Jaime Cortez: Post 5

On The Immigrant Narrative

Everyone confects the story of him or herself that best suits their needs.  The story we tell of ourselves may be driven by the need to look good, to be forgiven, to amuse, to envelop oneself in distracting fog or glittering bits, to bare ones jewels like a ruptured pomegranate.

My father has told me his immigrant story.  It is full of his particulars, but is also aligned closely with the master narrative of immigration to America.  This is a fundamentally triumphal narrative, especially for immigrants from poorer counties.  It is the story of go-getters choosing change and risk over the familiar.  It is the story of turning your back on poverty, war, famine, lack of opportunity and persecution and walking towards that better place.

Panel from On the Job, a graphic novel-in-progress by Jaime Cortez

This immigrant narrative, so full of hope for new beginnings, is true.  Generations of immigrants to the United States have left behind all of the ills mentioned above.   Many have come to live a standard of life that was unimaginable in their motherlands.  My grandmother, at 83, can scarcely imagine how her 17-year old all-American great-grandson lives or thinks.  He is a great kid, respectful and deferential, but he can scarcely understand the life she once lived.  He could plunge into the oceanic depths of google and still not emerge with a clear picture of the way great grandma learned to live, love, worship, and structure her life.

So this narrative of immigrant hope and ascent is true but incomplete.  If I want to tell the full story of immigration, I must also talk about being removed from the homelands, from the familiarity of extended family (including yes, the toxic kin).  I have to talk about my father as a snail, carrying on his back a great, coiled shell patched together from jagged fragments of the motherland.  I have to speak of yearning for and hating tender, merciless Mexico.  I have to speak of losing that fundamental adult confidence that you know how things work, that your tongue can wrap itself around the language of power.  That you can, without faltering and looking down at your shitty shoes, unleash a fluent river of language on your behalf.  That you live out your decades like an interloping guest afraid of being dis-invited and ejected from the big house.

That in the end, the story of the immigrant, is the story of the human, and that is always part tragedy.



Wellington Lee: Post 5

As 2012 slips away, it also signals the end of my much-anticipated participation in this Creative Work Fund writing project with seasoned authors Francisco Jimenez and Jaime Cortez, who is also a very talented visual artist. Their work inspires me, especially Francisco’s play of words in his books filled with captivating descriptions and scenes and Jaime’s wonderful facial expressions and dialogue of graphic novel characters. I truly appreciate their ideas, suggestions, and comments on my efforts to write about my life and times in Salinas Chinatown. For example, Francisco would encourage me to use more dialogue in my narratives or he would recommend that I not say “I can’t remember if there were one or two chairs….” Jaime would laugh at what I had written about my Grandfather in one of my drafts and exclaim that Grandfather was a real character or he would suggest that I include a map of all the familiar or favorite places of my youth in Chinatown, such as where I played, where I visited, where I lived, where I went to Chinese School.

Almost from day one of my return home to Salinas in 2008, I’ve had contact with the National Steinbeck Center, and my being a co-curator of its first-ever Salinas Chinatown Exhibition in 2010 cemented my wholehearted support of the Center. Then 2011 rolled around and the Center’s Lori Wood approached me about the possibility of getting a grant to write about Salinas Chinatown as I knew it. This would be the first time that the National Steinbeck Center, honoring the life and writings of John Steinbeck, would obtain a grant to support an individual such as myself to produce new literary works. I said “Yes” without hesitation. What a tremendous opportunity to further write about the actual Chinatown that John Steinbeck referred to throughout his novel, East of Eden.


So, what have I accomplished in this project?

First, I have been able to concentrate on writing down everything I could remember about my many experiences in Chinatown, along with memories I have about my parents and grandparents. I have been able to work out my initial struggles to make time for writing and time for community meetings and projects. I have ended up with 28 sections or chapters─so far─with such working titles as How He Got From There to Here, Grandmother’s Sparkling Hobby, What’s A Hop Hing Lung?, The Ghost, Peeling and Bunching Green Onions, Doo Ho Bock─A Singular Gentleman Bachelor, The Old House, Gas Tank, Shorty Lee─The Interview.

