Stephen Gutierrez writes about the facts of freeways and being a troubled kid, the studious type derailed by sickness in the family. In his latest book, "The Mexican in His Backyard," the people and places of southeast Los Angeles -- his eternal backyard -- come through with heat and lyric: the bare truth of the everyday.
A professor at Cal State East Bay, with an MFA from Cornell and a trilogy of books, Gutierrez was born, raised, and educated in southeast Los Angeles. His collections are replete with short stories and essays that frequently feature portraits of life in Commerce, Bell Gardens, Montebello, and East L.A.
In his first book, "Elements," Gutierrez writes that City of Commerce was:
In close proximity to East Los Angeles which we were warned to stay away from, suburbs which teased us with their influence, factories and warehouses all around us which hired us [...] We were a working-class town.
If you have ever driven through Commerce on Interstate 5 (I-5), the main interstate highway on the West Coast of the United States, you need to know Stephen Gutierrez's books. If you're lucky, you will meet him in person and split some guava churros from the Lucero Bakery in Bell Gardens.
He wrote this about himself in "Elements": "Grew up in the City of Commerce, six miles outside of Los Angeles, the spires of downtown visible on smogless days. We never saw them." But Gutierrez could see the stories of his home, his block, that metropolis that surrounds Los Angeles.
He was "Born on the same day as Charles Bukowski [...] only 39 years later," and the same grit and blemished truths can be found in his stories as you might find in Bukowski's work. That's because Gutierrez has spent the majority of his creative life right next door to the Santa Fe Railroad train yard and the Citadel along the 5 Freeway.
The Biggest Bow on Earth
The day I met Stephen in person, it was in the "fancy" section of Commerce: Rosewood Park. For some of us who grew up in southeast L.A., Commerce was known for being a "rich" area, meaning they had more money than we did; not exactly rich, but rich to us. Stephen is a character from his books, with buen humor and easy going, quick to smile and smirk; he shook my hand hard and we started the day.
"The thing about Commerce is that the city has resources," he added. "But the people? Not necessarily." The Rosewood area had been dubbed by its first inhabitants, mostly working class whites and Mexican-Americans, "The Beverly Hills of Commerce." Some things had changed since he'd last been around. The Citadel used to be the Samson/Uniroyal Tire Factory, and it still bears the Assyrian castle facade seen from the Five Freeway. Across the river of traffic sit the quaint houses in Rosewood.
The morning I met Gutierrez for a drive around Commerce, the Citadel was dressed up for the holidays -- multiple giant televisions advertised designer goods; its roof tops adorned with over-sized trimmings.
"That's the biggest bow on earth!" Gutierrez wasn't ready for so much consumer festivity. He was also not ready for the new pool at Rosewood Park.
The Brenda Villa Aquatic Center is gorgeous and modern -- glass, concrete, and skylights. The old pool we swam in has been demolished. The city has had a free bus and a free summer camp for its residents for several decades. For Southeast cities like ours where many landowners have addresses in Redondo Beach, tax dollars rarely reach public infrastructure and resources, so a free bus and summer camp seemed like a dream for us. For people like Brenda Villa, the gold (and multiple) medal-winning water polo player from Commerce, an Olympic-sized pool and summer camps can be and were life-changing.
Did graduate school change Gutierrez's life? Definitely. And so did his first book. "Elements" won the Charles H. and N. Mildred Nilon Excellence in Minority Fiction Award. He was at Cornell, however, long before Helena Maria Viramontes began teaching there, her long line of work and voices from places like where we grew up coming with her into the classroom of the Ivy Leagues. One can only imagine the contents of this essay, "Bombing Out...Memories from an M.F.A. Program." Gutierrez likely sat in workshops where people recommended that his characters speak less Spanish, unable to identify the Caló they thought was, at best, "Spanglish." But the writer stayed focused on capturing the voices he heard growing up in southeast L.A: the boys from Commerce with dark, neat hair and glasses, or the ones who shot hoops under the Long Beach Freeway at Bandini Park.
La Gloria meets La Helen en la marqueta
"Helen, how you doing?" says an old friend to la Helen. They bump into each other at a supermarket after many years of separation in "La Gloria Meets La Helen en la Marqueta" in "Live From Fresno y Los."
About to reconnect with an old friend as la Helen does, I was with Gutierrez at Sergio's Tacos on Atlantic Boulevard and Harbor Street. We stood patiently in the big ole line hungry for what people were carrying out in white paper bags.
Inside, the air was spicy-smokey. The taqueros chopped up buche meat with fierce strokes. The grill constantly served up tortillas warmed, as they should be, over the meat drippings. Dark red chile was perfectly smoked and proved hotter than expected.
Standing at the counter, I noticed two people in front of me. A woman who looked familiar was ordering tacos for her and her man. It had been twenty years since I'd seen her on the bench at a softball game at Rosewood Park, but Tiny was a girl then, in high school. Though older, she was relatively unchanged and still lived up to her name. Then we made eye contact and beheld a taco miracle!
"How you been?" and "I know that house!" were exchanged a few times, as I introduced Tiny and her husband to Stephen. "He writes a lot about Commerce!" I said. I showed them his books as proof. Stephen, Tiny, and her husband drew a verbal map of their homes' locations and smiled with recognition.
We wiped our mouths of cilantro and said goodbye to Tiny and her man, who, it turns out, knows Stephen's cousin. Everybody knows each other in Commerce -- a small town of 13,000.
Once they were gone, in between bites of carne asada tacos, I asked Stephen about his depiction of Bell Gardens in "Live From Fresno y Los":
"...a dilapidated town on the edge of L.A., all Okie then, with a smattering of Mexicans [...]. It was a lot of fun to go to school there [...] with the other Commerce kids [...]. On the bus, we hooted and hollered, protested our sentence to such a backward, hayseed place."
