Chill

I know a few Chileans in Los Angeles. The first one I met was Joaquin Murieta.

The black and white mural of the mid 19th century bandit near the corner of Whittier and Atlantic in East L.A. was rededicated last week. Willie Herron painted it 40 years ago with a simple thought in mind: Murieta had come to this country searching for opportunity only to have his pride stripped from him by discrimination.

Most of what we know about Murieta is shrouded in myth. He immigrated here during the California Gold Rush from Mexico or from Chile. Emboldened by the xenophobia of the time, white miners took his mining claim, killed his brother and raped his wife. Enraged he rejected the laws of his new society and turned to crime. The accounts of his exploits were cheered on by other immigrants who'd also felt the mallet of racism.

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Isabel Rojas Williams, with the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles, welcomed about 50 people to an alley next to the Murieta mural just as the sun got ready to set. "Joaquin Murieta was my connection, my emotional reach to my country of birth, to Chile and to my newly acquired, Mexican community in East Los Angeles," she said.

Murieta's barely a blip in United States popular culture. In South America his story resonated in the 1960s. The Chilean poet Pablo Neruda wrote about Murieta. Singers Mercedes Sosa and Victor Jara sang about Murieta's fight against oppressive forces.

Many Chileans came to California during the Gold Rush. There's a plaque embedded in the sidewalk next to the City Lights bookstore in San Francisco commemorating the Chilean barrio there in the mid-1800s. In Southern California the history of Chileans, as is that of many smaller ethnic communities have been, to quote Keats, writ in water. The Murieta mural's the closest thing L.A. has to a monument recognizing what Chileans have done to help build the Southland. They deserve one. Here's my contribution to the application.

Jaime Corral's at the top of my list. On a daylight tour of Skid Row a few years ago Corral told me about escaping Pinochet and about his work for L.A. Unified's homeless students division. His job's to keep track of the students living in Skid Row hotels and to make sure they're getting to school, have tokens for the bus, and have clothes to wear. He's equal parts school counselor, therapist, and social worker.

San Fernando Valley girl Pilar Diaz is representing through music. She was born in Chile and until a few years ago fronted the L.A. indie band Los Abandoned. She emailed me that she's finishing up a three-month stay in Chile on a solo music project. "As long as I can remember, I've always longed for a double life between my home country of Chile and my beloved Los Angelitos. Maybe my Spanish has begun to include a little bit of a Mexican accent from practicing Español in LA! That might be the only change over time," she told me. Political songs are usually songs second. Her songs "Ilegal En Estyle" and "Piñata." Are beautiful songs.

At the mural rededication Roberto Leni prefaced his reading by telling the audience that Chileans are legendary thieves, in the same way that Australia got most of the British empire's scoundrels. He then pulled out an issue of El Andar magazine in which his writing was published. He stole it from a Boyle Heights cultural center, he said. Here's what Leni emailed me about his changing Chilean identity.

Because I came to the country of the North as the son of a family that was exiled to this country two very different things were at play in how I identified myself when I first arrived. Even calling myself a "Chileno" was problematic, because that is/was the country or society "responsible" for a lot of pain in my life. In my house no one ever had a Chilean flag, be it on a t-shirt, a poster, or any where. My father was a great supporter of the Mapuche cause and because of it there was no room for nationalism in my house. Back then, when asked I would always say "I was born in Chile." I liked being a "Latinoamericano" always best, in the vain of Che, Bolivar, Marti, Galeano, Fidel, Freire, Evo Morales, Chavez. Then it changed with pride to Latino but never Hispanic, but it never was Chilean-American, and much less AmericaNo. Its ideological brother, the way being Chicano is. Then I learned the importance of understanding that I was not bi-cultural but inter-cultural instead. The greater the understanding, the less the intensity of the pain I felt growing up in this country.

Most Chileans are of mixed heritage, Meyling Eliash-Daneshfar told me a few years back when I met her at a news conference organized by the Alzheimer's Association, where she works. Here's her story.