Second, I have been able to engage a few community members at a Story Gathering event and by means of a Memories of Chinatown survey that was mailed out. The purpose of these efforts was to share some memories of Salinas Chinatown where these individuals were either residents, business owners, property owners, employees, customers, visitors, or casual observers.

Third, I have been able to receive invaluable feedback from a reviewer who read some of my drafts. The reviewer offered a lot of questions, praises, and various remarks regarding consistency, balance, flow, clarification, repetition, and style. As I mentioned above, the responses and reactions from my co-participants in this project have also been very beneficial to me.

So, what’s next?

Although the project is ending, my writing has not. I will do a bit more rewriting of some of my current drafts. I will draft a few more new sections or chapters. I will decide on what kind of book I want to have and how I want to present my stories, along with old photographs, maps, and charts. Before 2013 is over, I will contact a publisher or two.

Thank you again to the National Steinbeck Center, Lori Wood and Elizabeth Welden-Smith of the National Steinbeck Center, Francisco Jimenez, Jaime Cortez, and everyone who has offered words of encouragement and support.

Sun Nien Fai Lok! Happy New Year!

Francisco Jimenez: Post 5

Our last writer’s meeting took place at the offices of the National Steinbeck Center on Thursday, November 20. Wellington Lee and Jaime Cortez and I shared with each other once again drafts of new material for review several days before our meeting. At our three-hour gathering, we were joined by Lori Wood and Elizabeth Welden-Smith who also read our material and offered us excellent insights and advice.

After reporting on our writing progress, we discussed each other’s work, beginning with Wellington pieces, which I found to be as interesting and informative as his previous examples. His writing has become more descriptive– “showing” rather than “telling.” His recollections of his childhood growing up in Salinas’s Chinatown, once the home to Chinese, Japanese and Filipino immigrants, are a gold mine. Once completed, his book will be an invaluable literary and educational contribution to readers in general and to the community of Salinas in particular.

We next turned our attention to Jaime’s new piece, which focused on his father’s dire poverty as a child, experiencing severe hunger and having to sell newspapers in the street at the age of four to help his family make ends meet. It is a moving and touching graphic piece. (It reminded me of my own childhood when my family had no money and could not find work in the fields during rainy seasons. We would look for food in the trash behind grocery stores. ) We discussed whether or not to code-switch (using Spanish words in English sentences) when appropriate in his novel. We agreed that the use of it would depend on the audience for whom the novel was intended. Like Wellington work, Jaime’s novel will be a significant contribution to literature.

The comments and suggestions made by Wellington, Jaime, Lori, and Elizabeth about my two new pieces were once again helpful and encouraging.

Below is the draft of “Columbia Next Door”, one of my new pieces we discussed and edited. The title refers to Harlem, which is located near Columbia University.

Columbia Next Door

I dreaded having to meet with the chairman of the Spanish Department at the beginning of the second semester because of the bad experience I had with him at the start of the academic year. But I had no choice. I had to get his advice on and approval of classes to take. I dragged myself to his office on the second floor of Philosophy Hall and knocked timidly on the door. “Come in,” he said. The sound of his raspy voice brought chills up my spine. I opened the door slowly and poked my head in before entering. He was sitting at his desk reading the newspaper and smoking a pipe. I stood behind the chair facing his desk. “Sit down. Let’s see what you have,” he said, putting down the newspaper and stretching out his right hand to grab the form in which I had listed a few courses as possibilities. “These classes are fine,” he said. “But you should consider taking the course on Federico Garcia Lorca.” He proceeded to tell me that the course would be taught by Lorca’s brother, Francisco Garcia Lorca. It was the first and only time he would teach that course; it was to be the last class of his teaching career.  Even though I had already taken the class on Don Quixote with him the first semester, I enrolled in the class on Garcia Lorca because I interpreted the chairman’s advice as a mandate. I was glad I did.

