EPISODE 64 – CISCO, CBS CREW ON GOING ALL CITY

In our 64th episode, we chat with the legendary “Cisco,” of the CBS graffiti crew in Los Angeles. Stefano Bloch is an L.A. native and the author of Going All City: Struggle and Survival in L.A.’s Graffiti Subculture. He is also a professor of cultural geography at the University of Arizona! An excellent discussion for all cultural geographers or mappers of the place called Los Angeles.

J.T.

EPISODE 58 – BELMONT HIGH SCHOOL IN THE 1960s

In our 58th episode, we are honored to chat with Karen “Kiwi” Burch, as well as her sister Cheryl McDonald. The sisters tell us about their respective careers in education through and beyond Los Angeles, their parents’ profound influence on their education, and the diverse student population of Belmont high school as early as 1963. Karen and Sheryl also describe running for the Associated Student government at Belmont high school, the once-prevalent LAUSD practice of “funneling” non-white students to separate schools, redlining’s impact on their families, and their grandparents’ cafeteria at none other than the Central Public Library. A truly can’t miss post-session for fans of our special panel series.

J.T.

EPISODE 29 – MATT SEDILLO, PART II

In our twenty-ninth episode, listeners are treated to the second part of our interview with Matt Sedillo, for which Sedillo reads some poems right out of the pages of the new Mowing Leaves of Grass from Flowersong Press. We also talk about Matt’s writing process over ten years since Arizona’s disgraceful SB 1070 bill, or the ghost of Jim Crow for Brown communities in the Southwest, as well as the city of Los Angeles’s larger connection to Arizona and the Southwest generally as a “battleground” against racist policies; the Occupy Wall street movement versus the work of groups such as Black Lives Matter today, and more is also discussed. A truly one-of-a-kind session for listeners.

J.T.

EPISODE 28 – MATT SEDILLO, PART I

In our twenty-eighth episode, listeners hear part one of a two-part interview with Matt Sedillo, a former National Slam Poet from Los Angeles and author of the new Mowing Leaves of Grass, an anthology of poetry that reads like an indictment of U.S. race relations, critiquing its expansionist ideologies over two-and-a-half centuries as well as the political wasteland of the last four years under Trump. I also ask Matt on his thoughts about the Chicano movement in Los Angeles, Walt Whitman’s role in advocating for the Mexican-American “war,” and special places for him in the city of L.A. A truly fun session for listeners, especially the Spoken Word lovers out there.

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.

Pandemic in Los Angeles: Day 16

L.A.’s streets in the early evening are curled into misty shadows. Once again I walked through the city, moving to the drum of its dimmed pulse. I know this is a privilege that not just everyone gets to enjoy.

A friend asked me earlier today how I’ve been getting through the times, and I responded that I’ve been reading, and writing. Then repeating. During this process it’s become more clear to me how over the course of these last few years, as I’ve picked up my smartphone more frequently, I’ve picked up my paperback and hardcover books less and less.

This has been obvious enough of a case for most everyone, but through the course of the quarantine season, I’ve seen only more clearly how work and school and the rest of my time dashing through L.A.’s intersections have divided me in so many different directions. The smartphone became a way to bridge it all together.

That is, until now, when in lieu of these most recent events, my phone has become less of a necessary bridge. While I still need to set my reminders, I don’t need to rely on the screen for them. And while I still have appointments, I take them one day at a time.

In these times, Jimbo Times: The L.A. Storyteller has been the more critical connection–my daily reminder–or my way to remain not only in the loop, but to become even more ensconced within my community and culture.

Since so many of my daily treks across the road have vanished, I’ve gotten back to my reading goals in a way that seemed virtually out of reach only a month ago. In the first week of the shutdown, at long last, I finished Leo Tolstoy’s War & Peace. Today, during this third week, I finally got past 600 pages of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Almost in celebration, I published an “early” review (or is that a critique) of Infinite Jest on the site, the first review in months for the blog.

At this rate, if I’m able to continue my sudden return to the classics, maybe I can finally get back to Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, not to mention W.E.B. Du Bois’s Reconstruction. These are books that have sat on my shelf for years now, but which at this particular juncture, for all intents and purposes, I can see and pick up again with refreshed eyes.

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.