Tag Archives: California

Kevin Costner Cutting Cabbage

It’s been a long time since Kevin Costner showed up in a worthwhile movie. Not nearly as long, though, as it’s been since a real Central Valley farming town appeared in one.

They both star in a movie that I saw recently at Walt Disney Studios called McFarland USA, which portrays a kind of unvarnished rural America that amounts to risk-taking I don’t associate with either Costner or Disney.McFARLAND

McFarland USA (in theaters later this month) is based on the true story of Jim White, a football coach who moves to the tiny Central Valley farming town in the 1980s and, instead, creates the McFarland High School cross country team with kids who work the field before coming to school, the children of longtime farmworkers.

The team becomes state champions – a feat the school has achieved nine times. McFarland USA is great tear-jerking sports filmmaking.

For Costner, this comes after a series of movies that seemed to me (though I’m no Hollywood insider) the last gasp of a major career (Draft Day), and may help resuscitate it.

He’s played this part many times. This time, though, he allows himself to be here in all his wrinkles, befuddled a good part of the movie in this foreign land with a U.S. zip code; he’s no longer quite the stud in control that he was during his heyday that began in rural America with Bull Durham in 1988.

Costner deals in fantasy, like every movie star. His has always been a certain kind of American (usually male) fantasy, and often about the nobility of white rural and/or small town America, in particular. Bull Durham, which launched him, had it in spades.

Problem is that part of America has been taking a pounding since at least Bull Durham (farm crisis, depopulation, Walmart). (The latest scourge, about which I’ve been writing, is a locust cloud of prescription pills and heroin.)

It’s the unblinking (within the genre’s limits) look at this rural America into which Costner is thrown that makes this flick worth the time. One place is a cabbage field, in which Costner stoops under the brutal Central Valley sun along with Mexican farmworkers. This is an unfamiliar country for the guy whose last appearance in modern rural America was in the far less complicated Field of Dreams Iowa in 1989.

The movie’s backdrop is its richest attribute: the orchards and streets of the Central Valley, home to some of our poorest towns – McFarland among them. “Are we in Mexico?” his daughter asks as the White family first drives through town.

Embracing this milieu allows the movie, and the star, a few other surreal scenes.

There’s Costner as a proud but stumbling father giving his daughter an impromptu quinceanera, a word he cannot pronounce. Another shows the kids training by running around the local prison – doesn’t every Valley town have one?

McFarland USA is Disney through and through. You’ll whiff Stand and Deliver, as well as Rudy and Hoosiers. It’s still effective filmmaking – I counted five tearing-ups – with a poor, stunningly photogenic, Central Valley town at its center.

We learn that all White’s runners go on to better lives, many, it seems, working for one level of government or another.

That’s not surprising any more.

The Central Valley has inspired thunderous works of art and activism on the plight of the oppressed – Grapes of Wrath, of course, the main example. But none ever stuck with the story long enough, I always thought. For, by and large, people don’t take it lying down for long. They struggle. They move on, they move up; in time, they’re allowed the luxury of forgetting where they came from.

Had Steinbeck followed the Joads, he’d have watched their kids become the next generation of cops and city councilmen along the 99 – and forget their manners when it came to the Mexican-Americans who moved up the highway to take their places in the fields.

I lived in Stockton from 1989 to 1992 – about the time McFarland USA is set. By then, the kids of those Mexican-Americans that Cesar Chavez organized in the 1960s had become cops, restaurant owners, and farmers themselves – and didn’t seem to care too much for the illegal northern Mexicans who worked the fields.

Those northern Mexicans who came to pick in the 1970s and 1980s were amnestied into America. Their kids are today the labor contractors and farmers (and cops). They’re trying to figure out the newest pickers – Mixtec and Triqui Indians from southern Mexico – who seem as foreign to them as his students seemed to Jim White when he showed up in McFarland fresh from a failed Idaho coaching job.

But all that is backstory to a movie that combines some classic sports melodrama with a look at a rural, small-town USA, and, with it, an icon of square white American manhood cutting cabbage in the sun.

Photo: McFarland USA

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Filed under California, Culture, Global Economy, Mexico, Migrants

Good Friday in Los Angeles, a video

I was in downtown L.A. and encountered the Stations of the Cross near La Placita. So I made this short video.

Let me know what you think. I’m trying to put out one of these a week.

Share it if you like it … and feel free to subscribe to my Youtube station: True Tales Video.

 

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Filed under Culture, Los Angeles, Mexico, Religion, Uncategorized

CULTURE: Linda Ronstadt and Parkinson’s

Linda Ronstadt says that Parkinson’s Disease has robbed her of her singing voice.

This is such sad news. Linda Ronstadt is one of America’s greatest pop singers and has been since the 1970s.

