Writers stretch their wings in remembrances of lives lived and love won and lost
By Carl Kozlowski 06/23/2011
Writers featured in this week’s edition — Vibiana Aparicio-Chamberlin, Mary Ann Montanez, Hilda Boulware and Estella Gonzelez — took part in the second series of interfaith, interethnic memoir writing workshops put on by The Pasadena Writing Project (TPWP) team. The group is taught by writer Carla Sameth, co-director/co-founder of TPWP and president of iMindsPR in Old Pasadena, and writer and performer Maria Elena Fernandez, a professor of history at Cal State Northridge.
Next Thursday, TPWP presents “Time, Place, Voice,” a reading of original works by beginning and seasoned writers who participated in memoir writing workshops this year and last. Award-winning, Altadena-based author Jervey Tervalon will also read at the event, which is at 7 p.m. in the Community Room of the Armory Center for the Arts, 145 N. Raymond Ave., Pasadena.
A conversation about the writing and the importance of “telling our stories,” led by Pasadena Weekly editor Kevin Uhrich, and a reception for the writers follows.
For more information, contact The Pasadena Writing Project’s Gale Cohen at (626) 793-7393 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
No matter how they try, church leaders will never diminish the power this third-century saint has on LA’s poor and destitute
My name, Vibiana, means full of life. I like my name. It sounds vivacious, múy Latina. The “V” being an exotic letter, unlike the first letter of my confirmation name — “D” for Dominica, which sounds like the name of a holier-than-thou mother superior.
This is how my Ma came up with my name. After my Dad named my older sister Concepción, Ma swore she would give the rest of us kids modern names, like Michael for my older brother, and Rebecca Linda for my younger sister and Philip for my baby brother. Ma didn’t want us with names like Chon, which is short for the name of my great uncle, Asención. So she named me Vibiana.
Ma named me after a bigger than life woman. Bigger than the Hollywood movie star Vivien Leigh. She named me after the first cathedral and patron saint of Los Angeles, St. Vibiana. As a child, Ma attended the cathedral school, and the convent of St. Vibiana. St. Vibiana was an early Christian virgin martyr. She’s the patron saint of earthquakes, drunks and prostitutes. She’s an appropriate guardian of Skid Row on Second and Main streets. But Ma turned against St. Vibiana’s Cathedral because the priest there wouldn’t christen me, since we lived outside the parish in East LA. So Ma and Dad took me to be baptized at La Placita, Our Lady Queen of Angels Church at Olvera Street. On my baptismal certificate the priest spelled my name “Bibiana,” which sounds like a Byzantine icon with a halo of filigreed gold.
My confidence in the Catholic Church was further eroded over time, beginning with my studies at Immaculate Heart College, a women’s college in Hollywood. I was the first of my brothers and sisters to go to a four-year university. Although my major study was in bacteriology, I also studied art with the renowned innovator of serigraphy, Sister Mary Corita. Corita took us to the streets to study the lettering on the billboards of supermarkets and auto shops. We heard Ravi Shankar and Joan Baez in the convent. Cardinal Frances McIntyre got wind of the unconventional teaching of the Immaculate Heart nuns and tried to rein them in. But the nuns started to wear lay clothes and persisted in their mission to teach a progressive curriculum to young women. The enraged cardinal proceeded to weaken the order of the Immaculate Heart by arranging that the college’s benefactors, the Bob Hopes and Bing Crosbys, pull their financial support from the college.
Recently, the action of another church leader, Cardinal Roger Mahony, further severed me from the church’s patriarchy. Mahony built the multimillion-dollar cathedral Our Lady Queen of Angels. I call it the fortress. He nearly destroyed St. Vibiana’s, the original cathedral of Los Angeles, a beautiful Gothic church that contained the relics of the saint. It has been resurrected but is denuded of its more than 150-year-old artifacts, paintings, historic bells, pipe organ and the 1,000-year-old reliquaries of St. Vibiana. These were taken to Cardinal Mahony’s cathedral, where a fortress wall built around it keeps it safe from the rabble of the streets below. It is where his mother and father are buried and where he will be buried. The colossus on the hill is his personal Taj Mahony on Temple and Grand streets.
