on parasitism and direct action

"Reading a book can help someone decide to take action but it is not the same thing as taking action. Writing a book is not the same as taking action. The responsibility of every writer is to take their place in the vibrant, creative activist movements along with everybody else. The image created by the male intellectual model of an enlightened elite who claims that their artwork is their political work is parasitic and useless for us."

- Sarah Schulman on the responsibility of the writer.

Against Nostalgia

It's the morning after the big event. Last night I was on a panel with folks connected to Jabberjaw. It was the opening keynote panel for the Los Angeles edition of the Experience Music Project conference that usually happens every year in Seattle. I submitted the panel proposal late last year when I saw that the call for papers had a distinctly Los Angeles bent centered on locality, organic musical community formations, identity and overall clique-y scenester-ness. I hit up Michelle Carr, co-proprietor of Jabberjaw slash archivist on Jabberjaw emphemera and now editor of the upcoming anthology It All Dies Anyway: LA, Jabberjaw, and the End of an Era because the book project was creating a flutter of excitement from previous patrons and members of the old Jabberjaw community. It seemed like a great way for all of us on the Jabberjaw Facebook group to take our communications, creative exchanges, tensions and other healthy beefs into the public.

I drove down from the Bay yesterday morning. I arrived to my parents' house in Huntington Park to basically put together a 100+ slide slow for the event. I arrived early enough to set up my tech stuff while greeting the who-was-who of Jabberjaw past. Time has been kind to us.

This was my first EMP contribution ever and the combination of caffeine and nerves was one thing but the feedback on the mics took me off balance and I probably didn't say as much as would have liked to. I was really happy to be on a panel with some of Jabberjaw's brightest stars, to be amongst friends from back then who I'd stand next to and be the most present I've ever been in my young life. Sure brightness can sometimes blind and as someone told me after the panel, this was the nicest and restraint I've ever been when it comes to discussing issues of race-class-gender-privilege. I woke up thinking about it this morning. I felt like I was trying to reference the teenage person inside of me that was a frequent patron and sometime performer at Jabberjaw and that person wasn't articulating the burden of identity during that period in the early 90s. The young person inside me saw the way Riot Grrl polarized people in the Jabberjaw community, the micro-aggressive iterations against feminists taking the space back, even if it was only psychic space, and it haunted me. If gender spooked folks into acting like their dads, I was not about to bring up race or ethnicity. Jabberjaw, for as much as it gave us all permission to imagine living our lives creatively and not starve, it was still kind of a nihilistic space. And that was the allure. It was so many things at once--dystopic and hopeful crawling with innocent Peter Pans and  intense addictive personalities.

Spot the little identitarian-in-process with the black cherry lips in front.

Spot the little identitarian-in-process with the black cherry lips in front.

Did it scare me? Maybe it did. Was it worth it to me to speak up even when deep down I knew Jabberjaw was as diverse space a space as it was ever going to get if I wanted to see bands I gave a shit about? I mean, even if Jeffrey, Sajay, Sisi, Adam, Jessie, or Gabe or any number of my friends of color didn't want to talk about it, make a big deal about being the brown and black faces in this sometimes sea of white, it was our prerogative. Were we all politicized? I surely wasn't at 17. I could barely swallow calling myself a feminist. It is hard dressing for battle. But even now it's not like I'm a very good at being a person of color, whatever that means. I'm reminded every day about structural racism and fall back all the things I had to do to be a good cockroach and survive all that symbolic ontological annihilation, even when it's coming from supposed allies. All I knew back then was that I loved shows and that sometimes things got awkward for brown kids. 

We do bring it up, however. We do it behind closed doors. Over telephone conversations. In a 'zine that will be distributed to maybe 5 people. And sometimes in documentaries like Martin Sorrendeguy's Mas Alla De Los Gritos/Beyond The Screams: A U.S. Latino Hardcore Punk Documentary or Kerri Koch's Don't Need You: The Herstory of Riot Grrrl or James Spooner's Afro Punk...the other black experience.

