Saturday, March 24, 2018

El Movimiento; a brief look by Antonio SolisGomez and Photographs by Oscar Castillo

No one knows why everyone started calling it "El Movimiento". But what else could we have called it for indeed there was a movement. It was as if, for a couple of centuries before, Chicanos had lain dormant and in repose. Now they were beginning to stir. They began to openly protest the plight of Chicano students being shuttled into industrial arts programs regardless of their individual aptitudes or talents and to openly protest the usual practices of police harassing barrio citizens for little reason. They began to protest inadequate medical facilities for Chicanos where inferior doctors practiced, and the criminal justice regulations that punished Chicanos with indeterminate sentences. They protested the higher-than average representation of Chicanos in the army fighting the Vietnam War, of under-enrollment in colleges and universities and of being overly represented in the lowest paid types of work.

Of course, it is not true that Chicanos were inactive during the preceding eras. There had been many instances when they had fought against injustices, particularly around employment practices but also against school segregation, police brutality, and hate-induced violence such as the Zoot Suit Riots.

L to R Art Torres, (?? ), Jane Fonda, Richard Alatorre, Edward Roybal

 Upon returning home to the United States, many Chicano soldiers who served during World War II became actively involved in community issues. One organization that should be mentioned is the GI Forum, which was very strong in the Southwest among Latino veterans from World War II. In East Los Angeles, the Community Services Organization (CSO) helped Chicanos become agents for social change. One such change person was Cesar Chavez and the CSO helped organize the campaign that led to the election of Edward Roybal first to the Los Angeles city Council and then to the US House of Representatives; Roybal was the first Latino from California since the late 1800s.
But the difference that began taking place in the later half of the 1960s was the grand scope of participation and the coming together in unity of diverse factions of the barrios that had begun to see that the problems and challenges they were facing were not unique to their particular faction but were widespread and affecting all of them exactly because they were Chicanos living in barrios. This perception created a difference and the unity that began to build was the result of parents, students, ex-cons, clergy, welfare mothers, Korean War veterans, Vietnam veterans, gang bangers, college educated professionals, World War II Veterans, all attended open community meetings and participated in conversations to explore their collective concerns as people living and working in barrios. Those meetings were by no means totally amicable or lacking in open dissent and even where there was some agreement on the larger issues such as educational reform, opposition to the Vietnam War and better health facilities, there was little consensus on strategies to achieve results.
         In the 1960s the majority of Chicanos were living in East Los Angeles proper, an unincorporated area, in barrios within Los Angeles, namely Boyle Heights, Lincoln Heights, El Sereno, Florence, Glassel Park, Montebello and in outlying areas such as El Monte, the San Fernando Valley, La Puente and Norwalk. Most Chicanos were citizens of this country, fully acculturated, fluent in English and with no desire to be anything but United States citizens.
         However, culturally, Chicanos straddled two worlds. In this respect, they were no different than other immigrant groups whose identity was a mixture of old and new world. The one difference that had become more apparent in the preceding decade was that there continued to be a strong influx of immigrants to the United States from Mexico and Central America, many of whom lived in large enclaves where the Spanish language was predominant.