The class was held on the second floor of Hamilton Hall once a week, on Wednesdays from 3:00 to 5:00. The classroom was small with two entrances and 25 worn out desks bolted to the floor, facing a four-legged dark wooden table and chair placed on a platform reserved for the instructor. I took a seat in the back. The room quickly filled with  students who applauded when Francisco Garcia Lorca entered the classroom through the back door. He smiled and greeted several of them by name as he made his way to the front, carrying a thick leather-bound book in his right hand. He placed it on the table, pulled out the chair, and sat down. His slim build and jet black sparkling eyes and thick grayish black hair belied his age. I felt my self-confidence slowly fading away as each one of the students introduced themselves. Most of them were far advanced in their studies for the Ph.D. at Columbia and were teaching at local colleges and universities. A few of them were political refugees from Cuba who already had their doctorate from the University of La Habana, but their degree was not recognized in the United States. I was the youngest in that class and the least experienced professionally, which was ironic because all through elementary, high school, and college I was the oldest in my classes–I had failed first grade and had to repeat it because I did not know English well enough.

Professor Garcia Lorca informed us that this was his last class. “I plan to enjoy it fully,” he said proudly and gleefully. “I am going to talk about my older brother and his work, which is contained in this one volume.” He grabbed the leather bound book from the top of his desk and proudly showed it to us and suggested that we obtain a copy from the library or purchase a copy of it at The Americas Bookstore in Manhattan.  He appeared to be much more relaxed and open in this class than in the class he taught on Don Quixote. His jaw was not as tense and he did not clench his teeth as often between sentences. He spent the first class talking about Federico Garcia Lorca and his family as a backdrop to his brother’s writings.

Federico Garcia Lorca was born in 1898, in Fuente Vaqueros, a small town west of Granada in southern Spain. According to Professor Lorca, his brother was more absorbed by writing than study. “Federico was a poor student,” he told us, grinning. “He skipped classes frequently and was happiest writing, singing songs, reciting his poems.” What caught my attention was when he mentioned that Federico had spent a year as a student at Columbia University School of General Studies studying English in 1929, at the beginning of the Great Depression. My interest turned to excitement when he told us that Federico lived in John Jay Hall, across the way from Hamilton Hall. Professor Lorca then read to us what his brother wrote about his dorm. “My room in John Jay is wonderful. It is on the 12th floor of the dormitory, and I can see all the university buildings, the Hudson River and a distant vista of white and pink skyscrapers. On the right, spanning the horizon, is a great bridge under construction, of incredible grace and strength.” I laughed to myself, thinking about my own unattractive dorm room on the eighth floor of that same dormitory. At the end of the class, he informed us that in lieu of a final examination, we were to write a research paper on any aspect of his brother’s work.

