Thursday, December 14, 2017

Remembering Michele Serros: A Writer's Journey

                     
Daniel Cano

                                                                 
                                                       

    In the spring of 2015, I received a telephone call from the Santa Monica College Foundation asking if I would present the SMC distinguished alumna award to writer Michele Serros, who had been a former student of mine.
    “Of course,” I replied, sadly. I knew Michele had been fighting cancer, and she was putting up a courageous battle.
    We’d kept in touch over the years. As her writing career blossomed, I would ask her to visit my creative writing classes. We’d also meet at different literary functions. One time, we laughed as we found ourselves standing on the same stage receiving awards for our work. She always called me Professor Cano.
    “Michele, we’ve known each other fifteen years. Call me Daniel. You aren’t my student anymore,” I’d tell her.
    “But I always see you as my teacher,” she would say or something to that effect.
    She did stop calling me Professor Cano and called me Mr. Cano--the closest she could get to my first name.
    When I heard the SMC Foundation had invited Michele to campus to receive her award, I was looking forward to seeing her, and I hoped that she’d be well enough to read from her stories and poems. Actually, Michele didn’t read. She performed, always holding a book in hand. Michele had become a successful businesswoman, as well as a writer. I don’t doubt that she wanted her audience to see the book’s cover and title. She was her own P.R. machine, a difficult role for many creative people. But Michele was always up for a challenge.
    When I saw her at another function, she said, “Mr. Cano, can you believe it? I’m writing for George Lopez. And I got to meet Cheech Marin.”
    She never lost her sense of wonder. She sounded like a little girl getting to play with her new toys.
    Her first book, Chicana Falsa, and Other Stories of Death, Identify, and Oxnard, published when she was a Santa Monica College student, by Santa Monica College’s Lalo Press, received excellent reviews. But when she realized bookstores wouldn't place her book on their shelves, she loaded her boxes of books in her car and drove wherever she could read and sell her books, fine-tuning her performing skills.
    A few years after she’d transformed her readings into performance art, she told me she had accepted an invitation to join the Lollapalooza music festival to read her work.
     “Michele, you realize that’s an alternative rock tour, like the Chili Peppers and Suicidal Tendency-type bands?”
    “Yeah, I think it will be exciting,” she told me.
    Undaunted, Michele took her boxes of books and set off like she was running away to join the circus.
    She knew it would be difficult. But she also knew that her name--and the title of her book-- would be splashed on flyers and posters across the country. She was right.
    I followed her progress during the tour in newspaper reviews and read that Michele had won over the prickly-- and probably very stoned--alt-rockers. The next time I saw her, I asked her how it went.
    “Professor Cano, you wouldn’t believe it,” she said, using a very girlish, embarrassed tone. “It was awful,” she laughed. “I’d be reading my poems and all the guys would be yelling, ‘Hey, babe, take off your top. Let’s see what you got underneath.’ Oh, my God!”
    I wasn’t surprised at her success. She was softer and much less obscene, but just as accessible, as Charles Bukowski. Like his characters, hers were real: her family, uncles and aunts, college friends, and, of course—Oxnard. She wrote humorously, yet thoughtfully about the difficulties they faced in life. Their pain and laughter were also ours.
    In fact, the scary thing about knowing Michele was that you never knew if you were going to pop up in one of her stories and how she’d portray you, as one of my colleagues learned when he failed to make good on an honorarium he had promised her.

                                                                                   

    I met Michele in the early 90’s. She’d enrolled in a Chicano Literature class I’d been teaching at Santa Monica College. She confessed that she didn’t know there was such a class. She didn’t even know there were Chicano or Chicana writers. In fact, I’m not so sure Michele was too familiar with the word Chicano(a). She talked more about skateboarding and surfing.
    She told me that she wanted to be a writer and had already written a few stories and poems. Shyly she asked if I would read some of her work. Whenever students ask if I'd read their stories or poems,  I usually had to figure a way to tell them nicely that they needed more practice. But with Michele, I read in amazement, completely engaged in her characters and stories. I encouraged her to write more. She did, and she would come to my office regularly, and we’d discuss her work, as well as her education, UCLA her dream school.
    It was a special period in my life. I had published my first novel, Pepe Rios, and was waiting for the publication of my second novel, Shifting Loyalties. My colleague Ernesto Padilla had just been hired by SMC to start a Chicano literary press, which he called Lalo Press, named after his grandfather. Ernesto had been working and publishing other Chicano(a) writers at the time, like Carmen Tafolla, Cordelia Candelaria, Roberto Cantu, Maria Herrera-Sobek, and Rudy Anaya, established poets, writers, and critics. But he always had his eye out for new talent, including student writers.
    I told him about Michele’s work. When Ernie read her stories, he recognized her talent. He wanted to publish her. She needed more stories, and she wrote them. She got some help from another colleague at SMC, fiction writing teacher Jim Krusoe.
    I helped her with some of the general editing, and Ernie guided her with the language, not that there was much guidance necessary. For the most part, Michele had already begun to cement the foundation that would be her first book, Chicana Falsa.
    I was a little hesitant about the title since I could see some Chicano activists and critics taking shots at her title. But Michele knew what she was doing. The Chicana falsa to which she referred was the false persona youngsters adopt when under pressure from those who demand they act or look a certain way. Though Michele struggled with identity, she refused to limit herself to the cultural boundaries others set for themselves.
     She was a Chicana who surfed if she damn well pleased, and she refused to become a barrio stereotype. And even if she was raised in Oxnard’s hardscrabble La Colonia, she was still just a short skip to the beach she loved so much.
    Culturally, some might say, the odds against a young Chicana from La Colonia graduating from UCLA and becoming a respected writer, were like—well, Icarus flying too close to the sun, tempting fate, and losing his (her) wings.
    I remember Michele telling me about a UCLA professor in whom she’d confided regarding her dream of becoming a writer. The teacher had told Michele that she wasn’t a very good writer and would need to practice a lot.
    “Professor Cano,” Michele said. “I have such a hard time writing the way they want me to.”
    I told her, “Michele, that’s because most academic writing is pretentious, bloated, and boring. But it’s what you need to do to get your degree. Don’t let it change your real writing.”
                                                         