I’m a conflicted Catholic. I don’t support the Catholicism of patriarchal rules and dictums, but I do believe in its women — The Blessed Mother, Our Lady of Guadalupe and especially St. Vibiana. I’m proud that she lives on despite my mother’s bitterness toward the priest from St. Vibiana’s who wouldn’t baptize me. I’m named after St. Vibiana, the gutsy third-century martyr of Roman times. St. Vibiana’s Church lives on on Skid Row, inspiring the discarded souls of Second and Main streets. Her decrepit walls provide a place for the homeless to lean their tarps and makeshift cardboard shelters. Her modest towers make ornate night shadows that caress the poorest of the poor, the schizophrenic and the drug- and alcohol-addicted. Destitute women and children, afraid to be harassed in city shelters, are permanent residents at St. Vibiana’s feet. All of these huddled on the worn sidewalk are her children. Her walls protect them with a mother’s warm embrace.
Vibiana Aparicio-Chamberlin of Pasadena has performed her poetry at Vona, Voices of Our Nation, in San Francisco and at the Writers Institute of Idyllwild. She has received awards for her poetry and art work, which have appeared in the Inscape Literary Journal and the Los Angeles County Latino Arts Calendar.
A wayward son returns home to face his family
My grandfather, Francisco, shared many fun-filled stories with his family and friends. Grandmother Inez was slim and tall — an easy-going person everyone got along with. She worked daily to present festive meals and a lovely clean home and to raise well-behaved children. Since 1920, they lived at 900 Worchester Ave. in Pasadena, on the corner of Mountain Street.
Francisco was waiting for the day when he would call his plumbing business “Francisco Chavez and Sons, Inc.” But my Uncle Frank, his oldest son, was more inclined toward his mother’s family of musicians, dancers and singers. He loved family gatherings, where he played guitar and sang for everyone. He was enthralled by his father’s stories of the ancient Indians.
My grandparents allowed Uncle Frank to compete in local marathons. Nevertheless, they expected him to stay close to home and work with his dad. He wanted to race with his friends, however, so one day Uncle Frank took off for Happy Valley in Northern California for a long-distance race. Ever since he started long-distance running, Uncle Frank’s life did not follow the goals of his parents. His father did not understand his love of long-distance running, and his use of the name “Red Robin” did not sit well with grandfather.
Uncle Frank did not for a minute regret his runaway adventure. He hitchhiked north to Happy Valley. This was during the Great Depression, when people thought nothing of helping each other with rides. Uncle Frank considered himself an especially lucky hitchhiker when Beatrice stopped and picked him up. She was slim, her hair set in a stylish bob. She was driving a sky-blue Ford Roadster convertible with a white canvas top. As was his habit, Uncle Frank played guitar and sang along the way.
Uncle Frank expected Beatrice to drop him off around San Francisco, where she was originally heading. But she continued driving and took him all the way to Happy Valley, where the long-distance marathon was being held. She waited for him to finish the event, and then drove south toward home. Along the way, between songs and conversation, they fell in love. Uncle Frank found out that Beatrice’s husband had died six months earlier.
When they came back to the city, they were married at Los Angeles City Hall. They kept the wedding simple and small. Beatrice owned a restaurant in the San Fernando Valley. It was a hangout for actors, set builders and camera operators, especially those who made westerns. Beatrice planned a party for someone from the industry each month. On one particular month, they celebrated Bing Crosby’s birthday. Uncle Frank was thrilled. He fit right in serving as host, playing guitar, singing and greeting guests like a wondering troubadour.
Six months later, Uncle Frank returned to the home of his parents, with Beatrice close behind. He expected his father, Francisco, to start a lecture as soon as he saw him. Francisco, Uncle Frank thought, probably would try to whip him for leaving the house without telling anyone where he was going and never contacting his family.
But before his parents could berate him, Uncle Frank introduced Beatrice to them. She was very lovely and charismatic, and before they knew it my grandparents were enthralled by her.