Immediately after class, I rushed to Butler Library to check out Lorca’s works. I was too late; they had already been taken out the day before. The next morning I took the IRT-Subway train downtown and bought a one-volume used copy of Federico Garcia Lorca’s complete works at the Americas Book Store. It was a beautiful edition published in Spain with a prologue by Jorge Gillen, a well-known Spanish poet and member of the Generation of 1927, the same group of talented writers to which Federico Garcia Lorca belonged. On the way back on the same subway line, I scanned the index in the back of the 2017 page-long book.  Poeta en Nueva York on page 471 caught my eye. I tore off a piece of newspaper from a copy of The Daily News left behind on an empty seat next to mine and marked the page. I exited the crowded and noisy subway station on 116th Street and went straight to Butler Library to begin reading Poeta en Nueva York. I discovered that Federico Garcia Lorca had written it during his studies at Columbia from 1929-1930 and that this work was considered one of the most important collections of poetry he ever produced. I skimmed the work, noting that it was divided into ten sections, using Roman numerals, and became excited and intrigued when I read the title of Section I: “Poemas de la soledad en Columbia University.” My enthusiasm quickly turned into frustration.  The poems were a challenge to understand, even after several careful and painstaking readings. Many of the images were weird. I worried that it was my own lack of ability to understand his poetry even though I knew that it was classified as surrealistic. I went to class the following Wednesday, hoping that professor Lorca would explain the poems in class. His explanations were helpful but even he, by his own admission, had trouble making sense of some of the poems and indicated that literary critics did not always agree about the meaning of many of them. “I think that Federico did not know what he meant either,” he said jokingly.  “Seriously, if you have difficulty with certain passages, it’s  best not to worry about the exact meaning; concentrate on the images and their emotional power.” His advice eased my anxiety, and after many more readings and re-readings and class discussions, I learned to appreciate and understand Poeta en Nueva York. I empathized with Federico Garcia Lorca’s feelings of loneliness at Columbia and of being disconnected from the City. I was drawn in by his long poem “Oda al rey de Harlem” [Ode to the King of Harlem”] in which he explores the alienation and isolation of the Blacks living in Harlem and their being victims of prejudice and discrimination. Upon reading it, I became more aware of the fact that before coming to New York City, I knew hardly knew any Blacks. There were only two of them in my high school class of 380 students and just as few in my college class of 579. I remembered them well but the most memorable was John Nelson whom I met after my sophomore year in college. He was a young field supervisor for the Santa Maria Gas Company. I was hired by the same company that summer to clean and paint gas meters throughout the central coast under his supervision. One scorching late afternoon, we took a break at a small coffee shop in Paso Robles, a small agricultural town located about 70 miles north of Santa Maria. We parked the white company pickup truck in front, entered the shop, and sat at the counter next to each other. The waitress walked past us several times, looking the other way. After a long wait, John got up and said, “Come on, let’s go.” “Why?” I asked. “I’ll tell you later.” I followed him, feeling confused. When we got into the truck, I asked him why we had to leave in such a hurry. He did not respond. After driving for several miles back to Santa Maria, he broke his silence. “Didn’t you notice that the waitress didn’t want to serve us?” “What do you mean?” I asked, still puzzled. “It was obvious! She served other customers who had come in after we had. She ignored us. Why? Because I am black; she’s a racist!” he said angrily. I felt stupid and embarrassed because I had been so oblivious to what was going on right in front of me. “Let’s go back and complain!” I said. “What for, to face more humiliation?” he said, shaking his head and gripping the steering wheel with both hands. “I understand how you feel,” I said, placing my left hand lightly on his right shoulder. I told him how Roberto and I had experienced discrimination from parents who forbade us to go out with their daughters because we were Mexican. He gave me a soulful look and said, “Unfortunately, discrimination is worse for us Blacks.” I did not disagree. I knew what was going on in the South from reading the paper and listening to the news.

As a result of my recalling this incident and reading Poeta en Nueva York, I decided to see Harlem with my own eyes and find out what had inspired Federico Garcia Lorca to write “Oda al rey de Harlem.” It was a cloudy and chilly Sunday morning. I bundled up and headed north to 125th Street and then turned east. At the northeast corner of Lenox Avenue and 125th Street I stopped and gazed at a large, abandoned building on which a giant billboard advertizing Marlboro cigarettes hung. Columbia University loomed in the distance. As I continued walking, I had to side-step cracked and uneven sidewalks and scattered chunks of concrete and trash. I was amazed at the number of blocks with crumbling and abandoned buildings and the lack of greenery. Some dwellings were boarded up or had the boards torn off and the windows and doors were smashed and broken. They reminded me of the old army barrack my family lived in during the time I was in high school and college. It too had broken windows and holes on the walls when we first occupied it. I approached a line of people going into a brownstone townhouse, which to my surprise, turned out to be a Baptist church.  I stood outside and listened to gospel music pouring through the front door. The angelic sounds filled the air. I went on to the next block and passed a number of stores and brownstone townhouses that served as places of worship–Baptist, Methodist, Episcopalian, and Roman Catholic. On the second floor of another brownstone townhouse, I saw a woman gazing out a window. I wondered what she might be thinking. Several blocks further, I came across a junkyard littered with garbage and abandoned cars and barefooted children playing baseball in the street, using a broken broom stick for a bat. Across the street I saw a girl about 17 years old, cradling an infant in her arms and walking hurriedly past two disheveled men who sat on the front stairs of a hollowed-out building, playing pinochle and drinking wine from bottles hidden in brown paper bags. They must be drinking to forget their troubles like the braceros in Tiger Town, I thought. I turned the street corner and saw on the opposite side of the street a liquor store with steel shutters and five teenagers hanging out in front laughing and jiving. One of them caught my eye and yelled, “What the hell you doing here, white boy?” I was stunned. I had heard kids call me “chilly stomper,” “tamale wrapper,” and “greaser,” but never “white boy.” When he and the other four swaggered towards me, I got scared and ran like a cat on fire. When I got to the end of the block, I looked over my shoulder to see if they were following me. To my relief, they were not. I stopped to catch my breath and headed back, taking a different route. On the way home, liquor stores seemed to pop up at every street corner.

