abducted / displaced / then / misplaced / your body an object / lost /it learns to
breathe / differently / because you can’t / let them know you / are still alive // you learn
histories / that were never true / nor did it belong / to you / you learn to / shape your
tongue / into lies / until even you / begin to / believe // but pretty sounds / from your
lips / after you tamed your howls / never were enough / for them to / love you / and the
coldness / of the window / in an unexpected april / reminds you / how you will fight /
now / to never belong / to them // you are born / with two things / all yours— / your
body / of connected / imperfections / and your death / to come // they convinced you /
one is broken / and you have failed / by loving it // the other / your greatest fear / to
run from / everyday / for the rest of / your mortgaged life // snow / touches /
bewildered bodies / today / the wind / sideways / like a question /forbidden: // what is
it / that your dying / has held / so valuable / that they have / worked so hard / to steal /
from your heart
daughter, it’s been months since i spoke to you / these days are covered in snow, places
melted / hiding the cold pools of water in skies reflected / i woke up with my arms
curled tight / clutching something i can no longer remember // yesterday we laughed on
our walk / at the tiny footprints left on the steps of / a house around the corner / we
wondered who lives there / what small lives // daughter, how does time work where
you have gone / i want to say that i picture you in light / in a place more picturesque
than this / but i only see your face surrounded by endless black air / how old are you
now, daughter / because it’s getting harder to remember / harder to forget // are you a
child / are you older than me / or are you still unborn / as you were when you left // it’s
winter now / isn’t it always so? / and we are all dying // will you return then / and claim
the life / you were meant to own // walk through this world / touch the resentful
texture / of a leaf still green / and cry just to feel / warmth on your face // daughter,
each day i am afraid / of learning to let you go
in the shower / i scraped dirt off my skin / with an old razor / and wondered if death / is
different under hot water // but only small cuts / opened up on / my shoulder / my hip /
my thighs / and the blood came / and then dried eventually / as day turned / into gone /
into leaving / into promises brought / in the dark // i feel it stinging / even in places /
unharmed / i keep reaching / for my eye / checking to see if my lid / is bleeding // i woke
up / missing people / i woke up / loving them / but what can such / sentiment mean / in
a snow covered forest // i hear / her voice / calling me / wolf / the outline / of my body /
made by / her lips // little sparks / of pain / explode on the surface / of me / and there is
/ so much more / left / to carry
Chiwan Choi is the author of 3 books of poetry, The Flood (Tía Chucha Press, 2010), Abductions (Writ Large Press, 2012), and The Yellow House (CCM, 2017). He wrote, presented, and destroyed the novel Ghostmaker throughout the course of 2015. His poems and essays have appeared in numerous journals and magazines, including The New York Times Magazine, ONTHEBUS, Esquire.com, and The Nervous Breakdown. He is currently at work on My Name Is Wolf, the follow up to The Yellow House. Chiwan is a partner at Writ Large Press, a Los Angeles based indie publisher, focused on using literary arts to resist, disrupt, and transgress, and a member of The Accomplices. Chiwan was born in Seoul, Korea, spent his early childhood in Asunción, Paraguay, and now splits his time between Pittsburgh and Los Angeles.
A fishwife sits across from a writer and asks, “Do you know the difference between a fairy tale and a sea story?” When the writer says she doesn’t, the fishwife continues, “One begins, ‘Once upon a time.’ The other begins, ‘This is no shit.’” So begins Spell Heaven, Toni Mirosevich’s linked collection of stories and impressions and Borges-evoking philosophical meditations. Even the title evokes a question (verb? noun? adjective? all of these at once?) in a quest to connect in what has become an era of disconnection—politically, and especially in the isolation of COVID-19. Though there are only a couple of sparse references to the global pandemic that made landfall in Northern California (the collection’s setting) at the end of January 2020, Spell Heaven is the encapsulation of the forced separation that shook (it’s no stretch to say) all of humanity in a way that people under 102 years old had never experienced.
Living through a global pandemic provides its own kind of “fish story,” but it’s the real thing that occupies Mirosevich, herself (like her narrator) the daughter of a fisherman and a cannery worker, bound inextricably to the sea, body and soul. Not ineffably, though—Mirosevich’s personal language and cadence is of the sea and is a known language to everyone who has descended from seafaring or sea-sifting people.
In relating the fishwife’s own memory in the collection’s first story, “The Devil Wind,” our narrator places herself and the reader in the middle of the Thanksgiving Day storm of 1960: “She was holding on to the baby. She grabbed hold of the pole. The boat dipped over on its side. Over she went, she was over, they were over the side, in the sea, she was holding on, she and the baby, they were in, now out, now in, dunked into the sea, again and again. The pole bent like a tree branch. Like a branch in the wind. The pole bent but did not break. Tell me again, about this life on the sea. How a back bends and bends and does not break.” The sentences are tossed by uneven swells and surges, of waves crashing and hulls listing catastrophically. Even in quieter moments, landlocked moments, the lines move at times at a twelve-knot clip over rolling swells, at other times at anchor, letting light ripples nudge the lines in trochaic pulses (Mirosevich is also a poet).
It’s the landlocked isolation from the sea, from the life she wished for herself, following in her father’s footsteps to be captain of her own vessel, that informs our narrator’s reflections. Our narrator, who shares more than a little biography with the author, is a self-proclaimed loner, though despite locking herself away at home or in a motel or her office at work, she is always reaching out, crossing the street to say hello to a new person on the pier, or on the routes between local dives and the sketchy parking lots between them, populated by the “out crowd,” the clique of outsiders and misfits, crabbers with day jobs or who live in their vans, who are holding on from one day to the next, waiting for a little luck or maybe just a little grace.
“There’s big luck—” Mirosevich writes, “being born with your choice of which silver spoon you want your nanny to use—and there’s small luck, the kind everyone gets a shot at.”
Our narrator’s wife, Stevie, is the ballast to the loner tendencies—upon moving to a new neighborhood, the couple are hyper-aware of the perceptions of their relationship (loving lesbian neighbors—gasp!), though it’s not the vapors but acts of violence that make our narrator and Stevie wary. Our narrator’s reaction is to withdraw into the house and set up watch, while Stevie’s approach is of the “keep your enemies closer” variety.
In “Murderer’s Bread,” we learn, “Stevie’s reaction to our emissary from the neighborhood’s welcome wagon is to plant with even greater fervor. […] My reaction is to be extra vigilant. To keep watch. There is:
The guy who stands in the open doorway of his house…who gives us the evil eye every time we walk by.
The boy I catch in the act of writing bitch on our fence in green felt pen…
The man who mock-whispers “AC/DC” loud enough for us to hear when we go to put out our garbage cans for pickup. When he’s sure he’s got out attention, he pulls out his Johnny-jump-up and pees in the street.
The family that launches bottle rockets toward our yard on July 4…”
Stevie works overtime making bread for the neighborhood. Ice may or may not thaw, fog rolls in with a little less chill, and neighbors who are no less dangerous might become less dangerous to our narrator and her wife. Our narrator is no stranger to triangulating perceptions, both as a member of the LGBTQIA+ community and as the daughter of Croatian immigrants with the bluest of collars who lived a neighborhood with a slightly higher income bracket. In the end, though, a revelation: a knock on the door, our narrator spies through the peephole, the narrowest of views, most myopic of views, a potential threat. The door opens, it’s the man across the street, a man she’s been watching, a man who’s been watching her—he holds up her wallet, “I think you dropped this,” he says.
There’s no instant redemption, but there is a recognition, a connection finally (despite one of them going to San Quentin for twenty-five to life for murder). Our narrator and Stevie are seen as of the neighborhood, people to be protected.
Seeing and being seen is the recurring theme throughout Spell Heaven, the tide that surges and recedes, through familiarity, memory, Alzheimer’s, death, gentrification—surging, receding. “Memory is not so firmly fixed,” Mirosevich writes, and in fact, it moves and changes shape and reorders itself. Memory in this collection comes at once, swift as the tide or a taste of a madeleine, but in this case, the madeleine is an in-class presentation by one of the narrator’s students, or it’s a knock on a motel door, or a stranger’s tug on their facemask. “Does the smell of the center’s noontime meal—clam spaghetti and green beans, a steal for only two bucks—trigger a memory of the taste of salty bakalar, your favorite childhood dish, an image of your mother standing watch over a pot on a woodstove?”
The route through the stories, is circular, themes reappearing in the spin of a lighthouse light. Reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, where a story ends on one theme or character, and the next chapter picks up in that new character’s point of view and so on, Mirosevich’s stories pick up the subject illuminated by the beam of a lighthouse light, following them for a time, then onto the new subject until that light swings around again. In “Our Lady at the Derby,” our narrator waits for a stroke of luck, falls into a memory at the knock of the door, a memory of violence and intrusion, but instead of the current knock replicating that threat, there is offered the briefest moment of connection, a man just doing his job, upon which the narrator reflects: “the fact that our lives are going round and round, round and round, that we don’t know where we’re headed, that what we do know about each other is not enough it’s not enough. He doesn’t stop to stare at me or my home-brought objects: my lucky mouse pad, the Derby glass. He just turns away and the curtain closes and the sweeping stops.” The loss, the confusion isn’t resolved, we’re still waiting on our luck to come in; the next story, “Spell Heaven,” picks up that theme, follows that lighthouse’s beam of our narrator’s gaze, “When you’re lost and looking for a sign, an omen. A clue. When the wishbone pull doesn’t yield the lucky stem. When you no longer believe in heaven or hell, past lives or future, yet still hope for a hint…”
Memory and understanding both are “sneaking around the edges of the frame,” nearly within grasp, in each of these stories: Stevie recalls a memory of watching her father take a “remedy” that would turn out to kill him. Meanwhile, her doctors are “watching” her cancer. Our narrator gazes at the out crowd on the pier, the collection she wants to be a part of. “Every day, while Billy is coming across found objects I come across found people, those who others deem marginal on the margins of the sea. I want to be part of this gang, yet I know I’m an outsider. I have a white collar job in an academic world where the clothes are clean but the politics are dirty. And I have one of those Italian coffee makers on the stove at home.”
The eye (so often spying in these stories) makes judgments upon a woman obviously on meth, who lives in a car with her young daughter. Our narrator contemplates the call to social services, until she sees the love, protection, and tenderness the woman has for her daughter and the other out crowders have for them both. Thus, our narrator sends her own beam of watchful light out to them, until the woman starts to wave her over as a friend, saying hello, urging her closer.
The lighthouse scans the seas, its open eye, its glare a warning, watch out, watch out, watch out, but it also is a plea: See me, see me, see me.
