When I first entered the spoken word and writing community in the mid-1990s, one of the biggest names in the Southern California scene was Michele Serros. The Oxnard-born Serros was a groundbreaking Chicana poet, essayist, novelist, and comedic writer. Serros passed on January 5, 2015 at the age of 48 after a long battle with cancer. This week L.A. Letters remembers her legacy and shares memories of Serros and her work from a longtime friend and many of her admirers.
A number of poets gathered in Los Angeles in El Sereno at the Here & Now space to celebrate Serros on Sunday, January 11 in an event organized by Catherine Uribe-Abee, Steve Abee, and Iris DeAnda. Steve Abee called her the "California punk rock surfer girl genius speaking the truth for us all."
There was also a large event in Berkeley a few days before that. Over the last week, the social media feed in both the Southern and Northern California writing communities was filled with testimonials about the power of her work as well as her compassionate personality. Before sharing some of these tributes, it's important to highlight her many literary accomplishments.
Serros began writing in her teen years and had her first book published while still attending Santa Monica College, before she transferred to UCLA. The book, "Chicana Falsa and other stories of Death, Identity and Oxnard," was originally published by the small publisher, Lalo Press in 1994. Around this time Serros began performing her work all over Southern California and quickly made a name for herself with her potent work and charismatic reading style. She made such an impression that Rage Against the Machine featured the book's cover in one of their album's liner notes.
Following the buzz around her writing and her book, Serros was chosen as one of the 12 poets to be featured in Lollapalooza in stages across the country. One of the voices who traveled with her for the Las Vegas leg of the Lollapalooza tour was the prominent Leimert Park novelist and poet, Pam Ward. Last week Ward told me, "Michelle would skateboard around the parking lot of the arena. Michele was big time and I remember her making the sea of people, which was thousands, at this first time event laugh. It was amazing!"
Serros was so compelling on the Lollapalooza tour that Billy Corgan from Smashing Pumpkins accompanied her on bass guitar a number of times for the piece, "Mr. Boom Boom Man." When she finished touring Lollapalooza, Mouth Almighty Records asked Serros to record her work and in 1996, they released a spoken word recording of "Chicana Falsa."
The success of "Chicana Falsa," as both an independent book and spoken word album, led Riverhead Books, a much bigger publisher, to pick it up and republish it for a national audience in 1998. Riverhead is a subsidiary of Penguin/Putnam and this new development brought even more attention to Serros's work across America. Newsweek Magazine called her "A Woman to Watch in the New Century."
The accolades continued in the year 2000 when she published a book of short stories, "How to Be a Chicana Role Model," which became a Los Angeles Times Bestseller. Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers lauded the book in an interview around this time, praising her mix of humor and poignancy. Serros moved to New York City in 2001 and began to tour even more at book fairs and schools across the country.
In 2002, Serros was hired by George Lopez and ABC to write for his television sitcom, even though she had never written a screenplay or done any writing for television previously. As the year went on, Serros continued to tour as a motivational speaker at universities, organizations, and museums across America. In addition to speaking at a Stanford University Commencement in 2002, she began to record pieces for National Public Radio and other news outlets. During the same year, she also read her work at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, sharing the stage with luminaries like Studs Terkel, George Plimpton, and Arthur Miller. In 2006 and 2007, Serros wrote two young adult novels, "Honey Blonde Chica," and "!Scandalosa!," which were published by the SimonPulse branch of Simon and Schuster.
Beyond her extensive writing credits, Michele Serros is remembered for inspiring thousands of young writers and by her colleagues for her brilliant sense of humor. As noted above, Pam Ward shared the stage with Serros at Lollapalooza, and she told me several anecdotes about their close friendship and several years of collaborating. "Michele and I met at the Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Foundation. We were in a woman's poetry workshop run by Michelle T. Clinton, who was a powerful force in the literary community during the 80s-90s," Ward says. "With Nancy Agabian, Maria Cabildo, and Michele Serros, we formed a poetry troupe called 'Guava Breasts' which performed all over L.A. Maria was the founder of the group. Nancy Agabian would do things like crochet a penis on stage. It was like performance meets poetry. We had so much fun. We were kind of like S.A. Griffin's Carma Bums with Nancy Sinatra clothes."
