Poet Jacobo Llano at Mississippi College

I’m proud to announce that Spanish poet Jacobo Llano visited Mississippi College last week and was able to speak to my Creative Writing: Poetry class. He also presented to Dr. Beth Stapleton’s Modern Languages students. In these presentations, he discussed poems from his latest book, El Silencio de los Peces — its sources, meaning, and form — and in my class read two of his poems in Spanish while I read them in English translation. He was warm, personable, approachable, and a natural in front of the classroom. I was able to record his reading and discussion of his poem “Authority.” Video and poems below.

Meditations on a Multicultural Utopia

suburbia1968 — DAIRY VALLEY, CA. Downtown Dairy Valley: the intersection of two lane Gridley Rd. and Artesia Blvd. On one corner the Tastee Freeze stood like a fortress of pleasure against the summer heat; even though it had outdoor seating only, it served up ice cream cones dipped in chocolate, taquitos, hot fudge Sundaes, and ice cold Cokes. Occupying two other corners were a Texaco and a Mobil station locked in a gas war to the death, volleying lower prices and various goodies from fully loaded painted windows. A family owned drive-through convenience store stood on the fourth corner, and immediately behind it was a pony ride. Anyone driving up and down Artesia Blvd. would see an occasional house and endless cow pastures; if you headed due south down Artesia from the Tastee Freeze and took the first left you’d drive into an older neighborhood and pass Luther Burbank elementary school, in the city of Artesia. Dairy Valley surrounded Artesia like a horseshoe; Artesia was the hub of a rural wheel holding the neighborhoods, the older library, Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church, the elementary school and Faye Ross Junior High, while Dairy Valley itself consisted of farm after farm after farm.

Until 1968, that is. The year Dairy Valley began its sudden transformation into Cerritos, California, home of one of the nation’s first indoor malls and the nation’s first solar powered city hall.

My family moved into one of the first subdivisions built over a cow pasture. The day an ornate, wooden sign was erected marking the entrance into Cerritos my father and I were there, with several other families, planting trees around the sign. Our house overlooked the railroad tracks that ran awkwardly through our city, and ironically across the tracks lay what was to be the last dairy farm in the area. Eventually one of the two gas stations closed and the other was refurbished, the convenience stored was plowed down to make room for a 7-11, the empty lot next to it became a Bally Health spa, and the pony rides were closed to make room for a small community of closely huddled duplexes. Both Gridley and Artesia were widened to four lanes, and eventually the subdivisions took over the entire block, their yellow masonry walls marching down the street like an unassailable army.

In 1968 I was four years old, oblivious to the marvel unfolding before me. I was witnessing the birth of Utopia. Southern California, by nature, gives birth to utopian dreams. Even as of my last visit in the mid 1980’s, a drive from San Luis Obispo to San Diego via Pacific Coast Highway could be annoying and inspiring; vast expanses of rolling green hills, the view of the mountains and the ocean and the places where they meet, the cliffs of San Clemente, the insane traffic through the beach towns, the beauty of the agricultural areas with their orange groves and irresistible fruit stands. My father even grew fruit trees in his backyard; we had oranges, insanely large tomatoes, bigger even than my hands are now, apricots, nectarines, plums, apples, and lemons. We had rosebushes in the front yard lining either side of the wide, red brick stairway leading up to our front door. Everything grew and flourished there, everything and anything you could plant. Even people.

My neighborhood grew fat with young families and their small children, and like the Star Trek utopia we witnessed on television our neighborhood was a model of racial diversity. Mexican, Vietnamese, Scottish, Irish, Chinese, Puerto Rican, African American, Filipino, and Korean families all lived on the same block, shopped at the same grocery store, met at the same PTA and Cub Scout meetings, and saw their children through the same elementary, junior high, and high schools. We got into fights and played on the same little league teams, and many of us attended the same Catholic Church. We had to work through the accents of our friend’s parents and learn each other’s food when we visited for dinner. Our front doors were thresholds between the outside world of Southern California suburbia and the more intimate world of our family lives, a world dominated by foreign furniture, foods, and smells. Everyone I knew was comfortably well off, and most of the people I knew from the neighborhood lived there for years. We grew up together.

Since I faced this kind of diversity as a child, I took it for granted that things were the same everywhere. Racial and cultural differences were sources of mystery and pleasure to me, differences each family kept without flaunting. My parents entertained often, and largely entertained Hispanics. Finding Spanish speaking people was always a source of comfort to my mother and grandmother, a way of making suburbia seem more like home and less foreign. I remember a visiting uncle asking me once if I was proud to be Puerto Rican, and I told him, “No.”

