On behalf of the editorial board of Boom California, published by University of California Press, we seek proposals from scholars, students, and writers of California culture who wish to help cultivate critical discourse on California and its values, and to do so in a manner that is public-facing and relevant to our moment in history.
Boom California is a free refereed online media publication dedicated to inspiring lively and significant conversations about the vital social and cultural issues of our time in California and the world beyond. We host academic conversations in the form of peer reviewed articles that both highlight and advance scholarly discourse about California culture, and do so in a manner that is public-facing and oriented toward the social and practical concerns of ordinary Californians.
In light of our fast-changing world, Boom’s emphasis has shifted to concentrate on California social issues, and to cultivate underrepresented writers in the California landscape. More about the transition and Boom’s history can be found in the recent editorial (http://boom.ucpress.edu/content/6/4/1). As a peer review publication, we are looking for contributions in these areas related to California culture:
Latinx Population and Culture
Asian American Population and Culture
African American Population and Culture
In addition to this, we are especially interested in proposals that address two areas of special concern to Boom this year:
the lives and experiences of undocumented Californians
the native Californian genocide consequent to the California Gold Rush, and today’s reckoning with this amidst native revivalism
At University of California, Los Angeles, the Humanities are located at both the historic and symbolic center of the university, on the main quad in three of the original buildings erected on the campus: Royce Hall, Powell Undergraduate Library, and the Humanities Building. They house departments that include dozens of world literatures and cultures stretching from the Middle East to the Americas, from Eastern Asia to Western Europe. The undergraduate library specializes in foundational texts of human civilization, including philosophy, history, literature, the sciences, and the arts. Founded in 1919, UCLA is nearing its first centenary, but the university builds—both literally and metaphorically—on humanistic and liberal arts traditions that are many centuries long and globally diffused. In this regard, one might bring to mind the shift from a theocentric worldview in the Medieval period, which cultivated the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and logic), to a more humanistic approach in the Renaissance period with its developing studia humanitatis, focused on history, Greek, and moral philosophy (ethics). This shift developed the idea that knowledge is culturally conditioned and increasingly that monocular perspectives on the world need to be displaced by multiperspectival, transdisciplinary approaches. The wellspring of humanistic knowledge came from many literary and vernacular sources, abetted by the rediscovery of classical texts in Greek and Arabic, preserved in Byzantine and Islamic sites of learning, and disseminated through transcriptions, translations, editing, and annotation practices, which were greatly accelerated by the invention of the printing press. The core disciplines that we recognize today as comprising the Humanities—literary and language studies, philosophy, art history, musicology, history, among others—have deep roots in these institutional, cultural, and technological histories.
Porosity by Maite Zubiaurre.
But yet, for all its grand ambitions for reckoning with the world, the university has remained by and large an isolated institution, walled in and often walled off from its surrounding community, accessible to a chosen few, stratified by economic, social, and racial differences, and perhaps too invested in the security of its storied past. What, after all, are the physical buildings meant to evoke, except a grand past of privilege and prestige? Royce Hall, UCLA’s architectural and cultural landmark, is built in the Lombard Romanesque style. Its towers reference Milan’s ancient Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio, which gained its Romanesque style in the twelfth century—800 years after it was built. Carved into stone above the stage in Royce Hall is an unattributed quote: “Education is learning to use the tools which the race has found indispensable.” It is attributed to Ernest Carroll Moore, a philosophy professor who served until 1936 as UCLA’s first provost. One may wonder: What tools has “the race” found to be “indispensable”? Pen and paper, paintbrush, camera, clay, word-processing machines, Photoshop? Is learning to use such tools enough, or might we need to interpret the objects created, assess their significance, and probe their conditions of possibility? And who, after all, can learn to use these tools found to be “indispensable” by “the race”? We know from Moore’s other writings on education, for example, that not every human being counted as part of “the race,” and we know all-too-well that racial thinking, eugenic paradigms, and social Darwinism were not just part and parcel of late nineteenth and early twentieth century thought but were also framing assumptions in his published writings.1 How do we confront these profound histories of exclusion and hierarchy that are literally inscribed in the edifices of the university? How do we open the university to other stories and histories, particularly those from the outside?
The bricks of UCLA’s Royce Hall tell a fascinating story—a story of continuity and venerability—that harkens back to the early twentieth century. As it happens, UCLA still acquires its bricks from the former Alberhill Coal and Clay Company, now renamed Pacific Clay, the same factory that produced the first bricks that set the foundation of the UC “branch” in Westwood in the late 1920s. This fact allowed Los Angeles–based New Zealand artist Fionna Connor to, in her words, read “the UCLA campus through the use of bricks” in her April 2016 installation Process Inter-rupted. Intriguingly, that installation took place in the same classroom where the Urban Humanities Initiative 2015–2016 cohort was working on several collaborative projects of precisely the type that leave behind brick walls—and even contribute to tearing them down. In reading the campus through its bricks, we might further ask: What do we know of the people who actually produced the bricks, who carted them to Westwood, who toiled in the Los Angeles sun to build the grand campus on land that was originally Gabrielino-Tongva? How does deep knowledge of the layered histories of places inform, or fail to inform, our positions, ways of knowing, and actions in the present? These are questions that come from historical, cultural-critical, and ethical perspectives influenced by the humanities.
Traditionally, brick and mortar stand for a university solidly anchored in the ivory tower model, where knowledge is produced, preserved, guarded, and stratified in countless ways. Many educational situations quietly reinforce the very social, economic, and racial hierarchies of inclusion and exclusion, of permitted speech and permissible discourse, where students are judged by their facility in reflecting predigested knowledge formed with the tools the race has found indispensable. Yet one may wonder about these tools. Following Audre Lorde, we might ask: Can the master’s tools dismantle the master’s house? Is it possible to use “the tools” and transform the ivory tower model and the brick walls themselves? Or, might entirely new tools need to be invented, ones that imagine and bring about new possibilities, futures that are distinct and different from the stratifications of the past built into the educational edifices themselves?
The Urban Humanities initiative is an attempt both to apply conventional tools in unconventional ways and to invent new tools by respecting the fundamental virtue of bricks, namely their porous nature. Porosity—that is, the ability to breath in and out, to open up to the world, and to rapidly and evenly transport and expand moisture (life) and knowledge—is the modus operandi, or better even, the modus vivendi of a new, “fluid” university model based on permeability, openness, interdisciplinarity, collaboration, and community engagement at the local, national, and transnational levels. Needless to say, the digital era and the relatively new reality of knowledge production and consumption patterns based on digital networking and widespread virtual learning has heavily contributed to the “softening” and increasing porousness of universities, with noticeable effects on the uses of their physical and institutional spaces. But it is not only digital tools that have enabled this softening; it is also an ethic based on diversity and difference that reimagines the public university as sites of engagement that are multidirectional and nonhierarchical in the past, present, and future.
Against the somber background of what Umberto Eco termed “apocalyptic” thinkers who mourn the downfall of the Humanities and perceive only the crisis of public education,2 “integrated” and “generative” approaches optimistically speak of a radically “new ecology of teaching and learning” that not only acknowledges but also openly embraces the opportunities of a paradigm shift.3 “What is different at this historical moment,” director of the University of Michigan’s Institute for the Humanities Sidonie Smith contends, “is the intensification of cross-institutional [and cross-departmental and cross-divisional] collaborative activity in the humanities and opportunities for modeling collaborative graduate [and undergraduate] education.”4 Therefore, in a fitting response to the zeitgeist and as part of a new ecology of teaching and learning, Smith’s “Manifesto for a Sustainable Humanities” proclaims the need of “preserving the intimacy of the small and [stewarding] the distinctiveness of the local while recognizing the attraction [and potential] of global networks,” and of “relishing the commitment to teaching through innovations in the classroom, among them explorations of participatory and project-based humanities inquiry.”5 More importantly, she urges the Humanities to “reconceptualize the scholarly ecology as a flexible collaboratory, one that positions the scholar as singular producer of knowledge, but also as a member of a collaborative assemblage involving students, colleagues, computer engineers and graphic designers, project designers and strangers of the crowd.”6
La linea de Tijuana I by Jonathan Banfill and Maite Zubiaurre.
