A Collective Imagination of Place: Sesshu Foster & Arturo Ernesto Romo in Conversation

Sep 3, 2021

Photo of Sesshu Foster and Arturo Ernesto Romo by Tracy Nguyen / Los Angeles Times

This is an excerpt of a free event for our virtual events series, City Lights LIVE. This event features Sesshu Foster & Arturo Ernesto Romo in conversation with Carribean Fragoza, celebrating the book launch of ELADATL: A History of the East Los Angeles Dirigible Air Transport Lines, published by City Lights Books.This event was originally broadcast live via Zoom and hosted by Josiah Luis Alderete. You can listen to the entire event on our podcast.You can watch it in full as well on our YouTube channel.

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Carribean Fragoza: I think one of the important things that I’ve learned from both of you guys, and it’s also part of ELADATL, is the ways in which we belong to a place instead of a place belonging to us. And I think I first heard that from you, Arturo, in one of our conversations, where you talked about, “What are the ways that we actively belong to a place instead of owning it? And then also, by extension, how do we belong to each other?”

All of this is to say, what was your experience in telling this enormous narrative comprised of so many other, almost countless, narratives? What was your experience putting them all together? Both the real ones and the invented ones.

Sesshu Foster: Arturo and I were collaborating for years on a website, the elaguide.org, which is still up, and presumed to present maps of historical and cultural sites of East Los Angeles, most of which were not recognized by the city at large in any kind of official way, but were important to people on the east side, like the CSO office. The CSO was the organization that Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez got their organizing training at and then, in a later reincarnation, served as the Vex, the punk venue, that Los Ilegales and Da Brat and other bands played at.

And so there’s this rich, multi-layered history of East LA that the book tries to imply by excavating some of the subconscious and some of the unseen, some of the fantasies and stories of people, rather than just the addresses and the street names. To go beyond the surface, in that way, through many people’s voices and through a kind of collectivity of voices to avoid or abjure or subvert the individual for a collective imagination of place. Because I think consumer culture and capitalism tells you that it’s all about you, and it’s all about your consumption. It’s all about you making money and spending it, but actually, we live our whole lives dependent on everybody else. From our parents to our people––whoever our people are––they’re taking care of us. Our lives depend on them, we are a part of them, they are a part of us. And so the narrative attempts to allude to that kind of collectivity.

Arturo Ernesto Romo: Carribean’s question made me think about a mural project that I had worked on at Franklin High School in Highland Park, where I worked with some very dedicated high school students and my cousin Reies Flores, who is also an urban farmer and who appears in the narrative of the book. We were looking at muralismo as it existed in Mexican culture, Latino culture, and then Chicano culture, and the attempt to tell a cohesive narrative around place, and about a group of people and their relationship to place. This is central to the practice of mural making. And mural making is also place-making: putting your history on the wall of a place, and having a shared history.

And so, in the process of making that mural, which was ostensibly the history of Northeast LA, where this school is located, we––myself and the students and my cousin––would take field trips to different areas and we learned about Tongva history and the natural history of a place. And what we noticed is that it was impossible to tell the story of a place without shifting points of view very quickly. And so the composition of the mural ended up being prismatic and cut-up. The landscape of Northeast LA is very hilly. And so you could be on a trail and you could be looking to your right and be confronted by a little cliff face and then look to your left and have a vista that goes on for 100 miles. And with those differences in points of view, there was no way, really, to tell the story of the place without radically different points of view in the same picture plane. And I think that kind of fed into the ELA guide, and it fed into some of the radio performances that we did later, and definitely into the novel structure in terms of multiple points of view. Like Sesshu was saying, we came to the idea that you can’t tell the story of place without multiplicity and collectivity.

Carribean Fragoza: And it was a narrative that is so full of multiplicity. I find that sometimes folks have a hard time summarizing what ELADATL is about, because there’s so many components. And I think, from my view, it really defies this impulse to tell a single, very unified narrative that is easily consumed. And this novel is just so against that. I think people get unsettled by just how refracted the narrative is, and how jam-packed it is with information that maybe readers don’t always know what to do with, like the appendices, for example.

In my experience, when I first picked up the book, I started at the beginning, and then, like two minutes into it, I was like, “This isn’t gonna work.” So I just opened another random page right in the middle and it was all about Noah Purifoy’s Desert Art Museum out in Joshua Tree. And I happened to be in Joshua Tree when I was reading it. And I had never been there . . .

