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Mike Sonksen: He *Is* Alive in Los Angeles

Each week, Jeremy Rosenberg (@LosJeremy) asks, "How did you - or your family before you - wind up living in Los Angeles?"

Today, we hear from spoken word artist, tour guide, educator, journalist, historian and fellow Land of Sunshine columnist, Mike Sonksen, a.k.a. Mike The Poet:

CHAPTER ONE

"I was born in Long Beach, at St. Mary's Hospital. I've lived my entire thirty-eight years in L.A. County.

"My parents went to Washington High School. They met at the Rose Parade -- they were there with a whole bunch of high school friends.

"I guess my dad had a crush on my mom from the start. But they didn't hook up until college. They went El Camino Junior College and then to Long Beach State. They got married in 1966. Then my dad went to Loyola Law School.

"I went to Artesia High School and when I was eighteen to UCLA. From age eighteen to thirty, I lived in twelve apartments. I had apartments all over L.A.

"One or two of them, I stayed for almost for two years. There were a couple where I lived just briefly. Like once in Culver City for the summer, because we had a professor who subletted us a cool place. You know how those deals go.

"Of my four grandparents, all of them spent their childhoods and lived their entire lives in Los Angeles. Two of my grandparents were born here. One was born in New Jersey and came here when he was in his early youth. And my mom's mother came to L.A. when she was about four or five-years-old.

"But the person I would really most like to talk about is my mom's father, my grandfather, Frank Sibley. He was born in 1918; his parents had arrived in L.A. just a year or two before. He was about 5'8", blue eyes. He was half-British and half-Mexican. He looked Italian.

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"He had really silver hair by the time I knew him. In his younger life he had brown hair -- I heard it went gray pretty quick. They say a lot of men they get the hairline of their mother's father. I think I got his hairline! C'est la vie. I'm just thankful to have anything from him, because of his joy of life.

"He had a big smile. He really did know the ladies' names from all the stores. And he knew the dude behind the counter. He had a handshake for the man and a hug for the woman. And the warmth for everybody.

"My grandfather's mother was named Julia Rivera. She had three sisters and they were all from Mexico. From what I understand, my great-grandfather John Pinkney Sibley had been a sort of vagabond guy who had worked for both the Union Pacific and Southern Pacific Railroad as a stenographer and interpreter because he spoke Spanish. I have a few of his old letters from the 1920s.

Beneficiary document of Julia Rivera and John Pinkney Sibley. Image courtesy Mike Sonksen

"John Pinkney Sibley had been traveling on the railroad for ten to fifteen years. He lived in Oregon for a while and then he met Julia Rivera in Mexico and they came to Los Angeles, I believe, sometime in late 1916.

"I know that around the time of Pancho Villa and the Mexican Revolution, my great-great-grandfather Francisco Rivera, who was Julia Rivera's father, lost his land.

"They had a farm. They weren't wealthy but they weren't poor. They had a pretty decent situation but they lost everything. I think it was partially convenient for my great-grandparents to then get married -- they left Mexico and came to Los Angeles in kind of dramatic fashion.

"I think they came here for the ol' California Dream. They came here because -- this was the 1910s -- they must have heard some of the booster myths along the way.

"I've always wanted to know more about the Mexican side of the family. I know my great grandmother lived until 1968; she died six years before I was born. They say she was a pretty tough woman. Her husband died in the late `30s and she lived another thirty years after he passed.

"My grandfather Frank did speak Spanish. I remember being a kid with him and he would talk Spanish to people around town in stores. And when we went down to Mexico a few times on family trips, I remember him talking to everyone. And I remember him making tortillas when I was a kid.

"He was, in his way, ahead of his time. Most people from that era were pretty racist, but because he was himself kind of a hybrid, maybe it made him more tolerant. I never heard him curse too much or say racial slurs. He was just a guy who appreciated people.

