LAtitudes: An Angeleno’s Atlas (2015)

Los Angeles!

I hope these letters find you well. I just got in after some smooth rickety-rolling through the 210 freeway, and the night is ours.

I’m with the InsideOUT Writers program at a juvenile camp in San Dimas through October, and while the ride up is a solid hour’s drive past mid-day heat and glaring metal, the ride back is beautiful.

The City gleams like a nebula from the 210 in the evening, and it was like an orchestra tonight: every driver was part of a great ballet on the road, slipping and swerving at each curve in such synchrony that although we were separate, we really acted like just a single passage of light through the darkness.

Speaking of light-speed, I’ve been reading voraciously over the last few weeks! Ever since I got back from Chicago, one thing has been clear: there’s only so much time to research my passion for what makes up a great city, and I absolutely do want to take advantage of every minute of it.

For August’s book review, I’m excited to feature LAtitudes: An Angeleno’s Atlas by Patricia Wakida, in which L.A. aficionados can find one another through a stream of pages dedicated to uncovering the roots of this place we call home.
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With over nineteen different authors from all across the L.A. spectrum, the writing in LAtitudes is highly aware of the multiplicity which makes up The City. As Luis Alfaro notes at the outset, there is no ‘one L.A.’, but over 18 million of them.

And as Anthea Hartig and Josh Sides point out, L.A. is not just in downtown or Hollywood, or in the east or south sides, but it’s in the pedestrian friendliness of Burbank, and the vastness of Sunland-Tujunga, and in sun-baked Sylmar. It’s also in the historic city of Inglewood, as well as in lesser known Hawthorne, and the laid back South Bay. Los Angeles is also in San Pedro, as well as in Long Beach, and Norwalk and Cerritos! The list goes on, as 60% of The City is actually outside of The City.

Of course, anyone browsing through the web can tell you that L.A.’s made up of 88 different “communities”, but what’s special about LAtitudes is that you won’t just discover the hard facts about the land but also the stories attached to it.

For example, did you know that L.A. was once little more than a string of cattle ranches across a couple of dozen prairies? I sure didn’t, but Teddy Varno’s essay makes it a live experience.

And did you know that L.A. was attacked one early February morning during World War 2, though not by the Axis powers, but by a UFO?! Yes, it sounds like the stuff of movies, but Jason Brown’s essay places readers right in the middle of the incredible sequence for an unforgettable ride.

LAtitudes goes beyond the wild and quirky, however, and features truly historical work. Cindi Alvitre’s Coyote Tour describes the Tongva and Yaangna tribes who trailed through the land before the Spanish crown decimated or acculturated their people, while Nathan Masters’s Gridding the City identifies the true genius of the grid masters who gave The City its ‘sprawling’ form.

Laura Pulido’s Landscapes of Racial Violence moved me so much that I’ll have a separate review for it later, and David Ulin’s Freeway Jam left me with a vivid image of the beautiful if broken promise of L.A.’s freeways.

From there, it continues! Angelenos will get a taste of life in the L.A. River from Andrew Wilcox’s Stalking Carp, while historians will be unable to deny the power of the legendary Luis Rodriguez’s How Xican@s Are the Makeweight of Los Angeles’s Past, Present, and Future.

So, what are you waiting for? If you want to have some fun with L.A. in the comfort of home on the couch or underneath the breeze and shade of its palm trees, LAtitudes will not let you down.

In true L.A. fashion, the book will refresh the reader’s imagination of the metropolis, one fantastic intersection at a time. For this, it gets The L.A. Storyteller’s full approval.

J.T.

Teaching Rebellion (2008)

A book is like a grand vision, and every now and then we have the fortune to come across one so rich with life that it seems to flow right off the page and into our own world. Diana Denham and the C.A.S.A. collective’s Teaching Rebellion – Stories from the Grassroots Mobilization is one such book.

In 2006, over 20,000 educators in Oaxaca, Mexico waged an annual strike for better schools and working conditions, erecting a planton or camp at the zocalo, i.e. the center of the city, to make their demands heard.

At dawn on June 14, 2006, on the orders of then-Governor Ulises Ruiz, police helicopters riddled the camp with teargas from above, while officers on the ground assaulted protesters in mass. The message was clear: there were to be no more protests in the zocalo.

But the teachers resisted, and refused to abandon their planton. They gathered rocks where they could, and fought off the police for over two hours into the morning sunshine.

Ultimately, the police ran out of teargas, and while they inflicted considerable damage to the planton, the protesters successfully defended themselves. In the hours that followed, a myriad of previously passive observers of the strike showed up to the camp, bringing with them food and blankets to show their support.

It would be a victory for the union and its allies, but only the first in a long string of battles with government forces over the next year into circa July 2007.

Teaching Rebellion honors this time, providing readers with coverage of the teacher’s movement through its growth and evolution into the Popular People’s Assembly of Oaxaca or APPO, which would serve as the coalition of many different teachers, workers, and other allies, and which would accumulate many more challenges as a result.

