Tag: Latinx



by Carlos Francisco Jackson

From Boom Spring 2014, Vol. 4, No. 1

Constructing the Chicana/o imaginary

In 1996, the Chicano printmaker Malaquias Montoya spoke to a group of students at Casa Cuauhtémoc, a theme dorm on the University of California, Davis, campus, where I was a first-year student and resident. Malaquias showed us a photograph of a mural that he had painted in Tijuana for the Festival de la Raza ten years earlier. It had taken only a few days to paint the mural, he said, but much longer than that to learn about the environment, meet with residents in the nearby community, and talk with community leaders, activists, educators, and cultural workers before a drop of paint was put on the wall.

Malaquias was a towering figure to Chicana/o students on campus. Later, in a class that I took with him, Malaquias became impassioned when he showed us drawings and prints by Ester Hernandez and Yolanda Lopez. It was powerfully moving to see him humbled by their works. I now understand that this emotion was an expression of respect for artists who dedicate themselves to producing art within the framework of a movement.

When I was a student, some Chicanos, especially those who were most politically active on campus, had very strict notions of what constituted the category “Chicano.” The Chicana/o community membership had rigid boundaries defined by politics, 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 to make images and ideas accessible to a broad community.

The posters on view in “Serigrafía”—a traveling exhibition of some of the most prominent printmakers to have emerged from the Chicano movement and the development of a Chicana/Chicano consciousness in California—show that Chicana/o identity has been fluid ever since the initial Chicano manifesto, El Plan de Santa Barbara, was written in 1969. The posters give us a view into an artistic space in which Chicana/o identity and consciousness have been imagined, explored, constructed, expressed, and challenged while simultaneously serving community advocacy and engagement.

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

I remember looking at the images projected on a screen in Malaquias’s darkened classroom when I was a student and wondering why I had not seen them before, why they were not part of my upbringing. Today, as a faculty member in the Chicana/o Studies Program at UC Davis, the questions I most often hear from students in our classes are the same: “Why didn’t I know this earlier? Why wasn’t I taught this before I arrived on campus?” 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 belong to me.

These images represent my family, my mother, my uncles, cousins, grandparents, and community. These works are not simply mirrors for their likenesses; they are images that transform their likenesses to represent gods, heroes, leaders, monuments, myths, and inspirations for action.

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


“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.


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


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


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




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



“Serigrafía” is at the Pasadena Museum of California Art through 20 April 2014, and then travels to the San Francisco Public Library from 20 July 20 through 7 September 2014.


My Father’s Charreria, My Rodeo

by Romeo Guzmán

From Boom Spring 2014, Vol. 4, No. 1

A paisa journey.

Ramón Ayala and Los Bravos del Norte opened their set at Arena nightclub in Hollywood with “Que me lleve el diablo” on that night in 2004.¹ As the heartwrenching lyrics and Ayala’s melodic accordion reached every corner of the club, Adrián Félix, at the time my roommate at UCLA, motioned with his eyebrows and index finger to two young women sitting at a table across the dance floor. Before we had even asked them to dance, sweat accumulated on my palms and a pool of moisture formed in my lower back. I knew how to dance about as well as many newly arrived Mexican immigrants are able to speak English. Instead of striking a beautiful balance of smooth, graceful, and intentional movement, I awkwardly jerked my partner forward, back, and to the side, occasionally bumping into other dancers. To make matters worse, the boots I borrowed from Adrián were one size too large. The double socks that I wore to rectify the situation only added to my tenuous footing. My pants for the night, also his, were the tightest I had ever worn, and the black Stetson hat and long-sleeve button-down shirt were just a little too big. The only thing that was mine, by way of my father, was a shiny nickel and brass belt buckle.

My first attempt to crossover into the regional Mexican music scene was about a decade before my days at UCLA. I grew up in Pomona, California, a predominately working-class neighborhood composed of African Americans and migrants from Mexico, Central America, the Philippines, Cambodia, and Vietnam. At school I played soccer on the playground, after school in the streets and our backyard, and on Sundays on worn, hole-filled soccer fields. I hung out with children of Mexican migrants like me, who mainly spoke Spanish as well as those who preferred to speak English like I did. At home, I listened to my older brother’s music: Green Day, Nirvana, and Stone Temple Pilots, as well as classic bands like The Velvet Underground. It wasn’t until I entered junior high, in the early 1990s, that I actively sought out music and dances.

Like many second-generation Mexicans in Southern California at the time, I fell into banda music’s raucous embrace. Futboleros, rockeros, Morrissey aficionados, and even rappers like Akwid, donned paisa outfits and attended bailes.² Both young men and women wore tight pants, cowboy boots, cintos piteados, and leather vests adorned with regional hometown or home state identification as well as paisa imagery—a cockfight, bull riders, horses. Usually silk crema de seda shirts, often intricate Versace knock-offs that incorporated paisa designs, were worn solely by young men. To complete the outfit, young people hung a correa, a miniature leather horsewhip, from their belt loops. Lacking money from a part-time job, I used all of my available resources to put together a passable outfit. In my father’s closet, I found solid-colored silk shirts and more stylized ones that clearly dated themselves to the 1980s, though they lacked paisa motifs. Aside from being made of silk, they had very little in common with the crema de seda shirts. From the corner of my father’s sock and underwear drawer, I dug out a shiny belt buckle featuring a man astride a bucking bull. I was out of luck in the shoe department: my normally cool-looking Adidas Sambas stuck out pretty badly on the dance floor. I attended a few backyard parties and quinceañeras, but ultimately felt too awkward in my pseudo-paisa outfits. In high school, I continued to listen to Banda El Recodo, Banda El Limon, and the norteño band Los Tigres del Norte, but at dances sported soccer jerseys and T-shirts, always with the classic black-and-white Adidas Sambas.

