El Monte Forever: A Brief History of Michael Jaime-Becerra

Michael Jaime Becerra book talk close up

“I was born in San Gabriel. [...] There was no hospital in El Monte at the time.”[1]

Here is what you should know about Michael Jaime-Becerra: he loves El Monte so much he bought a house there, he used to write poetry he now calls the “demo tapes” of his writing career, he’s interested in writing about a Los Angeles the public never reads about, he’s an excellent professor but he could be a famous DJ, he changed his name so that people would know a Mexican-American is the one writing his stories, and like many other writers, he has been scribbling down stories since middle school. But we will start with El Monte, since that’s what this project is all about: mapping this place, its corners and freeways, its people.

El Monte Stories

With the exception of his undergraduate years at UC Riverside and his Master of Fine Arts at UC Irvine, Michael Jaime-Becerra has always lived in El Monte. He did not have to leave home to write about it. His writing does not feed the idea that L.A. is Hollywood and Disneyland. Jaime-Becerra’s writing is about the lives of people in El Monte: union butchers, life-long homemakers, women working in a paleta truck and selling fireworks on the side, and men working at a dairy, struggling to pay a mortgage and fall in love.

Jaime-Becerra started publishing work about El Monte as a poet. His first chapbook, Look Back and Laugh, was released by the Chicano Chapbook Series and edited by Gary Soto in 1997. That series also published Sandra Cisneros and Jimmy Santiago Baca, which is quite an accomplishment all by itself. The poem “Augie” in Look Back stands out to Jaime-Becerra as the poem he would always share or close with during readings. It begins with a close up of a just-finished rose tattoo, a baby name beneath it. “It looks so real, I think I can smell it,” says Augie. The tenth-grade tattoo artist responds, “Trip out, you’ve been a tio since last Sunday.” The way they talk is the way my brothers and I speak, or the way my guy friends would talk to each other. Not all of them, though. Some of the boys I grew up with were mod or straight-edge, and they might say “trip out” less than these guys. I appreciate this poem because we follow two muchachos (they’re not “boys” exactly, and “young men” is too formal), head down Peck on a bicycle, Augie riding on the handle bars. “My bike weaves a lazy trail all over the street,” he says, and we hear a song by Egyptian Lover from a passing car when the narrator stops to fix his bike chain. Augie sees a great future for his life, he wants to “get married, get a job at Home Depot where they start you out at seven dollars an hour.”  This poem is a slice real life in El Monte, and it stands on the shoulders of poems before it that could not focus in so closely on these lives.

In the world of poetry, when Chicana/os were first publishing and sharing their work, particularly during the Chicano Movement, there were more urgent things to talk about in poems: field labor, immigration, our parents’ struggles to feed the family. As long as there are immigrants, these kinds of poems will continue to be written, but for those of us who have lived here more than one generation, our poems’ concerns are with other matters, at times abstract, at times direct. With “Augie,” it’s young people’s actual lives that are pictured, not another “I am Joaquin,” because that poem was already written. Augie is responsible, hopeful, and in love, a tender representation of our muchachos, which Western literature sorely lacks and Chicana/o poetry welcomes.

estrellitas

Jaime-Becerra’s second chapbook, The Estrellitas Off Peck Road (Temporary Vandalism, 1997), further portrays finely drawn characters from his neighborhood. For example, a poem called “Minor Threat” opens in the (now defunct) Golfland arcade, a young man with a bright red mohawk walks in. His jacket is covered with patches with band names that sound like death, among them are: Bad Brains, The Cramps, and The Germs. Jaime-Becerra calls these chapbooks the “demo tapes,” and says that he  realized he was writing stories with line breaks, which encouraged him to start writing fiction. The place, clothes, and the bodies of the characters in Estrellitas prove what readers come to realize about Jaime-Becerra’s writing: “I know the streets, I know the businesses,” he says. “I know to a certain degree some of the people that might live in that area, where I want my character to be. [...]. I can pull from different periods of El Monte [...].”[2] He shows us Nu-Wavers, punks, the guy working at King Taco, everybody gets to be in his literature. I am glad for this since, I also illustrate this side of Latino Los Angeles that people ignore, with characters who are self-defined, and push against stereotypes.