I wanted to know why my town had such a rough and tumble reputation since my experience of it was as a bookworm -- I couldn't throw those deadly punches, trancazos, to save my life.
"My brother-in-law was at a party in Bell Gardens in his senior year, and some underlying tensions finally broke out into a fight along racial lines. But that may have just been the caged uncertainty of adolescence breaking out. I know warmth existed, too. "
I suppose fist fights happen everywhere, but especially in places that struggle economically or otherwise; Bell Gardens has always been a place of struggle. At the time Gutierrez was riding the bus to middle school, Bell Gardens was changing from mostly Anglo and poor, to mostly Mexican and working class. Demographic changes of that magnitude can get people together to party and, occasionally, also to fight.
Gutierrez and I rode in his wife's hybrid to two of the four major parks of Commerce: Bandini Park and Rosewood Park; Bristow Park and Veteran's Park are the other two. We visited both his old houses. The first began as a one bedroom "cottage" and was tucked along the Long Beach freeway, that crowded 710, right before the Washington Avenue exit. Down the street at Bandini Park, you can see the tall trucks pass as they do every day on the busy freeway -- the most dangerous freeway in the state with multiple crashes with big rigs every week.
Driving past Bandini Elementary, Gutierrez called out the names of his kindergarten and first grade teachers. His first neighborhood boasted a Filipino family, and welcomed an Anglo lady from the Midwest shunned by her family for marrying a Mexican-American. There were many Mexican-American families who had just enough to buy a home, or some rented and lived next to owners, dreaming it might be them one day.
Modest homes, well-kept and maintained
In the Rosewood Park neighborhood on Senta Street, stood Gutierrez' teenage house.
In "Elements," Gutierrez described people's homes in Commerce as "Modest homes, well-kept and maintained, graced the square neighborhoods partitioning our city into four sections. One section was the barrio and not mine."
He got out of the car and looked at it more closely. Stucco façade painted a safe beige.
"There it is. Man, it was sad in there." His last family home had changed a little, but not too much, the lawn still neat and trim. To get there, we'd passed Rosewood Elementary and Saint Marcellinus Church where he'd done his First Holy Communion and confirmation.
The streets were quiet that Saturday morning, just a few people working on their cars or tending to yards. A soap factory churned out smoke at the end of Senta. On Washington Avenue was Stephen's favorite corner market, a changed place. The older Asian clerk sat at the register, friendly but protected by tall bullet proof glass topped with barbed wire.
"Now that's too much; no one wants cigarettes that badly," I said and pointed at the wire. "Stand here and look at the candy," I told Stephen. I took a photo of him to capture how silly the wire looked next to us and the bright red and green wrappers. When he was a kid, the market had fresh produce and a butcher shop; now it is just a convenience store.
Gutierrez's family ties to the southeast and the surrounding region reach far back. His uncle, University of California at Irvine Professor Alejandro Morales, wrote "The Brick People" based on his parents' experiences living in Simons, a tiny factory town tucked inside Montebello. It was part of Simons Brick Yard Number Three at the turn of the twentieth century. The town was owned by the Simons Family and was full of Mexican-American and immigrant worker families who literally built Los Angeles. Gutierrez and I drove into that neighborhood, which was right around the corner from Vail High School, a continuation school.
We wound back on to the street past the school. "Vail Jail they called it," said Gutierrez, laughingly. "The guys who went there had a sense of humor."
The school is literally surrounded by warehouses -- eighteen wheelers detached from their loads and standing upright in rows with UPS logos and paint jobs.
"The school faces their futures," I said. "That might have been a put down back in the day, but so many people would kill for a job like that."
"Those stable jobs are mostly gone, huh?" Stephen said.
We know the worth of a good job, and so did our parents.
His father worked at the Sante Fe Railroad Hobart Yard for many years before succumbing to early-onset Alzheimer's disease. His mother worked as a teacher's aide at Rosewood Elementary and in the main library.
The Mexican Man in His Backyard
"The Mexican Man in His Backyard" is the title of his new book. Fittingly, we had to explore his larger "backyard" of southeast L.A., and hit one last important neighborhood to Gutierrez and his writing: my own Bell Gardens for the famous Lucero Bakery to get fresh churros and to reminisce. At the corner of Jaboneria Street and Gage Avenue, we parked just in sight of the Bell Gardens High School auditorium. A lancer re-painted years back is tall and proud as ever.
"Every once in a while, newspapers write a profile of the high school and all they have to say is how poor we are," I said. "This school has the highest number of advanced placement classes in the school district, what about that?"
"They don't see the good stuff like we do," he said. "I didn't come to school here. But my brother and sister did, so I have good memories of the football games out here."
Once we got our pastries, we sat at a metal patio table outside Lucero.
"These are the best!" he exclaimed.
"Told you," I said.
We each bought a bouquet of churros for our families and friends to share the sweetness of our homegrown food.
Four years ago, I emailed Gutierrez to thank him for writing about our neighborhoods, especially the short story, "Freddy Fender in Commerce." I'd never seen an entire book dedicated to people from the southeast. Through his writing, Gutierrez introduced our neighborhoods to those who don't know we exist. He has constructed a heartfelt literature honoring the difficulties of not being good enough for some and too different for others, unclassifiable -- many of us know this feeling all too well, if we're from Los Angeles or not. His work sets a high bar of storytelling, and any stories I now write will re-shape and cultivate this legacy, not about what other people think if they think of us at all, but instead, what we have to say about ourselves.