“This rock we’re rolling on
Is like a circus ride that don’t last long
Round and round we go and then we’re gone
We waste time chasing ghosts
And overlook the things that matter most
We get so caught up in the maybes
Just trying to be somebody, baby
I was slowly going crazy…”
— Tim McGraw, “Overrated”
KCRW ran a piece on how the concept of “the neighbor” is vanishing because of social media.
I don’t want to think we’ve lost the meaning of “community.” But it is hard not to say that its redefinition in this digital age feels like a perversion and a travesty. Or is that just my inner curmudgeon speaking out loud? But when I look closely at the world I’ve built for myself, I realize community does exist within us all. I can’t speak for the rest of the city, but I can say, social media or not, I did forget how to recognize the ties that keep us together.
The post-WWII baby boom had given birth to the suburbs, or “bedroom communities.” It was a new take on the concept of “village.” This was a post-modern, self-sustaining utopia where everyone who lived in these manicured hamlets played a role in the sustaining the wellness of the group. These were supposed to be cradles of the new mobility, of front lawns and water sprinklers, of public parks and libraries, schools and pre-schools.
(Sure, the idea of localized commerce, with malls replacing the shopping districts of Main Street, anchored these spaces. I still choose to focus on these being halcyon days, when you could leave your front door open without fear of invasions or coups at the local high school.)
I would often joke that Pico Rivera was the Jewel of the San Gabriel Valley, more out of derision, maybe even ethnic self-loathing. But it was a place where kids rode their bikes and walked around unescorted, predators be damned. Sure, we had the cholo dynasties of Pico Viejo, Pico Nuevo and Rivera 13. But they kept to themselves. Everyone else kept a vigilant eye, Gladys Kravitz style, but no one was really worried. You could spend the night at your friend’s home because your best friend was a local troop Den Mother. You trusted your neighbors, your friends…yourselves. And, the whole family had dinner at the table.
It’s no joke to me now. The punchline seems to be on some of us for chasing the overrated myth of modernity with insidious ease. I know it appears I am under some nostalgic spell at the moment. What’s above is exactly what life was like for me while growing up. It isn’t a distorted view created by a sense of loss or a need for redemption. I don’t regret a single choice I made to achieve my version of the American Dream. But with clarity comes the acceptance that my values were truly adrift. I wasn’t raised to be that person.
My parents, both Mexican immigrants, understood the value of community. They were raised by their families, large units of siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, all blood relations playing a role in their upbringing. But, they were practically alone in the US. At times it felt like “us against the world,” but we flourished under the suburban model of community. My mom was fearless in how she integrated herself into lives of her American-born children outside of the home. She may have finished high school AFTER she had her family, but that didn’t mean education wasn’t a priority. She pulled us out the elementary closest to us because she felt the teachers were not up to par. She then got to know all of our teachers at each level of our education. She helped out as a room mother, befriended the school board. She asked questions as to our progress and the school’s own agenda for the future.
Mom was vigilant as to what we read, watched on our single TV and listened to on the radio. Rarely did she censor our choices. Yet, she kept incredibly current, boy. Of course, my early trajectory as a MediaJor did find me taking a few back streets that she found a bit unsavory:
- “No, I shouldn’t be watching “Saturday Night Live” and I won’t explain to you why “Pussy Whip” is a dairy dessert topping for cats.”
- “No, you don’t need to read “Valley of the Dolls.” It is not about toys.”
- “Yes, Dad threw away your “Rocky Horror Picture Show” picture book. No, I won’t give you money to buy a new one.”
I wasn’t about just reading Nancy Drew books purchased with my allowance, if you get my drift.
I wish my Mom came of age in the blogging era. (Fuck you, Lena Dunham. My Mom would have written circles around you.) To this day, Mom’s devastating insight on the world gives most pundits a run for their money. And not just about what’s happening in the US. She never lost touch with su México lindo y querido. What sets Mom apart is how she embraced the dominant culture of America, something my father never really managed. It was most likely the language and culture as much as Dad’s intractable, very Catholic-Mexican way of viewing his American life. Mom was educated in Texas before heading to LA. Dad came to LA directly from Mexico City, bringing his steel-clad code of values, too. Either way, Mom knew who she was and she knew who she wanted us to be. It didn’t always correspond to Dad’s vision, but they both wisely left the choice of identities up to us. We ultimately became variations of their themes. It was a long process, but the idea of being American and Mexican would take root with most of my siblings. Though, even by today’s multicultural standards, we’re still the whitest Mexicans you will ever know.
I know that how I lived wasn’t the same at every house on the block. In fact, after reading “Peyton Place” at age 11, I realized that the town of Pico Rivera, where I was raised, had its own intrigue and scandal brewing underneath its middle class, Chicano facade. I would love to spill some of the secrets, but I may just save them all for my own version of “Peyton Place” (Pueblo Chico, Infierno Grande has already been taken) in the near future.
Many of my friends had similar lives to mine because we were an aspirational community. Pico was the upgrade from East Los Angeles, were Latinos could partake in the new mobility. Just like just an episode of “The Jeffersons.” But, you could feel the family dynamics were going to shift as we began to improve our economic standing as a minority group.
