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Leonardo Bravo: Exile Journey With Punk Soundtrack

KCET Departures asks, "What's your or your family's Los Angeles arrival story?"

Today, we hear from Leonardo Bravo**, arts administrator, painter and founder of Big City Forum:


"I grew up in Valdivia, a small college town in the south of Chile that's primarily known for the wave of German immigrants that colonized this area in the late 19th century. Because of this it has a very complex intermingling of Northern European, Spanish and indigenous influences that gives it a very heterogeneous character.

"Valdivia is in the middle of Chile's Lake Country surrounded by spectacular lakes and volcanoes and it is intersected by a majestic winding river that leads to the Pacific Ocean. I mention this because the landscape in the South has a profound impact on how you grow up. It is an area of dampness and constant rain creating lush and saturated forests that envelop surrounding cities and towns.

"Living there you are highly aware of nature having its own life force, responsive to its own rhythms and patterns. Myths and legends from the indigenous past create a vivid space for a type of animism of the natural world and these definitely take hold of your imagination.

"Although it is a college town, being so far south, Valdivia is geographically removed from the rhythms and concerns of the large cities in Chile, to say the least of outside countries. Back then, it was hard to have a firm hold on Europe or the United States - they were worlds away from our little provincial town towards the end of the southern hemisphere.

"In Chile, my father was a renowned violinist and an orchestra concertmaster. He also taught at the university's music conservatory.

"My very first memories are of hearing my father's violin playing as he practiced daily at home, developing an ear for the subtleties and nuances of sound -- how opaque, sharp, vivid, jolting, harmonious a note could sound. He worshipped all the mid-century Russian and Eastern European violinists so at a very early age I became steeped in this European canon. Heifetz, Oistrakh, Kreisler and Menuhin were giants to me.

"My mother was a homemaker. She had passion, empathy and a commitment to social causes and the rights of the struggling working class.

"I can vividly recall the fervor my parents had for [Chilean President] Salvador Allende's socialist experiment that was part of a huge wave of optimism and hope towards undoing the traditional Latin American issues of inequity and economic oppression towards large parts of society.

"That fervor left a huge impression in me and I'll never forget the excitement felt by the public discourse and engagement around social issues and political issues that seemed to course through every level of Chilean society in the early `70s. It's hard not to be nostalgic about my upbringing in Valdivia, having both a sense of awe and wonder in the natural surroundings and a sense of dedication to how we can all impact society in better ways.


"The military coup took place in 1973 and it decimated the academic/artistic/intellectual segment of the country. A majority of folks were sent into exile, some to prison and many others were tortured and killed.

"Like many in their circle of friends at the university, my parents were Allende sympathizers. After the coup we lived in constant fear of repression and the potential threat that something far more serious could happen to my parents.

"The military junta instituted a curfew that lasted for more than a year. Combined with the daily shootings, stories of friends being forcibly taken away and overall feeling of violent repression, a direct sense of fascist control had overtaken Chilean society.

"My idyllic small-town upbringing had been turned upside down into days and nights filled with anxiety and dread. My sense of stability jolted into a new bleak reality of uncertainty. It took my parents a couple of years to leave -- my father finally had been able to get a contract to play with an orchestra in Mexico.

"Our journey was somewhat typical of many other exiled families -- lots of stops in-between to the final destination. My dad went to Mexico by himself first and we followed shortly but had to wait out for a visa in Buenos Aires. I have great memories of my time there and have always wished I could have gone back to live in Argentina.

"We lived with relatives in apartments from the mid 1800s with cavernous high ceilings. Families of bats would perch on the building's banister, criss-crossing the interior rooms leaving me in awe of their sense of independence and resilience.

"I had always been a nerd for chess but this passion truly blossomed at this time. I consumed books on classic chess moves and matches, uncovering their logic as if on a search for a kind of talmud. I went to the tables in the local park and took on the old world chess veteranos, many times leaving them shaking their heads. To me, Buenos Aires was a portal to a very dramatic, cosmopolitan and urbane place, another universe from my little provincial town in the south of Chile.

"Eventually we made it up to Mexico where we lived in both Guadalajara and Mexico City. My memories there are of radical culture clash and a way of being that was much faster, exotic and intense than the pace experienced in the southern hemisphere.

"Mexico felt very much as if our lives were completely outside of our control. It might have been because by this time I was already imbued with a keen sense of dislocation and social disruptions creating a huge sense of loss and longing.


"My father started looking for opportunities to play in the U.S. We almost moved to Indianapolis. Instead, we wound up in the O.C., in Huntington Beach. My father had a long lost family member there and desired a reunion.

"Unfortunately, Orange County did not offer many opportunities to a violin concertmaster. My father also had the typical immigrant struggles trying to gain professional footing and learning a new language. He resorted -- as he saw it -- to taking assembly line jobs in order to provide a living for his family.

"My mother went through similar struggles, but she was far more resilient in terms of embracing our new reality here, finding ways of making a living and leaving old ways and status markers behind.

