Monday, December 27, 2010

Making Verbal Tamales for Christmas

My family making tamales. Photo by Gabriel Bermejo.

A month or so back my friend Erika Ayon and I met to collaborate on poetry projects. During our meeting we created a form together. I've always wanted to create my own form, and this felt like the perfect time. We call it a tamal, as in the Mexican treat often eaten at Christmas. A tamal should be seven lines long, begin and end with the same line, rhyme on the 2nd, 4th, and 6th lines, and customarily mentions food.

On Wednesday December 23rd (aka Christmas Adam), I spent the day with my grandmother at her house in Boyle Heights. While sitting with her I heard a young girl singing Silent Night through the streets as part of a Posada*. This moment inspired the following tamal.


A young girl sings Noche de Paz
through a silent East L.A. night.
From my Grandmother’s stoop I watch
families weave winter streets by candlelight.
"Grandma, lo oyes?" She sets knitting down
to listen. We find our shelter tonight
as a young girl sings Noche de Paz.

My grandmother's front stoop. Photo by Erika Medrano.

Happy Holidays, to all! I hope you all have enjoyed moments of peace and beauty with those you love.

Please feel free to give the tamal a whirl. What kind will you make?

*Posadas are a Mexican tradition where a community reenacts the journey of Mary and Joseph through Bethlehem to find an inn. People walk through the streets going from house to house singing songs and asking to be allowed inside. They are denied many times until they get to the home/church/community center that welcomes them in. Once inside there is a party usually with piñatas, champurado, pan dulce and other treats.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010


On this 30th anniversary of John Lennon's death, I wanted to write something about him. Make a tribute. Say something worth saying (if it is even possible when talking about such a larger than life personality).

John Lennon has long been a a focus of inspiration for me. I remember being a junior in high school taking a Religions of the Word class(I went to a Catholic High School). For my final project I made a poster in black pen and marker of different symbols from all the major religions with the lyrics to Imagine and All You Need is Love written around the borders. I got an "A".

John Lennon was one of my earliest influences (after my parents) in concern to my interest in human rights and social justice.

He still continues to be a major influence on me and a beacon for hope and reason. I have often asked myself, WWJLD?

On 9/11 when President Bush made his public address--his goofy drawl and odd smile giving me no comfort--I thought two things: I want Clinton! and My god, what would John say if he had lived to see this?

And then again, in the last few years--feeling the drag of two wars and the apathy within me and those around me--I have wondered, where is our John Lennon? Where is that person to unify us, guide us, give us hope. These days, those great leaders feel like a nostalgic trend of the past, of days gone by. From time to time I wonder, are all our best leaders dead?

The most tragic part of Lennon's story--at least for me--is that he still had so much he wanted to accomplish. With a small child and an new album on the way, he was bursting with desire to live life. And then I think about that little 5 year old beautiful boy.

Three days before being murdered on the sidewalk in front of the Dakota, where he had made a home with Yoko and Sean, he was quoted in an interview as saying, "What they want is dead heroes, like Sid Vicious and James Dean. I'm not interested in being a dead fucking hero."

As his immigration lawyer, Leon Wildes, said "Can you imagine, if that beautiful man had lived more than five years after he had gotten his green card, what magnificent music he would have continued to bless us with?"


Speaking of immigration. I found this great story from Lennon's immigration lawyer, Leon Wildes, complete with personal anecdotes and hilarious little insights like when he got the call to represent the Lennons he asked, "Alan, tell me, who is John Lennon?" (he also didn't know what cannabis or hash were)

You can read the story here

Monday, November 29, 2010

Writing for Colored Girls

A still from the movie For Colored Girls

I recently went to see For Colored Girls, the newest Tyler Perry production based off the 1970s play by Ntozake Shange, For Colored Girls Who Consider Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf. The play to film adaptation is a bit awkward as some stage limitations and dramatics do not transfer well to the screen, but I still enjoyed it. And though the title more than suggest that this movie is intended for “colored girls," I found that the film’s strength lies in the universality of each woman’s story (seven in all) as manifestations of womanhood that transcend race or color. With a diverse representation of female roles in society as well as a diverse representation of societal and domestic issues (domestic violence, abortion, rape, struggle with monogamy), this movie feels like a story for the every-woman.

Unfortunately, the title may keep more than a few women away, as a good friend—who is Caucasian American—told me, “I would never see that movie. The billboard pissed me off.” Her issue was that the movie's title, posters, and trailers aggressively communicate that this movie isn’t for her, and she didn’t like it. This is interesting considering how many women of color have felt similarly about the latest rom-com opening starring Katherine Heigel or Amy Adams. It is evident to me that the film purposefully means to push against big-budget movie norms (as more than 90% of all the people in the film are African-American), but it is unfortunate that such a beautiful and universal story should make a woman feel unwelcome.

As a Latina writer, I often wonder if it is possible to tell a story that is specific and culturally grounded without being exclusive. I wonder what makes a story universal?

When I began The Immigration Project, I wanted to be able to tell individual immigration stories because I felt, and still feel, that by hearing specific stories of struggle, survival, and triumph, readers can find something human, something not unlike themselves. Even with all our differences—language, religion, politic, etc—there are innate things that make us human, individuals, and alive.

But no matter what my intentions are, many will only see my writing as Latino, Mexican-American, immigrant, minority, or colored and because of that there will be people who will not read my work because they think it is not for them or about them. But aren’t all stories about human existence in some way about us? So how can I be specific to my culture, language, and concerns, and yet at the same time not exclusive? Is it something I should even worry about? Or should I just work on telling a good story?

A couple of weeks ago I finished Junot Diaz’s book The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Here is a story that’s microscope is acutely focused on an east coast urban, Dominican immigration story with a side of fanboy/speculative fiction. And even though it is a Latino-Caribbean immigration story, it hasn’t met any of usual limitations. Diaz has received national attention for his book, MFA students all over the country have picked it up, and I have had many friends from different educational and ethnic backgrounds recommend it to me. So what makes this book different from others like it, namely In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez (my favorite book which is also about the Dominican Republic)? Diaz references Alvarez’s book more than once, but I doubt a large number of non-Latino people have clambered to read it. So what’s the difference? And should I be concerned? Should I worry that I am exclusively writing for “colored girls”? If I am, is there a way to be inclusive?

I will continue to ruminate, but for now I leave you with Junot Diaz’s take on this topic. I definitely liked what he had to say, and if you have read his book, it makes for a nice epilogue.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Border Poets at Beyond Baroque this Friday

Photo by Holly Winters

This Friday November 19th at 7:30 Beyond Baroque Literary/Arts Center will host six amazing voices from Juarez and Tijuana, also known as the borderlands of Mexico. These poets have gone to great lengths to travel to this side of the Rio Grand to bring their unique voices and point of view to our L.A. stage.

We’ve seen the news stories, heard tales of horror, been warned of the dangers of these middle areas, and now thanks to these poets' efforts we can listen to language and narratives that capture the truth of these places like no news report ever can.

Border Poets features: Edgar Rincon Luna, Martin Camps, Bibiana Padilla Maltos, Armando Molina, Jose Rico, and Anthony Seidman.

