Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Chicano/Latino Literary LA In Words and Photos

Michael Sedano

I haven't yet begun counting the days until I retire from the world of work, but I have dusted off my list of long-delayed projects with serious assessment of priorities. Which will come first? The backtracking of the Aristotlelian tradition from the California Mission libraries back to Spain? Retranslating Aristotle for the modern student? A rhetoric of schemes and tropes drawn from chicana chicano writing as a way to interest our kids in writing?

Two of those for sure--my Greek will never lose its rust, so no new translation. First I'll bring to life a project combining two of my favorite past times, reading chicana chicano literature, and photography. I don't know what I'll call it, but it's to be a book of photos illustrating evocative passages about the Los Angeles region from, principally, novels written for or about chicanos and latinos.

There's a book that inspired my project, Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles, put together by Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward. The collection presents excerpts from novels or stories together with black and white photos of the locale Chandler writes about. A terrific idea, Silver and Ward, and thanks to my wife whose Christmas gift a few years ago planted the seed.

Los Angeles has provided the setting, even been a character, in numerous chicana chicano novels, so there's a montón of material to select from. A retired guy has lots of time on his hands, and the bus runs past so many of the places in our literature, that getting there will be half the fun.

So here's a request: what are your favorite LA-set books and stories? Among these, do you have a memorable image, a flaming metaphor, an indelible memory that you'd suggest as the subject of a photograph? Please, send me a title and a page. I'm still actively pursuing capitalist enterprise through the summer, so you have lots of time to ruminate on this simple request.

Actually, it's not so simple. I've dog-eared many a page in my library over the years. Something for the photo book, something for the rhetoric project. Now I have to go through them all again, from start to finish, to find the context, to find the angle that I can lens. Then, of course, negotiate copyrights and all the legal stuff that authors are entitled, que no?

Here are some titles that I'll begin with.

Guy Garcia. Skin Deep. The drive from Beverly Hills to East LA signals the gulf between the character's natural home and his rarified Harvard/Wall Street career destination. There's the East LA church where he goes to launch his search for the murdered Mexicana housekeeper. How many unmurdered Mexican housekeepers are waiting for the bus to the Westside? There's one hugely memorable scene in Laguna Park on August 29, 1970. Chased by the rioting police, the character leaps the fence, the last one out. He makes eye contact with the guy right behind him who doesn't make it out.

Speaking of August 29, 1970, there's the child's shoe in the gutter as another character flees the raging cops. She turns up the alley to safety where she stumbles across a horribly murdered infant. Eulogy for a Brown Angel, Lucha Corpi.

Hector Tobar. Tattooed Soldier. MacArthur Park, old men playing chess--perhaps I'll join them. The old electric railway tunnel where the homeless guys seek refuge. The pursuit uphill from Alvarado into the Victorians, probably today being yuppified. This is no country for poor people anymore.

That tunnel again, featured in Alex Abella's thriller mixing santería, Cubanos, and murder. Plus the labyrinth of heating pipes under Music Center hill down toward Grand Central Market. King of the Saints, Alex Abella. I may have a couple of titles mixed up here.

Yxta Maya Murray's companion pieces, Locas and What it Takes to Get to Vegas. Boyle Heights street corners. Young women waiting for the bus, dressed to the nines with no particular place to go. Maybe they're slinging hash at the Homegirl Cafe. The boxing gyms are gone now; the one in Boyle Heights near White Memorial Hospital is a tune-up place.

Stella Pope Duarte's Let Their Spirits Dance. She's there at Laguna Park, on the speaker's stand, looking toward Whittier Blvd as the cops begin their attack. It's the movimiento, it's antiwar. The more things change the more they seem to come round again.

Richard Vasquez' Chicano. Old Irwindale. The irrigation zanja, weir boxes. There's still a zanja, the sankee, out in Redlands where I grew up. A long ditch dug by indios and burros to feed the friars' orange groves. I wonder if the padres read Aristotle by the fireside while the indios tossed and turned in fitful sleep in anticipation to tomorrow.