Teaching Where He Went to School

If Michael Jaime-Becerra were not an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at UC Riverside, he would be a mixtape deejay. He told students this in his class “Assembling the Collection,” a graduate fiction workshop that I happened to be taking last spring. Jaime-Becerra is a dedicated and impeccable teacher. He expects rigorous thinking and analysis of novels, stories, and your own writing. To paraphrase him in class (and his colleague, Susan Straight): If you’re not a good reader, you can’t be a good writer. His syllabus warned that some students may consider the content of a collection to be offensive, and that if you could not read a book on its own terms, you should take another class. As far as professors go to ensure that everyone is ready for the material, that policy is as punk as it gets.

every night is ladies night

As a short story writer, he has a fine-tuned ear for arrangement that made Every Night is Ladies’ Night a beautifully wrought collection of stories.  When I first read that book, I was heartened that writers could come from neighborhoods like the one I grew up in Los Angeles and is one of the reasons I chose UCR for grad school. In particular the story, “Lopez Trucking Incorporated,” where a truck- driving grandfather who left his family, shows up on his granddaughter’s wedding day only to have to leave again. His character’s description rang true for me: I know this man, and he might be my uncle or father. Jaime-Becerra writes:

Grandpa Lopez climbs down from the cab and looks around before walking across the green       grass to the house. He’s wearing a short-sleeved plaid shirt, dark jeans, and pointy black         cowboy boots wicked with polish.[...] Though his hair has thinned on top, what’s left is combed up into an inky wave that glistens with pomade (Every Night is Ladies’ Night, 84).

Of this collection, writer and former professor Ann Patchett said, “[This] is one of those wonderful books you will want to give to everyone you know.”[3] This is true especially of teachers in El Monte who work in high schools. They assign the novel and watch students’ eyes grow large when they hear their neighborhoods mentioned in a story. That kind of opportunity is rare in urban, largely Latino, and working-class classrooms.

The stories in this book travel down Peck Road with eye-lined teenagers on their way to give a couple of bad dudes practice tattoos. This is what Los Angeles looks like, with cholos playing a minor role, and the rest of us front and center.

His poetic language, eye for detail, and references to Los Angeles Latino culture also stand out in his second book, This Time Tomorrow. For instance, the protagonist, Gaeta, takes his girlfriend Josie to a Juan Gabriel concert. If you are not familiar with Juan Gabriel and his monolithic importance to Mexican-Americans, artists, everybody and their mothers, I recommend you look into it. So when I finished reading the concert scene, I immediately regretted not having writing the thing myself. In fact, when I contacted Jaime-Becerra about applying to UC Riverside for graduate school, I mentioned that scene in my email and told him I appreciated the reference and the nod to our pop culture very much.

The book is three inter-related novellas that “Thread his lyrical prose [...] with the hyper-realistic particulars of daily life, elevate his struggling East L.A. Everyman to heroic heights.”[4] A comment that could not be more true, except that El Monte is not East L.A. It is at least ten minutes east, and to be sure, there is not just one kind of man in either place. That’s the work Jaime-Becerra does, showing us just the opposite notion. There are many men, some with cleavers, some with publishing contracts, and some writing under names to make them legit.

Names Make a Difference

As an undergraduate at UC Riverside, Jaime-Becerra studied with Susan Straight, Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing. In her fiction class, she had students read “Tk” by Danny Santiago. Students were excited about the content, a well-written account of a homie in East L.A., having that life we know too well. A few days later, Susan revealed to the students that the book was written by an Irish-American priest, no less, who changed his pen name to write the novel. Jaime-Becerra thought of this moment when he looked at his first chapbook. Recently, when I borrowed his chapbooks for this piece he said, “I didn’t want people to look at my name on the cover of my next book and say ‘Michael Jayme? Who the hell is that writing about El Monte?’”  He decided to change the spelling of his last name, which had been changed by previous generations to distinguish themselves from other Jaimes, a name as common as “Smith” in Mexico, and Los Angeles by extension. He also wanted to include his mother’s lineage in his name and so he added “Becerra.”

Writing Since He Was Two Apples Tall

In October of 2012 , Jaime-Becerra visited Kranz Intermediate, a school he attended, to read poems and short story excerpts to a raucous ovation from the middle schoolers. One eighth grader said:

It was good that Mr. Becerra came to talk to us. I liked relating to all the stuff he read from his books. It’s all familiar to us because we live here and we’ve been studying his poems. It was cool seeing the author and hearing it out of his mouth.[5]

When Jaime-Becerra was a student at Kranz, a teacher entered a book he wrote for the Education Expo at the Los Angeles County Fair.  Out of all the work submitted throughout the county, hundreds of students from Claremont to the San Fernando Valley, his book placed third. It was the kind of moment that would burn into any aspiring writer’s memory. In an interview several years ago, he said:

I got to go to the fair to see my book displayed in this big exhibit hall with the ribbon on and   it made me realize that someone from a place like El Monte could accomplish this. It convinced me that writing was what I wanted to do for a living.[6]

He continues his dedication to accurately depicting everyday people, and  he’s willing to dig deeply to ensure accurate representation. For instance, during the summer of 2013, he was as an assistant taquero at birthday parties and other celebrations, cutting up piles of onions and cilantro bunches, grilling ten pounds of al pastor pork or carne asada under hot suns—a method he used to research a story for the Heyday Books anthology’s Los Angeles Atlas. His influences, literary and otherwise, clearly derive from the mundane and from a vast well of role models.

