In honor of National Hispanic Heritage Month, the following is a celebration of Los Angeles’ rich Latino literary tradition. These are writers that have called El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles del Río de Porciúncula home. They have explored its streets from Pacoima to, East L.A., to Commerce, to El Monte and Hollywood and Pershing Square. These writers usually write about a Los Angeles completely alien to Hollywood, the movie industry, to the famous neighborhoods like Brentwood, Bel Air, The Hollywood Hills, etc., the famous L.A. landmarks (Hollywood sign, Venice Beach, Pinks Hot Dogs, celebrity sightings, etc.) and capture the everyday of working class Latinos/as living in the Barrios. Away from depictions of cholos and cholas, gang violence and “illegals.” As the seminal anthology of contemporary Latino/a Southern California literature says: “Spanning sixty years…brings to life [a] complex and diverse group of people who are the Latino denizens of Los Angeles…young and old, gay and straight, rich and poor, the newly arrived and the well established.” The following authors speak to this breadth of experience proving they are not a monolith, stories that are often hidden in plain sight amidst the famous Los Angeles stereotypes of Hollywood, reinvention, dreams deferred, paradise etc. that proliferate around the world.
As with any list, this one is not exhaustive or scientific, but merely informational, highlighting some of the best/important Latino/a Angeleño writers who have and/or continue to pen the stories of Latino/a L.A. Use it as a gateway to exploring their important stories that have left a lasting imprint on El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles del Río de Porciúncula.
Gil Cuadros grew up in Montebello, where he did not have a close relationship with his father. He attended Schurr High School where, at 15, he met seventeen-year-old Laura Aguilar in photography class. Laura and Gil were close friends from then on. After, Cuadros attended East Los Angeles College for one year, then Pasadena City College. Cuadros worked at a photo lab where he met his lover, John Edward Milosch. In 1987, John died and Cuadros was diagnosed with AIDS the same year. After John’s death, Cuadros found it difficult to bear with the reality of AIDS. Laura encouraged Cuadros by bringing flyers to attend one of Terry Wolverton’s writing workshops for people with HIV at the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center. He eventually attended and met Terry in 1988. The workshop ignited a passion to write for himself and his lover, John. Cuadros claimed the disease influenced his artwork. Despite being told he had 6 months to live, Cuadros lived for another 8 years. Cuadros claimed, “writing literally saved my life or at least extended my life.” In 1994, Cuadros’ only book, City of God was published. Before his book was published, Gil Cuadros won the Brody Literature Fellowship in 1991 and he was one of the first recipients of PEN Center USA/West grants to writers with HIV. Cuadros also received support and guidance Terry Wolverton, who stood by him during difficult times as well as joyful ones. Cuadros died of AIDS at the age of 34 on August 29, 1996. In a dissertation supervised by cultural critics, Jose Esteban Muñoz and Tavia Nyong’o, Joshua Guzman writes that Cuadros’ literature makes an influential impact to the history of AIDS, providing a testimonial that “explores the impact that AIDS has had on the gay Chicano community.”
Alex Espinoza was born in Tijuana, Mexico to parents from the state of Michoacán and raised in the San Gabriel Valley. In high school and afterwards, he worked a series of retail jobs, selling everything from eggs and milk to used appliances, custom furniture, rock T-shirts, and body jewelry. His first novel, Still Water Saints, was published in 2007 and was named a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Selection. His second novel, the 2014 American Book Award winner The Five Acts of Diego León, was published in 2013. As Espinoza said in a New West interview about the setting for Still Water Saints: “I was setting my fiction in an imaginary place, loosely inspired by Colton, California, but with bits and pieces of other communities – Riverside, San Bernardino, Bloomington, La Puente, etc.” And Kirkus Review said the novel was a “Kaleidoscopic portrait of a Southern California town whose nexus is an indomitable botánica owner.”
An important Los Angeles poet, Manazar Gamboa began writing about the urban Chicano experience before it was fashionable. He was a convict-turned-poet who devoted his life after prison to writing and sharing the liberating power of literature with others from troubled backgrounds. Gamboa led Beyond Baroque, the historic Venice literary center, in the late 1970s and published in respected magazines as the Chicago Review. “He was a very important figure in opening up the poetry world in Los Angeles . . . to new voices, to overlooked ethnic and racial groups and styles,” said Frederick Dewey, a former director for Beyond Baroque. Gamboa’s family lived in Chavez Ravine, a poor, hilly area north of downtown Los Angeles. “A lot of my writing has to do with my barrio, the people who live there, the effect of the loss on myself and trying to keep it alive,” he said in a documentary on his life, “Poetic License.” When his neighborhood was destroyed in the late 1950s to make way for Dodger Stadium, it left Gamboa with an anger about being uprooted that never faded. Among Gamboa’s most notable works was “Memories Around a Bulldozed Barrio,” an epic poem he turned into performance art.