And even then those documents aren't enough. When you have three narratives, they become the GO-TO narrative for all things brown and punk, or female and punk and so on, so forth. Riot Grrrl gets cast time and time again as this white, privileged, educated space, when my time in Riot Grrrl was spent with bad ass Chicanas and Filipinas into punk and fucking shit up and being way too much for the white girls around us too conveniently clueless about their varying forms of privilege. The elision of Los Angeles Riot Grrrl is annoying mostly because I feel like this is the Riot Grrrl narrative you've been waiting and hoped to find in Sara Marcus' love letter to Bikini Kill otherwise known as Girls To The Front. But that elision just underscores the quandary of having a conversation about race in those circles--no one was ready. But those tensions gave way mostly because they had no choice and explode into new and exciting forms of identity-based spatial awareness. Like I said last night, if it weren't for Jabberjaw I'd not know the brilliant, liberatory genius of Vaginal Davis. Vag went on to create some of the most exciting performance venues for gender outlaws in Los Angeles, spaces where you could engage with the collision of sex, identity, practice and radical self-formation.

Now twenty years after these creative movements, communities and eras there we are seeing the emergence of curators, editors, archivists and librarians coming forth with the ephemera they held onto carefully and sharing it with the rest of us. That's exciting to me because it is an opportunity to create new and counter-narratives to what we know about punk/indie/DIY culture. My main impetus in sending in the panel proposal was to bring attention to the care that Michelle Carr has taken with all of these historical materials and the vision she has to find a receptacle for these materials in the form of a coffee table book. She took care of Jabberjaw when it was a living space and continued to take care of Jabberjaw in its living death.

I am a fan, a champion of the organic archivist--those with personal libraries containing important ephemera like flyers, photographs, 'zines, cassette demos, compilation records and Xeroxed writings about DIY culture, 3rd wave feminism, hardcore post-punk, rock posters, Riot Grrrl, and all things Los Angeles in the 1990s. A few weeks ago I finally gave Lucretia Tye Jasmyne my Riot Grrrl Los Angeles oral history. I had been asked to give my oral history by a few other curators and scholars working on the Riot Grrrl movement and I either didn't have time to or just hadn't undone the knot of anxiety that kept me from wanting to relive that time in my life. Props to Chelsea Starr for being tenacious in broadening the dearth of voices of color in the RG discourse and to Astria Suparak and Ceci Moss who're busy working on curating an extensive exhibit on Riot Grrrl culture nationally. Astria has gone so deep into the archive she's unearthed my fanzine Soda Jerk (copies that Lucretia Tye still has and has promised to mail to me) and compilation cassette I put together called Fountain Of Youth. For more insight to Astria and Ceci's work, check out: http://riotgrrrlcensus.tumblr.com/

This is the work that is really thrilling to me. People not asking for permission to get our stories told, no matter how fraught and complicated and drowning in nostalgia they may be...


I wish we could've talked about how in the photos of the audience, nary a cell phone was visible. No one was looking down at the wretched pager going off in their jean pockets or busy capturing themselves by way of an Instagram selfie. I can't imagine a band like Low performing to utter quietude today.

Okay, I smell nostagia so I'll stop here.

* A note about the photographs: from the Jabberjaw Facebook Group Postings. My apologies that I don't have the photo credit, but please feel free to post who the photographers are. I believe the Bratmobile photo is by Ben Clark, but I am not entirely certain.


Well I didn't see this coming.

Or maybe I did. It's hard to say since I've spent the bulk of my adult life stuck in that hometown loyalty vortex that challenges the imagination and stuffs your brain with some things Dodger blue. It was just that I thought I'd always live, love, thrive and die in Los Angeles, except for those 14 months when I lived in New York.

But looky here, I ended up in the Bay Area, that place that weirdly became the gay Mecca I was ambivalently resentful towards for no apparent reason than a chip on my shoulder is just like my default mode sometimes. But I'm here. Now. Any why not? Love and career are some of the most compelling reasons to uproot yourself. And I did. And it's GOOD.

