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

‘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 nearly fifty years later our communities are still dealing with.

These are the living nightmares of what was then still a newly modernizing world which inspired the heroine that is the amazing Viramontes. Her literary gifts unwind similarly to a nightmare, or as genuine superpowers around the mind of the reader for immersing us like veins into 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. Although 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 actuality and imagination, 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.

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Los Angeles: Origins

Question: tell me again, what a city is?

From The Free Dictionary:

cit•y

(ˈsɪt i)

n., pl. cit•ies.

1. a large or important town.
2. (in the U.S.) an incorporated municipality, usu. governed by a mayor and council.
3. the inhabitants of a city collectively: The entire city is celebrating.

A follow-up question: What is the point of a city? I mean, what is its mission or objective?

From City of Quartz:

“The mission literature [of Los Angeles] depicted the history of race relations as a pastoral ritual of obedience and paternalism: ‘graceful Indians, happy as peasants in an Italian opera, knelt dutifully before the Franciscans to receive the baptism of a superior culture, while in the background the angelus tolled from a swallow-guarded campanile, and a choir of friars intoned the Te Deum‘.”

In other words, the early players of ‘L.A.’ cast the city as a place where history just failed to take place as it did in the rest of the ‘free world’, or as a place where fairy tales proved the rule rather than the exception of the land? Certainly the image of graceful Indians ready to serve their Franciscan masters invokes the sense of an idyllic place to be. That is, if you’re in the position of the Franciscan master.

Why did the early players in L.A. do this, however? Or, with what objective?

Again, from Professor Davis:

“With sunshine and the open shop as their main assets, and allied with the great transcontinental railroads (the region’s largest landowners), a syndicate of developers, bankers and transport magnates led by Otis [Chandler, of The L.A. Times] and his son-in-law, Harry Chandler, set out to sell Los Angeles – as no city had ever been sold – to the restless but affluent babbitry of the Middle West.”

So what’s Mr. Davis saying about The City, then, that its only purpose was to be sold?!

So many questions, and so little time. But we’ll find a way.

With more soon,

J.T.

Los Angeles: Roots

Almost a year ago to the tee, following a recommendation from a friend, I got my hands on a little book called City of Quartz by Mike Davis.

It felt like a brilliant discovery, since as early as the book’s first pages, one thing was clear: whether in discussing the international interests of downtown L.A.’s skyscrapers, or in recounting “township rebellion” through the streets of South Central, author Mike Davis was someone who cared about Los Angeles.

In turn, I went through a few of Quartz’s chapters on the site, and had a blast analyzing the roots of The City in response to the author’s perspectives on it.

But then, something happened.

It was a great but unpredictable time for me. On the one hand, I was having a lot of fun earning a little bit of money from freelance writing and photography, not to mention time with The Plus Me Project and The Beautiful Gate, but on the other hand, it wasn’t enough.

It’d been just a year since I graduated from college, and though JIMBO TIMES had taken me to Miami, when I got back from the trip I could see that if I wanted to keep going places I’d have to make some sacrifices.

I then did what so many of my peers did before me, as our families did before us: I found myself a job, earned a little bit of pay, and called it a day.

It was good: I could finally help mom out at home on a more sustainable level, and I could also just help myself with anything from gas money to a new memory card for my camera.

But it was also tough: while I could see my time in the service industry with Starbucks as something honorable and even brilliant, I also felt that it was a significant digression from my interests in work for youth, education, and of course, writing!

Work with the company was also exhausting; standing on my feet for so many hours of the day made it so that when I got home I found myself too worn out to keep my eyes up through a book as dense as Mike Davis’s Quartz.

I had to let it go, then. And let it go I did.

I told myself I’d get back to the book and the rest of J.T. soon enough, but then the days passed, and then some other projects came up, and then:

Boom!

From one week to the next, I got wrapped up in the cha-ching noise, numbers, and the framework of it all; even if I wasn’t earning much, there was this rhythm to it– and, who am I kidding–it was a matter of getting some milk and bread.

But the thing is: even if it was all well and fine to work and work hard, it also took time from The L.A. Storyteller, and I couldn’t just let this go.

In response, in January of this year I made some changes to my schedule to regain some of the time I’d lost with J.T.. Moreover, I was chosen for a special project with the Inside Out Writers, and just like that: my framework expanded.

Contrary to a silent skepticism, then, J.T. was still growing after all; new seeds were being planted, and earlier seeds were blooming, at last.

But there was still more: more I needed to give to JIMBO TIMES, and more which I needed to sort of get back to…like City of Quartz, L.A. Stories, and other extensions of the site not just for me personally, but for the kids.

On seeing this, I realized that I had to make some sacrifices again, but this time in the other direction;

I had to get back to myself.

And so I do.

Tonight it’s a bittersweet pleasure to announce that I’m finished with Starbucks at the end of July, and that my project with the Inside Out Writers has grown into a precious part-time position with the organization.

It’s also a pleasure to announce that I’ll be picking up where I left off with City of Quartz over the next few weeks. The thing is, these pages are dedicated to The People of The City, and critical literature by those before us plays an integral part in just how the pages continue to form. I can’t just let this go, even when I do let it go.

As such, it’s about to get literary again, and so I hope The People are ready.

There’s too much going on in the world for us to neglect our voice in it. Plus, studies show that many of the kids from the neighborhood start to slump during the summer. But nah’, we choose to make the opposite true: this summer is now officially dedicated to reading, writing, and more work to uplift The People of L.A.