         If there was a catalyst for the release of the pent-up feelings of resentment among Chicanos, it was the inception of the central valley Farm Workers strike, "La Huelga", led by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta and the subsequent grape boycott in September of 1965. This massive nationwide call to action was a consciousness-raising event that allowed many of us to quickly identify with the struggle of campesinos to obtain safe working conditions and decent pay. It didn’t matter that "La Huelga" was taking place in the San Joaquin Valley and the town of Delano, far removed from the urban center of Los Angeles where I and my "Con Safos" friends lived. What did matter was that they were Chicanos hoping to improve their lot and facing tremendous obstacles in the form of rich growers supported by the elected officials at all levels, from the local sheriff to the state senators and representatives. This common thread also brought in Chicanos from other urban centers such as Denver, Chicago, Albuquerque, El Paso, San Antonio, Phoenix, Tucson and a host of other smaller towns throughout the Southwest and Midwest.
         Some Chicanos had gained experiences with the Civil Rights Movement of African Americans and had gone to demonstrations and picketed on their behalf. And some of us had been to protests against the House Un-American Activities Committee, but the Chicano "Movimiento" was different because its targets were impinging directly on our immediate lives and we jumped in with no holds barred.
And be very clear that never was a person that was the leader of the Movimiento, despite what some might say. It was a true collective of various factions and although there was no one person or group that one could say was the prime mover in East Los Angeles, there did exist a variety of individuals and organizations that provided leadership. One such early voice was the newspaper 
"La Raza" founded by Eleazar Risco in 1967 with the help of Father John Luce, an Episcopalian minister assigned to the Church of the Epiphany and Ruth Robinson Risco’s friend. "La Raza" took on the task of rallying support for a variety of Chicano issues and helping raise the awareness of barrio residents. Some of their articles were biased and vitriolic but they also contained elements of the truth of what barrio life was all about. Prior to his arrival in East Los Angeles, Eleazar Risco had worked with the farm worker newspaper "El Malcriado" so there was a strong connection between what was taking place in Chavez’ and Huerta's Delano and San Joaquin Valley and in East Los Angeles.
         Father Luce, a member of the Luce Family from New York, and his Church of the Epiphany were fully in support of the Chicano "Movimiento" and held many fund-raising events in other Episcopalian Churches in the greater Los Angeles area to provide financial assistance to "La Raza" newspaper and other groups promoting Chicano causes such as a Ballet Folklorico and bilingual preschool education.
         For a time, "Con Safos" also benefited when we were offered space in a large house that the church owned and had converted into offices. Our tenancy ended when the FBI raided the house and absconded with the entire contents of a forthcoming issue of the magazine. The fact that the feds were surreptitiously gathering and compiling evidence and infiltrating meetings was not well known at the time but eventually became apparent as FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover's dirty tricks and "political policing" were revealed. One of those FBI plants was in the Chicano Studies classroom at East Los Angeles City College of Arturo Flores our "Con Safos" editor.


