Racial Propositions: Ballot Initiatives and the Making of Postwar California (2010)

The first time we analyzed an election in California was in 2017, when we reviewed data from a Special Election in Los Angeles. Data for that election showed a yawning gap between the voting rates for white and non-white voters; at the close of the special election, in a city where less than 50% of the population identified as white, over 64% of ballots turned in belonged to white voters. As we noted in our article:

“Although non-white registered voters make for a combined total of 52% of votes eligible to be cast, post-election day only 37% of ballots turned in belonged to non-white voters.”

As it turns out, the rate of return for that Special Election in L.A. was not an anomaly, or some new and strange phenomenon, but actually just consistent with the history of voting in ‘liberal’ California.

In Racial Propositions: Ballot Initiatives and the Making of Postwar California, Daniel HoSang takes an analysis of California’s voting patterns one step further, exploring the way the predominantly white electorate of the state has voted negatively or against a handful of ballot issues dealing closely with racial or progressive issues in the state during a sixty year period from just after 1945 to the early 2000s.

And why–the student may ask–should we care about a handful of ‘old’ voting issues in California? HoSang explains that ballot measures are especially useful for thinking about the state’s role in the inequalities found between its public schools, healthcare, employment and other areas ‘separating’ people of color from wealthier whites due to the way that voting publicizes a particular type of conversation on these issues:

Ballot measures…especially those that receive widespread public attention, create public spectacles where competing political interests necessarily seek to shape public consciousness and meaning.

Put another way: materials like campaign rhetoric, opinion articles, television commercials and other instruments used to support the passage or defeat of certain ballot issues can show the way voting doesn’t ‘just express‘ the will of an electorate, but how the process leading up to election day can actually create and develop certain perspectives about what a place like California is, and more importantly, about who California is and who it belongs to.

Because the instruments of direct democracy by definition are intended to advance the will of “the people,”…organized groups and interests must always make their claim in populist rather than partisan terms, thereby defining the very meaning of the common good.

In other words, for HoSang, as anyone familiar with the 2016 Presidential Election should be able to recall, voting issues have a very particular–at times even “nasty”–way of telling voters about “who we are,” what our values are–or what they should be–and how we should act on those values with our votes.

HoSang further contends that the “sensibilities” or logic which the voting issues of Racial Propositions make their appeals to are voters’ “political whiteness.” The phrase “political whiteness” has layered meanings, but essentially, throughout his book it means a degree of privilege and status for white voters that’s not only maintained but also expounded on by voting issues:

[Racial Propositions] draws from and extends both George Lipsitz’s observations about the ‘possessive investment in whiteness’ and Cheryl Harris’s critical account of ‘whiteness as property.’ Whiteness, Lipsitz argues is ‘possessed’ both literally in the form of material rewards and resources afforded to those recognized as white as well as figuratively through the ‘psychological wages’ of status and social recognition detailed by W.E.B. Du Bois.

Stated more simply, HoSang claims that “whiteness” in the United States isn’t simply a “fixed” identity, where if you’re white you view yourself as white in a “static” or “unchanging” way, but that “whiteness” is highly impressionable, that is, capable of transforming due to external factors like advertising, propagandizing, and voting.

As HoSang takes readers through the first dozen or so pages of Racial Propositions, then, rather than simply restating the term, the author arrests and interrogates scores of materials left by different voting issues in California. The campaigns for Fair Employment, Fair Housing, or the effort to Desegregate Public Schools in California are just a few of the voting issues he discusses, in which he exposes the logic of “political whiteness” at play in the efforts by organizations like the California Chamber of Commerce, the California Realtors Association (CREA), the Parents Associations and other groups that come together to defeat these measures.

That’s right. Did you know that in 1946, voters in California decided against protections for workers facing discrimination in hiring? Or, did you know that in 1964, voters in California decided against protections for non-white residents looking for a home in the state? Did you know that in 1979, California voters decided against racial integration at our schools when they canceled the state’s busing program?

In Los Angeles alone, parents voted by a margin of 73% to put an end to school busing in the city, which was only instituted in 1977 and thus barely getting off the ground.

The vote against desegregating schools was passed through an ordinance known as Proposition 1, and put an end to “mandatory” busing in 1980 (which, of course, was just a few years before my parents would arrive from Latin-America alongside many other Central-American and Asian people. Can anyone say, awkward?).