Heart Like a Wheel was a profound album, with enormous impact, I always thought. (Dark End of the Street  just kills)

It was huge in the guitar twangin’ country rock scene of my hometown of Claremont, California in the 1970s and we played the hell out of it at my house when I was growing up. It contained one of my favorite songs from that genre, Willin’, by the master, Lowell George.

The album was the first inkling, too, of a talent Linda Ronstadt displayed throughout her career of finding good songs and songwriters.

She was an early adopter of Warren Zevon, for one. Zevon’s Carmelita is one of the most evocative songs ever of Los Angeles; in this case, the 1970s street junkie scene in Echo Park. Simple, succinct, image-based songwriting, and thus great storytelling.

The other fine thing about Linda Ronstadt the singer is how she started out in California country rock, but early on refused to be pigeon-holed. That can’t have been easy for a woman in the music industry.

Instead, she recorded big band music, oldies, Mexican rancheros and just a lot of solid straight pop music.

Through Canciones de mi Padre I discovered Cuco Sanchez, with Gritenme Piedras del Campo – a Mexican blues if ever there was one. (Cuco Sanchez is, btw, a singer not to be missed.)

Her work with Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton is some of the best stuff any of those ladies have done. Check out For a Dancer, the song by Jackson Browne, that she recorded with Emmylou.

We’ll not be hearing her likes around here for a while, I believe.

On a personal note, Linda Ronstadt has always been so supportive of my writing and reporting. I can’t say how wonderful it is to have spoken to one of the icons of my musical generation and have her tell me how much she loved my books.

I appreciated it enormously and lived on it like food for a few days.

My Claremont High School pal, Janet Stark, her assistant, put us in touch. Thanks Janet and thanks very much to you, Linda. Here’s wishing you the best.

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Filed under California, Culture

HUNGER STRIKE: How one prison-gang member sees it

The hunger strikes in California prisons lately are motivated as much by prison gang maneuvering as by concern over human-rights violations.

That’s the opinion of one veteran gang member I spoke with recently.

Emanating from Pelican Bay State Prison, the strikes protest the fact that hundreds of inmates are housed in solitary confinement in the prison’s Security Housing Unit (SHU), some for many years.images-1 A recent strike had 30,000 inmates refusing food. Thousands stopped eating in sporadic strikes last year as well.

Trying to understand what there was to know, I took time from a busy schedule writing a book to speak with the long-time Sureno (Southern California) gang member, who’s done a lot of time in Pelican Bay SHU, as well as several other of the state’s penal institutions, and just been released.

This gang member dropped out in prison several years ago and has spent his recent prison time on what’s known as Sensitive Needs Yards, the new euphemism for protective custody.

Protective custody used to comprise a few hundred inmates statewide, in a couple cellblocks. Now there are many thousands. So the state prison officials came up with SNYs — entire yards to house them all. Most of the new entrants into SNYs are dropouts from prison gangs. (Btw, I wrote about SNYs several years ago.)

SNYs are the most radical change to the state prison system in a generation, probably since Pelican Bay itself opened in 1989.LA Flower District

So great are the numbers of dropouts that most prisons now have at least one SNY. Mule Creek in Ione is all SNY.

In these yards, inmates must live with those that prison gangs prohibit them from getting along with on mainline, active-gang yards. So blacks and Aryan Brotherhood must live together on SNYs. Surenos must live with Nortenos and with blacks – whom normally they are under orders to attack in the mainline yards. All of them must live with child molesters and others they’d have killed on mainline yards.

(In active-gang prisons yards, Northern Hispanics and Southern Hispanics cannot be housed together due to a feud dating to the late 1960s. Southern Hispanics and blacks cannot be housed together, for the same reason. These are some of the divisions that keep life in state prisons confusing to the point of headache.)

Many SNY inmates are tired of the gang life and just want to serve their sentence in peace.

But a lot of these dropouts can’t get the gang out of their blood. So on SNYs have emerged a half-dozen new gangs of various sizes.IMG_7902

The 2-5s are the oldest. But there’s also the Northern Riders (ex-Nortenos); the Independent Riders (ex-Surenos and skinheads); BBC (Brothers by Choice – northern skinheads) and Los Amigos (former Mexican Mafia members).

This is crucial to understanding the prison hunger strikes of the last year, he said.

Guys in Pelican Bay “are saying, these SNY guys are debriefing to get out of the SHU and they’re forming new gangs. Why do you have us slammed (in solitary confinement) if all these guys who are debriefing are forming gangs and still walking the lines?” he told me.

To stoke their numbers, Pelican Bay gang leaders have ordered inmates across the system to participate in the hunger strike. Most strikers have no choice, he said.