The most acute instance of reciprocal gazing and recognition is in “Members Only,” where our narrator begins surveilling a new woman, Joan, who turns out to be an FBI agent near retirement, who in turn has been habitually surveilling the other cast of characters in this swiftly gentrifying south-of-San Francisco exclave. When the narrator and Joan discuss a man who leaves candy bars in the hollow of a tree, Joan admits to collecting them, recording the date and brand of each bar, then keeping them secure. When our narrator asks why Joan thinks he does this, Joan replies that it’s not her job to guess, not to find meaning in the actions, only to report.
However, that’s not the writer’s job.
Our narrator wonders: Are answers the same as meaning? Is understanding the same as knowing? Is recognition enough to make a connection?
It’s no accident that our narrator, in a flash of rage, is ready to claw the eyes out of a gentrifier in a million dollar condo who calls animal control on the feral cats in the care of a local man/a member of the out crowd with Alzheimer’s, the cats being the one thing he never forgets, his devastation over their removal an ominous peephole into rapid cognitive descent. It’s cat scratch vengeance, but it also says you don’t deserve to see.
Also, the man with Alzheimer’s was once a teacher of photography, who found the magic in a student’s accident, who said, “Look again…I can see what your disappointment won’t allow you to see.” The tenderness of recognition.
Of finally being “in with the out crowd.” It’s once the loners welcome her in that finally allows our narrator to feel at home, among her people. The ones who pass on are still remembered, in reupholstered furniture or in names scrawled in Sharpie on a bench.
Memory as lighthouse beacon is itself an act of resilience—I’m still here, my wife and I are still in this neighborhood of misfits, who now even look out for us, in this crew of outsiders huddling together in this changing community, against battering storms, of remaining visible even in wariness, in danger, watching out for others in need, our gaze reaching out even as we stare at each other from our windows, across streets, from behind medical masks. But isn’t that a beautiful place to be, inside that glow.
Jennifer Carr frequently explores how our jobs reflect or inform our identities, and what happens when the jobs are threatened by time, automation, and politics. Her work has recently appeared in Baltimore Review, Origins Journal, and Panorama Journal, among others. Though she sometimes regrets not getting her union card, she loves teaching creative writing at Chapman University and spends the rest of her time as a ghostwriter. In the gaps, she is completing her novel set on the Los Angeles waterfront.
“This Brown body in repose is never quite in repose, always in question of who will see it, and will they be a threat—do I die today, like this?—this body full of colonization-dystrophy with its instinct to feed upon the flesh of my oppressor? How are you supposed to politely reject your suffering? Genocide is not a matter of opinion.” (27)
There is a haptic, generalized consumption to dystrophy. An appetite that can be insightful and critical, precise, and terminological. It’s also characterized as a wasting away, a concerning health condition. When I read Angel Dominguez’s Desgraciado: The Collected Letters I am invited into a reflection of my own processes of making sense of hemispheric subjectivization, both as a member of a diaspora community as well as someone who grew up on the Tijuana River Valley. I learned there that despite the prehistorically shaped ridge connecting Tijuana to Playas before bowing to meet the Pacific, and the rusted incision of the ‘wall’ itself, la frontera remains an atmospheric experience of exchanges, and relationships. Which is to say, it is a landscape where change and cycle occurs over the event of an origination, ecological and political. The “colonization-dystrophy” of it all is rather dynamic, but not without moments and pains that can and should be named. Dominguez makes a study of this: “Tato’s mother calls it ‘colonial sickness’, the latent radiation poisoning of colonization”; or, it is a “colonial atrophy,” wherein one “can almost feel the atoms falling” away (86). These are the bounds of a vatic attention to the material evidence of a trauma that has become, also, through an entangled archival system of literally manifesting events each time critique inches itself toward a light, a form of expenditure.
“Live from the mystery itself, writing love letters to keep myself alive” (86).
The moments that shake me from over-theorizing are those where Dominguez concludes on “love.” What comes before and what follows that notion I piece together as an intimacy that is without resolve. It is rather the full expenditure into something. Something like a relationship, or an imagination. An expenditure we might consider in the lost time and history burned in piles during colonial conversions, and the public displays that would accompany its project inquisition.
“What are you going to do about it? Diego, what are we going to do about it? I want all the artifacts back. Museums are a fucking lie. I want my language back. I want to reconcile the many afterlives of colonization that keep raging inside of me; I want to know a love like the burn of belts and chanclas, the RNA memories handed down from flogging and being flogged by our ancestors. I want to know the love of forgiveness. Like how do you put down a dog that attacked you? How do I put you to bed while pulling you back into my blood?
Like a reverse exorcism, I’m calling you into my body. Stay with me.” (43)
But before going on I want to pause and offer some careful thoughts. Maybe they’re not thoughts, in fact, but wisdom from José Estaban Muñoz: “Brown, it is important to mention, is not strictly the shared experience of harm between people and things; it is also the potential for the refusal and resistance to that often-systemic harm. Brownness is a kind of uncanny persistence in the face of distressed conditions of possibility.” When I consider the various ways I’ve come across someone else, someone often Brown, taking the dystrophy Dominguez captures here above, and putting it on the page, giving it a color or texture, associating to it a sound, a movement of the body in space, and so on, I am struck by the condition of supremacy today. It is the marketing pressure to somehow “heal” from the inescapable condition/s it itself maintains from its own lack of communication.
Yet Dominguez’s is a strategy against the spectacularization of the dystrophic condition, which is the objective of supremacy. Supremacy seeks to spectacularize one mode of feeling blunt force by numbing or dismembering the victim from methods of communicating it back, and thereby legitimating (fantasizing) its own power by disenfranchising the relationship power’s violence needs to survive. To write it, is to thus refuse to be afraid of the difference caused by the disjunctive, dissociating world-making that arises from experiencing both harm and life in the persistent manner Muñoz identifies above. To write and name the paradox befuddles the knowledge systems that textualize us. In their epistolary project Dominguez works through the labor of compiling a record of a process and work which have been thought lost to a 500-year-old fire.
“Whereas the psychotherapeutic literature concludes that Latinos suffer anxiety and depression more than any other group,” Muñoz underscores, “the epidemiological literature concludes that they possess better physical health than any other group and live longer than would be expected,” an “uncanny physical persistence” that “has been enshrined within the term ‘epidemiological paradox’ invented to name it.” Or as Dominguez writes, “We are resilient insofar as we are feeling” (80). To find closure, as I understand it, would be to close the loop on feeling, as something that destabilizes the epistemological networks that hold and betray us. It would be the disavowal of a poetics, which others would seek to subsume into theoretical frameworks devoid of feeling but engorged by the self-applause of an advertisement. And I say poetics because of the temporal reconsideration of the dystrophic as a communication-disruption that emerges in colonial contact and is disfigured by the public act of burning language systems and archives during indigenous conversion. There is a poetics that recaptures the vatic temporality of event while creating the very space for the processing of the implicit intimacy it asks.
Desgraciado is a process. “You forced death down the throats of so many,” they write to “Diego,” and “now I have white people to tell me about it. To tell me all about everything it is I lack” (19). The paradigm shift of work like this, at least one aspect of this shift, is recasting the role and animation of “feeling,” especially as it pertains to existence, both intrapersonal and public. Fray Diego de Landa’s notoriety is often furnished by depictions of the auto-de-fé, wherein in 1562 de Landa ordered the destruction of the Mayan codices and over 5,000 devotional images and idols. They were all burned publicly in Mani, Yucatán. Though we might learn about the auto-de-fé in the purely religious context of conversion, the spectacular lesson of a public burning evokes a purposefully and strategically aligned internalization of corregimiento. In a purely aesthetic sense, a sensible sense, I am speaking maybe of depictions of de Landa’s atrocity, where the faces of the burning statuettes plead through color and brushstroke in an unmistakably human manner.
But what I actually mean is that the public burning, as a spectacularization of the power to correct, becomes an intergenerational reality that lives on through the enactment of new violent actions that originate as an attempt to confront and overcome the latent fear that arises when your life is threatened by a power more extensive than any direct, inter-personal encounter with a recognizable other. You end up writing letters to it because the totality of this one-way act is your world, your love, your worries, your partner-in-crime, your lens. You are given it by those in your life, and are above you in a line of inheritance, and they lash out against the fear as if on trial themselves, in an inquisition of themselves via the object (of intimacy) that is you and them, and everything else. “[M]ade to feel a constant estrangement to my truth,” writes Dominguez when reflecting on the abuse from their “then-father” and his “machismo-addled-brain,” which is to say, without absolving his homophobia and violence, the externalized unprocessed damage expressed, powerfully, as burning. One forcibly brought forth as a witnessed event by the inclusion of the abused. “[U]n angel,” as Dominguez signs off (78-79).
Yet there is that other critique, and it’s one I cannot stop thinking about as an immigrant border subject. Which is a rewriting of angelicity itself in the context of hemispheric identity, of Walter Benjamin’s heroic melancholia in regard to historicity. And maybe it takes a sight of a material piece of evidence, like a border, in both the windshield and the rear-view, back and forth, back and forth to understand this looping intimacy. And so, though Dominguez es un angel, they also claim Chaac, the Mayan god of rain. With a lightning bolt in one hand, and literally the power to transform a landscape into the ashen mud of a new form. The most beautiful of days, the most lasting of impressions from being in the midst of the estuary that is the Tijuana River Valley, for me, were those overcast days where a heavy moisture watched over us all in a gently laid weight pressing down on us through the physics of a pulsing gray matter––the immediate experience of an atmosphere felt from below, from being bound to our humanness. I imagine those days as Chaac’s.
The colonizers did one thing meticulously, aside from murder, and that was keep notes. The archives we have of their actions and intentions is impressive. But they don’t speak, so to speak. Dominguez’s decision on the epistle is captivating for the way it speaks to what refuses to respond, and does so in a deluge of writing, which is the reflection of a thinking-feeling-writing-reading. The subject meant to recede into a violent blaze of corrected silence is the one with an abundance of language on the matter of their intimacy. The “collection” is a totality invoked but not recorded by the same system of conversion and erasure. The disruption to the inherent temporality of the letter (the record) functions both on reflection and vatic projection, in that their reception is always already a past, which in its moment was an interval past even that moment of their own event, but thrown into a new authority as the record which will exist in the moment of its intelligibility.
As the collection advances the reader is enveloped in a process.
“…I can’t make a fire. I’m trying to yield more than I advance. I am learning that not all words are always heard or spoken, though in this moment I hope every dictionary snaps its spine into a deafening ocean… A colonizer on every corner. I wonder what they would have called me if your language never came. Between you and me, I really prefer the name Chaac.
What I received from the book, and for me the review is maybe about this because of the strength with which I felt it, is permission to unlearn that shame of being burned in public. The disavowal of language that is de Landa’s auto-de-fé is his own, and is a site of reanimated poetics towards the neocolonial burnings and attempted corregimientos. I have no illness to heal from, and though it’s not about absolution, the sheer collection of process here reveals a culminating position within its intimacy, its love, that is also the culmination of (a) work. Our work does not absolve the ghosts of colonialism either, those which carry-on in the flesh-troping obsessions with spectacle, and silence, with new kinds of burning and policymaking, all the violence of today’s supremacy. Angel Dominguez has given us a weapon, a codex with which to fortify and record a new communication.