In both of these two periods and outfits, however, my father’s belt buckle remained at the center of my clumsy and piecemeal efforts to enter the Los Angeles banda and norteño scenes. My father told me it was a gift. A friend had given it to him after he rode his first bull. But that was about all I knew. For many years, I imagined him learning to ride bulls on a small ranch in Jalisco or in La Ceja, Zacatecas, where he grew up, under the mentorship of a wise old viejito, a charro guru. Maybe I, as his son, with the belt buckle as my center of gravity, could conquer dancing, and through this movement claim for myself a direct connection to the Mexican countryside and thus Mexicaness.

In 2007, as I prepared to leave California for graduate school, I asked my father more about the belt buckle. I was surprised to find out that he learned to ride bulls in Santa Barbara in the 1980s. A white man named Tom taught him. Tom, as a gesture of friendship, gave him the belt buckle after he rode his first bull. The buckle, like Tom, is American. I placed the belt buckle in my suitcase and didn’t think much more about its history.

When my father passed away on 13 August 2013, the buckle became the most significant object linking me to my father, to his past. I was consumed with a desire to know more about it and my father. I pored over photo albums in the garage, watched American rodeo competitions on television, asked my mother about my father’s bull-riding days, and read about American rodeos and charrería. I came to appreciate that the belt buckle’s narrative, including my own imagined one, is a quintessentially migrant, Mexican, and Californian story. Let us start at the beginning: before the United States–Mexico border was erected, before the rise of the US and Mexican nation-states.

Nicholas Guzmán, shown here in his blue goalie’s jersey, with his soccer team.

Rodeo’s roots go back to the Spanish conquest. Scholars aptly describe the conquest as an encounter between two distinct civilizations, noting the arrival of new diseases, technology, and animals to the Americas. John Lockhart, Caterina Pizzigoni, and other historians document the movement of ideas and practices between Spaniards and indigenous populations.³

They highlight the transformation of language, the changing layout of indigenous homes, and perhaps most emblematically, the forging of a new Catholicism. These new practices, of course, took place within a strict racial hierarchy and rigid monitoring of social practices, where Spanish priests often prohibited indigenous populations from practicing their own religion.

The collective practices known as charrería, notes Mary Lou Compte, are a product of this complicated and nuanced dynamic, with the fiesta as its main source. Colonial society celebrated “anniversaries of saints, local traditions, pagan gods, special fairs and markets, and patriotic holidays” by dancing, listening to music, gambling, drinking, engaging in sport, praying, and attending mass.4

In the sixteenth century, sporting activities included fighting on horseback with lances as well as grabbing bulls by the tail and throwing them to the ground.5

The growth of ranching during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries contributed to the evolution of charreria. As rules prohibiting non-Spaniards from riding horses eased up and more and more indigenous and mestizos began working on haciendas, a “uniquely Mexican sport” emerged: charreada or charrería, events that showcased the skills of charros, the horsemen.6

Nicholas Guzmán riding a bull, date unknown.

Nueva España, a colony of Spain, extended well into the present day US Southwest, with ranching reaching California by the mid-eighteenth century. As late as the 1860s, the culture of the charros maintained a strong presence throughout California. In Santa Barbara, the pastoral economy connected classes and helped create community identity and cohesion, argues historian Albert Camarillo.7

The Mexican-American War of 1848, dubbed La invasión norteamericana by Mexicans, brought many changes, among them an influx of white Americans. As Mexicans and white Americans worked together on cattle ranches, the latter adopted many of the skills and techniques of Mexican charros or vaqueros. It was during this period that white Americans began to host events that “featured most of the very same contests that continued to be part of the traditional Hispanic celebrations,” writes Compte, “including bull fights, bull riding, corer al gallo, sortijas, picking up objects, steer roping, team roping, and bronc riding.”8

The American cowboy was on the horizon, but the charro was still the main man in the arena.

From 1883 to 1916, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Shows toured throughout the United States and presented Americans with a romantic and gloried image of the American cowboy. At the same time that the cowboy became ingrained in the American imagination, the political, social, and economic decline of the Mexican community in Santa Barbara was solidified. During the 1860s and 1870s, the local pastoral economy slowly lost out to the capitalist economy, which produced new jobs in tourisms, construction, and commercial agriculture. By the 1890s it was not uncommon to find entire Mexican families working in fruit canneries, in the almond industry, and harvesting walnuts. Along with these changes came a loss of political power and the creation of Mexican barrios. By the end of the century, 90 percent of the Mexican population lived in a seven-block radius between Vine and State Street, known as Pueblo Viejo. These changes, writes Camarillo, established the social, political, and economic conditions of the twentieth century. With the onset of the Mexican Revolution in 1910, and especially World War I, newly arrived Mexicans entered a segmented labor system and helped form a second barrio on the lower eastside, between Milpas, Ortega, and State Street.9

As the Santa Barbara that we would recognize today took form, the American rodeo moved away from its Mexican past and into the realm of sport. In 1922, the first World’s Championship Cowboy Contest took place at Madison Square Garden in New York. By 1936, practices now associated with rodeo were organized into a single sport and, according to Compte “promoted the myth that their sport came directly from informal contests among Anglo cowboys, ignoring the Hispanic influence along with the theatrical.”10

South of the US-Mexico border a similar consolidation took place. After the Mexican Revolution, there was an effort by the state, intellectuals, and citizens to define Mexico’s past and present as well as to make Indians, peasants, and other corporate groups into “good Mexican citizens.”11

In 1933, the same year as the founding of the Federación Mexicana de Charros, President Abelardo L. Rodríguez declared charrería Mexico’s national sport.12

As the century progressed, the image of the American cowboy and Mexican charro grew in strength while they grew apart, ensuring the divorce of American rodeo from its Mexican influence and past. By the 1990s, when I was in high school, Clint Eastwood was an all-American cowboy and Vicente Fernandez was Mexico’s favorite charro—and they had next to nothing in common in my mind.

