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.

Five Times David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest FAILS

(Pandemic in Los Angeles: Day 15)

In an effort to write about something other than the Coronavirus for a moment, even if it’s just one moment, I’m now on page 592 of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. This means I’ve got just a little less than 400 pages to go before completing the late author’s famous magnum opus. If I can keep up with my reading schedule, I should spend no more than two weeks from today finishing the legendary novel.

David Foster Wallace was a brilliant writer and thinker whose non-fiction I really enjoyed before his fiction, but I’ve actually got quite a few issues with Infinite Jest. The vast majority of reviews hail the work as pure genius, but today it’s clear that such reviews are of a different time, and mostly written by white generation X-ers like Mr. Wallace himself. This makes it so that as a millennial Latinx blogger from Los Angeles, I’ve got a different take to share. So here are Five Times David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest FAILS:

1. When the book is highly unreadable. Sure, the epiphanous literary oases that make up each “chapter” (or Sierpinski triangle) of the novel read musically for book-worms or lovers of Dead Poets Society everywhere, but at some point they tend to muddle the author’s point more than clarifying it, and this is not helped by the author’s titanic footnote excavations or “side-explanations.” As a result, it takes nearly 400 pages into the novel to get a firm sense of who’s who and just where the characters of Infinite Jest may be going. And I get it. Wallace wanted to challenge his readers in a critical way, demanding their full and undivided attention during what he rightly saw as an era of mass distraction. He was prescient for seeing how reductive and repetitive American pop culture was becoming in its numbing of attention spans everywhere, but how much did he really need to pontificate about aerodynamic theories as divulged at elite institutions like his book’s Enfield Tennis Academy’s? In 2005, during Wallace’s famous speech at Kenyon College, at one point during his lecture the author skips through his own lengthy descriptions, saying “etc, etc., [I’m] cutting stuff out because it’s a long ceremony.” At many moments throughout Infinite Jest, it feels exactly like one of those “long ceremonies” that could use some cutting out.

2. When the book is totally White and from the Mid-West, meaning that yes, it frequently enjoys throwing racist jabs at minorities. The year was 1996. Nirvana and MTV ruled the billboards, ratings, and t-shirts. Black superstars were either “latchkey” kids from New York or South Central L.A., while “Latinos” were basically Mexicans “randomly” spread throughout the states (according to the dominant pop culture). Infinite Jest, despite frequently being called “ahead of its time,” offers virtually no alternative reading of these groups’ contributions to American culture, instead relying on stereotypes like “n-words and spics,” as much as any other cheap film during America’s beloved 90s era. But ask these types of groups today if treating their culture as such was as grossly reductive then as it is today, and yeah, it was grossly reductive then too, and only stands out more now.

3. When the book treats women in its plot really, really badly. In 2020, three years after the rise of the #metoo movement–and despite nationalist white guys in tandem insisting otherwise–treating women in pop culture as objects serving mostly for men’s barbarities is by and large fundamentally unacceptable, worthy of the utmost scrutiny. As with the part about minimizing Black and Latino characters in its story, this is another area where Infinite Jest was actually not only NOT “ahead of its time,” but waaaaay privileged and condescending. This also demonstrates the first point about the writing “going on and on” in a way that’s not only unnecessary, but downright obnoxious. A case in point, in one sequence of Infinite Jest, Wallace describes an abortion for one of the many side-characters in truly harrowing detail, presumably to give us “an example” of his Ennet [Rehab] House’s many dysfunctional characters. But what purpose does the detail serve? Is it supposed to be like gore in a horror flick? It comes off as indulgent. Moreover, the fact that treatment of women throughout the novel in this way is almost never discussed in the vast majority of the book’s reviews also speaks to the “trade-offs” overlooked when reviewers praised Wallace’s literary genius.

4. When the book enjoys ridiculing disabled people. Readers need to look no further than the constant reminders of Mario Incandenza’s difference from from others as the prematurely-born and oddly figured member of his family, which tend to run on in a way that isn’t just expansive, but bordering on sadist. Take the following passage, for example, when Wallace describes the one romantic experience of Mario Incandenza’s life:

“[A girl] was trying to undo Mario’s corduroys but was frustrated by the complex system of snaps and fasteners at the bottom of his…Velcro vest [which supports his disabled figure]…it was when [Kent] wrapped one arm around his shoulder for leverage and forced her other hand up under the hem of the tight vest and then down inside the trousers and briefs, rooting for a penis, that Mario became so ticklish…”

As a reader, on the one hand, I know that Wallace wants to endear readers to Mario’s extraordinary physical makeup, which in spite of its difference, doesn’t keep Mario from having a strange sexual interaction like any other teenager out there. On the other hand, idunno, it feels like Wallace is–as in other sequences–exploiting the character’s “defects” too. I’m not sure if it’s Wallace just doing Wallace, or if he’s being humorous at the expense of someone else’s “deformity,” which brings up another question I don’t recall being posed to Wallace by popular reviewers: why so many “disabled” characters? If Wallace was in an editing room today, I’m sure he wouldn’t get off as easily with such literary devices just because at the end of the day the writing is simply so witty.