Beyond Baroque Literary/Arts Center
681 Venice Bl. Venice, CA 90291
Phone 1-310-822-3006
Admission $7, students/seniors/children $5, members FREE

EDGAR RINCÓN LUNA’s collections include Aqui comienza la noche interminable and Puño de whiskey.

MARTIN CAMPS is the author of three collections: Desierto Sol, La invención del mundo and the award-winning Extinción de los atardeceres.

BIBIANA PADILLA MALTOS is a Tijuana-born poet. Her collections include Equilibri...os, Intrucciones para cocina, Los Demonios de la Casa Mayor, Los Impersonales, 25 ScoreS 25 and Mini Poemas.

ARMANDO MOLINA is this year’s winner of the prestigious David Alfaro Siqueiros grant. He also coordinates events at the library in the Parque Central of Ciudad Juárez.

JOSÉ RICO’s translations recently appeared in a special issue of Luvina dedicated to the literature of Los Angeles.

ANTHONY SEIDMAN’s poetry and translations have appeared in Poetry International, Rattle, Hofstra Hispanic Review, Luna, Crate, The Bitter Oleander, Beyond Baroque, Nimrod, Reverso, La valquiria and La jornada semanal. His collections include Where Thirsts Intersect and Combustions.


Thursday, October 14, 2010

Learning from the Hijab

I went back to teaching high school—after a two year hiatus—at the beginning of September. Returning has been difficult for many reasons, but one is the atmosphere I teach in. I work at tiny private school of 100 students where 20% of the school's population is international. Two-thirds of those students are Chinese while the other one-third are Saudi Arabian. It quickly became apparent that, though my schedule was English I and Performing Arts, I was to take charge of teaching the Saudi nationals English, which was minimal, at best. Just today, while working on their vocabulary, one student asked, "What does malice mean?" I said, "What does the definition say?" He read, "a desire to do harm to another person, to hurt them." I said, "What do you think that means?" He stared blankly at me. I tried again, "What words do you understand in that sentence?" His reply, "person."

Besides dealing with their non-existent English skills, I also have the challenge of dealing with young Saudi girls being out of Saudi Arabia, for what I am guessing, is the first time ever. All the young ladies wear the traditional hijab head wrap, and cover all their skin except for their faces and hands. I am amazed at how beautiful their headscarves are. Everyday they come into class with a different color: gray with metallic stripes, saffron, hot pink to match their hot pink shoes, pastel floral prints wrapped around their olive faces. Sometimes one or two of them will wear mascara and eyeliner, on special occasions one wears turquoise liner just on her bottom lid making her almond eyes shine. They are beautiful.

When school started it was the middle of Ramadan so many of them didn't start trickling in until 1, 2, 3 weeks in. One girl came in a week and a half into the term. She sat quietly, her eyes darting from one over-stimulating sight to another, and looked as if she would shatter into pieces if someone, anyone, looked her in the eyes. She was in my Performing Arts class and I tried to inform her, as gently as I could, that everyone in Performing Arts was required to perform (I probably should had thought this out, but I had never been in this position before). She instantly burst into tears. She took the piece of her scarf that ran along her hairline and pulled it down over her face. I tried to comfort her, pad her on the back (though I worried that kind of touch wasn't acceptable), tell her we would figure it out, but she only grabbed the end frays of her scarf, as if a blanket, and dragged it across her face. At one point I picked up her eye contact, if only for a second, to say, "it will be alright," but then I saw her, I saw me trying to speak to her, saw how impossible the situation was, and my heart sunk. I can't even imagine.

After 3 weeks of shuffling and settling, I finally had a set class mixed of Saudi nationals, Chinese nationals, and U.S. students. And once the shock wore off from all of us, something magnificent started to happen.

Last week I was reading the story "The Beginning of Something" by Sue Ellen Bridges where a fourteen-year-old girl has to deal with her first death and her first kiss at the same time. It’s a “rite of passage” story. As a discussion question I asked the students, "What are the traditions of your culture when someone dies?" And suddenly students were excited to share Saudi rituals, Chinese rituals, American rituals, and I thought, How cool is this? I shared with them the Mexican-Catholic tradition of a novena, where loved ones pray the rosary for nine days after the death to help the soul reach heaven. They like to hear about my culture too. They all wanted to share, all wanted to speak, to teach. That’s when I realized the unique strength of this class to be teachers as well as students together.

This week we read "Brothers are the Same,” by Beryl Markham where a Masai boy has to prove his manhood by killing a lion. For class discussion we brainstormed different kinds of rites of passage and came up with a list: earning a driver's license, first kiss, cooking for your family for the first time, getting a job. For homework that night they were to write a paragraph about a rite of passage they experienced in their own life. The girl who was about to shatter just two or three weeks before wrote a very beautiful paragraph that described her experience moving to the U.S. and how in Saudi Arabia a girl must wear a hijab when she becomes 14 (a sign of growth), but wearing it here, she is looked at as if she is from the moon. I think that says something about her, about her strength. A few weeks before she was ready to dissolve into her desk, and now she was beginning to express her experience.

With legislation in Spain and France focused on outlawing the hijab, I think of this young girl and my other students. I think about how beautiful they each are and how unique. I think about their strength and their ability to teach one another about the world, about themselves. I can’t help it. That day we talked about different funeral traditions I thought something I don't often think as a liberal-border-line feminist-Chicana, We are so lucky.

Two Parisian women protest France's Hijab ban by covering their faces and baring their legs.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Poets and Community: Thoughts from the Latino Books and Family Festival

This past weekend was the Latino Books and Family Festival at Cal State L.A. I was lucky enough to be invited to speak on a panel at the event entitled "From Inspiration to Publication: The Business of Poetry" with poets Alicia Partnoy, William Archila, Rafael Alvarado, Erika Ayon and Melinda Palacio. I was honored to be sitting next to such accomplished writers.

In March I attended a panel at UCLA featuring Alicia Partnoy, author of The Little School: Tales of Disappearance and Survival, about Argentine political prisoners' writing and art, and I was excited to be able to finally introduce myself. It was also an honor to sit along side William Archila whose book, The Art of Exile--a poetic account of his exit from civil war El Salvador in 1980 and his later return--won the festival's International Latino Book Award in Poetry. I bought Archila's book today at the festival, and am already in love with it. Beautiful images of here and there, and consequently feeling alienated from both feel dreamy and magical, but as William explained at our panel, what we here in the U.S. call Magical Realism is an everyday-way of thinking in Latin American countries.

Walking through booths of Latino publishers, bookstores, writers and organizations made me feel lucky to be a Latino writer welcomed by a supportive community. Sometimes being a writer can be lonely. The act of writing is solitary, but what I love about being a poet is the opportunities it brings to share stories and experience a moment of togetherness. On the truest level this community is hopefully felt when we read a poem about a man's memory of being a boy in El Salvador or a political prisoner's story of survival, but it can also happen in public spaces.

It is about community. We share our stories to understand each other and gain a sense of sameness. Or as Father Boyle, Founder of Homeboy Industries, author of Tattoos of the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, and the festival's keynote speaker said it is a mutual experience. A moment in time when we discover a kinship with one another.

