Childhood, Art and Imagination

Thoughts on Living

I’ve taught youth for a while. I’ve been a tutor, a mentor, a life coach; I’ve been a lot of things for young people. I’ve even gone so far as to start my own nonprofit organization, DSTL Arts, in order to teach at-risk youth that the arts can foster careers for individuals. It helps to be an artist myself, to have always wanted to be a working artist.

I was five years old when my mom taught me how to make masks out of cardboard. Before then I was used to buying coloring books and pads of paper for entertainment purposes. But when my mom taught me how to make masks, that opened up a whole new world of creativity for me.

My first mask was of a robot/cyborg character from an old Nintendo game I had. I can’t remember the name of the game now, but I remember the mask. The rubber band we used to keep the mask wrapped around my head pulled my hair something fierce, but that didn’t stop me from running around our front and back yard with my swap-meet-brand toy sword. I broke a lot of those plastic swords playing like that, improvising those broken pieces into projectiles in my make-believe games with my younger brother.

Imagination was a real escape for me. It kept me out of trouble, capable of playing indoors all summer when my parents worked and we were on vacation. I could build towers of Legos and develop intricate storylines of deceit and heroism, self-sacrifice and humanity while Transformers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle action figures played out various roles in our universe. My brother followed my lead in these stories with little to no guidance from me. He knew the direction our stories would go in. It was a glorious time. And to think now that it all stemmed from being taught mask making techniques at five years old. Wow.

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As I got older, I sought only how-to-draw books at the school library. The public library in Vista had a very weak selection of art books for kids, but the Scholastic Book Fairs at Bobier Elementary held me down. I remember how eager I was to buy simple kids books that taught how to use basic shapes to form monsters and aliens. I traced a lot of the shapes, but that helped me develop a sense of style. I draw monsters now, without thinking, almost exclusively when not attempting to draw something specific, like a cover design concept for my students’ chapbooks.

Drawing is escape. Art is escape. But I sometimes wonder if I need to escape. There are moments where listening to a love song now makes me melancholy. I love my fiancé. I have no regrets in being with her. But there’s something that bothers me on particular days when I listen to songs by La Arrolladora Banda el Limón. Or Donny Hathaway. Or even a Vicente Fernández song with a lot of soul.

What is art to me? I try to think of it as I dedicate my life to teaching and helping young artists develop a sense of purpose in their work. I tattooed on myself the phrase “El poeta es dios” because I believe in the double meaning of it. The poet is God, and the poet is god. We divine messages through art that are spiritual in meaning. We also act as God, creating new worlds, new identities, new lives for beings that can only exist in our imaginations. If that isn’t being like God, then I don’t know what is. But does that explain the melancholy I feel frequently? Is there regret in creating and destroying worlds in my art? I don’t know how to answer that.

Children, especially in poor communities like mine, grow up thinking that the arts are childish endeavors, not worth exploring beyond elementary school. Our parents teach us to aspire to more, “illustrious” careers, such as doctor, lawyer, engineer. But those jobs don’t always resonate with kids like me. Kids with large imaginations need nurturing, because, ultimately, those will be the innovative adults in society. Not all people deserve to be artists. Just like not all people should be doctors or lawyers. There is a place in this world for everyone, from janitors and handymen, to artists, doctors, and engineers. And I believe that we need to start teaching parents in low-income communities that the labor market is as diverse as our children.

Maybe that’s where my melancholy stems from. There’s a romantic notion I hold onto somewhere deep in my heart. I wish I was a child again, designing intricate Lego towers and playing on the carpet of my apartment with my brother as we go through the motion of storytelling with Transformers as our puppets in melodramas that teach more about being a part of society than simply going to work everyday, answering to others with no appreciation for creativity and play.

I know that listening to love songs connects me with my childhood in many ways. I slept to love songs by Los Felinos, Los Yonics, and Los Bukis often in my childhood as my dad spent hours recording mixtapes for coworkers who paid him for some slamming tunes. I connect cumbia, banda, norteño with being a child. I know that. But nothing calls me to relive my childhood as much as creating art. I want to be carefree, living an adult life with little to no preoccupation other than what will I create today. I guess I just have to keep working as an artist. Only by following my dreams and meeting my goals will I attain that nirvana I seek.

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Metro

Thoughts on Living

Los Angeles’ Metro Transit Authority, or Metro, recently released a report where they found that the average income of bus riders in the city of Los Angeles is about $15,000 a year, and those who use the Metro Rail system average about $22,000 a year. That’s indicative of the state of public transit riders in our city. The poor ride public transportation. The young, the old. The primarily brown.

I don’t mind riding public transportation in SoCal. It actually gave me a strong sense of identity. It was where I came to connect deeply with Hip-Hop music and culture.

School for urban youth, that code word for brown and black kids, is essentially how we’re introduced to public transit systems in the personal car-centric environment of Southern Cali. Waking up at 5am to get ready for school across town ain’t nothing new for most youth. Wake up at 5am to shower, get geared up, and then run out to catch the bus, which may take you to school in time to miss only the first 15 minutes of your first class. It’s an introduction to blue collar working life.

