Fragoza takes public writing seriously as the co-founder of the South El Monte Arts Posse, an arts collective east of East Los Angeles.
Watching the riots on TV is like watching everybody on the playground unfreeze. […] The police say freeze and the people on the streets raise their arms to set buildings on fire. Where did they get the fire from? I wonder. It must have been something they kept balled up secretly in their fists. Growing hotter as the fists grew tighter, for many, many years.
This week is the 25th anniversary of the LA Riots and like it, Carribean Fragoza’s poetry collection K-12 is an unavoidable rebellion, a taut desire to burn, something balled up secretly in fists. Fragoza is a writer, visual artist, and arts activist originally from South El Monte, California. Her first poetry collection is structured as thirteen vignettes told over the speaker’s public school education, set in the 1980s and 90s Los Angeles. One minute the speaker’s stories are aflame with Cheetos and monkey bars, and, as she grows up, we see her tangled love for Kurt Cobain and Comandante Marcos. Published by eohippus labs, K-12 is a field guide to the so-called fringes of urban centers, which are actually its lungs; the kind of cities that provide the bodies every city needs to breathe. Told through the keen observations of a young girl, with playfully mature syntax, and a constant concern with wonder, the collection is an essential contribution to coming-of-age American prose as poetry, blending genres and crafting a new kind of lyric. Following in the tradition of Gwendolyn Brooks’ Maud Martha and Juan Felipe Herrera’s CrashBoomLove, the narrator is Brown, working class, and though watching the world burn, she is its witness and an actor, recording history with searing wit and beauty.
In sixth grade, for instance, the speaker visits a big art museum and sees Frida Kahlo’s Self-Portrait with Monkeys. When an adult tries to explain the painter’s grief because she couldn’t have children, the narrator is not convinced. She needs evidence for any argument to be not only true, but visible in everyday life. The eleven-year old answers:
I could not sympathize, for having a monkey must surely be better than having a baby. My own siblings were babies until just recently and no one seemed to enjoy that, especially not them.
The narrator’s self-assurance should not be confused with naivete. In the same scene, the speaker spots Diego Rivera’s Lily Vendor, where a Brown girl in long braids holds calla lillies:
I had seen girls like this enough times before to know that she held these not for her own recreation. These are the girls I see in Mexico that come down from the hills before dawn to sell their flowers or baskets in the city. […] What I do know is that though I am brown like them, and we may be of a similar age, I must cut my braids off the first chance I get.
The speaker rejects a connection to other girls who appear to have less power and would rather take action against what ties them together. The narrator is a survivor, and inside the white walls of a museum or school, she finds the strategies that will keep her closer to the monkeys where all the fun is, and far away from babies who don’t like being babies. The gesture of rejection is not static as she returns to her roots in later grades to locate a rebellion to which she can connect, one she forges out of grunge rock and Zapatistas.
The speaker’s syntax shows her natural inclination toward analysis, an inner world of ideas and theories. Each observation is measured and adult, a slow burn with explosive, but subdued ends. In sixth grade, the girl is trying to figure out who her role models are:
In my mind, I flipped through my social studies books [and] I could not find one that appealed to me.[…]. I felt lonely standing at the edge of the world before someone figured out it was round. Looking over Niagra Falls in every direction. All of the world’s waters and its beasts crashing down below me.
But she is not defeated. In constant wonder, the speaker’s questions spark desire and assertion. She looks beyond her history books to become a beast that sees beyond the end of the world:
I pictured my face looking out into the universe as the face of a feathered dragon, my long fangs smiling greatly, also ready to rip into meat, both my hunger and something new and angry, satisfied and grateful.
This book’s fangs dug into me. Its makes bridges as it goes, as Anzaldua said about walking and finding answers. This book is for who any kind of girl who is electric, who wants to plot and ride with Subcomandante Marcos in the Lancandon, who listens to the radio to comfort their inner genius.
The book is a bag of flaming hot Cheetos and my fingers are still red from holding it. Read this book if you aspire to be a feathered dragon, new and angry, ready to rip into the meat of those who might think your life is not important. Fragoza shows the readers how to hold fire in our hands.