CHAPTER TWO

Mike The Poet with his grandfather. Photo courtesy Mike Sonksen

"Same as his father, my grandfather worked for the railroad almost a decade- for the Union Pacific. Frank Sibley was a mechanic during the late Great Depression. He met my grandmother -- she went to Washington High School same as my parents -- in the late `30s.

"My grandfather's father died when my grandfather was sixteen. So my grandfather went to work early and was helping pay the bills. That's because his mother, Julia Rivera, wanted my grandfather to stay in the home and keep working on the railroad.

"Instead, my grandfather fell in love with my grandma and they eloped. They went to Yuma, Arizona. They came back to L.A. and they lived here -- but I think Frank was briefly estranged from his mother. They ended up reconciling and being close later.

"My grandfather was baptized at the church across from Olvera Street. There was a time like in the third grade, in elementary school, where I went to Olvera Street with my grandfather and he inquired at the desk and found the record of his baptism.

"Sometimes, he would pick me up from school and he would drive me around. He was constantly telling me stories about the Great Depression. He just had story after story after story of the open roads and the orange groves. He even told me about a time he saw a group of angry men turn over a streetcar on Broadway. His stories made me love old LA. His goodwill to everyone, and the attitude that he had about making the city his oyster, was communicated to me at an early age.

"We went everywhere. One of our regular spots was El Dorado Park in Long Beach. We'd also do things like go to Apple Valley and San Diego and Griffith Observatory. I remember he told me Huntington Beach and Bolsa Chica were once called "Tin Can Beach." Point Fermin Lighthouse in San Pedro was one of his favorite spots.

"Point Fermin was actually where he proposed to my grandmother in 1941. They were married fifty-seven years. My grandmother died in 1998. My grandfather died in 2002. After he died I went to Point Fermin on be my own, to be nostalgic and reflect on him.

Frank, grandfather of Mike Sonksen, is an eleven-year-old boy in this photo of Mt. Lowe Railway taken August 20, 1929. Photo courtesy Mike Sonksen

"He went to both Jefferson High School and Fremont High School. I have several different early addresses for him. They moved around a bit during the `20s. I know one of his homes was around 42nd and Avalon. I have these envelopes with addresses. This was one is 458 East 48th Street. This one says 732 East 53rd Street.

"Later, when my mom was born in 1941, my grandfather and grandmother lived in the Wyvernwood Complex on Olympic Blvd in East L.A., close to the old art deco Sears Tower. They ended up moving to Western and Manchester, but sometimes when I was a kid, my grandfather and I would drive near Wyvernwood and he'd say, 'We lived there forty years ago!'

"Also, John Pinkney Sibley's family, they are buried in the Calvary Cemetery in East L.A. I had driven past that cemetery my whole life, but until I met my wife -- who lived near there in Monterey Park -- I didn't even realize my great-grandparents were buried there.

"So my grandfather had all these old L.A. roots and showed me a lot. Sometimes I wish I could remember even more about it. But it's almost even more than all of these specifics, it's just the feeling that he really implanted in me.

"I try to think about him too, anytime I'm almost about to get jaded with traffic or I meet some rude people. I try to remember how he tried to share joy everywhere he went. And he tried to eliminate the coldness, and he just tried to bring that good vibe.

"I consider him to be probably my biggest influence. I think part of the reason I never left Southern California was because I was trying to discover my own family. I was trying to discover myself."

-Mike Sonksen
(as told to Jeremy Rosenberg)


Do you or someone you know have a great Los Angeles Arrival Story to share? If so, then contact Jeremy Rosenberg via: arrivalstory AT gmail DOT com. Also contact or follow Rosenberg on Twitter @LosJeremy

Top Photo: A young Mike The Poet with his grandfather. Photo courtesy Mike Sonksen. Immediately above: Video for Mike The Poet's I Am Alive In Los Angeles

About the Author

Jeremy Rosenberg is a Los Angeles-based writer, editor, and consultant whose work has appeared in various books, magazines, newspapers, and online.
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