If you were to lift Dodger Stadium and its sprawling parking lots from where they now sit; replaced them with the hills, gullies, flatlands, streets and homes that were there up to the I950’s – when they were leveled and destroyed – you would find la gente de los tres barrios traveling through their daily lives. Welcome to my barrio.
Reyna Grande was born in Guerrero, Mexico, in 1975. Reyna was two years old when her father left for the U.S. to find work. Her mother followed her father north two years later, leaving Reyna and her siblings behind in Mexico. In 1985, she entered the United States as an undocumented immigrant at nine years of age. In 1999, after spending two years at Pasadena City College, Grande obtained her B.A. in creative writing from the University of California at Santa Cruz and was a 2003 PEN USA Emerging Voices Fellow. She now has an M.F.A. in creative writing from Antioch University. In The Distance Between Us, (Atria, 2012) Reyna writes about her life before and after illegally immigrating from Mexico to the United States. Her father isn’t the man she dreamed about all those years in Mexico. His big dreams for his children are what gets them across the border, but his alcoholism and rage undermine all his hard work and good intentions. Reyna finds solace from a violent home in books and writing, inspired by the Latina voices she reads. She has drawn on her own experiences growing up in Mexico and as an undocumented immigrant in the U.S and her relationship with her dad in writing her fiction and literature.
Stephen D. Gutiérrez
Stephen D. Gutiérrez was born in City of Commerce in August 1959. He went to college up north, at Chico State University, and graduated in four years, washed dishes for a foolhardy year, and then left for Ithaca, New York where he had been granted a fellowship at Cornell. He won a 2010 American Book Award for his story collection Live from Fresno y Los. This book bears witness to the excitement and pain, exhilaration and disappointments, of growing up Chicano in Fresno and the East Los Angeles/City of Commerce area of his youth during the 1970s. As Rudolfo Anaya said about Live From Fresno y Los: “The characters are (almost) middle-class Chicanos who realize they aren’t ‘the real stuff.’ They’re not the East LA cholos, and their families do not want their sons to be cholos. But they need an identity, and so they look longingly toward the barrios. Identity is at the core of these stories.” Vickie Vértiz says about the collection and Gutiérrez writing: “He wrote this about himself in ‘Elements’: ‘Grew up in the City of Commerce, six miles outside of Los Angeles, the spires of downtown visible on smogless days. We never saw them.’ But Gutierrez could see the stories of his home, his block, that metropolis that surrounds Los Angeles.”
Michael Jaime-Becerra loves El Monte so much he bought a house there. He used to write poetry he now calls the “demo tapes” of his writing career. He’s interested in writing about a Los Angeles the public never reads about. He’s an excellent professor but he could be a famous DJ, he changed his name so that people would know a Mexican-American is the one writing his stories, and like many other writers, he has been scribbling down stories since middle school. But let’s start with El Monte, since I’m honoring Latino/a writers of Los Angeles and Southern Calironia. Michael Jaime-Becerra is mapping this place, its corners and freeways, its people. Michael Jaime-Becerra has always lived in El Monte. His writing does not feed the idea that L.A. is Hollywood and Disneyland. Jaime-Becerra’s writing is about the lives of people in El Monte: union butchers, life-long homemakers, women working in a paleta truck and selling fireworks on the side, and men working at a dairy, struggling to pay a mortgage and fall in love. Vickie Vértiz says about his collection of stories Every Night is Ladies Night: “The stories in this book travel down Peck Road with eye-lined teenagers on their way to give a couple of bad dudes practice tattoos. This is what Los Angeles looks like, with cholos playing a minor role, and the rest of us [Latinos/as] front and center.”
Among the themes covered in Rubén Martínez ‘s works are immigrant life and globalization, the cultural and political history of Los Angeles (Martínez’s hometown), the civil wars of the 1980s in Central America (his mother is a native of El Salvador), and Mexican politics and culture (he is a second-generation Mexican-American on the father’s side of his family). In his early days he was a part of the spoken word and performance art scenes. From 1988 until 1993, he was a writer and editor at LA Weekly, becoming the first Latino on staff there. Subsequently, he became a contributing essayist to National Public Radio, and a TV host for the Los Angeles-based politics and culture series, Life & Times, for which he won an Emmy Award. He has written two books about his home city of Los Angeles, East Side Stories: Gang Life in East L.A. (with Joseph Rodriguez) and The Other Side: Notes from the New L.A., Mexico City, and Beyond. Martínez’s writings, especially his early writings, enunciate the voice of the Chicano/Latino community in Los Angeles, which has historically resided in the center of the city but has occupied a peripheral space economically, politically, and culturally. He comes from a Chicano/a generation in Los Angeles that represents a new generation of Chicano/Latino writers whose cultural production generally focuses on Southern California.
