Maybe it’s here
en los campos extraños de esta ciudad
where I’ll find it, that part of me
like a corpse
or a loose seed.
– Lorna Dee Cervantes
We will create and continue to create in the face of misfortune.
– Rich Gutierrez
[ . . . ]
In 2012, when I returned to my hometown after four years in Providence, Rhode Island, I began to reach out in search of fellow writers. On repeat I heard variations on a theme: San Jose, for those who create, is a wasteland. Move to Oakland, an escapee advised. Move to Portland, suggested another. Three times I heard Gertrude Stein’s famous quote: there is no there there. There was even a local apparel shop with an Instagram campaign that aimed to counter these words: #wearetherethereSJ. The apparel shop, and the Instagram campaign along with it, is now shuttered. How appropriate, knowing Stein wrote the phrase in response to finding that her own childhood home and its roses and garden were not there any longer existing.
[ . . . ]
For years, I swallowed sad messages, but they never nourished me. I resigned myself. I took my writing practice underground, and I suffered for it. Rather than convening a group of my own, I drove to San Francisco for workshops, an otherwise positive experience dampened by the 55-miles-each-way trek. Rather than setting up readings, I journeyed to them (or talked myself out of journeying to them) in far-off corners of the bay. I languished in the solidarity that many San Josers share over our city’s perceived hopelessness, particularly in contrast to these neighboring, “artsier” cities.
Once at a backyard party in San Francisco, a filmmaker told me that she did not consider San Jose to be part of the Bay Area, and I could not muster more than a shrug. Instead, I let it sink through me. The same heaviness struck me when I checked out a 400 page Bay Area poetry anthology from the library. An online blurb lauds the anthology for going to the outer limits of “local” and “poetry” and yet, despite including poets as far south as Santa Cruz, when I skimmed the 100+ contributor bios, not a single poet represented was from San Jose.
Despite my passionate friendships, my ancestral ties to the region, and the longing that overcomes me whenever I spot the East Foothills, I worried that as far as a visible poetry community was concerned, my hometown was too far gone: a losing cause.
[ . . . ]
My hometown is, and has been, in rapid transition. When my grandparents—agrarian workers of Azorean and Mexican descent—arrived in San Jose around 1910, a mere 30,000 humans were specks on the landscape: a widespread farmland. Three generations later, it is an urbanized metropolis, 40 times as large, with more than 1,000,000 bodies crammed into its sprawl.
This influx, of course, is due to the Silicon Valley. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the phrase Silicon Valley first appeared in Fortune magazine in 1974. Seven years later, I was born into the thorny wilds of it.
Sometimes, when I tweet to promote my own writing, I feel like I’m trampling my ancestors’ backs.
[ . . . ]
A recent article in the Silicon Valley Metro groups new immigrants, auto mechanics, punk-rock suburbanites, and the descendants of farmers and fruit packers as outsiders populating the blue-collar side of Silicon Valley. These statements are merely in passing, and yet they disrupt me.
My father was once an auto mechanic; my parents and grandparents were once orchard and cannery workers; I grew up in San Jose’s punk community. From the article’s vantage, my people are now on the outskirts: no longer belonging to the region we were born into.
It is an eerie thing to witness your own history’s last gasps. And as my origins become increasingly invisible in San Jose, what’s edging them out of our landscape is wealth. To put it another way: the cost of some people’s fortune is my people’s misfortune.
[ . . . ]
Consider the following anecdote:
On 2/8/16, I meet up with an artist friend at Flames, a local mirrored eatery near a renowned haunted tourist attraction and a gutted multiplex where I once sobbed while Leonardo Dicaprio sank under waves in The Titanic. Flames is a decades-old San Jose mainstay, known for its oversized cakes and its booths that are the color of calamine lotion. We are surrounded by old men in wrinkled slacks who I think of as widowers with meatloaf cravings. I wonder what San Jose these men look back on, what crucial identities they’ve lost? I wonder if, upon entering the classic diner, they are struck by memories of the Bob’s Big Boy that it once replaced?