José Felipe Alvergue is the author of three books of poetry, most recently scenery, which was selected for Fordham University Press’s Poets Out Loud Editor’s Prize. He is a Senior Poetry Editor for Tupelo Quarterly, and his published scholarship engages with poetics, transnationalism, performance, and democratism. He lives and works in Wisconsin.
 José Esteban Muñoz, The Sense of Brown, 2020, p.4.
 See for example Fernando Castro Pacheco’s mural, “The Spanish bishop Diego de Landa is burning figures of Mayan deities,” Palacio del Gobierno, Mérida, MX.
José Felipe Alvergue is the author of three books of poetry, most recently scenery, which was selected for Fordham University Press’s Poets Out Loud Editor’s Prize. He is a Senior Poetry Editor for Tupelo Quarterly, and his published scholarship engages with poetics, transnationalism, performance, and democratism. He lives and works in Wisconsin.
Accord to polls, most Americans believe in life after death. Among those who hold most tightly to this improbable notion are faithful Christians. In the texts they adopted from the ancient Hebrews, their god condemned the first humans to death—this otherwise unknown fate—for attempting to eat their way to knowledge. With anger and irony, he scolded his creations saying, “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.” God invents death. Yet death remains a secondary theological theme until the Christian era. In the Christian Gospels, their messiah engages dead people, dying people, people who fear dead or dying people, and people who simply fear death. He councils them, cures them, and even raises them from the dead. As the messiah himself contemplates his own demise, he too shows fear. But then, with one act, death is reinvented into a fork in the road leading to eternity, with the faithful heading one way, and the rest slouching towards Mordor. The scheme allows this American majority to view dying as a temporary interlude between the material world and the inescapable occupation of a celestial (or scorching hot) afterlife.
This makes Americans particularly piss-poor at accepting loss and expressing grief. Though some tried. In the 1960s, rationalists, (or perhaps folks just hedging their bets), came to believe that they could systematize their fears by adoptingElisabeth Kübler-Ross’s stages of grief. By the book, each subject moved from denial to acceptance with a tantrum, a deal, and the blues sandwiched in between. In Inter State, José Vadi illustrates that grief is chaotic and not conveniently compartmentalized. Sometimes acceptance is followed by anger, and sometimes each stage happens in minutes, and sometimes simultaneously. He grieves for people. He grieves for cities. He grieves for himself and the transient world around him. For Vadi, struggling with grieving most closely resembles anger, but in expressions peppered by the other four—as they are hardly mutually exclusive. His grieving, however, is perfectly appropriate, and greatly appreciated. He lost his grandfather, his childhood, and the very places those ghosts might still haunt. He writes, but we commiserate together. He demands his reader to be a good listener.
A lamentation on memory, place, loss, and erasure, through Inter State, Vadi traverses and critiques California like a quixotic Umberto Eco—but unlike Eco, he does so not as a tourist, but a lifer. Vadi’s emotional investment in the San Gabriel Valley and Bay Area proper is evidenced in his intimate descriptions of dive bars, street corners, and under-appreciated urban vistas. Walking with him through San Francisco’s Tenderloin or cutting across Oakland’s (and Berkeley’s) Telegraph avenue feels authentic enough to conjure up the sound of multi-lane traffic and the smell of marijuana and urine. As someone who spent years in both the SGV and San Francisco (a generation later for the former, and earlier for the latter) I was genuinely touched by his vision and his loss. His San Francisco, where tech conquered and gentrified, replaced my San Francisco. And for this, I too still feel anger, denial, and begrudging acceptance.
Vadi’s book is both edgy and nostalgic, and at its most provocative hints at issues concerning the future of ethnic identity in a demographically shifting state that constructs public memory at its own convenience. His visits through the Central Valley, Tehachapi, and Salinas suggests as much. He wonders how one commemorates transients. He wrestles with the necessity of memorializing and the subsequent proliferation of historical fraud. But for me, Vadi is at his best when skating, or dreaming about skating. He approaches his environments at the sidewalk level. Skyscrapers may fascinate spire-gazing Midwestern tourists, but Vadi’s line of sight explores ground level. Every curb, bench, stairwell, and handrail holds both purpose and memory. The sound of his wheels in historic (but often invisible) locations echo the familiar noise of every skater who came before—some famous, some infamous, but most nameless. The clank of an adolescent’s failed kick-flip, for Vadi must be both the sound of comfort and the reminder of the inescapable adulthood confronting a married, employed Berkeley grad.
I do have a beef with José Vadi; and that’s concerning his dismissal of Fresno. By pronouncing it “dead,” he did to Fresno what Gertrude Stein did to Oakland with her oft-quoted, “There’s no there there.” Stein, of course, said so because of losing the Oakland she once knew; Vadi, who otherwise strives for authentic experiences, has no relationship to the derided town. He drives through Fresno–one of the most gritty, troubled, confounding, demographically diverse cities on the planet–and jots down his condemnation and short caveat with less care than Francis Trollope mustered in her evisceration of Cincinnati. Like Pomona, Fontana, and even Oakland, Fresno can be grim, but it still deserves a skater’s eye rather than a Victorian’s snub. If Vadi relied on his hubba better angels, he might have found his way into the Fresno High area, and heard the scraping sounds of teenagers launching their boards and bodies down the local school’s notorious staircase. He could have cased the Tower district and followed the plumes of weed and experienced other like-kinds with eclectic tastes, soccer knowledge, scabbed elbows, and the want of cold beers. Unlike Oakland, Fresno’s downtown might have offered a small haven from the sort of gentrification responsible for much of Vadi’s angst. Without tech money to reinvent block after block, Fresno’s downtown changes slowly. If Vadi is being honest about his want of an urban environment uncorrupted by the thing some call progress, Fresno awaits his return.
Regardless of his dismissal of my current hometown, Inter State is affecting. His writing comes from vulnerability which manifests as authenticity. I think Vadi accepts the permanence of death for both people and their built environments. In Inter State, he grapples with loss, and in doing so helps us all grieve a little better.
Dan Cady is Associate Professor of History at Fresno State
I’ve written this poem before. I left Miguel here last time, sitting in the front row of the church, near the aisle. He must be asleep by now, his head against the end of a pew. Maybe he’s dreaming of us alive and young, walking into an AM/PM. He used to grab two burgers from the food warmer, slip one into the bag of another burger. I was a great lookout. If he went up the aisle with the candy and grabbed a pack of Twizzlers I knew he was ready to go. If he took a cup and filled it with Icee, I had to ask the cashier for a key to the bathroom. If he ran, I ran, and I’d go left toward the field past factories. He went right, cut thru the lot of that church for ex-gang members who every other Sunday asked God to look upon them again. It must be the morning after my funeral, Miguel waking up to his sore feet in those black dress shoes. His tie loosened. Everyone else gone or never arrived.
After death, when it’s just me with my slick soul, my see-thru self, I imagine my eyes as two brown balloons tied together that a child has let slip from her fingers and now must watch as they lift further into a sky she could not have imagined going on for so long. All that blue, and I am only the balloons no one believes in. I am barely out of sight, looking back down at earth one last time, watching the town where I grew up and decided to leave when I’d felt it shrink around me. I didn’t want to say it like that, but that’s how it happens sometimes. The same town I wanted, nevertheless, to be buried in, I realized when I was maybe sixteen, standing in the cemetery for a funeral, burying a friend of a friend, who did not end up like his father, though his father was there, handcuffed and dressed in orange. His jumpsuit stinging the morning. An officer at each side. I’d kept that image with me, of the father, all my life, and would wonder, from time to time, why the police had not let him wear a suit to the burial. I came to the conclusion that they could not recognize him as a father. They found every other word to define him. They fit those handcuffs and felt good about their work. The rest of the mourners had the freedom of multiplicity. That morning, everyone’s words tangled in a rain not so different from the storm
I once picked up Miguel in. He was still in love with a woman who didn’t know what she wanted except some time to think. It was a Saturday afternoon when I found him walking in the rain. Would you even call it afternoon, in a storm like that? He said thanks after shutting the door. Maybe both of us laughed for no reason other than to start conversation, though neither of us brought up what had happened. I’m a good lookout. I can say that about myself. I drove on and he put his face in his hands. I said nothing. He wore a baseball cap. Deep blue. The radio was playing low a commercial where someone didn’t have auto insurance, and their friend asked them why not. It’s a dumb thing to remember now, but I can’t separate it from that moment. The wipers kept smearing the glass. The rain returned. Again. I pressed the gas and tried to catch up with the hour. I heard his belt buckle click into place after a moment.
Michael Torres was born and brought up in Pomona, California where he spent his adolescence as a graffiti artist. His debut collection of poems, An Incomplete List of Names (Beacon Press, 2020) was selected by Raquel Salas Rivera for the National Poetry Series and named one of NPR’s Best Books of 2020. His honors include awards and support from the National Endowment for the Arts, the McKnight Foundation, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, CantoMundo, VONA Voices, the Minnesota State Arts Board, the Jerome Foundation, the Camargo Foundation, and the Loft Literary Center. Currently he’s an Assistant Professor in the MFA program at Minnesota State University, Mankato, and a teaching artist with the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop. Visit him at: michaeltorreswriter.com
Early in Cassandra Lane’s keen-edged, forthright memoir, We Are Bridges, she encounters an unexpected spiritual chasm: the gap between the person she has been, and the person she needs to become.
Thirty-five and freshly linked with a promising new partner, she learns that she is pregnant. Instead of unmitigated enthusiasm, she feels curiously outside of herself. Motherhood is a reality for which she hasn’t prepared. It is, in fact, a role she vowed she’d never undertake. “I was witness to my mother’s failed romances and the hardships of child rearing,” she reveals, “I wanted to be free of all the chains and stains of motherhood.”
This new ambivalence, consequently, unsettles her. Her decision to not bear a child had been nothing less than a pact. Hadn’t she been clear? With everyone? Not least of all herself.
Looking squarely into that deep breach, she realizes, might offer some necessary answers. Her fear of bearing a Black child into a world of antipathy was plenty enough. Yet, bringing that same child into the unaddressed legacy of family trauma was another daunting contract altogether. “The more folks bury a thing,” she reflects, “the more they sweep it under a rug, the bigger it becomes, the filthier it becomes—the more it demands to be raised.”
In order to step forward, she would have to circle back.
Lane grew up in her small-town Louisiana home with hand-me-down heartache circling around the household like ghosts: “Haints” that bumped in the night, spirits that seeped into the crevices and kept watch. For years, without questioning it, Lane found herself falling in-line with the family trait—stepping over and around the heaviness of its unspoken presence. And while she was not convinced of the power of the restless “disembodied,” she was coming to realize: “I do know the past is a ghost.”
