East of East

East of East: The Making of Greater El Monte

A Project of the South El Monte Arts Posse

Michael Jaime Becerra

Oral History with Michael Jaime Becerra

Narrator: Michael Jaime Becerra D.O.B. : September 3, 1973Interviewer: Romeo Guzmán

File Name: Michael Jaime Becerra


The story of Michael Jaime Becerra begins with his family’s Mexican origins and their migration to LA. His father, a child born out of wedlock, spent his childhood in a small mining town south of Durango. He spent the first 10 years of his life with other family members while his mother, Michael’s grandmother, worked hard to make a decent living in the midst of public shame. At the abandonment of Michael’s grandfather, his grandmother eventually made her way to America on her own and fought through the process of immigration, calling to her son later to make his own way by bus in the path she had laid before him. Settling in El Monte, she stressed an english education upon her family as she worked hard to support them best she could to create a good life in assimilation. Michael’s father worked many different jobs before and after his deployment in the Vietnam war. Upon returning he landed a union meat cutting job that led to a favorable economic condition that Michael remembers most gratefully, comparing it to the more impoverished situation of those nearby. Michael Becerra conveys the magical peculiarity of growing up in El Monte, his own unique cultural position within it and the greater experience he shared with those around him. Possessing the early awareness of wanting to be a writer, Michael Jaime Becerra became the first in his family to attend college. Struggling through the alienation of his early college days he eventually fell into his groove with the joining of the writer workshops on campus. Today Becerra is an accomplished novelist and professor with tenure in creative writing at UCR the very college he attended. expresses a few of his methods and purpose behind transforming real experience into that of fiction.

Key Words: List major themes, locations-cities, state, and country, spaces/places within El Monte and El Monte, Schools, current occupation,

TIME LOG - 1:30 - family history in Mexico and immigration , 4:00 - grandmother stresses english education in assimilation , 5:30 - father’s various occupations and eventual position in union trade,

10:00 financial situation in relation to area , 11:30 - the dirt road and crowded
apartments , 12:00 cholo threats and childhood mobility , 16:00 - skateboarding, music, girls ,

17:00 - Krock, seen as cultural betrayal in some sense, judged for punk culture , 20:00 - friend
who got beat for having a mohawk , 22:00 - friends dying from shooting air bubbles into veins
and getting busted from weed , 25:00 - Jesse Ybarra talent and premature death by OD , 28:00 -
transition to richer school , 29:30 punk skate culture and style, hanging around hollywood , 35:00
- family reactions to punk lifestyle , 39:00 UCR , 43:00 - Mecha chapter conversation and his
alienation from his own culture 45:00 - Chicano/a/x spectrum , 48:00 - basketball , 50:00 -
struggling with guidance at UCR and feeling connected to rich social life back home , 53 - first
in family to go to college , 55:00 - began to get into small writer workshops , 57:30 - WHY HE
WRITES , 1:00:00 - to write what you know and what you love 1:01:00 - El Monte magic! ,
1:04:00 - new novel, his work, and its relations to his life , 1:06:00 - first memories , 1:07:00 -
demographic change in El Monte and racial dynamics , 1:10:00 - his job/writing/trade

Placing Punk

Curation : My father was born in San Fransisco de Loto, a very small, insular, mining town in the southern part of Chihuahua near the state of Durango, literally a one street pueblo that was attached to a copper mine. My grandmother saved up cleaning the mine’s medical clinic at nights. She wasn’t allowed to go outside during the day because of the shame of having my father out of wedlock. After my grandfather abandoned them, my grandmother decided to migrate just her and my dad, that was her mentality. She went up first to Juarez and El Paso to get all the papers set. Then she sent for my dad who had to take a bus and together just the two of them came to Los Angeles in 1950-51. My grandmother worked a bunch of odd jobs and insisted that they learn to speak English and take classes. This was the environment of the early 50s where you acclimate, adjust, assimilate. They had a tiny apartment in Lincoln Heights for a long time. Eventually my dad met my mother and moved out to El Monte in ’71 or ’72. After being a bank teller and military equipment salesman leading up to Vietnam, my dad served in ’68 and ’69, and became a union meat cutter when he got back. I felt like we were really well off, and that was because my father had a trade, a union job. I grew up off of Durphy and Fineview, along Parkway. A little street called Valwood in 1978 or ’79 was still unpaved, a dirt road. There was a lot of poverty there.