Like last weekend for instance, marked the end of my fourth week and San Francisco saw a hint of an early Spring. The sun was blooming. The sky was a bright cornflower blue. The clouds were few but powder white and succulent in the sky. I drove into the city (because I live in Oakland!) and arrived to a bagel brunch organized by Beth and Ali, held to welcome me, the new butch in town. Isn't that the nicest thing ever? 

I walked in, holding my sweetheart's hand and a canvas bag full of bubble water and sparkling wine giddy with anticipation. I've reached a point where I don't really get social anxiety or expect my fun to come from anywhere else other than my own guts and heart and brain meats. I'm optimistic to a fault so I was super eager to transfer my inner fun onto a new world peopled by beautiful, talented, generous artist/creative types. I can't help it. I'm just like a naturally curious sentient being and I ask questions and offer my own solicited intimacies in ways that enable me to continue being generous to humans. It was NICE. To get out of my head and into my body. To get out from under the burden of screenburn and amplified noise vis-a-vis social media and into the faces of strangers turning acquaintances turning friends.

For three hours and then some I was welcomed by a community. It's an idea I think we should all honor whenever the opportunity reveals itself. I admit that for the bulk of my life I fetishized the small town--mostly because I've longed for a sense of belonging. You think you might get that because the less-ness of bodies brings us closer together, hungry for warmth. Scarcity doesn't make a community.

I realized recently as I saw the constant thread in my life emerge, the thread of creating community. You work at it and then you work at it some more. And you see the fruit, the investment and you put some in the community bank and you see it grow and it's there and now there's so much of it wherever you go.

Whether it's goods to share, food to eat, tales and glory to gather around, the important part is doing.


TO SIR, WITH LOVE for Christopher Lee

I am heartsick about the passing of Christopher Lee. I was a generation behind him, a firebrand of visual activism. His a life was devoted to bringing images of trans men to light, on celluloid, on digital film, both transcendent and sexually aggressive, no holds barred and so unapologetic.

I don’t want to give you the impression that we were friends. We weren’t. We weren’t because I thought there would be time to get close, forget our common ties, if our paths ever crossed again, third time being the charm and all. I can only give you snapshots of where our lives touched in the last ten years, in Los Angeles mostly, and then San Francisco.

I met him the winter of 2003 through someone had begun dating who unbeknownst to me would bend, twist and break open my world for the better and apocalyptic worst. Let’s call her Sabrina. Christopher and Sabrina were friends—she would tell me, a young brown butch, that he would always try to “daddy” her. Well…what do you mean? I would ask though galaxies away from being ready to deal with the answer. He was older than me, had the San Francisco experience over my lesser Los Angeles sheltered life of La-la-latina lesbianism. It didn’t occur to me in my nascent gender exploratory (yet anchored in essentialism) phase that you could be a Daddy well beyond the bedroom and dungeons.

Christopher was a Virgo—he could Daddy you to throw out shit you weren’t using, like broken vintage lamps, black velvet paintings, gas station jackets and cat-scratched up furniture. At least that’s what he did for Sabrina, who was trying to purge a life with her ex to make room for the hit-and-run romance she was initiating with me. Although no one ever said as much—those days were spent mind-reading, baby butch sulking, and operating in the angriest of silences. She was one of those I-Hate-You-Don’t-Leave-Me macho femmes. I was threatened by Christopher Lee’s friendship because he probably knew her better than I ever could. I mean, how could he not? He’s walked the miles, put in the time, had had his fair share of angry silences. For fuck’s sake, he was a Daddy.

I know this is now a very San Francisco banal way to be, but now as I walk through the Mission, Christopher’s distinction is one of near extinction. Christopher’s passing reflects that shift here. He was one of the dangerous ones.

Throughout my relationship with Sabrina, I would see Christopher whenever he’d come to L.A., usually unannounced, sometimes knocking on her door while we were still in bed (she lived in a building that required being buzzed in) and I visibly annoyed. I was a young turk, Oedipal and Napoleon were my complexes de rigueur in those early to mid-oughts and I squandered the opportunities to get learned from a gender warrior ahead of his time. He was in town for Outfest, as one of the few visible trans filmmakers, he would make the identity political panel circuit impeccably dressed in beautiful hues of eggplant and lavender, exploding categories before our eyes. Even as a young punk, I had to give him that.