In my household there is an ongoing debate about the state of the Latino community in the U.S. Of course, we all know there is still along way to go, but in my house some think we have focused too much on art, literature, and education and not enough on business and politics. That may be true, but we need Latino writers and poets, books, publishers, bookstores, and community centers if only to have a place to be recognized and seen because no one else is going to do it unless we make them.

As David Orr said in his essay "The Politics of Poetry" (I'm summarizing here and taking liberties) politics and poetry both demand a mastery of rhetoric and politicians--just as poets--are “people who imagine new ways of being and perceiving.” Orr refers to this as a totalizing vision. The politician and poet’s ability to imagine a wider worldview allows both to clarify for a public a new or different reality through language. So yes, it would be good for our community to have more Gloria Molinas and Sonia Sotomayers in places of power, but we also need Luis J. Rodriguez, Sandra Cisneros, Gary Soto, Martin Espada, and Julia Alvarez (to name a few).

Support your Latino writers, buy a book, and let's keep the community moving together.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

SB 1070 News Round Up

Thursday July 29th, the day the new law was set to take effect, Judge Susan Bolton ruled to stop certain measures (the most contraversial measures) of the law. This new injunction has temporarily blocked measures requiring officers to check immigration status during stops, making it a crime to not carry papers, and making it a crime for the undocumented to work.

Below are few articles from this week in SB 1070 and immigration news (some more balanced than others).

Arizona Immigration Law Blocked by Judge in Temporary Victory for Obama by Ed Pilkington.

"While some of the most draconian aspects of the law have been blocked, Hispanic groups are unhappy about sections including a provision to make it a crime for undocumented day labourers to get into an employer's vehicle and a vaguely-worded clause against the "transportation" and "harbouring" of illegal immigrants."

Arizona Immigration Protesters Hit the Streets. Anna Gorman and Nicholas Riccardi report on protests rising around Phoenix, the injunction against SB 1070, and Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio insistence: "It's going to be business as usual."

Hector Tobar questions, Arizona's Immigration Law: Aimed at Criminals or at Workers?

"It seems to me that Americans are of two minds about the immigration question. They like the immigrants they know personally and are willing to extend this generosity of spirit to many of those who've entered the country illegally. At the same time, they believe the United States is a country of laws and want a system where those laws are respected."

Baby Baiting. Robin Templeton writes about the "Baby Anchor" fallacy.

"When you read the statistics about how the undocumented population has increased, you have to realize how much of that is the direct result of blocking people from gaining legal status who, before, legitimately could." --Maria Blanco, director of the Earl Warren Institute at the UC Berkeley, School of Law,

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Preparing to Interview Sholeh Wolpe: Educating Myself on Iran

June 2009 only one thing was on my mind: graduating. In the final weeks of my MFA program, I frantically worked through the last bits of requirements, practicing my 15 minutes of poetry in the mirror, thumbing through the notes and handouts of my senior lecture trying to smoothly verbalize theories I was worried I didn’t completely grasp. This left no time for the outside world. At the exact same time citizens of Iran were gathering in the streets to protest against a corrupt election and tyranical government, Twitter was a flitter, and the entire world witnessed a young woman’s murder captured by the camera of a phone. Did I take much notice? Not really. There was no time.

I remember classmates talking about Neda. I remember people in the commons area saying, “Can you believe what’s happening in Iran?” but I shrugged it off and kept my focus on the hoops in front of me. Then Michael Jackson died, and it was like the whole world stopped. It started with a text. Someone announced, “Michael Jackson is dead,” and suddenly the students around me flipped open cell phones and laptops. Perez Hilton (I went to Perez and got mocked), TMZ, New York Times, Reuters, Los Angeles Times, where flashing before screens as we waited for updates, texted, and Facebooked. Neda was Dead. Iran was imploding on the other side of the world, but here in my world Michael was dead.

A year later, the year anniversary of my MFA, the Green protests, Michael’s death, The Splinter Generation (the zine I edit for) was allowed to republish two poems from Atlanta Review’s Iran Issue. The poems represent some of the first voices to come out of the Green Movement of Iran. This lead me to invite the guest editor of that issue, Sholeh Wolpe, Iranian poet, translator, and editor, to be a guest on Splinter’s BlogTalkRadio show, Splintered Thoughts, and for some lucky reason she agreed. I was instantly paralyzed by my ignorance.

How can I interview a woman about Iran, when it barely broke through my own consciousness? How can I interview her when the main memories of last summer were my senior reading, and listening to Man in the Mirror and tearing up with classmates? How can I talk about Iran when I am so far away in a different country, a different culture, a different state of mind?

I asked our main editor, if he might want to do the interview instead, but he couldn’t. Or wouldn’t. I was the one with the idea; I would be the one to do it. But a year later, and I still knew nothing. What to do, but get to work reading articles, watching documentaries, and reading poetry.

There is a fear that drives much of my work: I am a vapid idiot. I worry that at any moment I will be discovered and kicked out of the creative club, my MFA stripped and my computer cleaned of every poem and essay. There will be a brand too (a t-shirt that reads “stoopid” with an arrow pointed up), that way when I go to poetry readings those around me will be properly warned. Is it that big a fear? In a way, yes. I don’t read the paper, reading novels and poetry books are work not entertainment, I can’t quote Vonnegut, the Brontes are strangers to me, William Carlos Williams an impossible uncle, and worst of all, I like reality T.V., the really bad stuff.

Not wanting Sholeh, or any Splinter listener to know the evil truth, I went to work, and discovered a very complex situation with a beautiful culture and people faced with a tyrannical government. One thing I know, Iranians are not their government.
The women stood out to me. Banned from government, made to wear hijabs/niqabs/burqas, restricted in their public goings on, and mostly tied to the home, life is difficult, and yet, they fight. They enter university, wait to marry, and conduct individual protests like allowing some of their hair to be seen below veils. Perhaps a small protest, but it speaks hugely to the strength of the individual.

Before speaking with Sholeh, I searched the cyberspace for a whole universe of knowledge, downloaded, and reflected, but I am still so very ignorant. I have never lived this existence, will never live it, and I feel there is a whole lexicon of knowledge and culture I can never crack. I feel so unequipped, and yet I must try. I may never feel knowledgeable enough to talk about Arabic Nations, and the struggle in Iran, but what I can do is question, search, and when I have someone like Sholeh Wolpe, a poet and activist, I can ask and listen.

I can share my own fears and inadequacies because we are all human. All of us, know matter where we come from, what religion we grew up in (I grew up Catholic), what websites we consider news, what news channel we watch, what country we were born in, what side of the border we stand, what side of the war we happen to be on, are individuals trying to live, trying to be brave, trying to learn.

Highlights from the Sholeh Wolpe interview on poetry, politics, and Iran to come.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Drop Dead Diva, Deportation, and a Dream

Click here to watch the clip at

Drop Dead Diva, an original Lifetime program, is a scripted show about a young fashion model named Deb who dies in a car accident and comes back to life as Jane, an older, wiser, plumper attorney. The latest episode had a storyline about Jane's assistant, Terry (played by comedian Margret Cho), whose cousin, a young man that she and her mother raised from infancy, is arrested on a minor charge, found guilty of a misdemeanor, and ordered to return to South Korea, although he has lived in the U.S. his entire life and, until his arrest, did not know he was an illegal immigrant.