When I returned to my room early that evening, I lay in bed thinking about what I had seen. My visit to Harlem brought back memories of my family and other migrant families who struggled to make ends meet every day and lived in dirt floor tents or old garages without electricity and indoor plumbing and suffered discrimination and prejudice. It was clear to me that Blacks in Harlem lived in similar circumstances. I felt in solidarity with them. And I was sure that what I saw was not all there was. These inhumane conditions did not define Blacks and families like my own. I was convinced that we could realize our hopes and dreams for a better life if we were given equal opportunity. I got up and re-read an interview done with Federico Garcia Lorca in which he talked about the Blacks in New York: “Es indudable que ellos ejercen enorme influencia en Norteamerica….son lo mas spiritual y lo mas delicado de aquel mundo. Porque creen, porque esperan, porque cantan y porque tienen una exqusita fe religiosa….” Undoubtedly, they exert enormous influence on North America … they are the most spiritual and most refined of that world. Because they believe, because they hope, because they sing and because they have an exquisite religious faith….”

Federico Garcia Lorca’s Poeta en Nueva York and Harlem had evoked in me deep rooted emotions and tapped into stories of my family and my childhood that I felt an urge to tell.

Wellington Lee: Post 4

How very quickly 2012 is speeding towards its end. Writing new drafts, revising and polishing them for review, and meeting monthly deadlines made the days–and nights–disappear faster. But the passing of my dear Mom made some of the year’s time stand still. She is remembered in my writings, including one whole portion titled “Mom.”

     Since my last blog, I have continued to complete first drafts and to revise and polish them for submission to a reviewer. At the end of September, I completed my newest first draft pages (a total of 15 pages).

     On October 19, I finally held my first Story Gathering event at the National Steinbeck Center. Thirteen individuals were invited; five of them responded. The program included lunch, a brief presentation of my writing project, Chinatown memories shared by some of the participants, and a question-and-answer period.

     Also in October, I received from the reviewer the first batch of first drafts that I had revised and polished. The 69 pages had an array of very useful edits, comments, suggestions, and questions. My immediate reaction was that I need more time and effort at creating better narratives. The reviewer’s maze of markings made me stop and think what I was trying to say and if I had written enough to truly tell how it was like to live in Salinas Chinatown.      

     Here and there, the reviewer suggested some light edits such as replacing the word “which” with “that”, using the word “unbind” instead of “unbound,” and deleting “on” from “on an errand.”  Some phrases, clauses, and sentences were highlighted with the suggestion that they might be rewritten for clarity or a better description. The reviewer also gave me positive feedback on some “nice” descriptions for a sense of place or of a person. When I wrote something funny, the reviewer said she laughed when she read it.

     In the reviewer’s cover letter to me, four important questions were posed. They concern the kind of book I am writing, my role as a character and/or narrator, the overall theme of the book, and arc (rise and fall) of the story I want to convey. These are very important points to consider and act as guides for me as I work towards my goal of producing a book worth sharing with the world. 