Some of his biggest influences are master short story tellers. As the Los Angeles Times’ Reed Johnson said of Jaime-Becerra’s writing:

If John Cheever or William Trevor had spent their early careers living and typing away in a bungalow in the San Gabriel Valley, absorbing its sensations and getting to know its residents, this [book] might be the result.[7]

Jaime-Becerra is currently at work on a new novel, but before the school year ended this past spring, he said he was going to paint his house one wall at a time because he saw his neighbor do it. Given his eye for detail, as a writer and a teacher, I wonder if he considered Cheever the way he did his neighbor. Indeed, he must have observed how his neighbor painted the outside walls of his home steadily, one at a time, until it was finished. “I can do that,” Jaime-Becerra said, and his students nodded. Of course he will. He’ll paint whatever part of El Monte is next, and we’ll be lucky to see ourselves when we read about it. If you don’t see yourself in the stories, then look closely at these portraits of your neighbors so that we can better know each other.

The Author

Vickie Vertiz is currently an MFA candidate at UC Riverside. She is a Chicana raised in south east Los Angeles, which lacks murals and frequently-passing public transit. This December, she will perform her writing in the “Women in the Americas Conference,” at the Institute de Ameriques in Aix-en-Provence, France. Her poetry collection, Swallows, was released in 2013 by Finishing Line Press. To keep up with her writing, visit vertiz.wordpress.com.

Michael Jaime-Becerra flyer

East of East Series

1. SEMAP, “Making Place: Mapping South El Monte and El Monte”

2. Yesenia Barragan and Mark Bray, “Ricardo Flores Magón & the Anarchist Movement in El Monte, California”

3. Nick Juravich, “‘City of Achievement': The Making of the City of South El Monte, 1955-1976″

4. Vickie Vertiz, “El Monte Forever: A Brief History of Michael Jaime-Becerra”

5. Michael Jaime-Becerra, “1181 Durfee Avenue: 1983 to 1986″

References

[1] “Every Night is Ladies’ Night: A profile of author Michael Jaime-Becerra,” by Cameron Randle in LatinoLA. Published January 13, 2005, http://latinola.com/story.php?story=2345. Accessed  September 5, 2013.

[2] “Writers Salvador Plascencia and Michael Jaime-Becerra share a city and common inspiration: El Monte,” Reed Johnson, Los Angeles Times, April 25, 2010. Accessed on September 5, 201: http://articles.latimes.com/2010/apr/25/entertainment/la-ca-el-monte-20100425.

[3] Praise for Every Night is Ladies’ Night, book jacket

[4] “Writers Salvador Plascencia and Michael Jaime-Becerra share a city and common inspiration: El Monte,” Reed Johnson, Los Angeles Times, April 25, 2010. Accessed on September 5, 201: http://articles.latimes.com/2010/apr/25/entertainment/la-ca-el-monte-20100425.

[5] Kranz Intermediate School Celebrates Teen Read Week with a Visit from Michael Jaime-Becerra Author, Professor and Kranz Alum,” http://www.mtviewschools.com/site/default.aspx?PageType=3&ModuleInstanceID=6107&ViewID=047E6BE3-6D87-4130-8424-D8E4E9ED6C2A&RenderLoc=0&FlexDataID=852&PageID=2581 , accessed on September 6, 2013.

[6] Ibid.

[7] “Writers Salvador Plascencia and Michael Jaime-Becerra share a city and common inspiration: El Monte,” Reed Johnson, Los Angeles Times, April 25, 2010. Accessed on September 5, 201: http://articles.latimes.com/2010/apr/25/entertainment/la-ca-el-monte-20100425.

[8] “A Conversation with Michael Jaime-Becerra,” Thomas King, Paul Sebik, J.W. Yates, February 3, 2006. Accessed on September 5, 2013: http://willowsprings.ewu.edu/interviews/becerra.pdf.

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