Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo reviews LAtitudes: An Angeleno’s Atlas, edited by Patricia Wakida
Heyday Books | 2015 | ISBN: 978-1-59714-297-7 | 248 pages with 19 full-color maps and infographics
If you ask 20 residents of the City of Los Angeles what characterizes L.A. as a city you are likely to hear 20 different answers. The city is best known for its vast landscape of knotted freeways teeming with mind-numbing traffic, but the truth is just as vast and interlocking. LAtitudes: An Angeleno’s Atlas is a collection of 19 essays edited by Patricia Wakida and written by L.A. writers studying the city they inhabit through maps, history, music, architecture, and stories. Freeways and suburban sprawl do make appearances, but as Luis Alfaro, Los Angeles playwright, poet, and performer states in the forward, “There are 18 million people who come from more than 140 countries and speak 224 different languages here, making L.A. the largest county in the United States. There is no such thing as one monolithic Los Angeles that everyone knows.” And so the city’s story is told in a spectrum of voices that move through time, cultures, and landscapes, proving that L.A. is more than freeways.
Beauty is a matter of perspective. As Wendy Gilmartin writes in her essay “Ugly Buildings,” the “assertion of ugly is an assertion of complete subjectivity with specifics per each individual. . . . Beauty is easy, but ugly is messy, confounding, fantastic, contradictory, complex, shifts with fashion and anyone is free to name it.” One of the best essays in the collection because of its defiant L.A. tone, “Ugly Buildings” sets up a motif for the rest of the collection that explores L.A. as a living organism nearly impossible to pinpoint because of its interlocking parts: “Like a sunset, which can be interpreted (visually) as an orange glow, (scientifically) as light refracting through molecules of smog, and (poetically) as an ending, longing, or love—a building too is a knotted-up mess of meanings and reality.” Not just the city’s buildings, but the city itself is a knotted-up mess.
While “Ugly Buildings” is meant to orient the reader into the mess that is L.A., essays like Cini Moar Alvitre’s “Coyote Tours,” mapping the villages and buried spiritual centers of the Tongva, the native people to this area, Laura Pulido’s “Landscapes of Racial Violence,” exploring the history of wrongful punishment and imprisonment of people of color starting with Spanish colonization and the founding of the San Gabriel Mission, and Jason Brown’s “The Fortification and Catacombs of the Conquest of Los Angeles,” marking the battles and strongholds of the Mexican-American war, explore why L.A. is a mess.
L.A. is a city built on top of native villages and footpaths, conquered by Spain for the mission system, then parceled out by Mexico for ranchos and cattle land, then invaded by the United States and later reparcelled out for homesteaders. People have been conquering, resisting, battling, dying, and shuffling around what is now Los Angeles for nearly 300 years, and the Tongva have been living and governing on this land long before that, but as Alvitre laments, “Los Angeles has an old soul, one that few will recognize and fewer will experience.” Thankfully, LAtitudes archives these histories with maps and stories that tell a different tale beyond tired L.A. tropes.
For transplants who come to this city full of hope and dreams of stardom, the city can become a mesh of anxiety and monotony unsurprisingly assisted by chronic gridlock, but for Josh Kun, those same freeways that terrorize others only inspire him. In his essay “Los Angeles is Singing” he writes, “When I’m freeway flying, it’s the freeway that’s singing. That’s the Los Angeles I dream about, a melodic climatology of wailing blues and twangy surf rock and 8o8 bass booms and shimmering brassy banda, a living graveyard of compacted sound and song, a musical marine layer, glorious in its gloom.” Probably one of the strongest essays in the collection, especially for any music lover, Kun mixes high with low, poetry with pop, geography with playlists in innate L.A. fashion. In a city that birthed such musical groups as the Doors, N.W.A., Los Lobos, and Red Hot Chili Peppers—all of whom found beauty amongst the grime—we find what can make one person jaded can make another person fly.
The essays in LAtitudes are divided into three sections: Orientations, Histories, and Perspectives. The final section, Perspectives, is the strongest of the collection for its high and low pastiche found in Kun’s piece and others. The theme of ugliness in the eye of the beholder continues with tales of fly fishing along the concrete L.A. River in Andrew O. Wilcox’s “Stalking Carp” and with tales of a working class, immigrant family’s taco catering business in Michael Jaime-Becerra’s “Speakeasy Tacos.” In the former, Wilcox reflects on the city’s plans to revitalize the river from a concrete eyesore back to some of its natural beauty: “It will take billions of dollars to revitalize the Los Angeles River. While this is a noble endeavor, there is a river worthy of celebration now.”
This is similar in Jaime-Becerra’s family saga of a single mother who took on a catering business to support her children after her husband died. Her children, a girl and two boys, all in or nearing adulthood, spend their weekends chopping, cleaning, and packing supplies for the family business, but they harbor other ideas: “Your mother’s way of doing things makes you want to leave the business to focus on your hairdressing clients. Or move out of the house. Or dream of teaching high school students the Louisiana Purchase.” The essay is told in second person and jumps from each child’s perspective. They want to break out on their own, to be with girlfriends or at school. Each is dreaming. Each is tired, but they are together. They are making a life together, and that is something to celebrate.
The pieces that are less successful are essays that are too clean, too balanced, and miss the erratic, messy spirit of the city. Los Angeles is at its best when it is a mix of things, and so it is with this collection of essays.
For those of us born in L.A., we have all heard the complaints and comparisons. Why is there no city center? Why does your public transit suck? Why does every building have to be stucco? Why is the traffic so bad? The traffic! But let us remember, as Gilmartin writes in “Ugly Buildings,” that “[i]t gets an Angeleno hot and itchingly defensive. But a proud Angeleno needs to simmer down because a hater’s gonna hate.”
This collection is a great addition to any proud Angeleno’s library because it is filled with writers and essays that understand and even celebrate the city’s ugliness. L.A. is a complex interweaving of realities that can’t be pinned down, so take to the highway, blast that radio, and fly.
Header photo of Los Angeles by madjiddesign, courtesy Pixabay.