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A Punk Approach to Running in El Monte

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Photo: Anthony Solorzano

I'm running late, and I'm lost in El Monte. Traffic is bumper-to-bumper at four o'clock on Valley Boulevard, and my phone has led me onto side streets packed with kids just out of school, all of whom seem to be crossing every street at once. I squint into the sun and lurch from corner to corner, hopelessly confused by the maze of tightly packed houses and shadeless palm trees. Ten minutes behind schedule, the urban fabric finally opens to reveal Arroyo High School, where Anthony Solorzano bounces back and forth on the balls of his feet, awaiting my arrival. He extends a hand and a smile as I climb out of my sweaty rental car. "I'm going to take you on a classic Arroyo Cross Country run," he tells me, and within minutes, we're striding through another world in the same city.

Like the streets I've just left, this landscape is completely new to me, but there is something delightfully familiar about the experience. We've entered the world of high school distance running, a world that Solorzano and I shared (albeit a decade and 3,000 miles apart) and which he chronicles in his upcoming film, "Varsity Punks." We duck through a gate behind the baseball backstop as Solorzano tells me about his youth in El Monte, his years as a collegiate athlete and film major at USC, and the upstart movie he is making with the help of the runners we've seen on the trail.

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We make our way up a bike path into Peck Park in northwestern El Monte. The slight change in elevation reveals a stunning vista: the San Gabriel Mountains rise above the rooftops, reflected in a reservoir that feeds the Rio Hondo. Solorzano tells me how this park is a "place of tranquility" for students and local residents, and how the trails that radiate from it are the font from which Arroyo runners draw their strength. Then we're off again, running along a dirt path that follows the concretized Santa Anita Wash. Groups of high schoolers flow past in the opposite direction, laughing, shoving, and talking. They all recognize Solorzano, and several holler "Hey Anthony!" or "Varsity Punks!" as we pass.

We run out for two miles and back for two more. In a nod to Arroyo tradition, we sprint up the final hill and back to the view atop the reservoir, where we exchange handshakes and high-fives with the current team before heading back into the quotidian world of houses and cars.

Photo: Anthony Solorzano
Photo: Anthony Solorzano

Varsity Punks

Solorzano and his "Varsity Punks" film crew are chronicling El Monte with a trio of strategic commitments drawn from the everyday lives of its people. The first is their relentless DIY approach, which might more accurately be described as "DIT" or Do-It Together. As Solorzano explains on the "Varsity Punks" website, "Making a movie is a big project ... and the only way it's going to happen for me -- an indie filmmaker -- is if I have the support of all the people around me. Not just friends and family, but the community." The second is their detailed attention to place, exploring the ways that the landscapes of the San Gabriel Valley, from Garvey Avenue to the Santa Anita Creek, are made and re-made through the practices and performances of local people. Finally, as scholar Wendy Cheng writes in the essay "East of East: Global Cosmopolitans of Suburban L.A,." the "defiant local edge" of these projects is not parochial, but "articulat[es] cosmopolitan hope upward from below." As Cheng observes, the "global cosmopolitans" such as Varsity Punks celebrate the "ordinary virtues" of El Monte, revealing "a place grounded in its true range of subjectivities, experiences, and imaginative possibilities" and "not constrained by externally imposed stereotypes and power hierarchies."

What does it mean to articulate a DIY/DIT, place-based, cosmopolitan ethos? For starters, it means that movies get made in "unexpected" places. It also means that "Varsity Punks" is not a "sappy" sports movie. It means seeing working-class high school distance runners not as victims or villains -- the stock minority athletes of Hollywood -- but as the makers of their own free-flowing urban landscape in the multi-racial world of the San Gabriel Valley. And it means reading that landscape, with the aid of a guide like Solorzano, as a text that can inform academic and public perceptions of the past, present, and future in El Monte.

Do-It-Together

Growing up in El Monte, Anthony Solorzano loved playing sports, but like many local kids he knew that joining organized leagues and acquiring the necessary equipment strained his family's budget. Thus, when he got to high school, he gravitated to the most do-it-yourself sport he could find: cross-country. Solorzano's first team was "punky, juvenile, and independent" -- a welcoming home for a freshman just learning to navigate the slings and arrows of high school.