“Strangers of the crowd” may as well stand here for diverse communities not always sufficiently integrated into the knowledge networks or institutional formations that focus singularly on teaching the correct use of tools considered to be indispensable “for the race.” What about tools that stem from “beyond” or “outside” the university? What about ways of knowing, thinking, seeing, and building that come from communities not traditionally selected to partake in the knowledge formations and credentialing programs prized by the university? How does the university’s fundamental porosity expose students to possibilities and potentialities from the outside? And what does this mean for the mission of the university embedded in multiple critical networks that extend far beyond its walls to ways of creating and thinking that are “foreign” to it? Critically inflected forms of community engagement are certainly one of the imperatives of a new ecology of teaching and learning that shares with bricks the fundamental quality of porousness and permeability.
Intellectual and pedagogical initiatives such as Urban Humanities are based on and inspired by these principles. In the same way in which contemporary LA is now aligning itself with the global cities of the Pacific Rim, contemporary UCLA too is shifting, and amplifying its geographic and pedagogical scope in the same direction. Needless to say, by turning its gaze toward the Pacific, it is not only canvassing the far horizon, but also looking more intently at the demographics of the city and state it serves. Presently, 47 percent of Los Angeles County’s population is Hispanic or Latino, and 13 percent is Asian. Since 1 July 2014, Latinos have outnumbered non-Hispanic whites in California.7 How does this demographic reality change the way we consider the context of UCLA in LA, in California, and along the borders between the United States and Mexico in the post-NAFTA world, and in the ever-mutating global flows?
In the summer of 2015, a diverse group of twenty-four graduate students and five faculty members came together for a three-week, intensive summer institute that used Los Angeles as a “learning laboratory” to put these concepts into practice. The students came from both Ph.D. and professional master’s programs in the humanities (literary studies, history, and Chican@ studies), architecture, and urban planning, and brought together a wide-range of positionalities, life experiences, and perspectives. Some participants had grown up in Tijuana or Mexico City; others had never set foot in Mexico. Through historical investigations, multimedia mapping projects, and spatial ethnographies, the institute was framed around the investigation of contested histories, erasures, and spatial injustices in Los Angeles. Students worked in collaborative, interdisciplinary teams to make films, produce “thick maps,”8 and propose digital activist interventions, all with the goal of creating a foundation for a cross-disciplinary learning community prepared to work together for the remainder of the year.
In comparing Los Angeles and Mexico City, the pedagogical and research methods of the Urban Humanities were motivated by the bold question of whether it is possible to decolonize knowledge. Can knowledge ever be “decolonized”? The answers are far from clear-cut. We began with a relatively simply proposition: Rather than bring our knowledge and tools to Mexico City to “solve” a problem there, how might we study Mexico City in order to learn what knowledge and tools could be brought back to Los Angeles to help us see our “home city” differently? How might we identify, address, and challenge the spatial injustices in Los Angeles with toolsets, perspectives, and knowledge from another city and set of experiences? What kind of intellectual groundwork would have to be put in place to begin to orchestrate such a transformation? To do so, we would have to imagine new kinds of knowledge, new kinds of collaborations beyond the walls of the university, and utilize a range of tools to develop new kinds of speculative knowledge and historical awareness.
The summer institute acted as the foundational brick upon which the rest of the year was constructed, creating a new collective conception of what the classroom can be and how knowledge is generated. The classroom is not fixed; in fact, the chairs and tables themselves are mobile, rolling around to form new combinations. The walls are used as work space as well as the floor. Over three weeks, the classroom moved from Westwood to La Placita and Chinatown. One session focused on mapping the events of the 1871 Chinese massacre. Tables were pushed aside, a ten-foot-long map was unfurled on the floor, and students spent hours annotating it with a multiplicity of narratives, data, and comparative analyses—both historical and synchronic—culminating in contemporary examples of racial injustice and erasure.
La linea de Tijuana II by Jonathan Banfill and Maite Zubiaurre.
Other sessions left the classroom behind entirely. We moved into key sites in Los Angeles, and in this way the traditional classroom with its hierarchical ordered space was overcome. Urban Humanities propose something closer to a collaborative workshop, a messy garage or whimsical laboratory, where knowledge can be co-created with a spirit of porousness across borders both visible and invisible: disciplinary, national, linguistic, social, and cultural.
This spirit of a “new Humanities” continued throughout the academic year, where Los Angeles and Mexico City were put into productive conversation. The two seminars that followed worked to provide a flexible, open knowledge of the thematic confluences between the two cities—water, earthquakes, traffic and mobility, precarious housing, political and social violence—creating a dialogic circuit for deeper understanding. In the fall seminar, the focus was specifically on Mexico City: watching films and documentaries, reading novels and histories, and learning about events such as the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre and the 1985 earthquake. In the destructive aftermath of catastrophe, the idea was to apprehend the creativity of life in Mexico City as ways of rethinking, rebuilding, reimagining, and surviving after disasters, whether human-made or natural, contemporary or historical. How could such knowledge, creativity, and imagination be brought back to Los Angeles?
In the winter, we focused on the theme of borders and transgressions, where the US-Mexico border was not just understood in its embodied, physical, and geographic manifestation, but also as a symbolic, economic, and cultural formation. This included a study trip to Tijuana and San Diego where the abstract knowledge of the classroom encountered the reality of the border. The Tijuana experience was encapsulated by an evening visit to Playas de Tijuana, where the border fence extends across a sandy beach and disappears into the Pacific. Here, shrouded in an eerie ocean fog, we walked along the border, touched it, stuck our hands through the vertical openings, read the messages scrawled on the fence and the pieces of political art, truly feeling the immensity of the division as we peered back across to the United States. We were forced to materially confront our relationship with the border—including, for most of us, our privilege of being able to freely cross it back and forth—and to think through where our knowledge might better open up spaces for circulation and justice through such a seemingly insurmountable edifice.
The rest of the year followed such practice, continuously creating a growing bank of reflexive knowledge built across Los Angeles, Mexico City, and the geographic, cultural, linguistic, and social borderlands in between. By the time we arrived in Mexico City, a conceptual toolset existed for engaging in community projects. Each of the three partner organizations—an arts organization (inSite/Casa Gallina), an architecture firm (Productora and their LIGA space), and a city government urban think tank (Laboratorio para la Ciudad)—provided a different lens for interpreting the city. They first came to Los Angeles to work with us, and then we went to Mexico City to work with them on site. The idea was not to package and ship “expert” knowledge in either direction, but rather to forge partnerships, grow collaborations, and open critical perspectives for networks of engagement. In this two-way process, knowledge was “forged and produced,” to quote the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, “in the tension between practice and theory.”9
The result was a series of projects of engaged, speculative scholarship that were realized in specific urban sites characterized by spatial inequities and injustices. The goal was never to “master” Mexico City, but rather to engage with local community organizations around specific issues within the city—street vending, children’s safety, gentrification—in order to bring back knowledge, insights, and perspectives that might be applied to analogous issues in Los Angeles. As Peter Chesney, a Ph.D. student in history at UCLA, reflected: “The most important experience in Mexico City was learning about the limitations of our own systems of knowledge, so that we could come back to Los Angeles and speculate about a place we think we know.” This is what we did returning to LA and extending, at least conceptually, the work done in Mexico City in a series of humanistic, interventionist collaborations with community groups in Boyle Heights.
In the spring studio, the urban humanities students worked with five Los Angeles–based community organizations—Libros Schmibros, The East Los Angeles Community Corporation, From Lot to Spot, Multicultural Communities for Mobility, and Self Help Graphics—grappling with critical issues currently unfolding in Boyle Heights, a neighborhood rife with spatial contestations and tensions between the residents and the ambitions of developers, city planners, business leaders, transit authorities, and government policies. These community organizations work on literacy, housing, green space, transportation, and activist visual arts, respectively, trying to find ethical, ground-up ways to enact change, struggling with questions such as: How do you develop a neighborhood that protects its residents, rather than welcoming in outside gentrifying forces? How do you intervene in ways that are ethical and attuned to the needs of greater LA? As outsiders to the neighborhood, our students occupied a liminal zone inflected with perspectives, knowledge, and activist practices stemming from Mexico City.
The projects that emerged were attempts, however provisional, to fuse these experiences and imagine scenarios that were ethically grounded, truly collaborative, and imaginatively engaged with the possibilities of translational, humanistic knowledge: A magic storytelling box for child literacy, a manual for community greening, a fotonovella imagining a just future for the neighborhood, a successful city arts activation grant for making a series of installations advocating for bike commuter safety.