Wellington Lee: Post 3

     Hello! My previous blog zeroed in on my struggles to meet monthly writing deadlines while continuing to participate in community activities. After discussing this problem with Francisco Jimenez and Jaime Cortez, co-participants in this writing project, and meeting with Elizabeth Welden-Smith and Lori Wood from the National Steinbeck Center and receiving their support and willingness to allow some adjustments in my schedule of required number of pages each month, I was able to get back on track and submit my remaining first drafts mostly on time.

     By the end of June, I completed a total of 129 pages of first drafts. Also in June, I began to revise and polish up my completed first drafts and then submit at least 20 pages at the end of each month to a reviewer for comments and suggestions.

     Submitting the revised and polished first drafts to a reviewer is a very manageable task for me as I continue to participate in community events and projects. And when my dear Mom suddenly and sadly passed away on August 8 at the age of 93, I was able to grieve without worrying about submitting new or revised drafts. The section I wrote on “Mom” ended with a “To Be Continued,” but I am still trying to gather my thoughts on how to continue it and end it.

     So far, this writing project has pushed me, encouraged me, and made me resolve to write down all of the memories I have as a member of one of the three generations of my family that lived in Salinas Chinatown from 1908 to 1961. Before I started writing my drafts, I made a list of subjects that I wanted to write about and added to the list. I ended up with 37 subjects and they have guided me throughout my writing. At first, the subjects were listed in random order, but I eventually put them under four categories: Three Generations/Beginnings/Stirrings, Memories/Life in Chinatown, Flash Thoughts/Meanderings, and Still to Come.

     I have been writing everything I remembered, everything I believed was worth remembering, and everything I thought was adequate to record how I saw my life in Salinas Chinatown.

     One other item I want to mention: I have been trying to hold Story Gathering events with the goal of having community members share their stories of Salinas Chinatown, but the first two events in July were postponed. Eleven individuals were invited but only two were able to attend; the rest were either unable to attend or did not respond at all. I do hope to hold a gathering soon!



Francisco Jimenez: Post 4

Wellington Lee, Jaime Cortez, and I shared drafts of our work with each other via email prior to our meeting on Friday, November 9, at the offices of the National Steinbeck Center. Lori Wood joined us at our gathering. We discussed each other’s work, offering helpful comments and suggestions and, in some instances, raised questions.

After reading Jaime’s sample chapter and viewing his artistic illustrations, I gained a deeper appreciation for graphic novels, a literary genre I had not read before but with which I was familiar. It was a popular art form in Mexico for many years. I recall as a child seeing my older cousin in Mexico reading graphic novels about El Santo, a highly popular and admired masked wrestler-hero, a kin to Superman, who fought evil doers. Jaime’s father’s compelling story is conveyed skillfully in narrative and art. His economy of words—in narrative form and dialogue—go hand-in-hand with illustrations, which successfully advance the story and illicit emotions. Lori, Wellington, and I complemented Jaime and made a few comments and suggestions. We then turned to Wellington’s work, which deals with his recollections of Salinas Chinatown.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Wellington’s portrait of Doo Ho Bock whom he knew as a child. My favorite was the piece titled “Peeling and Bunching Green Onions,” in which Wellington describes in vivid detail how he and his family as well as other Chinese families in the 1950s and early 1960s peeled and bunched green onions. We discussed possible forms for his pieces: vignettes, portraits, memoir, recollections of China Town. Possible models suggested were: House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, Rolando Hinojosa-Smith’s Estampas del Valle y Otras Obras (Sketches of the Valley and Other Works or Sabine Ullibarri’s Tierra Amarilla: Stories from New Mexico. Jaime, Lori and I commended Wellington for the exceptional progress he has made.

We spent the rest of the meeting time discussing the two draft pieces of mine. A good question was raised: Who is your audience? I explained that I did not have a particular audience in mind, but that my book would probably be more accessible to young adults and adults because I was writing about my experiences in graduate school in the late 60s. An excellent observation was made about my being “more of an observer” than a participant in the piece titled “Outside the Gates,” in which I describe my first visit to downtown New York City.  I agreed and explained that I felt as an outsider. Another helpful suggestion was to be more descriptive whenever possible and appropriate.