“What? You’re ashamed of it then?”

“No, I’m just not proud of it. I didn’t have anything to do with it. I didn’t make myself Puerto Rican, I was born this way. It’s nothing to be proud of.” By the time I was a teenager I saw race and culture as givens; only those lacking any other assets would fall upon their ancestry as a source of self-worth.

I had come to define myself by my reading, and never learned to speak Spanish.

I used to spend a lot of time looking out my window over that last cow pasture. I’d study the cows whenever I got too bored, and wondered about the people that lived in the house just across the tracks. They seemed alien to me, not Tom Quan, my best friend down the street. The cows were a study in tedium. They sat, or stood, they ate and shit, feeding the grass that fed them in an endless cycle, seldom approaching the boundaries of their world. They seemed to see no sense it in, staying happy so long as the grass was green and they were left alone. They lived to produce milk then be slaughtered for their meat. In the middle of the cow pasture the ranchers built a structure to keep the rains off the hay–it was probably three stories tall, no walls, just a frame supporting a roof stacked to the top with hay. Shortly after the cows were gone, I watched it burn. Someone set fire to it. The house stood unoccupied for some time, and we liked riding our skateboards and motocross bikes in the empty pool. By the early 1980s, a strip mall featuring various upscale restaurants conquered the last dairy farm left in Cerritos. Dairy Valley was gone forever, its only reminder being the Black Angus I’d take my dates to occasionally if I liked them well enough.

My Irish friend was expelled from Catholic school after Catholic school, entertaining us all with his stories. One time he kicked the chair out from under a short nun while she was writing across the top of a blackboard, another time he put dish soap in the water cooler and gave several boys diarrhea. He poisoned one boy with mistletoe and got into fights with four others, by the time he was 17 his mother finally gave up and put him in public school, where he got me and another one of his friends into a fight with 12 Mexicans. I was stabbed in the back with a Phillips screwdriver six times, then thrown down by four of them and kicked in the head and ribs until I couldn’t see or feel anymore. My only consolation was kicking in someone’s front teeth when he tried to grab my boots, and a well placed fist given to someone who tried to bury that screwdriver in my chest.

Older California was as segregated as the Northeast; the poorer Mexicans in our area lived in a barrio, while the blacks lived in Compton and their football team always beat us badly. We cruised Whittier Blvd. afraid of the Chicanos in their ridiculous cars, flirting with the cholo chicks with their corduroy jeans and tight white T’s under unbuttoned flannel shirts, with their long dark hair and painted dark eyes, with their thick accents and hot breath, and their sweet wisdom. One of them, one who could barely speak English, loved me. I figured that out three weeks after I moved out of state.

The bad parts of town spread across Southern California like a cancer.

We got high with our psychology teacher on field trips and laughed at him when he couldn’t find his way back to the school. Girls who wanted an easy A visited his room at lunchtime; someone had written “Chester the Molester” in my book where the teacher’s name was supposed to be. I showed it to him and he laughed. My Algebra teacher was a Buddhist monk, and the school principal retired to pastor a Baptist Church, saying it was his lifelong dream. Almost all of us took drugs; we bought speed and acid from one of our High School counselors, and got free grass from his brother’s Sens plant next door. Quaaludes and mushrooms were accessible too, just a little harder to get. We had special places we’d go to get high, quiet secluded areas inside a bank of trees, where we’d push the limits of consciousness in search for meaning, finally settling for temporary relief. We took our dates there too because the ultimate high was getting laid, usually at the expense of a young girl’s self respect.

Our music was our identity, the only sacrament in our religion of despair. Everyone’s father was an engineer of some kind, it seemed, or a lawyer or a psychiatrist. We fed the burgeoning technological monster that is the late 20th century economic system with our purchasing power, being fed in return through high paying jobs in a never ending cycle. My friends, none of them, saw any point in living. We were killing ourselves slowly, angry for reasons we didn’t understand, straining to find the boundaries of our world within well defined comfort zones. We had everything we needed and nothing we really wanted for our vision of the future was of a treadmill; we saw ourselves someday transformed into hamsters running on an exercise wheel, turning the machine that fed us daily, living only to eat, sleep and shit. In the middle of utopia we knew emptiness, we conquered nature but became estranged from ourselves.

Our Utopia was Hell. Thank God “utopia” means “nowhere.”

This paper was originally published on towerofbabel.com in 1998 where it has also been translated into Spanish spain.