I ASKED THE BLUE HERON (2017)

To come to terms with one’s status as a survivor is to relive the moments that nearly ended one’s life. To collect those moments and offer them to the world is to relieve their weight on one’s mind so new possibilities in one’s life may take shape. Lisbeth Coiman, an Afro-Venezuelan poet and writer, has embarked on this process in a particularly relevant reading journey for working-class people in cities like Los Angeles, especially for migrants from Latin America.

All across the streets of central, east and south Los Angeles are people unsheltered, overwhelmingly Black, but also substantially Latino, lying on the curb through summer heat, and lingering like abandoned cattle throughout the day. When I noted to someone recently that according to the L.A. Homeless Services Authority, the official count of people living as such this year was upwards of 70,000, they gave me a higher estimate, which I found more credible: “It’s probably more like 200,000,” they said.

I wonder, for a moment, how many of the 200,000 in Los Angeles are survivors, or people who’ve suffered physical, mental, and other abuse at some point in their lives. In my work with incarcerated and formerly incarcerated youth, I’ve come across more than only a few victims: teenagers whose parents were drug abusers, or teenagers who were molested by their family members at an early age; teenagers with inherent learning disabilities who were clearly discriminated against at schools before they were discriminated against in courtrooms, and teenagers who likely acquired learning disabilities as a result of abuse at home.

Lisbeth Coiman is also a survivor, whose first book, She Asked the Blue Heron, unwinds a mental and emotional journey for the author as she seeks to face a mental health battle on her terms and for her healing, to which the reader is invited. At 239 pages, by means of skillfully arranged, quick-moving chapters, Coiman’s book offers lifelines for any reader maneuvering through their own mental health battles at home, with family members, with lovers, and in the work of building a career. Coiman’s book also traces the process before, during, and after migration, although some notes should be made on the terms of migration today.

Continue reading “I ASKED THE BLUE HERON (2017)”
The book cover for Mike the Poet's Letters to My City, published in 2019

Letters To My City (2019)

Through a tremendous last couple of weeks between the Los Angeles Review of Books workshop, the new Los Cuentos Book Club, and more for your truly, I just finished Mike the Poet’s L.A.’s Letters to My City. By the turn of the final page, I both see it and hear it. Sonsken’s ‘letters’ are not just prose, but also songs from the heart to all comers. Most of all, they’re a tribute to those who’ve been here, as Sonsken shows no fear celebrating L.A.’s Black, Indigenous, Asian, Native & Latinx roots. His book can thus be though of as an invitation for all poets, writers, and anyone interested in uplifting this city and keeping its history sacred to tag along for the ride.

Sonsken’s writing also consistently understands that he’s not the guiding hand, but that his is one led by the voices of others, those around him to uncover or pay heed to the roots. Sonsken’s work therefore comes off as a round-table discussion, a gathering of minds from across L.A., but abundant especially with folks from the South and East sides, as well as with folks from less discussed “L.A.” like Long Beach, Oxnard and even Cerritos and the OC. It is a call for Los Angeles’s artists and all creators to come together with major respect to the city, to the communities, for the stories, which form the heartbeat of this sometimes totally cruel, sometimes surreal town. Los Cuentos sees this, and I look forward to passing Mike’s book along to the next generation of historians with major visions for our city.

Towards the end the book also leads to more questions. For one, I found myself reflecting on reparations awarded to Japanese-Americans in Los Angeles who faced internment. In a closing vignette on Little Tokyo’s history and a Buddhist temple in the area Mike writes:

A key component of Japanese religion and culture is the idea of ancestor veneration, essentially the idea of gratitude to your family and specifically appreciating one’s ancestors.

I thought then of the enslaved, and those whose lives were uprooted and taken by genocide and U.S. imperialism. I seriously wondered: where is the discussion in L.A. on reparations for African-American, Native, and also Mexican bodies? These are our ancestors, and there are more, in and even beyond America. I believe Sonsken would agree for a need to come together and discuss it, and that, at least in L.A., his book is certainly one way to start.

J.T.

La Siguanaba (2019)

Words create worlds. They are also known to destroy them. This is what makes the “house” of literature a central database and even a living organism where culture is collected, observed, and retold for human growth and learning. Even the late, great Gabriel García Márquez based his 100 Years of Solitude on experiences as a child with his abuelitos at their home in Aracataca, Colombia.

As a child in Los Angeles growing up in the 90s and then the 2000s, my eyes flocked to the wondrous movement of vibrant and surreal images on television. Among a handful of great shows, I loved Dragon Ball Z, in which brawny cartoon men and bulked up cartoon kids with edgy haircuts–or no haircuts–duked it out with other-worldly creatures for the fate of the universe. In the days leading up to my teen years, the prospect of domination itself is what drew my and friends and I–mostly, but not only, young men–to watch “wrestling” matches for years on end, including after we found out the matches were running on the same old script again (you know you did it, too).