X-Rated Bloodsuckers, one of a pair of chicas patas vampire pieces from Denver's Mario Acevedo. It's the Valley, again, it's Pacoima, community organizers, storefront art galleries something like Ave50 Studio (in Highland Park, until the building is sold out from under Kathy, the owner). The old neighborhoods of the Valley, some of them seem never to change, some, like the strip mall housing Tia Chucha's bookstore, about to feel the bulldozer.

Michael Nava's Henry Rios stories wander all over Echo Park and Silver Lake. Powerful, arresting drama in these. Can I find the right foto and just one passage in so rich a lode?

Salvador Plasencia, The People of Paper. Surreal El Monte, weird-to-normal Arcadia, a hole in the blue skies above the SanGra mountains where the creator dwells. The nearest flower fields are up in Lompoc; well worth a daytrip. I'll wear my en las rosas si se puede button.

The Valley is where Marcos Villatoro's Romilia Chacon lives, but she beds down her lover in Venice near the canals, and escapes into the EUA through a Tijuana tunnel. A Venom Beneath the Skin.

Dagoberto Gilb's short stories from Winners on the Pass Line and The Magic of Blood. Dang, it's been ages since I picked up these wondrous stories. Do I remember LA settings?

For sure LA settings abound in Daniel Olivas' Devil Talk, speaking of short fiction. I haven't seen a letter writer at la placita in years, in fact, it was in Monterrey NL that last I saw an old guy with a Royal and a fruitbox writing letters for gente. Ni modo; the Valley's all over Daniel's stories, and some darn good passages.

Oscar Acosta's Revolt of the Cockroach People and Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo, quintessential chicano L.A. books. LA of the early movimiento, the old new cathedral. Zeta's a dirty old man getting it on with little girls, so we'll skip that part. The age of demonstrations again is on the rise, who knows, maybe someone will interrupt the Cardinal's High Mass at the Rog Majal, and I'll be there to shoot it.

Graciela Limón's The Memories of Ana Calderon takes a photog into the garment district. What a busy spot, lots of color, movement, uncounted set pieces and still lifes. Maybe not so many latina entrepreneurs, but certainly a full host of single aguja and overlock operators to illustrate a sweat shop.

Heck, there's a Luis Montez novel that wends its way to the Coast; he comes to LA and drives to San Diego. Maybe Manuel Ramos has a favorite scene he believes would be worth the double telling, his words, my foto?

And it's not all fiction. There's Justice: A Question of Race. Journalist Roberto Rodriguez harrowing story of being assaulted by Sheriffs for taking their photo attacking a harmless drunk. The Dr. Kildare foto of LA County Hospital would be de rigeur here, que no, since cruising Whittier Blvd was outlawed years ago. The signs are still up, however. Maybe there's one near the Silver Dollar?

Looking at the above, it's painfully obvious, I remember a lot less than I think I do, so I have a lot of re-reading to catch up on. Then there'll be your contributions to my list, yes?

See you next week.


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Anonymous said...

A few more suggestions (though with no specific passages in mind):

While in El Monte, be sure to visit the places so lovingly rendered in Michael Jaime-Becerra's collection, Every Night is Ladies' Night, a far different El Monte than that of Salvador Plascencia. Some of his El Monte is long gone, as some of the stories are set in decades past, but I never can drive past the Peck Road exit without thinking of MJB.

Come April, there will be a new one for the list: Helena Viramontes' Their Dogs Came With Them. I've heard her read from it a few times; it sounds like it's going to be a sprawling East LA novel.

If you feeling like coming east, there's Alex Espinoza's Still Water Saints, set in Agua Mansa, an Inland Empire city of railroads, freeways, and the Santa Ana.

And what about John Rechy's City of Night? Rechy's status in the Chicano canon may be debated, but it's a classic of LA literature...

Unknown said...

