Friday, October 29, 2021

Behind the Scenes at Judy Baca's Guadalupe Mural Project, 1988-89

Melinda Palacio

Photo by Rod Rolle

Photo by Rod Rolle

"The Big Picture" by Rod Rolle, a town portrait.

In 1988, the Santa Barbara County Arts Commission partnered with Dr. Judith Baca to create a mural representing life in the central coast town of Guadalupe. Rod Rolle, a then recent graduate of the Brooks Institute of Photography was assigned to provide photos of everyday life in Guadalupe. The photographs provided the backdrop for Baca's mural. Dr. Baca asked Rolle to photograph a broad spectrum of life in Guadalupe. Before moving to Santa Barbara from Queens, Rolle had a fascination with highway 1 and he was pleased when he found out his first big commission would be photographing a community located off the fabled highway. Rolle describes Guadalupe as a farming community that looks like a town, that looks like a city. For him, Guadalupe is a goldmine in terms of its diverse history. He has fond memories of taking photos of the town. 

The result is the Guadalulpe Mural Project and the photographs that captured life in the unique community. There's even a photo of everyone available in the town at the time, titled "The Big Picture," which was ultimately displayed in the Smithsonian Museum. For over a year, Rolle travelled to Guadalupe to photograph the town's history. Baca asked him to document the town's past and present. A walk through the town's beautiful cemetery tells the town's diverse story from farmworkers to Chinese railroad workers. Many of the collected photos from Rolle's work with Baca were displayed in Santa Maria and have now travelled to their new home at the Santa Barbara County Building, where you can see "Spirit of a Community: Guadalupe, CA 1988-1989," on display. 

More of the collection can be seen in a youtube video put together by Rod Rolle, who also happens to be an accomplished musician. Fans familiar with the Stiff Pickle Orchestra know Rod Rolle as a drummer and vocalist. The Santa Barbara Blues Society selected Rolle and Stiff Pickle Orchestra Band Leader, Tom Murray, to represent Santa Barbara in Memphis for the International Blues Challenge.

 A trip to the central coast should include this photography exhibit, now located at 123 E. Anapamu Street, Santa Barbara, CA 9310, especially if you've been to the town famous for its scenes in the movie the Ten Commandments or if you've seen Baca's Mural, depicting the complex and diverse history of Guadalupe.

Rod Rolle, Photo by Erica Urech

Thursday, October 28, 2021

The Great Tortilla Debate, With or Without Hands



How far back must we go to find the tortilla debate answer?

     From 1967 to 1969, I was in North Carolina, stationed at Fort Bragg, where we were lucky to have one Mexican restaurant in town (probably in the whole state), Pancho’s, a swanky place, table cloths, silverware, plush booths, upscale, and pricy. Pancho’s was such a hit with the military and locals that the owner made enough money to buy a plane and fly in his supplies from Ciudad Juarez.

    On very low-grade NCO salaries, my friends and I could only go once a month, payday, but the food was delicious, Jalisco-style. I was a chorizo and egg fanatic, not very creative. The "good stuff" costs more, anyway. There was this one time. I’d taken a piece of tortilla, wrapped it around the lump of chorizo, and ate it. Sabor! I noticed the owner, Pancho, looking at me. Just as I was about to shove another tortilla-full into my mouth, he frowned and shook his head. He wasn’t happy. I had no idea why. I scooped up another tortilla full, and ate. I told my friends, who looked over at Pancho.

     He came over to our table. I don’t remember his exact words, but politely, with respect, and like an older uncle, he explained to us the difference between eating a meal with tortillas at home and in a restaurant. In the 1950s and '60s, families rarely ate at restaurants--too expensive. Pancho's explanation  made sense, I guess. Essentially, he told us it wasn't polite to eat with your hands, in public. I never thought about it as eating with my hands. Nevertheless, his words have stayed with me all these years.

     Another time, while traveling  through Mexico in the early 90’s, my father, brother, and I took a taxi from Guanajuato to San Diego Alejandria, Jalisco, a long trip, and we’d started early. When we arrived, we asked the driver to join us for breakfast. We found a place, not a restaurant, really. San Diego was pretty small, and the place we found to eat more of a warehouse, a woman cooking, one meal on the menu, breakfast, chile verde, eggs, and beans. My dad, brother, and I took our tortillas and went at it. The taxi driver placed a napkin on his lap, picked up his spoon and knife and began eating. I’ll never forget the look on his face. He smiled politely but must have thought we were uncivilized pochos, eating with our hands.  

     Of course, people eat as they were taught or the way food tastes best to them. As for tortillas, my Mexican, American family…right, comma not hyphen, my grandparents, older uncles and aunts born in Mexico, my parents’ generation born in the U.S., always ate Mexican food with tortillas. My Chicano relatives ate mostly Mexican food with tortillas as utensils, sopping up the juices at the end of the meal with the tortilla, often leaving the utensils untouched. My Mexican-born relatives used tortillas like bread, to help the food onto the silverware, clean fingers afterwards.

     I never thought much about it, the way we used tortillas to eat. 

     My dad had a knack for it, tearing off a piece of tortilla, molding it into different shapes, and using it like a spoon, a fork, or a knife. His fingers moved around the plate like a performing artist, a certain style and rhythm to each movement. Me, I liked the “skip loader” method, taking a fork and scooping the food onto a piece of tortilla shaped like a bucket on a bulldozer. Corn tortillas don’t work as well as flour tortillas. They’re too small, dry quickly, and tear in the wrong places, unless you get them fresh and warm. Whatever! You make it work. 