The collective family disarray was formidable: Romantic relationships that slid out of grasp or off the rails; women and men boxing with free-floating pain stemming from systemic racism and attendant racial violence; and, most particularly, the quagmire of self-doubt or shame that the women in her family found themselves lost in.
Lane discerned a wisp of herself floating there, too. While she’d imagined many scenarios for her life—journalist, teacher, and culture worker—the list of evolving roles formed the semblance of moving forward, yet in certain respects, emotionally, she was running in place.
To break that cycle, to edge closer to new territory, a new self, she knew, her journey would have to begin with an ending: The lynching of her great-grandfather, Burt Bridges, and the breach left at the center of her great-grandmother Mary’s heart. This meant walking into a century-old, raw wound, and confronting the possibility that the journey may not offer up answers, but even more painful questions. Even still, the endeavor would allow her, perhaps, to offer her expectant child something more than she had—a framework and language to investigate the whys and hows.
Who was Burt Bridges? Not the tragedy, but the person. How does he hover over the family? Lane knows a name and the outline of his story; who he was, as flesh and blood, exists only in fragments of passed-around family stories. What is clear is that he was all plans, pride and dreams. Taken together, this made him a highly visible target to the small-town white powers-that be. His desire was to flee the Jim Crow South, and try his luck with California, a destination that seemed big enough to foster his dreams. He doesn’t make it, but more than a century later, Lane, his great-granddaughter, does.
Lane’s narrative is fragmented; intentionally, so. We Are Bridges reads very much in the manner that generational stories are shared and received—in pieces, in tangents, in digressions. There are stories — or shards of them—that don’t come to you until they are intended, when you become of an age where it is appropriate to not just hear the story, but also fully apprehend it. You grow into it.
Time here is not linear. The narrative slides, jumps, circles back on itself; in a vivid, experiential way, it is a commentary about how hurt tails us, leaps a generation, lies dormant and suddenly springs to life when we least expect—or want—it to.
While the “Bridges” of the title speaks specifically to lineage, the symbolic “bridges,” in Lane’s account are two-fold: It is a tricky span she must navigate in order to cross into new life territory; as well, it is a new generation and its hope—to move from pain to healing.
Lane, with an expert seamstress’ finesse, weaves trauma and its legacy into the story’s backdrop. It is its own character, hanging back, weighting the atmosphere, as fulsome as Louisiana humidity.
Trauma lays in wait; it touches everything. From the outset, Lane reveals that there isn’t much physical documentation or family testimony left: Instead she confronts absence: a dearth of letters or intimate journals to discover or guide her; a paucity of legal documents to ground her, or point her forward. These were people that kept their secrets close.
As a rule, the journalist’s way is to get as close to the truth as one possibly can, to look for a primary source–the person who bore witness. Consequently, Lane’s way of writing herself back into the moment is to “listen to the hurt,” the few family anecdotes—and the melancholy that shadowed them over generations. Then she could imagine its effect, and name it.
At the narrative’s outset, Lane classifies the book as a “hybrid”: It’s memoir, yes, but it’s also a journey into the speculative, tunneling back into a series of what ifs and if onlys. In so doing, she creates lush scenes and dancing, intimate dialogue, that pull the reader effectively into both the terror and the tenderness, and give her forebears’ ghosts flesh and form. As well, it hands them back their dreams and aspirations, but also sharply reanimates the hurt—making it palpable and present.
The fluid structure allows Lane the necessary breadth to animate and theorize, to move the fragments around, and in certain respects, to haunt the past. She is skillful at examining cause and effect, intimating how past and present bend and interact. In bridging the present to the past, her language is at turns lapidary and crisp: Of the disintegration of one her mother’s hopeful romantic liaisons she writes: “The courtship ended just outside our house, where the plums were still light green the way I like them: tart and hard and begging for salt, an astringent against the teeth…”
For all of the lyric language and her adroit ability to call up lost worlds, Lane does not dodge unpleasantness: She refuses to prettify or idealize; she does not sidestep the uncomfortable. Instead she lets the light in—illumination that is both astringent and purifying. She holds key subjects’ feet to the fire: the father who doesn’t appear to know how to love, the newspaper editors who undervalued her abilities, the graduate school classmate who advises her to hold-back, to censor her pain on the page, and not least of all herself, for her own blind spots and transgressions.
Late in the book, Grandma Mary reflects: “Why are we [women] always the ones weeping and toting all the pain.” This question moves Mary, in another one of Lane’s invented scenes, to pull back and consider, for all the damage, pain and desolation that cycles back on itself: “What is the purpose of black life?”
What Lane’s book eloquently illuminates is that we all too often overlook the quiet victories along the path to survival. Not perfection, but endurance. The sturdy branches, reaching out. There’s not just damage, not just “a generational trail of broken people,” Lane finds, but a specific type of fortitude and hopefulness that was buried back there as well. That too must be alive. This act of looking back? This act of reclamation? It is as much for her, as it is for her newborn.
At this life’s crossroad, what are the necessary tools and gifts that she might pass down to her child? Lane won’t allow an easy answer; she is more tough-minded than that. She’s come to know, you have to be ready for the truth. As it comes—shards, rough edges and all.
“The world is not all bad Mary,” Lane ascribes these words to her great-grandfather Burt, who is making his case for the dream of California, its possibilities. But, perhaps, on reconsideration Burt’s words are not necessarily imagined, but received, over the bridge of time: “The world is full of beauty and potential. Full of life and second chances.” Messages for the journey. A spirit’s nudge. Those sturdy bloodlines connect sons to grand daughters, to the next generation of great-grands and beyond. But even more—they offer a passage to brand new ways of seeing; to renewed opportunities, to not so much make things right, but, first and foremost, to make yourself free.
Lynell George is an award-winning Los Angeles based journalist and essayist. A former staff writer for both the Los Angeles Times and L.A. Weekly, she is the author of three books of nonfiction: No Crystal Stair African Americans in the City of Angels (Verso/Doubleday); After/Image: Los Angeles Outside the Frame, a collection of her essays and photographs (Angel City Press) and “A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky: The World of Octavia E. Butler” published by Angel City Press in 2020.
The Pasadena-born science fiction author Octavia Butler is considered among the most prescient writers of the last several generations. Her superbly crafted stories deconstruct race, gender, politics, religion, and sexuality while travelling back and forth across space and time. Recent Los Angeles Poet Laureate Robin Coste Lewis describes Butler as being “on the frontier of human imagination.”
Though Butler passed in 2006, her work has never been more popular. Butler’s Parable of the Sower reached number one on both The New York Times and Los Angeles Times bestseller lists in the fall of 2020, 27 years after original publication. In 2019, the Los Angeles Central Library named a do-it-yourself studio space in the library, the Octavia Lab. Adding further momentum to Butler’s lasting significance is a new book A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky: The World of Octavia E. Butler by the award-winning author Lynell George that showcases Butler’s inner world.
George demystifies the legendary science fiction author by using archival material from the Huntington to meticulously uncover how Butler constructed herself through a regimented autodidactic recipe of reading, writing and ritual. A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky is creative non-fiction as inspiration without solipsism.
Make the Impossible Possible
Years before Butler won the MacArthur “Genius” Award in 1995 and had published any of her eleven celebrated novels like Kindred, Wild Seed and Parable of the Sower, she was a humble soul growing up in Pasadena stealing time to write in the middle of the night or making a small paycheck stretch for weeks at a time. Butler made, as George writes “the impossible possible” and expanded space and time through her discipline and concentration. The fact that she wrote science fiction is further proof of her intention to create new worlds.
George reveals how Butler’s “most ambitious and remarkable creation was the shapeshifting narrative of her own life–the one she honed and sharpened, draft after draft after draft. It was a work of art that was not complete until she made the impossible possible; the unseen, seen. Who is Octavia E. Butler, ‘That tall girl who was always writing?”
George spent four years, starting in 2016, in the Octavia E. Butler Papers at the Huntington Library, Art, and Botanical Gardens Museum diligently sifting through almost 400 boxes of Butler’s personal items including notebooks, to-do lists, recipes, scraps of paper, letters, bus passes, library cards, hand-me-down diaries, receipts and all sorts of other ephemera. George came to call her weekly forays into the archive, “Fridays with Octavia.” George committed to “let the archive lead her.” George’s instinct to let the archive lead her proved fruitful as she found some of Butler’s most insightful thoughts on scratch pads or even on the back of an envelope. It was this marginalia where George found the portal to Butler’s inner world. It was this personal voice that would prove the most fidelity to Butler’s intent. George also found hundreds of newspaper clippings Butler kept on topics like global warming, cancer, vampires and social unrest. These saved articles showed how much research Butler did to write her prophetic stories.
These notes, George demonstrates in her book, add up to the math of Butler’s life, especially in lists connected to time and money. From the time she was a teenager, Butler crafted her life, filling dozens of notebooks with to-do lists, budgeting and contracts with herself, complete with extra specific wishes serving as willful manifestations. George’s book artfully includes images of artifacts from the Butler archive like a library card, an old calendar, a few pages from Butler’s journal, bus passes, covers of her notebooks and ticket stubs. Butler’s candid handwriting on an old notebook testifies to just how miraculous her journey was.
In our contemporary 21st Century era when New Age commentators on Instagram talk about “the law of attraction,” and “creating your own reality,” George’s portrait of Butler shows us someone who did just that years before these ideas permeated popular culture. “If you read these pages in succession, day after day,” George writes, “they are nothing short of a prayer.”
“Art may be the finest form of prayer,” writes Julia Cameron in her book, Walking In This World. Cameron’s made a long career out of writing books on world building like her perennial bestseller The Artist’s Way. Many of the journaling strategies Cameron offers corroborate with practices Butler was doing instinctually years before Cameron’s book was published. One more Cameron quote connects to Butler: “We make art not merely to make our way in the world but also to make something of ourselves, and often the something that we make is a person with an inviolable sense of inner dignity.”
Butler meticulously constructed her life and vigilantly protected her time and energy to preserve her dignity and achieve her destiny against all odds. Though Butler did not have the specific instructions presented by Cameron, George discovered in the archive that Butler read self-help books by Dale Carnegie, Napoleon Hill, J. Lowell Henderson and Claude Bristol among others. The writings by these men advised her. “Her advisors, she acknowledged,” George writes, “may not be on the same page socio-politically, may even be dead, but she’d intuited that something essential could be gained from submitting to their worldview, even if she was never meant to be the target audience.” The clues Butler gained from these books taught her how “to keep her own counsel” and write her own affirmations. “These affirmations,” George declares, “are her safety net. They are her therapy she has neither the time, money nor constitution to undertake.” Butler discovered these books in the Pasadena Central Library as a teenager and by the time she started submitting her writing for publication in her early twenties, she had created her own practice to keep herself going. She conquered her fear and self-doubt by using these affirmations and following her strict discipline of research and writing.