Nicolás Guzmán was born on a small ranch called Los Pozitos in La Ceja, García de la Cadena, Zacatecas, in 1958. He was the third child of José María Guzmán Castañeda and María Arellano Prieto de Guzmán. The family worked a small plot of land and subsisted by planting corn, beans, and other vegetables. Like many other Zacatecano families, they migrated south, to the developing state of Jalisco.

The Guzmán family in 1982 with Nicholas wearing the belt buckle.

In 1966 José María, his wife María, and their three children Santos, Manuel, and Nicolás settled in the Colonia Santa Margarita, a poor working-class neighborhood near the city of Guadalajara. During this time, José María supported his expanding family by working in the United States for a few months at a time. My grandmother recalls that he first migrated in 1958, as a contracted bracero. Like other men, he overstayed his contract and found other work. But even with the dollars he sent south, his family struggled economically. Led by Manuel, the oldest son, they did their best to scrap together a living. Manuel sold insurance; the younger boys sold gum on city buses and shined shoes just outside of Guadalajara’s Cathedral. María took in other people’s laundry and, along with the girls, maintained a tidy home.

These were challenging times for the family, but the boys, my uncles, have fond memories of their youth. There was little that Manuel, Nicolás, and the two younger brothers, Lupe and Ismael, loved more that playing and watching soccer. They cheered for America, a Mexican national club team from Mexico City, and the bitter rivals of Guadalajara’s Chivas. Indeed, their love for the game has transcended time and space, and imparted the new generation with a poetic appreciation of the game and some skills to play it. In our most-recent small-sided game, Maylo (short for Ismael) told us why my father decided to become a goalie. During a hard-fought match at Estadio Jalisco, America’s goalie Prudencio Cortes made numerous saves, including a set of three consecutive shots on goal from close range. Nicolas was hooked.

His first goalie jersey was an American high school letterman sweater that his father bought at a second hand store in the United States. The goals he defended were all on hard dirt fields with rocks scattered throughout the pitch. At only 5 feet, 7 inches and 130 pounds, Nicolás was not the strongest nor most athletic youngster. Luckily, in the goal, measuring and calculating one’s position is as important as one’s athletic ability. The difference between a save and a goal is often contingent on shuffling one’s feet no more than a foot or two before the opposing player takes a shot and then, of course, the actual dive. By diving at a slight forward angle the goalie can meet the ball early on in its trajectory, cutting it off before it moves farther and farther away from one’s body and hands. My father imparted these insights to me during drills and penalty kicks in our backyard, directly in front of a makeshift soccer goal that we constructed using white PVC pipes. By his own admission he never mastered diving at a slight forward angle. Yet the careful observation and meticulous calculations required of a goalie fit well with Nicolás’s appreciation of math and his often neurotic tendencies. Untied shoelaces, unmade beds, and carelessly scattered toys troubled his sense of, and need for, order. I suspect this is why he enjoyed the responsibility of being the last man and having a type of horizontal bird’s eye perspective of the field. From the goal, one can see all the offensive plays develop and more importantly, can yell out instructions to one’s fellow players. And of course, he also enjoyed the acrobatics of being goalie. He loved that whether he was diving up to block a shot near the top of the cross bar or down to the ground, he had to consistently fight and defy gravity, all while ensuring a safe and soft landing.

At home in Pomona many years later, Nicholas Guzmán wearing the belt buckle.

During the week, Nicolás spent his days and evenings working at Música Lemus, a record store in downtown, Guadalajara. This provided him access to all the latest music and a future playlist for his car, truck, and home stereo: English giants like the Beatles, French divas like Francoise Hardy, the international and trilingual star Jannette, Dan Fogelberg, Don McLean, John Denver, and others. Nicolás did not know French or English, but this did not matter; like others of his generation, he sang along, making up the meaning of each word, refrain, and chorus. His pants, like his hair were long, flowing out at their ends.

This modern urban sensibility was coupled with a romantic idealism for the countryside. From his childhood, Nicolás retained memories of large open spaces and a rugged simplicity. These visions of Zacatecas were layered with portraits of the American West from films, particularly those of his favorite cowboy, Clint Eastwood, whom he preferred over John Wayne. Nicolás didn’t buy Wayne’s portrayal of cowboy life, finding it inauthentic and Wayne himself a few pounds too heavy to be a “real cowboy.” In both the American West and rural Mexico, Nicolás found simplicity, dignity, and directness. One of his most common expressions, often evoked as a demand for clarity, was “vamos al grano.” The English translation for grano is grain or bean, and the expression vamos al grano is understood to mean “let’s get to the point,” or “let’s get to root of it.”

Romeo Guzmán in 2013.