He stood before his father, and Francisco saw his son clothed in a suit and tie — the uniform of a businessperson. This was not what a plumber would wear. When the full meaning of this suit became clear to the older man, he struggled to his feet, stared at his son and fumbled for something with which to hit him.
For the first time in his life, Uncle Frank showed the anger that he had in him but had never before dared show his father. He cried out in a loud voice, “I knew you would want to beat me — it is your old and only remedy!”
But, even as he cried out, the younger man knew his father could not attack. He saw his father’s upraised arm drop slowly. He saw the older man’s mouth tremble as he put his hand to his lips.
Writer, producer and oral historian Mary Ann C. Montanez is currently writing a nonfiction narrative about the Pasadena Mexican-American community and her own family history.
Finding an upside to dark times in segregated Tulsa
In the late ’50s and early ’60s, most of Tulsa was racially segregated. Blacks had come a long way after the 1921 riots but were nowhere near the establishment of wealth and security found back then.
The north side is where we lived, operated our own businesses and thrived in many ways as a community. In some ways, segregation worked better for us then, as we were restricted to patronize and rely upon our own businesses, families and selves. We were responsible for our own livelihood. The grownups watched each other’s homes, children, schools, animals and anything else that mattered. We provided our own security for our neighborhoods. Calling the police for help hardly ever worked to anyone’s advantage. You were always much better off leaving them out of it.
People supported those who “tried to do better.” Those who wouldn’t or couldn’t do right, we called “bad actors.” They were reprimanded, but not abandoned. We knew each other, protected one another and certainly depended upon ourselves for better or worse. I’ll bet I could name every family living within a mile radius. There was Mrs. Martin, about 80 years old, who lived across the street. My 12-year-old sister, Marilyn, saved her from a fire one evening. She helped Mrs. Martin out of a smoky situation that erupted into flames once they got out.
Then there was Ella Mae, who lived on the corner. She was at least five or six years older than me. She was a “bad actor.” I do believe — to this day — she stole my “Mickey Mouse” watch. An original one! I wonder if it’d be worth anything now. Let it go.
One of the main events of the week for the black community was, and still is, going to church. Ours was Vernon AME: African Methodist Episcopal. I’m Episcopalian now, but it’s a far cry from the AME version I grew up with. My Uncle Loomis, Dad’s brother, was a really nice man. He was kind, generous, good-looking and easygoing. He also brought a gun to church. Every Sunday, he had it tucked in his left suit coat pocket. Right there by his heart. I’d ask him, “Uncle Loomis, don’t you want to leave that gun in the car?” He’d reply, “No, baby. Don’t you worry ‘bout this gun. I might need that gun at anytime.” I was confused, but I trusted him. I decided not to let that gun worry me, but I was aware of it during the service.
His wife, Aunt Ollie Bell, sang in the choir. We all laughed at her “high-pitched” singing, but we never let her hear us. I just remember people saying, “Oh Lord, Ollie Bell’s singing today.”
Uncle Loomis owned his own grocery store, like my dad. Only my dad had a barbecue business as well. As kids, we could go to Uncle Loomis’ store and pick out anything we wanted. I liked getting a full dill pickle out of the jar with a peppermint stick to go right down the middle. Delicious. Sour and sweet at the same time. It doesn’t get any tastier than that.
Aunt Ollie Bell was very kind to me, too. She would pick me up on many a payday and take me to buy a new dress. I remember a beautiful yellow one that I felt so proud to wear. It fit me perfectly, and I knew for sure I looked good in that dress. She was also the cafeteria supervisor at my elementary school, and I got a free dessert every day. I couldn’t assume it was mine to just take every day. I would roll my tray up to her cash register to look for her nod for me to go back and get my free dessert. It was like clockwork, but I felt excited each time it happened.
There were a lot of other people in the neighborhood who showed me favor. Like Mr. Cannon, the drugstore owner on Greenwood. On most days, I would stop in to buy something from him after school, and he’d give me a free package of cherry cough drops — Lucerne I think was the brand name. They were sweet to suck on and not medicinal-tasting at all. Never a cough involved. I loved my neighborhood, for the most part, but there were dark days too.