Another important early voice was that of Moe Aguirre, whose organization, League of United Chicanos Heroin Addicts (LUCHA) represented the concerns of both the imprisoned and ex-cons trying to leave their former lifestyles behind by obtaining legitimate employment and returning to their families. Those in LUCHA had a tremendous core identity and often moved as one, comprising a formidable voice in community meetings. Moe, who led them, was a big muscular man with a crooked nose and a scarred face that could easily alarm those that didn’t know him. He had been imprisoned for a good part of his life and was self educated and colorfully charismatic. He was also a staunch anti-Communist, having grown up during the patriotic era of World War II, which pitted him squarely against the leftist element of "El Movimiento" that coalesced around Bert Corona, a long-time left-leaning activist whose organizations were Centro Accion Social Autonoma (CASA) and the offshoot Casa Carnalismo (Brotherhood), a group that few outside the barrio knew existed. We in "Con Safos" knew because that group, along with the Brown Berets, wanted to take editorial control of "Con Safos", believing that our publication was too important not to be employed in furthering their agenda. Naturally, we resisted and thwarted their planned acquisition. Another group opposed to Moe was C.O.P.A. (Chicanos Organizados Pintos de Aztlan) also an ex-con organization.
         In the field of education, concerns were promoted by college organizations such as United Mexican American Students (UMAS), La Vida Nueva at East Los Angeles College and Movimiento Estudientil Chicano de Aztlan ( M.E.C.H.A.) The most organized parent group was the Educational Issues Coordinating Committee (EICC) led by the Reverend Vahac Mardirosian, a Baptist, born in Syria, raised in Mexico and educated in the United States. He was married to a Chicana, had a home in the barrio of El Sereno, and was a neighbor of our editor Arturo Flores. The EICC became the voice for educational change and embraced and led the defense of the thirteen individuals involved in the school blowouts (walkouts) of 1968. 
At the center of the student walkouts was a teacher at Lincoln High School named Sal Castro, who was temporarily incarcerated but was released when thousands of barrio residents organized a vigil at the jail. Defending the Thirteen was the Chicano lawyer Oscar Acosta aka "The Brown Buffalo" who was a frequent visitor to the "Con Safos" workshop and who asked us to publish the first few chapters of his novel Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo. Oscar also defended the individuals from the group Catolicos por la Raza who were arrested for protesting the construction of St Basil’s, a multimillion-dollar church in West Los Angeles. A flamboyant character, Oscar later became  known as a friend of the journalist and author Hunter Thompson and as the author of two well-known books The Brown Buffalo and also The Revolt of the Cucaracha People. He disappeared in Mexico in 1974.
         Coverage of the issues and problems faced by Chicanos by the established media outlets was minimal. Lacking media coverage, Chicanos developed their own voice. In East Los Angeles we a had a pro-feminist publication, first published in 1970, "Regeneracion" founded by Francisca Flores, a radical lesbian who often berated "Con Safos" for its decidedly macho slant and lack of females on staff.  “Regeneracion" was named after the publication of the Mexican anarchists, the Flores Magon brothers; it was was more of a magazine than a newspaper and it contained well developed articles. Francisca was also instrumental in forming the Commission Femenil Mexicana Nacional, that in the 1970’s established two bilingual daycare centers in barrios.
Oscar Zeta Acosta on left (related to Catolicos Por La Raza)
KMEX a Los Angeles Spanish language television station, first appearing in 1964, began programming in earnest for Chicano audiences in 1968, with the launching of "Cancion de la Raza". A total of sixty-five episodes appeared covering conditions and issues of importance to barrio residents. Two "Con Safos" members, John Figueroa and Arturo Flores, were hired as writers for the program. The following year, 1969, "Ahora!" a magazine format program was launched and   175 episodes were developed. Jesus Trevino, the Chicano filmmaker, cut his teeth there.
         Beyond East Los Angeles other publications were developed. The best known was from Espanola, New Mexico--"El Grito Del Norte" co-founded by Elizabeth Betita Martinez and Beverly Axelrod and was first published in 1968. We thus learned of issues facing New Mexicans and in particular about Reies Tijerina and his Alianza Federal de Mercedes that was fighting for federal land that they claimed rightfully belonged to descendants of land grant families. They temporally took possession of the Tierra Amarilla Courthouse, an action that impressed Chicanos everywhere because it was daring and unprecedented.
         Another important and more scholarly and academic publication than "Con Safos" was "El Grito: A Journal of Mexican-American Thought" first published in 1967 by Octavio Romano’s Quito Sol Publications, that went on to also publish in 1972 the famous novel by Rodolfo Amaya, Bless Me Ultima.
         "Con Safos", first published in June 1968 was non-academic and not connected to any university or college. It worked entirely on its own dime and retained a rare independence of spirit. With its "cuentos", poetry and art, along with its social-political commentary, it was intended to appeal to people in the barrios---even those not known as readers. While it was sometimes viewed as irrelevant to those in the Movement, it has come to occupy a place as a landmark event as the first ever Los Angeles Mexican-American literary magazine.
         Two conferences that encompassed a larger vision than that of East Los Angeles took place in 1969. The First National Chicano Youth Liberation was convened by Corky Gonzales, an activist from Denver who had gained prominence with his epic poem "I am Joaquin", that described much of the Chicano experience. The conference resulted in the development of "El Plan Espiritual de Aztlan" a nationalistic proclamation for self determination.
         The second was a conference held in Santa Barbara, California to develop a plan for the establishment of Chicano Studies programs throughout the California University system. Out of that conference came "El Plan de Santa Barbara".
Hand in hand with the understanding of their social situation, Chicanos began to openly affirm who they were, where they had come from and how they lived. Their history, their heroes, their arts, their food, their gardens, their past times, were praised and esteemed and held up for all to see. Folklorico dance groups began appearing, showcasing the costumes, dances, and music from indigenous Mexico. 
         Everywhere a public space was available, a mural emerged depicting images and scenes which reflected this newly found pride and with the hope that others might awaken and become part of "El Movimiento". The murals were collective and community-based with the entire community holding ownership. Although influenced by the Mexican muralists, Rivera, Orozco and Siquieros, rather than paint their murals on government-sponsored buildings as they had, Chicano muralists worked in public spaces--for example, in Estrada Courts and Ramona Gardens Public Housing Projects. Graffiti, seen by many as vandalism, came to be viewed as an important expression of a subculture that rebelled against authority. Along with the murals, individual artists began to paint, not only depicting the aforementioned cultural symbols but evolving an original point of view and style. Gilbert Sanchez Lujan (Magu), "Con Safos' " Art Editor became a major figure in the Chicano art movement and in 1973 was a founder of "Los Four" a group of artists. One mural painted by "Los Four" (Magu, Beto de la Rocha, Frank Romero and Carlos Almarez) was stored at UCLA for years until Castulo de la Rocha, Executive Director of Alta Med "liberated" it; i.e. he bought it from UCLA in 2012 for an undisclosed amount.