     Once, a close friend watching me maneuver my tortilla in my fingers, pushing aside the food, and scooping up the favored piece of meat said it looked “pretty primitive” eating with my hands, tearing at the food, like a soldier in the army of Attila the Hun. Huh? I was in the privacy of my home where, I figured, people ate the way they wanted. Apparently, not where my friend comes from. He said, even at home his family eats tortillas but doesn’t wrap them around the food or get their fingers all drippy with sauces and salsa then have to wipe on a napkin or rag.

     Like I said, I never gave it much thought. All I knew is that the food tasted damn good, and I could get a little bit of everything in one bite with just a piece of the tortilla. Then it hit me, egg yolk and salsa soaking my fingers. I really was eating with my hands and my silverware, untouched, beside my plate.

     Is the way we eat tortillas a Chicano thing, like the way we speak Spanish, “marketa” for “market,” “wacha” for “watch” or “look,” etcetera, something that would drive my Mexican-born relatives crazy or wild with laughter? Is it a class or regional distinction, like does a Manhattan sophisticate use bread at mealtime the same way an upstate New York farmer would? Do the Maya eat tortillas the same way ranchers from Jalisco, Zacatecas, and Michoacan eat tortillas? Do Chicanos or Mexicans in Colorado, Arizona, Texas, and other southwestern states eat their tortillas like Californians do?

     I stopped using my tortilla like a fork or spoon, for sure not in public, and especially not at a lunch meeting with my peers. Oh, I might backslide, sometimes, when I’m alone eating breakfast at home, more out of nostalgia, but I try to be less bronco, even though I know there are cultures that do eat with their fingers, like in the Middle East and Asia. Certain meals are best eaten by hand, like burritos, tacos, fried chicken, and sandwiches. I don't think I'd dig into meatloaf and gravy with a piece of bread. I once saw a friend, a socialite, devour a broiled chicken breast, using only knife and fork, and didn’t leave a morsel of meat on the bone. She even apologized and said etiquette called for one to leave a little food on the bone, I assumed, to appear less savage. Isn’t that really culture, a way to civilize us and separate us from our four-legged brothers and sisters?

     Truth be told, I’ve eaten at many Mexican friends’ tables and have never been to one where silverware was not part of the table setting, even with Mexican food on the menu. My cousin in Mexico City served lunch and dinner in four courses, like the Mejicanos in the film, Like Water for Chocolate, first soup then salad, the main course and finished off with dessert, both freshly baked bread and tortillas on the table, the tortillas in a container. No one dared eat their meal only with tortillas and no silverware. Yet, she descended from the same Mexican roots as I, a Mexican ranch in Jalisco. So, why were her table manners so different than my Chicano kin folk?

     So, all this got me to thinking, where did the various customs of tortilla eating originate? Was it only my Chicano family that used tortillas to pick up their food, as my friend had insinuated? I didn't think so, but I didn't know for sure. So, what does a teacher do when he wants to find an answer? Research.

     I decided to research the topic and asked my Facebook friends to help out. I wanted to prove to my friend that my family wasn’t the only one that ate certain Mexican meals solely using tortillas and no silverware. There had to be others. 

Question posed: is it bad manners to pick up your food using only tortillas, in public, or should you also use silverware?

Hypothesis: Many Mexicans in L.A. eat their meals using only tortillas, even if they get their fingers drippy. Hmmm, not very scientific or scholarly, but it'll do.

The non-scientific results

Responses: 142 total.

Respondents: 45, almost Chicanos and Chicanas, one Anglo, and a couple of half-bloods, a near fifty-fifty split between male and female, most, but not all raised on L.A.’s Westside, a few Eastsiders, one from as far as Redlands, no out-of-staters that I could tell. Since the 1980s, many of my Facebook friends and relatives were driven away from the Westside to the wilds of San Fernando and Canyon Country because of high property values. Who knows what tortilla customs they picked up out there.  Also, many respondents have roots in central Mexico, like Zacatecas, Jalisco, and Michoacan, and some from lands to the north.

Results: as I guessed, more than half said they eat their meals using only tortillas, silverware, maybe, maybe not, and they carry no cultural baggage about it, some down right indignant at the suggestion of being impolite. The remainder use both tortillas and silverware. 

Aaron Casillas said his dad uses only tortillas, applying the “pinch” and “scoop” method. I took this to mean, scoop up juicy meals, like picadillo, chile colorado, and mole, and the pinch for the drier meals, like carne asada, carnitas, and carne molida (or is it mollida?).

Some elders, like Mike Bravo’s tio Ralphie, would, according to Mike “…never let me use a fork or spoon when I ate my food.” Yet, in other families, there was disagreement on the tortilla issue, like Cherrie Vasquez’s older brother Charley, who would “tell me it wasn’t cool to eat with the tortilla only and my younger brother Andy just used tortillas.”

Playwright, John Difusco, the author of “Tracers,” who is married to a Chicana, wrote, “Lupe Marie and her brothers are ‘scoopers’ as were her parents, and grandparents. According to Ancestry [Lupe] is 46% indigenous, 35% Spanish, so maybe indigenous have this one.” John suggests a connection going back to the Aztecas, I gather, which is very possible in the great tortilla eating debate. Margaret Manley asserted, “Our Indian [ancestors] had spoons. Many were found in the piramides.”

Venice blues guitarist, Coco Montoya, writes, “I learned the technique (I assume he means the tortilla-only method) from my family, dad, mom, brother, aunts, and uncles, right or wrong, I still do it to this day.” Coco moves into the issue of ethics and morals, maybe philosophy, which is part of the original question posed: is it bad manners to eat with tortillas only, in public.