On the issue of school integration, HoSang points out that placing an end to a program whose stated goal was the integration of the races in the state’s public classrooms was not easy; it required a sophisticated deployment of a language of “racial innocence” which sought to ‘pass the buck’ or responsibility of “fixing” racism onto the desks of the state and away from the children of ‘innocent’ [white] parents:

[Supporters of Proposition 1] held that because white parents and students did not intentionally create the second-class schools to which most racial minorities were consigned nor explicitly support segregated schools as a matter of principle, they could not be compelled to participate in the schools’ improvement.

In other words, in the same way that today the Trump administration likes to argue that the refugee crisis in Central-America should be some other state’s–perhaps Mexico’s–problem, opponents of the school-busing program in late seventies California argued that mixing their white children with Black and Brown kids was unfairly burdening them with a job that was supposed to be the state or federal government’s to do. That is, whenever the state or federal government would get to it. Perhaps never, even, but the point being the same: it was not the parents’ responsibility to account for or address inequality at public schools. They were “the innocent ones.”

But the gift of Racial Propositions is that no matter what the reader may make of the author’s argument on political whiteness, the book is an exhilarating page-turner for anyone interested in a political history of “The Golden State.” This is due in no small part to HoSang’s unsparingly sharp, saber-like writing skills. For his part, the author recognizes none other than James Baldwin as a key influence on his analytical framework:

Whiteness was for Baldwin “absolutely, a moral choice,” an identity derived from and constructed through a set of political convictions. It was by inhabiting a particular political subjectivity—one that rested upon a series of destructive assumptions—that one became white. To embrace the myth of whiteness, he argued, was to “believe, as no child believes, in the dream of safety”; that one could insist on an inalienable and permanent protection from vulnerability.

By the closing pages of Racial Propositions, HoSang’s analysis also makes clear why our political discussions today need to abate a conception of ‘liberal’ California which still dominates the vox populi leading up to 2020: that because California is already a “minority majority” state, it offers a glimpse into the “progressive” future of America through, since the country’s “browning” is supposed to ‘liberalize’ it.

HoSang notes that if the “majority minority” or “browning” scenario, which became the case in California nearly two decades ago, is what progressives are hinging their hopes on for a more liberal future in the United States, they better look at the numbers:

…in 2000, as California became the first large “majority minority” state in the nation, white voters still constituted 72 percent of the electorate.

And so, as one blogger put it to his fellow readers and historians following another election where that same “majority minority” was hardly seen throughout election day:

…the current inequality between white voters rates and those of people of color when considering the larger voter eligibility pool of the latter group in Los Angeles and California is more than just unfortunate, it’s something of a public safety concern.

So let’s get on it, Los Angeles. Find and read Daniel HoSang’s book, which has full approval from The L.A. Storyteller. Then, send me your book recommendation to see if I can review it next!

J.T.

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War Against the Panthers: A Study of Repression in America (1980)

In the days since an ebullient Back 2 School 2 Party, I’ve had the privilege to rest and restore myself from the frenzy of so much organizing. One of the key activities in this “decompressing” process has been getting back to los beloved libros. In an effort to spread the joy of reading then, and to share as I so often enjoy doing with the spirit of Los Angeles, I’m happy to finally publish another brief book review. This time, on a little-known story by another major organizer in American history: Huey P. Newton’s War Against the Panthers: A Study of Repression in America (1980).

I can only imagine how demoralizing it was for Mr. Newton to describe the harrowing experience that led to the publication of this work, which describes how in less than ten (10) years, Newton’s entire life was uprooted, distorted and destroyed by a branch of government whose authority was never approved by Congressional Hearing (see FBI), but which would nevertheless work “behind the scenes” to eradicate the Black Panther Party’s (BPP) efforts to free Black and other minorities from the second-class citizenship they’d been relegated to over a hundred (100) years after the Reconstruction period that followed the US Civil War (1861-1865). As Mr. Newton points out in the opening pages of his analysis:

“By 1966, the United States had experienced a recent series of disruptions in several of its major urban Black population centers—Harlem, Watts, Chicago and Detroit. Numerous organizations and leaders representing groups of Black people—e.g., SCLC (Martin Luther King, Jr.), the Black Muslims (Elijah Muhammed and Malcolm X), CORE (James Farmer), NAACP (Roy Wilkins)—had repeatedly articulated the causes of these riots or urban rebellions: high unemployment, bad housing, police brutality, poor health care, and inferior educational opportunities.”