"O.C. was a complete shock. Remember, this was after living in the old world environs of Buenos Aires and the megalopolis of Mexico City. I could not understand the logic of the suburbs. I kept asking questions: How were Huntington Beach and these other spots 'cities' onto themselves when each 'city' spilled onto the next one? Where did people go since there was no one walking on the streets? Where did the endless cul-de-sacs lead?

"On the other hand, this was the tail end of beach culture in Southern California and at the apogee of '70s rock like Fleetwood Mac, The Eagles, Led Zep, the Doobies, representing the glorious fade out of '60s counter culture into 'me generation' coke-addled dreams. Huntington Beach and the adjacent beach cities seemed to me like an endless sense of blissed out freedom.

"I arrived in my last year of junior high and by the time I made it to high school I was still going through some pretty difficult language struggles. I felt apart, completely different from most high school cliques. I lacked the basic tools to fully fit-in. Adding to this overall adolescent confusion was the fact that I was basically so physically different from the white suburban norm.

"Surprisingly, the nascent punk, skate and surf scenes in Huntington Beach became hugely important to me. I think I recognized an affinity to the individuality and expressive qualities of these youth movement that existed in the fringes and recognized they were very similar to how I felt - a complete outsider grasping for ways to develop my own identity.

"This became something that pointed the way to alternative histories, consciousness and ways of being. Not only the visual aspects were appealing and the fact that kids were dressing in ways that were a complete and literal 'f--- you' to the suburban norms, but also the intense anger, energy, and volatility of punk was something that felt personal - a rising of all my own pent-up anger and futility about what happened in Chile. The very act of claiming your own identity felt political and urgent to me.

"Something in the sharp and feral directness in which bands like Black Flag, Adolescents, Germs, X, Dead Kennedys and the British punk bands expressed themselves tapped into something primal and basic. And even though this mainly revolved around a core disaffection of mostly white suburban kids, it felt like a natural place for me to fit in, to find action within the margins and the cracks that had some semblance of meaning besides the bland exterior in which I had landed.

"This was way before any of these youth movements had been co-opted and absorbed by mainstream media. At the time it felt as if what we were doing was truly taking a stand and counterintuitive to whatever society deemed correct and normal. Even though I went to develop much broader interests around music I look back on this moment as a true launching pad into pathways of culture and art that I've been involved in ever since.

"Alongside this interest in music and counterculture, was my own developing involvement in visual arts. I had been drawing and painting since I was very young influenced by my great grandfather who had been a renowned painter in Santiago, Chile. The arts offered another space in which I could thrive and succeed outside of the academic struggles that I was facing in other areas.

"I first started coming to L.A. to go to clubs both to see bands and find obscure dance clubs. These trips meant getting lost in the streets of Silver Lake, Chinatown and Hollywood looking for holes in the wall and driving back around 3:00am, trying to stay awake and get to school the next morning.

"Between my junior and senior years of high school, I attended an OTIS summer arts academy. This was while OTIS was still across MacArthur Park and the surrounding area was still teeming with drug dealers, panhandlers and other sordid distractions that at that age made these trips into a very rich and fun urban adventure. This felt like an initiation into a harsh urban reality, worlds away from the sheltered cul de sacs of Orange County.

"This probably cemented the idea that I would go to art school in L.A. Even as I'd always dreamed of living in other cities or perhaps ending up back in South America, L.A. seemed to seep into my blood and I could never let it go.

"I did indeed go to OTIS and eventually to USC to get my Masters in Fine Arts. Today, I'm the Director of School Programs at the Music Center, an artist continuing to pursue my craft -- and the founder of Big City Forum.

"Big City Forum in way is my own attempt at bringing together many divergent strands and creating a strong connective tissue in my life. In the very act of creating a space for conversation and bringing together creative professionals from various disciplines discussing how creative visions can have a social impact, I've started to weave together ways to connect the dots about what is happening in our city. I also hope to undo some of the silos that we all exist in and hope to surface some of the inherent connections that tie us together in a common interest around our engagement in daily life.

"In a way, BCF ties directly to how I grew up in Chile where I saw dialogue as a type of vibrant social action that seeped into every part of society, and engaged and connected people in stronger ways.

"It's funny to look back and pull all these threads together. Like many immigrants in exile not able to return to a place of origin, I felt that my life was made up of too many transitions and disruptions and that I never had a basic sense of belonging. I had that basic melancholia of longing for a place and time that is no longer truly there. Time has moved on.

"Yet, looking back, I see there's been far more coherence in the journey than I previously understood -- I've managed to pull some pieces all the way through from Valdivia to Eagle Rock.

"Where for so long I felt caught in the in-between of place, identity, culture, etc. I now understand that my ability to inhabit those spaces in the gray zone has given a far richer and more complex journey. The key to me now is to pass on this rich quilt to my daughter and for her to draw on these threads of resilience and reinvention, and of possibility and joy."

-- Leonardo Bravo
(as emailed to Jeremy Rosenberg)

**Jeremy Rosenberg and Leonardo Bravo co-curate the X Ten Biennial; the pair served together on the board of directors of Outpost For Contemporary Art.

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