Here is an excerpt from “Outside the Gates”.

Outside the Gates (draft)

The day before the beginning of classes, I nervously ventured out to explore the City, having no idea of what to expect. I exited the west gate on 116th street and Broadway. An eruption of traffic noise filled the air and political flyers and newspapers tumbled on the pavement in warm and humid gusts of wind. At the IRT Broadway-Seventh Avenue Subway Station, which was just outside the gates, I asked the attendant for directions to downtown. “Get off on 42nd Street,” he said. I bought a subway token for fifteen cents, went through the turnstile, and patiently waited on the platform for the train. The hot and dimly lit station felt like an oven. Its white tiled walls were grimy and full of graffiti. A picture of Columbia was in a small mosaic tile boarder in the middle of the wall. A distant light appeared in the tunnel as the train made its way to the station, traveling south. As it drew nearer, it made a deafening noise–clunking, rattling, banging. When it finally stopped, it made a hissing and squeaking sound.  The doors quickly opened and closed and promptly opened again. At each subway stop garbled messages came over a loud speaker and the train became increasingly crowded with passengers. Many of them appeared tired and sad. Some kept their head down, others stared straight ahead, avoiding eye contact, a few dozed. Across from me sat an old and disheveled man who was reading the Daily News. He wore a tattered T-Shirt, gray baseball cap, scuffed boots and pants torn at the knees. He marked passages in the newspaper with a pencil and mumble something to himself. I caught his eye, smiled, and said “hello.” He appeared startled. Without saying a word, he got up and moved. I glanced at a red cord near the door and wondered what it was for. I then recalled riding the city bus and having to pull on a string to notify the driver that I wanted to get off at the next stop. Figuring that we were getting close to 42nd Street, I stood up and pulled on the cord. A screeching sound blasted through the grimy sliding windows and the yellow florescent lights blinked and dimmed. Everyone looked frightened. I had no clue as to what was going on but I became alarmed, too. The storm door slammed open. A tall policeman rushed in, examining the premises like a sniffing dog. He held a club in his right hand and glanced in my direction. “Is this 42nd Street?” I asked timidly.  “Next stop,” he responded annoyingly as he rushed to the next car. At that instant I realized that the train stopped only at designated stations. After a few minutes, the train jerked, slid back slightly, and continued moving forward. I looked at the red cord again more carefully and noticed a sign underneath it that read: EMERGENCY BRAkE. I dashed to the door panels anxiously and sheepishly waiting to get off at the next stop.

The 42nd station was packed with people scurrying to get connecting trains. I had not seen so many people speaking different languages and wearing distinctive clothes since I took the oath, with many others, for my citizenship in San Francisco when I was a junior in college. I elbowed my way up the subway exit stairs and found myself in Midtown Manhattan, looking up at tall buildings. The traffic noise was deafening and relentless. Sunrays fought skyscrapers to reach the grimy streets and sidewalks. Waves of pedestrians going in both directions rushed passed me as though they were in a race. I felt like I was in a whirlwind. I quickly stepped aside and took refuge in a theatre entryway that was littered with trash and smelled of urine. I composed myself, and began walking at a fast pace, down a stretch of run-down theaters and glancing at numerous closely spaced marquees with multicolor flashing neon lights advertising adult entertainment. In the doorways, men wearing shiny polyester shirts and pegged pants, and pointed shoes, handed out flyers promoting pornographic films or live nude dancers. The whole area and the men associated with it fascinated and disgusted me at the same time. It reminded me of Tiger Town in Santa Maria, California, which was a rough neighborhood lined with rundown bars and liquor stores on the west side of town. The sidewalks were littered with cigarette butts, crushed cigarette packs, and broken beer bottles. I washed the grimy windows and swept the sidewalks of every bar on Sundays when I was in high school and worked for the Santa Maria Window Cleaners, a janitorial company. But unlike these men on 42nd Street for whom I had mixed feelings, the men in Tiger Town saddened me. They were mostly braceros, temporary young farm workers from Mexico, who came to Tiger Town from the local farm labor camps on Sunday afternoons when work was scarce.   They sat at the bar drinking beer and listened to ranchera music play on the jukeboxes, trying to divert themselves from missing their families and homeland.