In the summer of 1977, Nicolás met Francisca. She was born and raised in Guadalajara, but had moved to Mexicali and then later to South El Monte in the San Gabriel Valley near Los Angeles, where she completed the last two years of high school. That summer, she, along with her siblings, lived in the Colonia Santa Margarita, just a few blocks from the Guzmán household. After only two weeks of going out and very much al grano, Nicolás confessed to Francisca that he wanted to marry her. After that summer, they sent dozens of postcards and letters and visited each other in Guadalajara and South El Monte as often as possible. A year later, they got married in Guadalajara and a year after that migrated to Los Angeles.

Desperate for work and without much luck in Los Angeles, Nicolás reached out to his father. At the time, José María was working for a landscaping company in Santa Barbara pruning trees and living near Milpas Street, in the historic Mexican barrio of Santa Barbara. José María found Nicolás a job working as a field hand on a ranch in Montecito, a wealthy city near Santa Barbara. Nicolás worked alongside several white Americans, including Tom. It was with these white American men and not a Mexican vaquero that he learned to ride bulls.

The key to a successful ride lies in careful attention to detail, split-second decision-making, and purposeful and graceful movement as much as strength—much like guarding the goal in soccer. Great bull riders make this all look easy, but the various factors to consider are pretty daunting. Bulls use their speed, power, and movement to throw off a bull rider. They can change direction, buck and kick their legs in numerous directions, and drop the front of their body. To stay on, bull riders use their inner thigh muscles and legs to embrace the body of the bull, move their groin and upper body in response to the bull’s movement, and try to maintain a center of gravity. Hitting the ground, of course, is inevitable for every bull rider. As the cowboy saying goes, “There was never a horse that couldn’t be rode; there never was a man that couldn’t be throwed.”13

Tom taught Nick, as they affectionately called him, the basics on small bulls in the open range and gave him the belt buckle after he successfully rode his first bull. Nick wore it to formal and informal bull-riding events throughout Santa Barbara County. On one occasion, with José María in the audience, he successfully rode a bull for eight seconds, scoring the highest points and taking home a small pot of money. Nick rode bulls from 1979 to 1981, leaving bull riding when he took his wife and three children, including me, back to Guadalajara.

Although he never returned to bull riding, the belt buckle remained a mainstay in his wardrobe. He wore it with regular T-shirts, polo shirts, and long-sleeve dress shirts. For Nicolás, the buckle was a point of pride, as it is for many rodeo riders. The history of rodeo buckles is relatively recent, and tied to the recent history of rodeo. In the late nineteenth century, cowboys wore suspenders instead of belts. With the rise of organized rodeo competitions, belt buckles were awarded as trophies. As the twentieth century progressed, it became easier to mass-produce belt buckles, increasing their popularity and use.14

Today, buckles continue to be awarded as prizes at rodeo competitions and worn inside and outside of formal events.

Approximately 2 inches in circumference and made of nickel giving it some heft, my father’s belt buckle has at its center, in brass relief, a man on top of a bucking bull, the man’s right hand waving in the air. It can pass for Mexican, but more because of the great diversity of Mexican belt buckles than for its own intrinsic qualities. Mexican belts and buckles vary in size, material, and imagery. One of the most common belts is the cinto piteado. Pita, a fiber found in the states of Oaxaca and Chiapas, is stitched into leather to form floral, charrería, prehispanic patterns and imagery, and individuals’ initials and hometown. This artisanal practice has its roots in Spanish leather handcraft, with noticeable Arab influences. Interestingly, the mecca for cintos piteados is Colotlán, a small town at the northern tip of the state of Jalisco.15

Due the state of Jalisco’s strange configuration, Colotlán, is 75 miles north of my father’s birthplace, García de la Cadena, Zacatecas, and about 125 miles north of the city of his youth, Guadalajara. In addition to the cinto piteado, there are large, oval, buckles, made from a variety of metals and sometimes the horn of a bull.

The narrative I have now constructed about the origins of my father’s belt buckle, particularly where and how he learned to ride bulls, fits well within what we know about Mexican migrants and migration. Yet, Nicolás’s story also illustrates how much the lines between rural and urban and Mexican and American blur into and layer on top of each other. More importantly, my father and I, just like other migrants and children of migrants of our respective generations, used available resources—like the rodeo buckle—to connect with Mexico and identify as Mexican. I believe that bull riding was an expression of both my father’s romantic and idealist vision of American cowboy culture and his place of birth, La Ceja, Zacatecas. His vision of both these places was mediated through his experience as a young man in the urban city of Guadalajara. Some of the skills that bull riding required were fostered in the goal on dirt soccer fields. That he learned to ride a bull from a white American, speaks to the movement of people, popular culture, and everyday practices across the US-Mexico border. The belt buckle contains and represents this complex and nuanced narrative. This is why my father cherished it so much and why it has served me as a type of amulet. It came with me when I left California to attend Columbia University, in New York City, for doctoral studies in History. I wore it to my first graduate seminar, to the first lecture I gave on migration, and to my discussion sections with undergraduates. And, I wear it now, as I sit in a Mexico City coffee shop, writing out its history.


All images courtesy of Romeo Guzmán.

1 The literal translation is “may the devil take me.”

2 Josh Kun, “California Sueños,” Boom: A Journal of California 1 (Spring 2011): no 1, 62.

3 James Lockhart, The Nahuas After the Conquest: A Social and Cultural History of the Indians of Central Mexico, Sixteenth Through Eighteenth Century (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994). Caterina Pizzigoni. The Life Within: Local Indigenous Society in Mexico’s Toluca Valley, 1650–1800. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013).