Now there is also transnational circulation of these projects, with ideas spreading back from Los Angeles to Mexico City: La Caja Mágica, the magic storytelling box, will soon to be deployed in Mexico City on the children’s safety project where Laboratorio para la Ciudad continues to claim a “right to the street” for children’s play spaces.
Mexicocitylosangeles/Losangelesmexicocity by Jonathan Banfill and Maite Zubiaurre.
None of these projects is a grand statement or a utopian solution. They are small-scale interventions, speculative collaborations that are inserted into the fabric of the city in order to expose and begin to address a spatial injustice. They open up the public university to the outside and bring the outside in. They are porous in every sense of the word. As such, urban humanities bring productive responses to the oft-heard cries of “crisis” in the humanities; they are experimental, engaged, and speculative forms of knowledge-making, rooted in humanities perspectives and values, charged with creating new knowledge, new kinds of tools, and new possibilities for opening up the walls of the university and addressing spatial injustices through transnational creativity and networks. This is a prototype for the “fluid” university based on permeability, openness, interdisciplinarity, collaboration, and community engagement. Indeed, the decolonization of knowledge is never complete, but it must also start somewhere. We see Urban Humanities as one such start.
While we don’t disagree with the many struggles faced by the public university in an age of neoliberal corporatization, we don’t see the university in ruin or the humanities in perpetual crisis. Cf. Bill Readings, The University in Ruins (Harvard University Press, 1997).
Sidonie Smith, A Manifesto for the Humanities: Transforming Doctoral Education in Good Enough Times (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2016), 87.
“Thick mapping” is a key method in the urban humanities in which “mapping” is given dimensionality through a multiplicity of datasets, historical perspectives, narratives, and multimedia assets. The concept is derived from Clifford Geertz’s “thick description” and underscores the constructedness, contingency, and layeredness of spatial representations. For a fuller discussion, see Todd Presner, David Shepard, and Yoh Kawano, HyperCities: Thick Mapping in the Digital Humanities (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014).
Paulo Freire, Letters to Cristina (New York: Routledge, 1996), 85.
Jonathan Banfill is a Ph.D. student at University of California, Los Angeles. His research focuses on interdisciplinary higher education across Asia Pacific.
Todd Presner is professor of Germanic languages, comparative literature, and Jewish studies at University of California, Los Angeles. He is also the chair of the Digital Humanities Program.
Maite Zubiaurre is professor of Spanish and Portuguese and of Germanic Languages, and Associate Dean for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, Humanities Division, at University of California, Los Angeles.
Jonathan Banfill Angélica Becerra Jeannette MundyIn 2016, the borders that divide cities in California and Mexico (and even internally divide each city) grow wider and harder to cross. These borders include the US-Mexico border, which for centuries was little more than an imaginary line on a map, but now are violently drawn in the landscape out of rusty steel, barbed wire, and police. But they are also conceptual, cultural, linguistic, and occasionally pragmatic. What is the role of California’s public universities in addressing these borders?We need to develop the tools that will enable an alternative way to produce knowledge—one that co-creates with community organizations by combining scholarly, artistic, and activist practices with one another. The images that follow not only represent the near future of such knowledge production, they aim to create it. Produced in both Los Angeles and Mexico City, they sit at the nexus of learning the city and simultaneously intervening within it, seeking out an established network between these two places from which to draw and on which to build. This network was made up of too many actors to count, although the primary ones included LIGA, Casa Gallina, and Laboratorio para la Ciudad in Mexico City, and Self Help Graphics and Art, Multicultural Communities for Mobility, From Lot to Spot, and Libros Schmibros in Los Angeles. Of course, no place is ever left untouched by those who try such interventions: we, too, as a research group from UCLA, became yet one more of the many intimacies between Los Angeles and Mexico City.
These images provide glimpses from a near future that has begun to dismantle the barriers within and between Los Angeles and Mexico City, building bridges instead. There is a new body of practical learning made up of this and other networks, one that stretches deeply across the region to produce poetics for understanding and changing both the city already present and the city yet to come.
LA 24: We All Can Get Along Here, a thick map juxtaposes the Olympics, which are planned for 2024, with the social and environmental justice histories of South Los Angeles. Do these conversations have a place with an event that purports to celebrate athletic achievement, world peace, and human life? Image by Heidi Alexander, William Davis, Louis Monteils, and Chantiri Duran Resendiz.
Lotería Urbana. Lotería is a traditional bingo game common in Mexico City. Here it has been developed into a platform for community engagement in Los Angeles and Mexico City, representing a world where alternative reality gaming can bring neighbors closer together. Image by Angélica Becerra and William Davis.
Is the spatially determined appropriation of sensorial experiences an (in)formal tool of political resistance? In Mexico City, there is a visual onslaught of signage and text, even in public parks, where street vendors have staked a claim. Here is a visual poem that questions our assumption that these signs are merely signs—instead, they are multiplied as instruments that can intervene in power dynamics as a political tool of the disenfranchised. Image by Kendy Rivera.
Can I share electricity with you? This visual poem shows a world where the unending mess of power cables that snake across any street vending spot in Mexico City are coalesced into a single totality. Perhaps this everyday act of sharing resources is actually one that could be politically revolutionary. Image by Benjamin Kolder.
Can a seemingly meaningless tarp be a political tool? In interviews, UCLA researchers discovered an unspoken dance at the Plaza Santísima in Mexico City. Vendors use tarps to wage a secret war with city officials, raising the tarp when their demands are met and lowering it as an act of political resistance. Here, a visual poem pulls this latent reality to the fore. Image by LeighAnna Hildalgo.
Boyle Heights en Movimiento What if cyclists felt as if they owned the streets of Los Angeles? Here, bikers not only visible make themselves but celebrate their place on the street in Boyle Heights and greater Los Angeles—are you one of these bikers? Image by Lucy Seena K Lin and Jeannette Mundy.
Peatonito and the Peatoniños Mexico City safe-street personality with his new taskforce of urban advocates. Photograph by Jeff Newton.
Peatoniños Visual material from Peatoniños, an event that imagined what it would mean for children to have a right to the street. Peatonito, a local celebrity in Mexico City who advocates for street safety, and his taskforce invited children to play in a protected street, liberating it from cars for play. Image by Devin Koba.
Erasure Film documenting racial and environmental erasure in and around La Placita, Los Angeles. Image by LeighAnna Hildalgo, Andrew Ko, Paola Mendez, and Teo Wickland.
Jonathan Banfill is a Ph.D. student at University of California, Los Angeles. His research focuses on interdisciplinary higher education across Asia Pacific.
Angélica Becerra is a Ph.D. student at University of California, Los Angeles. She is studying Chicano art in solidarity with international struggles.
Jeannette Mundy is a master’s of architecture student at University of California, Los Angeles, from Los Angeles.
Maricela Becerra Cat Callaghan Will Davis Grace Ko Benjamin Kolder Alejandro Ramirez MendezIt is two-thirty in the afternoon on Sunday, 22 May 2016. You walk west down First Street, through Boyle Heights, a neighborhood just east of downtown Los Angeles. You can see downtown on the horizon from the crossroads of Boyle Avenue and First Street directly ahead of you. Walking through Mariachi Plaza in the glare of a Sunday afternoon, you hear cheering, then quiet, then laughter, then quiet, then singing. Children’s voices come from the kiosk, a raised pavilion that was a gift from the State of Jalisco in 1998 and built in traditional Mexican style from Cantera, using the same stone the pre-Colombian Toltecs used for their pyramids. Approaching the kiosk, you realize it is filled with people, a mix of ages. They are hushed, their attention fixed on a woman reading to them.This scene describes a children’s storytelling hour, the result of a collaboration between six UCLA researchers and Libros Schmibros, an independent bookstore and lending library in Boyle Heights, which took place over four months in 2016. The project explored how small-scale, staged literary interventions like a storytelling hour could have a productive impact on a given community. The initiative came about as a way to promote something we call “literary justice.”
Literary justice is premised on the idea of a culture that embraces stories as a part of life as part of a community-building effort. It is achieved when all members of a community have equal access to books and stories, and it stems from numerous studies that demonstrate that a person’s access to literature is a strong indicator for a host of quality-of-life measures.1 A robust public library system is an important tool in the fight for literary justice, but in cities like Los Angeles, busy families often struggle to use a public library system that was not designed to accommodate them. The limited availability of books and magazines, limited open times, hard-to-reach-library branches, and even a lack of knowledge of where library branches are located all limit the utility of libraries, as do lack of time and money, illiteracy, and a passion for books that has not yet been sparked in every member of the community.