My high school days certainly fit that description. I rode the 320 line in Vista for a couple of years from home to school, catching it at 6:15am, more or less, and getting to school early enough to sit and draw before class would start. Those bus rides, though. That’s where the lyrics of Black Thought, Common, and Mos Def resonated most.

My first “underground” Hip-Hop album was Black Star by Mos Def and Talib Kweli. The song “Respiration” was my jam. Still is, in fact. But the song conveyed everything I felt at the time. Quietly sitting on the bus, strapped into my over-ear headphones, I soaked in the imagery of city life. The descriptions of smoke and smog vapors tracing the skyline did it for me. I found myself thinking about the promises that poverty held for me and my family. Nothing more than Doritos sandwiches and fruit-punch-flavored Kool-Aid. The fruits of a $15 an hour job for my mom supporting a family of 4.

We had food to eat most nights. I’m sure that those public transit riders I share seats with now do too. Even if it’s the same soup with water added every other day to fill the pot like I did in my youth. Tortillas by the dozen help ease hunger pangs and cost only a dollar when you buy the Romero brand. $1.29 if you spring for the Guerrero tortillas.

$15,000 a year equals $7.21 an hour. For reference, the current minimum wage in the state of California is $9.25 an hour. When I was in high school, minimum wage was $5.75 an hour. I remember getting a “raise” at my job when minimum wage was raised to $6.25 an hour. It made little difference to my family’s living situation. But listening to Mos Def and Common rap about the nobility, the dignity we who lived in poverty had, made me feel a sense of hope.

I found mentors in Hip-Hop. Mentors who valued the work ethic of low-income neighborhoods. Mentors who saw beauty in “doing for self.” In many ways, it’s better to have little in life because we grow to value what we do have. We grow tighter as a family, as a community. Bus riders tend to help each other when one person acts out of line. A mentally-ill passenger gets violent, and fellow bus riders wil help the bus driver push that individual off at the next stop. An abusive boyfriend acts out on his girlfriend, and you better believe train riders will separate the two and possibly kick the guys ass. We’re family in that way. Then we’ll leave it to the security officers.

“Escúchela, la ciudad respirando” is what the intro to “Respiration” says. Listen to it, to the city, breathing. My romantic notion of city life from my youth is only reinforced when I ride the bus and train in L.A. now. I hear the city breathing when I’m on the train, making my way to work with at-risk youth as a mentor. I hear the city breathing when I listen to music, staring out the window of the bus. I hear the city breathing when I watch fellow riders board and exit the bus or train with the signs of hope for a promising new day.

Freddie’s Dead No More

Hip-Hop and Rap, Thoughts on Living

I’m experimenting with a new approach to my blog, and this is the first attempt at it. On Fridays, from here on out, I will be sharing with you my thoughts as they relate to my musical influences. I will be writing long form posts relating to my life, my art, and who knows what else. This will be a series of weekly musings on life. Enjoy.

My introduction to Curtis Mayfield happened through the hip-hop classic of a film, “Friday.” Everyone in the hood knows “Friday.” I mean, you can’t be from a hood in Southern California and not have been exposed to the classic film starring Ice Cube, post “Boyz in the Hood” and “Higher Learning,” and the hilarious Chris Tucker, pre “Rush Hour” and a whole range of other movies where he seemed to always play a thief who was in the wrong place, at the wrong time.

“Freddie’s Dead” by Curtis Mayfield, along with “Little Child Running Wild” were my first taste of the self-identified underground musician and songwriter. Now, keep in mind, the film “Friday” only had portions of both songs featured in the actual movie. It wasn’t until I bought the original movie soundtrack that I had the pleasure of listening to Curtis Mayfield tell his stories of ghetto survival.

I remember buying that album. It happened at a Warehouse Music store in Encinitas, California during the year and a half period where I lived in this tiny surfer town with my mom, brother, and infant sister. We moved there after my parents divorced. Not really sure of the reasons why, but it seemed to have made sense to leave the house we owned in my hometown of Vista, CA, to live in a rented condo a few blocks away from my mom’s job as a mail carrier in Encinitas.

I approached the clerk at the Warehouse Music store several times before that particular day, buying CDs by Ice Cube, Cypress Hill, W.C., Mack 10. It was my West Coast Gangsta Rap period. I don’t really listen to those albums as much anymore. But the original soundtrack for “Friday,” that was a special case.

I actually approached the clerk that day with both versions of the soundtrack. The “original soundtrack” and the “original old-school soundtrack.” On the “original soundtrack,” I was looking forward to finally having the song “Friday” by Ice Cube along with a bunch of other Gangsta Rap songs that I honestly don’t recall recognizing, even then. The “original old-school soundtrack” was something different. I recognized a few songs, like, “I Just Wanna Get Next to You” by Rose Royce, “Lowrider” by WAR, and “Mary Jane” by Rick James. As a new fan of old-school funk and R&B, I had started actively seeking more music from the late-’60s and ’70s to fill out my music collection.