4 Mary Lou LeCompte, “The Hispanic Influence on the History of Rodeo, 1823–1922,” Journal of Sport History 12 (Spring 1985): no.1, 22.

5 Compte. “The Hispanic Influence.”

6 Compte. “The Hispanic Influence.”

7 Albert Camarillo, Chicanos in a Changing Society: From Mexican Pueblos to American Barrios in Santa Barbara and Southern California, 1848–1930 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979).

8 Compte, “The Hispanic Influence,” 33.

9 Camarillo, Chicanos in a Changing Society.

10 Compte, “The Hispanic Influence,” 21.

11 For an introduction to Mexican nation-building after the revolution, see Gilbert M. Joseph and Daniel Nugent, eds., Everyday Forms of State Formation (Durham: Duke University Press, 1994) and Mary Kay Vaughan, and Stephen E. Lewis, eds., The Eagle and the Virgin (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006). For case studies, see Christopher Boyer, Becoming Campesinos: Politics, Identity, and Agrarian Struggle in Postrevolutionary Michoacán (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003) and Alexander Dawson, Indian and the Nation in Revolutionary Mexico (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2004).

12 See Autry Museum’s online text for the exhibit “Art of the Charreria: A Mexican Tradition,” http://theautry.org/explore/exhibits/charreria.html.

13 Quoted in Mody C. Boatright, “The American Rodeo,” American Quarterly 16 (Summer 1964): no. 2, part 1, 195–202.

14 Lauren Halley, “A Short History of Cowboy Buckles,” American Cowboy, http://www.americancowboy.com/gear/short-history-cowboy-buckles.

15 See Autry Museum’s online text for the exhibit “Art of the Charreria: A Mexican Tradition,” http://theautry.org/explore/exhibits/charreria.html.


The Accidental Archives of the Royal Chicano Air Force

by Stephanie Sauer

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Brief Introduction to the Royal Chicano Air Force

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

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

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

A Close Call as Cesar’s Security

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

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

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

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

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

The Ancient Documentaries of Southside Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Día de los Muertos scroll. (click to enlarge)

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

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

1. The First Dia de los Muertos.

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

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

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

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

6. carrying the (almost) interred Elvia Nava.

7. The neighbors complain.

8. Finally, they arrive at the cemetery.

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

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

Fiesta de Maiz scroll. (click to enlarge)

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

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

1. The First Fiesta de Maiz

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

3. in Southside Park

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

5. a visiting Tibetan monk / discovered a crystal bed

6. beneath the pond / that was really a cenote

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

8. When the elders arrived / they burned copal.

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

10. They / danced / . . .

11. and / they / danced

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

13. Maria de Maíz appeared / atop a pyramid.

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

15. They receive the blessings and the palabra.

16. They had prepared all year for this.


Echoes of Magón

by Rubén Martínez

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

The march between two cities

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

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

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


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


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

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


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


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

Poster design by Jesus Barraza.

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

I know how Magón would have answered that question.


Blood and Sand

by Rubén Martínez

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

Making the victims visible

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


El Grito and the Tea Party

by Alexander I. Olson
with art by Guillermo Nericcio García

From Boom Winter 2011, Vol. 1, No. 4

Recalling Diversity

Less than a month after California’s hotly contested midterm election in November 2010, the Sacramento Bee reported that local Tea Party activists had begun gathering signatures for a ballot measure modeled after Arizona’s notorious SB 1070—the law requiring state and local law enforcement officers to check the immigration status of suspected “illegals.” It is no surprise that the craze for border enforcement has again swept California. Although the Pew Research Center has found that the flow of undocumented workers into the United States has actually decreased in recent years, and despite the estimated $253 million in lost economic output that Arizona has endured since the passage of SB 1070, polling has suggested that a majority of California voters support the Arizona measure.1 As Michael Erickson, the Tea Party activist behind the California measure, explained in the Bee, “it’s going to be we the people who are going to make it happen.”2

Whatever the fate of Erickson’s signature drive, his populist rhetoric mirrors that of the national Tea Party, with its emphasis on “taking back” the country and “restoring” American democracy. Despite imagery that would suggest a preoccupation with contesting the meaning of the American Revolution (witness the Minutemen at the United States-Mexico border and the revival of the Gadsden flag), the Tea Party has proven itself to be a potent force in contemporary US politics, drawing together diverse conservative ideologies.3 The movement’s fusion of past and present can be seen in the writings of former Fox News personality Glenn Beck, whose revision of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense spent four months atop the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list in 2009.4 Readers can enroll in “Beck University” to take lessons in topics that include “Divine Providence vs. Manifest Destiny” and “Presidents You Need to Hate.”5 Such lessons portray the United States’ claim to Alta California—a northern territory of Mexico ceded to the United States in 1848 by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War—as justified by divine sanction. Particularly in the US Southwest, the Tea Party’s emphasis on border enforcement is as much about defending an embattled white American heritage as more widely cited reasons such as preventing unemployment and terrorism.6 In the dystopian vision of Beck and his compatriots, Mexican immigrants and their “anchor babies” will shove aside the rituals of the Fourth of July in favor of el Grito—the cry of September 16th, or Mexican Independence Day.7

As California voters contemplate the wisdom of racial profiling and mass deportation, it is worth looking back to another aspect of California’s heritage: the multicultural towns of Owens Valley in the late nineteenth century. These isolated communities in the eastern Sierra Nevada were remnants of the complicated demographics of the Gold Rush and, indeed, the forty-niners were late arrivals in a region with a long history of migration—Native American, Spanish, Mexican, and Russian.