Arroyo High School sits in the northwest corner of El Monte's Unified District, which means it draws the most racially and socio-economically diverse student body in the city. Like the rest of the district, Arroyo is predominantly Latino, but the school has sizable percentages of Asian and Caucasian students. North El Monte's relatively high property values ensure that the "inequalities of the L.A. region," as Solorzano describes it, make their way into the halls, where they help to shape the "modern subcultures and social hierarchies" of the high school.

Solorzano's high school team reflected some of the racial and class dynamics of the school, but on its own terms. The fact that the sport attracted many working-class kids seeking an inexpensive outlet for their talents, combined with the unique ways that cross-country fosters youth-organized camaraderie, ensured that the team's overall attitude was very much "do-it-together." Solorzano has coined a term for the collective persona he and his teammates shared: "varsity punks." A "varsity punk," Solorzano explains, "is a term that I have for an athlete who can't really connect with jocks, who is just more of a punk kid."

On the trail, Anthony and I reminisce about how the DIY flavor of high school cross-country is apparent from the first day of practice, when students of all shapes and sizes show up in every kind of gear imaginable. Some wear the blindingly white running shoes their parents just bought them, others wear hand-me-down sneakers, and at least one kid shows up in Chuck Taylors. T-shirts pledge allegiance to local sports teams, punk bands, and sci-fi heroes. The chaotic aesthetic of the scene resembles punk flyers. And the minute one of these ragtag bands is off and running, they enter a whole new world. This is the moment at which DIY becomes DIT, beyond the reach of coaches or any other adult supervision. If a cross-country team is to be any kind of team at all -- and every distance runner will tell you that your teammates make you immeasurably faster and stronger in this "individual" sport -- they have to start building an accountability to one another on these runs through shared explorations and conversations. These are the commitments -- not the screaming coaches or cheering fans or adoring popularity -- that will keep them hanging onto tough runs, training hard over the summers, and sprinting for the line at the end of every race.

'Varsity Punks' shoot with local residents and students. Photo: Anthony Solorzano
'Varsity Punks' shoot with local residents and students. Photo: Anthony Solorzano

Success in distance running isn't about flash or finesse, but dogged determination, and a good team of varsity punks supports and amplifies it. That determination sustained Solorzano through four years of high school racing and four more in college, and it earned him a spot in USC's film program (after three applications). It's what keeps him going now as he builds a DIT movie in El Monte. As he explains on the "Varsity Punks" site, "I want to be able to use the resources of the city and hopefully get their support, while at the same time giving back and offering positions and acting parts to people of the community because I think there's talent everywhere." But when he talks about making this dream into a reality, Solorzano still sounds like a varsity punk himself: "I gotta be gangsta about it. Meaning, I can't just follow all the rules and wait for things to be handed to me. I have to go out there and just do it, by any means necessary."

 

Pedestrian Poems

I have no doubt that Solorzano would give a fantastic tour of El Monte by foot. But if we did that, running would just be the vehicle; we could hop on bikes or into a car and the content wouldn't change, just the pace at which we saw it. What Anthony wanted to show me -- and what I, as a fellow runner, wanted to see -- were not the sights of "Friendly El Monte," but the landscape made by distance runners within El Monte.

What does it mean to make a landscape without a bulldozer? In a chapter of his classic work "The Practice of Everyday Life," titled "Walking in the City," French scholar Michel De Certeau observes that experiencing a city as a whole is possible only through abstraction or removal; to regard "El Monte" all at once is to see it on a map, or from a plane. At street level, the city is infinite, "made" anew each day by the people moving through it. De Certeau offers an analogy to make sense of this formulation: "the act of walking is to the urban system what the speech act is to language." Walking is like talking: it is the daily action that gives meaning to the system in which it happens. De Certeau calls these actions "pedestrian speech acts," and argues that they shape the city as much as any architect. Even as city-dwellers move through formal spaces unequally structured by capitalism and state power, they engage in "multiple and multiform resistance, tricky and stubborn procedures that elude discipline without being outside the field in which it is exercised." In an elegant ode to the the everyday -- what scholar Paul Gilroy and Wendy Cheng would call "ordinary virtues" -- De Certeau writes, "the long poem of walking manipulates spatial organizations, no matter how panoptic they may be."