That same year, the Party would be founded in Oakland, California. It wouldn’t last more than 14 years. But during its lifespan, the BPP served as a “vanguard,” to borrow one of Newton’s terms, which would not only extend the spirit of Black Liberation Theory passed down from the blood and ashes of Malcolm X and MLK Jr., but which would “evolve” that spirit to meet the needs of a new “postmodern” world dawning after the “radical sixties” era in the United States. A world which would nearly leave the Black community and other minorities completely behind, if not for the revolutionary spirit and action of thinkers like Mr. Newton, Bobby Seale, Fred Hampton, Angela Davis, and other major intellectual and social figures of the times.

To be sure, War Against the Panthers is not a “tell-all” expose of the BPP and its legacy, but it’s a close and fact-based look at the methods of infiltration used by institutions such as the FBI, CIA and even the IRS and others, which set out to destroy the party’s Breakfast and other ‘Survival’ programs in Oakland, Chicago, New York and many more major cities across the U.S. For this same reason the dissertation is a very brief read containing a handful of facts, figures, and memorandums obtained through litigation by attorneys for the Panthers in cases against the FBI and its counterparts for violating the Panthers’ rights to privacy, freedom of speech, and other political freedoms guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

In 2019, “privacy” and the right to privacy is a word and phrase I read mostly when articles are referring to the internet, and more specifically, when they’re referring to which companies are spying on Americans’s phones and web browsers (virtually all of them, though one might ask: does it still count as spying if we clicked “yes” in the disclosure agreement?).

Yet Newton’s dissertation is an example of just what kind of actions can be taken against any American when the major power players deem them a “threat to national security,” or even just expendable or collateral damage. The analysis is therefore also instructive in the matter about why ‘[the] people’s’ rights are still worth defending; the issues of privacy and the right to organize oneself privately, politically or otherwise are not just legislative or “abstract” issues, but truly personal ones affecting every American today. As Mr. Newton points out, if even just one power player can deploy their leverage against any one group or person to destroy the rights of their citizenship, then it follows that all power players are given permission to misuse their leverage against all [the] people:

“…governmental efforts at destruction of the Party, successful in varying degrees, were only thwarted or held in abeyance when they reached their logical consequence: destruction of the right of dissent for all groups, a right indispensable to the functioning of a democratic society.”

I salute Mr. Newton and his comrades for their invaluable bravery in living, breathing, and exposing this parable. At least for JIMBO TIMES, the people will know: these are legends not far at all removed from our time. The text is free online for any one to read, and has full approval from The L.A. Storyteller.

J.T.

El Cipitío (2016), the new Cipitío

Image result for el cipitio ertl

It’s not often that I have the opportunity to reflect on Salvadoran-American fiction. In fact, this is actually the very first time. The only other instance in which I’ve cited the work of a contemporary Salvadoran-American author is in a brief note on Juan José Martínez D’aubuisson’s Ver, oír y callar (2016), a nonfiction book on the infamous wars between El Salvador’s two rival barrios. Now, Randy Jurado Ertll’s El Cipitío (2016) has changed that. As a disclosure, I met Randy Ertll last summer at a Central-American festival in Los Angeles, where I purchased a copy of his book.

The story of El Cipitío actually precedes Ertll’s book, going back to a Salvadoran legend about an orphaned boy spawning from an ‘extramarital’ affair between his mother, Siguanaba, and the Morning Star, otherwise known as Lucifer. In Nahuatl, or the Aztec language, Siguanaba means ‘beautiful woman’, which is what Cipitío’s mother is considered before his birth. By contrast, Sihuehuet means ‘ugly woman’, which is what Cipitío’s mother is considered in the wake of her ‘illegitimate’ child. Furthermore, in Nahuatl, Cipit is a word for youth, and today, almost any Salvadoran you can find will commonly refer to youth as ‘cipotes.’ If this has you wondering about how a North American or “Mexican” indigenous tribe’s language made its way into Central America, it’s because of the Aztec culture’s span into Central America at least half-a-century before the Spanish arrived to the American continent.