Some of the first Anglo visitors to Alta California were convicts dumped on the beach in Carmel in 1796. According to Doyce Nunis, Jr., they proved to be “hard-working and docile” laborers under the Spanish colonial regime before being sent to Spain the following year. After Mexican independence in 1821, the naturalization process was made “fast and easy” for migrants from the United States and around the world, many of whom intermarried with locals. An exciting body of literature in recent years—including Louise Pubols’s masterful study of the de la Guerra family of Santa Barbara, The Father of All (2009)—has deepened our understanding of the complex social and economic world of the Californios.8

“Bear on the Lam” by Guillermo Nericcio García (2011, digital mixed media)

All this was threatened when Mexico lost Alta California to the United States in 1848. Although wealthier Californios remained active and savvy players in the new political system, the American Invasion ushered in an era of state-sponsored racial violence, as Anglos sought to drive Mexican, Chilean, and other “foreign” families from mining country through such measures as the Foreign Miners Tax of 1850. By sanctioning white supremacy, such laws eroded the land claims and citizenship rights of racialized “others” who were recast as “illegal aliens” in the twentieth century.9 Nevertheless, Anglo dominance was “difficult to enforce, and groups of people united by shared interests could create for themselves spheres of autonomy and strategies for interdependence.”10 The Owens Valley became such a sphere. For Anglos no less than Mexican, Basque, and Cuban families in the late nineteenth century, the towns of the Owens Valley were motley communities of exiles hoping to make a living in their adopted home.

By 1903, when Mary Hunter Austin published The Land of Little Rain, many of these towns were dwindling, if not vanished, and Los Angeles had already begun to eye the Owens Valley’s water resources.11 Rather than emphasizing decline, however, Austin painted a portrait of a vibrant, transnational, and deeply Californian culture where borders meant little, languages blended, and the chance to celebrate el Grito sparked joy, not fear. Every year on September 16, in her telling, shouts of ¡Viva la Libertad! and ¡Viva Mexico! resounded through the “Little Town of the Grape Vines.”12 From the grito itself to the hoisting of “the red, white, and green of Old Mexico,” the entire town joined in the festivities. At midnight, according to Austin, as the singing and dancing drew to a close, the flag was taken down. But this was not the end of the celebration. As “shepherd fires glow strongly on the glooming hills,” the music began “softly and aside,” playing “airs of old longing and exile.” Next, and suddenly, the music struck “a barbaric swelling tune,” and the Star Spangled Banner was raised above the camp. The same people who had shouted the grito joined in singing the US national anthem. As Austin put it, “They sing everything, America, the Marseillaise, for the sake of the French shepherds hereabout, the hymn of Cuba, and the Chilean national air to comfort two families of that land.“13

To be sure, Austin’s vision of harmony passes all too easily over the darker sides of life in the Owens Valley in the late nineteenth century—-the misogyny, the poverty, the endemic violence. Austin herself escaped this world for the literary communities of San Francisco and Santa Fe, and her portrait of the “Little Town of the Grape Vines” might be understood as an example of what Renato Rosaldo has called “imperialist nostalgia,” an ethnographic stance and mode of cultural production in which “people mourn the passing of what they themselves have transformed.”14 Austin never mentions efforts to erode multiculturalism through public health policy and anti-immigration measures such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.15 Yet unlike other examples of such nostalgia—including the ongoing fascination with the Gold Rush legend of the Mexican bandit Joaquín Murrieta, a figure who turned the tables on white colonial violence in attacks aimed at Anglo invaders—Austin’s story does not position the Owens Valley as a culture of the past, but as a vision for the future that inspired her later work on regionalism.16 Romanticized as her version of the Grito celebration might be, it offers a powerful corrective to the Tea Party’s campaign for harsh new immigration restrictions, reminding Californians of all stripes that our multicultural present has roots in many decades of migration—east, west, north, and south.


1. Jeffrey Passel and D’Vera Cohn, “U.S. Unauthorized Immigration Flows Are Down Sharply Since Mid-Decade,” Pew Hispanic Center Report, 1 September 2010. A Los Angeles Times/USC poll of California voters showed a split of 50%–43% in favor of the Arizona measure. Seema Mehta, “Voters Split on Arizona Law,” Los Angeles Times, 31 May 2010. A Field Poll in June 2010 found a similar split of 49%–45% in favor of the measure. Shelby Grad, “Arizona Immigration Crackdown Divides California Voters, New Poll Shows,” Los Angeles Times, 16 July 2010. The lost economic output figure is based on an estimate of conference cancellations. Marshall Fitz and Angela Kelley, “Stop the Conference: The Economic and Fiscal Consequences of Conference Cancellations Due to Arizona’s S.B. 1070,” Center for American Progress Report, November 2010.

2. Susan Ferriss, “Tea Party Activist Launches Arizona-style Immigration Initiative for California,” Sacramento Bee, 24 November 2010.

3. For the Tea Party’s role in a longer cultural struggle over the meaning of the American Revolution, see Jill Lepore, The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010). The Tea Party’s ideological composition is surveyed in “The Tea Party, Religion and Social Issues,” Pew Research Center Report, 23 February 2011.

4. Glenn Beck, Glenn Beck’s Common Sense: The Case Against an Out-of-Control Government, Inspired by Thomas Paine (New York: Mercury Radio Arts/Threshold Editions, 1999). For number of weeks on the bestseller list, see New York Times, 18 October 2009. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/18/books/bestseller/bestpapernonfiction.html [accessed 1 March 2011]. For Beck’s connection to the Tea Party, see Sean Wilentz, “Confounding Fathers: The Tea Party’s Cold War Roots,” The New Yorker, 18 October 2010. Wilentz identifies Beck’s role in the movement as “both a unifying figure and an intellectual guide.”