Mural at Ramona Gardens (Hazard Grande) painted by Artists from Mechicano Art Center

Arising with "El Movimiento" in East Los Angeles, Chicano Art provided a public forum for counter narratives. Often a portrait of life in the barrio, it helped establish specific Mexican-American themes and symbolism--such as low-rider cars--of the struggle for social justice.
What has been described, heretofore, were the events, people and creative expressions that helped to shape our worldview both on a personal and collective level. To a great extent "El Movimiento" also known as "La Causa", was polite and orderly but that was to change when the Moratorium on the Vietnam War took place August 29 of 1970. This was a mass gathering of 30,000 people from all walks of life and from various parts of the Southwest protesting the high percentage of Chicanos going to Vietnam and the disproportionate number of casualties that were resulting. We in "Con Safos" wholeheartedly believed in stopping the Vietnam War and therefore chose to participate in the march and to capitalize on the opportunity to sell magazines at the conclusion of the march at Laguna Park in East L.A.

 The route of the march was lined with thousands of people and thousands more were marching to the music from bands and street musicians, occasionally punctuated by the shouting of "Chicano Power" or other slogans such “Hell no, we won’t go.” A festive and celebratory atmosphere prevailed both during the march and at Laguna Park where we set up a table to sell our magazines and to serve our friends and customers from the gallons of San Antonio wine that we had taken with us. I was accompanied by my two children, Arturo Flores brought two of his and George Meneses had two of his as well.
         All was well for almost an hour when suddenly we heard shouting and saw people running away from one part of the park and coming towards us. Behind those running we could see small clouds of smoke that, we soon learned from others, was tear gas being released by the Los Angeles Sheriffs. Pandemonium spread and the safety of the young children in our midst was uppermost in our mind, fearing that the runaway crowd would trample them. Sergio Hernandez was given the task of driving the kids to safety while the rest of us gathered the boxes of magazines that we had brought, the table and the six gallons of wine. Arturo’s house was designated as the rendezvous point. We were soon there, debriefing and getting angrier than when we had left the park when we learned of the killing of the "Los Angeles Times" journalist Reuben Salazar, at the Silver Dollar Saloon in downtown Los Angeles. He had penned a few articles critical of the Los Angeles Sheriffs and other articles supporting issues that gave support to "El Movimiento".
 During the next few weeks of that year, plans were developed for a massive turnout to the annual East Los Angeles "16th of September" parade to affirm our Chicano ancestry and protest the actions of the Los Angeles Sheriffs at the Moratorium and in particular, the slaying of Reuben Salazar. Many of the participants in the parade were angry and were taunting the sheriffs that lined the entire parade route, shouting antagonistic refrains at them. Once the crowd arrived at Belvedere Park, speeches by the leaders of the parade seemed to add fuel to the prevailing mood and the sheriffs once again moved in just before the sun set. However this time the crowd fought back, throwing rocks and pieces of pavement at the intruders.
The Moratorium and the "16th of September" parade was seen by many as the conclusion of "El Movimiento", especially once the Vietnam War ended. No one declared so officially but it seemed as if everyone understood that it had ended and they packed their bags and left. Perhaps a new phase had begun but it was to be different, not quite so heady and exciting, not likely to create the drama in educational halls and the halls of justice and certainly unlikely to call forth thousands to the streets.
In this new phase there continued to be isolated incidents that would ignite protest such as those at East Los Angeles College where Arturo was teaching Chicano Studies and where he was caught between the administration's efforts to silence him and the efforts of a leftist /anarchist group to co-opt his classroom. Arturo was fired, students protested and were jailed. Arturo was re-instated and then the Chicano Studies building was fire bombed and Arturo was fired one final time.
There were other more positive happenings such as federal support for bilingual education, national awareness of the vital role played by farm workers, larger numbers of Chicanos enrolling in college and graduating and growing community support for Chicano art, music and dance. Many of these immediate manifestations would grow in importance in the years to follow.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Nasty News and the Tennessee Williams Festival