George Dominguez is a little more discerning, “I use tortillas on certain plates,” makes sense.

James Johnstone offered the great debate an interesting fact (a non-sequitur but relevant nevertheless), “Fact: Chinese had forks but decided the only place for them was in the kitchen and not the eating table.”

My comadre, Esther Yates, Brecht, from Santa Monica and a one-time restaurant owner, contributed, “Tortillas are the best eating utensils. Hell yeah, enjoy your food with a warm, soft tortilla!!! Yum, yum, yum. Tortillas!”

A Santa Monica boy, level-headed, Paul Gomez said, “When dining out, I usually use a tortilla to help put food on my fork. At home, I just use a tortilla.”

Conguero and Venice, W.L.A. boy, Ralph Chavez chimes in, with common sense, “How are you supposed to sop us chile verde from your plate?” To which, Margaret Manley offered a sobering reply, “With a spoon.”

Greg Rodriguez put an intellectual spin on the issue, "My hunch is utensils evolved into a sign of bourgeoisie finery that are additional, impractical steps of affectation that don't make sense in the daily practices of workers."

Aaron Casillas moves us into political territory, “That’s old school hang-ups. The Iberian colonists demonized Corn and Corn tortillas, as well. My grandpa hated them (I think he means corn tortillas not Spaniards but who knows for sure) because it reminded him of ‘being poor.’”

Writer Dan Acosta takes a more practical approach to the tortilla debate, “Whatever works best.” Pues si.

Bloga founder and contributor Michael Sedano reminisced, “I remember the staff at Izote in Mexico City looking on as I dug into my gourmet meal. I figured they were just Chilangos who’d never seen a real Mexican eat.” There you go, a Chicano had to go to the heart of Tenochtitlan to teach the Mexican City-ites a lesson on eating real Mexican food, Aztlan style.

Andrea Velasquez Molina really tells us her true skill, “I’ve done it (eating with tortillas, that is) even while eating menudo.” She goes on to describe her tortilla-menudo eating methodology, “I dip the corner of the tortilla, opened a little, in the soup and scoop in one or two pieces of the menudo. I only do this a few times…it gets a little messy.”

Tortillas don’t always rule in the debate, as Delia de Anda, reports, “My mom was born a raised in Mitic [a small Mexican rancho] and she NEVER (Delia’s capitals) allowed me to eat without utensils. She even taught me to only cut three small pieces of meat at a time. This ensured you chewed and did not masticate. Lol! She would get so upset when I dipped my bread or cookies into canela or chocolate. And I raised my son as I was raised." I guess that didn't work. "Ya me salieron las canas thinking about it.”

Bloga bloguero Rudy Ch Garcia wants to pass on the tortilla skill to posterity, “I taught my 3 n 6 yo nietos to eat with tortillas. So they could show off in Mexican restaurants. Son bien chules!” But Cherie Vasquez says that doesn’t always work. “I tried to show my Grand and Great-Grandkids how to pickup food with tortillas and they—won’t. The just look at me like I’m weird, 3rd and 4th generation and they are losing it. Sad.”

My daughter, Reina, who has four young kids, put a different spin on the tortilla debate. She said her kids eat breakfast, mostly with tortillas and no silverware, like their dad, a new generation of tortilla eaters. She said sometimes they fill-up on tortillas, not good, then wondered if that may be a reason why so many Mejicanos, especially on the ranchos during times of need, make their kids eat tortillas--cheaper and less food when there's little to be had. She also remembers visiting her grandfather in Zacatecas, out on the ranchos, and everyone ate tortillas, using silverware.

The comments go on, and in a real study, I’d start analyzing the data, but that's too much thinking, and might get dicey, trampling all over people's cultural values, even when it's just how to eat with a tortilla.  Now, all this tortilla talk, I find myself getting hungry, maybe a club sandwich. That way I don’t have to think about tortillas, for a while, at least until tomorrow at breakfast. 

Wednesday, October 27, 2021




By Raquel M. Ortiz

Illustrations by Carrie Salazar


ISBN:  978-1-55885-922-7

Publication Date:  October 31, 2021

Format:  Hardcover

Pages:  32

Imprint: Piñata Books

Ages: 4-8



Bilingual picture book celebrates the importance of imagination while introducing kids to the Puerto Rican rainforest!


Gabriela is super excited when her gift from Titi Sylvia finally arrives. She loves the colorful, glittery butterfly wings! She stands in the middle of her room and flaps and flaps her new wings, but nothing happens. She jumps off her bed, vigorously moving the wings up and down, but again, nada. She hops down the hallway and the stairs, but she still can’t fly!


Disappointed, Gabriela goes to the garage, digs into her father’s toolbox and sets about trying to fix the broken butterfly wings. Maybe she can add a battery or an engine. Her father has a better idea, though, and encourages her to close her eyes and think about where she would like to fly. Soon she is envisioning El Yunque, a rainforest on the island of Puerto Rico that is full of tall green trees, humming waterfalls and chattering birds. She can even hear the coquí, a tiny tree frog that lives only on the island, singing its special song: coquí-coquí.


Demonstrating the joy found in using one’s imagination, this bilingual picture book depicts a young girl drawing on her senses—smell, hearing, sight—to return to a beloved place. Kids will appreciate the beauty of the rainforest’s birds, frogs and other natural wonders while admiring a strong girl willing to create solutions to problems.



