Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Other Side of the Tracks

The following is an excerpt from a novel-in-progress called An American History.

On a rainy Thursday morning, I awoke to find my internet was down, and I was strangely relieved.  How easy it is to waste away a whole morning on Facebook, google, yahoo, watching movie trailers for stupid blockbusters.  Today, I would face the world directly, unmediated by technology.

I got up, grabbed my Mead composition book, a book called Junipero Serra: California's Founding Father, and an umbrella, and headed out for a walk.  I walked along Lemon Street, under the overpass, to the historic "other side of the tracks," which is where many of the Latinos of Fullerton live.  Growing up, I accepted this segregation as an unquestioned fact of life, never really stopping to ponder why.  Why, in 21st century America, was my city still segregated ethnically?  To find the answer, I would have to travel to the past.  

I thought it might have something to do with the citrus industry, with historic housing discrimination, with lots of factors that began well before I was born.  This divided city was the legacy I inherited.

There were old, fading murals on the Lemon underpass, painted in the 1970s by community youth.  The murals celebrated Latino culture and history: a large Virgin of Guadalupe with real flowers at her feet, a proud-looking man in a zoot suit standing in front of a blown-up newspaper from 1943, the year of the infamous Zoot Suit Riots, a lowrider car with the text "The Town I Live In," a Mexican flag with two hands clasped in either friendship or arm wrestling.  One hand was brown, the other was white.  But, as the colors had faded over time, it was hard to distinguish one hand's color from the other.  Perhaps these murals gave clues to the puzzling question of segregation.  I had a lot of work to do, a lot of traveling and writing to uncover these mysteries.

In my youth, these "other side of the tracks" were associated with Fullerton's principal gang--Fullerton Tokers Town.  Why did people form gangs?  I once watched a documentary called "Crips and Bloods: Made in America" which showed how LA's two most infamous gangs were formed originally as a reaction against widespread housing, employment, and education discrimination and segregation.  African Americans in Los Angeles were forced, through racist housing covenants, to live in South Central, and so some became fiercely protective of their neighborhoods, because it was all they had, so they formed gangs to protect their neighborhoods.  What I took from this documentary was the fact that the past, present, and future are not distinct categories, but are interconnected.  Crimes of the past--whether they be housing discrimination or murder--resonate from the past to the present to the future, like waves.  It's like science fiction writer David Mitchell once wrote: "Our lives are not our own.  We are bound to each other.  And with every crime, and every kindness, we birth our future."

I began to see the world around me as the product of crimes and kindnesses--some hundreds of years before I was born, some yesterday, and some that I myself would commit.  I began to see my task as a kind of cartographer of crimes and kindness, drawing lines between past and present, trying to uncover our hidden legacies, so that I might have a clearer sense of why things are they way they are, and how they might become different.

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