by J.F. Herrera
It all started in 7th grade in SoCal when I found I could not speak in front of anyone. The words had been slapped out of me for not knowing how to speak in English. So began my life-long fight to snare words from the depths of my being and from all things that I encounter - homeless winos, coffee-shop servers, students who care and those who could care less, ambitious people who can't catch up to themselves and those whose wild desires hurled them into the blue-gray realm of a prison cell.
Just moved from Fresno a couple of years ago. Left family, friends, roads and the heat of things I loved. Now, when the words emerge from streets, cafés, banks, and dorms, I write them down as fast as I can. Then, at night, I wait impatiently for a poem to emerge, a story, a play - anything that will prove to me that there is some hot-blooded thing that ties me to this new, strange place. I stalk passion. I seek it. As I cut through the punishing pulleys of work and day-to-day multi-tasking, I take a breath and stop for it to show itself. In the last few days, I have driven my '87 VW van across the Inland Empire, startling people, surprising them with my Steno- Pad, my busted Nikon and my perfect English - “What is Passion?” I ask them, “Where is it?” “Does is exist where you live?”
At first, people told me “There's no passion here.” Some bowed their head and said, “ Go to L.A.” Others laughed out loud and then froze, with blank eyes. They reminded me of myself, after I had been spanked in first grade for not knowing what was going on, or second grade or fifth grade. “Passion!” I repeated. “How about Romance?” or “Sex?” or “Myth?” “Tell me the myth of Redlands.” “What is your myth of San Bernardino.” “Can you please tell me about the heart and soul of Yucaipa?” “What is your existence like, here, where you stand?” People were baffled. Was it my high-falutin' English?
I couldn't help but notice how many people answered, “You got to be kidding, passion? Here?” “I don't live here, I just work here, I came here just because the property was cheap.” I was not kidding. I was dead serious. A poet and a stranger at the same time has few choices. Hunt for deep, fantastic and personal connections to whatever, wherever I stand.
“I can't answer that, everyone here doesn't really live here,” the people with blank faces told me.
That is when I remembered how I felt about living in shanty-towns, ranchitos, hardcore barrios, tents, and a homemade trailer my father built from a Ford chassis abandoned on a hillside in Vista. Except it wasn't passion I was thinking of then - it was life itself. Was I alive? Was I a complete human being? Or was I a shadow, with form yet without substance like the scarecrows in the ranchitos where my father worked tractors and pulled weeds. Did I have what all those real boys had, the true kids who lived in real houses and spoke real words in a real language in the center of a real town? Was I alive? Could I ever have passion? Or was life always “over there, on the other side of the tracks?”
Put fuel in the VW, picked up my pace. Charged my words. Altered my passion hunting angle: “Tell me what makes this city different, unique.” “What is life like here?” “Why are you here?” I asked.
The words started to come after a while. Like the first irrigation stream from Big Bear in the late 19th century, things began to trickle down from the silent mountain of faces and hearts. People talked about “Community,” about “Family,” about the Age of the Orange when all was perfect and in harmony. Some spoke for a return to the days of “milk and honey” as John Muir described the Inland Empire when he first stepped into the area. Others were against development, against arid acres of warehouses without a name. A few bit their tongue and espoused the benefits of change, new business, expansion and inevitable transformation. After my prodding they began to speak in a flurry. They mentioned spirits and ghosts, topless bars and Victorians, real estate and trains, dusty light and cemeteries, trees, paying bills, shopping and good food. Their voices softened when they mentioned visiting their grandmothers or taking evening walks with their lovers. My ears perked up. My nose sensed the air. My left hand scribbled non-stop on the Steno-Pad. Passion was on the tip of their tongues. Maybe.
After pouring over my scribbled notes and jottings, four phrases moved me. Each phrase could be the beginning of a poem or a story, even a play, I said to myself. Maybe. The literary stuff didn't matter, there was a fire inside these words, it seemed. I was closing in on passion. After more than forty years of writing poetry, I could hear it in their voices. This is the clue - the way people talk about their lives.
In Colton, at a Botánica, a folk-healing shop, I stopped to visit José Santamaría, the owner. I figured this was a place where people say true things, stuff from their hearts in pain and took home a colorful candle for their wellbeing. And then, caressed it with all their faith. Passion had to be the guiding flame to their lives. Don José, as he is called, spread his hands out on the glass counter in front of me. He stood shoulder to shoulder with a guardian angel statue and said, “We don't have much progress here, but there is peace, we love Colton.” Then he went on to tell me about the “elder ones” of bygone years when people used to travel from L.A. to Colton on horseback, how they worked in train-wheel factories and made their own olive wine from the trees. The phrase echoed and I thought about that word - progress.
Growing up in the San Joaqúin Valley and a number of small towns in SoCal, my parents and I seldom spoke of progress. We spoke of coming to “El Norte,” to the United States. Every day my mother, Lucha, a farm worker, would go over a nuance, an unfinished episode about one of my uncles or aunts; how some had stayed behind in Chihuahua or Mexico City and how others pushed, invented, and tackled the new life on this side of the border with both fists.
My mother's passion was in telling stories of passion. Hearing Don José speak of peace versus progress awakened me. How he uttered the word, “love.” I was listening to passion unfold in Colton.
There was something about Colton that had to do with Don José's notion of peace. I hadn't heard anyone talk about their hometown this way anywhere else. Most spoke of bold development, or the pristine past or the attainment of a probable balance between the two. I noticed that he spoke of families and how they loved to gather - in peace. There was a family of three waiting to cross the tracks. They waited for the train alarms to quell. Where's the passion? Don José could see it.