RAQUEL M. ORTIZ was born and raised in Lorain, Ohio, of Puerto Rican parents. She is the author of the bilingual picture books: When Julia Danced Bomba / Cuando Julia bailaba bomba (Piñata Books, 2019), Sofi Paints Her Dreams / Sofi pinta sus sueños (Piñata Books, 2019) and Sofi and the Magic, Musical Mural / Sofi y el mágico mural musical (Arte Público Press, 2015). She has worked at the Brooklyn Museum, the Allen Memorial Art Museum and El Museo del Barrio. Currently, she creates educational material for the Puerto Rican Heritage Cultural Ambassadors Program at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in New York City.


CARRIE SALAZAR, the daughter of immigrants, illustrated Odin, Dog Hero of the Fires (West Margin Press, 2020). She grew up in a small community in southeastern Louisiana, and now lives in California with her family and many pets.


Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Día de Muertos, Difuntos, y No Hay Kendy

"What does DDLM mean to Chicanos?" Jimmy asks.

Michael Sedano

Jimmy O'Balles relaxed with a tequilazo in one hand, a fish taco in the other, relating the background on  Plaza de la Raza's (click) impending Día de los Muertos art exhibition. With August's blockbuster show Futuro y Pasado (LINK) closing,  curator O'Balles told Plaza's director, Maria Jimenez, O'Balles' idea for a 2022 DDLM show. 

"Why not this year?" Maria Jimenez asked.

Like a high school boy invited to his first Sadie Hawkins Day dance, Jimmy O'Balles eagerly accepted the date. But this isn't Jimmy's first date; he's been one of the most active Chicanarte curators since long before plague-time sent arte behind locked doors. Jimmy was lead-curator of Plaza de La Raza's Futuro y Pasado (link to La Bloga's review).

Why not this year? O'Balles gets on the phone.

In less time than it takes to say "hot tortilla con mantequilla", artists were saying what they usually say, when there's a DDLM exhibition, or a Frida show:

"Yes! I have something ready." 

"Yes, I will do something. When do I have to turn it in?" and they got to work. 

Sunday was turn-in-your-work day for the November 1 show.

It comes as no surprise that every important artist in Southern California has something to say for the popular cultural observation. 

Día de Muertos, they say in Mexico, or Día de los Muertos, como we say over here, creates an important cultural and economic opportunity for raza being raza.

DDLM is when "Latino" and "Latinx" pull off Hallowe'en camouflage to unmask Mexicans.

DDLM, as with all Chicana Chicano phenomena, has three beginnings. 

Indigenous culturas celebrated death, dying, and burial, in manners distinctly American. The second Beginning, in 1521, coincides with European colonizers imposing Roman Catholic practices like Día de los Difuntos. Europeans then, Anglos now, fear death; their religion mollified cultural terror. Indigenous Americans didn't "fear" death. 

Using native understanding, local cultura hybridized and fused what was permitted by the colonizers to develop 700 years of tradition.

Fifty years ago, DDLM in the EUA has its third beginning. In los United States, a Catholic nun, Sister Karen Boccalero, convinced movimiento-motivated artists working with Self-Help Graphics & Art (link), to launch what becomes the oldest, longest-running DDLM event in the nation. Self-Help runs a month-long, multi-venue moveable DDLM feast in 2021, link above.

Profit drove growth and in 2021, Día de los Muertos attracts notice in cities across North America, wherever la Chicanada has set down roots, we have dead people to remember, and we remember our muertos our way, fusing Mexica and Mexicano iconography with cosas de acá de este lado.

Basking in the prospect of what's sure to be yet another triumphant exhibition, Jimmy O'Balles grabs another taco before turning to ask that question, "What does Día de los Muertos mean to Chicanos?"

"Damned if I know. We didn't do DDLM where I grew up, and I didn't know DDLM was a big holiday until I came to LA in the seventies." If I'd been quicker, I would have just asked, "Jimmy, what is Chicanarte?"

He would easily have turned handed me the list of artists he's recruited for Plaza's DDLM show and said, "This is Chicana Chicano arte (at this time in this place)."

That's what DDLM means to Chicanos, Jimmy. Same thing.

Chicano culture is not monolithic! 

I haven't been following academic literature so it's been a long time that I've seen that caveat. Do people still say "Chicano culture is not monolithic"? 

How do Chicanos do culture? Let me count the ways: Chicago Chicano culture. Kansas City Chicano culture. The Mission Chicano culture. Boyle Heights Chicano culture. Westside, Sawtelle Chicano culture. Redlands Chicanada. Your neighbor's Chicano culture. Lulu Smith née Lourdes Gonzales' Chicano culture. Hasta there's a Día de Muertos yacht cruise on the Hudson in NYC this year. I haven't seen if Coors is doing a Drinko de Mayo for DDLM yet. I bet Disney's going to make a killing every year on CoCo.

This year, gente, let's be Monolithic all over the place!

Get Academic with your DDLM. Study how  sustaining native traditions strengthens internal colonies. Investigate substantial rhetorical potency in DDLM's cultural affirmations. Compare Mexica to Chicanarte semiotics of the craneo. Look at ways rituals like DDLM, or toy babies in cakes, perform acts of Identification. Get a term paper out of DDLM, or extra credit by attending an event.

Get Aesthetic. Paint your face like a calavera. Buy a book of Posada's calaveras, learn to recognize the real thing and become conversant with the caricatures. Write a Calavera poem. Be a participant in local DDLM pageants. Be a customer at a gallery. Hang a piece of original arte on your wall. (It could be a hummingbird or a butterfly.)

Get Social: Go out dressed-up since you've painted your face. And spend lots of money at arts&crafts sales because there's no economy like the local economy. Tell your friends all about Posada and they'll pick up the tab.