In revolutionary tradition, the book lends its pages to the voices of The People who formed the APPO, including women, elders, students, children, and even the imprisoned. Each one of them is real, and could be anyone of the millions of people who make up Los Angeles today, including yours truly.

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I first gained interest in Teaching Rebellion following news of the recent events in Nochixtlán, Oaxaca this past June. Similar to their counterparts from ten years ago, the latest generation of educators in Oaxaca are standing up against government reforms which only cheapen and constrict their labor in the classroom.

As before, the battle taking place in Nochixtlan is as difficult as that of Oaxaca’s in 2006, and an understanding of it requires more than what one pair of eyes can give. It is a class struggle as much as it is a struggle for indigenous rights, but it goes back not just to Spanish colonialism 500 years ago, but even beyond then to pre-Columbian systems of power in the Americas.

Still, Teaching Rebellion is a collection of some of the latest developments of this struggle today, showing those of us who want to be allies of the disenfranchised in our own communities just how our support can develop.

At the end of the narrative section, the book offers a study guide for readers who want to take their knowledge further, including both individual and group activities for reflection.

It is a true revolutionary spirit, and as such, gains full approval and support from The L.A. Storyteller. Any reader will find themselves much closer to Oaxaca than what the web offers today, and will be more empowered for doing so.

With more soon,

J.T.

Two Badges: The Lives of Mona Ruiz (1997)

I’m a child of the nineties, so maybe that explains why I seem to be so fascinated with so much of the literature from the period.

Or maybe it’s just that what so many writers published during the nineties comes off the pages as being directly related to general discussions about law and order today.

To be sure, Mona Ruiz’s Two Badges informs the idea of law and order from a rare and critical position; inspired by the author’s own life, the book is an autobiographical foray into the world of a former gang member turned police officer in her ‘old’ neighborhood.

If it sounds like a strange concept, the author is more than well aware of it. In the introduction to Badges, Ruiz describes the process for her:

“Talking about my past, my barrio and the circle of friends is difficult because there has been so much pain and loss. For many of them, the fact that I wear a police uniform now is a betrayal of sorts. I hope that this book will help them understand that I have never turned my back on the past–just the opposite, I believe I have dedicated my life to facing and dealing with it. I never left my barrio, I never ran away. I stayed and I’m trying to make a difference.”

The excerpt hits close to home, capturing perfectly the sense of survivor’s guilt that faces so many who feel they ‘escaped’ from a certain tragedy while their counterparts ‘stayed behind’.

In the case of Mona Ruiz’s life, the tragedy is the cycle of drug addiction and incarceration that demeans and disfigures her immediate circle of friends, and later, their children.

There is a second tragedy, however. If Ruiz was fortunate enough to ‘escape’ the cycle, it’s figuratively and literally a blessing in disguise, as she takes on a uniform which many would argue plays an unforgivable role in the execution of the cycle.

Ruiz doesn’t preach to the reader about which side has the right, though. Instead, she speaks purely about how role-switching since her youth informs her adulthood on unforgettable terms, as if it all happened in a single day:

“…The makeup made us feel older. The mask smoothed away signs of weakness and gave us power. When I was a teen, it was a sign that I belonged to the streets. At age thirty-two, staring into the peeling mirror in the locker room at the police station, it was a disguise, a way to hide my badge and my job. I couldn’t pretend, though, that I wasn’t feeling strange seeing myself in the war paint again. Behind my busy hands, I saw the face of my past staring at me in that mirror.”

For its vivid sense of introspection, Ruiz’s passage brings to mind just how often ‘the mask’ is being donned. That is, just when does the make-up begin for a person, and at what point does it end?

Moreover, in the twenty-first century, who isn’t putting on a mask to get through the day? For Ruiz, putting on the mask in her teens is a rite of passage, or the first step of claiming a face in the world for power. But later as a police officer, the disguising only continues.

As Badges goes on though, it’s clear that Ruiz isn’t interested as much in playing for power as much as she’s interested in healing from the consequences of so much time with the game.

As if the struggle for Mona between two lifetimes is not enough, there is a third challenge facing her as a woman: at home, when the badge is off, she’s the wife of a jealous husband, and a mother of two.

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Even after everything, then, the mask-donning and fighting continues for her, and I can only imagine how exhausting it was for Ruiz to not only survive all of this, but to then place it into perspective and sit down to write about it.

For this, apart from the fascinating insights the book offers to the discussion of law and order, Two Badges also demonstrates how while great writing takes incredible amounts of time, when done truthfully and unapologetically, the result is vividly poignant.

In turn, The Lives of Mona Ruiz get a third badge: one of raucous approval from The L.A. Storyteller. And as a matter of appreciating the book so much, a couple of months ago I had the privilege to share an excerpt of the book alongside a group of young writers with the I.O.W. program.

Ruiz’s writing did not earn unanimous badges of approval from the youngsters, but it did inspired a lively array of opinions; I can assure anyone looking to engage their own group of youngsters that Mona Ruiz’s book will come through for you all the same.

J.T.