In Redlands, at Martha Green's Bakery and Restaurant painted, hung and decorated with over three-hundred images and three-dimensional figures of roosters, J.R. Green, Martha's son, offered me a Sprite and answered my abstract questions about what makes things real and particular in this town. I readied my pen, smoothed my Steno-Pad.
My father Felipe, in his midsixties, drove an old Army pickup truck as we crossed the San Joaquín Valley from town to town following the crops. Often, we would park in the middle of the tiny dirt roads and rest at the foot of the orange groves. One or two oranges would quench our thirst and we would be on our way. Oranges for me had to do with movement, travel, being in-between homes and homelands, and places to go to school. Later, I would write children's books and go back to those orange groves, and I would put back the handful of oranges that we took, with a poem.
When J.R. mentioned the physicality of making your own orange grove and planting it inside your own space - a conscious choice, I heard passion come alive. His passion was not bound to the past - the days when locals would paste sixty boxes worth of citrus fruit to a covered wagon for the Redlands-Highland Fruit Exchange Parade. He didn't speak of a peaceful state. Passion is not always bound to yearning as I had thought. It is an energy agent and works best in the active present, I learned. Passion was around the corner.
In Yucaipa, I heard tales of Yucaipa Boulevard, how it demarcated the city into two sectors - tradition in the southern half and rapid development in the northern area. I was directed to a real estate agent. He would know about passion in this town, I was told. He directed me to his website, “Read my intro,” he said. I did. It mentioned skiing and golf and the nightlife at one locale and provided an album of houses for sale. “Email me and I will answer immediately. I have a client.” I did. In the meantime, people told me, “Everyone working here lives somewhere else, we are all commuters.” Can you draw a line in the middle of Passion? Can work be passionate? Is a commuter always an alien to the intense feelings of and for place? The email never arrived.
Scanning the Yucaipa Valley, it's hills and undulating landscapes, reminded me of my father hauling our handmade trailer from Escondido to the winding hills of Ramona. Once my father managed to get a job working for Mr. Weed's ranch, we lived in our first worker's house. It was behind Mr. Weed's large single-story home. There was a line between us, between the front house and the back house. No one ever crossed it. We were the workers. Behind our house an unmarked terrain flared out into the horizon. That open space was precious to me. It made my insides quiver. All earth, open, endless. There I could run and play - free. After decades of movement between places that I love, I have come to know that the “motion” itself is something like passion. Is that were passion nestles?
Slowed my VW into first gear and parked at Frank and Kitts Automotive in San Bernardino. My nephew, Michael Robles, a once- Colton resident referred me. He used to bring his Karman-Ghia here when he was at Colton High. “Talk to Frank,” Michael told me. “He's not here.” Tina, Frank's daughter, tells me. She looks a little like Paula Abdul or better yet, like a diminutive Danielle Steele with a red work shirt. She takes time to tell me about her place. As I give her a note to hand over to her father, I ask her about “San Berdu,” as I have heard it called. “Oh, it used to be full of business. The kids used to cruise “E” Street on Friday nights. Then it all fell apart. Now, things are beginning to build up again. The Humanitarian Society put up a building on Orange Show Street and others are moving in.” Her words about things “falling” stands out. Tina is telling me something deep and sad, joyful,odd, honest and meaningful about this city. How it broke down and now seems to be coming together again. Passion can be a response to empty feelings, to loss and the yearning for change at the same time. Or is it just about loss? Of all my interviews and meanderings across I- 10 and I-215, Tina's evocation of things “one day falling down” in her city, touch me, move me the most.
Maybe, things began to fall down all around me the day we left Vista. I was four years old and I remember my mother hand-fed the chickens in Mrs. Garcia's ranch. She was the happiest in those times. That's how I saw her. She used to heal birds that crashed into our trailer wall. All the women sought her advice, the workers. We lived in a close circle of Spanish-talk and clean sunlight. Then we moved. Rowdy, the spotted hound chased our trailer into the dust. After that things seemed to break down a little. We moved on to bigger towns, but we were different.
I write down what people tell me. Then I write the story. As I write the story, my story gets involved. As I hunt for passion in people's lives in the Inland Empire, I hunt for mine. Maybe that is the secret to being a poet. A poet strives to express things that cannot ever be put into words. Yet, that is what a poet does. Passion exists in these cities. In one it is about peace, in the other, action and choice, then it takes the form of busy commuting, then about loss and change. The question is, did I hunt passion? Did it escape me once again?
Next day about 6am my Vanagon rolls into the Coffee Bean in Redlands where I live. The pool guys are there with Bill Tarbi. He is a friend I made while getting coffee for my wife every morning for the last two years since we moved from Fresno. The pool guys, David, Rick, Ronny and Arnold are on their way to Coachella to install swimming pools. I focus on Ronny's arms and neck spidered with tattoos. I snap a photo with my damaged Nikon. Ronny stands, his arms down, his face toward the young sun, his body upright as if saluting the day. There it is.
Passion like a hand needled tattoo glows on our bodies. You do not have to say much about it. Words are not as important as you think. Not even for a poet. All you have to do is live and move with the life around you. “Live and move with the life around you.” I said to myself. Standing. Facing Ronny with tattoos and the sunlight.
Then all the words and faces and kids and elders and sales girls and deli workers and servers and painters and AC installers and optometrist clinicians and managers and hair-stylists and archivists and cooks and foremen and students and pawn shop guitarists come to me...
Live and move with the life all around you.
I scribble this down as the sun burns above, like in the days when my father Felipe, my mother Lucha and me wondered thirsty through small valley towns. I am getting closer to the source. This is my passion - in this newfound place between desert, water and sky.