When I tell people where I grew up, their eyes glaze over: Where's Bell Gardens? My answer is that it's south of East L.A. where we don't have any murals or mariachis. But it's the place whose stories inspire me and writers like Steve Gutierrez and Hector Tobar to write them down, documenting the wealth of creativity and perseverance that you learn growing up here.
When you exit the 710 freeway on Florence Avenue, within minutes you reach: Bell, Bell Gardens, Cudahy, Huntington Park, Maywood, and South Gate. If you drive east, you'll reach Downey, where The Carpenters wrote ballads and where I demolished birthday piñatas at Furman Park.
In these neighborhoods, you'll see elementary schools full of bright children whose clothes smell of fabric softener, and high schools with limited advanced placement classes, but whose students are determined to help their families succeed and survive nonetheless. The majority of the population here is under the age of 25 and the density rivals that of Manhattan.
This land used to be floodplains, farmlands split into long, narrow plots by depression-era developers. Tiny houses were sold and rented to Oakies, the Cherokee, and the Cree, forced from their homes by dust bowls and Manifest Destiny. By the 1980s, most of the working poor white people and Native Americans moved, going the way of the closed tire manufacturers. Latinos moved here for work and some brought their small businesses to grow along with their families. The land still welcomes workers, people with hustle.
But one thing not as easily seen is that our cities brim with artists.
The 710 brought me home again last Friday.
The tall jacarandas bloomed on Loveland Street near Eastern. The sweet bungalows I wanted to live in as a child were still holding up: one-bedroom houses with white clapboard siding, others covered with beige or yellow stucco. All of them have gardens.
My boyfriend and I picked up my brother and mother to go to the Alivio Open Mic in Bell. This is the first open mic I'm aware of that's ever happened in this part of L.A. I was excited to meet other writers from the area and to see Luis Rodriguez read poems and discuss his bid for governor.
After several small earthquakes and Luis Rodriguez took turns electrifying the night, we walked between the 150 plus young people to find seats at the entrance to the garage.
Bundled up in a vanilla-colored sweater, my retired mother sat next to me. A young woman finished reading a poem in Spanish about compassion and colonizers.
Mom leaned over and said, "I used to memorize the poems I wrote. I even set them to music!"
"No way!" I said.
Mom shrugs her shoulders like it's no thing. It's a talent so obvious to her that I just have to catch up.
I had no idea Mom was a poet. Some might think urban farming is new, but Mom's been growing her own food for decades. She also sews clothes for her family and makes installations for the Virgen de Guadalupe, but a poet?
Who we are definitely begins at home.
Dairies and Quinceañera Cakes
Marisa Urrutia Gedney grew up in Huntington Park and Downey. She is a poet, teacher, and program director at the creative writing center 826LA. When she was a child, she could trace driving on "Telegraph Avenue, from Downey to Commerce, leaving one grandma to visit the other. Both places with drive-thru or walk-up dairies that aren't there anymore." During the summers, she'd drive with her family on "Florence from Downey to Huntington Park, arriving at San Antonio Elementary, [...] feeling pride that this is where [her] dad and sister teach."
Marisa is part of a network of non-profits and artists like the Downey Arts Coalition and Stay Gallery that are making Downey a growing arts center. Her work at 826LA reaches thousands of students, where she passes on her gift of writing. But places likes 826LA don't exist in Southeast L.A. This makes the arts in our public schools that much more necessary.
Cynthia Herrera is a photographer and teacher at Bell High School. It was in her South Gate home that Cynthia learned composition. She tells me that, "Art existed in the daily practice of our lives." Her house had many corners where "the statues, glasses of water, and flower arrangements [her] mother created" gave her a sense of how to create beauty in space for worship.
Her family ran a bakery in Huntington Park where she spent Saturdays "painting whip cream flowers for quinceañera cakes in bright pinks, purples, greens, and blues." This was her introduction to color.
She sees herself as an artist engaged in collaboration with community. Cynthia says that her "photographic work can bring to light the experience of [...] community members that otherwise would not have had the opportunity to do so." Her students are lucky to have her. Many of us in the region learned how to be artists from our school teachers.
Teachers as Allies
Sylvia Blush (nee Cervantes, as I knew her), had her first experiences as an actor, dancer, and teacher in Bell Gardens. She clearly sees how her approach to work as a theater artist is influenced by teachers at Suva Intermediate and Bell Gardens High School. Among them, she names, Ms. Galyan, Mr. Axworthy, Ms. Duffy, and Mrs. Heacock because they taught her how to be "resourceful with little to no budgets when producing a [show], be it a play, music concert or dance recital." They nurtured her "creative spirit, curiosity and held [her] accountable" when she wasn't performing to her full potential. She must take these lessons into the classes she teaches and into productions she directs, like Luis Alfaro's "Electricidad."
I attended the same schools as Sylvia and had friends equally influenced and loved by these teachers. We had allies in our teachers. They showed us how to make art with what we had.
Pulling It Off
For Sylvia, "Theater is a medium through which Latina/os are increasingly getting opportunities to see themselves on the stage and hear stories relevant to their culture unlike the film and television industry." Just think of the amazing feat accomplished by the recent show "Chicanas, Cholas, y Chisme' at Casa 0101 in Boyle Heights. It sold out every show last month showing there's an audience and interest in work by and about Latinos. If Univision and the beer companies figured it out, the arts are way behind them. But those of us from here, we are not behind. We continue.
"There is a 'we're in this together' and 'I succeed when you succeed' mentality [in theater]," as Sylvia sees it. Working together is the only way to pull off art in places like Southeast L.A. where performance space is so scarce that we're running poetry readings and performances out of our garages.
Eric Contreras and his family use their garage in Bell for an open mic, called Alivio. As Eric sees it, "Southeast L.A. lacks [cultural and artistic] spaces where the community can come together to enjoy each other's stories and craft." He sees himself as activist because he "grew up seeing the amazing potential the people in [his] neighborhoods, but [...] the lack of resources kept them from achieving their potential."
Eric works with an artists' collective and his family to put on Alivio because he knows our "community does not have to [export] its talent, love, and stories to other cities; they get to stay home and share their art with their neighbors." Like Eric says, "We need to be pioneers of artistic revolution for our cities."
The earthquakes that happened during the open mic made folks jittery, so Eric might not remember this, but he thanked a creative writing teacher for helping him find his voice. It makes sense, right? Of course his creative writing started with a teacher, of course he opened up his home to create an open mic. It was the same for Sylvia, Cynthia, Marisa, and I. Our teachers lit ideas and possibility that will never go out.
My family and I left Alivio at eleven. We took Gage Avenue home, a street dotted by the aesthetics of my neighbors: Aztec auto dealers and dessert places named La Dulce Espera.
I shouldn't be surprised Mom was a poet. In Mexico, and many other countries, reciting and appreciating poetry is part of the curriculum.
But, like most of what cannot be seen from freeways, if you don't know it's there, you'll miss it. If you forget that Southeast L.A. is rich with artists, you'll miss the garage full of poets in Bell.
Really look. Really see what's growing here. Otherwise you'll end up like me with my mom's infinite talents.
You'll just have to catch up.
To learn more about the artists featured in this article, visit these links:
Sylvia Blush directing Electricidad by Luis Alfaro
Eric Cardenas featured in "A 'Garage Salon' in Bell," a recent article in the Los Angeles Times.
Marisa Urrutia Gedney's video profile in, "Today's Revolutionary Women of Color Project," by Claudia Hernandez
Cynthia Herrera discusses a public art project with Tio's Tacos via Riverside Art Make, a project of the Riverside Art Museum.