by Wendy Cheng
The global cosmopolitans of suburban LA
Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt of Wendy Cheng’s essay “East of East” from our Spring 2015 issue.
Welcome to the San Gabriel Valley—America’s first “suburban Chinatown.”1 A typical-looking twentieth-century suburbia a few miles east of downtown Los Angeles, the San Gabriel Valley—or SGV, as residents call it—has been transformed in recent decades by ethnic Chinese investment and settlement from both sides of the Pacific.2 In some parts of the valley—places such as Monterey Park and Rowland Heights—more than half of the population is Asian, and English is often a secondary—or tertiary—language in the plentiful strip malls that line the main thoroughfares. It’s a regional and global hub for Asians from all over Southern California and the world. Then there’s the restaurant scene, which is how many Angelenos have come to know the valley. You will find some of the best Chinese food in the world in the San Gabriel Valley.
But while true in many respects, the well-known image of the SGV as a global Asian suburb obscures a vital fact: the valley is a vibrant, sprawling, mixed-up multiethnic community with a complex, layered past.3 In those majority-Asian cities, almost one-third of the population is Latino, making the valley as a whole more than 80 percent Asian and Latino now. In other SGV cities, such as El Monte and South El Monte, the balance flips: Latinos constituting the majority and Asians the next largest group. It is that mix that makes the San Gabriel Valley a revealing place for seeing the Pacific world as an Asian-Pacific-Latino world.
Consider this: A comedy hip-hop group called the Fung Brothers sings about the SGV, “Let me tell you about a place out east / Just fifteen minutes from the LA streets / Hollywood doesn’t even know we exist / Like it’s a mystical land, filled with immigrants.”
And this: A small, local, street-wear brand based in Monterey Park called SGV has produced a T-shirt with a design that blended the elements of the flags of the People’s Republic of China, Mexico, and the United States. The brand’s website states: “The SGV is a region of America where a lot of Chinese and Mexicans have learned to live together, most of the time in harmony. Welcome to Chimexica.”4
Or this: Other SGV brand designs have featured repurposed logos for Sriracha, a well-known hot sauce created in Rosemead by an ethnically Chinese-Vietnamese immigrant, as well as Tres Flores, a hair cream popular with working-class Chicano youth, and woven sandals popular with older Asian immigrant men.
And this: Another T-shirt features curse words in Chinese, Vietnamese, Spanish, and Tagalog.5
This diversity is not always harmonious. As the SGV brand creator Paul Chan, a child of immigrants from Hong Kong who moved to Alhambra as a young child in the 1980s, told a reporter, “I…learned quickly that in the SGV you play your position and don’t over step your boundaries. I’ve always had a huge appreciation for that. The way those unwritten rules work….It was part of survival to know about all the different cultures so I don’t end up disrespecting people and getting my ass kicked.”6
Yes, you’ve got to have a clue, but for the most part these playful pop culture expressions of cosmopolitanism embrace living together, coexisting, with mutual respect for difference, without denial or exclusion. The SGV is a great place to experience the emergence of this new global cosmopolitanism.
Paul Gilroy, a cultural studies scholar who has studied the multiethnic dynamism that came out of the reach and subsequent collapse of the British empire around the world, has publicly wondered about how such an everyday cosmopolitanism “from below” could be magnified and given greater purpose: “The challenge of being in the same present, of synchronizing difference and articulating cosmopolitan hope upward from below rather that imposing it downward from on high provides some help in seeing how we might invent conceptions of humanity that allow for the presumption of equal value and go beyond the issue of tolerance into a more active engagement with the irreducible value of diversity within sameness.”7
This is a cosmopolitanism that does not look to states or nations for the realization of its hopes, but “glories in the ordinary virtues and ironies—listening, looking, discretion, friendship—that can be cultivated when mundane encounters with difference become rewarding,” Gilroy writes,8 It is a “radical openness,”9 a “planetary consciousness”10 made even more real and important by its awareness of the harms done by racism and inequality. Ideally, it does not stop at awareness but rejects xenophobia and violence, and “culminates in a new way of being at home in the world through an active hostility toward national solidarity, national culture, and their privileging over other, more open affiliations.”11
Gilroy, whose work has largely focused on cosmopolitanism and diaspora across the Atlantic,12 could come to the SGV to see similar patterns playing out around the Pacific Rim. In the SGV today, I found a similar sense of cosmopolitanism among many residents while working on my book The Changs Next Door to the Díazes. It is also increasingly apparent among artists, writers, poets, scholars, and activists who are beginning to express their own visions of the valley and in the process creating a collective, imaginative vision and language that may well have the power to alter what it means to be American. Their vision is of a suburban, cosmopolitan ethos that will be increasingly relevant to broader swaths of the United States, and it challenges long-held associations of whiteness, middle-class, and suburban as normative ideals that were tightly bound together. At its best, this is an explicitly antiracist cosmopolitanism that does not gloss over differences between cultures or violent histories to create a false universalism, but instead reckons with formative histories and still-present realities of racism and colonialism.13
