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.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Chavez Ravine: A Los Angeles Story

Before Lasorda and Valenzuela, before we bled blue, before Dodger Stadium Chavez Ravine was a collection of three sleepy communities–La Loma, Bishop, and Palo Verde–existing in the hills sandwiched between downtown and Elysian Park. There, poor, mostly Mexican-American families made their homes out of shacks and makeshift dwellings, but when a young photographer, Don Normark, stumbled upon the inhabitants of Chavez Ravine, he felt he "had found a poor man's Shangri-la." He had found three communities full of life, pride, and strength. Of course, most know that the homes that once scattered across the hillsides where vacated and bulldozed, at first for a public housing project, but later the public land was sold to private investor, Walter O'Malley for Dodger Stadium. So what was once a vibrant Mexican-American enclave hidden in the hills of Los Angeles became the site of the major Los Angeles professional sport institution known as The Dodgers.

What is especially astounding to me is that Normark accidentally stumbled on to La Loma, Bishop, and Palo Verde, when he was searching for a wide shot of downtown, but was so inspired by the place that he came back more than a dozen times with his camera in hand. Little did he know, nor the subjects of his photographs know, that the place he was capturing would soon no longer exist.

And now because of the work of a young, novice, but inspired photographer, we have a look back at a time and a way of life that has become obsolete in wide-spread industrialized Los Angeles.This is one of my favorite photos. He is demanding his own poem.

The book, Chavez Ravine, 1949: A Los Angeles Story, is full of Normark's black and white photos and is accompanied by interviews with the people who once lived there. It is an amazing source, and a reminder of a simpler time when neighbors knew one another, and L.A. was green and untouched.

Here is a portion of a poem inspired by Normack's photographs and one woman's memories of life in the ravine:

Quinceañera Serenata

“And what was really, really special was that on Saturday, five o’ clock in the morning when the sun was coming out, the boys used to play the guitar and serenade everybody, and it was so beautiful to hear the music in Spanish.” ––Carmen Torres Roldan

Mi quinceañera, en tela blanca,
como linda flor de la mañana,
blushes before an open window’s light.
A virgin veil sweeps black coquettish eyes,
and hands hold prayers like fiery drama.

Dawn calls me to sing my serenata
for this child-bride, this niña querida,
versus for young apricot cheeks. Ayay,
mi quinceañera.

Poem Notes:

The form of this poem is a rondeau. It is missing the final stanza for publication purposes.

A quinceañera is the celebration of a girl turning 15 years-old. It can also refer to a girl who is turning 15. This Mexican tradition is still very prevalent among Mexican-Americans.