Jaime Cortez: Post 3

Heartfelt:  Notes on “Research”

I parked my car in Calexico at a Quality Inn just a half-mile from the Mexican border and my father’s hometown of Mexicali, Baja California.  I was there to do research for a graphic novel focused on his working history from childhood through adulthood.  I had a pretty clear idea of what form that research would take.  I would work for two days in the public library of the city, the Biblioteca Publica Estatal.  There I would look up information on mid-20th century Mexicali, hopefully check out newspapers from the archive, and try to ferret out images of everyday working class life in the city.

On my way towards the Mexicali crossing, I stopped by a little currency exchange kiosk and purchased some pesos.  I felt excited and nervous about crossing the border.  I am forever a child of immigrants.  This was proven to me by my strange fixation on feeling my bag for the reassuring rectangular shape of my passport, just in case it mysteriously disappeared itself and left me stranded in the notoriously wild borderlands.

When you cross the border on foot into Mexicali, no one checks your passport or even asks you anything. The entry is an unmanned full-height turnstile, with lengths of hanging pipe at the top that clank as each person pushes through from one reality into another.

I’d done my google maps homework, and knew the Biblioteca Publica Estatal de Mexicali was only a twenty minute walk from the border crossing, so I began making my way eastward on Francisco Madero Avenue towards the library.  One block north of Madero Avenue, Christopher Columbus Avenue runs along the imposing fence that separates Mexico from the United States.  The cars making their way to the crossing point were packed bumper-to-bumper.  Dozens of men, women, and children made their way through the sluggish stream of cars on foot.  They were working; selling bottles of water or snacks like pumpkin seeds, chips, sweets, and the old standby: Chiclet gum.  They were selling tourist tchotchkes, folk crafts, and blankets.  They were providing services; offering to wash windows or wipe the dust from the cars as they moved towards the border.  They were entertaining; children in clown suits performed mini skits and older boys did intricate tumbling routines for coins.

Lining either side of Madero Avenue was an entirely different world. It was lined with boutique clinics geared towards people who come from the United States to get elective medical procedures for a fraction of the cost, also known as medical tourists.  Some of the clinics serve uninsured Mexicans who work in California’s Imperial Valley Agricultural sector.  These clinics specialize in gynecology and childbirth, colonoscopy procedures, giving x-rays, MRI scans, and the like, but the vast majority were focused on providing elective procedures for cash.  There were dozens of orthodontic practices and even more plastic surgery centers offering liposuction, botox shots, tummy tucks and laser skin treatments.  They were packed densely along the avenue, sometimes three or four on a single block.

As I walked past perhaps 30 of these clinics, I was struggling to reconcile these disparate, desperate worlds.  On the one hand Mexicali has the indulgent and sometimes lavish medical centers and on the other hand it has legions of subsistence-level workers, some of them children, bottom-feeding off of the borderland economy.

The scrappy, sometimes desperate micro-entrepreneurship that sustains these workers in 2012 was the same one that sustained my father back in 1946.  The brutal wealth disparity that plays out in the city in 2012 was even more evident in 1946.

When I turned and realized I was passing the Cathedral of the Virgin of Guadalupe, I deviated from my original route and just stood there in front of it.  It is architecturally undistinguished, but I was in awe of the site because my father had told me that the church was the epicenter of his working domain as a newsboy and shoeshine boy.  I tried to conjure him, aged four, barefoot, loaded down with newspapers to sell on this very block, and when I did, I felt my heart crack open with sadness for his hardships.  I cried upon imagining him trudging through these very streets in the infernal desert heat of the Mexicali summer, which on some days tops 115 degrees.

I saw then that this sadness, these tears, were part of conducting research, because I was taking in, with both heart and head, the fullness of my father’s story.  I saw then that this is how I, as an artist, would conduct my research, with my eyes and my heart open for everything that brings this story alive.