Because this is an uplifting show about human experience, the storyline has a happy ending when Jane, the young man's defender, finds a loophole discovering that her client's biological father was a North Korean and argues asylum. But reality is not as kind as prime time programming. In our real court system this young man would have been deported, or--if he had the means--been held in a detention center for an unknown amount of time as he fought for asylum. In our real court system, immigration hearings are never so neatly and happily tied up.

It is sad to think how many real stories begin much like this fictionalized one, but end very differently. There are infants and children brought into this country every day, without say or explanation. My own mother was brought into the country illegally as an infant by her parents, and she never understood why her father would leave her behind in L.A. every time he took her younger sister and brothers to visit family in Baja California. (She began to believe she wasn’t his daughter.) These things do happen, but unfortunately they happen to people who don’t have the luck of fictional T.V. characters who can afford high class lawyers. No, the real world is much much harsher.

Perhaps the result of Drop Dead Diva’s immigration storyline is unbelievable, but it is good to see a prime time show presenting a story on immigrant rights through a recurring character (Cho) that the audience has connected with. And also, that the story focused on a Korean American family because we are all connected in these stories.

If you are interested in immigrant rights for children of immigrants you can check out the Dream Act and sign a petition here, or get active here.

Monday, June 21, 2010

An Interview with Douglas Kearney

Last week, I wrote an interview with Doug Kearney for The Splinter Generation. Doug is a, as his bio says, poet/performer/librettist/educator. Much of his new book The Black Automaton (Fence 2009) is a mix of visual art and poetry that comes together in an investigation of race and culture in Los Angeles and the United States.

His poems reflecting on his experience with the L.A. Riots from his predominantly white neighborhood in Pasadena/Altadena definitely caught my eye. I was also in the San Gabriel Valley, and can remember the ominous plumes of smoke rising from the west and taking over the city. As an Angelino, a developing minor, and a person of color, the L.A. Riots meant something to both of us (and probably many artists of our generation), but in different ways. And that's what I love to discover, what this blog is about. It's about finding those connections within the human experience as much as the uniqueness and individuality.

From The Splinter Generation interview:

XB: In your book The Black Automaton the L.A. Riots are a backdrop for a series of poems. What hand do you think the riots had in shaping you as an African American poet?

DK: The riots happened my senior year in high school. I wasn’t a poet then. My family was the only black family at this white church. I had been in The Pasadena Boy’s choir, which was largely a white organization; so a lot of my peers that weren’t at school where white folks. When the L.A. Riots came down, having to ask that question, “Whose side [am] I on?” crystallized all these fears of not being sure where I belonged.

At the time, popular music included groups like Public Enemy and Arrested Development, so there was a sense among African Americans that you were supposed to have something to say. And [the question became] what would I have said? Who would I have betrayed? The riots, their impact on me as a poet, allowed me to identify a question that I figured I could only answer through the kind of introspection that poetry allows. And what is crazy, even after all this time, I still don’t know what I would have done. And I think, “City with fire and a piece of silver,” revealed to [that] me.

XB: You mention “City with fire and a piece of silver." That poem stood out to me, for one, because of its element of chance. In some of your more visual poems, like the “Black Automaton in Tag” series, there is a feeling of chance, almost like “Choose your own adventure” poetry. Can you speak about that?

DK: Those “choose your own adventure” poems came from people telling me that they would not have gotten the poem if it were not for my performance.They meant it as a compliment, but a part of me could only hear that to them the emotion and ideas of the poem were not in the language itself. That means that it wasn’t well written; it was really well performed.

So I wanted to go back to the lab, and try to write poems that would demand the eye, demand a reader. And not only demand it, but reward it. I wanted to try to create a poetry [where] the page itself would become a stage. And so, the text of the Black Automaton poems that you are talking about is partially about scoring a way of reading.

What’s interesting is that I wrote [those poems] not using Word, but using design programs that would allow me to put text anywhere I wanted. I composed it by putting a text box in a spot, and I’d be like, “OK, text here. No, that doesn’t work. Let me move that.” I wanted to create this page that would perform itself. And what I began to realize when I would look at [those poems], I had no idea how I would read them. If you are looking at the “The Black Automaton in what it is #3: Work it out,” I have no idea, necessarily, how to make the fact that the word “work” is repeated four times inside all these brackets sound. It really becomes an investigation of how we read a thing.

XB: Performance is something that certainly informs your writing process, and as you know there is a long-standing debate between performance poetry and poetry on the page. Where do you see your work falling on this spectrum?

DK: When I started writing and performing, I was going to a grassroots writing workshop called Writer’s Block in San Diego, and it was modeled after The World Stage’s poetry workshop. The only difference was during the workshop, Writer’s Block people never [brought copies], so you never got a chance to read the poem, only hear it, and it ended up being a critique of the performance. And that’s when I really started hearing about the debate of page versus stage. At that point I [thought], “Well, shoot! Why have an argument about it? Let’s have a poem that works equally well on the paper as it does in the air.” That lead to certain experiments that I was doing with poetry, and what I learned was, you can do things where the tension of the poem comes from the differences, the limitations of hearing a poem versus being able to see it and vice versa.

XB: Would you call yourself a performer or a poet?

DK: On my bio it says performer/poet/librettist, and those are all things I do. I consider myself first and foremost a poet. I think I do the most good for poetry as a culture by saying I’m a poet. Then you don’t think that going to a “poetry reading” involves sitting and falling asleep. And at the same time, you don’t believe that if someone does a dynamic reading of a poem they can only be a spoken word artist or a slam artist.

XB: As a Latina poet, I often think about the connection between ethnicity, politics and poetry, and I’m curious on your thoughts as an African America poet. Is it possible to separate race and poetry? What is the connection?

DK: It is totally possible that one day I’m going to feel I’m sick of writing about black face and minstrel shows, and race, and I will write a poem about seeing my wife coming out of the swimming pool. Then the question becomes—if I describe my wife—is it suddenly a poem about race because I describe my wife’s dark brown skin? Is it a poem about black pride and black beauty? That’s baggage the reader brings, to a certain extent. For me, I don’t see them as separate. To say that you are a writer, and the fact that you are an African American has no bearing on your writing is a little difficult to believe. You might not write about black shit, but that can be because you are black, at which point you are writing the blackest shit ever.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Jacob Riis, The Camera Weilding Muckraker of Five Points

Jacob Riis

The other night I caught one of my favorite movies, Gangs of New York, on T.V. Though I own the film, there is always something satisfying about finding a favorite while flipping through channels. Watching the final riot scene I started to wonder how much of the story was fact and how much was fiction. A long journey down the Google hole dropped me in the lap of one Jacob Riis and the Muckrakers of the Gilded Age.

What does this have to do with the Immigration Project? For one, Jacob Riis was a Danish immigrant, and two he used photography and journalism to bring about social reform to the immigrant tenements and slums--such as Gangs of New York's Five Points--of Victorian New York City.