                                                                             
   
    I had a publication party for the release of my second book, Shifting Loyalties. I invited Michele to read some of her work. She was so excited. There were about a-hundred people crowded into the small lounge on campus at SMC: college administrators, faculty, family, friends, students, and the community.
    As I expected, Michele had everyone riveted from the first words out of her mouth. Many people there, especially those of my parents’ WWII Chicano generation, had never heard stories by a Chicana writer. Michele had them laughing, sighing, oohing and ahhing as they heard her breathe life into—not just hers--but their stories, as well. For that’s what a true artist does—speaks for those who don’t have the voice to do it themselves.

    The years passed, and the next time I saw Michele she told me she was living in New York, still writing and publishing. By this time, her name was known throughout the literary reading circuit. Across the country and in Europe, professors were assigning her books to their students.
    She told me how much she loved New York.
    “Mr. Cano, guess what?” She asked, a note of naughtiness in her voice. “I met Arthur Miller.”
    “The playwright?”
    “Yeah, that’s him.”
    “The one who married Marilyn Monroe?”
    “I think so.”
    She went on to tell me that she had been at an event and Miller had been there. Someone introduced her to him, and he took a liking to her. He asked her to lunch. Of course, Arthur Miller was old enough to be her great-grandfather. She said, giggling, “Can you believe it? I think he was trying to pick-up on me?”
    “Maybe he just wanted a friend, so why not a pretty, young Latina? Who knows, he might help your career.”
    “Oh yeah, right, just a friend, I’m sure, Mr. Cano,” she said, giggling.

    A few days after receiving the call from the SMC Foundation asking me if I would present Michele’s award to her, I received another call from Michele’s close friend, Renay Garcia, who helped organized the award ceremony. Renay and Michele had remained loyal friends since they both worked at Michael’s arts and crafts store in Santa Monica, years earlier. Renay confided in me that Michele might be too weak to make the trip from Berkeley, where she was living with her husband.
    Michele didn’t cancel engagements, unless the situation was dire. I felt a heaviness inside. I wanted to call her, to see how she was feeling. But I knew how she was feeling. If she couldn’t make the trip, she had to have been terribly ill. I also knew she didn’t need another voice telling her how sorry he felt. So, I waited, truly thinking she’d get better and come receive her award.
    A day or two passed. Michele’s husband called to cancel. Michele asked if I’d accept the award on her behalf.
    It was an intimate affair, attended by the president, the Board of Trustees, the SMC Foundation, a few public figures from Santa Monica, and some friends. Michele’s picture was placed prominently around the room. I listened as other speakers explained the event and the reason for honoring Michele, an SMC alumna who had accomplished what all professors dream for their students. Then I heard my name called.
                                                                     
                 
                                                                               
    Numbly, I walked to the podium. I looked out across the room. I spoke a little bit about my friendship with Michele and about her writing. I found it difficult trying to get strangers to connect with a person they’d never met, so I decided to let Michele speak for herself.
    I opened Chicana Falsa, the olive green, inexpensive Lalo Press edition, not the newer, prettier, more sophisticated Penguin/Putnam printing. In many ways, the first edition was even more like the Michele I knew: a little off color and rough around the edges, whose bold voice drew us in to her world. This little book had confirmed to readers everywhere that Michele Serros, Chicana from La Colonia in Oxnard, was now a published writer and that she had reached her first dream along a journey that would include many more.
    I turned the pages to her poem, “La Leti”, and I began to read Michele’s words, “La Leti/ Her steady hand outlines inside bottom eyelid/ thick darkening to a deep velvet black.”
    But they weren’t just words. They were Michele’s reflections on illusion and reality, innocence and guilt, and a profound love a young girl felt fearing her older sister might slip into a dangerous, violent world.
    For me, it was a sad and a proud moment. Everyone applauded for Michele. I hope their energy reached her in Berkeley.
    I accepted Michele’s award. Probably it was the last award she would receive. The first award, as a student, was the publication of her book. This last award recognized her contribution in showing educators the immense possibilities that lie within all students, and within all children.
     I awoke, not long after, to read, in the L.A. Times, about Michele’s passing. The last hope had slipped away. Renay called me at work that morning to tell me what she knew of Michele’s last days. She had visited Michele regularly.
    Renay said, “She wanted everyone to know that this is just the next part of her journey.” To me, that sounded exactly like Michele, never seeing anything as final but just another step on an uncertain path.
    As they say, the world is a better place for having her in it. Good luck, my friend. If a teacher gets one student like you in one’s career, then all of the work will have been worth it.

3 comments:

Concepcion said...

Thank you, "Mr. Cano", for this affectionate tribute to Michele Serros. Chicana Falsa continues to be an invaluable treatise on those bridging cultural/ethnic terrains. As to lessons for others, I still follow her advice in How to be a Chicana Role Model! Sassy, wise Michele lives on!

Daniel Cano said...

That you Concepcion for your nice message. I completely agree with you.

Elissa L. said...

I remember reading Chicana Falsa for the first time. It changed everything. I grew up in a small town near Oxnard with a family and stories so much like Michele's. It was a validation of my life and my family and it started my love affair with Chicano literature.