Marisela Norte has been one of the most active Angeleño poets, dating back to the days of Ronald Reagan and Punk Rock. She is known for her poetry that explores the unseen city. Famed for her live readings and recordings of her work, Norte has been a groundbreaking artist in the realm of performance poetry over the last generation. Her book Peeping Peeping Tom Tom Girl was published by City Works Press in 2008 and collects several of her most well-known poems, like “Angel.” Author and UCSB Professor George Lipsitz writes, “Norte works with the words of everyday life, building her art out of the screaming headlines of tabloid newspapers, the blandishments and appeals emanating from billboards and signs in store windows, and the unpredictable creativity of overhead conversations conducted in dozens of different languages.” Her piece “East L.A. Days/Fellini Nights” is an epic work connecting jazz, generations and neighborhoods; she sings the secret universe of Los Angeles. Marisela Norte has written most of her poetry on the No. 720 bus that takes her from East Los Angeles into the Mid-Wilshire area.
Wendy C. Ortiz
Wendy C. Ortiz is a Los Angeles native. When she was an 8th grader, growing up in the San Fernando Valley, she began an intimate relationship with her English teacher that lasted four years. Excavation: A Memoir is Ortiz’s account of the events that unfolded with her teacher. In Excavation, Ortiz shares passages from her teenage journals. “Ortiz writes with a raw, wrenching, vulnerable truth that is refreshing, grounding, and full of life-sustaining filaments,” Jessica Dewberry wrote in the Los Angeles Review of Books. Ortiz has summed up what drives her to write. “I want to be really committed to going to some of the darkest places and taking that and making it art. I want to work with things that are uncomfortable and scary.”
Daniel, the grandson of Mexican immigrants, grew up near the Pico-Union and Koreatown neighborhoods of Los Angeles. He now makes his home in the San Fernando Valley with his wife and son. Daniel received his degree in English literature from Stanford University and law degree from UCLA. He is the editor of the anthology, Latinos in Lotusland, which brings together 60 years of Los Angeles fiction by Latin@ writers. Olivas is the author of numerous books including the story collection Anywhere But L.A. The story collection contains 20 short stories that pertain to Los Angeles not only as a physical location but also as a cultural identity and as a mindset. Referring to the title, Olivas said, “There is a love-hate relationship with the city that anyone who lives in L.A. can understand. These stories address that.” Olivas grew up two blocks from Loyola High School.
Salvador Plascencia was born in Guadalajara, Mexico. When he was 8, his family eventually settled near Los Angeles in the city of El Monte. Growing up Plascencia was surrounded by gregarious uncles and aunts who told infectious tall and short tales. He says about one of these tales, “There’s one where my grandfather “plays Indian” for a year to elude Eisenhower’s Operation Wetback. But every time he tells that one he changes the state and job he was doing.” His debut novel People of Paper is about the stories of a large cast of colorful characters, including: a disgruntled monk, a father and daughter, a gang of carnation pickers, and a woman made of paper, set in El Monte. Plascencia says about how the city is portrayed and how he portrays it in the novel: “In the wider cultural imagination of Los Angeles, El Monte exists as a place where you go buy your Toyotas…as helicopter footage of El Monte police officers kicking a surrendered and spread-eagle EMF gangster in the head and then high-fiving. El Monte was also once Hollywood’s barnyard… The El Monte that ends up in my fiction obviously plays on these myths and perceptions. But, ultimately, I try to represent a community that is struggling with very ordinary problems: trying to make sense of what it means to have faith and be in love.”
Mary Helen Ponce
Mary Helen Ponce was born in Pacoima, CA in 1938. She attended Pacoima Elementary, San Fernando High School, earned BA and MA degrees from California State University Northridge. She has studied history at UCLA on a Danforth Fellowship, was awarded a UCSB Dissertation Fellowship, and obtained her PhD from University of New Mexico. She has raised three sons and a daughter. Ponce has said she writes in her head and she doesn’t “use a lot of metaphors and similes, as they interrupt narrative flow.” Her most famous book is the memoir Hoyt Street, where she chronicles her childhood between the years of 8-13 depicting life among Mexican-Americans in Pacoima in the 1940s. As John Rechy says in his Los Angeles Times book review on Ponce’s memoir, “Ponce leads us like a courteous hostess into her house on Hoyt Street, then introduces us to a rich gallery of family, neighbors, friends… [and she] brim[s] with genuine love for her culture and those who passed it on to her.”