For the first time in the year that I’ve known her, my friend’s mood has gone dim. I just want it to be less of a slog, she tells me, as the waiter hands out our grilled cheese triangles and small off-white troughs of ranch dressing. I’m tired of having to search for things to be thrilled for around here. I just want to leave my house and feel excited by my surroundings. Her tattoos, the green silhouettes of two non-California US states she’s inhabited, creep from the sleeves of her cardigan.
Later, we roam the boutiques in the high-end outdoor shopping mall on the other side of the 4 lane boulevard, palming the $50 t-shirts and sighing. The store that we enter describes itself on its website as a library, a workshop, a test kitchen and features a curated selection of products handcrafted by independent makers. The absurdity of this marketing copy is not lost on me: a library with nothing to borrow, a workshop without any tools, a test kitchen without any food in it. When my friend asks if any of these curated products are local, the poised, well-scrubbed, probably underpaid shopkeeper directs us to some frail golden earrings made 90 miles away in Marin.
[ . . . ]
Built in the early 2000s, this particular high-end shopping mall was marketed as a city within the city, with luxury rental communities and exquisite flats amid the stores and cafés: a haven for incoming tech workers. In 2002, an unknown source set the high-end outdoor shopping mall ablaze, resulting in the largest fire in San Jose’s history. Whether the flames shot from a righteous God’s palm or a match in an arsonist’s hand, the wealthy prevailed and rebuilt the structure: a mall masquerading as a neighborhood. In this setting, shoppers and residents are interchangeable. It is hard to imagine the landscape without it; I had to Google to recall the comparatively modest Town and Country Village strip mall that once stood in its place.
[ . . . ]
Life in this valley can discourage. Displacement, is a theme, plus isolation. This city can feel like a capsizing vessel. Many who have left here have done so with balled fists, fighting the onrush of mounting rent prices and overcrowded living conditions. Many who stay are burnt out on resisting these forces. I have felt, upon watching my loved ones move on, that staying is some kind of frailty, a stalling of an encroaching need to jump ship.
And yet, despite the ever-present outcroppings of bulldozers and fancy condominiums, we are out here making things, though you might not know so from a Google search.
Poets give readings between punk sets at house shows.
Teens scrawl out fanzines on the beige carpets of their parents’ suburban split-levels.
Working artists are fashioning nopales and sewing strawberries in little-known studios on The Alameda.
Friends are forming artist collectives and holding shows under streamers and stars in their Downtown backyards.
[ . . . ]
On 2/17/16, I attend a party for a local magazine that pledges itself to Discovering & Displaying The Innovative & Creative Culture of Silicon Valley. I eat postage-stamp-sized toast points smeared with fish paste and discover too late that the cheap wine is not free. The space is lively with artists exchanging their pitches. I overhear an impassioned man urging partygoers to look at his Facebook page devoted to San Jose’s damaged clock tower. That night, I pull up the page. The most recent post, dated 1/13/16, reads: San Jose is getting all shined up for the Super Bowl with signs and festivities all over the place! Some grand doings will take place at Cesar Chavez Park. If only San Jose had had time in the last 100+ years to restore its clock tower adjacent to the park. It could have shown off the last remaining Richardson Romanesque building in the Western US and garnered a lot of national media spotlight and a stunning backdrop. San Jose strives to be a great city but can’t even put its best stuff forward.
One month later, the post has zero likes.
[ . . . ]
Lately I notice an upsurge in the use of tech-related jargon tied to the local arts community. I see phrases like synergistic hub of creative work spaces and arts and culture ecosystem. Artists and writers are referred to as creatives and artisans and their pieces are referred to as output or content. On a hopeful day I think it is just a sign of the times. On a depressive day I think it is a sign of the end times.
What most concerns me is erasure. What stories of San Jose will we recall in the end? The tale of Silicon Valley is so far removed from the San Jose I inherited; it swallows the spaces we artists embody right now.
[ . . . ]
Consider my own mother’s hands. As a child in the San Jose orchards, she and her sister made fun out of labor while racing to slice the most apricots. Clutching a knife, my mother’s grip faltered and she tore through the flesh of her palm. Over time the scar has lost color, but, having seen her eyes alight when recalling the story, I know that the gash was once there.
These stories we keep are endangered.
If we fail to retell and record them, they fade out like scars on our palms.