Interspersed throughout George’s text are various quotes from Butler that show how she kept herself inspired. Consider this: “We don’t have to wait for anything at all. What we have to do is start.” Butler jump-started her journey in the dark without a map to follow. She grew up in Northwest Pasadena, an omnivorous reader and lifelong hermit who purposely never drove a car. Nonetheless she crisscrossed Los Angeles on public transit and took long walks to find her way in the world. George reveals all of this and shows how Butler’s worldbuilding and writing processes were methodical. She charted her life with such precision that she would often write on the calendar how many pages she wrote each day.
A Lifeline for Writers
The celebrated Angeleno novelist and USC professor Dana Johnson calls George’s book on Butler, “a lifeline for writers.” In conversation with George for a virtual event hosted by Vroman’s Books, Johnson tells her that, “[she] shows us an Octavia Butler we have not seen before.”
George saw Butler speak a handful of times over a three-decade period. The first time George ever saw Butler was when George was in her late teens and she attended the reading with her mother, an English teacher and voracious reader. George’s mom was a fan of Butler and they attended a few of her readings together. George cannot remember if it was at EsoWon Books or the long gone Midnight Special in Santa Monica but she does know that attending these readings impressed themselves upon her as her own journey as a writer was beginning.
Years later George saw Butler in Seattle in 2004 for “Black to the Future: A Black Science Fiction Festival.” George travelled to the Pacific Northwest to cover this event for the Los Angeles Times and she even briefly spoke to Butler that day. George’s Times essay, “Black Writers Crossing the Final Frontier,” published on June 22, 2004 described the event and explained that when Butler began writing science fiction in the early 1970s she was often one of the only Black writers doing it, let alone a woman in a male-dominated genre. They made an agreement to speak again but as fate would have it Butler passed two years later in 2006.
Another important point George told Dana Johnson the night of the Vroman’s reading was that this book is a product of serendipity. In 2016 Julia Meltzer, the Executive Director of Clockshop invited George to participate in their year-long program celebrating Butler. This is how it all started. Meltzer recently told me via email: “When we first dreamed up Radio Imagination –a year-long program celebrating Octavia E. Butler where artists and writers were invited to work with her archives at the Huntington Library—I knew that writer Lynell George had to be a part of it.”
“I felt certain that learning about Octavia’s life through what she left behind,” Meltzer states, “would resonate with Lynell and that she would bring her intrepid, dogged and steady journalistic eye to the project. Very early on in Lynell’s research process I sensed that a book was soon to be born. I’m thrilled that my hunches were correct. How lucky we all are to be able to learn more about how Octavia E. Butler deliberately and carefully made herself into a science fiction writer.”
Clockshop’s 2018 book, Radio Imagination includes writing from George, Tisa Bryant, Robin Coste Lewis, Fred Moten and artwork by Laylah Ali, Malik Gaines, Lauren Halsey and Alexandro Segarde. George’s piece was a “posthumous interview” for which she immersed herself countless hours in the archive. As George communed with Butler’s archive, she felt as if she could hear her voice and the channeling for the piece began.
Forecasting the Future
Though readers marvel at Butler’s seeming ability to predict the future, journalist and former editor of LA Weekly Judith Lewis Mernit recalls soliciting Butler for an essay on the “future of reading”. Instead, Butler wrote about how she still wrote on her typewriter because she liked to be methodical and deliberate with her process. However, it was her careful attention to her craft that allowed her to turn a keen eye on the present and imagine the future.
According to Mernit and Lynell George, Butler also observed the world around her by reading hundreds of articles on climate change and taking daily walks around Pasadena. Butler always paid close attention to the plants and trees in her neighborhood, noting the different species and details, such as, whether a tree was producing as many fruit as in the previous year. Like a scientist, she carefully cataloged her observations in her notebooks in detailed lists.
George’s book includes lists that Butler created from her walks and bus rides around the city. In these trips, Butler observed the city up close. The lists she wrote often read like poems. Here is one of Butler’s poem-like lists exactly as it appears in George’s book:
Brown and deep green hills of early summer
The grass is dry for the most part.
Blond with a little green grass
And many deep green trees.
Alvarado + Sunset—N. on Alv.
Small El rancho mkt—not chain
Way into hills
W. on Sunset—through cut hills
Both sides—houses cluttered on hills
Much wood frame
@ Sunset to sea—enclaves + open
As George’s narrative reminds us again and again, Butler’s careful attention to the world around her empowered her with the x-ray vision to write about the environmental conditions of the future. She was watching her immediate surroundings so closely that she could read the writing on the wall about rising temperatures or social unrest before everyone else.
A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky spotlights Butler with the same verisimilitude that Butler herself used to show us the future of our world. George writes that she found the book’s title while reading a passage in the archive: “Science fiction allowed her to reach for something beyond what she could visualize. Reading through a draft of a speech Octavia was puzzling out, I was struck by a particular answer. Science fiction is a handful of earth, and a handful of sky and everything around and between.”
Lynell and Octavia
George shares several commonalities with Butler beginning with the fact that she lives in Pasadena just minutes from where Butler grew up. Moreover, both Lynell George and Octavia Butler write the type of impeccable prose that only comes from countless drafts and years of practice.
Indeed, George has practiced her own diligent writing regimen with the same dedication as Butler, having written thousands of essays over the last 30 plus years for publications like Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Essence, LA Weekly, Alta Journal, the Smithsonian, and others. George’s countless articles have mapped Los Angeles and crisscrossed California with the same veracity as Butler’s fiction. And finally, they both were very close to their mothers and were gifted typewriter’s by them when they were little girls. George’s dedication in the book reads, “To my mother, who bought me my first typewriter.”
A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky accomplishes many missions simultaneously. Whether the reader wants to learn more about what made Octavia Butler so influential or if they want to learn how to be as influential as Octavia Butler, Lynell George provides a roadmap that reveals Octavia Butler’s secret recipe for expanding space and time.
Mike Sonksen is a 3rd-generation Angeleno. Poet, professor, journalist, historian and tour-guide, his book Letters to My City was published by Writ Large Press. His poetry’s been featured on Public Radio Stations KCRW, KPCC & KPFK. He teaches at Woodbury University.
With “Postcards,” creative non-fiction stories grounded in place, we aspire to create a new cartography of California. For us, literature and language are as much about marking and representing space, as they are about storytelling.
–After the Dome Fire, August 2020
It’s a hot, late September Day, and I’m driving alone into the East Mojave Preserve from the south, following Kelso Road off of Interstate 40.
I’m on my way to view the impacts of the recent, devastating 43,000-acre Dome Fire, which ripped through the Cima Dome area, formerly home to one of the world’s healthiest and most stunning Joshua tree woodlands.
I’m not intimidated by these vastly remote spaces of the Mojave Desert. In fact, I feel quite at home. Every mile I drive, past granite outcrops, ragged rock peaks, the massive Kelso Sand Dunes brings me closer to the heart of memory and home.
This is where I worked on many wildfires during the late 1980s, based at the Bureau of Land Management California Desert District Apple Valley Fire Station a 2-hour drive to the south. I worked one season on Engine Crew 6365, and a second season as a Helicopter 554 helitack/hotshot crew member.
As the miles melt into one another on this lonely, two-lane road, I’m embraced with memories that are both reassuring and unsettling as I remember firefighting moments and memories from time spent and shared with family and friends in the subsequent years.
This is where I fell in love with my daughter’s father, who I met and worked with on the engine crew, another fire crew member. This is where we battled several vehicle fires, and stopped the spread of any adjacent brush fires, using water hoses from our fire engine and the occasional shovel and chainsaw.
This is where I flew many times during the summer of 1987 on Helicopter 554, dropped off with six other crew members, high up in the Granite Mountains to control a lightning-torched blaze in a pinyon pine forest and spent a surprisingly cold night to make sure the fire was completely out.
Every desert fire, past and present, especially ones I worked on and even now, feels deeply personal to me. As I watched media coverage of the Dome Fire play out online, I reacted as I usually do during every major desert fire event over the years. I was frustrated and felt displaced to not be there in person, doing something to help with fire suppression operations – shovel work cutting fireline, perhaps, or helping with helicopter operations at the makeshift helicopter operations base.
The East Mojave Preserve – a large part of my firefighter turf for two fire seasons – in particular, feels like home to me. My memories and lingering physical presence are seared into the landscape itself. With every new fire, I have felt a familiar rush of adrenaline, a huge responsibility to be there, participating in the teamwork and makeshift firefighter community to help mitigate the damage from the burn. Many of my former desert wildland firefighter friends tell me they feel the same way.
There’s the ruts of the Old Mojave Road heading west towards a harsh area known as the Devil’s Playground, route for many 19th century pioneers heading west to the Promised Land of California citrus and sunshine, layered over a centuries old trail established and used by indigenous people traveling across the Mojave from one rare and precious water source to the next: places such as Marl and ZZYZX Springs, often up to thirty miles apart. My daughter – now a young adult raising a family of her own in Minneapolis – and I explored out here in my Jeep years ago to search for and photograph 30 different species of desert wildflowers for her high school biology class project.
I drive past the Kelso Depot, an historic train station that’s been recently refurbished to its early 20th century glory, and head north towards Cima Road. Slowly, to the west, I begin to see the massive bulge of Cima Dome, a part of the area out here known as the Cinder Cones National Natural Landmark. The remains of eroding granite that formed under the earth’s surface millions of years ago, it rises 1,500 feet (460 m) above the volcanic plain and covers 70 square miles.
It is the color of charcoal today. The size of the Dome Fire slowly reveals itself, and the searing impacts of its black wrath are obvious. Teutonia Peak, once covered with part of one of the world’s most expansive Joshua tree forests, has taken on the tones and look of a cinder cone.
As I slow the car down and pull into the small dirt parking area at the trailhead to Teutonia Peak, I look up: a red-tail hawk circles above, riding on a fit of ash-strewn wind that is spinning into a dark dust devil.
I put the car into park, turn off the ignition. Complete silence. I’m in a desert graveyard, and the most obvious dead appear to be the ghosts of charred Joshua trees.
My mind goes into a sort of firefighter mode as I begin to walk through the ashy remains, grateful I wore my oldest hiking boots, which area already getting charred. I imagine how this fire played out, what it would have been like to have worked on the Dome Fire.
I was, and still am, often asked why I, as a woman, would “do that kind of work.” And to me, it’s always been simple: it is work that I felt incredibly at home with, at one with a working family, and a job that allowed me to express my love and need to nurture and care for the land that I deeply loved. By tending to wildfire, and its immediate and enduring impacts on the land.