Here are some examples of his work:

Riis' photography, magical lantern shows, and books including, How the Other Half Lives, brought the struggle of the poor to the attention of the upper class and people in power, namely New York City Police Commissioner, Theodore Roosevelt (newly discovered as my favorite U.S. President). Roosevelt and Riis' time together lead to a life long friendship and partnership in working towards social reform.

If Jacob Riis was alive now, he may have a blog. If he could see our modern world he may wonder what had changed, if anything. Today, is not much different from his day. There is still a hugely unequal distribution of wealth, the upper class continues to give a blind eye to the struggles of the poor, and the middle and lower classes blame immigrants for the poor state of the job market, housing, and wealth. And so we as artists must ask, WWJD? What would Jacob do?

He would rake the muck and so should we.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Splintered Thoughts: Poetry, Politics, and the Individual

Click here for the latest Splintered Thoughts Blogtalk show.
On today's show we listened to poet and Mexican immigrant, Erika Ayon, share narrative poems about her childhood as a street vendor selling oranges. Her poems give us a personal and touching view of a way of life many of us will never experience, but pass by (at least in L.A.) daily. She also introduced us to the Dream Act, a proposal for undocumented students to become citizens under certain moral and educational stipulations. This month is very important for the Dream Act and in order to help this proposal become a bill you can call California Senator Diane Feinstein and ask her to support the proposal, or for more information you can visit Don't be afraid to get active. Here is something we can do now to help young, hardworking students have a brighter future.

We also spoke to Arizona-based activist, Walt Staton. He is familiar with the immigration issue as he has been volunteering with human rights group No More Deaths since 2004, bringing water and medical aid to migrants crossing the dangerous deserts of Arizona. He spoke out against the negative turn Arizona has taken, and asked us all to look for a more positive solution. Instead of making the border a full out military zone, he suggests tearing down the wall and decriminalizing immigration. Perhaps, he has a point. The more we criminalize immigrants the bigger the war will get. If we don't take a different approach, who knows when it will stop?

Fight fear with knowledge and compassion, not guns and walls. And remember that we are all human, all individuals.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Sin Miedo: A Poem for the May Day Marchers

Walking around the May Day march on Saturday, I saw people dispersed through the crowds wearing true green shirts that said "Indocumentado" (undocumented) on the front, and "Sin Miedo" (without fear) on the back. This father and son were two people wearing these shirts. I was very touched by their courage.

Sin Miedo

He clutches his son,
whole arm tight around shoulders.
They move, side pinned to side,
like a three-legged race,
but these indocumentado do not run.
They walk slow, with purpose.
Father has brought his boy
onto the street, into the den.
Among thousands, they are exposed
to marchers, signs, helicopters
flying over head. Looking
to the sky they appear stacked,
helicopter over helicopter,
over high-rise, over crowds,
over concrete. Red and white
stripes flutter like a satin prison.
He brings his boy in tighter.
Father and son, protector
and protected. But windows
are watching, and people move
in every direction.
They are vulnerable to the whims
of a mob. To brick and Billy clubs,
fire hoses and dogs, rope and hate.
This is what the father considers
as he folds his son under his arm,
and they continue to march.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Shifra Goldman and Poetic Arte!

Saturday night I attended an event of Latino American art, poetry, and academia in celebration of one great artistic mind, Shifra Goldman. If you don’t recognize her name, don’t worry, I didn’t at first either, but I assure you, you have felt her influence. A Jewish American academic, who came from a Yiddish and English bilingual family, she is attributed with being one of the first to call for the conservation of Siquiero’s whitewashed Olvera Street mural, “Tropical America,” when most people forgot it existed. Her critical analysis and books, Dimensions of the Americas, Contemporary Mexican Painting in a Time of Change, had major influence in the European and American art worlds of the 70s and 80s when many believed nothing of significance could be birthed in Latin America, and generally made such names as Rivera, Siquieros, and Orozco world-known.

All this I knew about Shifra, the writer and Latino art champion, before I walked into Avenue 50 Studio on Saturday night, but what I gained by being apart of this celebration was so much more. We began with an acoustic guitar performance by her son, Eric Garcia. After playing two songs, he invited in his preteen son to accompany him on violin, and instantly the crowd was uplifted. The shaggy haired twelve year-old talent was nothing less than charming. Next was film director and writer, Jesus Trevino, who read from his memoir, Eyewitness. He shared a section about Shifra and his time with her, and her influence. As he read it was clear that many in the room know her personally. He spoke of her work with “Tropical America," her philosophy on politics and art (they cannot be separated), and it was like I could hear the audience smiling. The next performer, a poet, Ramon Garcia, was also fortunate enough to know her personally. She had taken him at a time when he was new to Los Angeles. He appeared young, and I wondered how exactly they met. How was he so lucky to have dinners with her at a bad French restaurant in Echo Park? “Taix” he shared with the room, and many laughed. Bad food, but good discussions, a majority of the 60-70 people now crowding in the tiny art studio agreed. I realized that I was only a visitor; I have never met Shifra, but I now wish I could have.

Other poets, Gloria Enedina Alvarez, Adolfo Guzman-Lopez, and George Kalmar, shared poetry and memories, as well as members in the audience, and every story told was like it’s own special gem. Artists, poets, friends, a son, all were touched by her in some significant way. And it seems if you had come to know her, you were certainly influenced by her critical and caring mind. She was a mentor to artists, and other lost children of Los Angeles, and I began to wish I was a little older, a little more lost, a little more hungry and that this surrogate mother could be mine too. I imagined sitting with her in Taix drinking a dirty martini and listening to her speak about art and revolution. I wondered what heated discussion we would have, and how she would generally “school” me as I make notes in my mind. If only.

She is bedridden now, and in the final stages of Alzheimer. Her son shared that he visits with her daily, and before coming to this event he sat with her. He recorded a minute long video of Shifra knotted in her bed, her brilliant mind somewhere locked in the darkness of the past. He carried her into the event on his white Apple laptop, and it was then I remembered Frida Kahlo.

Or I should confess, the movie Frida (Shifra may not have approved since it seems she didn’t care for Hollywood). I remembered the final scene, where Frida, one leg amputated and very ill, lays in bed on the opening night of her exhibit. I remembered the doctor’s order, and how friends carry her, heavy wood-carved bed and all, to the event to celebrate, to see the culmination of her work.

In some way Shifra was there, and we celebrated with her.