5. When the book blames poor people for their own damn problems. Although the “middle class” kids who make up the Tennis Academy’s student body are all grotesque personalities in their own way, they mostly get away with this for being young and really smart. By contrast, when it comes to say, a Randy Lenz, who’s got issues that go way back to his (Lenz’s) working-class background, when Wallace makes psychoanalytic exhibitions of these types of characters’ experiences with such things as incest, rape, child abuse and other issues that tend to face people in poverty, it doesn’t come off as “just witty,” but as narcissistic, and not in an ironic or ‘gotcha’ kind of way. This makes it so that at many points in Infinite Jest, Wallace seems to view urban Boston as just another petri dish of lost or abandoned characters the way just another white kid in a Michigan basement would view “dirty city-life,” his literary prowess notwithstanding.

(5. Continued) But what about, say, white-collar types who are also addicted types and not far off from the city, exploiting those same “lost or abandoned” types in their own grotesque ways when they aren’t promulgating pop-culture to keep the American population dormant to America’s inequalities? Why not expound on the idiosyncratic mannerisms, of say, an Alan Greenspan or Bill Clinton? Wallace does NOT achieve a “fair-share” of doling out his psychoanalysis even with say, “President Gentle,” who is only a “background” character, the descriptions of which only make him a shallow political figure and nothing else, even though presidents in American history tend to play a major role in “shaping” pop culture. And Enfield Tennis Academy–for all its cruel, elitist tendencies–does NOT come off as an “equal” counterpart to Ennet House’s “trashy” makeup, so the book falls short of juxtaposing these groups for Wallace’s larger point about American culture’s wayside decline.

Okay, even with these gripes, is the massive 1,100 page book still worth reading? If you don’t count the footnotes, the novel is not that long, weighing in at more like 981 pages. And yes, it’s still worth reading. Despite these and other shortcomings, Wallace’s writing still challenges readers to imagine farther-reaching, more complex prose as a form of expression. And no matter what verdict different readers might give Infinite Jest, it’s worth pointing out that rather than breaking the rules, Wallace’s book bends them, expanding the bandwidth of literature overall to elasticize the reader’s ability to imagine different ways of expressing ideas.

I just would chill on all the boundless praise that earlier reviewers have tended to give the book, but would still recommend readers to be challenged by its virtuoso achievements. I would also say it’s an especially approachable book during these times, when literary oases have never more been needed to get away from the news. Speaking of which, that’s enough of a retreat. Let’s get back to our coronavirus woes.

J.T.

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 mail-in ballots turned in belonged to white voters. As we noted in that article:

“Although non-white registered voters make for a combined total of 52% of votes eligible to be cast in L.A., post-election day, only 36% 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 consistent with the history of voting in ‘liberal’ California as a whole.

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 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 housing, 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 which are used to support the passage of certain ballot issues, or used to defeat them, show that campaign or policy battles don’t ‘just express’ the will of an electorate, but even go as far as to create and develop certain ideals about what the state of California is, 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 such 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.

From the outset, HoSang claims that “whiteness” in the United States isn’t simply a “fixed” identity, where if you’re white, you view yourself as such in a “static” or “unchanging” way; instead, he argues, “whiteness” is highly impressionable, or capable of transforming due to external factors like advertising, propagandizing, and finally, 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 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 policies aimed at “leveling the playing field” between white and non-white people in the Golden State.

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, a mass of white 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 not even off the ground yet.

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 it wasn’t easy placing an end to a program whose stated goal was the integration of the races in the state’s public classrooms in accordance with Brown vs Board of Education; the formula to defeat integration required a sophisticated deployment of a language of “racial innocence,” which sought to ‘pass the buck’ or responsibility for “fixing” racism onto the desks of the state and away from the homes 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, since the U.S.’s “browning” is asumed to lead towards ‘liberalizing’ it.

HoSang notes that if such “majority minority” or “browning” scenarios are the last frontiers for the hope of liberalism, which became the case in California nearly two decades ago, than they better take a closer 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 during election day:

“The current disparities throughout California between white voter rates and those of people of color when considering the larger voter eligibility pool of the latter is not 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.

J.T.

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, here is another brief book review, this time on a little-known story by a 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 his 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 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

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.