Today, an obsession with stories and great storytelling is what leads me to recognize Randy Jurado Ertll’s LA SIGUANABA and the Magical Loroco as a book for all ages, for all genders, and for all futures whose histories are concerned with, if not total freedom, then serious liberation from the yoke of colonialist, misogynist and classist cultures entrenched throughout the American continent and between the continent’s various people.

The book is self-published by Ertll, and looking past a handful of grammatical and even a few thematic ‘loose ends,’ at 87 pages, it reads poetically, like something one might hear landing by chance at an Open Mic Hour on a dark-hued night in Los Angeles.

Like most well-told cuentos, the story begins with a bang. La Siguanaba is out for revenge. She has ‘no time for games,’ and is ready to make war on anyone who makes the mistake of getting in her way. By the end of the first paragraph, readers learn that she is unapologetically L.A., gangsta style, replete with 90s hip hop thumping loudly in her car, presumably while on her way to pick up some fine and sizzling pupusas.

Now, say what you will about the repetitiveness of another loud-talking, brash Latinx woman straight outta Los Angeles in fiction…except wait, actually, just when was the last time L.A. literature saw a major cultural icon from Los Angeles, or any U.S. city, for that matter, with brown skin and a surname pronounced in Español?

Helena Maria Viramontes’s ‘Turtle’ is proof they have existed, and that they still exist, but the fact is that communities in Los Angeles would still be pressed to find much representation in literature reflective of their culture.

According to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, as recently as 2018, only 5% of Children’s books contained Latinx characters or protagonists, even though Latinx people now make up 18% of the U.S. population and are slated to grow even more in their share of the nation’s demographics.

This is what makes La Siguanaba a refreshing character on arrival, particularly for Latinx audiences. She’s an immigrant from El Salvador. She’s an entrepreneur. She’s incredibly successful, but is alone, resented by her two sons for past “sins.” She also holds no bars, speaking candidly at every turn, unafraid of men and whatever their position in society may be. And she possesses superpowers; she is beautiful at one moment, but unmistakably grotesque if provoked.

Yet despite La Siguanaba‘s personal empowerment, the fact persists that she still lives in a world where Central-American women’s bodies–like those of their African-American, Indigenous and Trans counterparts’–are largely disposable, traded between men for U.S. dollars in an ecosystem where wealth affords protection–most of all protection of wealth itself–to rich, predominantly white men, while most men and women without that protection surrender their bodies for crumbs of wealth in ways that are particularly degrading–that is, dehumanizing–for the latter.

So, what is La Siguanaba, as someone who knows the shielding effects of wealth in her entrepreneurial success but also the continual scorn faced by young women without access to resources across the American continent, to do?

We’ve heard this story before. She’s going to flip the system. But here’s the twist, unlike El Cipitio, who sought the White House to create revolutionary changes for his people, La Siguanaba seeks longer-term transformation for the society that continually makes people like her invisible. She’s going to do this by taking the battle right to heart of the matter, at least as far as it concerns Latinx people in America. Looking beyond the term-limits of presidencies in “democratic republics” known to fail the majority of their constituents whether leftist or rightist, La Siguanaba resolves not only beat the bastards at their own game, but to redefine the rules. In the opening chapters of the tale, we learn that she’s going to flip the system by pursuing the office of the Pope, as in, to become the first Madre or woman head of the one and only Catholic church, a lifetime appointment.

What follows is a frolicking tale of the lies and betrayal that are arguably endemic to yet another cuento about the destruction wreaked in the pursuit of power, despite all best intentions for use of that power, the details of which audiences love to hate time and again no matter how many times we’ve heard or seen it before. Relationships are destroyed. Secrets are cast out into the open. Yet somehow, there may be room for amends along the way. In the end, despite a litany of f-bombs riddled throughout (cursing is a crucial part of Salvadoran American Spanish), it’s a family-affair.

In an election year when the remaking of society, but also the remaking of the human family, is easily on the minds of people not just in the United States, but all across the world, La Siguanaba is right on time, beckoning to readers to reflect seriously on just where it all came from, or how things got so ‘nasty.’

It’s also true that as a cis-gender Salvadoran American man, Ertll’s writing can never fully capture the true experiences of Latinas, Afro-Latinas, and Indigenous muxeres all across El Salvador and throughout the American continent, but that Ertll can make an attempt at it. In a world where less than 5% of characters reflect a people whose contributions to this economy and our whole way of life are much larger, that attempt is important. The L.A. Storyteller therefore pays heed, and is proud to recommend this book to lovers of letters in Los Angeles, especially those of Brown skin with Spanish surnames. Find and purchase LA SIGUANABA and the Magical Loroco, and inform your attempt at challenging this status quo, too.

J.T.