A few weeks ago, the much anticipated “Blacks and Latinos In Conflict and Cooperation: Writing Race in L.A” turned out to be in the eyes of many people in attendance, a major disappointment, and should have been called “Fictional Literary Works by Black and Latino Authors”.
The event was organized by Josh Kun (Communication and American Studies and Ethnicity), Laura Pulido (American Studies and Ethnicity) and USC’s Center for Diversity and Democracy and co-sponsored by the Center for Black Cultural and Student Affairs and El Centro Chicano.
Moderated by LA Times Journalist Erin Aubry Kaplan, the expected discussion aimed to “explore the intersections of the arts, politics and urban conflict and coalition in present-day Los Angeles” quickly turned into a personal narrative on the perspective authors which included Héctor Tobar, author ofThe Tattooed Soldier and Translation Nation: Defining a New American Identity in the Spanish-Speaking United States; Dana Johnson, author of Break Any Woman Down; and Helena Maria Viramontes, author of The Moths and Other Stories and Their Dogs Came with Them.
As the panelist began their introductions, it became evident the discussion was based partly on their fictional work, and personal lives.
As the 2nd largest city in the nation, following New York, much of the city continues to be segregated by class, race, education and status.
Tobar, who took an entire uninterrupted twenty minutes to talk simply about himself, told a moving story about his Latino experience being a Black experience.
His mother, an immigrant from Guatemala prayed to San Martin de Porra, a newly Black sanctioned Saint from the Catholic Church, for prosperity and luck in their new home in South Los Angeles; she was pregnant with him and his father worked almost every hour of the day.
“So imagine her surprise, when an African American neighbor, offered her a ride to the hospital!” he exclaimed, followed by some laughter from the audience.
“There she was, praying to a Black saint, who delivered a Black man to help her”
As it turned out, this man’s name was Martin, just as the Saint, and only a few years later, would another Black man named Martin come to Los Angeles. That man was Martin Luther King Jr.
“So, for me, the black civil rights movement, was really about all of us” he said.
For a writer who has often being criticized by the Latino community for being far removed from the Latino experience, Tobar failed to recognized the student walk outs of East Los Angeles, the paralleled experiences of the Black Panthers and the Brown Barrettes and the struggle of inequality that continues to this day.
A visiting African American attendee who introduced himself as a former gang banger turned at-risk youth mentor asked the panel why they were not talking about the real issues of race tensions and why much of their talk was based on books, not real life in L.A
To her credit, Aubry Kaplan, the moderator mentioned early on that this discussion should be taking place outside the USC campus, which unfortunately also emphasizes the need to have this very discussion at USC, a private university that to some degree is unaware of its immediate community.
You can drive 1 mile outside the perimeter of USC, and the lights and glamour of LA Live, quickly disappear, showcasing a disparaging view of low income communities of color.
These communities are often under represented and often depicted in news as violent or gang infested.
When put on the spot Helena Miramontes, who had read from her book, mentioned she teaches creative writing at a Southern California prison.
Tobar, who nervously laughed his way out of the question said he has been out of the country for the past seven years, and that “that was his excuse.”
It seemed the only who willing to talk and expand about the segregation of Latino and Blacks was USC’s Assistant Professor of English, Dana Johnson, who expressed her frustration on finding that the only other book recommendations through Amazon.com’s suggestion aggregator were those of other Black authors.
“If our work continues to be separated, then how are we having this discussion? We should not only be writing about our own experiences, but those of others as well” she mentioned early in the dialogue.
Kaplan answered her by stating she could continue writing about the Black experience untill she died because there was so much to write about. She also admitted her own frustration on the immigrant debate being compared to the civil rights movement of the 1960’s.
If critical authors don’t understand that the very meaning of civil rights as it relates to all people who are faced with injustices and barriers, how are they writing about conflict other than to continue writing about divisions rather than understanding?
More than 200 students were in attendance of the discussion, twenty five of those were from LA Trade Tech College, and many who were visiting, were waiting to hear a much needed discussion on Race and Conflict at USC, that never really
Lynn Cain, a psychology professor from Trade Tech who brought the students said it best, “they don’t think it’s their problem.”
As the diaspora and demographics of Los Angeles changes and historically Black communities see an influx of Latino immigrants, who is writing about the real experiences of these communities? How are the new issues of language and culture being covered?
Too focused on selling their next fictional book, some of the panelist’s personal agendas took away from an actual discussion and had little transitions into youth or community issues.
As it is, Black and Brown tensions within Los Angeles high schools is not a new phenomena. Neither is the increase of metal detectors on campuses, nor is the increase of police presence in many urban city schools. There is an obvious need to tell the stories of conflict that arise at a very early level.
With gangs, drugs, and low economic development plaguing Black and Latino communities, the issue is not really an issue of race tensions, but far more complex, it is an issue of poverty and upward mobility.
Without jobs, without resources, without the access to proper schools and higher education, low income communities of color will continue to fight for the crumbs, continue to be marginalized and continue conflict based living conditions.
At the end, it’s never about race, it’s about money and access.
A critical viewpoint that never made it to the panel.
Another version of piece first published in Neon Tommy.