rooted in a Chicano perspective. The posters were largely historical, yet there were contemporary issues confronting the Mexican American community. The work represented Third World solidarity, which spoke to my developing understanding of community.


“Calavera Campesino” by Malaquias Montoya, 1993. Acrylic, pencil, and pastel on paper, 30′′× 22′′. COURTESY OF MALAQUIAS MONTOYA.

As a student in 1998, I sensed a thread, an expression of consciousness among some Chicano students that was highly exclusionary. There were Chicano students, especially those who were politically active, who had very strict notions of what constituted inclusion in the category “Chicano.” Chicana/o community membership among many of my fellow classmates fell along rigid boundaries defined by politic, dress, and language. Malaquias’s work was liberating because it crossed boundaries and borders. What unified his work was a commitment to speak against injustice and make these images and ideas available and accessible to a broad community constituency. The work on view at Laney College affirmed the idea that to be Chicano, or to be a Chicano artist, was to be someone committed to a life of approaching social justice through community collaboration. From the very beginning, the work was about community self-determination and social justice. Cultural nationalism, while sparsely representative through indigenous iconography, was not a force within the works on view at Laney. Cultural nationalism, a very prominent ideological force at the outset of the Chicano Power Movement, would eventually be widely critiqued for its rigid boundaries and essentialist racial framework. Malaquias’s work was only essentialist in that it was essentially antiracist, preferring resistance to injustice. This was something that I tacitly or internally understood while viewing the show at Laney College, but it was not something I had the language skills to fully articulate until now.

The Serigrafia exhibition presents a selection of the most iconic, historic, and significant Chicana/o posters created from the outset of the Chicana/o Movement. The significance of this exhibition is not that a diverse collaborative team of cultural workers curated it or that it is one of the few national, traveling exhibits of Chicano posters to be organized. Nor is its primary significance due to the inclusion of several generations of artists, including those who created this cultural form of engagement and emerging artists in their twenties and early thirties who were mentored or inspired by the pioneers of the movement. Although these are unique and highly significant aspects of this traveling exhibit, I believe the most unique aspect of Serigrafia is that it demonstrates the trajectory of the Chicano Art Movement, specifically Chicano social serigraphy as being informed and defined by a productive quality based on antiracism, decolonization, and community self-determination. The Chicano Art Movement and the self-designated category Chicano were not race-based alignments where inclusion or exclusion was based on narrowly defined qualities outside of people’s control. Chicano art and Chicano identity are not simply politicized markers for Mexican Americans or the culture they create. Rather, as Ian Haney Lopez states in his book Racism on Trial: The Chicano Fight for Justice, Mexican American activists in the 1960s invented the category Chicano. This invention was to represent a “productive quality (Fregoso, p.xix).” Rosa Linda Fregoso, in the introduction to her book The Bronze Screen, states that Chicanos did not “invent” themselves but rather “reinvented (imagined anew) a ‘community’ of Chicanos and Chicanas (p.xix).” For those new to the Chicano Movement and, specifically, the Chicano Art Movement, their first question when encountering this might very well be, Why is it be necessary to create “anew” a group of people who already exist? The answer is readily evident in the posters on view in Serigrafia.

Significant portions of the works represented in Serigrafia were made at the outset of the Chicana/o Movement. The beginning of the Chicana/o Movement in the mid-1960s represents a rupture—the point in history when the Mexican American community began to view inequity and underrepresentation as evidence of a society that had structured inequality along racial lines. The era before this rupture has been described as the “Mexican American Generation.” The Mexican American Generation produced socially oriented organizations such as the GI Forum and LULAC that advocated on behalf of the Mexican American community. Despite this, it was an era that largely sought community self-determination through assimilation into the dominant culture. The assimilationist efforts of the Mexican American Generation were largely built around deficit thinking discourses: the notion that there were shortfalls within Mexican American culture and those shortfalls were the reasons inequity and lack of resources existed.

For Mexican Americans during the post-war period, this framework subsequently necessitated assimilation into the dominant culture as the only path for self-determination. This “deficit thinking” discourse, as Martha Menchaca states in Recovering History/Constructing Race, largely grew out of an effort “to blame Mexican Americans for the social and economic problems generated by Anglo-American racism (p.15).” Menchaca charts how in 1968 Octavio Romano-V, an early anthropologist and Chicano scholar, explained that the dominant culture had “ignored the way in which racism historically had been used by Anglo Americans to obstruct the social, economic, and political mobility of Mexican-origin people,” and he described how “Mexican Americans were studied ahistorically in order to ignore the vestiges of Anglo-American racism—such as segregation, employment discrimination, racist laws, and police violence.” In this case, the term ahistorical describes Mexican Americans as an “immigrant and peasant-like group who had not contributed to the nation’s infrastructure culturally, technologically, or architecturally (Ibid.).” This perspective marked as invisible the Mexican American community’s historical legacy in the Southwest and their contributions to the growth of the nation’s economy and infrastructure.


“Yo Soy Chicano” by Malaquias Montoya, 2013. Screenprint. 30′′× 22′′. Reprint by Jesus Barraza from the 1972 original. COURTESY OF MALAQUIAS MONTOYA.