I never came correct with Christopher, but that had a lot to do with the social dynamics seemingly predetermined between us. In other words, I had fraught relationships with all of Sabrina’s trans- and butch-identified friends. I’m not proud of these moments enshrouded by my insecurities. But they’re there and I’m making peace with them.

My break-up with Sabrina sent me down a dangerous spiral where I encountered my darker, shadier side. I call the summer of 2009 Break-Up Summer. I was flying to San Francisco, then New York and back to San Francisco away for over three weeks for readings and trying desperately to maintain sobriety. I was doing thirty days in AA because I thought I was an alcoholic. I felt like Robert Downey Jr in Less Than Zero and all I wanted was not a drink but a shot of my ex. I was in withdrawal, a different kind of addict in need of serious soothing. I found an 8pm AA meeting in The Castro. It was after my share as a newcomer that Christopher put his hand on my arm as I sat back down. I turned my head and saw his familiar face. Instead of puffing my chest out, I exhaled a sigh of relief, smiled meekly and squeezed his hand. After the meeting, we went out for a slice of pizza and cans of soda.

Christopher was there for me when I needed someone who had been there before. He listened. Christopher was a good Daddy, after all. I needed him to tell me I was crazy while reassuring me that my crimes were not worth crucifying. It was good to make peace with him, to apologize for being such a baby. He was kind, shrugged it off. We left each other warmer than we’d ever been. But we left with a see ya around.

Sabrina was the break-up that sent me back home to mommy because I could never be a Daddy. Sure, I went home to lick my wounds, but I got closer with Yemaya, too. I thank her on the regular and you should, too. I got reacquainted with the divine maternal and make sure my butch armor isn’t shiny with toxic masculinity day in and day out. Now, I could be there, maybe, cavalierly, vulnerably, for all the Christophers that came before me, to ensure they stay around for the babies, pre-teens and adolescents. It’s hard to tell them apart these days.

In other words, I’m stronger now.

I regret little though wince that I didn’t stay in touch with Christopher. I could feel his pain over late night pizza, but knew I, shaky with my own traumas, couldn’t provide the salve. I hope he is at rest, wherever he may be.

Until we meet again, kind sir.


RADICAL NARCISSISM - Part 1 of an essay

No one is told they are a baby man. Or a baby woman. You’re a baby. Then a boy. Or a girl. Then a man or a woman.

            It’s different with butch. With femme. I cling to these two categories the way we cling to a 2-party political system. We know that there are so many other ontological possibilities. I know that queer oedipality has rendered these categories moot. Still, I put so much hope and longing into what they could possibly be and do for us, and then the heartbreak, inevitable. But I return to this one. I inhabit butch. Warts and all.

But let me get down from the ether and come at you con puro butch cuerpazo. This is an essay burning with the cuerpazo de barrio politics and the everyday gender renegade. It begins with an origin narrative.

I had dropped out of college. It was the third quarter and I still couldn’t pass Geography. The experience felt like a waste of my hard-earned coffee shop barista tip money so I opted to stop going to school and figure myself out before college became another humiliating experience for me. What there was to figure out was endemic to my age. I was an average student in high school, Bs and Cs and lots of rashes from the herringbone skirts I wore and overwrought feelings of forlornness for varieties of otherwise uninterested girls I was madly in love with in 1994. Oh yeah, I went to an all-girls Catholic school in Lakewood, California and the dogmatic monotony sucked the marrow of ambition out of my bones. The last straw was the marriage project, assigned the last semester of my senior year. It was a graduation requirement. I asked if there was another project I could do since I told my teacher, Mr. Reardon, that I had no plans to marry.

I applied to two CSU’s and the University of San Francisco. I got into the public schools. I opted to stay in L.A. I knew I wasn’t ready to venture out to the Bay Area at 18. I could barely tell the truth at 18.