Sesshu Foster: And so then you had to go––

Carribean Fragoza: ––And then I went!

I read what you wrote about the museum and then it ends up totally informing my experience while I was visiting. It’s interesting that, after reading a book like this, you go out and you look at these actual locations with a whole new sense of possibility. You look at a sculpture, and all of a sudden, you’re not thinking of it as a sculpture anymore. You’re thinking of it as, “Maybe you can fly on this piece of junk right here. Why not?” I think that’s one of the things that your book does, Arturo and Sesshu. It just opens up a sense of possibility that is enormous.

And I find it really a big relief, especially in the world that we’re living right now. We’re confined to this reality, whatever this is. And then we read this book, and it just blows up what is possible. There’s all these fantastical elements to it. It felt to me like you really constructed this alternate reality, where all these things that are normally not possible and things that normally may not be able to fly, or happen, do. So I was just wondering, how did you go about constructing the fantastic elements? Did you spend hours and hours just like geeking out, figuring out the details of stuff? How did you construct this world?

Arturo Ernesto Romo: Well, I think there’s a narrative tendency to sell something––to sell like a singular picture––and that’s tied to commercialization. And it’s tied to the commodification of something. Maybe the process of commodification and stripping the spirit away from something is related to narrative reduction. And I think it goes back to what Sesshu was talking about in terms of our ethic. We tried to do something similar to what City Terrace Field Manual did, which is capture a place by being in a place and by being of a place.

The ELA guide looks like it was made in 1996 or something, but you know, it’s an attempt to capture a place through links, like literal links on a website. And it’s similar to how City Terrace Field Manual can have multiple points of view and cross references and an index that went all over the place. And so I think our collaboration was in terms of entering into that fantasy world with a lot of riffing and a lot of being self-referential.

I would create a character that was referred to in an exhibition, and Sesshu would write about it, give that character a whole backstory. I would take that backstory, and then add some fictions to it to provide some “proof” that the character existed by giving it a photograph. Sesshu would then take that, add an element, and so now we’re always creating evidence for each other. And I think that building up of evidence is kind of like building land on water. We’re trying to slowly inch out and build some more of the fiction. But most of it felt to me like we were doing this while we were exploring East LA, driving around, and kind of riffing, like making jokes and laughing and just going back and forth with each other.

Sesshu Foster: We drove around East LA together for several years researching the ELA guide and just researching East LA in general. So for example, on the sides of many of the little mom and pop grocery stores, there’s a painting of the Virgin de Guadalupe. That presents some kind of mystical meaning to the owners of the store, but somebody was going around and defacing those. They would spray paint over the faces of all of those and we were looking at those and speculating on who that was. Why were they doing that? What did that mean? And so that became a chapter in the book, it became an appendix. There were all these kinds of idiosyncratic and place-specific mysteries to East LA like that, which we were investigating.

Josiah Luis Alderete: Sesshu and Arturo, what’s the influence of Asco in your guys’s collaboration?

Arturo Ernesto Romo: Asco was a huge influence on me as an artist, and therefore, on the book. For those who don’t know, Asco was a experimental art/performance group out of the 70s and 80s that did street performances and was riffing off of ideas of moviemaking and representation, but also exploring elements of being outside of society in various ways, oppression, and claiming space. And I think, yeah, Asco was a huge influence, just in terms of their approach to reality, at least for me. I think that they come out of a mural-making tradition since two of their members are really great muralists. The influence that they had on me was that they were taking that ethic of muralism and taking it off the wall and putting it into the performance space. And then doing so within the context of a highly politicized human rights movement called the Chicano movement out of the 70s, out of which I was born. Asco’s very, very important to the book, as is the Chicano movement in general.

Sesshu Foster: I guess what I might add to that is that one of the key members of Asco is Willie Herrón, who’s from City Terrace, where I grew up. And Willie established, when he was in high school, a mural practice and an art studio on City Terrace Drive. So I would walk by his studio, and I would see his murals in the community. And it impressed me, as a high school student, that he was making art in the community, for the community, about the community in the place where he lived. And as he put it, “Getting chased by cholos” because he was wearing French ruffles and painting instead of engaging in gang violence. And his brother, who was more of a gangster, was stabbed some 60 times in an alley, behind Plaza market and City Terrace. And so Willie tells it, he painted a mural there as a kind of prayer, an anti-violence prayer. And it really impressed me when I was young that you could take art and try and make it into an anti-violence prayer for your community.

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Purchase ELADATL from City Lights Bookstore.

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