Get Diverse: Find an open-minded not-Chicanx and explain DDLM to them. Tell a monolingual why this is funny, be sensitive pendejo: "No hay trikotri. No kendy. Ya no chinguen." Put leprechaun hats on your Catrina and Alebrijes in March. 

Get Creative: Artists, whip out some calaveras, build inventory for next year's last-minute opportunities. Plaza's locked up now but there will be other Jimmy's. Órale, I haven't seen a Santa and Rudolf calavera yet. Decorate the fireplace mantle with more than pumpkins. Buy a Catrina or start a collection of Alebrijes, be the envy of all your non-ethnic amigxs. Rockefeller Center this year has some giant Alebrijes in the plaza. Buy a book on Alebrijes.

Get Cultural: Tell your friends about cucui, espantos, why raza say qepd, and, !Presente! Build an altar, be private or public. Honor your ancestors. Burn sage; the ancestors are in the smoke. Remember who you are.

Monday, October 25, 2021

Día de muertos en el Writers Place de Kansas City

 Día de muertos en el Writers Place de Kansas City


Altar por Xanath Caraza 2021

Las celebraciones para honrar y recordar a los que ya no están con nosotros no son únicas de México aunque no se puede negar la grandeza de las nuestras para Día de muertos.  En México nos preparamos meses antes con la colección de materiales naturales necesarios que conformaran el altar; la planeación de la comida que también se comparte en Día de muertos con los invitados, la música, el papel picado hecho a mano y otros detalles que reflejan las costumbres locales de las comunidades donde se llevan a cabo cada una de las celebraciones para Día de muertos.  Por ejemplo, como es común, en las ciudades tendemos a usar más el papel picado que en las zonas rurales donde los materiales naturales son protagonistas.


Estas tradiciones ancestrales, la mayoría de los mexicanos, las llevamos incrustadas y las reproducimos dondequiera que nos encontremos. Las celebraciones para Día de muertos se han expandido y mezclado otras de otras partes del mundo; por ejemplo, la lectura de poesía, la inclusión de comida tradicional de los países donde se celebra.


Donde haya mexicanos, ya sea Venecia, Italia o Kansas City, habrá celebraciones para Día de muertos. La celebración de Día de muertos en Kansas City, que he curado por doce años, se llevará a cabo el 29 de octubre a las 7 p.m. CST Vía zoom.  Tendremos el apoyo de The Writers Place a través de la Poeta Laureada del estado, Maryfrances Wagner. 


Dentro del programa de la noche contamos con el novelista Manuel Ramos, la flautista Flor Lizbeth Cruz, el grupo Calpulli Iskali y la que escribe.  Habrá un momento para preguntas y respuestas con el público.  Ojalá y nos puedan acompañar.  Para registrarse por adelantado, aquí:


¡Que la poesía nos salve!








Friday, October 22, 2021

Gus Corral Celebrates Día de Muertos

Flo's 2021 Altar - A Work in Progress

Día de Muertos is a big deal at our house.  Each year, Flo creates an elaborate and unique altar, different from any previous altar, which takes several days to build.  She orders a special cake from a baker friend, and when we're not isolated because of a pandemic, she hosts a family dinner that anchors the celebrating with touches of nostalgia, sadness, and joy of remembrances.  My contributions are minimal but I've come to appreciate Flo's efforts to preserve and enhance a tradition that once was little-known and often misunderstood by the non-Latino world.   Times have changed since the days, a few decades ago, when an altar for the deceased was an odd and unusual symbol that many thought was part of a Halloween custom.  She was one of a handful of artists and other cultural warriors who "revealed" the Day of the Dead to the non-Hispanic population of Colorado, and who helped preserve the tradition with dignity, respect, and love.

As part of this year's Día de Muertos, I'm participating in an event with a Day of the Dead theme.  Here's a poster for that event. (Note: Denver time for this event is 6:00 PM.) 

And, also in the spirit of Día de Muertos, I present Chapter 13 of my 2016 novel My Bad: A Mile High Noir.


I’m dead and buried
Somebody said that I was lost

Corrine arranged the final sugar calavera on her altar. The red skull had “Gus” written across it’s forehead in black letters. It joined a dozen other skulls, life-size to miniature, Katrina figurines, muertos, and mementos of dead people we knew or wanted to know – parents, uncles, aunts, abuelos, friends, coworkers, and our own heroes. Corrine included photographs and trinkets that were supposed to remind us of something about the particular person’s personality. That explained the unopened cigarette packs, empty candy bar wrappers, laminated cover of People magazine, and several other things that looked more like litter than altar decorations.

Corrine strategically set up a glossy of Ricardo Montalban and Katy Jurado, the “all-time” Mexican actors according to her. Max contributed a signed photo of Chavela Vargas, Frida Kahlo’s girlfriend and idolized singer who had died recently at age ninety-three. After much nagging from Corrine to “do something for Day of the Dead,” I placed a magazine pic of Freddy Fender on the altar. She clicked her teeth and shook her head.

“Is the policewoman coming to dinner after all?” she said. “Be nice if I could plan for the number of guests.”

I had no doubt that a dozen uninvited guests could drop in and they would end up fed to complete satisfaction. Corrine cooked enough food for her annual día de los muertos dinner to feed all the soldiers on one of Pancho Villa’s troop trains. The feast had great-party status among her circle of friends. For the meal she rolled out platter after platter of enchiladas and tamales, and bowl after bowl of posole, green chile, arroz, and beans. The table included stacks of tortillas (maiz and harina,) side dishes of roasted jalapeños, olives, chile güeritos, chile serranos, lemons and limes, walnuts and almonds, pink and white sea salt, oregano, onion, and cilantro. Bottles of beer, wine, tequila – the liquor usually carried skull labels – and a jug or two of fruit-infused water and Mexican hot chocolate. Pan de muerto, dead bread, of course.

