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Underground Heroes, Dispatch #1

My favorite aspect about all the poets, writers, musicians and assorted artists around the city I meet is that they are all undercover superheroes. Beyond their immediate role as artists they are also educators, facilitators, activists and community leaders. These individuals use art as a weapon to improve their communities. Over the years I've met some incredible individuals at open mics, galleries and bookstores. To pay homage to community artists transforming our city, I will be writing a periodic series of columns within L.A. Letters called Underground Heroes.

The Northeast San Fernando Valley is where we begin this account. Economic restructuring during the 1970s decimated the once numerous local aerospace and manufacturing jobs leading to widespread unemployment and street gangs. Truly a wasteland, there were no bookstores or art galleries in Pacoima or Sylmar until Tia Chucha's Centro Cultural and Bookstore opened in 2001. The multi-media community space quickly became a mecca for performances, workshops, a publishing imprint and a youth empowerment project.

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"Rushing Waters, Rising Dreams: How the Arts are Transforming a Community" is a new book documenting the positive changes occurring in Pacoima and Sylmar because of the emerging community arts. Co-edited by Luis Rodriguez and Cal State Northridge Professor Denise Sandoval, it includes essays, poems, paintings and photos from over a dozen contributors on the vibrant arts community at Tia Chucha's and at events like the annual literary festival "Celebrating Words." Filmmaker John Cantu is also making a documentary film in tandem with the book.


Trini Rodriguez's essay "The Healing Power of the Arts" describes how she started Tia Chucha's with her husband Luis. Originally from Pacoima, she married Luis in Chicago; they ended up moving back to L.A. in 2000, and decided that Pacoima needed a community space for the arts like the many they knew in Chicago. Denise Sandoval's essay "Why Community Matters" is a fascinating historical account of the Valley and the Chicano/a Movement, Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez. Ruben Guevara's essay on Ritchie Valens connects the dots between 1959 and 2012. Tia Chucha poet Jenuine captures the spirit: "Community is the unity of needs and hope becoming a vision." Poems by Mike de la Rocha, Jennifer Alumbaugh, Chiwan Choi and Luis Rodriguez are also included. The theme of artists transforming once decaying communities is the golden thread connecting the inspired text.

This same transformative spirit is also happening in the San Gabriel Valley, and once again, writers and artists are in the middle of it. Poet Christopher Luke Trevilla is the Founder of the Nuvein Foundation for Literature and the Arts in the San Gabriel Valley. Trevilla teaches creative writing to adolescents and holds workshops in libraries in El Monte, Whittier, Montebello and San Gabriel. He explains, "The Nuvein Foundation makes an open invitation to all creative writing groups of the San Gabriel Valley to join in effort to solidify and provide a more uniform approach to promote creative literary expression and combat the ills of ignorance, illiteracy, and underdeveloped communication skills. I think the hope of any culture, society, person lies not so much in their ability to create, but what the creation expresses into the other person." Trevilla is an effusive poet that walks the walk. The conviction of his own poetry matches his teaching style. Lately other poets like Don Campbell, Mary Torregrosa, David Romero and Matt Sedillo have been collaborating with him at events like the La Puente Art Walk.

Hip Hop ChocolateMarcus Gray is a chocolatier as well as author-activist-scholar. Known for his essay, "The Physics of Hip Hop," he started HipHop Chocolate in 2006, making bite-size chocolates shaped into iconic hip hop objects like little boom boxes and small sneakers. He created HipHop Chocolate with "the intention to create a sacrament for the hip hop culture; providing an opportunity to consume symbols of the culture in order to inspire a reflection on the purpose and potential of culture as a whole." Gray is also a highly skilled b boy and his love for hip hop culture is why he wanted to create an act that could inject consciousness into the art form.

Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo is a poet, editor and educator nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2009. Recently she conducted a series of workshops for the Los Angeles Public Library. She's an editor at the literary zine Splinter Generation and host of a monthly poetry series "Hitched" at Beyond Baroque. She is also active with No More Deaths, a humanitarian aid group based in Tucson. "[They work] to stop pain and suffering in the desert by patrolling migrant trails, doing water drops, giving direct medical aid, and documenting Border Patrol abuses," she explains. "Every summer -- the deadliest time of the year for border crossers -- NMD invites volunteers from all over the country and the world (I worked with a young man from France last summer) to camp and patrol in Arivaca, Arizona near the Arizona border and in the desert and in Nogales, Mexico with people newly deported."

The turmoil in Arizona is on the minds of many. Lincoln Heights poet Olga Garcia Echeverria wrote a deeply moving poem titled, "Flores for Brisenia." Brisenia Flores is the 9-year old little girl murdered in Arizona last year by Minutemen vigilantes. I heard the poem at Avenue 50 Gallery in Highland Park last month -- it was one of the most powerful poems I'd heard in some time.