So instead of focusing on physical libraries—or even physical books—we chose to focus our work with Libros Schmibros on stories. By bringing books and stories out of the library and into the neighborhood, we hoped that literacy and community engagement might build on one another in more imaginative ways. We devised a project that had two components—La Caja Mágica (the Magic Box) and La Hora Mágica (the Magic Hour)—aimed to expand the conventional notion of what a library could be by shifting the focus from books to storytelling. A small gathering telling stories becomes a performance: the sidewalk becomes a space of cultural production, changing the cultural practices of the neighborhood. Essentially, it becomes a library.
In Seeking Spatial Justice, Edward Soja introduces the idea of space as subject to forces that allow resources to be distributed unevenly and allow certain services to be granted only to the privileged.2 Literary injustice, therefore, describes forms of cultural, geographic, and social segregation that affect a community’s access to literary activities. In this sense, literary justice looks to break chains of inaccessibility and to empower community members by creating access funded by new paths of literary distribution.
Literary justice focuses on those places or social strata where access to literature has been diminished by economic or political decisions of the city. If “those who live in the city,” as Mark Purcell suggests, “contribute to the body of urban lived experience and lived space,”3 where does the experience of reading and storytelling fit into urban space? Claiming a space for books in the city is a way for a community to claim the right to be educated.
This in turn, led us to ask the following: Is our city designed for reading? Is public space planned for sharing stories? Is the act of reading aloud perceivable in Los Angeles? Literary justice promotes the importance of reading in the public realm as a means to enhance and empower community participation in public space.
Today’s public libraries serve as a basis for disseminating ideas to the community while providing a secure reservoir for books, magazines, or newspapers. However, as an enclosed, institutional space, it is functionally limited by its location, format, hours, and programs offered. Mobile libraries, on the other hand, represent a practical way to bring the book and the pleasure of literature to different communities. Projects such as the American Bookmobile service in the 1950s symbolized a way of assisting communities outside the boundaries of public library branches.4 However, mobile libraries themselves are limited by their small size and lack of vital resources a full-service public library can provide, such as trained children’s librarians. How can people access books and storytelling activities in public space? Can creatively implemented literary justice embedded into the cultural practices of an urban space such as Boyle Heights foster spatial justice?
La Caja Mágica is the heart of the project. Inspired by art projects such as The Dumpling Express (by the Berlin architecture office, Something Fantastic) and Olafur Eliasson’s Mirror Bikes, La Caja Mágica is a chrome-coated plywood box that unfolds to expose an interior of grass serving as a stool. The box stores grass mats to create seating for an audience. What looks at first like a strange, mirrored, rolling two-foot cube is in fact a storytelling box of tricks, containing books, puppets, and gifts. It is a box, but it is also a seat for a storyteller. It is an object, but also a location.
When children approach it, they see themselves playing in its mirrored surface. This dazzling effect seeks to pay homage to the visual aspects of a neighborhood, blending strangely with its surroundings, appearing imperceptible. Like the gleaming boxes of magicians, it attracts and generates expectation and curiosity among children and adults alike.
Once it is open, the box—lined with artificial turf—provides a place for the storyteller to sit and to store the books that will later be distributed to the audience. The turf and green seating mats transform the gray sidewalk into something almost park-like. The goal of La Caja Mágica is to transform a common environment into a micro library—or into a space apt for magical storytelling. The action of transforming the surroundings of the box into a whimsical environment becomes in itself a simulacrum of the cultural imaginary of telling stories in the middle of the forest. It transports these activities from the seclusion of enclosed space to the open communal environment of the public space. It also plays—in a minimalistic way—with the basic conditions needed to transform any space into a library.
Displaying La Caja Mágica (the Magic Box), a chrome-coated plywood box that unfolds to expose an interior of grass serving as a stool. The box stores grass mats to create seating for an audience.
Displaying La Caja Mágica (the Magic Box), a chrome-coated plywood box that unfolds to expose an interior of grass serving as a stool. The box stores grass mats to create seating for an audience.
In 2006, the Mexican artist Pablo Helguera organized an art project called The School of Pan-American Unrest. The project revived dying native languages and reenacted traditions in a traveling schoolhouse that made connections between the different regions of the Americas—from the northern regions of Alaska to the southern provinces of Chile—through a combination of performances, workshops, and screenings. Helguera’s breakdown of the traditional institution of the school provided inspiration for the reconceptualization of the pedagogical dynamics between storytelling and the places stories are told, be they schools or libraries.
Following Helguera’s lead, on a sunny Sunday afternoon in May of 2016, our six-person team and Libros Schmibros took over the kiosk at Mariachi Plaza. We opened La Caja Mágica and La Hora Mágica (the magic hour) began. David Kipen of Libros Schmibros introduced the event, and children’s librarians read stories aloud in Spanish and in English to a group of twenty children, who listened and danced. Two storytellers from the Los Angeles Public Library system engaged the children and their adult family members through skillful storytelling: book selection, page turning, and animated voices transformed words on a page into reality.
As the event drew to a close, we asked the children how often they would like to attend storytelling afternoons like La Hora Mágica, and we asked their parents where such events should be held. Most said three or more times a month, at Mariachi Plaza. Afterward, children and parents signed up for new or renewed accounts and checked out books at Libros Schmibros, which is located right next to the kiosk.
The whole project became an act of gift-giving to the community of Boyle Heights; by giving and sharing books and stories with the people, it functioned as an exemplary action to be imitated between parents and children. It also symbolized an act of literary justice that pursued the transformation of the cultural practices of the neighborhood by bringing fun and enjoyment to public space while promoting the act of reading and literacy.
At first, it was La Caja Mágica that commanded the attention of the audience, with its bizarre shiny presence; but as La Hora Mágica continued, both children and adults shifted their attention to the stories and activities performed by the storytellers. La Caja Mágica created an intimate literary space in a public area. La Hora Mágica is about stories, but it is also about the physicality of books and how they are treated when they are theatrically pulled from La Caja Mágica. The box, difficult to size because of its reflective sheen, seemed simultaneously tiny and huge as some twenty to thirty books emerged, one pulled from Libros Schmibros’s collection for each child present.
La Hora Mágica was advertised through posters in nearby locations, such as storefront windows and utility poles, and outreach to a few schools, bringing a dozen children there for the beginning of the event. Within the first ten minutes, another nine children and their parents joined, some running late and others passing by and wanting to join. The crowns, books, and puppets that emerged from La Caja Mágica attracted the attention of the public, but these alone could not hold focus without the dances and stories, read from books in English as well as Spanish.
Spectacle and performance were key components of this literary intervention. The action and impact that La Caja Mágica and La Hora Mágica had over the community provided an outlet for the social dynamics of the neighborhood, which all too often remain latent, with child-friendly spaces rare and working parents often keeping children at home. The event, not only a symbolic transformation of public space into library, also brought a moment of unity, peace, and enjoyment to participants. The project proposed, on one hand, a change in the spatial practices of the neighborhood by making accessible the art of storytelling; on the other hand, the whole experience allowed a reconfiguration of the reading and storytelling expectations of people.
Bringing the experience of reading books to people in urban spaces opens the possibility to reclaim the spaces for literacy as an act of social and spatial justice. Traditionally, kiosks in plazas like the one in Boyle Heights are used by bands and other groups as entertainment space. La Caja Mágica and La Hora Mágica broadened the kind of entertainment that could use the kiosk, while instilling a culture of literacy. Inspired in principles coined by Michel de Certeau in The Practice of Everyday Life, reading culture (or storytelling culture) is a series of social practices and tactics that permit competence in reading skills; these social rights of community to reading habits enable people to use books as tools for its intellectual and personal development.5 However, these practices are neither centered nor anchored in the mere materiality of the book as an object, nor in the number of books that a person possesses or reads, but in the way the communicated word between two or more people impacts and transforms someone’s thoughts and life. Access to the benefits that the act of reading and storytelling bring to people is the basis of the “Literary Justice.”
On the importance of libraries to communities, see M.D.R. Evans, Jonathan Kelley, Joanna Sikora, and Donald J. Treiman, “Family Scholarly Culture and Educational Success: Books and Schooling in 27 Nations,” Research in Social Stratification and Mobility 28.2 (June 2010): 171–97, which demonstrated that having more books in the home provided an advantage to children equivalent to having parents with a university education.