Melinda Palacio

Nasty Women Poets at the Tennessee Williams Festival
Earlier this week, evacuation orders were issued for Santa Barbara County due to the Pineapple Express, a monumental rain storm originating in Hawaii. Storm chasers sure love cute names. If you've been under a rock or don't have a pulse on recent California disasters, such as the big fires and the mudslides in California, Santa Barbara in particular, read my post on Disaster Fatigue from January's La Bloga. Nasty weather was again predicted for this week with 5-10 inches of rain. That's more rain than California has seen in years. I left ahead of Tuesday's evacuation orders. I had already missed one reading of Nasty Women Poets at Beyond Baroque due to illness and wasn't about to miss the event at the Tennessee Williams Festival. The reading last November at Louisiana's State Capital was one worth repeating. What is the Tennessee Williams Festival? A festival that offers something for everyone, especially if you enjoy Southern literature, food, plays, and music. There's even a Stella shout contest. I'm on the road, stopping in Texas for the night in order to make the Nasty Women Poets panel on Saturday. Here's a short video about the festival. Check out the schedule. If you are in New Orleans this weekend, say hello.

This reading by contributors to Nasty Women Poets: An Unapologetic Anthology of Subversive Verse is by and about women defying limitations and lady-like expectations; women refusing to be “nice girls;” women being formidable and funny; women speaking to power and singing for the good of their souls; women being strong, sexy, strident, super-smart, and stupendous; and women encouraging little girls to keep dreaming. These poets speak not just to the current political climate and the man who is responsible for its title, but to the stereotypes and trials women have faced dating back to Eve, and to the long history of women resisting those limitations. Co-editor Julie Kaneformer Louisiana state poet laureate, moderates the reading of 15 incredibly talented women writers and performers.
  SAT 3/24 1:00 PM
  Individual tickets to this event are available for $10 
  Access included in these ticket packages:  
  Hotel Monteleone Vieux Carre Room 

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Surviving the Storm: Antonia "Toni" Gonzalez Escarcega

     Daniel Cano

        The sisters, Gloria, Candida, and Esther pose
behind home on 22nd Street, Santa Monica

     "In Santa Monica when we were kids, you could walk down Michigan, from Cloverfield to Lincoln, and not hear a word of English ." (Toni Escarcega)                                                                 


     In November, 2001, I arrived at my aunt Toni’s West L.A. home just as she and her mail carrier, a pretty, young, African-American woman, stood on the front porch, planning a birthday party for one of the neighbors. The mail carrier had set down her bulky, mail-laden bag. I listened, with interest. The two spoke like old friends, laughing and calling each other by their first names.

     I shouldn't have been surprised, but I was; after all, how many of us today even know our neighbors, let alone celebrate their birthdays? My aunt's interaction with her mail carrier reminded me just how caring, friendly, and funny, she was, quick to crack a joke but quicker to laugh. So much time I'd spent at her house, staying overnight with my cousins, yet, I knew so little about her. So, I set out to ask her some questions about her childhood and early days in Santa Monica.

     Her husband, my uncle Mike, was in the living room watching television as I entered. He was a genuine outdoors' man. He taught us all, his sons, nephews, and neighborhood kids, to fish, ride dirt bikes, camp, and hunt, using bows and arrows, shotguns, or rifles, depending whatever prey was in season at the time. He’d take us camping and fishing to the Kern River on weekends, or the King’s River in summer, and up to the creeks rushing off the eastside of the Sierra Nevada Mountains along Highway 395, above Bishop. When I’d once asked him about hunting, he told me he remembered camping, and hunting deer in the Santa Monica Mountains in the 1950s, just north of Sunset Boulevard, until the City prohibited sports hunting in the area.