The diners brought dishes, too. The one dish that Max boasted about was her fideo and there was always a bowl of the Mexican pasta, with tomato sauce and onions, on the table. Corrine’s dining table quickly maxed out and the guests followed a trail of serving dishes back to the kitchen if they wanted to sample everything. When we finished the main courses, desserts took center stage. Pies, empanadas, cakes, cookies, chocolate covered pretzels, Jell-O, leftover Halloween candy, biscochitos. All to honor the dead.

“I can’t say yet. I told you, she doesn’t know if she has to work. That’s all I got.”

Corrine didn’t exactly approve of my ongoing relationship with the policewoman, as Corrine called her. Nothing surprising about that.

She set the time for the party at 4:00 p.m. That gave the guests about an hour and a half of talking, drinking, and remembering before she began serving. The late afternoon start also meant that she had time to visit our parents’ graves in the Crown Hill Cemetery, where she left a vase of flowers, a few cookies for my father’s sweet tooth, and a shot of tequila in a paper cup for my mother.

“Luis is coming, right?”

“Yeah, he’s for sure. When I gave him your invitation he went on about how no one used to know what Day of the Dead was all about, and now it’s practically as popular as Christmas.”

“Wh-a-a-t? Mexicans knew about it. Mom always put up a little altar when we were kids. What’s the lawyer talking about?”

“I think he meant in general. You know Móntez. He’s always going back to the days when things were different. He’s more and more like an old man every week.”

“I hope when I’m his age I’m as sharp as he is.”

“His mind’s okay, I think. His body, not so much.”

“Happens to us all.”

She rushed to the kitchen and her food. I went downstairs to my cave in the basement.

I called Ana.

“What’s up?”

“Still at the office,” she said. “But with a little luck I’ll get out of here in time for your sister’s dinner. Around six, you said?”

“Be better at five-thirty, even earlier if possible. We’ll be almost done eating by six.”

“Okay. I’ll do what I can.”

“Be nice to see you.”

“If I don’t make it, we can get together later, right? You coming over?”

“I think so.” I hadn’t figured out what our relationship was all about, other than we were both having a good time. She rushed through the next few seconds and hung up before I said much more. Our relationship, or whatever we had, was stuck on fast forward.

By the time Móntez arrived for the dinner I’d popped open and finished a couple of Mexican beers. My taste for booze was slowly returning. He sat down next to me on Corrine’s couch where we listened to her homemade mix of Mexican oldies, watched a silent TV game show on her big screen, and munched nachos.

“I need to talk to you,” he said. “It’s about the Contreras thing.”

I hadn’t heard that name for a few months. After her heart attack in our office and the official conclusion that she died of natural causes, Luis and I passively let her case close. I didn’t think there was anything we could do to find out more about what she’d experienced, and nothing came of the investigation into the Westwood arson. Other than Ana and Luis, no one knew what I’d seen in the house before the fire.

My own investigation of María Contreras had hit the pause button. I looked into her background again, and learned a little more about Valdez. Nothing new. As a last step before I shut the file for the final time, I figured out where she actually lived. Her driver’s license address was a dead end and the fake address she gave Luis stalled me for about an hour before I dug up her real address online. It wasn’t that hard. I scoped out her house for three days, off and on, but I didn’t see anyone enter or leave. Finally, I visited María’s home late one night. Very late. I used some tricks I’d picked up in prison to open her back door and spent about twenty minutes looking for anything that might explain what she had going on in her life that involved Luis or me. The place felt damp and smelled musty. I hurried my search because of the uncomfortable feeling the place wrapped around me. I took a folder of papers related to the import business, a key that looked out of place in the folder, a few business cards from artisan shops and distributors in Mexico, and the insurance policy for Sam’s bar. The visit wasn’t a complete waste of time, but we didn’t end up with any more of an explanation.

“The police and the fire investigators know the fire was intentionally set, and a few think someone died in the house, maybe more than one person. But there’s no evidence, no proof. Nothing verifiable, at least.”

“I know all that, Luis. What’s new?”

“How’d you like to take a quick trip to Mexico? A vacation, more or less?”

I stopped in mid-dip of a tortilla chip into a dish of salsa.

I made a wild guess. “La Paz?”

“I got a call from the cop that María Contreras talked to about Sam’s death down there. Apparently she contacted him just before she disappeared. She gave him my name and number.”

“This cop has news?”

“His name’s Fulgencio Batista.”

“Where do I know that name?”

“The original was the dictator of Cuba before Castro threw him off the island.”

“Sounds phony.”

“Maybe his father was an anti-communist. Maybe he had a sense of humor, seeing as how the family already had the last name. Maybe it’s just a name. I don’t know.”

“Whatever. You sure he’s a cop?”

“I checked up on him. Talked with some of the local feds who work with the Mexican police. According to them, Mr. Batista is part of the Policía Federal Ministerial, the PFM. What we used to call Federales. He was pulled in on the case because Sam was a U.S. citizen and his death involved what looked like pirates, maybe drug-smuggling. They wanted a high profile cop to work the case.”

“He team up with U.S. cops?”

“He has. That one fed that interrogated you when you were arrested. Collins? From the DEA?”

“I remember him. Hard ass. Big ego.”