UPDATE: Sadly, Shifra Goldman died from complications to Alzheimer at 85 on September 11, 2011. For more on Shifra's life and legacy, you can read her obituary at L.A. Times here or this piece by Adolfo Guzman-Lopez at KCET. She will be missed.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Images from May Day 2010, Downtown Los Angeles

I arrived in Dowtown around 10:30 am, and joined the march at 9th and Broadway. Walking over to Broadway, I past two women and a young girl. It is possible they were mother, daughter, and granddaughter. They were armored with white shirts and U.S. flags, and like me, they were rushing to get to the march. Hearing them exchange Spanish words, seeing the generations, I fought back tears. Just yesterday I read how Arizona has banned ethnic studies classes and teachers with accents teaching English, and I realize I am not marching or fighting for me, but for them. From 9th all the way up to city hall and Villaraigosa's white doves, commissioned with message of change for the White House, I allowed the power of the people to sweep me up.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Earth & Poetry Day April 18 at Whittier Narrows Nature Area

The public is invited to enjoy the timeless combination of nature and poetry when the historic Whittier Narrows Natural Area plays host to a free Earth & Poetry Day event on Sunday, April 18.
The family-friendly celebration, 11 a.m. – 2 p.m., will include a docent-led nature walk at 11 a.m. followed by poetry performances and refreshments beginning at 12:30 p.m. Attendees are invited to bring a nature-themed poem to share.
The event will include performances by touring spoken word poet Jared Paul, of Providence, R.I., and Southern California poets Deborah P. Kolodji, Chris Wesley and, 2009 PEN Emerging Voices Fellow, Erika Ayón. All activities will take place in or leave from the picnic area outside the nature center.
The event marks both National Poetry Month and the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, which this year falls on Wednesday, April 22. The natural area, a wildlife sanctuary founded by the National Audubon Society, celebrated its 70th anniversary in 2009.
The Whittier Narrows Natural Area is located at 1000 N. Durfee Ave., South El Monte CA 91733, across from South El Monte High School. Parking is free.
This natural area, home to numerous species of birds and other animals and plants native to wetland communities, is currently in danger. For more on saving this nature reserve visit the Friends of the Whittier Narrows Natural Area .

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Education and Jaime Escalante

The other day I walked into my house and found my father and two of my brothers sitting around the kitchen table discussing some pressing matter. This is our favorite past-time. Other families may enjoy throwing the ball around, board games, or watching sports, but nothing gets us more excited than an argument over Obama's progress or lack there of, immigrant rights, big government, the state of public schools, allocation of state money, and so forth. We sit around the kitchen table blood boiling calling each other loyal "automotrons" and other such ridiculous insults.

On this particular day the argument had something to do with education and the state of Latino progress in comparison with the rest of the nation. My brother Julio, the oldest and arguable the smartest (he went to Stanford...whatever!) mentioned a quote he had heard that the Chicano movement of the sixties and seventies did the population a great injustice by focusing on education and not on business. My brother Gabriel agreed and thought we might be better off today if they stressed becoming part of the market instead of focusing on things such as cultural studies in colleges. Basically, they argued that the movement created a whole generation of teachers and thinkers, but no money makers or government players. My only retort: "But it's part of our makeup to encourage community, culture, and education." They didn't seem too convinced, and went on to discuss those people who have made it to the upper echelons like Villaragosa and Gloria Molina. I decided to retreat to my computer and let them solve the world's problems without me.

The next morning, while getting ready for work, my father had the news on in the living room, which had a live feed from Garfield High School and the memorial for educator Jaime Escalante.

And I thought, "See, this is what it's about."

Jaime Escalante changed people's lives. More than that he changed how his students' saw themselves. He gave them tools to succeed, and what more can we ask for? That's why education and art and community are important. It reminds of who we are, and by knowing who we are we are able to accomplish more.

He told his students, "I'll teach you math and that's your language. With that you're going to make it. You're going to college and sit in the first row, not the back, because you're going to know more than anybody." He gave them an even playing field. He gave them the language and the space to achieve, and that is essential.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

May Sky: There is Always Tomorrow, An Anthology of Japanese American Concentration Camp Kaiko Haiku

The beginning of this month I went to UCLA for a panel on political prisoners of the Dirty War of Argentina of the 70s and 80s, and the art and writing that came from experiences of unlawful imprisonment and torture, but political prisoners are not always in other countries. Here is a touch of WWII history and an annotation of the book May Sky. If it sounds on the academic side, it's because I stole parts of this entry from my grad school critical paper on Japanese internment and witness poetry.

A Little History:

On December 7, 1941, Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The next day the U.S. declared war on the combined Axis powers of Germany, Italy and Japan. On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 which declared the Western states under martial law allowing for, according to Anita Haya Patterson­––author of “The Resistance to Images of Internment: Mitsuye Yamada’s Camp Notes,”––112,000 Japanese Americans, two-third of which were born in the United State, to be unlawfully and forcefully evacuated from their homes and imprisoned or “relocated” in internment camps. Relocation, as described by poet and historian Violet Kazu de Cristoforo in her book May Sky: There is Always Tomorrow, was inhumane: “The internment of Japanese Americans living on the West Coast involved a process by which they were registered, numbered, tagged with shipping labels, and placed aboard buses, trains or trucks for shipment, under armed guard, to temporary location euphemistically called ‘Assembly Centers’” (51). Such descriptions of the “process” are chilling considering the migration of a population of a people has the sound of a package being sent through the mail.In camps, life was not nearly as dire as the concentration camps of Europe that occurred at the same time, but human rights still were not protected by the law as stated in the U.S. Constitution. People were not directly mistreated with torture or death, but they did face certain injustices such as racial prejudice, unlawful imprisonment, and the loss of individual freedoms. Considered enemies of the state, Japanese Americans throughout the Western states were unjustly imprisoned in camps created out of makeshift bunkers and at times housed in horse stalls usually located in desolate areas. In the Rohwer Concentration Camp, for example, which was located near Little Rock, Arkansas where weather conditions were extreme, barracks were described by de Cristoforo as, “tar paper covered, hastily erected structures with ill-fitting doors and windows which did not close properly. As well, there was no running water and no coal supplies for heating stoves” (62).
May Sky: There is Always Tomorrow:

May Sky: There is Always Tomorrow as compiled, translated, and prefaced by Violet de Christoforo is a book that combines history, poetry, culture and human rights, and tells the story of Japanese internment not through photos, facts, or essay, but with a hefty collection haiku written by those inside internment camps. Why haiku? In the introduction from a volume of haiku collected at Rohwer Concentration Camp in September 1944, the poets describe the phenomenon: “In order for us to transcend our condition we must immerse ourselves in nature, and be grateful to find happiness in the life of haiku poetry” (qtd in de Cristoforo 89).

In many poems there is a definite immersion in nature. This haiku by Reiko Gomyo, written while she was imprisoned in at Rohwer uses nature as a symbol for her oppression:

Feeling oppression
withering weeds
are dense (qtd in de Cristoforo 197)

Or this haiku written by Neji Ozawa while interned in Gila Indian reservations sanatoriam (where the title of the book is taken from) where the sky is a sense of hope:

From the window of despair
May sky
There is always tomorrow (qtd in de Christofor 223)

Or this haiku by Kazue Matsudo, interned at Tule Lake:

Like minded people gather
new shoots sprout from pine tree
early summer day (qtd in de Cristoforo 205)

What I find intriguing is how important the imagination becomes when faced with such harsh realities, and that while some of these poets were poets before and after, others may have never picked up a pen or a brush before, but are suddenly drawn to art as a form of coping and survival. Or as de Cristoforo says, "Like a comet, some of the wartime haiku writers emerged only momentarily from obsurity, flashed across the literary firmament and, when war ended and infamous concentration camps closed, vanished into oblivion" (30).

Another book on poetry from Japanese internment: Camp Notes and Other Writings by Matsuye Yamada.