The South El Monte Arts Posse, an arts collective led by historian Romeo Guzmán and artist Caribbean Fragoza, is one organization playing with the possibilities of an emergent SGV identity, one that they refer to as “east of east.” The “east” to which the collective known as SEMAP identifies itself as “east of” is East Los Angeles, long the symbolic and political core of Chicano Los Angeles. Reflecting on this geographical adjacency, iconic Chicana writer Cherríe Moraga, who grew up in the SGV, has written of that state of being near, but separated from, the Chicano Movement in East LA, “just ten minutes from my tree-lined working class neighborhood in San Gabriel.”14
Similarly, SEMAP sees itself as adjacent to, but distinct from, the urban core sensibilities of East LA. “East of east” is “everything that exists outside the reach of the city of Los Angeles,” Fragoza told me when I spent the afternoon recently with her and her partner Guzmán to explore the role of artists, writers, and activists in this emerging SGV cosmopolitanism.15
“East of east” sounds as if it could be a description of this new cosmopolitanism emerging on the West Coast, on the eastern edge of the Pacific Ocean, east of East Asia. But the phrase also has a defiant local edge. This interpolation of the global and the local is a characteristic of these new cosmopolitans. Guzmán grew up visiting relatives in South El Monte from his home in Pomona, even further east. He and Fragoza remember starting to use the phrase when they were both undergraduates taking Chicano Studies classes at University of California, Los Angeles, in the early 2000s. As Fragoza told me, in “Chicano rhetoric, everything would happen in East LA.” There were “a lot of people that I met there who were from East LA and that were very proud of it,” she added. “And then they were like, ‘Well, where are you from?'” When Fragoza responded that she was from El Monte, she would be met with derision. She would then respond emphatically, “‘Dude, we’re so down, we’re east of East LA!’…So I think that’s at least how I started using it.”16
Guzmán added that they would “sort of get annoyed….It’s like, to make culture you have to go to East LA. But why? Why do we all have to go there? Why can’t we do stuff where we’re from?”17
SEMAP’s home terrain, the cities of El Monte and South El Monte, have emerged as key nodes in the burgeoning SGV arts and culture scene. “People from El Monte are really into El Monte,” Guzmán told me.
“Yeah, we are,” Fragoza laughed. “But I still feel like we’re SGV, we’re part of the SGV.”
In the past fifteen years, street wear brands, literary novels and short stories, a mystery set in the world of Asian American parachute kids, and comedic rap songs have all emerged from the SGV.18 This past fall, a play about Toypurina, the Gabrielino woman who led a failed revolt against the Spanish at the San Gabriel Mission, was mounted at the Mission Playhouse, and a feature film set in El Monte is in the works.19 These developments signify the coming of age of a multiracial, majority-nonwhite, place-specific culture, on its own terms. As a region apart from central Los Angeles, large portions of the SGV have been able to retain their class heterogeneity and multiracial, majority-nonwhite populations for multiple generations now, without suffering the degree of gentrification and displacement to which central city neighborhoods are vulnerable.
Like the members of SEMAP, writer Michael Jaime-Becerra, who grew up in El Monte and still lives there now, balances multiple sensibilities at once. His outlook is deeply local and connected to a specific place, but he also has an expansive openness to the complexities of the SGV in the world. His world is El Monte, but it isn’t only El Monte. In his two books set in and around the city—Every Night is Ladies’ Night (2004) and This Time Tomorrow (2010)—Jaime-Becerra renders the mundane landscapes of the SGV with tremendous love, name-checking places and streets without commentary throughout his narratives, as though to assert to readers that they should know these places. While his characters are primarily working-class Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans—truck drivers, mechanics, forklift operators, fast food workers—they are always also Goth teens, former prisoners, brothers, sisters, uncles, lovers, and dreamers.
While earlier generations of Chicano writers were writing with justifiable urgency about “field labor, immigration, our parents’ struggles to feed the family,”20 growing up in El Monte as the son of a union meat-cutter and an elementary school clerk, Jaime-Becerra realized that he could “hang with low riders and skateboarders, groove to Juan Gabriel and Siouxsie and the Banshees.”21 Like so many Latinos and Asian Americans in the SGV, he was able to carve out an ethnic identity apart from dominant ideas about race: “Everybody around me, they were either Mexican or Mexican American or Vietnamese,” he has said. “I didn’t really identify in terms of race in LA.”22
There is freedom in the ambiguity that comes with loosened cultural boundaries, where old stereotypes aren’t used to keep people in place, and where people are comfortable crossing cultural lines to find their place in a community. The place where they feel they belong, not where they are told that they do. This is the “east of east” ideal, in which working- and lower-middle-class people of color are able to simply be—and be seen by the wider community—in their full and complex personhood.23 This is what Jaime-Becerra described as his coming-of-age experience and is apparent in the world he creates for his readers.