Ward has many fond memories of their dozens of readings together. She says, "We would throw tampons out at the audience with poetry lines written on them, and would always feature a cool girl writer to read with us. I was on Michele's CD 'Chicana Falsa.' She was a great writer who bravely articulated her own voice and stuck to her guns in the true vein of authenticity. What was unique about Michele and all of us was the way we would incorporate vivid humor to illustrate hard topics. You could not come to a 'Guava Breast' show and not laugh. That was Michele's true gift. She was an honest, brilliant poet who could tell a funny story about the food section in a store and really make a political statement." This piece Ward mentions, "Attention Shoppers," is one of Serros's best known works.
Ward also remembers Serros for her unique fashion sense. "She loved to dress in go-go boots and rock short shirts and with a voice that sounded like Rocky in 'Rocky and Bullwinkle.' She was one in a million," Ward says. "She was all of these contradictions, a Mexican chick who surfed, and a bookworm who donned go-go boots and also loved Judy Bloom." Ward also remembers that Michelle created a T-shirt line called "Medium Brown Girl" based on the Bloomingdales Medium Brown bag. "She sold a ton of those to women of medium brown everywhere. My daughters wore theirs proudly."
The award-winning Chicana poet and educator Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo told me about the huge influence Serros had on her work. "I think I was in my mid-20s probably living at my parents' when I found the Michele Serros book, 'How to Be a Chicana Role Model,' among my mom's Chicana Studies textbooks and started reading it," Bermejo writes. "I remember feeling like it was a guidebook written just for me ... I remember a scene in 'How to be a Chicana Role Model' where copies of Michele's poetry collection doubled as a coffee table. That was first time I saw someone like me doing what I wanted to do." Bermejo adds, "Farewell, Michele. Thank you for being a Chicana role model that showed me I could be a writer if I wanted."
Another Chicano on whom Serros had a major influence is the bookstore owner and interdisciplinary scholar, Frank Sosa. Sosa owned Thirty Three and a Third Books in Echo Park from 2000 to 2006, where he proudly sold her books and the spoken word album. He recently told me, "I came across 'Chicana Falsa' in 1995 or 1996. I was just becoming politicized at the time, and to be honest I wasn't well-read either. I was 23 years old. The book was critical for this mono-lingual (a problem Serros brilliantly tackles in "Mi Problema") Chicano from the surf town of Santa Cruz who was trying to make his way in the big city. Here was a voice that spoke of my conundrum of never truly belonging to one community, yet it staked a claim with a powerful, seductive humor. Who could better reach me with titles like 'Mr. Boom Boom Man,' 'La Letty,' 'Annie Says,' and of course, 'Attention Shoppers?' If you haven't heard the Spoken Word CD version of this, the reading is piss in your pants hilarious and if you ever made it to my apartment around that time I might have forced you to listen to it. Michelle Serros left us too soon but her legacy will live on."
Another quality Serros was known for was her generous spirit. She moved to Berkeley, California about a half decade ago and married the noted chef, Antonio Magana. Magana owns and operates Flacos Tacos, a famous Mexican Vegan eatery in Berkeley. Frank Sosa also now lives in Berkeley, and he told me that his daughter goes to a dual immersion preschool in Berkeley called Centro Vida and that Flacos always supports the schools fundraising efforts. "They donated enough masa last year to make over 5000 tamales for our annual fundraiser," he says.
Over the last week there were many other similar stories shared on Facebook and Twitter about the veracity of Serros's work and her generous spirit. You can share your stories about Serros here. There will be a public church service for Michele Serros on January 24, 2015 at Santa Clara Church in Oxnard, California. The rosary will be recited at 9:30am.
A final word about her legacy comes from Pam Ward, "I mean this chick published young and went on to read at the Lincoln Center with Arthur Miller! She was way ahead of her time and I will never forget her." Salute to Michele Serros for brilliant literary work and powerful spirit. She will always be a queen of California and L.A. Letters.