Edward W. Soja, Seeking Spatial Justice (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010).
Mark Purcell, “Excavating Lefebvre: The Right to the City and Its Urban Politics of the Inhabitant,” GeoJournal 58.2 (2002): 99–108.
Dorothy Strousse, “The Administrator Looks at Bookmobile Service,” ALA Bulletin 52.1 (1958): 16–22.
Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984).
Maricela Becerra is a Ph.D. student in the department of Spanish and Portuguese at University of California, Los Angeles. Her research focuses on the post-memories of the Tlatelolco massacre in contemporary Mexican authors, and the exchanges between the Chicano student movement in Los Angeles and the Mexican student activists in 1968.
Cat Callaghan is a master’s student at the University of California, Los Angeles. She is an architect studying transportation planning with the goal of improving accessibility in cities.
Will Davis is a Ph.D. student in architecture at University of California, Los Angeles. He studied in Bristol, Rotterdam, and Lund, gaining bachelor’s and master’s degrees in graphic design and anthropology.
Grace Ko is going into her second year in the Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Design at University of California, Los Angeles.
Benjamin Kolder is pursuing his master’s in architecture at University of California, Los Angeles. He works for Neil M. Denari Architects (NMDA) in Los Angeles.
Alejandro Ramirez Mendez is a Ph.D. student in the department of Spanish and Portuguese at University of California, Los Angeles. He studies the representation of space in Mexican and Chicano/a narratives of the twentieth and twenty-first century and their importance in the construction of identity.
Storytelling time for attendees of La Hora Mágica (the Magic Hour), Boyle Heights.
Editor’s Note: In 2014, architecture Professor Margaret Crawford and Associate Professor of Art Practice Anne Walsh taught the first University of California, Berkeley, Global Urban Humanities Initiative research studio course, called No Cruising: Mobility and Identity in Los Angeles. Then a Ph.D. student, Noam Shoked traveled to LA as part of the class to study bicycling communities there.
When we asked Crawford to tell us a little bit about the class, she wrote that “while preparing for the course, we spotted a photograph of a roadside ‘No Cruising’ sign, which opened our minds to the possibility of an ambiguous and open-ended understanding of mobility in LA and aided our investigation. Urban Dictionary’s two definitions of cruising both emphasized nonproductive mobility: first, ‘just driving around with no clear destination’; second, ‘trying to pick up someone for anonymous gay male sex.’ We added the subtitle ‘Mobile Identity and Urban Life’ to underline mobility as a social and human condition rather than a traffic problem to be solved.
“The adaptation and appropriation of words and concepts used to define ‘mobility’ opened doors to additional varied and unexpected interpretations as ten students majoring in art practice, art history, architecture, and performance studies, each selected a dimension of mobility they sought to identify on our field trips to LA. One goal of these field trips, or research studios, was to get students out of their comfort zones to explore new approaches and methods. We encouraged students to draw on each others’ disciplines, so art students undertook archival research while architectural history students, like Noam Shoked, used interviews and photography to investigate contemporary conditions.”
Los Angeles, known for its uncompromising car culture and unending urban sprawl has in the past year added more than one hundred miles of bike lanes, and intends to add forty miles more this year. In addition, with more than 100,000 participants, the car-free biking event CicLAvia takes place three times a year and is the country’s largest event of its kind. These initiatives are supported by multiple nonprofit organizations and bike co-ops such as the Bicycle Kitchen, Bikerowave, and the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition.
I made my first visit to Los Angeles to study this emerging culture in the context of the global urban bicycling movement, including that of my home country of Israel. I met with activists young and old, as well as officials dedicated to transforming much of the city by promoting a multimodal model, if not a car-free one. I was ready to leave the city and start analyzing the data I gathered, but on my way out of town, waiting at a gas station on Spring Street in the downtown area, I noticed someone riding slowly on the sidewalk. In heavy clothes and an old hat, he didn’t look like the young cyclists in spandex shorts and glossy helmets that I’d been interviewing. His bike was not as fancy as theirs and carried storage baskets on both sides. A few seconds later, I noticed another cyclist. Like the first, he was also riding on the sidewalk and wore a large hat that made it near impossible to see his face. It didn’t take long before I noticed that the sidewalks were crowded with cyclists. Most of them seemed like they were in their forties, maybe even fifties. All were men. Their lived experience of biking in the city was so different from what my research had led me to understand was the norm in Los Angeles. I had to learn more.
By the end of my second trip, my research project, my assumptions, and my view of bicycles in the city were turned inside out by a series of conversations with bicyclists who were part of no particular movement or organization, but who depended for their livelihood on their two-wheeled vehicles.
On my second visit to Los Angeles, I went to the area where I last saw these men and stumbled upon the Instituto de Educacion Popular del Sur de California (IDEPSCA) Downtown Community Job Center on Main Street, a facility that helped day laborers find work. Many bikes were tied to the bars by the entrance, and I assumed the men who came to the center looking for work rode their bikes from home each day. Inside I met José, a short man, probably in his forties. José was born in El Salvador and moved to Los Angeles a few years ago. His bike was in good shape—painted red and blue, and on one of his wheels there was a light refractor. He told me that when he was a kid in El Salvador, he also rode a bike.
José said he got to the day labor center by bike, insisting that he rides only on the sidewalk. He explained he was afraid of getting hit and complained about the merciless car drivers in the city. Accidents, he told me, can also happen on the sidewalk, and so he rides very slowly. I asked José if he used to ride on the sidewalk in El Salvador. José was amused. He said it was simply impossible in El Salvador, where the sidewalks were narrow and too crowded with people, vendors, and other obstacles.
Trying to understand his regular commute to the day labor center, I asked José where he lived. He wouldn’t tell me. At that moment, another worker, Miguel, intervened and announced, “He is homeless!” José seemed uneasy with Miguel’s comment and explained to me that he owns a cart and a bike, and stays near the intersection of Spring Street and Cesar Chavez. He even invited me over and said he would love to show me his place. By any standard definition, José was homeless, but not according to him. According to him, he owned some property—a bike and a cart—and had his own spot on Cesar Chavez Avenue. The bicyclists I met last time I was in Los Angeles saw bikes as a matter of mobility, but for José, his bike was the opposite. It gave him a sense of belonging, a way to put down roots.
I was curious to learn more about why it was important for him to declare that he owns a bike and a cart. José pulled a receipt from his pocket and explained that he usually doesn’t get jobs through the day labor center. Instead, riding his bike, he collects cans and bottles, and sells them to the Downtown Metals & Recycling Center on Alameda Street. José’s receipt indicated he received $11.23 from the recycling center. He said he rides his bike to different areas of the city on different days of the week. He usually goes to the area around Temple and Glendale on Wednesdays, and to Skid Row on Saturdays and Sundays. Sometimes, he makes a big loop from Cesar Chavez, south to Washington Boulevard by way of MacArthur Park, and then back up Alameda to the recycling center, where he gets paid for his haul. Mobility, then, for José, was also a matter of inserting himself into the city’s economy.
Through José, I met Diego, who was younger and seemed rather stylish. Four years ago he moved here from Colima, a small city south of Guadalajara. Diego explained that he lives on Third and Los Angeles streets. It wasn’t clear to me whether Diego actually had an apartment there. I wondered if perhaps, like José, he was also homeless. By now I realized such designations were irrelevant to those at the day laborer center, and I worried about imposing my own norms on Diego or, worse, causing him discomfort, and so I didn’t ask him to clarify this point. A more definitive study might have required such information, but I was after something else. I wanted to learn about the city through Diego’s terms. Diego then told me that in order to get to the day labor center, where we met, he rides on Third Street and then takes a left turn onto Broadway. Sometimes he goes from the center to the main branch of the Los Angeles Public Library on Fifth Street.
Like José, Diego also collects recyclable material across the city, though he has his own route. He starts near his home and bikes eastward on Third Street. Along his route, Diego passes by the jewelry and wholesale stores downtown, a Buddhist temple in Little Tokyo, as well as the art galleries and lofts in the Arts District right before going up on the bridge and crossing the LA River. Along this route his attention is divided between looking down at the sidewalk and up to the urban landscape. Once on the east side of the river, Diego stops at Hollenbeck Park where he can rest and relax for a short while. Then, cycling westward, back toward downtown, he stops sometimes by Mariachi Plaza before crossing the bridge again. From here, he turns to Alameda Street and goes straight to the recycling center at 1000 North Main Street.