For more on poetry as survival: Poetry as Survival by Gregory Orr.

For more on witness poetry from civil rights violations around the world:
Against Forgetting edited by Carolyn Forche, with an excellent essay on poetry of witness.

For essays on poetry and politics: Praises & Dispraises by Terrence Des Pres.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

ESLABONES: State Terrorism and Resistance in Argentina

On Friday I headed to UCLA for a panel on Argentina's political prisoners from the Dirty War of the '70s and '80s, and the book Eslabones, a new volume of stories, poetry, and testimonies of political imprisonment and torture from Cordoba, Argentina. In grad school I wrote my critical paper/academic thesis on witness poetry from Japanese internment camps of WWII compared to poetry from the book Poems from Guantanamo: The Detainees Speak edited by Marc Falkoff, and I went to this panel with a continued interest in human rights activity with concern to political prisoners and torture, as well as how the writing process affects those who have experienced such horrific crimes.

Alicia Partnoy, the author of The Little School: Tale of Disappearance and Survival in Argentina, which speaks of her experience as a tortured desaparacido, spoke of the need to tell these stories as "a need to record history," to ensure people never forget.She joked that she writes her story now because someone told her, "We are not getting younger any time soon," but the importance of sharing her experience is no joke as she recalls the process as liberating: "It has to be liberating."

The highlight of the afternoon was Dr. Irene Martinez who read her poem, "Chichi Bruja/las balerinas," from the Eslabones collection that recalled one of her compañeras in prison who would tease Irene for having over grown eyebrows. Once this woman found two scraps of metal during the 20 minutes a week they were allowed outside. The scrap metal became makeshift tweezers this compañera used to reshape all the women’s eyebrows as their personal beautician. Of course, my paraphrase of her poem does not do it justice, but I found it a beautiful story of disappeared women, kept from homes and family including their young children, interrogated and tortured on a regular basis, finding some sense of normalcy, of tenderness, in something as small as two scraps of metal acting as a ballerina’s feet on their eyebrows.

"Being beautiful was also important," Dr. Martinez shared with the room. Partnoy nodded in agreement, and shared how women would make mascara out of toothpaste and ash.

After her reading, Dr. Martinez went through slides from a photography project entitled, "Flying Away of the Mattress." The first slide showed three women, naked, blindfolded and sitting on a floor lined up as if in a sled. She explained that they were forced to sleep multiple women to a mattress, but that the nudity was her artistic interpretation. She stated that these artistic renderings "help me get it out of my system," and that making artistic choices, like the nudity, helped her to "own it." This reminded me of the book Poetry as Survival by Gregory Orr who said “To name something is to assert control over it" (30). It would seem that Dr. Martinez found a form of expression that allowed her to take ownership over a horrific and harrowing experience that has helped her to cope while also educating others.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Poetry News and Videos

Back in November 2009, I, along with L.A. poet Rafael Alvarado, started a reading series at the Arroyo Seco Central Library in Highland Park with help from our library contact and librarian, Erika Montenegro. Our inaugural reading was a huge hit with readings from PEN Emerging Poet, Erika Ayon, myself, and famous L.A. writer, editor, and community activist Luis Rodriguez, author of Always Running: La Vida Loca: Gang Days in L.A.

The event was covered by a local L.A. public access station. You can check out excerpts from our readings and interviews from the story below.

And for a little inspiration, check out this video of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez singing, "Deportee 1976." Thank you Christina for passing this on to me.

Enjoy! And let's remember that poetry, politics, and the people are rarely exclusive of each other.

Peace, Love, and Community.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Lito Aquino Part II: American Life and Philippine Memories

Lito Aquino, first-cousin of Pilipino politician and activist Ninoy Aquino, is kind in opening up his home to me on a sunny Los Angeles afternoon in September. Him, his wife Coy, and preteen son, treat myself and their other guests (his adult daughter and son-in-law) to a large spread of of homemade Pilipino cuisine before we head into the living room to conduct our interview around a coffee table.

Left to right: Coy Aquino (wife), Andrew Aquino (son), Elizabeth Myers (daughter from previous marriage), and Lito Aquino

After speaking for nearly a half-an-hour, Coy surprises us with the traditional Pilipino desert, Halo-halo. Lito explains that Halo-halo means "mix" and that the dessert is a mix of shaved ice, ice cream, banana, jack fruit, and beans. The lavender taro ice cream is smooth and rich on my tongue, and the bits of bean and fruit make for lovely chewable surprises between crunching ice shavings. Everyone takes a break to scoop out mouth fulls. I wonder how Lito has been able to mix his Pilipino self with his American self. I wonder if this glass of swirling flavors is not unlike his journey to life in America. Or do the tastes of taro and jack fruit simply remind him of life in his home country? This is what mixes in my mind as we continue.

Immigration Project: Do you ever think about going back?

Lito Aquino: I would have to say I am too Americanized. I’ve told everybody—including Coy—her mom (gesturing to his daughter) was a great influence on me. We were married for ten years, we never quarreled. We talked civilly, and well, that is Pilipino culture too. But American culture is good because here, if you work hard, you do your job, you do good to people, you mind your own business, usually they don’t mind you. In the Philippines, when you are doing good all the necks are up—they are like this (he raises his hand to his chin and stretches his neck up and shifts his eyes like someone peering over a fence)—to find out what you are doing. They try to tell people about you. The good things about you, the bad things about you, and if they envy you, they mostly tell the bad things about you. And if they want favors from you, you really don’t know who they are. They may seem like your friends, like they would give their life for you, but you turn your back and there is a snake biting you. That’s what I didn’t like.

If I went home and they knew I was the first cousin of Ninoy, people would start asking me for favors, and maybe one day I would say yes, and then people will be coming to me expecting me to help them because I am an Aquino. I don’t want to be in that position, and that is one of the things that I learned from my family. We don’t give favors, especially to family. We were taught to help people in a [privileged] position is not right because you are taking advantage of your powers. That’s why the Philippines are always corrupt because of [favors], the old system. But in our family, and in Ninoy’s family— The Aquinos are never like that.

IP: What were some fond memories of life in the Philippines?

LA: The memories that really speak to me were how we were raised. On Saturdays and Sundays, instead of living the life a rich boy, [my father] would bring us to the hacienda and let us work the farm. At that time we didn’t have trucks, we had water buffalo that plowed the field. We had to do what the farmers were doing: ride the [water buffalo], plow the field, take out the grass. Just like the farmers. No special treatment because [my father] wanted us to know where the harvest was coming from. And he was always telling us, “Respect the farmers. Respect the farmers because what is coming to you is coming from their sweat. So respect them.” That’s how we were treated.

IP: Knowing you lived a privileged life in Philippines, would you go back to it if you could?

LA: Here it was hard at first. If someone saw me now living in this dump, they won’t believe it. They would never expect that I would live in this kind of dump and do the work that I do for [my wife], and my son.

But I cannot handle [the Philippines] anymore, especially now. People are going hungry left and right. If I go there I would want to help, but I can’t afford to help. I would rather live like this.