5. Beck University. http://www.glennbeck.com/becku/about.php [accessed 1 March 2011].

6. On TeaParty.org, a group with offices in California and Texas, the first item in a list of “Non-negotiable core beliefs” is “Illegal Aliens Are Here Illegally.” http://www.teaparty.org/about.php [accessed 1 March 2011].

7. Jorge Rivas, “Fox News: ‘Penélope Cruz Is Having an Anchor Baby,'” Color Lines: News for Action, 13 December 2010. http://colorlines.com/archives/2010/12/fox_news_penelope_cruz_is_having_an_anchor_baby.html [accessed 1 March 2011]. See also “Beck Embraces ‘Anchor Babies’ Slur,” Media Matters, 6 May 2010. http://mediamatters.org/mmtv/201005060042 [accessed 1 March 2011]. Michael Erickson, sponsor of the SB 1070-style measure in California, has styled himself as a voice of reason by opposing state legislative attacks on “anchor babies”—even while arguing for judicial solutions and warning against the “ravages of crime and welfare dependency” supposedly encouraged by birthright citizenship. See Michael Erickson, “Birthright Citizenship: The Latest Gimmick of Immigration Enforcement Advocates,” 7 February 2011 (quotation by Erickson is located in comments section). http://www.rniamerica.org/node/589213 [accessed 1 March 2011].

8. Doyce B. Nunis, Jr., “Alta California’s Trojan Horse: Foreign Immigration,” in Ramón A. Gutiérrez and Richard J. Orsi, eds., Contested Eden: California Before the Gold Rush (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 302–305. For intermarriage of Anglos and Californios before the Gold Rush, see Louise Pubols, “Open Ports and Intermarriage,” in The Father of All: The de la Guerra Family, Power, and Patriarchy in Mexican California (Berkeley: University of California Press and Huntington Library, 2009), 105–148, and María Raquél Casas, Married to a Daughter of the Land: Spanish-Mexican Women and Interethnic Marriage in California, 1820–1880 (Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2007). For conflict with Native Americans, see Michael González, This Small City Will Be a Mexican Paradise: Exploring the Origins of Mexican Culture in Los Angeles, 1821–1846 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2005).

9. Mae Ngai, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005).

10. Susan Lee Johnson, Roaring Camp: The Social World of the California Gold Rush (New York: W.W. Norton, 2000), 51. For racial conflict in the Santa Clara Valley, see Stephen Pitti, The Devil in Silicon Valley: Northern California, Race, and Mexican Americans (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003).

11. Construction on the Los Angeles Aqueduct—which devastated the remaining farms in the Owens Valley by diverting their water—began in 1908, and led to decades of conflict. See William Kahrl, Water and Power: The Conflict over Los Angeles’ Water Supply in the Owens Valley (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), and John Walton, Western Times and Water Wars: State, Culture, and Rebellion in California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991).

12. The modern celebration of el Grito de la Independencia begins the night of September 15, with the shouting of el grito (“the cry”) resounding near midnight. The festivities continue on through September 16.

13. Mary Hunter Austin, The Land of Little Rain (New York: Modern Library, 2003 ed.), 106–107.

14. Renato Rosaldo, “Imperialist Nostalgia,” Representations, no. 26 (Spring 1989): 108.

15. For efforts to curb or contain racial diversity in California through public health policy, see Natalia Molina, Fit to Be Citizens? Public Health and Race in Los Angeles, 1879–1939 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), Alexandra Stern, Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), and Nayah Shah, Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco’s Chinatown (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001). Austin’s portrait echoed the efforts of boosters to celebrate a sanitized version of the region’s racial history, a marketing strategy that “allowed easterners to luxuriate in the Southern California so brilliantly advertised: exotic, semi-tropic, romantic.” William Deverell, Whitewashed Adobe: The Rise of Los Angeles and the Remaking of Its Mexican Past (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 28.

16. John Rollin Ridge, Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta, The Celebrated California Bandit (San Francisco, 1854). Susan Lee Johnson links the Murrieta legend to the concept of “imperialist nostalgia” in Roaring Camp, 49. Murrieta’s ongoing cultural resonance can be seen in Isabel Allende’s Daughter of Fortune (New York: HarperCollins, 1999) and the Hollywood blockbuster The Mask of Zorro (1998).


Interview with Yolanda Cruz

by Miroslava Chávez-García
From Boom Fall 2011, Vol. 1, No. 3


A filmmaker documents depopulation in Mexico

I recently sat down with Yolanda Cruz, a filmmaker, graduate of UCLA’s film school, and 2011 Sundance Screenwriters Lab Fellow, to talk about filmmaking, her indigenous origins as a Chatino (one of sixteen indigenous groups in Oaxaca, Mexico), and her views of indigenous peoples in California and, more broadly, across the globe. Cruz has produced seven films, including her latest, “2501 Migrants,” which depicts the unique work of Alejandro Santiago, an indigenous artist from Oaxaca. The film examines how Santiago uses his artwork to bring attention to the migrants who have left the region and inadvertently created what has been called “a landscape of cultural and domestic abandonment.” In our conversation, she mused about the power of filmmaking, organizing indigenous communities, dispelling myths about indigenous people, immigration and globalization, perseverance, and education.