     My aunt Toni (Tonia, a name I only heard my grandmother call her) is my mother's older sister but closest in age. We, the kids, all called her Toni or Aunt Toni, never tia. My uncle Mike (probably Miguel, but I don’t think he even knew for sure) is my father's first-cousin, so my cousins and I are related on both sides of the family.

     I suppose L.A.'s Westside Chicano community, back in the 1930s and ‘40s, was provincial, like many barrios throughout the Southwest, so the kids from different neighboring towns knew each other well. My mother once told me, "All the girls from Santa Monica married guys from W.L.A., and all the girls from WLA married guys from Santa Monica." When I asked why, she told me, "Marrying guys from your own neighborhood, like the Guajardos and Garcias, would be like marrying a cousin or a brother. Our families were all very close back then."

New signs, same streets


     The second youngest in the family of Nicolas and Eusebia Gonzalez, my aunt Toni was born in Santa Monica in 1924. Of her earliest years at her parents' home, she said, "It was a nice place to live. I didn't know any other home, so I guess my parents must have bought the house on 22nd Street in the 20s." She thought for a moment, then said, as if suddenly remembering, "We all had our chores. Actually, we inherited each other's chores. Since your mom, Esther, and I were the youngest, we didn't have to do too much. But when the older sisters and brothers all got jobs, then we had to do their chores.

     "Mama," the name we all called my grandmother, "would get up every morning about 5:30 and make breakfast and lunches for everyone. She usually made tacos." (For some reason, we all called burritos tacos.) "Then your mom and I would get up, and we had to sweep and mop the whole house before we got ready for school. Everyone in the family had a job."

     She recalled one summer during the Depression when the family traveled to Northern California to work in the fields. She said, as if had all happened yesterday, "My uncle and aunt had already moved to San Jose. One year they left Santa Monica and went up north to pick fruit. They never came back. I guess they told my mom there was a lot of work, and people could make extra money.

     "Well, my dad, my brother Chuy, and the older girls were already working here, so my mom, my brother, Joe, your mom, some other friends, and I went up north to pick fruit. I didn't think we'd ever make it back. Our car got stuck on a hill, one time, and we tried to move it, but the tires just kept turning. We'd go up the hill a little, and then, back down the car would slide. I was young, so I really thought we'd get stuck and have to live there.

     "Picking fruit wasn't so bad, though. I guess I saw the trip…well, not as a vacation, but like something different, like camping out. There were about seventy-five people living in a small outside area. We had to crowd into a tent. I was about ten or eleven but old enough to work. Your mom was still too young, so she just stayed around the camp.

     "I was pretty fast at picking, and I thought it was fun, until the heat got to me. I was in a row way ahead of everybody when I got tired and laid down on my back. I could hear the others catching up, so I thought I better look like I was working. I was still lying on my back resting.”

     She began to laugh, “So I kicked the plants with my feet to make it seem like I was picking the fruit. I guess they got suspicious when the sounds kept coming from one place. The next thing I knew Mama came around a row and saw what I was doing. She gave me a good whacking.

     "I don't think we ever picked fruit again. I guess we [the family] weren't very good at it because I remember Mama had to call my brother Chuy, who had a job back home, so he could send us gas money to get home. But our relatives who lived in San Jose made money. They were used to that kind of work and knew how to do it. But since we were from Santa Monica, we weren’t really good at picking."


     My mother and I lived with my grandmother, Eusebia, for a short period of time when I was a toddler, so I knew my grandmother well. I never knew my grandfather, Nicolas, who died before I was born; though, I’d heard many stories about him, so I felt I knew him. I asked my aunt Toni what she remembered about her parents. She said, “They were both good parents but really strict.”

     Of the seven Gonzalez children, my aunt, Toni, and my mother were the only ones born in the U.S., in Santa Monica. So, of course, they were the most modern of the Gonzalez sisters. To them many traditional Mexican customs seemed rigid, out of date.