Diego’s route traverses multiple landscapes and social scenes in six different neighborhoods. Riding on his bike, he sees difference, not sameness. While on his bike, even though inequality is not erased altogether, urban segregation is diminished. His freedom is limited only by how far his legs and two wheels can take him.
And they can take him far. He prefers riding even longer distances just for fun, and he belongs to a cyclists’ group with whom he goes on long rides once a month, usually from Montebello to Whittier and around Rose Hills Memorial Park—a twenty-seven-mile ride. He rides for necessity, but not unlike those young men whom I talked with on my first visit, he also biked for the love of it.
Before leaving the day laborer center, I also met Pablo, an undocumented immigrant who was born in El Salvador and moved to the United States seven years ago. He first lived in Las Vegas, where he worked for a furniture company; but early in 2016, he lost his job and moved to Los Angeles with the hope of finding another. For the time being, he registers every morning at the day labor center on Main Street.
Pablo told me he lives in Boyle Heights, not far from Mariachi Plaza. In order to get to the center, he rides his bike on First Street, crosses the LA River, and then turns onto San Pedro Street. When he gets a job through the center, he can ride his bike to almost any location in the city where there is work. One time, Pablo recalled, he biked all the way to La Cienega Boulevard. At another time, he even made it to Santa Monica. On his bike, Pablo covered an expansive geography.
At one point, while we were talking about the city and how different it was from Las Vegas, I asked Pablo what would he change in the design of the streets of LA, if he could. After a few seconds of silence, Pablo replied saying, “Not to have bicycles on the streets.” After a few more minutes of talking, I learned Pablo didn’t really want to eliminate all bicycles from the city. It was bike lanes he didn’t like. He didn’t want the visibility that came with riding on city streets. When riding on the sidewalk, he felt invisible to most passersby. When riding on the newly painted bright green bike lanes, he was just too visible. I am accustomed to thinking that visibility is a source of political power. For Pablo, invisibility is a tactic, or a means through which he can insert himself into the social fabric of the city without attracting the notice of anyone who might not want him there.
Before our interview ended, I asked Pablo about his income: How much money was he making every month? Was he getting a lot of jobs through the center? Or, was he relying on other sources of income like José and Diego? Pablo, who, unlike José and Diego, did not collect recyclable materials, explained to me that the day labor center to which he biked every day was not a source of reliable income. Instead, it was an institution that provided him with care, a form of compassion and friendship. Away from his family and home, the center was important for his emotional well-being.
On my way back to Berkeley I realized how much my understanding of biking culture had changed over the course of these two visits to LA. If, originally, I intended to learn more about an obvious problem—the lack of bike lanes—I was now faced with a completely different set of problems. Biking was not just a healthy and green mobility alternative in Los Angeles. It was also a matter of social mobility, citizenship, and visibility. In addition, while the biking activists I intended to study had a straightforward outcome in mind, the cyclists I ended up documenting resisted neat solutions.
And instead of finding a solution, through listening to these few cyclists, I found an alternative landscape. This landscape of cycling paths, economic activities, and squatting spots seems to exist almost secretly, despite taking place out in the open, right on the city’s sidewalks.
Photographs by Noam Shoked.
Noam Shoked is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, and an Israel Institute Doctoral Fellow. Before coming to Berkeley, he worked as an architect in New York and Tel Aviv.
Consuelo Flores’s altar created for Self Help Graphics’ exhibition ‘‘The 43: From Ayotzinapa to Ferguson.’’
Tragedy does strange things to our conception of proximity. Sometimes we can connect more easily to another’s suffering in a different country than we can to a tragedy a few miles away. In the expanse of Southern California, where the experience of urban space is fragmented into disconnected islands of community, what does a mass shooting in San Bernardino, at the urban periphery, mean to someone living in the city of Los Angeles proper? How do Angelenos process an act of violence toward a queer, primarily Puerto Rican, community at an Orlando nightclub? Post-feminist cultural theorist Judith Butler, when writing about the conditions for a “grievable life” makes an “appeal to a ‘we,’ for all of us have some notion of what it is to have lost somebody.”1 What can we hope to recover by offering our grief across territories in search of a collective memory in this current era of cultural plurality and technological interconnectedness? Los Angeles, as one of the world’s centers of artistic and cultural production, is a laboratory for interrogating the role of art, informality, and grieving in the global twenty-first century. The case of the forty-three disappeared2 students from Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College in Mexico—a tragedy that reverberated throughout the world—has illuminated Los Angeles’ particular role in the production of collective memory.
On 26 September 2014, forty-three students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College disappeared from Iguala, a city in the state of Guerrero, Mexico. Guerrero is a largely rural state with a majority indigenous population, many of whom leave their home region as economic migrants in search of jobs in other Mexican cities and in the United States. With the bodies of two students recovered to date, forty-one students remain missing. Gema Santamaría, Professor of International Studies at the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México, claims that the Mexican government’s lack of transparency and efficacy in the investigation process reflected its lack of accountability in the aftermath. Indeed, public perception increasingly viewed local law enforcement and the federal government as complicit in the disappearances. “Ayotzinapa ‘fue el Estado’ inasmuch as it was and continues to be the result of impunity and systematic practices of abuse within different levels of government.”3
In Los Angeles, mourning for the students has taken the form of what we call “anti-memorialization,” whereby traditional forms of memorialization are upended through informality, ephemerality, art, and the digital realm, in order to politicize and bring attention to an injustice. While informal memorials have existed as long or longer than their formal counterparts, anti-memorialization moves these informal memorials into the contemporary reality of a digitally networked world and pushes them from private mourning to public activism.4 There was also an outpouring of protests, demonstrations, and informal memorials throughout Mexico in response to the disappearances, with the largest demonstrations numbering in the tens of thousands on the streets of Mexico City. The global response was no less overwhelming: groups of students, local organizations, artists, activists, and other mourners posted their rituals and protests online to signal their solidarity with the friends and families of the disappeared students, and with the Mexican nationals demanding accountability from their government. The reactions and the incident itself went largely unreported by formal local and global news outlets and instead leapfrogged into the digital realm, where a keyword search of “Ayotzinapa” produced numerous links to a variety of alternative online-style reportage, including blogs, political media sites, YouTube pages, and Twitter feeds and hashtags. The Global Anti-Memorial Map for Ayotzinapa’s 43 locates and catalogs the cities where the anti-memorialization activities were presented first in physical form and then posted and shared online. The public anti-memorials ranged from mass protests, demonstrations of candlelit ceremonies, public performances to the recurring motif of empty school-style chairs that symbolized the missing bodies. Documented and archived on the Internet, these acts represent the beginning of a globally oriented collective memory of mourning and protest.
Consuelo Flores’s altar created for Self Help Graphics’ exhibition ‘‘The 43: From Ayotzinapa to Ferguson.’’
Seven months after the disappearance of the forty-three students, families and other activists installed a metal sculpture reading “+43” on Mexico City’s Paseo de la Reforma. Along the sidewalk, the phrase “Porque vivos se los llevaron, vivos los queremos!” (“Because they were taken alive, we want them back alive”) was painted. The installation of “+43” was accompanied by no formal ceremony; there were no government officials present. Rather, the installation of what the activists called an “anti-monument” was a public challenge to the Mexican government that had failed to provide any answers. The anti-monument expresses the public’s refusal to accept death as the final condition. Moreover, the anti-monument’s appropriation of public space, just blocks away from formal memorials to Mexican history Ángel de la Independencia and the Monumento de la Revolución, contests the national discourse of what is worth remembering. With the large metal sculpture by an anonymous artist came a warning: if the Mexico City government removed the anti-monument, they would be seen as accomplices of the crime.5 Several people volunteered as guards of the anti-monument in order to keep it safe.
In Los Angeles, as in Mexico City, the proliferation of anonymous street art, in the form of stenciled and spray-painted icons of the number “43,” political text, and unplanned sidewalk altars nearly two years after the reported disappearance, reflect ongoing informal calls for justice. In an art installation by Consuelo Flores, images of each of the forty-three students are interspersed with floating cutouts of flora and fauna, all suspended above a shrine of red handprints on paper sheets and stones placed in a formation that surrounds a single, black fabric-covered desk to symbolize the student status of the disappeared. The piece was part of an exhibit sponsored by Boyle Heights–based arts organization Self Help Graphics and Art entitled 43: From Ayotzinapa to Ferguson. The exhibition anti-memorializes not just the forty-three students from Ayotzinapa, but victims of police brutality in the United States as well, linking the two social movements across national borders. This anti-memorial was part of a larger, three-part exhibition, Ayotzinapa: A Roar of Silence, which took place over sixteen weeks and involved three other local arts organizations dedicated to social justice: Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC), Center for the Study of Political Graphics, and Art Division.