First and foremost is a feeling of performing a job that is layered in domestic terminology and structure. The firefighting community is as tightly knit and mutually interdependent as a family unit. Crew members, whose lives depended on the vigilance and support of one another, and who typically
Even many of the terms in the firefighter’s lexicon are domestic: there’s the endless chore known as “mopping up,” which involves spending many slow and tedious hours walking through areas that have burned and stirring and cooling layers of hot ash. There are the times we’d spend “babysitting a fire,” usually at night, when many fires tended to slow down, or “laid itself down,” where fire crews would spread themselves 10 or 20 feet apart along a fireline at the edge of the burn to prevent spot fires from starting up in the green vegetation. And, the activities that include “putting a fire to bed:” wrapping up a wildfire event with a fire under control and operations winding down. There are also the “widow makers,” trees that have partially burned or whose roots are smoldering that occasionally fall down without warning as crews work below, sometimes lethally.
Even though I wasn’t a mother yet then, I operated in a mama bear mode, ready to protect life and limb of my beloved desert and western wildlands, as well as human lives and homes, without hesitation.
We were firmly guided by critical principles, such as the 10 Basic Firefighter Rules, that are imprinted into my brain to this day and often serve as a guiding survival template in day to day living and have informed my work as a parent and educator in many ways.
For example: Be alert, keep calm, think clearly, act decisively. Know your escape route at all times. Give clear instructions and ensure they are understood. Fight fire aggressively, having provided for safety first.
I’ll never forget the scorching summer day working on a desert fire when a crew member, a friend to this day, turned and yelled, “Rattlesnake!” just as I was about to step on a huge Mojave Green.
I learned, through vivid and immediate experience, that sometimes, fires are mostly out of firefighters’ control. That things don’t always turn out the way we would have expected them to. And that we have to learn to live with that. We can’t save everything. And firefighters sometimes get injured. Some even die.
As I and walk along the edge of the ragged, hastily-cut fireline at the edge of the burn zone, I search for what firefighters may have left behind: boot prints in the ashes, not erased by away by rain; fragments of charred fire hose; perhaps a broken boot lace or someone’s crumpled bandana. I can almost hear the whine of Helicopter 554’s rotors and feel the wash of wind and sting of dirt kicking up in my face as I guide it to land for another water bucket refill, a gritty taste in my mouth.
The jagged caw-caw of a raven perched atop a black bristle of burnt Joshua tree pulls me out of my reverie. I look to the sky, which is slowly turning into a hazy brown as smoke from multiple other wildfire events across California and the Western U.S. works its way across the Mojave Desert.
As I survey the hulking charred ruins of the Joshua tree forests stretching beyond me farther than I can see, I can’t help but wonder, like a fretful parent soothing their little one’s feverish brow while trying to work out how their child has gotten seriously ill, what happened out here? Why and how did this desert fire get so big? Why was did it take four days for helicopter support?
It’s a tragedy that the Dome Fire grew to the size that it did. It’s inexplicable to me that H554 didn’t get out here as an initial attack crew and get this fire under control immediately. I know it was possible, had resources been available on August 12 when a lightning strike started this blaze. Then again, there were so many things out of anyone’s control that day. Fire resources were already stretched thin as multiple major fires played out across California, an unfortunate situation worsened by the sharp reduction of available inmate firefighter crews due to the coronavirus pandemic.
I’m reminded, as I look for signs of life, and recovery, and don’t see any yet, that many expectations in my personal life haven’t turned out the way I thought they would.
It wasn’t long after my time working on fires out here that my daughter’s father began his lifelong stints in prison – first working for Susanville fire camp, and later, as his crimes became more serious, time in maximum prison. I haven’t communicated with him in years.
My boyfriend, ten years ago, dying by suicide not long after we took our beauty-love drive through here and added to the stories. My friend I collected soil samples with and bonded over our appreciation for the nuances of how to get unstuck from deep sand, died several years ago in a terrible highway accident.
And so it is that I stand alone out here, embraced in a collective grief that is not mine alone. I also share it with many friends and desert lovers who also express their dismay at the Joshua tree loss on social media.
It’s awkward that the trees are still here, they still stand, and many will soon tumble to the ground, their limbs strewn across a suddenly emptied land space like human bones, and the recovery in this arid land will evolve slowly, as slow as the movements of a desert tortoise, as all ecologies in the desert do. And fire regimes – long-term burn and recovery impacts and adaptations/regrowth in Mojave Desert ecologies are still not entirely known.
But standing in loss is not enough. What will I tell my grandchildren when I bring them here?
Wildfire, one of the four basic elements, even at its most terrible, works its magic in the desert in ways we do not understand. I have enough knowledge from experience to know that fire on the land is both a blessing and a bane, and I’m nourished by my growing understanding, layered atop my firefighting work and my ongoing research for my humanities project, Fire on the Mojave: Stories from the Deserts and Mountains of Inland Southern California, that beauty and restoration will come.
So many desert stories, mine, and those who passed through here before me, those I worked alongside on fire crews. Today, I’m bound to honor these stories, and keep their visages alive, just as the Joshua trees have not simply disappeared – they have been transformed, even if it’s not what I want to see.
I refuse to resign myself to the circulating, apocalyptic idea that climate change has destroyed this place forever. That at the whim of a lightning strike and a resulting massive fire fueled by climate change alone, this cherished and well-tended place, turned into an eternal place of death.
I’ll bring my little grandchildren here next spring, and as with other Mojave Desert wildfire remains, we’ll look for places on this altered landscape that may have been obscured before the fire. Perhaps we’ll find sleeping circles, or petroglyphs on the rocks at one of the area’s springs, now revealed after the underbrush around them has been burned away. We may even discern, and follow, the faint traces of forgotten trails, where so many of our ancestors have walked before us.
And if we come at the right time, we’ll surely see wildflowers carpeting the burn zone, with or without adequate winter rain, purple, yellow, white and orange, as a direct result of the fire – as occurred in the site of the nearby 2005 Hackberry Fire – as well as the resprouting of other native shrubs. We may even see the tiniest of resprouts of some of the Joshua trees, needling their way towards the sun, one slow and sure inch at a time.
And I’ll bring a stack of makeshift fire tools – small, foldable shovels – and teach the kids how to cut a small fireline, how to stir the ashes and make sure the hot coals are completely out, and how to work as a team. We will learn how to tend the land by fighting fire, even it’s a make believe one for them, and how to care for our desert land, together, as a family. Together, we will build relationships with wildfire and the long-established fire ecologies here in the Mojave Desert, where fires will always, inevitably burn, as part of the natural processes of lightning and flame and transformation spelled out upon the land.
Ruth Nolan grew up in California’s Mojave Desert and worked as a wildland firefighter for the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service during the 1980s. Her California-desert based writing has been published in LA Fiction: Southland Writing by Southland Writers (Red Hen Press;) Women Studies Quarterly; Rattling Wall; Desert Oracle; Sierra Club Desert Report; the Desert Sun/USA Today; News from Native California; New California Writing/Heyday; KCET Artbound L.A. and KCET Tending Nature. Her fiction has been nominated for a PEN Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers and received an honorable mention award in Sequestrum’s editor reprint contest. She is curator of the ongoing humanities project Fire on the Mojave: Stories from the Deserts and Mountains of Inland Southern California. Ruth is coeditor of Fire and Rain: Ecopoetry of California (Scarlet Tanager), which placed as a finalist in the 2018 Eric Hoffer Independent Book Awards, and editor of the critically-acclaimed No Place for a Puritan: the Literature of California’s Deserts (Heyday.)She is also the author of the poetry book Ruby Mountain (Finishing Line.) She is the recipient of grants from the California Arts Council; Bread Loaf Writers Conference; Phi Kappa Phi and the California Writers Residency/1888 Center program. Ruth isProfessor of English and creative writing at College of the Desert.
Luis J. Rodriguez is an L.A. cultural icon. A major figure in Chicanx literature, the former poet laureate of Los Angeles is perhaps best known for his 1993 book, Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A., which was one of the first autobiographical insider accounts of gang life in Los Angeles. Banned in cities throughout the state, it became required reading in L.A. Unified School District.
Earlier this Spring, Luis sat down with Boom’s Editor-at-Large, theologian Jason S. Sexton, in Sexton’s class at UCLA called Sociology of Crime. The wide-ranging conversation explored themes in the book and in contemporary California life related to crime, gangs, drugs, politics, and his own experience of life in Los Angeles and beyond.
Boom: This class at UCLA is called Sociology of Crime, and we’ve been exploring how “the victim” is a primary model of elevated American identity, but you’ve also got to have the reverse… a perpetrator, a criminal, somebody who’s committed the crime, created the victim… both of those swirling around. We like these hard binaries. Historians often describe crime in two ways: as ordinary crimes… and extraordinary crimes, with extraordinary crimes being those big crimes that really reshape the criminal justice system in radical ways. I want to talk about an extraordinary crime not on the books, but it’s in your “I Love LA” poem. I want to talk about “Water,” and perhaps L.A.’s original sin: water theft and water rights. I wonder if you could talk about that crime.
Luis: The way capitalism is, there are legal ways of making money, which is not that different than illegal ways. They make laws first that allow certain things to happen, but then end up doing stuff like stealing, committing theft, even murdering people. But if it’s legal, it’s ok, it’s in the bounds of whatever society says. The shadow of that is that people do this by illegal means as well. You can kill people in this country if you are legally supposed to. If you’re not, and you don’t have that given legal power to kill somebody then you’ll likely end up in prison. This is why police were given the power of life and death over certain communities. They literally had that. And now people are waking up to it with Black Lives Matter. But it used to be where police could kill people and nobody could complain, nobody could do nothing. I lost four friends, unarmed, to police violence. There was no recourse. Police had the power to do that.
Boom: And we have a history, of course, of federally sanctioned slaughtering of Native Indians.
Luis: The dominance and genocide starts off with Native peoples. Whites in power took their land, and it got legalized. You could do homesteading and you could do all kinds of things. Then they start legalizing removals and all this stuff. They also legalized slavery. The way things were done, you could legally do anything to another human being with slavery. They were constitutionally declared less than human. Then when they [slaves] escaped, you had the Fugitive Slave Act, which got the whole country involved in capturing escaped slaves. In other words, this country legalized these terrible things. It’s “okay.” But it’s not okay if it’s not a part of the legal thing. So to me, crimes in the shadow are reflective of what I would call crimes by a social system. If they allow certain people to do certain things, like steal people’s lands, steal their minerals, steal their labor, steal their water, then the shadow side is reflective of something that is allowed. When you got power, you can do this; when you don’t have power, this is what you do—commit crimes as a way to survive. I’m not justifying any of it, I think human beings shouldn’t do none of that. But the point is, that’s what we end up doing.
Boom: You identify as a Native person. Do you see Los Angeles ever making amends for that original sin, original crime?