In other words, Cipitío’s dance through the imagination goes back so long that probably no living person today could trace its exact timeline. Moreover, the story has changed throughout the ages to reflect the views of different generations in different contexts and environments. With this in mind, J.T.’s review will tell readers why Randy Ertll’s Cipitío (2016) gives voice to a quintessentially modern version of Salvadoran-American male youth culture across Central and North America, fulfilling a dire need for the representation of this culture in contemporary American literature.

As an advisory, when I picked up the book, I had a choice between an English and Spanish version, choosing to go with the latter in an effort to improve my fluency. In turn, the following quotes will all be in Español, while my analyses will remain in English. A truly modern Latinx style of review.

To begin with, Ertll informs readers early that his Cipitío will be a far more complicated character than what those familiar with the legend may be used to:

“La traumatizada criatura, con apariencia de niño, casi siempre estaba enfadada por nunca haber pasado de los 10 años de edad y quedarse solo midiendo tres pies de altura. El demonio le había hecho así y le impuso el deseo obsesivo de vengarse de todo el mundo.”

By introducing el Cipitío as a brown-faced boy of extraordinarily short stature–who nevertheless has hidden superpowers while being ‘cursed’ indefinitely to being ten years old–Ertll honors the essence of the legendary character’s features. But by referring to him as a ‘traumatized creature’ made by the ‘devil’, he describes a more modern and relatable figure to the ‘racial subconscious’; for one, Cipitío’s brown skin and short stature reflect the features of many real Latin-Americans, whose physical bodies, like our protagonist’s, occupy space in a world where tall, strident white figures symbolize the dominant order. For another, because even Cipitío’s own mother is a source of rancor for him, reminding him only of loss and separation, there is little to no chance for the youth to understand the layers of his story beyond that of the pain it invokes, a recurring theme for many Latino families as they tell the stories of their migration across lands.

Ertll’s Cipitío is thus complicated from the beginning, setting him apart from the more simplistic youth in the legend who’s a generally happy character only occasionally suffering loss and chagrin. At the same time, for any reader who’s even slightly familiar with Latin-American displacement over the last three decades of U.S. policy, it’s clear that Ertll’s character is speaking to the historical periods preceding his contemporary one.

Even if readers are not familiar with this history though, as good fiction does, Ertll’s writing offers a glimpse into the historic Latin-American diaspora through the details ‘fleshing out’ el Cipitío, which are ‘facts’ that specifically many Salvadoran-Americans know well today: officially, from 1980 – 1992 there was a war in El Salvador between the U.S. backed Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (ARENA) government and the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN). This war cost tens of thousands of lives, and displaced tens of thousands more; in that process, according to Ertll, even Cipitío’s twin brother, named el Duende (Nahuatl for ‘malign’), whom Cipitio was also separated from at birth, is taken as a youth to fight as a member of ARENA’s national military. Duende eventually leaves the national military and El Salvador altogether for the U.S., however, where he vanishes almost entirely:

“Dentro de las guerillas, no existía ningún progreso para el Duende; así que el decidió inmigrar a los Estados Unidos. Y nunca le dijo a nadie dónde vivía; su direccion la mantenía en secreto. Por eso, algunos decían que el residía en Washington, D.C.; otros señalaban que en Virginia o Maryland. El caso es que un día el Duende vino a ser visto vagando por áreas boscosas, escalando árboles como un mono, puesto que el encantaba tomar siestas dentro de los árboles frondosos.”

By naming Virginia, Maryland and Washington D.C. as states where Cipitío’s twin brother possibly disappeared to, Ertll calls attention to the handful of places in the U.S. other than Los Angeles and New York where thousands of Salvadoran migrants took refuge during the eighties and early nineties. Once again, this is what makes the protagonist’s story highly relatable: the trajectory of Duende’s journey honors those of countless Central Americans displaced as a result of U.S. intervention in Latin America during 1970s and 1980s’ Cold War policy.