Of all the days, that was the day that I was carded while buying CDs. I don’t know what it was that prompted the clerk at Warehouse Music to card me, but my 15 year old ass could only provide a CA-issued ID that corroborated my under-agedness. Never before had that happened, but on this day, I was not sold any of the albums I carried to the front. No “Friday” soundtrack, no E-40’s “The Element of Surprise,” and no Snoop Dogg’s “Tha Doggfather.” The only album I was allowed to take out of the store was the “Friday: Original Old-School Soundtrack.”

I left Warehouse that afternoon feeling cheated. I was pissed off that I wasn’t allowed to do something that I had been doing for a while. Most adults saw me at age 15 and figured I was over 18. I remember being at one of my mom’s work parties that same summer and being offered a beer, right in front of my mom, which led to an awkward rejection and some laughing about how old I looked. My mom and I glanced at each other as the slushy ice dripped from the Budweiser can. In my mind, I knew I didn’t want the beer, but I suspected that my mom saw me as more than her son in that moment. I think my mom began to struggle with my getting older at that moment. The realization of my lost childhood started to emerge within her subconscious.

As I walked back home from the Warehouse Music, I remember popping in my new “Friday” soundtrack into my DiscMan. Annoyed that I couldn’t get some new hip-hop, I conformed to the fact that I at least had new music to listen to. “Mary Jane” played, followed by WAR, until “Freddie’s Dead” by Curtis Mayfield came on. The double wah-wah guitars playing in harmony with conga drums and a funky bass line. “Freddie’s Dead” proclaimed Curtis Mayfield as he told a story of a man who thought he could lead a good life in spite of his circumstances. I was hooked. Something moved inside of me. I played that shit on repeat.

I haven’t felt that way with music in a while. Now that I’ve acquired a full collection of Curtis Mayfield albums, I can’t help but feel a connection to his lyrics. I play his songs more often when I cruise in my 1969 Impala than any other artists’ music which I’ve collected over the years. There’s something about Curtis Mayfield that makes me think of revolution and social change. Social justice.

I forgot about Snoop’s album, and E-40’s album when I got home. I rocked to Rose Royce and Gladys Knight and the Pips, repeating back Curtis Mayfield’s “Freddie’s Dead” and “Little Child Running Wild” every other song. That had to be my introduction to underground artists. That had to be my introduction to true soul music. That had to be the beginning of beginnings to my transformation from an angry Mexican kid with no direction other than gang culture, to an angry Mexican kid with an agenda of self-determination and empowerment.

Not long after I bought this version of the “Friday” soundtrack, I started to seek out different kinds of artists. The “Bulworth” soundtrack had to be one of those moments where I started to shift over to East Coast Rap. I think the first full length East Coast album I bought after that was Wu-Tang’s “Enter the 36 Chambers,” and that’s when it all started to go in the direction that it went. I’ve now amassed a music library that iTunes tells me is about 24 days worth, if listened to without stop. That’s a lot of music, with approximately 50% being Hip-Hop/Rap, 25% Ranchero/Banda, and the rest a mix of Blues, Jazz, R&B, Reggae, and Rock.

I can’t go a day without listening to music now. Even as I write this, Donny Hathaway croons in the background accompanied by his soulful piano keys. I can’t imagine a life without music. It’s too painful to imagine. But I know that there are a lot of stories that I associate with music, both good and bad, and that is why I feel so passionate about it. This is the beginning of my attempts to recollect how music has impacted my life. I’ll continue to write and share. I just hope that there continues to be a soundtrack in my life that helps me stay relevant in my life and actions. After all, Freddie really ain’t dead if we work hard to preserve his memory.

Colored

Poetry, Thoughts on Living

Her eyes flitter in sunlight
like butterflies forcing
themselves against the wind.

I wonder why
colored Accuvues reinforce notions
of dark skin and pale eyes
equaling beauty.

Don’t momma’s eyes reflect yours?
Don’t you connect
with the sun-burned whites
of her eyes?

Doesn’t a brown iris
share the depth of your soul,
the coarseness of your Pan-African hair,
the Dominican cocoa sheen of your skin?

Does the chocolate reflection of
Juan Crow laws scare you
into passing as non-his-panic?

Does the cornea reflect the white?

And mine.
Don’t I connect with you?

Encourage

Poetry, Thoughts on Living

Encourage,
no, empower
no, enlighten
no, exercise
experience
and realize who you are.

Extend wisdom
back to ancient times
and feel what it means to be
equal to the greatness
that was pre-
existence.

Elements of the future
collate and cause collateral
damage to developing psyches
which
erased doubt in the minds of
elementary youth.

Equal opportunities only
exist for those who come across
as some kind of
equal:
equal to the one in charge
determined to find someone
equally set on
emancipation of one self
and becoming a tool for conglomerates.

Extend
every aspect of
consciousness into
eleven factors of
true Being.

Elohim was a creator
who created me, you, and all
eternity,
so why should we worry of
every little thing
He says or thinks,
especially when
everything consists of lies and plots
expecting
extermination and
everything in between.