What inspired you to go into filmmaking?
When I came to the US in the 1990s, I came with the intention of learning English and returning to Mexico to get a degree in law or teaching. But because I come from a very active community in Oaxaca, I was very active in Olympia, Washington, where I lived and went to college. I studied photography and creative writing. Then I took some media classes and realized that media was a very effective tool for organizing. That led me to study other forms of filmmaking around the world. I was so amazed with what film could do that I wanted to do one on the revolutions of Latin America. I think that because the idea was pretty crazy, I got the attention of the Selection Committee at UCLA. And, to my surprise, I was accepted to film school.

I had to fight to find a place for my voice. When I got there, to UCLA, it was difficult to adapt because it was like going back to my years in Mexico. We were told what to do. I became a part of a group of Oaxacans living in LA, more so as an individual than a filmmaker. For my thesis, I chose to do a documentary about a community activist from Oaxaca, a man who was so passionate for his community that he spent five years of his personal savings to return to his village and make an offering. I submitted it to the Sundance Film Festival, not knowing how competitive it was, and it was accepted. When I learned that, I was like, oh my God. The entire experience was overwhelming too because it was my first festival and I got a lot of attention I didn’t want. I realized that my film was different from what I had originally wanted to do in film school, which was to organize the Oaxacan community.

In many ways, it is possible to argue that your films relay messages about what it means to be a global citizen living in a global society.
I think so. But I also think that my films dispel the myth that indigenous people do not contribute to the global society. They do more than just maintain the traditions and history. I don’t just go around asking them to tell me about their old stories. Indigenous people are concerned with what is happening around the world and I want to give them a chance to express their opinion.

What do you think about the formation of Oaxacan communities—with intimate ties to Oaxaca— in places like California and the United States, more broadly?
I think it’s important to study these communities because Mexico and the United States are neighbors and they need to collaborate more on slowing the process of immigration. I think this involves improving the life of a particular community. But I think it’s more difficult to slow the process [now] and we need to find new ways of working together.

In “2501 Migrants,” you tell the story of Alejandro Santiago, an indigenous artist based in Oaxaca. What inspired you to tell his story?
Most of my films are about organizing the Oaxacan community in Mexico and the United States. I learned of Santiago’s story a few years back. I thought his project to create hundreds of clay statutes representing the migrants who had left the region was a little crazy. But then I understood that as an artist, his dream was to populate his village because he felt emptiness. Santiago himself left Oaxaca and later returned. He and I have a lot in common. We both immigrated when we were really young and now we’re both trying to do something for our community even though the community never asked. We all want to be the voice of our communities, [have a say] about how things should be, but then we leave. Unlike the locals, we are immigrants who have the privilege of going back and forth to the United States. In the film, I started exploring this idea and I think it gives the film a very honest perspective. It is not about how once Santiago creates a statue, everybody’s happy.

Are you satisfied with the reception that “2501 Migrants” has received?
I don’t know how satisfied I am, but I am overwhelmed and grateful. Initially I thought, who in their right mind is going to follow this kind of story? I thought that like my other films, it was going to have a very select group of universities and museums screening it and that’s it. But no, it’s had wider appeal. I think it is because people see art as neutral ground, not political, and it allows for a conversation to begin about the larger issues. Plus, when people hear about this eccentric guy, the statues, and the immensity of the project, they become interested.

What do you see as the film’s message for people in Oaxaca or in Mexico in general?
If you look at Alejandro Santiago, he didn’t have a formal education; in Oaxaca, it’s a privilege to have that. He went to high school and trained himself to be an artist even though there is no art school in Oaxaca. For a year, he would go to the library everyday. He’d do that as a job. He’d go from eight in the morning until one in the afternoon, and he would take a lunch break, and then he would go back at two and stay until eight. There are a lot challenges indigenous artists have to endure. That’s something I always say to young people—we have to motivate ourselves. If you want things to change and to improve the quality of life, you need education and self-motivation. When I started out, I did not think about the competitiveness of filmmaking. I thought, I want to do this and I’m going to push myself to do it. Migrants face a lot of obstacles; they have to take action on their own to achieve their dreams.

Given that you’re originally from Oaxaca, Mexico, a Chatino, and you speak three languages, English, Spanish, and Chatino, how do you identify yourself?
When I moved to the city of Oaxaca, I was indigenous. Then, when I came to the US, I was Latina, a Mexican. And, now, when I go back to Mexico, I’m Chatino, and when I go to Europe, I’m an immigrant. I embrace all the labels. I think it’s very important to recognize that people have fought really hard for their identities. But more than anything, I would consider myself an indigenous filmmaker.

What kind of advice would you give to young Latinos or Latinas who are interested in going into film?
If they have a story they’re dying to tell, they should pursue it in school or with someone in the industry who can teach them. In order to succeed in this business, you have to be unique and I think we all have unique stories. We are all special. But sometimes it can be discouraging when people don’t respond well.

Can you talk about your next project?
It’s about a boy who lives in a town [where] all the grown men have left, and the boy wants to do the same. But he’s waiting to grow up a bit, since he’s eleven-years-old. Then one day he finds a refrigerator and he decides to sell it, thinking it’s his ticket to the United States. Yet the refrigerator keeps breaking down and giving him a lot of headaches and he can’t sell it. Essentially, it’s a comedy about survival.


Images from the Central Valley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Debbie Reyes, Fresno Central Valley Coordinator
California Prison Moratorium Project

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

Teresa DeAnda, Earlimart
Central Valley Coordinator
Californians for Pesticide Reform

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


California Sueños

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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