All wonderful choices with the books! I've read most of them and have the rest on the must read list. I love books that give the flavor of the city that I love so much.

Manuel Ramos said...

Great idea, Michael. I like your choices so far. Of course, one of the all time literary quotes about LA ambience is from Chandler's short story Red Wind. These lines evoke that LA feel but don't pinpoint any one location.

"There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge." I'll have to check out the Silver and Ward book just to see what photo they used with that quote.

Rebel Girl said...

There's a Gary Soto essay too - can't think of the title right now - but in it he's run away from home to the big city. I'll get back to you - terrific project!

- Lisa Alvarez

msedano said...

Jaime-Becerra just made my TBR list. What an enthusiastic recommendation! Viramontes' title alone will lead me to buy it. Agua Mansa. Berdoo? Colton? Odd title; the Santa Ana river runs swift, when it runs.


msedano said...

Lisa A., looking forward to that Gary Soto title.

Rechy's a suitable candidate except my current most memorable scene described a fellow's growing excitement in The Coming of the Night. Gilb describes the same scene in a story in Woodcuts for Women. Unlike him, I put the book down at that point. Gilb's character wants to, but he's writing a paid review.

Anonymous said...

Well, Rechy has been around a lot longer than most. And to say its debatable whether he fits in the Chicano/Latino literary world is pure nonsense.

His Amalia Gomez book is puro latino. I sense a bit of homophobia in some of the responses. MSedeno even put the book down because it had a sexual description he didn't like.

And you call yourselves writers with open minds?

Gilb by the way in real life did read the entire book, it was his character who had mixed emotions. Gilb includes Rechy in his anthology Hecho en Tejas. He calls him one of his literary heroes. Me too.

A Gay Chicano Writer

Anonymous said...

Speaking as the original "anonymous" (a status I have only because I don't have a blogger account), I myself would not debate the status of Rechy. In additon to Gilb's great new anthology, he's also going to be in Daniel Olivas' Latinos in Lotus Land, I think. I've heard others debate the issue, though; me, I think the debate is nonsense: Rechy belongs in all manner canons -- LA Lit, Chicano Lit, Queer Lit, and, above all, American Lit.

But what do I know-- I'm just a gabacho.

And if you're sensing homophobia in my post, I think your detector may need calibration..

Significant Other of Another Gay Chicano Writer

msedano said...

I don't care what anonymousII says about me, just spell my name right, it's Sedano. Big "S" one "e" one "a". As AnonymousI points out, your phobia detector needs calibration.

Rebel Girl said...

Questions about identity always fascinate me - as do concerns about the size of the canon (ha) - but that's a topic for another time, perhaps.

The Soto essay I mentioned is "Black Hair" and takes place in Glendale in 1969. It's in Living Up the Street and may also be included in The Effects of Knut Hamsun on a Fresno Boy.

Speaking of questions - where does LA begin and here does it stop? Is Glendale part of LA?

msedano said...

"Black Hair", thank you for following up. Glendale is both the Valley and LA. In terms of my foto project, I did not include The Red Camp nor the Villaseñor family saga as these are Orange County. OTOH, me being from Redlands, I consider Berdoo, Redlands, Palm Springs, acceptably LA. Small Town Browny is the only chicano title I can recall off hand.

Rebel Girl said...

Mary Helen Ponce's "Hoyt Street" - anyone mentioned that yet? Pacoima, right?

msedano said...

Hoyt Street, right. Ponce's Pacoima has a lot of familiarity; her house reminded me of my granma's with the big pirule and the hanging plants. There was only one jesus with the bleeding heart on a wall, that I remember, but my aunts kept the tables spilling over with "Your Hit Parade" magazines with the lyrics to the popular hits of the day.

Rebel Girl said...

Then there's Nash Candelaria's "Memoirs of a Bourgeois Chicano Writer" - I don't think it's published yet but I read an excerpt - "Education in Gringoland" in the Santa Monica Review - it's LA all right, circa WWII.

(Can you tell I like your project?)