Embedded in 43: From Ayotzinapa to Ferguson is a cosmopolitan orientation, initiated by the international call for poster art by the Oaxacan-Mexican artist and activist Francisco Toledo to universities, museums, and art communities. The request was Toledo’s way of grieving with mourners around the world, and his action prompted local and global linkages that amplified the otherwise isolated anti-memorialization acts through the organization of political arts spaces in Los Angeles. The coalition among the four arts organizations, prompted by the Center for the Study of Political Graphics in Culver City, is movement-building akin to the sort of organizing in which political activist groups engage. As a group, these organizations assumed the mantle of public accountability even as they contended with their own missions, communities, political and aesthetic principles, and precarity as small, struggling organizations.6 Shown sequentially, the exhibitions amounted to what the LA Times called an “arts festival of protest” by providing a platform for artists to memorialize the victims, for the immediate public to participate in the related programming, and as a cry for Angelenos to resist structural injustice.
The local and global proliferation of anti-memorials undoubtedly places pressure on those responsible—in particular the complicit Mexican government—to provide answers, to hold someone accountable, and in short, to act. Yet the extent to which the Mexican government cannot ignore its citizens’ demands would seem to depend on the intensity and duration of those demands. In other words, it depends on the degree to which the mourning of the event translates into permanent, collective memory.
According to French philosopher and sociologist Maurice Halbwachs, the theory of collective memory alludes to the idea that “knowledge about the past is shared, mutually acknowledged, and reinforced by collectivities such as small informal groups, formal organizations, or nation states and global communities.”7 In light of the 2014 event, collective memory has been shaped and defined by cultural or “collective trauma.” The collective memory of trauma is the “memory of an event or situation that is laden with negative affect, represented as indelible, and seen as threatening to a society’s existence or violating its cultural presuppositions.”8
The instances of ongoing violence in Mexico, government culpability, and state-sanctioned violence are not new to Mexico’s history. In 2013, according to the country’s national statistics institute, 93 percent of crimes in Mexico go unreported.9 During the Ayotzinapa investigation in Iguala, approximately 129 unidentified bodies of disappeared individuals turned up in mass graves unrelated to the Ayotzinapa students.10 Journalist Cesar Martinez wrote that the 1968 student massacre at Tlatelolco, and the forty-three Ayotzinapa students represent the two cultural traumas that have most permeated “Mexican society, political discourse, and civilian dialogues,” in the sense that these events have “usurped a society’s fears and memorialized them as an indicator to prevent a similar case from occurring.”11 To what extent has the collective memory in the aftermath of Mexico’s two “biggest” traumas led to collective action and social change, so that such traumas may never again take place?
Martinez argues that the “collective memories” of 1968 and 2014 have produced art, formal and informal monuments, and film, but no concrete legal accountability for the perpetrators.12 Knowing this, we must ask, is legal accountability the only type of accountability that is valuable to track in these events? In the case of the exhibition at Self Help Graphics, art is the mechanism through which awareness is raised by creating a participatory public, one that invests itself in social change over the long run. While high art is often complicit with the negative externalities of globally networked capital, this kind of participatory, socially engaged, and bottom-up art can be a powerful force for good. In other words, it takes time—and art can be a vehicle through which memory is sustained through time. This is especially important when accounts of “what happened” become increasingly contested.13 It might be better to say, then, that it is the quality and diffusion of the memory of the forty-three students that will ultimately determine the degree to which justice is served. Contemporary memory production, or anti-memorialization, sustains the memory of structural violence to drive the search for justice using tools of the digital age.
Los Angeles has become a key hub in the mourning for Ayotzinapa through its three-part exhibition which extended and amplified its place as a global tragedy. The exhibitions moved the anti-memorials into the gallery, effectively transforming the products of grief and outrage into objects of cultural and aesthetic import. These actions are not to monetize or to fetishize grief. On the contrary, their place in a respected art institution in Los Angeles, a city widely recognized as a cultural capital, state that the issue is important, and that the community of those affected extends from a handful of families in Guerrero to you, a visitor to this gallery.14 Self Help Graphics further localizes a globally diffused mourning by inviting forty-three Southern California–based artists to take part in 43: From Ayotzinapa to Ferguson. The artwork they produced grieves for not only Ayotzinapa victims, but also Los Angeles and the United States, with their histories of institutional violence against people of color. Given the large population of people of color—both immigrants and native-born—Los Angeles as a place embodies this in a heightened sense. In addition, Los Angeles is home to a substantial Mexican population, and specifically communities of indigenous Mexicans from the rural states of Oaxaca, Chiapas, Veracruz, and Guerrero.15 For these communities residing in the United States, they receive news of kin and kith in Mexico digitally, primarily from their online social networks. This is also how information of their transnational communities disperses, creating pathways moving between the local and global. The timeliness of the exhibition speaks to Los Angeles’ unique capacity as a migrant-concentrated, metropolitan node and a center for cultural and artistic production to respond with anti-memorialization, and an exhibition designed to travel beyond its geographic boundaries.
Ayotzinapa anniversary march in Mexico City, September 2015. Photograph by the Organization of American States Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, via Flickr.
The deluge of submissions to Francisco Toledo, totaling 700 pieces of poster art from locales like Iran, Denmark, Poland, Lebanon, Cuba, and Argentina, and the global manifestation of anti-memorial events, collectively represent the emergence of an extensive interconnected transnational network. This network understands the need for acts of solidarity and the knowledge that the aggregation of voices affects how movements, and, therefore, social change takes place. At a fundamental level, the need for global mourning, for a collective memory, and for what theorist Paul Gilroy calls a “cosmopolitan hope”16 to pursue a globalized humanistic existence is made abundantly clear. This is the learned need for solidarity of a cosmopolitan global community interconnected by digital culture that expresses their agency from below rather than waiting for or expecting that their governments and legal systems will enact the necessary justice. The 43: From Ayotzinapa to Ferguson exhibit is a reminder that when communities here and abroad come together to mourn and demand justice via art, the work produced not only serves as a reminder to reflect on these tragedies, it is a deliberate call to action for us all.
A Day of the Dead offering to the disappeared Ayotzinapa students in Las Vegas. Photograph by Marco Mora-Huizar, via Flickr.
1 Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London: Verso, 2004), 2.
2 Desaparecido (the Spanish word for “disappeared”) has a different connotation in Mexico than its English translation. In Mexico, “disappeared” is an active verb rather than a passive adjective. To call the forty-three students “disappeared” is to suggest that someone actively made them disappear.
7 M. Halbwachs, On Collective Memory (Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press, 1992), 42.
8 Neil J. Smelser, “Psychological Trauma and Cultural Trauma,” in Jeffrey C. Alexander, Ron Eyerman, Bernard Giesen, et al., Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity (Berkeley, University of California Press, 2004), 31–59.
13 Andreas Huyssen, Present Pasts: Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), 28, 4.
14 See again Castells’ Networks for more on the roles that community and what he calls “togetherness” play to spark political change.
15 Lisa Kresge, Indigenous Oaxacan Communities in California: An Overview (Davis: California Institute for Rural Studies, 2007).
16 “The challenge of being in the same present, of synchronizing difference and articulating cosmopolitan hope upward from below rather than imposing it downward from on high[…].” Paul Gilroy, Postcolonial Melancholia (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 67.
Before a Justice for All march in Washington DC, December 2014. Photograph by Elvert Barnes, via Flickr.
Maricela Becerra is a Ph.D. student in the department of Spanish and Portuguese at University of California, Los Angeles. Her research focuses on the post-memories of the Tlatelolco massacre in contemporary Mexican authors, and the exchanges between the Chicano student movement in Los Angeles and the Mexican student activists in 1968.
Lucy Seena K. Lin is a master’s student in Urban and Regional Planning at University of California, Los Angeles. Her research examines cultural production in everyday practice and in building resilience and vitality of communities.
Gus Wendel is pursuing a master’s degree in urban and regional planning at University of California, Los Angeles. He is interested in the ways that visual culture informs planning and design, the politics of place and space, and urban planning history.