My underachieving in the quarter system and I were not getting along. So I quit school and went to work. First at coffee shop in North Hollywood. Eagle’s Coffee Pub and News Stand. It was right across the street from the Television Arts & Sciences building. I would wait on a lot of famous people like Faye Dunaway, Ed Asner, and Michael Damian who played Danny on the Young and the Restless. Well, I surely was. It was at Eagle’s that I became friends with Beth, a Jewish goth who sang in a twee pop band called Aberdeen. She was obsessed with all things Scottish, especially the Jesus and Mary Chain. Beth and her younger boyfriend, John, were from Palm Desert, lived in North Hollywood in a tiny bachelor apartment that she paid $300 a month for by working at this radio tip sheet, a Soundscan competitor that tracked rock songs on different rock music radio stations across the county. I had confided to Beth many of my same-gender crushes. She had become a close friend. Then my big alcoholic lady boss at the coffee shop began to sexually harass me and the money wasn’t that good so Beth got me a job at her office. I worked in the retail department, calling different record stores across the country and asking why they thought Insane Clown Posse was always their top seller week to week. I was really obsessed with punk and hardcore and indie and emo and riot grrrl and going to places like Jabberjaw and the Alligator Lounge to see bands from all over the States perform. To me live music was an opportunity to imagine a world different than the one I was born into and get away from the doldrums of my family life, not getting into a good college and other failures I felt as a child of immigrants. I was supposed to do better than my parents. Their hopes and dreams emblazoned onto my future and I felt like I had let them down by being really good at being a blossoming little homo. I was also good at knowing about bands and ‘zines and about who was having a fight in our little incestuous punk rock scene of the mid-1990s. I was good at gossip and finding my spot sometimes by force in this wretched little community of DiY-ers.

            Beth and I were the only two racially ambiguous young women that presented in almost direct opposition to the normative female and feminine genders in our company. We had dyed black hair, wore band t-shirts, doc Marten boots, black tights and nail polish, sneakers and thrift store scores and flea market finds. Most of the other female bodied people there wore tight jeans, white button down blouses with the top three buttons very unbuttoned and earth tone chunky wedges. And they were blonde. It was rocker lady office casual.

            The men that ran the company had a few things in common—they had NRA stickers on their doors alongside the logos of their favorite sports teams and photos of Sammy Hagar and Van Halen. It was a deeply masculinist space, with the clichés that run rampant in these kinds of workplaces. Jimmy Fast, the president of the company, was a renowned Hockey radio personality. He would flaunt his high paying salary by driving large SUVs before they became common on the road and would also fly in his chicken wings straight from Buffalo, New York. He would also hit on most of the blonde white women in the building.

            I strived for invisibility at this place. I wanted to hide the fact that I was a young woman. I just wanted to get through every day without attracting any unsolicited remarks about my sexual availability. I just wanted the free music Cds and concert tickets that the environment afforded me. I just was not prepared nor willing to pay for it by engaging the older white men in charge about their various gratuitous desires. I got in trouble once for saying something negative about Springsteen’s Ghost of Tom Joad record. This was a group that didn’t care for the word NO.

            At our holiday party on the Sunset strip, I made the mistake of wearing a dress. I wore dresses infrequently. This one that hit the knee but that according to Jimmy Fast’s leering commentary showed my sweet little body. I was 21. I wondered how women did it. How could we put up with this strange and quotidian degradation? I was creeped out and far from having developed the callous of feminine detachment that most of my female-identified friends carry like a badge of valor.

            I couldn’t wear a dress any longer.

            I was nearing the end of my first year with this company. And I had just experienced my first same-gender heartbreak. The work culture’s toxicity along with my break-up was beginning to weigh on me in ways that drove me to engage in unhealthy behaviors. I was young, not in college, working full-time and hitting those Burbank happy hours to decompress.