At the same time, Duende’s steadfast refusal to let any of his countrymen know his whereabouts after the war acknowledges the theme of many central-American stories of migration to the U.S. post 1980, in which the ‘old country’ stirs only memories of pain, corrupt government officials, and broken family units, leading many to sever ties with their native land to ‘start over’ with the new one. Before letting readers into what life in the new country looks like, however, Ertll looks to the trails walked by so many Central Americans en route to the U.S. for refuge:

“El Cipitío camino hasta México y vio cómo los centroamericanos eran brutalmente golpeados, violados y asesinados. Eso le trajo viejos recuerdos de lo que hacía el batallón Díaz Arce en su país natal. Las guerillas y los escuadrónes de la muerte cruzaban México, y en verdad eran bestias contra su propia gente. Aprendieron de sus maestros españoles durante la colonización a odiar a las mujeres y a golpear a sus esposas, madres, hijas y novias.”

Although Ertll’s Cipitío maintains supernatural powers through his journey, he nevertheless experiences human emotions, especially as a ten year old witnessing the plight of fellow Salvadorans making the trek through dangerous trails upwards through Mexico. What’s more, Ertll’s telling of how Salvadoran death squads embarked on those routes as well, whose members sometimes beat their own wives, mothers, and daughters in the process, forces readers to confront those same dirt trails in their own imaginations: a necessary process if they’re to acquire an understanding of the way these stories inform el Cipitío, and by extension, much of Salvadoran-American culture today. Ertll’s subsequent reflection that these men must have inherited hatred for their own people from Spanish colonizers captures the enduring legacy of colonialism for much of Latin-America, including for his protagonist, whose name literally comes from a word meaning ‘the youth.’ Youth are the group most impacted by government policies throughout Ertll’s novel, but it’s the way the author ties this phenomenon into the actual Salvadoran-American experience in Los Angeles that resonates most for J.T:

“Se matriculó en Le Conte Middle School y era el chico más pequeño de su clase…Empezó a vestirse como los otros niños de la escuela y dejo que su pelo le creciera largo. En ocasiones se ponía ropa negra para representar su lado satánico, y por ello fue invitado a unirse a los locos de heavy metal.”

Since at least the early 1980s, in the East Hollywood area Le Conte Middle School has been one of the only public middle schools–the other being Thomas Starr King–where a myriad of Salvadoran, Guatemalan and other central American families have sent their children to be educated. By sprinkling these small, communal sites of Los Angeles into the new Cipitío’s story, then, Ertll’s character speaks with authenticity to the lived experiences of many Salvadoran-American youth over the last forty years in settings like L.A. This is significant because Ertll understands that like Cipitío, many young Salvadoran-Americans in the U.S. can claim ties to far away, magical places in Central-America and beyond, but often view the ‘old country’ which their families once called home–like the neglected streets many of them live on, and like the frequently understaffed schools they attend–as anything but extraordinary. Thus, the new Cipitío puts these tiny ‘barrios’ on the map, or historicizes East Hollywood, Le Conte Middle School and more.

In the same vein, Cipitío’s adoption of the heavy metal look speaks to another historic reality through L.A.’s middle and high schools during the 1980s: the influence of American heavy metal or ‘satanic’ music on a generation of ‘misfit’ youth, who as a result of their skin, language–and don’t forget, stature–not only didn’t fit in with the dominant White culture, but also failed to gain acceptance from the more visible and historic Mexican youth at the time. Ertll’s Cipitío thus marks another specter following the contemporary Salvadoran-American experience: the story of the overly popularized MS-13 gang, which was founded in Los Angeles by Salvadoran youth in neighborhoods like East Hollywood’s, where after-school programs and other resources for their successful integration into the U.S. were lacking, to say the least; Ertll understands that the formation of the truchas was a matter of self-acceptance–a chosen family, so to speak, especially for orphaned children like Cipitío–and protection against Mexican gangs, which at the time refused to treat Central-Americans as equals in typically racialized U.S. relations. Our protagonist thus moves in this fashion through L.A.’s schools, until it leads him to ponder the city’s class structure as a whole:

“El Cipitío recorrió las calles y exploró la historia de Los Ángeles, su arquitectura y logros de ingeniería. Vio las divisiones entre los ricos y los pobres. Los ricos vivían cómodamente en el Lado Oeste y otras áreas, mientras que los pobres tomaron los barrios bajos.”