Ten years after I initially took Malaquias’s survey course, he retired from UC Davis, and I, a recently hired assistant professor in the department, had the privilege of organizing his retirement celebration. In thinking about the construction of the Mexican American community as ahistorical, I now refer back to a profound statement shared on the day of Malaquias’s celebration. Greg Morozumi (long-time activist, organizer, cultural worker, and former student of Malaquias Montoya at UC Berkeley between 1969 and 1971) was the last of many speakers celebrating Malaquias’s impact as an educator and artist. When Greg came to the podium, he said: “When the Third World Solidarity Movement and Chicano Movement began, we didn’t even know who we were. The significance of the cultural movement was to create a new understanding of who we are.” Greg, in his tribute to Malaquias, talked about the significance of Third World cultural movements in the Bay Area during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Greg’s statement that “we didn’t even know who we were” highlights the degree to which communities that had been historically marginalized had internalized the dominant culture’s ahistorical perspective. The significance of the Chicano Art Movement lies in the productive quality in which a new identity and consciousness was realized and expressed within its activity and cultural production. In this way, each Chicana/o poster historicizes, repairing the damage an ahistorical perspective has wrecked over generations.

Serigrafia presents two types of Chicano posters, both similar but with important distinctions. The first type of poster represented is that which primarily addresses an issue of culture or what I would call an expression of Chicano consciousness. These posters visualize new empowering images of what would represent a new Chicana/o identity. Posters such as Barbara Carrasco’s DOLORES are examples of works that visualize representations of an identity not fixed within a cultural nationalist, racial, or ideological framework. These works are created not necessarily for a specific event, rally, or organization. Rather, they serve as artistic representations of some ethos or cultural figuration that enhances our understanding of how the community is being “imagined anew (Fregoso, p.xxiii).”

The second type of poster represented is more issue driven (politically, socially, economically, etc.). This second type of poster is primarily represented in Serigrafia. These posters address issues affecting a dynamic, ever-expanding, and changing transnational community. Therefore, through posters for a community clinic, boycott, rally, fundraising drive, or political action, the ever-changing and growing understanding of Chicana/o consciousness is revealed. These posters bridge the development of new representations of consciousness with tangible applications. Posters are often categorized as design, propaganda, and/or didactics. They are very rarely categorized as art. Within the Chicana/o Art Movement, there is no distinction between a fine print and a poster. There is no high or low culture: there is simply the invention and subsequent creation of a space where subjectivity is produced, all in the service of community self-determination.



Therefore, the poster can be a tool for social purposes and an ever-changing and developing space for the expression of consciousness. In this respect, the poster itself serves as a metaphor for the category Chicana/o. The category Chicana/o has, since the outset of the Chicana/o civil rights movement, vexed individuals who have tried to define the parameters of its definition. Chicana/o ultimately is a category or identity that is fundamentally self-designated. Chicano has most often and regularly been stated to be another racial classification for Mexican Americans. This is understandable because the term “Chicano” emerged through the Mexican American civil rights movement of the late 1960s. Despite this specificity, the term Chicano from the outset was developed to represent a category of cultural politics that challenged racial constructions. As stated in El Plan de Santa Bárbara, “Chicano, in the past a pejorative and class-bound adjective, has now become the root idea of a new cultural identity for our people [emphasis added].” This document, drafted by students and community activists in 1969, outlines “community self-determination” as the essence of Chicano commitment. In this respect, Chicano is an idea that is informed by a commitment to community. The idea, then, is manifested through various methods. Rosa Linda Fregoso addresses the issue of what constitutes Chicano cultural production by stating: “The quandary in the self-designation Chicano undergirds the cultural category, Chicano cinema, because what to call the people of Mexican origin (“Chicano,” “Latino,” or “Hispanic”), or whom to consider for membership into the Chicano nation, depends on one’s politics and the context of the term’s usage (p.xviii).” I would swap the word “art” for “cinema” within the context of Fregoso’s essay. I would even go so far as to say the words “politics,” “identity,” and “culture” could be swapped for the word “cinema.” Fregoso states that she handles the problem of self-designation or classification of Chicano cinema (culture, art, politics, identity, etc.) by “de-emphasizing the biological claims to authenticity, yet accentuating its productive quality. In this respect, Chicano refers to a space [emphasis added] where subjectivity is produced (xix).” The poster serves as the subjective space described by Fregoso. Within the designated image area of the paper or substrate, you have representations of transnationalism, gender equality, international solidarity, and decolonizing practices where antiracism and social justice serve as the common denominator. Within this space, this subjective space that is the poster, we can see an opening up of access and expanding conceptions of social justice and equality that begin at the onset of the movement and become more prevalent as we move closer to our contemporary context.

In 1999, viewing the exhibition at Laney College was the equivalent to someone telling me where I’ve come from, who I am, and where my community is headed. The great absence of Chicano history, culture, and art from the K–12 educational curriculum and its absence from representation within the dominant culture has, for generations, created alienation. The experience of standing in the empty gallery at Laney was profound. As Gloria Anzaldua states, before something new can be created to truly foster a new way of relating to each other “our mothers, sisters, brothers, the guys who hang out on street corners, the children in the playgrounds, each of us must know our Indian lineage, or afro-mestizaje, our history of resistance (p.86).” The posters at Laney and the posters in Serigrafia demonstrate the internal process Chicano artists have gone through to understand the root idea that forms Chicano identity. Anzaldua explains this by stating that the “struggle has always been inner, and is played out in outer terrains. Awareness of our situation must come before inner changes, which in turn come before changes in society. Nothing happens in the ‘real’ world unless it first happens in the images in our heads (p.87).” Malaquias, Ester Hernandez, Yolanda Lopez, Juan Fuentes, Barbara Carrasco, Rupert Garcia, Ricardo Favela, Jesus Barraza, Melanie Cervantes, Favianna Rodriguez, and Ernesto Yerena are a few of the artists represented in Serigrafia who have taken on that important work of imagining anew our collective experience and its relationship to the tangible issues of the day, be it forty years ago or yesterday. The expression of Chicana/o consciousness and the aspirations of this movement have been imagined and vocalized through the process of printmaking.