     When I asked her about this, my aunt told me, "One day we were all walking home from school, boys and girls. After awhile, the girls had all walked in different directions home, and I was the only girl walking with the boys. In Santa Monica, the back of our house on 22nd Street was on a hill. From there, my father could see over the whole neighborhood, and he could see me walking [with the boys].

     "When I got home he started hitting me. I cried and hollered but he wouldn't stop. Your mother, Esther, even came and tried to get him to stop. The bad thing was I didn't know why I was getting hit. When he finally stopped, he said he never wanted to see me alone with the boys again."

     She said she tried to explain to her father what had happened. She said her father knew the boys and their families, some of them had even visited their home. As she told me the story, my aunt's voice sounded more fascinated than hurt at the memory.

     Her father's reaction was common in Mexican communities across the United States in the 1930s. A child's action was a reflection of the family's reputation. After all, small communities turned truths into rumors and exaggerations. Nicolas Gonzalez knew this. He also knew a perceived "loose" daughter certainly would offer fodder to neighborhood gossip. "Oh, yes," she continued. "My mom and dad were good, but they were strict," she repeated during our talk.

22nd Street Hill, 2018

     "Another time, your mother and I went roller skating just up the street. Since our house was at the top of a hill, kids from other neighborhoods came there just to skate down the hill. Sometimes you could see twenty or thirty kids skating down the hill on Michigan Avenue. We all laughed and yelled, having a good time."

     She described how during those long, summer days, my grandmother, Eusebia, ordered the girls home by eight P.M. and to not dare stay out after dark. Toni and my mom were probably about eight or nine years old, at the time. The two sisters lost track of time. One of their friends said, "Here comes your mom." My aunt laughed, when she said, "Your mom and I squeezed into the group of kids and ran home through the back alley, hoping my mom hadn't seen us. When we got home, we took off our skates and jumped into bed with all our clothes on. Mama came into the room and started hitting us with a broom. No warning, nothing."

     Her voice rose, as if she were reciting a poem. "Your mom was smaller and she squeezed under me to hide, so I got the worst of it. Funny," she kept laughing, "your mom says she doesn't remember. Yeah, but I remember. I guess since we were so close in age, we were pretty competitive. But I was older, so I think I always got the blame."

Remnants of family home, Mitic, Los Altos de Jalisco

     If--in his novel Al Filo del Agua (At the Edge of the Storm), Mexican writer Agustin Yanez’s portrayal of life in 1910 in a Mexican village in Los Altos de Jalisco (my grandparents’ home in Mexico)--is accurate, it’s a bleak vision dominated by religious repression, as if all men and women are expected to live as monastics and ascetics, giving up all worldly pleasures.

     In Yanez's telling, his narrator describes the rural setting: "There are no fiestas in the village; only the daily dances of myriads of sunbeams, the only music is the sound of the bells that toll the passing of the dead, or the tuneless, plaintive melodies of religious chants that express the latent sense of oppression. Never any parties. Dancing is held in horror...Never to be thought of ... never, never. Families visit each other only at times of bereavement or illness, or possibly to welcome home a long, absent member. ...Village of black-robed women, hermetic and solemn."

     I can't help but ask, if my grandparents grew up in Mexico at the turn of the 20th Century, in the darkness described by Yanez, how did they reconcile the differences between life in those desolate villages and life in the United States? How did their Mexican lives impact the lives of their children, grandchildren, and future generations? I mean, we, the Chicano children, American baby-boomers, are but one generation removed from life in those villages.

My mother sitting, left, my aunt Toni standing, final reunion


     My aunt told me that when she was a child, the neighborhood kids had to go to the clinic for regular health checkups. She said, "Your mom and I walked to the clinic. I think it was on Michigan and 17th Street, near the cemetery. I was about fifteen, so your mom must have been about twelve or thirteen. Well, I was healthy, but the doctor said your mom was very sick." (In fact, my mother had been misdiagnosed with tuberculosis and spent three years at Olive View Sanitarium recuperating from an illness she never had.)