Throughout the 1980s, as the central American diaspora made its way into Los Angeles, the city grew increasingly segregated. This was due to a range of political developments preceding the Salvadoran war, including the defunding of L.A.’s public schools, the successful efforts to stop desegregation at those same schools, the rise of drug addiction, gang violence, the AIDS crisis, and more. As Laura Pulido and Josh Kun describe in Black and Brown in Los Angeles (2013):

“…in the 1980s we begin to see such things as the rise of the prison-industrial complex as the preferred means to deal with surplus labor and social problems…the almost complete abandonment of the public school system by white and the middle class of all colors; the suburbanization of both the Black and Brown middle class as people of color moved farther away from the woes of the central city and in search of affordable housing; and the emergence of Los Angeles as the capital of the working poor.”

For these reasons, when by a magical turn of events Cipitío becomes mayor of our famed city–his heavy metal style notwithstanding, and as surely many youth like him have imagined themselves to be at some point, even if only playfully–our protagonist uses both his secret and official powers to transform L.A. with a radical idea: a free college education for all of the city’s Black, Brown and Asian youth from places like East Hollywood, South Central, East Los Angeles and more:

“Su fundación asi ofrecía becas completas para cada estudiante de secundaria, y pagaba todos los gastos universitarios. Los estudiantes no podían creerlo, sobre todo los estudiantes pobres, cuyos padres eran costureras, conserjes, guardias de seguridad y maestros suplentes. Cuando los estudiantes se graduaban en colegios y universidades, regresaban a sus comunidades pobres ya convertidos en médicos, abogados, arquitectos, y ponían manos a la obra para ayudar a revitalizar la zona.”

Here, by going on to play mayor in his story, Cipitío makes the cut from a struggle which many ‘first’ or ‘second’ generation American youth find themselves grappling with at some point in their lives: the prospect of transcending poverty to move into the ‘middle-class’, despite being raised by parents laboring daily as garment factory workers, security guards, custodians, and in other jobs tied indefinitely to minimum wages.

As Mayor Cipitío’s beca awardees return to Los Angeles, then, the pages create a striking image for readers to envision–though not a new one by any means–of hundreds of thousands of students in Los Angeles going to college every year and returning as doctors, lawyers, architects, and more to uplift the neighborhoods they come from. By last official count, LAUSD’s students are nearly 75% Latino, 10% Black, and 5% Asian, respectively, but more than two-thirds of graduates are not prepared for college after high school. Once again, then, Ertll’s writing pays tribute to the lived experiences of people like Cipitío all across the modern ‘world city.’

Following his successful tenure at City Hall, our protagonist aspires for an even higher office: the presidency of the United States itself. Cipitío’s ambition highlights the prevalence of the U.S’s popularity contest in the minds of many Salvadoran-Americans like himself, and plays to the reader’s delight: after all, who wouldn’t want to see a little brown-faced ten year old in the role of U.S. president for a change?

This brings into focus the very reason that literature exists: to (re)imagine our world by other means. By this point in the novel, Cipitío’s growing aspirations are allowed to flourish in the ‘safe space’ of the literature, where something so ‘absurd’ as a Central-American directly challenging the confines of the ‘real world’ and claiming victory can take place (Spoiler Alert: Cipitío goes on to win the election for president by a landslide); a sequence of events that little Black and Brown children just like him all throughout Los Angeles and the world can benefit from seeing for a change.

Even so, despite Cipitío’s unlikely success at the highest echelons of power, he continues to be haunted by the gorge of his memory, which navigates him back to a primordial need, for something even greater than the presidency: the need for a love that only a mother could provide to her son.

“El alcalde Cipitío tenía sueños donde era abrazado y aceptado por su madre, que ella nunca lo ahogó, que lo nutría y cuidaba de él. Se imaginaba que ella lo llevaba en sus brazos, acariciando su cabello, dándole leche de su pecho voluptuoso.”

Cipitío’s longing for his mother through the high end of his journey is what makes his story, once more, something local. It is also a showcase in how memory makes human life a mixture of memories, dreams, and what might still yet be. In the case of the youth, the memory of a violent separation from his mother persists in reducing his world:

Pero cuando despertaba, la realidad lo golpeaba con el peso de una tonelada de ladrillos; y se ponía enojado, furioso, enfurecido.

Dreams can be nightmares, just as memories can take us back to some of our worst experiences of dehumanization, an appropriate reminder considering the recent incarceration of Central American children apprehended at the U.S. border by the U.S.’s latest ‘zero tolerance’ policy.