One of the hardest working writers in Southern California is Traci Kato-Kiriyama. Founder and creator of the popular Tuesday Night Café series in Little Tokyo, she is also a performing artist, educator and grassroots organizer. Her book "Signaling" connects the dots between Los Angeles, love, death, loss and the search for truth underneath our multiple identities. The poems move between reflections on growing up Japanese-American and her own existential musings. The 50-plus poems in the book form a cohesive whole, giving the work true organic unity, urging readers to throw caution to the wind. The cycle of poems about the death of her father is brave, heartbreaking and beautiful at the same time. A series of prose poems on the power of art also punctuate the book. She writes, "Art has the power to make us honest, uncomfortable, bold, thirsty, insatiable...it is within everyone where the power exists to create that makes art undeniable." Traci's own talents have been undeniable and she recently landed a leading part for a play in Toronto. For the next few months she will be on the road.

Long Beach-based Write Bloody Publishing has just released, "News Clips & Ego Trips." Edited by G. Murray Thomas, the book is an anthology from the best of Next Magazine, founded by Thomas with Larry Schultz and Charles Ellik in 1993. Coming in just under 200 pages, there's a wealth of information concerning Southern California Poetry during the mid-90s: interviews with poets like Rollins, Ellyn Maybe, Patricia Smith, Gerald Locklin, Watts Prophets, and stories on the rise of slam poetry in the mid-1990s. There are short chapters on how to organize a press kit or publish a chap book. Besides the many articles written by Thomas, there are stories by Daniel McGinn, Mindy Netifee, Charles Ellick, Victor Infante and others.

Spoken word poets performed at Lollapalooza in 1994, and soon after MTV began featuring performance poetry segments. Victor Infante calls it "Before" and "After." Those pivotal years covered in Thomas' book led to HBO Def Poetry Jam, Brave New Voices and dozens of other spin off projects. Some may view it as a lament for a simpler time like Common's "I Used to Love Her;" reading this book now reveals how much Next Magazine made West Coast poetic history for its pioneering coverage of L.A. Letters and California literature. Next aspired to be the Rolling Stone for Poetry, and like Rolling Stone during its early years, Next was in the whirlwind of a rapidly evolving art form.

"The Brubury Tales" by Frank Mundo is a bold homage to Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales." Mundo defamiliarizes the tale by placing it in Los Angeles in 1992 shortly after the Riots. Seven security guards on the grave-yard shift swap stories in verse. Mundo writes response poems to Poe, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Boccaccio, Twain and more. 232 pages of words, Mundo attributes his 14 years of working as a security guard on the grave-yard shift for his ability to complete long writing projects. His authentic L.A. childhood experiences came out in his verse,


In L.A. we're pretty well out of touch

From one community to the other:

Neighbors are strangers to one another!

The Westside is busy running the store,

And the Eastside is the Westside's eyesore;

The South is the center of Civil War

'Tween the L.A. cops and the gangland poor

The North is a place I can't say much about;

Whenever I go there I get kicked out...

One of the hardest working young poets I know is Sean Hill. I first met him seven years ago at a poetry event at Cal State Northridge. As long as I've known him, he's been doing poetry for Skid Row Youth Programs, as well as several literacy programs, literary festivals and theater showcases. Hill recently hosted the Success is Our Future Scholarship ceremony, and worked the past two years as part of the After School Adventure Enrichment Camp (ARC) at Oscar De La Hoya Animo, teaching Poetry and Theater. He also co-hosts with Roger Chagnon, Jason Brain, and Dutch Stowe a blogtalk radio show called, "The Soapbox Super Show". They play music, comedy, and poetry from their recordings of the Thursday night open mic, Soapbox Sessions in Encino. Jason Brain is the host and creator of both Soapbox productions and a close comrade of Hill. Hill, who just released his first spoken word album, says, "I share ideas that involve inner reflection, outer connection, and a gradual delicate diving into the notion that realistic inner and outer world peace exists...sometimes just by allowing yourself to truly believe it."


Azul Amaral is known by most as DJ/host of the Do Over and Bridges, but the man is also a photographer, artist, carpenter and activist. His best known project is the PEACE Photo Project. "This project started 8 years ago initially as the PEACE in Iraq Project," he describes, "but has quickly moved to the PEACE Photo Project,' representing many diverse communities united to deliver a universal message of peace and understanding." Before he knew it, Azul had shot several hundred Angelinos with bug bright yellow Peace banners. He is also a partner in the L.A. vs. War Project and was a longtime resident at Firecracker. He's currently transforming an old glass and screen hardware building in Boyle Heights into an art studio. Artists like Azul and all the previously mentioned individuals demonstrate how the arts are being used to transform communities in the name of the people.


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Top: Sean Hill at Sopbox Sessions. Photo courtesy of Azul.

About the Author

Third-generation Angeleno Mike "The Poet" Sonksen is a poet, journalist, historian, tour guide, and teacher.
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Great post. I haven't felt so good about the ferment happening in the LA area for years. Oh, it's always been here, but they way you've framed it really reminds me of the late 1960s-early 1970s heyday of Afro-Am ferment and man it feels good.