During last year’s hunger strikes, “I was in Tehachapi and [the order] came down from Pelican Bay,” the gang member said. “They didn’t eat for three weeks. No one was supposed to eat, or program until they agreed to let out the Brothers and all the people that’s validated gang members in the SHU.

“There was a few of them who didn’t [stop eating], and they put them in the hat (a death list). They took them off roll call, which is the good list,” he said. “They tried to get us (in SNY gangs) to join the hunger strike. We shot it down. We don’t fall under their rules.”

cropped-Dfjaripo97.jpgSame thing just happened, he said. An order came down and 30,000 inmates had to stop eating.

For its part, the CDCR, the gang member said, is requiring that all inmates live with each other — no matter the race, affiliation or background – before they’ll let the Pelican Bay strikers out of solitary confinement.

CDCR’s idea, he said, is that prison-gang leaders would have to order an end to the divisions, system-wide, that have made California prison life into a bewildering and dangerous racial and geographic Balkans for decades now.

“The state’s saying, `You guys are telling us you want to come out but you don’t want to program (live on the same yards) with the SNY gangs,’” he said. “The state’s saying, `You guys all got to program together.’”wpid-Photo-Jan-24-2012-356-PM.jpg

The gang member expected inmates in Pelican Bay SHU will start insisting on single cells, where many of them double up now. That would force chaos on the SHU system. “There’s not enough room in SHUs to do that. That’s the brothers’ next move.”

Meanwhile, in SNYs, all the new gangs are “fighting for numbers.”

The new gangs illustrate the changes at work in the CDCR since the advent of SNYs.

“There’s Nortenos who are 2-5s, ex-Surenos who are Northern Riders,” he said. “There’s blacks who are ex-Crips who are 2-5s. It’s crazy.”

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Filed under California, Gangs, Prison

TELL YOUR TRUE TALE: Wanna burrito? a prison tale

Tell Your True Tale

A new story is up on my storytelling website, Tell Your True Tale.

Richard Gatica, serving three life prison terms, writes of the day he offered to make a burrito for a friend on a tier above him, and how he got it up there.Richard Gatica

Check out Wanna Burrito? a prison tale up now.

It’s an amazing story, of the kind I love to post on the site. Small, poignant moment. Great stuff!

If you have a story that you think might work, let me know. Write it and send it in. I don’t pay but I do edit.

Sam

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Filed under Prison, Storytelling, Tell Your True Tale

PHOTOGRAPHY: More photos at Kaldi in South Pas

I have some more photos on display at Kaldi, the cafe in South Pasadena.

These shots are from Jaripo, a small town in Michoacan, which taught me a lot about immigration from Mexico. It was a big part of the introduction I wrote to my second book, Antonio’s Gun and Delfino’s Dream: True Tales of Mexican Migration.

Check them out next time you’re in the area.

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Filed under Mexico, Migrants, Photography, Southern California

PRISONS: A call to end racial warring

A group of inmates in California’s maximum security lockups — Pelican Bay, Corcoran and Tehachapi — are calling for an end to the racial warring that has been part of prison life in the state since … probably since I was born.

Among those calling for this within this coalition are members of the Mexican Mafia, which has warred with blacks in the prison system and ordered Latino gang members in Southern California to wage wars on the streets with blacks as well.

One of the leading members of this collective is Arturo Castellanos — a long-documented Eme member, aka Tablas, serving a life prison sentence for murder since 1980 — who, trial documents and evidence show, ordered up the Florencia 13 war on blacks in the Florence-Firestone unincorporated area that turned that area into a war zone for several years, the worst of which was 2005.

In the federal indictment of Florencia 13 members, the unindicted co-conspirator, identified only as AC, is, according to sources, Arturo Castellanos.

The Black Hand, about ex-mafioso Rene Enriquez, gives a clear idea of how the Eme has used activist groups, lawyers and others to promote their own financial/criminal interests. In interviews with ex-Emeros and their soldiers, I’ve heard these stories as well.

Those interviews have also made clear that the truce edict and the order to end drive-by shootings in the early 1990s were simply ways of organizing Latino street gangs in Southern California into units to tax local drug dealers and kick back some of the money to incarcerated Eme members. Among the edicts the Eme came up with during these years was an order to push Latino street gangs to war with blacks in their areas, rid their areas of black drug dealers, etc.

The result was virtual race wars in neighborhoods such as West Side San Bernardino, Pacoima, Azusa, Highland Park, Glassell Park, Canoga Park, Pomona, Harbor Gateway, Wilmington, Hawaiian Gardens and the aforementioned Florence-Firestone, among others.

Surely it’s a welcome thing to end racial wars in prisons, but history and evidence show that with the Eme you always wonder about underlying motives.

 

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Filed under California, Gangs, Prison