Like Cipitío, these children, who have also been separated from their mothers and guardians–and who have even been tried in U.S. courts despite their age–just may be gifted with superpowers, especially if surviving the perilous trek to the U.S. has anything to say about it. Like Cipitío, they can also be mayors, presidents, and otherwise people who can change the world if only we’d let them; if only we’d meet them with the love that all ‘creatures’ like them need.

It’s for these reasons and more that Ertll’s novel is a timely read for any ‘global citizen’ today, and one that has full approval from The L.A. Storyteller. To get your copy, check out Ertll’s website HERE.

And the next time you see el Cipitío or a youth like him in a city like Los Angeles, please be sure to show them a lot of respect! (Spoiler Alert: they all have superpowers.)

J.T.

Helena Maria Viramontes: Their Dogs Came With Them (2006)

Today I have the pleasure of acknowledging a brilliant piece of fiction written by Los Angeles, from and for Los Angeles in Helena Maria Viramontes’s Their Dogs Came With Them.

‘L.A.’ in 2018 is a city of over 10 million people by the last estimate, and in several other ways significantly bigger than what it was during the 1970s when Viramontes was a teenager roaming through its avenues and boulevards to pick up the fulcrum on which her novel rests.

Yet a glance at L.A. then reveals a world not radically different from the one which appears to be on the brink of collapse today, particularly for urban youth in the city: the Vietnam war raged on, while at the same time the 1965 Watts Riots left the city in a state of racial insecurity and opposition to the police state; simultaneously, Black and Brown communities increasingly found heroin and other drugs infiltrating their neighborhoods, while at L.A.’s schools and California’s universities, institutional racism spawned further battle lines for the sunshine state; on the East and South sides of Los Angeles, the bitter memories of the erection of L.A.’s freeways in the early 1960s left people of color there weary of the city and its development; and only a few feet away, youth ‘delinquency’ and incarceration marked the outset of a prison industrial complex, which our communities are still dealing with today, nearly fifty years later.

These are the living nightmares of what was then still a newly modernizing world which inspired the heroine that is the amazing Viramontes, whose literary gifts unwind similarly to a nightmare, or as genuine superpowers around the mind of the reader for immersing us like veins into the bodies of suffering deviating from their wake. In Their Dogs Came With Them, the micro-histories that make up Los Angeles are given life on the literary big screen, where they shine like a golden Pontiac, roaring with desire and pulling all in their midst to the edge of what might be possible with just enough forgetting, even if total forgetting is never quite possible.

In the opening chapters of the book, we meet Ermila, along with her Grandmother, the latter of whom is haunted by memories of a life in fear:

“A bespectacled Grandmother didn’t see the child lift the box to show off her award. The sunlight scarred her vision, and Grandmother couldn’t quite discern the child holding on to Miss Eastman except for the white teeth of the teacher talking to the child as they walked the dark corridor to meet her. Grandmother had watched the escalating heat rising each and every day, the glass thermometer bursting, its red mercury spreading infectious green-tinted rage. Miss Eastman grew larger and darker, and the child swung her pink gift in the shaded hollowness of the corridor. No longer immunized, Grandmother knew it was only a matter of time before the roaming packs of Negroes would claw out of the television’s own green guts, riot-rushing to lift and overturn cars and set fire to all the neighborhood had worked for, to anything flammable on the living side of First Street. Though the teacher passed the child over to Grandmother tenderly, Miss Eastman appeared so black, she was green.”

Grandmother, who is the only caretaker in her granddaughter’s life, also speaks to the apprehension–or Americanization–of the time, which, much like today, was dominated by the mystical spell of late night news, albeit through the color or green televisions that were just making their way into so many living rooms. And while we never learn much about Grandmother’s own childhood, she’s a woman many readers will recognize right away, as are each of the novel’s figures in its surreal sequence of events.

Memory ‘lapses’ form major parts of each character’s time with us, making for a surreal timeline that moves through Their Dogs, but a few themes stand out most consistently for this reader: Viramontes’s work is deeply concerned with upbringing and the burdens placed on youth coming of age in a world that at many turns appears to be dis-invested in their humanization, and which at others appears to be teeming with life so palpable it can’t simply be passed over as anything but extraordinary. Ermila, who is probably the novel’s second most rebellious figure, carries this most naturally:

“She collected observations as one would collect ice-cream sticks: a youth riding a wobbly bike on the muddy shoulders of the street; a skinny cat roaming through the tall bird-of-paradise stalks; two comadres chatting between a fence; an old crooked bird man who fed his flock of pigeons daily. The desire to be on the other side of the fence, to run away and join them, was so strong, it startled her.”