Luis: I don’t see it happening. I was really pleased that not that long ago we changed Columbus Day in L.A. and made it Indigenous People’s Day. We were one of the first cities to do this. I just found out Chicago just did that the other day. It’s recognizing that there was a terrible theft. And you can’t honor the man that helped open that door. You can’t.
Boom: William Mulholland.
Luis: He’s one of those guys. He played a big role in the water theft. One of the things about the Owens Valley is that it used to be mostly Native peoples and it was beautiful and green. The Native peoples had a way of thinking: you only take what you need, you always give back what you take, and you never take more than you need. So, it kept green. Developers came in and said, “These people are wasting the land.” So they got rid of the first peoples. They started taking over the water. Since then the Owens Valley became horrible, dry. It’s lost most of its greenery.
Boom: They’re still taking it from the ground. So now I want to sort of push back on this a little bit because in your L.A. poem … in the last line, that it’s a city “lined with those majestic palm trees,” which take a lot of water, [bear] no fruit, they’re not indigenous, they’re imports, they provide no shade … and you feed into the myth.
Luis: Well, I feed into it because it is a myth. I feed into it because what people think about L.A. is kind of like the transplant of the palm trees, the transplant of people. The only ones who can’t say they’re transplanted are the indigenous people who have been pushed out and are made strangers in their own land. But what happened is that we become like palm trees. … I am feeding into the myth, but the myth is that this is … not really L.A. but that’s how we’ve become. There’s a layer of L.A. that’s all made up…that people have created on top of it. But one of the things I also want to point out and contrast to this is that palm trees are very sturdy. They do take up a lot of water. Every once in a while, winds can knock them down, but hardly. The winds, rains, everything coming through here; most palm trees stay up. There’s also something there I see [in] the people of L.A. There’s resilience in the people; I think there’s something deep in everyone that comes here, and that’s what I love about L.A. Even if you come from other parts in the world, you start getting a certain depth, a creative depth, in L.A. I find fascinating.
Boom: As we’re talking about L.A., you mention in another line in that poem that this is “still a one industry town.” I wonder if we could talk about and it was mentioned recently in some of the academy award winners’ [speeches], mentioning not only the whiteness of the academy, but also the neglect, and I think the Tarantino movie, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” Brad Pitt highlights that with a lot of the stunt workers—the workers, I wonder if we could talk about the workers in that industry.
Luis: Well one of my sons, the one who went to prison, works for a Hollywood company that does sets. He’s a driver, and they bring stuff into wherever they’re filming. They’ve hired felons, and they’re doing good work; these men are working hard. And my son loves it. Somehow, he’s part of the Hollywood world. Now, he’s one of these workers that helps Hollywood get going; but nobody knows them. They’re not in front of the camera, not even behind the camera. They’re just the ones who get all the peripheral stuff needed for films to be made. So Hollywood to me is what makes L.A. the one industry town…; [but] let’s not forget this area is also the largest manufacturing center in the country. We have more manufacturing than Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh. And like those cities, we lost a lot of [good] industry in the ’80s. … In a sense people had jobs, made good money, and all this was pulled from other them. I was there when Goodyear, GM, Ford, Bethlehem… all the tire, auto, and steel plants went down, … when it all vanished. I used to work in some of these places. I worked as a welder, pipe-fitter, mechanic, in construction, and those industries were closing down, leaving. No jobs. We had one of the largest garment industries in the world, and it’s almost all gone, except for hole-in-the wall shops here and there. We were part of the rust belt and we weren’t in the rust belt. This is why by ’92 when the uprising happened, you could see how people lost their jobs, lost the ability to survive, and in turn how police got more money and became more oppressive. You can see the foundation for such an uprising because that’s the perfect storm that had developed.
Boom: Could we talk about your new book, From Our Land to Our Land, and how law, crime, and justice can better be conceived in thisland.
Luis: Here’s what happened: slavery’s gone, but people are still treated badly. A lot of other things are gone, but things aren’t right. Native peoples have reservations but those are not the most beautiful places. A lot of injustice is still going on. They start building up the border, [which…] was a made-up thing.
Boom: We had a strong immigration bill in ’96 in this country, ten years after Reagan gave everyone amnesty.
Luis: What happened is they militarized the border, and an unfortunate aspect is you got Mexican tribal people and U.S. tribal people who have long ties, deep connections, family connections, that are adversely affected by this border. My mother’s family is from the Tarahumara tribe of Chihuahua, Mexico. They are known as some of the fastest runners in the world. They do marathons, and they do it with their tire-tread sandals. They don’t do it with Nike’s. The only ones they don’t beat are the Kenyans. The Tarahumaras have six canyons in southern Chihuahua. One of them is deeper than the Grand Canyon. I’ve been there, walked among them. Many live in caves. There were about 80,000 [people] living in caves when I visited. One of the few cave dweller [communities] in the world. They are Native peoples, don’t speak Spanish, they’re not Catholic, they’re Native. That tribe is related to the Pueblos, the Hopi, the Paiute, the California tribes. There’s a Uto-Azteca linguistic thing they’re all tied to. But the border comes and guess what? My mother who is Tarahumara has me born in El, Paso, [and] we live in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. She went across the international bridge, and it’s all part of the Chihuahuan desert. El Paso, parts of New Mexico, and Chihuahua, have this link to the Chihuahua desert. Those people have been there for at least 10,000 years. But now with the border, we don’t belong anymore. Now we’re aliens, strangers, “illegals.” When I was born, we went from our land to our land. 10,000 years to me means more than the last 150 years, even though my mother and my dad and my whole family were treated like foreigners.
I have an issue with this country making us immigrants. We’re not immigrants, we’re migrants, like people all around the world. And I’m not against any other migrant from around the world, I’m just saying you gotta understand our ties to Native peoples and Native lands—that it is as deep as anyone’s. If you work with Native Americans, so many of them recognize that. There are pow wows that include Mexicans from Central Mexico. There’s Native American nations that now adopt Mexicans as members of their tribes. The Navajo have a Mexican clan. In other words, some indigenous people in the US are recognizing that Mexicans are not Spanish or Europeans. They are from this land. Even if we’re mixed in with Spanish, African, Asian, and other Europeans. Everybody’s mixed up in some fashion. Native Americans have some of the most mixed people. I’ve worked with some wonderful, amazing blue-eyed Indians. I worked with some amazing African-mixed Indian people. They’re still Native. So Mexicans have that. Then of course Mexico has the largest number of actual tribal people in the whole continent. The numbers are greater than any other country. Per capita, Guatemala and Peru might have more indigenous people, but Mexico has the largest number of them.
Boom: This is fascinating, and especially significant for a key theme in this class about how crime is conceived culturally, especially when you have an imposition of laws that are meant to reflect the culture, but the question is “which culture?” When people talk about criminal justice reform, how does that even happen in relationship to who have been perceived as criminals?
Luis: The whole book is really a vision for a new country. I really want to imagine a new America. I have to. I can’t just accept everything that America’s become to this day. Now people have said, “Well why don’t you go to another country?” I’ve heard this a lot of times. I don’t have to go anywhere else—this is my land. This is my country, and I have a lot to say about it. I’m not going to go anyplace else to do that. I’m going to do it here. Because I have these indigenous ties… I’m not going anywhere, I’m staying here. Yes, I have ties to Mexico, and I’m very concerned with what happens in Mexico, but I’m really concerned with what happens in the United States. So I feel there has to be a new imagination. And the imagination has to be more encompassing. Prison is one of the worst things we’ve ever created as a country. It does not work. It does not do what it’s supposed to do; … [it] actually does the opposite. Since they started building more prisons, more crime has been the result. The gangs in L.A. in the ’60s and ’70s expanded because of prisons. There were fifteen prisons with 15,000 prisoners in the early ‘70s. Since that time, California built up to 34 prisons with upwards of [appx.] 175,000 incarcerated men and women. California gangs are spread out to other parts of the world. You got L.A. gangs all over Central America, in Mexico, and other countries. Prisons made it worse for everybody, [not] any better.
You don’t punish crime away. It doesn’t work to punish people, especially when they’re adults—kids, even worse—it doesn’t work that way. If you commit a crime, if you’re troubled, if you need a lot of help, you should have a lot of resources at your disposal. You should be given tools, knowledge, connections, whatever you need to get through it. That’s not the way it presently works, and I know because I’ve been active in this area for decades. For forty years I’ve been going to prisons—teaching, reading poetry, doing healing circles. One thing you should know about the California prison system, it’s filled with almost eighty percent people of color, and we’re not near that [number] in the state’s total population. The largest single group [in prison] is Chicano, about forty percent, which is closer to the state’s population. African Americans are the most disproportionate because they’re about thirty to thirty-five percent in prison, when their population numbers are like sixteen percent. Whites and Asians… are far less than their [statewide] populations. So something wrong is going on here. That’s what people have to look at, what is going on, and why does the prison system reflect that?
I teach at the only California state prison in Los Angeles County, in Lancaster, every Monday. I go into two high-security yards. One of them is general population. Before I got there thirteen years ago, there were riots, there were lockdowns, [and] all these terrible things. We started doing programming. I was one of the first people to come into the general population yard to do programming at Lancaster. This was in 2016. Now there’s a lot of programming. The violence has gone down. The drug use has gone down. It’s not perfect. Every once in a while, things happen, so I’m not saying that everything is great. They’re doing much better; they really are better. Even the guards have recognized it. Before, [the guards] were my biggest problem. They would say, “why do you come here, why do you bother?” Now they’re friendly to me: “I’m glad you’re here.” They help me out. It’s changed, and that to me is what’s important. Can we find, can we imagine a way to deal with human beings [that] does [not] mean locking them up, putting them away, throwing away the key, and just making them worse than when they came in?
Boom: But you also … actually took some of this vision in a political direction. Running for governor, you got a lot of votes; you would have been the first Mexican governor that we’ve ever had.
Luis: Probably not since the 1800s.
Boom: And certainly before we became an American state in 1850. I wonder if we could talk about politics, and politics not just related to California and this vision. I Iove what you’re describing and Kevin Starr would often talk similarly, and he would triangulate that he lived in San Francisco, but worked in Sacramento as State Librarian, and then taught at USC. In his books he would sign, “Kevin Starr—San Francisco, Sacramento, Los Angeles.” People would ask him “well where do you live?” And he would say, “I live in a city called California.” It was a beautiful vision. And some of that, I think you pick up as well with different ways that we can better make life here, that’s more meaningful, related to work, related to education, resources. We’re not all at the same place socioeconomically. So how can we be more just?
