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.

The Metro Blue Line train moving across South Los Angeles

You Cannot Be Neutral on A Moving Train, Los Angeles

(Pandemic in Los Angeles: Day 81)

Howard Zinn, the renowned historian who was once a bombardier in Europe for the U.S. during World War II, published his final book, You Cannot Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times, in 1994. A lifetime later, I can still remember being struck by his biography’s title for how the idea of “no neutrality” came off as both a challenge and an invitation to invoke the consciousness of a society claiming to be a democracy by giving anyone and everyone a chance to participate in its story.

In 2014, when I launched JIMBO TIMES: The L.A. Storyteller, I knew I’d be telling personal stories to the world, but I also stopped short of thinking of those stories as personal histories. Today, by contrast, I recognize every poem, story, and picture on the site as contemporary historicizing from a personal perspective, or modern documentation from individual voices of the world around us for the purpose of having others, and perhaps just anyone other than ourselves, bear witness to our experiences.

For this reason, I’m proud to note that after six months since announcing the website’s call for submissions, I’ve had the privilege of publishing over ten different voices, all by people of color from Los Angeles and beyond, with the eleventh voice coming to readers’ screens shortly.

These small steps forward notwithstanding, however, I recognize that it’s still early, and that there’s still far more work to do to both challenge and invite more people to add their voice to JIMBO TIMES, just as there’s more to do to invite our neighbors’ participation into a democratic country which clearly still has a long way to go before it can be said to truly honor the democratic process it wants to be known for.

I think of the workers, as I think of the young people, all across Los Angeles, who’ve still got a lifetime in front of them to come to terms with before they might ‘participate’ in a way that might be hoped for or even expected of them. The fact of the matter is that many of them already participate when they show up to work each day to continue fighting for their survival through this increasingly stratified society. They also participate even before physically laboring at work by caring for their family-members at home, by taking up humble spaces and minimal resources, and even by acknowledging and sometimes lending a hand to their neighbors, so many of whom have been abandoned by their government for far too long.

I want to make Los Cuentos for them, so that they can also take their time learning about the history of this American experiment in a way that speaks to their character, in a way that allows them to explore their place in it, and in a way that makes clear how the future absolutely depends on their health and well-being by means of their rights to housing, working, educational opportunities, and their passing these things on to who they may.

Even after a lifetime of protest, there is still so much of this work to do, and still such little time, that I can only ask for Los Angeles’s best wishes as we set out once again in its name. It’s time to catch the train.

J.T.

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Plazita Olvera near Union Station in downtown Los Angeles

The Time Has Now Come to Remake Los Angeles, While Still Remembering its Roots

(Pandemic in Los Angeles: Day 79)

A brief glance at the history of the world and civilizations shows that every world and civilization has its time, until each gives way to another.

Indeed, long before the infamous racism of the United States our nation must come to terms with today, there were whole other people and places here. At a certain point, even a historian can forget the basic fact of it.

I can still remember yearning to learn about the history of the American continent before it became ‘America’ out of a simple yearning to imagine what it might have been like. Now that this week has passed, I believe I may finally have a sense of what it felt like too. That is, as it changed.

Make no mistake about it: in the days going forward, I am only more prepared to defend Los Angeles from any individual or group seeking strictly to exploit it, or to keep it benefiting a few at the expense of far more.

But I can also see that Los Angeles, like all of our country, is changing, as the world has changed many times, simply because that’s how the world we arrived at today came to be. Many generations and voices have fought for precisely this type of change, while many other generations and voices have consistently resisted it. But eventually, enough pressure accumulates against all things, until before we know it: one world and civilization give way to another.

A case in point: the picture for this column is from a recent visit to Olvera Street, a place which is more popularly known as “the oldest” street in Los Angeles since the city’s founding–though not its settlement–in 1781 under Spanish rule. On a “regular day,” the street would be filled with music in the air while shops displayed goods and treats for the world to see, and as crowds of shop-goers bustled past one another from shop to shop.

By contrast, on this most recent visit, nearly every shop was closed due to the impact and restrictions from COVID-19 over the last three months. There was no music in the air, and walking through, I pictured all of the people who would be there as if they were ghosts, or figures whose imprints were still there even if they were removed; the original settlers of Los Angeles were the Gabrielino/Tongva nation, of whom there are still living descendants in Los Angeles today.

But even without the familiar crowd of bodies along the corridor, and despite the closing of nearly all of the shops, at the end of the street I was pleased to find that Cielito Lindo was still open.

While it might not be the oldest restaurant in Los Angeles, at 86 years, it’s still far older than most of L.A.’s restaurants today. I ordered a familiar beans and cheese burrito, and even sat down to enjoy it despite the unfamiliar space of a six feet distance between a few others and their lunch.

It was still Los Angeles, just as it was still Gabrielino/Tongva land. But it was ready for a change.

J.T.

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