But I longed for community. I didn’t know that was what I was missing. I needed to talk about loving and losing another woman. And I didn’t know how to do that until I saw an article in the Los Angeles Times about a Latina Lesbian support group that met every Sunday in East Los Angeles. I had never seen those two words together in newsprint. And I had never really stopped to explore those two words in relation to my identity. So I waited for Sunday. And it came. And I was the first to arrive to the Bienestar in East Los Angeles at four o’clock on the dot where a beautiful Chicana with a curly cascade of black hair received me. She wore a kid-sized guayabera shirt unopened revealing her virgin necklace encased in a piece of stunning turquoise. I wanted to ask her, “Are you a Latina lesbian?” She was devoid of any hipster posturing. Unlike me, I was deeply entrenched in with my highwater black pants, Vans sneakers and navy blue golf jacket. My look was very Ian Svenonius, circa 1992. He was the singer from my favorite band Nation of Ulysses. We didn’t call it hipster back then with venomous rage. And gentrification was just a twinkle in capitalism’s eye.

The first meeting of my new Latina lesbian support group held a dynamic set of intelligent Chicana mujeres. Like, seriously. I was in love with them all. We broke each other’s hearts. Now, I don’t want to break anonymity here, but this group of young artists have gone on to create some of the most stunning art, performance, policy, and scholarship. I met my best friends here and enemies that still make my spirit ache.

We met for about six more Sundays when suddenly, the ferociously sharp femme that ran our meetings announced that our dear group had lost its funding from the organization. At the time I hadn’t realized that lesbian programming would always be cut first in the age of translating AIDS and HIV to our barrio communities. I understood that but in my immaturity resented that reality as I pursued any and all opportunity to explore my identity.

It was losing funding for my lesbian support group that put me on my path to art-making. I found a group of women to vent to, to hold space for, to find that I was not alone and neither were they.

EXCERPT From the Trenches - Back at Ron's

“Do you like music, Teodulo?” Ron asked. He pulled out a cassette and pushed play on the stereo system. Silvio Rodriguez’ ‘Dias Y Flores’ began to play. Teodulo was struck that Ron listened to music in Spanish. And Teodulo had never up until that moment registered another soft-voiced man fill the room at a hush with unabashed revolutionary longing.

            “Almost like a lullaby, right?” Ron sighed and smiled an earnestly sweet idiot’s smile that made Teodulo cover his mouth as he chuckled quietly.  Ron seemed so clownish to him.

            This was the second night in Los Angeles. Magda called Ron first thing in the morning to ask him for another housing alternative to the Church. Both she and Teodulo took turns staying up to keep watch over Ana and Panchito, both of whom slept like the dead. The nearly anarchic conditions of the church sanctuary were also home turf for much of the shopping cart-pushing homeless that live in the Skid Row district during the day. Occupying the same space with middle-aged grizzled white men who smelt drunk or talked to themselves proved to be too much for the young family to bear.

            Ron picked the family up around three-thirty and took them out to eat pupusas at the El Salvador Café, one of the first Salvadoran restaurants in Los Angeles located near on the Santee discount shopping alleys on San Julian Avenue. Even the name of the street where the eatery was located conjured a particular Salvadoran-ness that Magda found untrustworthy.

            “It’s really hard not to come here,” Ron said between slurps of chicken soup. “But there aren’t many Salvadoran restaurants in Los Angeles and the food is just too good. They’re not quite Arenistas here, but being apolitical lends itself to that, I think.”

ARENA was the right wing, conservative party in El Salvador. Upon arrival and waiting to be seated Magda had stealthily checked the windows of the café, along with the faces of the workers and clientele trying to discern the political atmosphere. She knew an Alfredo Cristiani supporter when she saw one. But the walls were plastered with old travel posters boasting black beaches, soccer matches, volcanoes and happy indigenous children picking coffee beans. The lack of any consciousness about the war was tiny solace for Magda. The absence of dogma, for once, allowed her to enjoy her pan con pavo, a dish she hadn’t delighted in for almost ten years.

            The late afternoon sunlight had filled the large living room by the time the five compañeros entered Ron’s one-bedroom apartment. He lived in a neighborhood called Los Feliz, except everyone in Los Angeles always stressed the wrong syllable in the word that meant happy in Spanish.