And you know what? I am very happy in this kind of life. I never have to think how much I will have tomorrow. How much money will I have to spend on other people? I don’t have those problems. In the Philippines, I think the richer you are the more problems you have because of the culture, and the situation there. And in the present condition, nah, I don’t think so. I think I’ll die here. I’ll die here.

IP: You mentioned that your second wife—your daughter’s mother—helped you become more Americanized? How do you mean? Can you give me an example?

LA: Like being prompt. In the Philippines if someone asks you what time you are coming for dinner, you say, “maybe seven o’clock.” When you say seven o’clock you show up around 9 or ten. That’s Pilipino time. [Coy] hates me for this because I stick to the rule that you are either 15 minutes early or 15 minutes late. So whenever I make an appointment, I’m there. I am never late. That’s Americanized.

(Coy walks into the room from the kitchen and Lito asks if she can pick out a way he is Americanized. Right away she says, “Time. He can never be late. Even for parties, we have to be early.” They joke about a party they arrived for a half-an-hour early and won a trip to Catalina for being prompt.)

IP: What were the hardest things to get used to when you first came to the U.S.?

LA: Finding a job. First of all, I was not a yet a permanent resident, I was a tourist when I came here, and people told me, “you’ll have trouble.” The hardest thing was finding a job when you don’t know how. I found a lot of tricks.

Do you want to know what they are?

IP: Sure, I need a job.

LA: When I came here I had a very high resume. I thought putting my resume for an application would do me good. Later, I found out I was rejected because—you see some high executive at Jack in the Box where I worked told me this—it’s wrong for you to tell the resume you have to the vice president because they will be afraid of you taking their place. They told me, “Say you are high school graduate.” So I said it, and I got a job.

IP: What was your first job when got here?

LA: Assistant manager for Jack in the Box (he shows a wide smile).

Lito in Los Angeles circa 1978

Oh, it was hard. You see, in the Philippines when they say “manager” you are somebody. When I saw the listing for “assistant manager” I said, “Manager, aha!”

So I interviewed and I passed the interview because I said I was a high school graduate. And I got the job as assistant manager, and low and behold, I found out that an assistant manager working with Jack in the Box at that time was just a name. The manager would assign me to the graveyard shift. But when you close they tell you a lot of things you should do because you are assistant manager. And there were always cuts I had to make by the end of the day. I had to meet the [ordered cuts], or I get fired. So I would cut the schedule for the grill person and do the grill at closing time. I cut the schedule for the maintenance person to save time and labor, and I would do the maintenance. I was cleaning everything, even the toilets and garbages, and I would get home at one and your mom (speaking to his daughter) would be so upset with me: “Why do you have to do this thing?” I said, “Because we have to have money. I have to give you something.”

Monday, February 8, 2010

Valentine's Day Contest

Last month I entered my poem, "Quinceañera Serenata," (inspired by photos and interviews from Chavez Ravine by Don Normack) to Trellis Magazine's Valentine's Day poetry contest. Trellis Magazine is a great source for new as well as experienced poets for publishing, inspiration, and knowledge. They always have fun contests and great informative links.

I am excited to announce that my poem was selected to be part of their current Inspired Poetry: for Valentine's Day issue. The contest took 12 classic love poems (Shakespeare, Lord Byron, Liz Bar Browning) and asked participants to write a new poem inspired by the form, imagery, theme, etc of one of the originals.

Click here to see the current issue in PDF form. Poem is on 26 with notes on 27.

I hope everyone finds love and inspiration this Valentine's Day!

Monday, January 25, 2010

For My Grandmother: An L.A. Story

From left to right: my father, grandmother, mother, and me

In my search and thirst for the past, for the faces of our history, I have forgotten the faces that brought me to the subject of immigration in the first place. I have forgotten that the story isn’t always something out there in the world, but something right here inside my own home, inside my own family.

This past Saturday my family decided to have a Catholic mass in my grandmother’s (my father’s mother) honor. In December my grandmother was in the hospital after she suffered an episode, which many of us feared was a stroke, and that our worst fear––the inevitable truth of her passing––was upon us. Watching her, my tiny grandmother, skin as delicate as tissue paper, struggling and crumpled in her hospital bed, I tried to hold back tears, as I suspect we all did, in what seemed like an attempt to keep this fragile creature from dissolving.

Thankfully, it wasn’t a stroke, and she was back in her Boyle Heights home by Christmas Eve. To celebrate, we had a mass said in her honor this past weekend in a small Catholic church, Mission San Conrado, up above Solano Avenue, in the shadow of Chavez Ravine and Dodger Stadium.

Yesterday, once again looking through Don Normark’s photos from the book, Chavez Ravine, 1949: A Los Angeles Story, I came across a black and white landscape shot of Solano Avenue and the north slope of La Loma. The homes of La Loma are gone now, but the church, the site of my grandmother’s mass, stands at the foot of that hill, and it is still green, still looking untouched. After the mass, my brother Andres took his son Armando and our nephew Gabrielito up the steps behind the church, past the ceramic alter to the Virgin Mary, to explore this greenery. I wasn’t up there with them, but I’m sure the boys played pirate, adventurer, conqueror, as I’m sure the boys of La Loma did 60-70 years earlier.

Inside the church, during the homily, the priest (speaking only in Spanish) addressed my grandmother, who with the help of her youngest daughter slowly rose to her feet. He asked her, are all your children here? She nodded. And are these young people your grandchildren and great-grandchildren? She smiled and nodded.
Some of the great-grandchildren attempting to sing for their great-grandmother

And señora, he asked, where are you from in Mexico? Teocaltiche (a small pueblo in Jalisco, Mexico), someone in the aisles assisted. Is anyone else here from Teocaltiche? My father raised his hand high up and let a proud grin spread wide over his face. And señora, how long have you been here? My grandmother laughed, shyly keeping her glance low in what seemed like an old school sign of respect for clergy, Cincuenta años. Fifty years, she told him.

And here I was trying to find an L.A. story, lamenting the loss of the culture and people of Chavez Ravine, not realizing that culture still lived in here. Normark’s photos illustrate a lost town, but the hills are still here, the Spanish is still here, and family is still here.

In 1949, Normark stumbled into Chavez Ravine. In 1949 my grandmother was raising three young children in a poor pueblo in Jalisco, Mexico (my father once told me how they didn’t have electricity in Teocaltiche, and that the children waited for full moons to play out in the streets at night). In 1949, the inhabitants of Ravine's La Loma, Bishop, and Palo Verde communities grew their own vegetables and milked their own goats that grazed along the green hills all around their homes. In 1949, my father scaled the hills surrounding his town with his grandmother to collect nopales (cactus) to accompany the simple meal of frijoles, chile, and tortillas that his mother was preparing back home for dinner.
My father, first on the left, with his siblings, cousins, and grandfather in Teocaltiche, Mexico

And now in 2010, sixty-one years later, the houses on the hill of La Loma are gone, but my family thrives. And my small, unassuming grandmother stands in a church beaming with pride to be surrounded by her still growing family of seven children, nineteen grandchildren, and twenty great-grandchildren. And in an hour two of those great-grandchildren, Armando and Gabrielito, will be conquering the hill just outside. And somehow, there is comfort in knowing nothing is ever completely gone.