Without our knowing it, the “Big One” has already hit us Angelenos and the rest of the country. The fissures of the suburban dream widened with the aftershocks of Vietnam, Nixon, the energy crisis, the recession, Carter, Reagan. Pico Rivera was a microcosm of what the rest of the country was experiencing. The concept of “family” was being redefined. As the economy struggled, both parents had to work. Children were being left alone, often in the care of strangers. Worse, it wasn’t just the television that was the nanny, it was the advent of other devices to keep them “occupied” but not “engaged.”
We may have been under the shadow cast by downtown Los Angeles, but we also witnessed how the go-go 80s broke down the family unit. Stay at-home moms like mine became an endangered species. Shit got expensive, no? It wasn’t just about keeping up appearances, either, although that played a vanity role with unfortunate consequences.
It’s funny. My parents still live in the same house in Pico. More than 47 years have passed and I still marvel over how it — like my parents — weather the changes. Continuity has survived in small pockets. Some families have come and gone. Our best neighbors have died or moved away, with some of their kids choosing stay or sell and go.
Businesses have come and gone, but Mario’s Tacos and Casa Garcia show no signs of pulling up stakes anytime soon, even with that interloper King Taco a few block away. (Our nacho and special quesadilla needs are powerful!) And while Omega Burgers and Naugles are no more, McDonald’s has grown to offer three locations. And every other fast food shack has migrated to Pico over the years. It does comfort my arteries some to know that Steak ‘n’ Stein and Dal Rae still offer up top grilled meat at top prices. (Now I can enjoy a Dewar’s and soda to complete the dream.) Amazing how both these restaurants, one is even Zagat rated, exist in an town where every dollar counts in a given house. We were always a town that could EAT.
We were also a town that played under the trees at Smith Park. Some of us chose to read books during the summer reading program at the circular library at Mines Ave. Many of us didn’t let the Huck Finn Day Parade pass us by down Passons Blvd. (Although, it does make you ponder what a bunch of Chicanos had in common with Mark Twain. We did have a few black families, but regardless, it did fade away as a yearly tradition.)
The trees at Smith Park are no more, replaced by added baseball diamonds, a football field, skateboard park and bigger islands of jungle gyms. The circular library is gone, replaced by a gleaming, modern facility that is bigger, but with fewer books and more computer screens. Even my parents’ home has been upgraded to include central air, flat screens and DSL. But it is also a home that has taken in breast cancer and Alzheimer’s. One has left, for good, we hope. The other is a house guest who has entrenched itself for the long haul, robbing my father of all that he remembers of us.
I worry that my own brain will fail me in a haze of dementia. That I will also have a memory like an iPod in shuffle mode, where you hope one clear thought will make its way to the fore. Where you hope the smile on the face of your father is that of his recognizing you as his son, and not just the polite grin hiding the fact he’s forgotten you.
I’ve been making this migration slowly, finding my way back to the center of what should have mattered to me so long ago. Running away to greener pastures is not the answer. I have learned that you create the community you need to sustain you. Where we once we grew up with the kids next door, we now evolve with the people we gather as friends. Where our families fail us, we will find those who play a role in healing what has been broken. I have been lucky to have both in my life, a strong family and strong family of friends.
I think about how America’s penchant for isolationism has taken many forms. We stayed out of wars. We still prefer to ignore other cultures. We ignore each other. We live in a bubble of our own making, even more so as we handpick the moments we want to share online. The irony is we have no filter for the filtered images in our Instalives. We breathlessly await being liked, but prefer the distance provided by the anonymous folks hitting the buttons from afar. We know about their handles, but nothing about the people living next door.
It is easy to denigrate what the Internet has done to us. It has fostered a climate of snark, hate, paranoia and distrust. We are paying a cost for instant communication and unbridled searches for instant knowledge. Yet, I am aware that my support system has been built by harnessing the best of what the Internet can offer, as well as meeting people at what appears to be the most random of circumstances. I question whether or not some of the players in my beautiful ensemble can understand who it is I want to be today.
I used to believe that we don’t evolve, but that’s just magazine speak to keep us buying whatever self-help book is trending at the moment. If they admit people do evolve, these authors would be out of business. We’d accept the changes and not perpetuate the ones that keep us from reaching our fullest potential.
We are living, breathing organisms that are programmed to adapt to the world’s harshest environments. My weeks in Spain were the culmination of a search of self, of re-establishing purpose and finding inspiration to express myself again. Spain was my bid to connect with the world. And while I choose to live in this city of disconnected angles (for now), I have no intention of losing this frequency now. Nor do I want to revert back to type, that overeating gadfly who hid behind his own neuroses.
Whatever its form, I can go home again. And while I may not like the changes that surround my family today, I am very much aware of what counts, of what is true. I want a quieter life. I want to share this quieter life with those that matter to me.
I was told, just before I left for Spain, that I was cluttering my own self with static of my own doing. That when I finally freed myself of this external noise, what would burst forth with be of such clarity, it would finally reveal the truest sense of who I am to the world. I shouldn’t fear this revelation, because people will listen.
You may think I’m grossly generalizing the past. You may think I am way off target. You may prefer to only watch the clip of Tim McGraw. But for whatever moment you spend on this blog, you are part of this community of mine. And I’m glad. Now, sit a spell. Tell me about your day. We don’t know each other? Not a problem. To build a community, you just need to reach out and get to know your neighbor.
“Hello. My name is Jorge…”
Monday, September 22. Written and posted from Wayne Avenue manor in South Pasadena, CA