Luis: I do not believe that Republicans or Democrats have much imagination. I find them to be stuck, both parties. I think all political parties in this country, and probably around the world, are in crisis. And I think all religions as well, which is not a bad thing necessarily because the essence of all of them begins to rise up while everything else falls to the side. … Everything’s in crisis for a reason. My campaign was called, “Imagine a New California.” I couldn’t do a Democratic or Republican thing. I had to imagine a whole new way to go. I’m not saying there are not good things in either party, but I have to imagine a new way that can take the best of all of them and create a new path. With no money. Governor Brown had twenty million dollars at the primary and there were fifteen candidates running at the time. I didn’t have [much] money, but I went up and down the state a dozen times, talked to a lot of people. I ended up getting fifth out of fifteen people in the primary elections, and first among all the Independents and third-party people. I also beat Governor Brown in border precincts and was second to him in San Francisco. He wasn’t the worst governor in the world, but he was, again, not very imaginative, I felt. But I’ll tell you one thing that happened, I got like 70,000 votes. You’re not going to win nothing in California with 70,000 votes, but that’s something considering that 70,000 people thought I was worth voting for. And maybe it was my name, who knows how they do it. The thing that got to me was that Brown actually picked up some of my issues after the primaries. He starts talking about poverty when he never used to. He started to talk about prison reform in a different way. And he was doing something he wasn’t doing before: he was commuting a lot of guys that had been in prison, some life without parole, but were doing very good because of programming. People were amazed that he was taking on these issues differently than he had before. I think, again maybe not, I think it had to do with what I was doing, with what I was saying.
Boom: And you do vote, you’re still involved?
Luis: I’m still involved. I still vote.
Boom: I wonder if we could take it back to talk about some laws recently passed related to criminal justice reform, which never addressed the issue of violent crime. It’s like, “you could have a commuted sentence if you didn’t do a violent crime.” But that relates to something of a preconceived understanding of, at least at some point, how a checks and balance might be provided with violent crime.
Luis: I think this looking at crime differently really started in Chicago, and then came over to New York and other cities eventually, when Jane Addams expressed the idea that you can’t just put these people away. She was putting forward, creating settlement houses primarily for the communities of white immigrants that were getting into a lot of trouble. These white immigrants—Irish, German, Italians, Eastern Europeans—were getting into a lot of trouble in their neighborhoods. They were poor, but were able to rise up because there were always Black people they can say were lower than them. The Irish were treated very badly, but they were never treated as badly as Black people. Some of them joined with the anti-Black stuff, some didn’t, but the point being: the reformers wanted to say, “Can we help these people?” The industrial world was creating crime. So they figured, “Okay these aren’t really criminals in the sense that they are just bad people; they’re bad people because the jobs aren’t there.” They gotta eat. So settlement houses, and the idea that maybe we don’t have to imprison these people as much as give them a leg up.
It was evident when there were white immigrants suffering, they were prepared to help. Now, in the twentieth century when crime involved more people of color, all of a sudden those ideas went out the door. “Let’s just put them away. They ain’t no good. They’re never going to get it. You got to put them away for a long long time.” This started to get really bad in the last 40 years, especially in the ’90s. Even Democrats fell into this. When kids were being tried as adults, they were given 135 years, they were just fourteen to sixteen years old, given a lot of years because they were already going back to the whole idea that you can’t change anything. And they weren’t justifying it by looking at the economy, they were just saying, “something’s wrong with these people, put them away.” So they were creating monsters, as I say in my book. They were monsters of our own making. We created these monsters, and now we don’t know what to do except say, “they’re monsters.”
I go to the prison now … there are guys serving their whole lives in prison who would never commit a crime again. I do thirteen-to-fifteen-week classes, so every thirteen to fifteen weeks I have a new group of guys. In the B yard, which is the general population yard, there’s about thirty guys—tattooed-faced, all buff, even though there’s no weights to work out with. They’d scare the heck out of anybody. But I do this regularly, I work with them, and some of them, over a course of time, you find out they are quite decent and complex human beings. Many of these guys are murderers, most of them have life without possibility of parole sentences. Some have been doing thirty to forty years already, some former gang members but I am working with them now, and I find a lot of decency, a lot of people that want to make some changes. Some of them are never getting out and they still want to make deep changes.
Jason S. Sexton is Visiting Research Scholar at UCLA’s California Center for Sustainable Communities, editor of Theology and California: Theological Refractions on California’s Culture (Routledge) and Editor-at Large of Boom California.
Luis J. Rodriguez is the former poet laureate of Los Angeles, and his most recent book is called, From Our Land to Our Land: Essays, Journeys, and Imaginings from a Native Xicanx Writer, published by Seven Stories Press
It has been 13 years since I first traveled to El Salvador. My father, Ramon, left his homeland of El Salvador for the U.S. in the late 1970s. Ramon was always in and out of my life. The last time I saw my father was in 2004. By the time I took this trip, I had completely lost contact with him. This trip to El Salvador was my way to connect with Ramon’s home country without having a relationship with him. It was my way of searching for an opaque past.
While in El Salvador, I learned the significance of “memoria histórica” (historical memory). To know history, is to know oneself. As Italian socialist, Antonio Gramsci, once said: “The starting-point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is, and is ‘knowing thyself’ as a product of the historical process to date which has deposited in you an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory.” My yearning to trace my history would not bring me closer to Ramon, but it would help me understand him and myself. It permanently informed my political consciousness and commitments, and the love I have for El Salvador.
In Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs, and Revolution in the Americas (Harper Collins, 2020), scholar, activist, and journalist Roberto Lovato takes us through his own journey of re-membering the infinite traces of his life as a child of Salvadoran migrants in the Mission District of San Francisco. By navigating through history, borders, silences and half-truths, Lovato excavates his family’s past, his participation in the Salvadoran revolutionary process, and the “gangs-as-cause-of-every-problem-thesis” in El Salvador. While mainstream media, law enforcement, and U.S. presidents point toward gangs such as MS13 as the culprit of Central America’s social problems, Lovato complicates this claim. Unforgetting is an urgent demand to sit with the beauty and messiness in our lives, our traumas, and the historical moments that shape our present and possibly our futures.
This morning, my neighbor was gardening. His tool of choice? The machete he brought back from visiting his family in El Salvador. As I heard him hacking away at the branches of a tree, I was reminded of the first words in Lovato’s memoir: “The machete of memory can cut swiftly or slowly.” The machete, a cultural reference to El Salvador for many of us, is the tool of choice Lovato uses to conjure the memories that have shaped him, his family and all Salvadorans. With this machete, Lovato cuts and slices through over 80 years of Salvadoran history. Rather than a simple, linear narrative beginning in the past and ending in the present, Lovato travels through distinct instances of his father’s life, his own life, and the historical events that connect towns and cities in El Salvador to San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Karnes County, Texas. The machete of memory, Lovato reminds us, is versatile. It can summon pain, love, and nostalgia. The memories shared by Lovato in his memoir invite us to feel a collage of emotions while grounding us in their material conditions.
“My story is apocalyptic in the original sense of the term in Greek: apokaluptō…to uncover, lay open what has been veiled or covered up.” Like a finely made braid, Lovato interlaces his family’s history with the history of El Salvador. Through the Matanza of 1932, the migrations of Salvadorans to Mexico and to the U.S., the revolutionary struggles of the 1980s, the criminalization of youth, and the caging of Salvadoran refugees during the Obama and Trump administrations, Lovato and his family are always present. Rather than bystanders, Lovato shows how he, his grandmother, his father, his mother, his aunts, and cousins, were all active agents in the making of El Salvador and the Mission District of San Francisco. Through memoria histórica, Lovato shares his journey of uncovering his father’s intimate connection to the 1932 massacre of over 30,000 indigenous people and communists. The moment his father shares his testimonio is one of the most powerful images in the memoir: “At that moment, my eight-eight-year-old father became the nine-year-old boy who’d witnessed one of the worst massacres in the history of the Americas.”
If you have followed Lovato’s journalism and activism throughout the years, you know he does not shy away from showing us his rage. “Rage is my vocation,” he states. By way of Cuban musician Silvio Rodríguez’s lyrics in “Días y Flores,” we learn the origins of Lovato’s rage and how it shifted from his family, El Salvador, and himself to U.S. empire. Through Lovato’s intimate and comradely relationship with a Salvadoran revolutionary named G, we are taken through scenes of U.S. imperialism in El Salvador, its support of death squads, and the revolutionary struggles for Salvadoran dignity during the 1980s civil war. Revolution is a major theme in Lovato’s memoir. Although the word revolution might be outdated for some, Lovato reminds us its ideals and necessity live on.
Instead of reifying gang violence in El Salvador, Lovato urges us to think deeply and try to understand what turns kids into violent, even murderous gang members while also holding space for the child victims of this violence, what he calls a “double helix of death,” that condemns many in El Salvador. In many scenes of the memoir, Lovato forces us to reckon with a whirlwind of emotions that does not explain away the violence, but rather helps us understand it. Through his own investigations, Lovato argues the violence we often hear about through the corporate media “is no small part, an expression of forgotten American violence.” He reminds us that the most destructive agents in El Salvador are not the youth gangs, but the gangsters in suits who are “protected by even more violent gangsters in military uniforms.”
According to Central American Studies scholar Ester E. Hernández, “the process of transmitting cultural memory brings to light the history of diaspora.” Through her use of the concept “working memory,” Hernández shows how U.S.-based Central Americans use film, murals, and performances to revisit complex and contradictory narratives of war, migration, and resistance. Adding to this working memory and history of the Salvadoran diaspora, Lovato’s Unforgetting contributes to U.S.-based Central American cultural production, activism, and the growing field of Central American Studies. It is part and parcel of a growing tradition of U.S.-based Central Americans writing their own radical histories of U.S. empire. This memoir is an ideal text for undergraduate courses and people interested in Salvadoran history.
Unforgetting is an invitation, or more like a demand, to remember the violence of settler colonialism, anti-communism, and imperialist interventions in El Salvador. Simultaneously, it is a refusal to forget the love, hope, agency, and struggles of Salvadorans and Central Americans. It is a timely memoir that should be studied on your own or with a study group. As we continue to hear, see, and organize against the caging, raiding, and deporting of our people, let us remember Lovato’s call to action. We must never forget the roots causes of the trauma, forced displacement, and criminalization. We must never forget the dignity of our people. Salvadorans have a rich history. Lovato urges others to read, listen, and learn from them.
 Gramsci, Antonio. Selections from the Prison Notebooks, 2nd ed. Edited by Quintin Hoare and Geoffret Nowell Smith. New York: International Publishers, 1999, 324.
 Lovato, Roberto. Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs, and Revolution in the Americas. New York: Harper Collins, 2020, xvii
 Hernández, Ester E. “Remembering Through Cultural Interventions: Mapping Central Americans in L.A. Public Space,” in U.S. Central Americans: Reconstructing Memories, Struggles, and Communities of Resistance. Edited by Karina O. Alvarado, Alicia Ivonne Estrada, and Ester E. Hernández. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 2017, 144.