There is also, no matter how much a reader might hope for the novel to do otherwise, a refusal to let go of the traumas which turn youth from hand-held creatures brimming with the future in their eyes into unintelligible monsters weighed down by their pasts, depending on which side we meet their glances from. A heartbreaking memory from arguably the novel’s most compelling figure, “Turtle,” demonstrates this clearly:

“Tio Angel lunged at his brother Frank, and after the bump and break of furniture, the fall and jingle of Christmas tree, the grind and gravel of glass shards, Turtle heard the screen door screech open. Turtle dug her fingertips underneath some shingles, terrified of falling, and she peered over the roof’s edge and saw how awkwardly the scuffling shadows flew into the nopales.”

Each page through the novel is filled with piercing uses of language such as this, at times nearly unbearable to digest. But just when violence threatens to steal the show, Viramontes follows with paragraphs that are simply mystical and delicious concoctions of sounds for readers to sift through, reminiscent of the late great Gabriel Garcia-Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude, though with a voice distinguished by the duality of a young woman both trapped and liberated by femininity and age. When Ermila and her girlfriends mightily get back at an ex of hers after their recent breakup, for example, they smuggle their teenage glee for the more adult-like professionalism over the affair, driving the sequence through with a galvanizing energy to dwell in:

“And just as they had converged, they pulled away in opposite directions slowly, sluggishly lest they call attention to themselves, not rushing to leave the scene of the crime, though it was a difficult task not to explode adrenaline all over the place. They had to silence the forcefulness of their delight, hesitating to acknowledge one another’s glances. They strolled away in separate directions, carrying the flakes of metallic paint, bluish palms, the color of yams on their hands, barely containing their collective sense of invincibility. Whatever laughter or disbelief, whatever overblown nerves Ermila had suppressed, now raised her spirit to the point that her steps felt buoyant and she felt an enormous craving for adventure.”

These are the lines which make the novel not just a reflection on childhood, but a dream through the thin space between the actuality and imagination which comprise it, like the gravity that separates us from the stars only physically, but not in our fantasies. And they are the micro-histories and maybe even sub-atomic histories that Viramontes unravels with such mastery for a novel so gorgeous it contains something for everyone no matter which side of history they may stand on. What is the best literature, after all, if not an expression for the whole world and all of humanity to observe together, opposite of one another, and more. In Ben, whose character haunts the novel’s trajectory more than engaging with it directly, any reader who’s ever felt a tinge of uncertainty at simply “going with the flow” will relate:

“Thank you, he said. Being late for class, Ben said he’d better get going because seats became scarce in his Intro Soc class. But the young woman shouted to his back, A gift for you, hermano. And then ran up to him, removed her beret and placed it on his head. And at that instance when he looked directly into her eyes, Ben would’ve given his life to walk upright without hobbling, to push his chest out, to brave the mental eye of the tornado and be absorbed by something larger. The woman cocked her head to read his stunned expression, and he turned to mask it. His leg plagued him like his fear. He resisted being lifted up into a gathering mass of swirling political storms. He refused to be clearly defined as Chicano, and for that, he refused to belong to a fluid movement, joining her, joining them, joining other Chicanos to become a part, to become a whole and not just stay forever in between.”

I am unmistakably shaken by Viramontes’s astounding historical prose and document, which ultimately erupts into a brilliant crescendo or joyride through Los Angeles with her characters no matter how dark the space. Even before the immaculate finale, however, each moment in the novel is a memory mixed with a wish, an ode to friends and members of her community across the ages; our people thus become one and the same; and our struggle to look beyond Los Angeles’s smog and out towards the night sky in hopes of better days, a ritual encompassing every last one of us.

Their Dogs Came With Them is an achievement for literary aficionados, artists, scholars, and witnesses of all kinds everywhere. And from this day forward, the book is not just with JIMBO TIMES, but it’s embedded into our reading’s subatomic consciousness. With each new young reader we get to meet, then, we’ll be sending this book their way. Nuestro Pueblo will know Viramontes’s name.

J.T.