Hilda Boulware is a Pasadena resident who works as a children's social worker and a professional actor.
I hate my name
A teen struggles with the meanings of the name she was given
I hate my name. What the hell does Lucha mean anyway?
“To fight,” my grandmother Merced tells me.
“To kick ass,” my Tía Suki once told me.
But really, it’s just a name most people make fun of. George, my boyfriend, tells me I should change it to Lucy, just like he changed his name from Jorge to George. But everybody’s always known me as Lucha.
“Que Lucy ni que nada,” Merced told me when she overheard me talking to George on the telephone. “Your mom gave you that name and you have to stick to it.”
Actually, Merced gave me my name. I know this because Tía Suki, on her last-ever visit to Merced and me, told me. We were sitting in the kitchen. I remember because I was near death with the flu and was just getting over it. Tía Suki had promised to make me a caldo de albondigas. And I remember feeling hungry for the first time in a week when I smelled the meatballs cooking in the thick soup.
“Ay Lucha,” Tía Suki said. “More and more you’re looking like Merced.”
Great, I thought. Not only do I have a crappy name, now I’m starting to look like an old hag. Merced is the last person I wanted to look like, ever.
“Is the soup ready?” I asked Tía Suki. “All Merced ever makes for me these days is Spam and eggs. Or beans.”
“Ya mero,” Tía Suki said lowering the flame and dipping her big spoon into the soup. “Merced likes her albondigas right away too.”
I just wanted to eat and go back to bed so I could dream about George and his beautiful hair and eyes. When Tía Suki put the bowl in front of me, the albondigas soup steamed up into the ceiling with its peeling paint. I didn’t wait for Tía Suki to serve herself before I started slurping up the hot broth. The more meatballs I ate, the better I felt.
“Just like Merced,” she laughed, looking at me. “You know she’s the one who named you.”
I just looked down at my albondigas, a big brown blob in a sea of rice, cilantro and potatoes. I kept eating.
“She named you after your mom left Don Pedro,” Tía Suki said and then gulped down the rest of her soup.
Merced had told me about Mom and Don Pedro, this guy Mom had met at El Yuma Bar. She ran off with him to Bakersfield without telling Merced. He had been way older than Mom, but I think that’s why she liked him, because he was old and quiet. Not like Merced, skanky and loud. But they hadn’t lasted, and soon she was back, dragging me back from Bakersfield.
“But she hadn’t named you yet,” Tía Suki told me, handing me a tortilla. “She just called you ‘muñequita.’ I kind of liked that.”
I tried to finish my albondigas quickly so I could go to bed with my thoughts of George, but Tía Suki’s voice was low and deep and crawled into my ears then into my brain. Before I could finish, she told me that one day, when she had come to drop off some yerbas from her garden, she had found Merced and her neighbor, Rufina, in the living room, singing to some ranchera singer.
“Lucha Villa,” Tía Suki told me. “Merced and Rufina were singing ‘Amanecí en Tus Brazos.’”
Merced was holding a picture of Leandro in one hand and me in the other. Yeah, pura novela shit, but I believe it. She’s been hung up on that guy for so long, I don’t think she’ll ever get over him.
“Lucha still sings,” Tía Suki went on. “Not as good as Lola Beltrán, but she is good.”
“She still sings,” I said rolling up the last tortilla in my hand. “Good.”
“And beautiful, too,” Tía Suki said. “Long black hair. Brown skin.”
I stopped eating. I knew what Tía Suki was trying to do and it wasn’t going to work. No way was I falling for that Chicano pride crap. I knew better. That shit was over. This was the ’80s, and I was an American. So over the soup I whispered “Lucy” and watched my breath and steam float up into the peeling paint. Next year, when I started at Roosevelt High School, I would start using my American name, just like George. I would make the teachers remember my name and soon, I knew, Merced would call me Lucy, too.
Estella Gonzalez is a writer from East Los Angeles who has had work published in “Latinos in Lotusland: An Anthology of Contemporary Southern California Literature” and literary magazines such as Puerto Del Sol and Eleven Eleven.