Thursday, March 27, 2008

LA Phantom Sightings

The last weekend of the monthlong Somos Medicina celebration organized by Mujeres de Maiz coincided with the opening of The Los Angeles County Museum of Art's "Phantom Sightings: Art after the Chicano Movement." I am proud to say I made it to the video screenings at Self-Help, a soul stirring presentation of conscious hip-hop, rap, spoken word, jaraneras and the closing ceremonia at Proyecto Jardín as part of the former. Can't say enough about how true and powerful and uplifting the art exhibit and the films and the energy were. If I'm mum for a moment about the hotly anticipated LACMA show, it's because I agree with Oscar Magallanes and feel like the sisters got it going on with the kind of work that people need to know about. I can rattle off names, hurl shout outs to film and visual and word comadres Dalila Paola Mendez, Felicia Montes, Claudia Mercado, Marisol Torres, Maritza Alvarez, and Cihuatl Ce, all chingonas who don't need to be validated at the institution or by dry academics who barely ever even make their way to the Eastside unless it's to check out a collection of Chicano art owned by luminary collectors such as Gilbert Cardenas. It means more to me that Gloria Alvarez and Yreina Cervantes are invited and included by their legitimate heirs. It's the conversation that flies in the face of this tacit generational erasure, as if to say that Chicano art and movimiento politics are evolving into a more hybrid mainstream, one that brings a few emerging art stars to an invitation-only party at LACMA. Of course there are hold-outs, my own contemporaries who do stand up with serious critiques... Sandra de la Loza, la Space Chola and Arturo Romo are head on here. Ms. de la Loza was in both shows. And she is an El Sereno native. Call her a bridge and artist that can help redeem the inexcusable elitism of an exhibit that only tries to patronize and annoint... the kind of exercise that only further encourages some cool, hip youngsters. They are the kids who can tell you about ASCO and Rage Against the Machine. They'll know all the groovy nightspots around town but are losing the legacies of Emma Tenayuca or Reyes Tijerina or Raul Salinas in the process. Meanwhile, lofts and development get approved and poor people have to leave. Excuse me if I'm a little jaded and cynical, but I'd still much rather talk and write about what's happening in the 'hood. How come we haven't allowed the conversation to include the influence and beauty of Centro America on our politics and struggle? Why has Chicanismo not been there to prevent the exportation of a deeply embedded gang culture, furthering the criminalization of our youth in a global context and an interminable line of kids going to jail for making "terrorists threats" or just hanging out together on the street in the same neighborhoods being gentrified to may way for the next wave of starving artists? Why have we not spoken about the next generation of resistance to hegemony and colonialism coming from the artists that have as many roots in Mexico City and Guatemala as they do in the City of Angels?

Enough tirade. Go to First Street Studios and check out the new show curated by Lilia Ramirez and Juan Ochoa. Go there before you make the trek out west to LACMA. These are companion and complimentary exhibitions, in my own personal and highly opinionated point of view. I do want to see the "Phantom" show, and support the artists who have contributed work but I also want to be like Adelina Anthony, a Tex-Mex-patriot, playwright and luchadora. I want to cross my arms, click my teeth and palette and say for all time that I'm Xican@ with an "X" and an "at" sign at the end.

Y mis mas sinceros perdones/disculpas al anónimo quien dijo que debo aprender no mirar, porque me podrían picar los ojos.
I apologize profusely and confess that I have no idea where I'm looking at most times. I've been so severely inhabiting my own head and heart for two years now and especially since a return from the tomato fields in Florida, that I'm not exactly sure how I could be faulted for looking too long or untoward at anyone. If there was a mistaken perception that I was staring or engaging in some form of lurking disrespect, I would like to know and would be happy to have my eyes poked out by an honest, truthful person willing to tell me neta, to my face that they were feeling something I did was unkind or came from some machista objectification. This is exactly what I'm rebelling against. And it's what we all need some good healing from.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Immokalee, U.S.A.

Immokalee, Florida sits 80 miles southeast of Ft. Myers. Appearing out of morning mist within the lush palm, pine, cypress and orange tree groves that stand sentry as a gateway to the Everglades, the small agricultural outpost is "My Home," the Seminole word hanging as ironically in the air and as divorced from reality as the the nylon banners hanging from street corners on its modest Main St. with silkscreened images of a cornucopia overflowing with fruit. For the last week, between serving soup as a volunteer at the Guadalupe Center kitchen where Chiapanecos, Oaxaqueños and Guatemaltecos who can't find work in the fields come for lunch and a visit to the hyperreality of Disneyworld, I find myself in the middle of a post-industrial, slave-wage, stoop labor central, harvesting tomatoes alongside said undocumented migrant workers who speak Zapotec, Tzotzil and Quiche just as readily as they do Spanish. For fifty cents a bucket, I toil in a quivering exhaustion, my neck and shoulders beet red from the ravages of an unforgiving tropical sun. It is the first year in eight that I have not been in Los Angeles for the annual Ollin San Patricio show. Appropriately, the Rodarte twins, Scott and Randy, were actually gigging outside of LA this year and my so sojourn to the lands where the harvest of shame is far from over did not actually overlap the traditional Pogues cover tribute.