     "On the way home, your mom kept crying, so I wanted to make her feel better. I said, 'Look, it is better for you to be sick now because you're still too young to go to dances and have a good time. It wouldn't be good if I got sick because pretty soon I'll be going to the dances, and that would be bad.' Oh, your mom got mad at that. She hit me and said, 'That doesn't make me feel better.'

     "Another time, I had to go outside and start a fire, so my mother could wash clothes. I had to pile wood and paper, get some brush, and get the fire going. We would start washing about 9:00AM--first the whites in one tub, then the colored clothes in another tub. We wouldn't finish until about 2:00 or 3:00. It was so hard.

     "Well, this one time, I finally got a flame going, and just as the fire began to catch, your mother came over and stomped it out. Then she started laughing. Oh, I got mad and told her not to do it again or she would be sorry. I got it going again and here came your mother, laughing, and did the same thing. I grabbed her, just to make her stop. We started wrestling, then we fell, and we started rolling across the dirt, right into the garbage pit, a hole my father had dug. My mother came out and saw us. She started yelling at me. I tried to explain, but she wouldn't listen. She reached in and helped your mother--who was crying--out of the pit. I reached up for my mom to help me too, but she just walked away, so I had to crawl out by myself."

     My aunt laughed as she finished the story. "Funny how your mom doesn’t seem to remember any of those things today, but I do."

     My aunt Toni went on to describe how my grandfather, a small but strong man, "...used to raise a pig and kill it, cook it in a pit, and invite people over for a party. He didn't like us watching him kill the pig, but we would peek from around the corner. I remember watching him, with a big knife in his hand, jumping on the pig's back. But my dad was so small, the pig would buck him off, and oh, we'd laugh. But my dad got back on the pig, getting bucked all over, until he killed it.

     "But he was also real kind. When my mother would take the older girls to the dances in Santa Monica, your mom and I would stay home with my dad. He'd put us to bed as soon as it got dark. We'd crawl in between him because we knew he would tell us scary stories about Mexico. Well, after a few of his stories, we were so scared, we'd tell him we were sleepy, and he'd say, 'Okay girls, enough stories. Go to sleep.' And we would. We'd fall right to sleep. We were pretty good kids."

Wednesday, March 21, 2018


Written by Junot Díaz
Illustrated by Leo Espinosa

Age Range: 5 - 8 years
Grade Level: Kindergarten - 3
Hardcover: 48 pages
Publisher: Dial Books 
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0735229864
ISBN-13: 978-0735229860

From New York Times bestseller and Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Díaz comes a debut picture book about the magic of memory and the infinite power of the imagination.

Every kid in Lola's school was from somewhere else.
Hers was a school of faraway places.

So when Lola's teacher asks the students to draw a picture of where their families immigrated from, all the kids are excited. Except Lola. She can't remember The Island—she left when she was just a baby. But with the help of her family and friends, and their memories—joyous, fantastical, heartbreaking, and frightening—Lola's imagination takes her on an extraordinary journey back to The Island.  As she draws closer to the heart of her family's story, Lola comes to understand the truth of her abuela's words: “Just because you don't remember a place doesn't mean it's not in you.”

Gloriously illustrated and lyrically written, Islandborn is a celebration of creativity, diversity, and our imagination's boundless ability to connect us—to our families, to our past and to ourselves.


* "With his tenacious, curious heroine and a voice that’s chatty, passionate, wise, and loving, Díaz entices readers to think about a fundamental human question: what does it mean to belong?"–Publishers Weekly, starred review

Junot Díaz was born in the Dominican Republic and raised in New Jersey. He is the author of the critically acclaimed Drown; The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award; and This Is How You Lose Her, a New York Times bestseller and National Book Award finalist. A graduate of Rutgers University, Díaz is currently the fiction editor at Boston Review and the Rudge and Nancy Allen Professor of Writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Leo Espinosa is an award-winning illustrator and designer from Bogotá, Colombia, whose work has been featured in The New Yorker, Wired, Esquire, The New York Times, The Atlantic, and more. Leo's illustrations have been recognized by American Illustration, Communication Arts, Pictoplasma, 3x3, and the Society of Illustrators. Leo lives with his family in Salt Lake City, Utah.