An identity around music didn't start to form for me until 8th grade and that was K-Rock, because it was skateboarding music. This was ’87. K-Rock was really derisive. There was a moment in high school. My sister has the tour shirt from the peshmel 101 tour at the Rose Bowl and she's got on a plaid skirt and monkey boots. I get out of the car to let her out. I’m wearing tight black pants, a tight leather jacket, and pointy black docs, cuz at this point I was really into death rock like Siouxie, Biohouse, Juice and Marychain, Lemon Rockets, all that type of stuff. We were dressing the part as much we could for dress code. This homie kid is rounding the corner, right in front of the liquor store on Fineview. He looks at my sister and he looks at me, and with this really awful… just complete look of, ugh, disgust on his face says, “pinche new wavers!” Like he was angry at us! My sister and I looked at each other and we just started laughing because we thought it was funny. So that was sort of the environment we grew up in. A friend of my sisters had an older sibling, a brother, who cut his hair into a bright red mohawk, and his mother beat him for it. It makes me really happy now to drive around the city and see really hardcore skater-punk kids be comfortable with that identity. That’s part of our spectrum now. When I was their age it wasn’t, it was considered a betrayal to your people, your race, your culture. In the 80s in El Monte there were disco kids, cholos, and then there were K-Rock kids, or new wave kids. That new wave could be anything from you like the B52s to you like the Ramones to you like the Dead Kennedys. Which if you were in that subculture you’d know there was a whole ‘nother spectrum there. The K-Rock blanket would get thrown over you, “oh you like all that stuff,” but there were those big three divisions.

I had a friend named Andy and his brother had this cool Toyota mini truck with a camper shell and a big booming system. He would pick me up in the morning to take me, Andy and maybe one or two other guys to Mountain View, even presenting it in exhibition. A friend of mine when I was a kid died shooting air bubbles into his veins with hypodermic needles trying to see what would happen, stuff like that, another got busted for selling weed. What happened? These were people that I hung out with. Man these were some of my best friends, people I didn’t want to leave my side. It just seemed our lives went down really different paths. I write and draw from those experiences in my work. There were two other guys from El Monte that went to Baw school, which was a trade school. One of them, Jesse Ybarra, seemed to have all the potential in the world. To hear that nothing became of him, that those options didn’t pan out in the way we had expected was sobering. Gilbert was a friend outside of school, a super funny, talented artist I would bust up with.

Being at Baw School Tech at that time… the privilege that some of those other kids had allowed me to be exposed to things I normally wouldn’t have been exposed to otherwise. We’d go to Hollywood a lot. To buy a cassette you need money, to buy a cd you need money, to look a certain way and dress punk you need money. I was scrounging my way through that world, but I had friends that certainly weren’t that gave me access to music and pop/underground culture that I might not have otherwise. I would scramble to save money for concerts in high school. Music has always been this driving force in my life. I wore all black, tight pants, black Levis and Dickies that I would peg myself. A friend of mine had a friend whose mother was dating the guy who owned NaNa in Santa Monica, and NaNa was the only place you could get Doc Marten’s at that time, exclusive from England. So we’d go out there and buy his used Docs out of a bag in the back where he worked as a clerk at a boutique on Melrose. I bought a pair of ten hole, pant- leather black Doc Martens and black pointers that I’d wear all the time. The front of my hair was long and I would just comb it back. The makeup thing always seemed silly to me because I'm dark skinned. I’m moreno, ya know? Why have white face when my hands are all brown? I had friends that did that and it just looked ridiculous to me. But I had spikes, safety pins, and tight black clothes in a time when there was a lot of baggy clothing.

There was a guy at Baw school who was a really good artist into drafting and his name was Chuck Chugunlung. An older kid from South Monte, Omar Maldonado, who was into goth and death rock, Chuck had painted a Tones on Tail jacket for him, with the mask and little bit of spit hanging out of the mouth. Ah, I thought that was the baddest-ass jacket ever. I wanted something that was unique like that, that would stand out. A lesson I learned from my father and his custom, painted, embroidered redskin’s big chief head jacket. The band that I loved the most at that time was Siouxie and the Banshees. So I had this really cool poster from this British tour they did, and an image of her that wasn’t common. I saved up money and eventually got him to paint this Siouxie jacket. My senior year of high school and even the first year of college that was one of my calling cards; I was the kid with the Siouxsie jacket. I still have it, I was proud of that. I write because I think its important for people on a national level to see the experience of the people I knew. Its an experience that I think matters, and when I started was very misrepresented in many ways, I felt like nobody got it right. They say write what you know, I try to stress write what you love.

Michael Jaime Becerra