El Monte writer Salvador Plascencia also riffed on this theme in his 2005 novel The People of Paper, set in the author’s hometown. His “meta-fiction” was intended “partly as a parody of traditional immigration narratives”—or as one reviewer put it, is “part memoir, part lies.”24 This is how Plascencia introduces the locale: “The town was called El Monte, after the hills it did not have.”25 A page later, he elaborates: “El Monte was one thousand four hundred forty-eight miles north of Las Tortugas and an even fifteen hundred miles from the city of Guadalajara, and while there were no cockfights or wrestling arenas, the curanderos’ botanica shops, the menudo stands, and the bell towers of the Catholic churches had also pushed north, settling among the flower and sprinkler systems.”26
The transnational migrants settled among the suburban “flower and sprinkler systems,” but they made the landscape their own. Throughout the book—which also playfully busts genre conventions with scribbled-out words, blocked text, blank pages, and graffiti—an assortment of vivid characters including migrant lettuce pickers and gang members battle against the godlike Saturn, who is gradually revealed to be the author, Salvador Plascencia. Saturn/Plascencia loses control of his characters and the narrative because he is languishing over a break-up with his girlfriend, who has left him for a white guy. Plascencia’s El Monte is both grounded and surreal, his portrayal of its denizens heartfelt and absurd. “In a way,” Plascencia has said, both he and Jaime-Becerra “are trying to talk about an El Monte that’s not the news copter, watching a cop kick a gangster in the head.”27 That is El Monte as a place grounded in its true range of subjectivities, experiences, and imaginative possibilities, not constrained by externally imposed stereotypes and power hierarchies.
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Details from El Monte Legion Stadium Nocturne and In the Meadow courtesy of Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
1. See Timothy Fong, The First Suburban Chinatown: The Remaking of Monterey Park, California (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994), and Wei Li, Ethnoburb: The New Ethnic Community in Urban America (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2009).
2. See Min Zhou, Yen-Fen Tseng, and Rebecca Kim, “Rethinking Residential Assimilation: The Case of a Chinese Ethnoburb in the San Gabriel Valley, California,” Amerasia Journal 34: no. 3 (1 January 2008): 53–83); among others.
3. This dates back hundreds of years to indigenous Gabrielino/Tongva settlement in the area and travels through Spanish colonization, the Mexican period, and US conquest, each of these with its concomitant, racialized regimes of land dispossession, and labor exploitation.
4. Former SGV brand website, http://www.sgvforlife.com, accessed July 2012. To see the SGV brand’s current website, go to http://sgvforlife.bigcartel.com/ (accessed 24 November 2014).
6. Daniela Gerson, “SGV for Life?” Alhambra Source, 30 November 2011; http://www.alhambrasource.org/stories/sgv-life.
7. Paul Gilroy, Postcolonial Melancholia (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), 67.
9. Ibid., xv.
10. Ibid., 75.
11. Ibid., 68.
12. See Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993).
13. Gilroy, Postcolonial Melancholia. Also see Michelle A. McKinley, “Conviviality, Cosmopolitan Citizenship, and Hospitality,” Harvard Unbound 5: no. 1 (1 March 2009): 55–87.
14. Cherríe Moraga, “Queer Aztlán: the Re-formation of Chicano Tribe,” The Last Generation (Boston: South End Press, 1993), 146.
15. Interview with Carribean Fragoza and Romeo Guzmán, El Monte, California, 12 October 2014.
18. These include: Alex Espinoza, Still Water Saints (New York: Random House, 2007); Michael Jaime-Becerra, Every Night Is Ladies’ Night (New York, NY: Rayo/HarperCollins Publishers, 2004); Michael Jaime-Becerra, This Time Tomorrow (New York: Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 2010); Salvador Plascencia, The People of Paper (Orlando: Harcourt, 2006); Denise Hamilton, The Jasmine Trade (New York: Scribner, 2001). Also see Daniela Gerson, “SGV for Life?” Alhambra Source, 30 November 2011; http://www.alhambrasource.org/stories/sgv-life, accessed 15 October 2014; and the Fung Brothers website, http://fungbrothers.com, accessed 15 October 2014.
19. Mission Playhouse website, http://www.missionplayhouse.org/event/toypurina, accessed 15 October 2014; and “Varsity Punks” website, http://varsitypunks.com/, accessed 15 October 2014.
20. Vickie Vértiz, “El Monte Forever: A Brief History of Michael Jaime-Becerra,” 6 December 2014, Tropics of Meta, http://tropicsofmeta.wordpress.com/2013/12/16/el-monte-forever-a-brief-history-of-michael-jaime-becerra/, accessed 10 October 2014.
21. Reed Johnson, “Writers Salvador Plascencia and Michael Jaime-Becerra share a city and common inspiration: El Monte,” 25 April 2010, http://articles.latimes.com/2010/apr/25/entertainment/la-ca-el-monte-20100425, accessed October 10, 2014.
23. On complex personhood, see Avery Gordon, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997).
24. Johnson, “Writers Salvador Plascencia and Michael Jaime-Becerra.”
25. Plascencia, The People of Paper, 33.
26. Ibid., 34.
27. Johnson, “Writers Salvador Plascencia and Michael Jaime-Becerra.”