“That’s the guy. I’ve run into him a few more times. We developed a certain level of trust, especially after the way your case turned out. Anyhow, Collins said that Batista has been involved in dozens of high-profile arrests. And I mean involved. He once was captured by some cartel guys. They tortured him for a couple of hours before he managed to escape. He killed four of the gangsters getting away.”

“Sounds like he can take care of himself.”

“That same cartel has issued a death notice for him, and a five hundred thousand dollar reward.”

“He must be doing something right.”

I sauntered to the kitchen and dug out two more beers from the ice chest set up in the corner. I asked Corrine if she needed any help. She shook a large serving spoon at me and uttered a Mexican curse, which I took to mean she didn’t require my assistance right then. When I got back to the couch the nachos were finished.

“All this action from a run-of-the-mill case. What Batista want? They finally figure out what happened to Sam? They find a body?”

“Something like that.”

I waited.

“The case is cold. Almost four years and no developments. But Batista called me because he was trying to find my client, María. He had news for her that he thought she would want to know.”

“So something did turn up?”

“Yeah.” He waited one beat. “They found the guide that Sam hired for his fishing trip.”

“After all this time? I thought he was dead, too.”

“Exactly.” He nodded his head. “Batista said he turned up about a month ago in a sweep of drug traffickers off the Southern Baja coast. The guide, a certain Francisco Paco Abarca, was arrested when officers in the PFM and a dozen Mexican marines captured four fishing boats heading north that were empty of any fish but were well-stocked with kilos of heroin. Needless to say, Batista was a little surprised that Abarca was alive.”

The doorbell rang.

“Hold that thought, Luis.”

I opened the door to more guests. It was close to five-thirty so I figured Corrine was ready to start serving. There was no denying that I was hungry.

“Let’s eat,” I said to Luis. “Then you can finish telling me why I should go to Mexico and have a heart-to-heart with Fulgencio Batista.”



Manuel Ramos writes crime fiction. His latest is Angels in the Wind.

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Chicanonautica: My Life as the Father of Chicano Science Fiction

by Ernest Hogan

It started out as a joke--the Father of Chicano Science Fiction. Yeah, I can go with it. Kinda describes me, kinda funny. It lets gente know that I don’t take things too seriously. Then, like a lot of things in my life, it took on a life of its own. Maybe it’s getting out of hand.

It ain’t so pinche dignified, but then neither am I. “Father” fits me. “Progenitor” sounds too pretentious. Just call me Papí Hogan.

What was once a fun and silly label has become a role I have to play in this bizarre stage of our civilization. There actually are duties that come with it.

Like Stan Lee said, “With great powers come great responsibilities.” Or was that the Bible? Marvel is becoming such a bigass chingadera these days . . .

As if publishing three novels and a whole lotta stories wasn’t enough for a born in East LA to accomplish.

This column is one way I can do my part, give back to the community, as some folks like to say. I can offer my opinions and experiences, for what they’re worth. It’s a non paying gig, but I do get to hijack it for self-promotion whenever I want to. And people seem to think what I have to say makes me worth hiring me (yes, for money) to do things like teach a master class in writing at UC Riverside.

Also through it, my publisher found me, which made it pay.

It also led to my judging the Somos en escrito Extra-Fiction Contest. (The deadline has come and gone, so it’s too late to send in an entry, so you’ll have to wait for next year.) I’m now waiting for them to send me the finalists, that I’ll be reading on my phone soon, while running around, making a living, and otherwise surviving in the not-quite post-COVID-19 world.

As El Papí, I try to keep up with what’s going on in the sci-fi, fantasy, and otherwise fantastical world of Latinoid culture. And it’s not easy these days. More of La Gente are getting published, and a lot of it is within my jurisdiction. I don’t have the money or time to buy and read it all, even though I know I’d enjoy sifting through it all.

It’s a good thing. The problem is--as I’ve learned in my nearly half-century literary career--getting published is one thing, getting through to an audience who will appreciate it is another.

And I’m not even getting near the whole issue of making money . . .

Yup, amigxes, getting your work published in one or more of the various forms that are available in these modern times isn’t enough. You have to make connections with the people who are willing to read, and are able to enjoy them. This has been a long, hard guerrilla campaign, because the New York-centered, Anglophone publishing tends to look at anything Latin/Hispo/whatever as a specialty item that won’t make them money. Maybe we’ll sell a few copies to barrio intellectuals, but aren’t they kinda rare, and those people don’t speak English, much less read, don’t they?


So we have to break that barrier (a HUI!HUI!HUI! To Silvia Morena-Garica who’s been making headway in this arena). Self-promotion and publicity is the name of the game here. We have to do what we can to educate a lot of people who already think they’re pretty damn smart, so we have to be sneaky, smart, and even entertaining.

So when I have a new story in one anthology (Speculative Fiction For Dreamers) and another coming soon (El Provenir, Ya!), I have to go out and tell the world. I end up rushing home from my job with the Phoenix Public Library to log in late for a Zoom party, doing interviews, both written and on video, and whatever else I can manage. My Hispanic/Latinx Heritage month has been crazy.

Sometimes I make a fool of myself. Stay tuned. I’ll be making announcements and posting links.

If we can just become profitable without becoming another corporate product.

Ernest Hogan wrote High Aztech, Cortez on Jupiter, and Smoking Mirror Blues, and is working on another novel that is already out of control.

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Finding Illumination Through the Dark

Review: Yolanda Nava. Through the Dark. The Woodlands TX: Cafe con Leche Press, 2021. isbn 281-465-0119

Michael Sedano

I am the caregiver half of a couple living with Alzheimer’s Dementia, so it’s not unusual that my reading habits now include material on grief, suffering, healing, caregiving, and my life’s single ambition focuses upon outliving my wife, because she can’t make it on her own. I don't need divine intervention to realize that every day.