The first 48 hours in Los Angeles had finally caught up to Magda, who was grateful to have a moment alone in Ron’s austere bathroom. She closed the door behind her and leaned against it, closing her eyes and feeling their burning with exhaustion. She clutched the waistline of her pants—she had to make sure to find a safe secret place in Ron’s apartment and without alarming him, too. The bathroom was too sparse a space to have any viable hiding options. She looked at the heating vent above the toilet. She stepped on the commode to see if the metal grate was maneuverable. It wasn’t. She stepped off the rickety toilet seat lid making more noise than she intended. Magda looked at herself in the mirror and furrowed her brow. You are crazy, Magda. She joked to herself that she could have easily smuggled her children in the bags under her eyes. She went to bed as soon as the sun went down even though it was only seven in the evening. Ana and Panchito, both made shy and distressed by Ron’s unfamiliar way of being, laid by their mother’s side on the fold-out sofa bed.

Teodulo, however, was suddenly struck by brazen curiosity. It helped that Magda had fallen asleep, as she would have surely shamed his desire to learn more about Ron’s personal effects. He stood in front of one of the four overloaded bookshelves in the space. The bookcase, crammed with photograph books, records, cassettes, framed photos of Ron standing next to Guatemalan school children and Sandinista-inspired murals in Esteli, Nicaragua. There were biographical tomes and popular education manuals. All of it called to Teodulo. He had not seen the names Freire, Boal, Cienfuegos, Rodriguez, Martí, Milanés, Parra, Jara, Castro, Sosa and Guevara since the young family left their own home in Apopa for the mountains. Of course, Teodulo’s parents kept these materials well hidden inside the wall of their home. Dagoberto and Magda were ardent readers, often holding study groups and other gatherings in their home, throwing out quotes and stanzas back and forth like a game of ping-pong. This was before Ana was born and Teodulo played with the Hot Wheels up and down the steps of the apartment’s staircase. The little cars with racing numbers and flames painted on the side were a birthday gift from his uncle Rogelio, who was, then, still in Virginia and whose monstrosity unknown to the family.

The apartment walls were covered in framed colorful posters depicting the Wobblies united around the world on the same picket line and Uncle Sam as an insatiable hog bathing in a bath filled with U.S. currency. Yet the majority of them contained variations on the Cuban flag, Venceremos, and images of Farabundo Martí, Augusto Sandino and Che Guevara, the holy trinity of Latin American social movements.

There was one poster, however, that when he laid his eyes upon it made Teodulo audibly gasp. He sees the black chalk rendering of a young soldier, his face contorted with righteous anger and his arm blacker and proportionally larger than his body and rifle, struck in a victory salute, his Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity patch up front and visible on his military shirt. The soldier in the poster looked imposing. Impressive. That soldier provoked pride and a deep awareness of his Guatemalan people’s love for him and that made Teodulo ache with rancor. He wrapped his arm around his body, feeling the bruises fade.

“You and your family have done so much for your people, compañero,” Ron was a broken record.

“It was not a choice. They put a gun in my hand when I was eleven,” Teodulo said quickly, not registering the depth of his honesty. Ron let the boy’s words go down gently before he spoke.

“You’re the bravest young man I have ever met from El Salvador,” Ron said quietly, not wanting to wake his travel-weary guests. “But remember these are sacrifices and everyone has made many sacrifices. You can read. You never starved. You have seen the real face of justice because you fought for it. You lived. And here you are.” Ron looks Teodulo squarely in the eye as he purses his lips solemnly.

Teodulo’s face darkened. He felt his stomach fill with resentful acid, similar to what he felt inside the Church’s men’s room. However, it was an emotional acid, not the kind that coated his mouth in semen.

He cleared his throat to chase off the irritation he felt with the funny looking white man with the high-pitched voice. After all, Ron was right—every Salvadoran had made some concession, either willfully or by force, to the war. But Ron was also the adult that had never seen actual combat. He, unlike Teodulo, has never killed another man or seen the images of loved ones obliterated, those memories seared into his heart and mind forever. The old, white guy will never know nor will he ever have parents to put him in that situation. Teodulo makes his own compromise to that frustratingly fucked up fact while smiling politely at his family’s host.