In John Rechy novel’s, he has written extensively about gay culture in Los Angeles and wider America, among other subject matters, and is among the pioneers of modern LGBT literature. His most famous book, City of Night published in 1963, is his ground breaking narrative of his chronicles of gay culture in Los Angeles as well as New York and New Orleans. The novel is notable for its exposé approach to and stark depiction of hustling, as well as its stream of consciousness narrative style. However, Rechy was born March 10, 1931 in El Paso, Texas. He was the youngest of five children. He earned a B.A. in English from Texas Western College (now University of Texas at El Paso), where he served as editor of the college newspaper. John Rechy also draws on his own background as a Chicano, thus contributing to Chicano literature. He currently lives in Los Angeles. Presenting the PEN-USA-West’s Lifetime Achievement Award to Rechy, Author and Washington Post Book Critic Carolyn See described Rechy’s voice as “fresh, beautiful, totally courageous-and totally cool, passionate . . . twisting and pulling at the forms and contours of the American language … a prose revolution.”
Luis J. Rodríguez
Luis J. Rodríguez personifies L.A. He grew up on the city’s eastside and survived its gangs and violence of the late 1960s and early 1970s by falling in love with poetry, later penning a memoir about his childhood and gang experiences Always Running, his most famous book. In the memoir Rodríguez speaks of real life, the life he lived. This life he lived and the gang activity he engaged in coincides with the famous rise of Chicano gang culture in California. As Floyed Salas said in L.A. Times Review of the book: “The narrative jumps back and forth in time and finally, gradually–somewhat like life–tells the whole story.” Since Rodríguez published Poems Across the Pavement in 1989, he’s published 5 books of poetry documenting his life in L.A. and Latino’s in L.A. in general. An example is his poem “Music of the Mill from his second collection The Concrete River. It’s about his time working in the mills that used to populate South Central L.A. in the 1970s. “Inside the mill, men in various colored hard hats moved/around like so many ants.” As L.A.’s second Poet Laureate, Rodríguez has traveled to every nook and cranny of the city to encourage a new generation of poetry lovers, and discussing what and who L.A. is. He’s championed L.A. as a poetry city, publishing through his poetry press Tía Chucha, an inclusive anthology of L.A. poetry, Coiled Serpent, and says in the introduction, “Los Angeles is…deeply poetic.”
Hector Tobar is the son of Guatemalan immigrants and was born in Los Angeles in 1963. His long career in journalism includes work for The New Yorker, LA Weekly, and many positions at the Los Angeles Times. Tobar contributed to the newspaper’s Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the Los Angeles riots of 1992. Tobar is the author of The Tattooed Soldier, a novel set in the impoverished immigrant neighborhoods of Los Angeles, such as MacArthur Park, and homeless encampments in downtown, in the weeks before the riots, and in Guatemala during the years of military dictatorship there. He is also the author of the novel The Barbarian Nurseries, where he asks the reader to consider what would happen if an undocumented housekeeper is wrongly (and very publicly) accused of kidnapping the young sons of an apparently affluent Orange County couple? Hector Tobar says about the book in a La Bloga interview that, “I wanted to write about the California and the United States of my time…That arc of California history is what I’ve lived. It’s shaped who I am and how I see the world.” As he says about Los Angeles and California in his writing, “I’m most concerned with showing the textures of the California landscape, and of the complexities of the social relationships here…Among other things, I don’t think most people know how old Los Angeles really is, how old it feels in its middle, and how much history is layered there.”
Helena María Viramontes
Helena María Viramontes graduated from Garfield High School, in East Los Angeles. The Chicano Movement would play a significant role in her development as a writer. She then worked part-time while attending Immaculate Heart College, from which she earned her Bachelor of Arts in English literature in 1975. While a grad student in the English department at Cal State L.A., Viramontes was told by a professor that she did not belong there because she was writing about Latino issues. Also, while attending the MF program at UCI in the early 1980s, “a professor told me not to write about Chicanos, but to write about people.” That criticism drove her out of the program. Before Viramontes returned to UCI’s fine arts program in 1990, she published a collection of stories titled Moths and Other Stories. While bac at Irvine Under the Feet of Jesus was accepted as her master’s thesis in 1994. Her most recent novel Their Dogs Came With Them, is about the barrio of East Los Angeles and a group of unbreakable young women struggling to find their way through the turbulent urban landscape of the 1960s. Viramontes says she set this novel in 1960s and 1970s East L.A. because of, “the radical changes happening within the nation and within the community. The discontent with the Vietnam war, the rising power of the disenfranchised and the growing political consciousness planted by Civil rights, Chicano, and feminist movements all contributed to a chaotic questioning, a disruption of thinking and living… I also thought it interesting to begin the novel with the coming of the freeways… our neighbors disappeared. It devastated, amputated East L.A. from the rest of the city.”