With more soon,

J.T.

City of Quartz: Opening Remarks

DSCN6488

City  of Quartz,

We meet at last. It’s taken me twenty-four years to reach Mike Davis’s legendary “excavation” of Los Angeles, and yet I know I’m right on time. Published just two years before rioting rumbled through the streets of South Central, the book is renowned for its unfaltering confrontation of the money and politics underpinning life, crime, and movement in Los Angeles. For this, the book is particularly special to yours truly, as it paints a unique portrait of worlds in The City that I walk through each day of my life. As such, my next few posts will be reviewing the book’s chapters in hopes of “carpooling” with J.T.’s readers on a journey with the author.

For some time, I’ve done my best to steer clear of politics with my writing on JIMBO TIMES, and yet I’ve always known I could only look away for so long. My writing has always been a world exploring contrasts, honoring what’s beautiful throughout the world, while also acknowledging what threatens its beauty. This is what makes it an honor to reach the pages of City of Quartz, as I know the book will play a significant role in shaping The L.A. Storyteller’s perspective.

In fact, it already has. Just a few pages in, the book’s very preface has already helped me to identify a key aspect of my relation to The City. I’m reading the re-edition of Quartz, published in 2006 with an updated preface from the author, and I think a great starting point for reflection can be found in Davis’s assessment of then-Mayor Villaraigosa’s impact on the city.

After a municipal election (2005) sadly devoid of new concepts, genuine passions, or substantive debate, Los Angeles at last has a mayor -Antonia Villaraigosa- with a surname that resounds with the same accent as the majority of the population. The election of Villaraigosa – once a fiery trade-union and civil-liberties activist – should have been Los Angeles’s ‘La Guardia moment,’ an opportunity to sweep city-hall clean of its old scheming cabals with their monomaniac obsession with gentrifying Downtown at the expense of the city’s blue-collar neighborhoods. Instead…the former rebel from east of the river is now the jaded booster of a downtown-renaissance that promotes super-cathedrals, billionaire sports franchises, mega-museums, Yuppie lofts, and drunken Frank Gehry skyscrapers at the  expense of social justice and affordable housing…

Even before Davis’s mention of Villaraigosa, I’m almost immediately reminded of L.A.’s 2013 race for Mayor between then-councilman Eric Garcetti and City Controller Wendy Gruel, which finished with the lowest voter turnout in L.A. history. In fact, according to the L.A. Times, “Garcetti’s complete tally was 222,300, just 12.4% of the city’s registered voters. That was well ahead of his opponent, City Controller Wendy Greuel, but a smaller vote total than any incoming mayor since Frank Shaw in 1933.”

I was in Davis, California when the elections were taking place, but even from afar, I observed a contest that showed hardly any concern over the city’s housing, education, or transportation crises. Like Villaraigosa before them, both candidates seemed nearly oblivious to the worlds facing the people of Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles, or the neglected black and Latino students of L.A.U.S.D.

Garcetti spoke of “revitalizing” L.A., but for who? In the two years since his election, his time in office has merely been an extension of Villaraigosa’s liasoning to developers and other displacers with a stake in L.A. property. Just last year, despite heated protests from riders, Garcetti voted along with the Metro board to raise the fare on Metro’s ridership, the vast majority of whom – as cited by the L.A. Weekly – barely earn “an income of roughly $20,000 a year and more than 80 percent [of whom] are minorities, according to a Metro survey in 2012.”

Naturally, proponents of the fee hike pointed to rising operating costs for the Metro system, but as several leaders opposing the vote made clear, Metro’s board cited rising costs while failing to acknowledge their inability to attract new, wealthier riders over the last few years. In turn, their vote placed the costs of their under-performance on the backs of their already financially-strapped patrons.

As if to catch my drift, apart from the election at the time, the preface of Quartz also delves right into transportation, providing material for readers to place the relevance of Metro’s recent decision within the larger spectrum of L.A.’s transportation crises:

“Right now [in 2006], locals pay a ‘congestion tax’ – ninety-three hours per commuter per year lost in traffic delays – that is the highest in the United States, and twice as high as it was in 1982. In the worst scenario, it can double again in another decade.”

And here, I think readers can see why I’m so excited about the book: in the opening alone, Davis shows concern for the city like a driver exiting the freeway determined to find the origins of the traffic that stifles it. Taking a stand on the pathway overlooking the congestion, Davis is ready for a change. Walking down the street in my journey with L.A., I recognize the author as he stares down at traffic, and join him in observation. Together, Davis’s preface tells me that both the reader and writer can find key roots of the gridlock, and in turn, key roots of the response.

I look forward to sharing more of what these responses look like with City of Quartz soon, and I hope readers look forward to hearing them.

With Love,

Machito: Mas Que Muy Bueno!

Rdio has my deepest gratitude for featuring this brilliant portal into the historic Afro-Cuban jazz scene; a heart-throbbing celebration of life and love. My favorite track so far would have to be “Tin Tin Deo” for taking a cozy party of instruments and turning them into a declarative, triumphant ensemble with a confidence that at once commands awe and respect. The frolicking only gets started there, however, as “Mambo” gleefully shows. Every track on “Mambo Mucho Mambo” takes all of life up to its most artistic with inimitable genius. The album is a gift, a gem, and anyone who finds it is in for a party wherever they are. This morning at home, I certainly am!