High school runners are a peculiar breed of pedestrian, and they'd probably bristle at the term. Still, they make landscapes, even if their "long poems" might sound more like a Fat Wreck Chords compilation. As Solorzano showed me on our run, Arroyo's varsity punks used Peck Park as a proud base camp, but it was along the Santa Anita Wash that they made a world of their own. The path is a nice place to walk (though, if you were looking for a stroll, you'd probably go around the reservoir, or simply walk along the streets nearby), but it's an ideal place for running, with long stretches of soft trail only occasionally interrupted by the street grid. It runs all the way to the San Gabriel foothills -- a round trip of over 11 miles, a long run by high school standards. And it is home turf, all the way. At our turnaround in Arcadia, El Monte's northern, more affluent neighbor, Solorzano looked around and smiled. "This trail goes through Arcadia, which is a well-off area," Solorzano noted. "But this trail is owned by Arroyo. You don't see Arcadia training out here, and you don't see Monrovia training out here."

Arroyo High School runners take a break on the wash. Photo: Anthony Solorzanoo
Arroyo High School runners take a break on the wash. Photo: Anthony Solorzanoo

The making of a classic team run is, indeed, a multiform, tricky and stubborn procedure, as De Certeau would have it. There's the physical process, logging so many miles on a route that it becomes second nature, so that shifting gears up a hill or beginning a long push for home is not a conscious decision, but instinct and muscle memory. There is the sociability of it, the time spent with teammates and friends where the silly and serious conversations of high school happen, and where ridiculous traditions that emerge, like slapping an overhanging branch or striking a pose while waiting for traffic to pass. Memorable runs bring the social and physical together: the brutally hot or cold run survived with a few hardy companions; the perfect workout where the landscape flew by; the early-season easy run when plans were made for November glory. After awhile, it sticks, and even when you run such a route alone, you're running it with your team. For one, you're practically guaranteed to see a past or present teammate on the run, and each time one passes in the opposite direction, the nod keeps you going. If no one else is out, the layers of memory pull you through, even years after graduation. The process evokes the ideas of another Frenchman, Henri Lefebvre, the Marxist scholar of the everyday who argued that space is not a "void" or "container," but a "social product."

 

Home Turf

What can running in the city tell a historian about El Monte? A lot, as it turns out. Covering a few miles on the Santa Anita Wash with Anthony Solorzano is a ground-level crash course in the everyday practice of global cosmopolitanism. An interracial group of working class kids have built a world here that is simultaneously "home turf" and a place for exploration, offering new encounters both spatial and social. The landscape suggests new questions about the family and community histories that support the varsity punks, about how practices of doing-it-yourself and doing-it-together can sustain global migrations and local survival alike. There is a long tradition of creative use of the rivers, lakes, and streams in the San Gabriel Valley by residents, of which the miles logged by Arroyo High School athletes on these paths is the latest manifestation.

Solorzano explains that one of the challenges he faces with his movie is making the story not a narrow "El Monte" or cross country tale, but a universally appealing coming of age story about belonging and identity in high school. He wants to make a movie that centers around the lives of the students, and only by getting at their stories directly and not seeing them through the perspective of an adult coach, will he break down the hackneyed Hollywood stereotypes and give us something fresh. As Solorzano tells it, "it's about time we take the initiative to tell our own stories."

Seeing these students in action, making this landscape anew every day, is to see them not as stock characters but individuals, their lives radically incomplete and still to be determined. They make themselves as they make this landscape, over, against, around, and through the inequalities that surround but do not define them. "Their swarming mass is an innumerable collection of singularities," wrote De Certeau of the footsteps of his walkers, which could just as easily be the footsteps of Solorzano's varsity punks. "Their intertwined paths give their shape to spaces. They weave places together."

Nick Juravich visited El Monte and South El Monte to conduct dozens of interviews as part of SEMAP's "East of East" archive project and was funded by a public history research grant awarded by Columbia University's Public History Initiative.

 

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