Based in Los Angeles’s Skid Row and comprised largely of the area’s formerly homeless, the Los Angeles Poverty Department creates performances from the writings, stories, and experiences of its participants. The mission of LAPD (yes, their acronym is purposeful) is to illuminate the social forces that shape the lives and communities of people living in poverty. For thirty years, LAPD’s creative body of work has included theatrical productions, street parades, a museum and archive, and educational programing, all aimed at the problem of “poverty,” a word that too often elides what is actually a constellation of some of the most intractable social problems of this era: institutionalized racism, the criminal justice system, the failed drug wars, crises in mental healthcare, and the forces of capital, which separate people from basic rights of citizenship. Yet what LAPD achieves is ultimately at human scale. The group brings back into view those who are most often forgotten (the disenfranchised, the impoverished, the mentally ill); the players make you feel what you might never otherwise know, even if you’ve lived it (audiences are often Skid Row residents); and the performances create ruptures in master narratives in order to supersede the social divisions between us, to allow understanding and even regeneration. In the words of its founder and director, John Malpede, LAPD allows “ripples of thought” to permeate the hard edifice of capital.1
State of Incarceration is an LAPD production that taps the inside knowledge of core company members, including Kevin Michael Key, Riccarlo Porter, Anthony Taylor, and Ronnie Walker, and roomfuls of other participants, some from parolee reentry programs in the area. Virtually all Skid Row citizens can claim firsthand knowledge of the criminal justice system. It’s hard to escape the system once you’ve hit Skid Row, given its long history of aggressive policing, criminalization of poverty that renders illegal the daily actions of homeless people—actions such as sleeping on sidewalks and carting one’s belongings—and ticketing for minor infractions, such as jaywalking, with $100 fines or more that go to warrant and then arrest when unpaid.2 One of every five people released from incarceration back into Los Angeles go directly to the streets, many taking their “gate money” (money given upon release from incarceration and reentry into society) to Skid Row when they leave state prison or county jail.3
With no paucity of experience to work with, LAPD’s process is as important as the performances themselves, particularly in aiding street-level truth and reconciliation. In workshops, the group collects data about our carceral state, recounts and improvises counter-narratives, derives new insights, and perhaps even founds a new and more egalitarian way of understanding how to comprehend the complex social reality of disenfranchisement. In its process and performance,State of Incarceration offers an affective historical accounting and cataloging of the pieces of personal experience that are rarely part of the publicly accessible record, but which comprise the experiences of significant populations and are essential to any collective reckoning with mass incarceration and the cycles of poverty and violence at its base. The performance creates a space for formerly imprisoned people to share experiences as well as strategies of survival, and it “creates a moment of exchange and reflection on how they and we, the people of California, can recover from living in a state of incarceration.”4
When performed, State of Incarceration (2010–present) lines cellblock bunk beds wall-to-wall for audience members to sit on, mimicking California’s overcrowded jails and prisons. It begins with the “History of Incarceration” song, a spiritual performed by the entire cast, whose combined voices forge a sense of the communal, across historical time and space, as the song connects the prison-bus journey to slave routes and chains. “This history is like used-up water to me; it flows in my veins, in my blood, in my community,” they sing. Similarly poetic are monologues expressive of interior lives born out of the memories of LAPD performers, two of whom landed back in prison between productions of State of Incarceration (one for stealing toothpaste).5Doing jumping jacks in one’s cell becomes liberation (“rhythm moves my spirit. . . lost in freedom”). A prisoner intones his upcoming fate—”thirty days in the hole” (solitary confinement) with “four walls, no TV, no books, only me,” and repeats a chant that includes, “I walk. I sit. I look. I think. I cry. . . time rises and falls like the ocean. . . I exist.”
At the performance’s end, the players ritualistically clean “one wall at a time,” “one brick at a time,” “washing down for the addicted, weak, and sick,” enacting a baptism of forgiveness and release. Finally, they prepare for communion, using “the spread,” another prison ritual. Ramen, Cheetos, and plenty of garlic are base for the communal meal, added bit by bit to a giant garbage bag opened on the floor. Audience members are invited to share the “spread,” as actors put plates of food into our hands. Thus, we too take communion, joined together with both those acting as prisoners and guards, and perhaps together we feel some of the responsibility of living in a state that is supported so fundamentally by the policing and incarceration of our most vulnerable members.
Taken in its entirety, State of Incarceration is a litany of the rituals of incarceration, from the ride on the bus—termed the Slave Ship in the performance—to the state prison, to therapy and passing the time, to release and the Kafkaesque struggle to remain out of the control of the criminal justice system. What follows is a short excerpt that illuminates a few of the struggles the newly released face.
Excerpts from State of Incarceration by the Los Angeles Poverty Department.
Performance directed by John Malpede and Henriëtte Brouwers.
RONNIE: Relapse + JIMMIE: Johnny Mack (two texts inter-cut)
RONNIE: I am being released from prison soon. I have no money and nowhere to go, and on my release my addiction will start fighting for control of my thoughts.
JIMMIE: I committed a crime that, you know, I’m not proud of. I got out of the penitentiary and the government don’t have too many places where a fellow like me can get a job.
RONNIE: All of my good ideas will go straight out of the window if my addiction wins over my thinking. However I have too much pride to leave jail and go straight to a program. How could I even think of embarrassing myself like that?
JIMMIE: They tell you to be honest on an application. I can guarantee you that the moment I walk out of that door, they throw my application in the garbage.
But on the other hand I don’t have a problem with getting high in jail—only when I’m on the streets. But I need money and clothes and the only way to get that is to sell dope.
JIMMIE: Years ago, when you got out of prison you could get on welfare. Nowadays, you can’t go on welfare, unless for three months, or sometimes you even can’t get on welfare. So, you are out on the street, in a shelter, or you are back to what you were doing. You know what I’m saying? No way out of it.
RONNIE: Nobody is going to hire me because of my record. So I am going to have to find a way to stay out of jail, take care of myself and stay off drugs.
JIMMIE: Because like I was saying, the government does not have a lot of places where a guy like me could go. It is totally up to you to get out of the situation.
RONNIE: And the reality is: I hit downtown at 6 PM, and by 9 PM I was high with my girlfriend.
My First Job
DEBORAH: The first chance I had to get a job, I had to go down to the office and get a print out of my record. I had to do it that day—or no job. I had one dollar to my name. When I got there, they told me the record was free.
WORKER: If it don’t take longer than 10 minutes to print out, it’s free. After that it cost $5 a minute.
DEBORAH: I didn’t say anything, just nodded. I didn’t care. I wasn’t gonna let anything stop me from getting that job. I wasn’t gonna put the brakes on myself.
WORKER: I asked you, do you want to have me print it? After 10 minutes it cost $5 a minute. You understand?
DEBORAH: If it came out too long, then I’d deal with that, somehow. But I wasn’t gonna give up, get hopeless. Walk away. No way.
WORKER: “Yes? You want me to print it?” That girl didn’t have a dollar to her name.
DEBORAH: I stood there while it was printing and every guilty thought came back into my head. How I was guilty of this, and that and some more this and that. How they were gonna find things out. How I’d messed up, messed up, couldn’t help but mess up. How they hated me, knew I was stupid, knew I would mess up and always keep messing up. The longer I waited the more hopeless my situation was.
WORKER: The whole time it was printing she stood there scared to death I was gonna ask her to pay something she couldn’t.
DEBORAH: What was I waitin for? You know they’re not gonna give it to me. I’m not gonna get the paper. What is wrong with me thinking I was gonna get that job? Get real. What the hell you waiting around for? Just to be humiliated. You like that. Being humiliated. You like that. That’s what feels good to you. Feels right. You like it, otherwise you’d get the hell out of here right now. You wouldn’t have come here in the first place.
WORKER: I came back with the print out. It came out to eleven minutes. “All right Miss Anderson, here you are.” Eleven minutes, but I just gave it to her and didn’t say anything. Didn’t ask her to pay.
DEBORAH: While I was waiting for those papers, it all came back to me. I was nearly overwhelmed by the stigma, the stamp of being a criminal—a convict. I was overwhelmed by the fear.
Photographs from a performance of State of Incarceration courtesy of the Los Angeles Poverty Department.
1. Malpede uses this phrase in connection with a discussion of Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 poverty tour through Eastern Kentucky. Lynda Frye Burnham, “When Kennedy Came to Kentucky,”American Theatre (July/August 2004), 33.