“Listen, I am sure you must be hungry again. I know a growing boy when I see one,” Ron said, noticing Teodulo’s disquieting rumination. “Come with me to the kitchen. Let me fix you a ham sandwich.”

As if on cue, Teodulo’s stomach rumbles loud enough for Ron to hear. The man and the boy laugh nervously.

Teodulo follows Ron into the small, yellow kitchen and sits in the breakfast nook watching the older man fish out a half-eaten loaf of Wonder bread out of his cupboard and jars of mayonnaise, mustard, a tomato, a handful of deli ham and an individual plastic-wrapped slice of cheese. The last item struck Teodulo as particularly American as he had never seen slices of cheese wrapped in plastic before. That is a lot of trouble to go to for cheese, he thought.

Ron hummed a song to himself as he put together Teodulo’s sandwich. He set the plate in front of the hungry boy and sat down across from him. Teodulo looked at the sandwich, then to Ron, then back at the sandwich. Ron proceeded to ask Teodulo a series of questions about his school history and his English profiency. Teodulo answered as he wolfed down the sandwich in four bites.

 “I learn fast,” Teodulo said swallowing the last of his sandwich. “To pass the time in the mountain, I would teach the others that wanted to learn, how to read. They were already grown but I was their teacher. Ana reads really well, I taught her, too.”

Ron was impressed that Teodulo knew who Bertolt Brecht was, that he knew some of Das Kapital in its original German and had a secondary school mastery of world history. 

There are men who struggle for a day and they are good.

 There are men who struggle for a year and they are better.  

There are men who struggle many years, and they are better still.  

But there are those who struggle all their lives:

These are the indispensable ones,” Teodulo recited from memory. “This poem is very, very, very well-known. And it was a lullaby. My parents would play the same Silvio Rodriguez record when I was very small. I never forgot it and was happy to listen to it again today.” It was Teodulo’s turn at solemnity. Ron was so visibly moved by Teodulo’s admission that he pushed his closed fist into his mouth, suppressing his want to cry. Teódulo cocked his head in incredulity. Who is this weird little white man, Teodulo thought and would I let him fuck me? Teódulo kept his composure long enough to smile politely.

“Do you know that that is my favorite poem of all time?” Ron was practically shrieking. “I can’t wait for the other students to know you, compañero. We’re going to work really hard to get raise your English profiency, too. I have someone I would like you to meet at La Señal. She teaches a very good ESL class. Do you know La Señal?”

Teodulo shook his head no even though he knew La Señal was founded by the United Popular Front (UPF), or at least the ones who had evaded the death squads long enough to make it to Los Angeles. Teodulo was reasonably knowledgeable about the architects of the revolution, but felt that playing dumb might serve him better especially now that he was in exile. He knew that the UPF were the ERP’s counterparts in Morazán, in the northeast part of El Salvador that bordered Honduras. Teodulo also knew that Dagoberto and Rogelio resented how the guerrilla groups in Morazán were considered the intellectual vanguard that took up arms, while the guerrillas in Chalatenango had the humbler rag-tag peasant distinction. That was a particularly bitter pill for the commander and his brother to swallow considering their urban pedigrees and intellectual pursuits. Magda, however, in a moment of alienation, told Teodulo that his father and uncle were jealous of Santiago, the Venezuelan expatriate who commandeered the airwaves and was celebrated for being both a revolutionary spirit-lifter as well as notoriously handsome. Two things, she joked, that the people desperately needed.

“You will like La Señal. They are fighters. In Pico-Union. Geneva Cienfuegos-Ferguson is her name. You will like this compañera. She has a good soul. You should start high school by next year. When do you turn 16?”

“October,” Teodulo said plainly.

“October? Wait. We are still in October,” Ron said, momentarily disoriented. “Did you just have a birthday?”

“It was two days ago. When we left El Salvador,” Teodulo said, now feeling the heat of embarrassment.

“Oh, Teodulo! Happy birthday! Do you like tres leches cake?” Ron raised his eyebrows waiting for Teodulo to answer.

Teodulo shrugged his shoulders. And then he nodded in the affirmative.