Imagine being on the Dana Point bluffs on the Pacific coast midway between San Diego and Los Angeles for the NALIP conference with independent Latino filmmakers and emerging industry players--among them Frida Torresblanco and Carlos Cuarón, two darlings of the recent renaissance in Mexican cinema--for two days of surfside schmooze and Mariott Hotel shenanigans then flipping the script 180 degrees for a rude awakening on the other side of the continental U.S. among the most humble and hardest working people on the planet, gente who work 12 hour days in an effort to earn 50 cents for every 20 pound bucket of tomatoes they harvest by hand. To call it a study in contrasts would be overstating the obvious, but here it becomes necessary to underscore how shallow and meaningless all the movie business and creative pretension seem alongside the sweat and pesticide-stained efforts of so many who toil under brutal and savage anonymity so that we can glibly and innocently consume our salads, sandwiches and pasta sauce. The next time some anti-immigrant, zenophobic rube tells me that Mexicans are breaking the law and should be deported, he'll be lucky if I don't slug him. I know. I did it. I picked 50 buckets and earned a measley $22 for an interminable day in the mud and steam of ripe tomato decay, picking green tomatoes in exchange for plastic coin-sized, wafer-thin chips, each the equivalent of two quarters. Those who rail against immigration only blame and persecute those least likely to defend themselves. They would wither and die in the shoes of the fieldworkers who pick the crops we see so many days later in the grocery store. Take your Whopper. I won't go near one. Go try to pick tomatoes in Immokalee for a day, then talk to me about how "illegal aliens" are taking jobs from U.S. citizens. I dare you. Grow some courage, please. Earn your right to talk about who this country belongs to and then tell me I'm unpatriotic. You took the land by force and now you're afraid that the brown-skinned natives from southern climes will inherit the soil you so easily claim as your own. Five hundred years does not an owner make. The earth will belong, as even your biblical references proclaim, once again to the meek. Those quiet, long-suffering Indians you hound and defile with your illiterate and uneducated invective, your hate and fear, are the only ones left with the strength and perseverance to harvest your meals at pennies per pound... And lastly, let me ask you to please support the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in their efforts to end exploitation in the Florida fields by signing the petition to end sweat shops and slavery and by avoiding Burger King, which refuses still to pay an extra penny per pound.

Monday, March 3, 2008

All the Streets and Saints and Sinners

Head nigh into spring, otra primavera colorida en Califas, check your shoelaces and remember to greet the Southern California sun, which has rolled in mightily almost as if to snub the cloudy fog, the remnants of our public sayonara to the poet-mentor. Threaded throughout, are the engines of prose, the need to organize at least of few of these writerly impulses, an incurable curiousity and the need to celebrate who we are and where we live. Couple these with any number of similarly LA-born effusions and you get a flurry that motivates and stimulates.

The Flowers, by Dagoberto Gilb, who likewise rolled through mightily (and oddly enough, during the week we lost the beloved elder) is a perfect place to begin and simply one more lustrous example. On a brief local tour that included a vivid LA Library conversation with poet Marisela Norte, Dago introduced us to his new novel, a rivetting tale told in the elegantly provocative and tastefully restrained prose Gilb is known for. The story is delivered through the precociously muted voice of Sonny Bravo, the proto-antihero who embodies the search for self amidst the chaos of a suburban landscape that we know without a single specific reference to be Los Angeles. The streets team with danger and possibility in a world where black, white and brown dance with shadows and skirt the hidden layer of tension that informs a stark reality grounded in truth and tenderness. 'Nuff said.

With another worthy riff on the streets we've come to know as our own, artist and author J. Michael Walker has concluded his seven year love letter to Los Angeles with a major exhibition at the Autry Museum of Western Heritage. Walker walked the nearly 100 streets in LA named for saints and has created an epic elegy with paintings and drawings that reverberate with meaning and emotion and history. Caught a brief glimpse at the opening and obviously need to go back because it was just too much to absorb during a crowded reception. All of the Saints of the City of Angels is presented in a baroque, very bilingual manner that enhances the intensity of work that addresses contemporary issues of class and race and gender with remarkable sensitivity. Walker is unafraid to speak truth to the dominant elite within their very own sanctums of privilege and cultural power while addressing the turmoil and tension that keep so many of us from connecting with others. A companion hardcover book wasa published as part of the project and a booksigning at Book Soup is scheduled on March 6th.

Others who spoke truth did so in theatrical presentations and panel discussion offered as part of a two day conference on the prison industrial complex and the proliferation of torture and violence as legitimate tools of the state to suppress dissent, interrogate alleged enemies and as part of a multi-million dollar for-profit "correctional" enterprise that makes mass imprisonment and dubious criminalization of our young people big business and a tragic fact of life. On Saturday night, poet, professor and now playwright David Lloyd presented a staged reading of The Press, a play revolving around a painter and a poet imprisoned by a brutal regime. The proceedings, loosely tied together as "The Politics of Art and Imprisonment" took place at the the 24th St. Theatre and were followed on Sunday by an afternoon presentation of a play developed by USC professor Brent Blair and writer/youth activist Mario Rocha--himself once imprisoned for ten years as part of two life sentences for a crime he did not commit. The production culminated with the real parents of real children who have been incarcerated filing across the stage, carrying photographs and sharing their own stories, many with very real tears in their eyes, their voices trembling in English and Spanish. Blair is a cofounder of the Center for Theatre of the Oppressed and Applied Theatre Arts.