My paternal grandfather was the son of Cantonese immigrants who settled in California during the Gold Rush and who later migrated to Chile. My maternal grandfather, was an English man who arrived to Chile at the turn of the last century. Both my parents were born in Chile. So I identify with many different cultures. I grew up in Chile listening to disco music and watching shows like the Brady Bunch and Lost in Space so I was exposed to the American culture very early in life. After more than 26 years living in the USA, being married to an Iranian and having two daughters who were born in Texas, still consider myself Chilean but I also see myself and my family as true citizens of the world especially now that, thanks to Skype and other technological wonders, I can stay in touch with our friends and relatives in Europe, Asia and Latin America.

The seed of curiosity about Chileans was planted 20 years ago by my friend Taco Shop Poets co-conspirator Adrian Arancibia. He's intrigued me over the years as he taps into his family stories that bloom out of the parched heat of the Iquique desert while firmly rooting his writing in the U.S. Chicano experience. Willie Herron and Xiuy Velo, accompanied by Sid Medina and Chola Con Chelo, played a few songs for the Murieta mural rededication. Velo and Herron asked Adrian to read a poem. What he came up with was a new work for the occasion that taps into Chile, the trauma of immigration, Herron painting the mural, the seminal Chicano poem "I Am Joaquin" and a Café Tacuba reference.


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Here's Adrian's poem.

yo fui joaquin

the story begins
like the ones
my mother tells me.
young men, who have
nothing left. nothing
left but their hands
and their feet. they travel.
these young men protest
they are arrested tortured
sometimes lynched

and asi fue.
a san francisco
llegó el salitre. llegó
a la lluvia y al frío.
y yo llegué también
algo como el pasado
and that was the way
the story becomes myth
mitos, empiezan así
worn shoes,
worn shoes and
horses

in the aftermath
guadalupe hidalgo
holds out like a shackle
where you took my wife
lynched my brother
my father, mother
this was me.

yo soy joaquin
was
the beginning.
the pauses,
the words,
and the distance
my ride could travel.

yeah, yo soy joaquin
chileno/chicano/mexicano
pivot point position
of a movement
yo soy joaquin

the stability of
the known thrown
into chaos
the wind blowing
el barco bringing us north
knows this current
events placing people
here, not there.
and how hands
reaching hands came out
thirded not seconded

yo soy joaquin
for every forgotten
body the south has
let go north

yo soy joaquin
soy esa muchacha guatemal-
teca who dies on the journey
norte, sur fills the heart
with every rape
with every shot
with every nameless
grave filled

joaquin...
murrieta lives between
meade and monroe
on the corner of north and monroe
he is me and i am he.
the crease
of a play, poem, mural
tracing pino oregon
to placers
tracing minas
to mineros
to brown hands to celestials
to mine shafts
to recall, recalling
strange fruit hanging
from trees

yo soy joaquin...
murrieta is on whittier
where the cross-pollination
of tag and sect
is the mural, rising above
like mist from cool shadows
in a place
where the air is thick
and the pavement wide
and the voices call out
norte, desde el sur

where we were promised
language and land.
pocho hadn't yet arrived
instead californio dreams
moved the 16th of september
to stinko de mayos.
& subsumed names
& histories like
pylons and freeways
do neighborhoods
nowadays

yo soy joaquin...
joaquin es un chiquillo, playing
soccer in italy soon to be traded
to barca who began his days
in a dirty, dusty town
the shoeless shadow of tocopilla
he played, his ghost still plays
barefoot on streets echoing
este es mi chile querido
este es, el chile!
este es, el chile!
to the diaspora
north.
norte desde el sur.

si, yo soy joaquin
a half irish muralist
from city terrace paints
past to futures
of the chicano blanket
opening and warming
the limbs of the
recienllegados
pues sí, ustedes
tambien belong in
el lay. porque todos
todos, todos, toditos
todos, somos
sí yo soy,
joaquin.

About the Author

Adolfo’s been a reporter at NPR affiliate KPCC since 2000. He’s reported on three L.A. mayors, four L.A. Unified superintendents, and covered the LAPD batons and rubber bullets flying at the May, 2007 MacArthur Park immigrant marc...
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