Another fact of prolonged illness is inescapable: you need help. 

Here’s where books enter the Rx; good ones show you how to help, and illustrate ways to ask for help. Friends and familia read to glean ideas how to help their own afflicted souls. Not every book is useful, in the sense of “literature as equipment for living,” so choosing what to invest a few hours reading focuses on what fits one’s own situation. The more dire it feels, the more you need to read.


Yolanda Nava’s Through the Dark shares one woman’s experience with a rare disease that brought her an NDE --near-death experience-- that resulted in her going blind.  NDE fill volumes of investigations, but that's not an element for this story.

Most clearly, Yolanda Nava’s addressing how a person survives life-altering change by letting you watch how crisis after crisis stretched her spirit to desperation. For readers, Nava exemplifies how you are going to make it through your own shit.


Books like Nava’s take on the responsibility of “literature as equipment for living.” They all have some usefulness. Not all fit well. The “self-help” genre arrives with one strike against it. Cynics and scoffers will always find something to complain about, a typo on page one, for example, or a tawdry revelation about Nava’s most helpful healing experience on the very last page of Through the Dark. Mostly what threatens some readers’ use of Through the Dark is the book’s religious bent derived from Christian Science philosophies. It’s authorial noise, but the book’s most interesting stance. 


The author triangulates illness and healing between medicine, her flesh, and her spirit. Medicine works on flesh, leaving the mind part of illness for personal healing. Succor isn’t enough. What a writer-patient has to cure is Spirit, Soul, Duende, something outside the immediate circumstance. That’s not “God,” but the author’s upbrings in a religious home leads her to find reference points in hieratic poetry. She doesn’t limit herself to Christian avenues, those provide a foundation but her intellect and body lead her to other traditions to heal more than the flesh that went blind. At the end, she writes, “To this day, I maintain that my recovery and my ability to thrive is a result of spiritual mind treatment and damn good medicine.”

I add healing through journaling is wonderful therapy and is responsible for this book.


Yolanda Nava gets sick, nearly dies, and emerges profoundly disabled: blind. Getting sick and living with blindness is only part of the story. This is also a story of a crappy marriage and divorce. Through the Dark relates how Nava’s third marriage crumbles in the worst way. Pendejo splits the day his wife’s health totally collapses. In sickness and health all the days of my life, que no?


“Leaving me now is not Christian”, Nava tells her Afrikaner louse. That pulls him back into the house, only to launch Nava into a horror story life. As the woman’s health deteriorates, she begins suspecting the man of poisoning her food. Women around her reinforce the paranoia, a warning from her herbalist, a friend finds trip hazards, finds rat poison stored in the pantry next to comestibles. The blind Nava has really wonderful female friend companions. She finds a social agency that finds Nava a paid live-in assistant who causes her own problems, supervision issues, something more to go wrong. A disabled household needs fewer complications, not added crap. But blind people need human prostheses for eyes.


Through the Dark is a book the disabled community can use. “The disabled community” consists in a sizeable population of souls who keep to themselves, by dint of condition, ambulatory stress, and other factors. The plague, peor.


“The disabled community” consists also in vendors of services, and familia standing by, hearing stories laden with what-if helplessness, wondering how to help? Or wondering why that ungrateful blind woman has sharp words for kindness? It’s in the book.


Some people aren’t going to see themselves in this book. Nava has good health insurance and resourcefulness of la primera clase. She has savings and resources, and would have had more if that pig of a husband had not beaten the economic crap out of his blind wife during divorce negotiations. That’s noise. How much money does a woman have? How much is she you willing to spend to be cured?


Residential programs like the “boot camp” for blind people to acquire skills to get on the bus and continue living in the economy cost big money. When she goes for a meditation cure in a Zen monastery in the Carmel hills, a close friend pays her own way in order to guide Nava. Caregiving denies the woman her own enjoyment. Helping costs. 


Seeking a miracle in 2017, Nava and a friend pilgrimage to a healer in Brazilia where the recuperating blind woman focuses her three life’s goals: Cure her blindness; Eliminate any impediments to her highest purpose; To be able to love a man unconditionally, and to be loved unconditionally in return.


Don’t let the authorial noise of money intrude upon the usefulness of the story. Two sides of a person fall ill. Darn good medicine and insurance cure the author’s flesh. She sees her blindness in a metaphorical view. The body grows ill, the Spirit, the Soul, the Mind with it. Through the Dark offers an understanding of what one does to cure the Soul-Mind underneath illness. That man she married, that was a Soul disease not just poor judgment. Did living with him so poison her flesh that it caused her illness?


Thing about disease, it doesn’t happen in isolation. Yolanda Nava’s eyes and illness uniquely affected her, it’s a rare condition. You’re not going to get sick like she did. You’ll get your own illness. You’ll have this in common with this book: Life goes on without any consideration for Nava not having time for all that crap. She needs a job. She has to restart her life. That means meetings, interviews, travel, using the training and skills that got her this far. 


The rest of the way—however many good years you have left-- doesn’t change one bit because you have a disability. It’s just one more obstacle to being you. In the end, the darkness evaporates and you hear voices. It's not the voice of angels or some diety offering guidance. That voice is yourself experiencing yourself.  

I'm not sure if that's significantly profound or a "in the beginning" kind of tautology. But it gives a reader a lot to grapple with, empathizing with Yolanda Nava, and dealing with their own stuff.