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SGV Connect 125 Transcript: A Sweatshop Documentary Comic Strip

CG (studio): Welcome to SGV Connect number 125, I'm Chris Greenspon here alone this week with a special feature interview. I spoke with Isabel pan about her documentary comic strip on sweatshops in the SGV.
IP: It was a very common thing to have it in the house and have it not talked about. It was kept a secret, and it's not supposed to be talked about in public that you're doing this work, because it makes you a target for the city and the state.
CG (studio): To see excerpts of this comic as we go, just look at the episodes write up on Streetsblog, LA, but before we get started, it's my duty to remind you that Streetsblog's San Gabriel Valley coverage is supported by Foothill Transit offering car free travel throughout the San Gabriel Valley with connections to the Gold Line stations across the foothills and commuter Express lines traveling into the heart of downtown LA. To plan your trip, visit Foothill Transit going good places... Now, Isabel pan is a Taiwanese Mexican American artist in her early 20s with roots in South El Monte. At college, Pan recently turned in a project on the area for her American studies course. It was based on the history book East of East, edited by South El Monte Arts Posse, or SEMAP. That led to an introduction through her professor and then an artist's residency at samaps, community archive space, Casa Zamora. For her residency, Pan drew a comic strip documenting the life of the son of a sweatshop worker. Her interviewee's name is Denny. His parents came to El Monte in the late 70s fleeing the Vietnam War. They endured the loss of family en route to America and the struggle of working in the garment industry once here. Pan's comic strip is titled Má, which is what Denny calls his mother.
IP: What was significant about this story is when he started talking about his mom and how he experienced, like, living in the house where his mom was also like sewing, like a middleman would come and drop off different like patterns and like she would be sewing on the buttons, or like the hems that needed to be finished. But that was a very common experience for a lot of East Asian, Southeast Asian families in the San Gabriel Valley, whether that was like Rosemead, El Monte... people, specifically, women, were doing garment work in the house. And that was interesting, because it's a domestic space. When you kind of picture garment industry, kind of think the Fashion District in downtown LA, where there's specific warehouses where people would go to work, but in this case, you're bringing the work into your home. And so it was a very common thing to have it in the house and have it not talked about. It was kept a secret, and it's not supposed to be talked about in public that you're doing this work, because it makes you a target for the city and the state for what you're supposed to be doing for manufacturers that are looking for cheap labor, but want to do everything under the table. And so I think that's very normalized when you're talking about the stories of the Vietnamese diaspora. Maybe that there's a connection between these hidden stories and ideas of hidden labor. What is visible and what's not visible? What's visible is like that first sign that you pass by and what's not visible is women's work in the garment industry that you have to lock up in the kitchen, and you had to hide that sewing machine when people are over.
CG (studio): The major theme of Má is the generation gap and communication breakdown between Denny and his mother resulting from a traumatic escape from Vietnam.
IP: In the story, in particular, I'm talking about part of their family, their siblings that they have in Vietnam, they die along the way, in traveling by boat. They all drown. And so his dad's sister and I think two kids that they have in Vietnam both pass away. And so the dad had to choose, because no one else knew how to swim but the dad. So he had to choose who he was going to save. So he saved his wife, and just leaving, you know, three of his family members to drown. And so I think he only knew of this narrative the person who's like talking about it in my comic --
CG: Your interview subject, Denny.
IP: -- yeah, he only heard of his siblings that passed through like hearing his mom cry about it. Like in the middle of the night, she would wake up and she'd cry about her kids that she lost. And so he would not really feel comfortable asking his mom about how she feels about these siblings, so they kind of remain unsaid and untalked about, and it's kind of this murky... your child understands some sort of pain that the parent feels, but the emotional language that the child understands versus the parent are two different languages sometimes, whether that is like an actual language barrier, where you feel like you're, you know, your family's native language doesn't compare to how you talk, and you're like, what I was talking about in the comic, like, he was talking about, like, "Oh, my Vietnamese is crap." And he was like, "I  feel like I quite literally communicate differently with my family," where he feels more comfortable with English, but also this emotional masking that happens where you go into survival mode as an immigrant, and it's different in expressing your emotions later on, when you have a kid who grows up here and doesn't have that same experience, but kind of inherits that emotional language where you don't want to talk about your feelings, you want to bottle it up. So I think that's a very common theme I talk about in a lot of my personal work, is how does this trauma translate to the kid later on. How does, how does this survival mode get embodied by someone who no longer needs to survive in the same way that their parents did, or even even down the line grandparents. And so I think it's, yeah, I think it was something very significant to look at when it comes to like, the difference between first generation, second generation, and then even keep going down, how does this translate, and how does this idea of survival translate? Because I think that that still is the case when you're surviving here, having to take on like work that has to be hidden in order to make enough money just to stay here and afford to live here in LA County.
CG: What did Denny make of his story being documented? And has he seen a finished or halfway finished version of this yet?
IP: So like, throughout the process, I was always sending him the drafts and getting his opinion or input on certain things. Yeah, I ended up showing pretty much done version of the comic, and when I had asked him what he felt about it, I was very interesting answer, where he was like, it's weird to see my life drawn out. And it was also weird for me, because I think my artwork usually pertains to myself, and I don't really look at my art as a documental sense, where I'm documenting someone that's not me. And so it felt a little like, "Oh, I'm getting to know someone through my own drawings, and I'm translating what I gathered from the interview as what I wanted to portray for my own work." So there was a very interesting process. And I think interviewing Denny, I think he was a very humble guy. I think when I first met him, he's like, "I have no story that is significant that's gonna make history in the books." And I think that's just how it is for a lot of people who, like, just have stories that are labeled as not historically, like significant, or what you think belongs in the history books. And I think because of that, you you render your story to be insignificant, even though it ended up speaking to a lot of people. I remember when I hosted a workshop here at Casa Zamora. It was a graphic novel workshop, and I kind of did a little introduction to my own experience making graphic novels, which was this comic. And I started to talk about how I wanted to explore the garment industry, specifically in the San Gabriel Valley, and talk about relationship between women's like work, gendered labor, the way that garment industry plays out here, specifically in the San Gabriel Valley. And then later on, one of the women who were who was in the workshop, she had come up to me after and said how she was getting so emotional me talking about this comic. She hadn't even seen it yet. She'd seen bits and pieces that I'd shown at the workshop, but she was like my mom had similar experience where she took a sewing machine home because she did used to work in the garment industry in downtown, I think, or it used, she used to work in a warehouse, but then when she had her she wanted to take care of her kid and asked to bring the machine home. And so she worked from home. And so she's like, I didn't know other people had that experience. I thought that was just me and my mom kind of thing. I didn't know. Know that that was something that was a pattern happening in the San Gabriel Valley. And so I think, though maybe Denny didn't think it was significant when he was telling me when they ended up drawing it out, and like people were seeing it for the first time, they were having a very emotional connection to it. And it was very significant. I remember recounting that story to Denny, how someone else connected to it. And he was like, "Oh, are they also Vietnamese or Chinese?" And I was like, "no, she was Latina." And so he was like, "Oh," so it's, it's even like a multicultural, multi ethnic experience that doesn't just pertain to one ethnic group. And so that bridge between different communities was also really cool to see.
CG (studio): Pan's grandparents worked in rough conditions too, in dry cleaning, granite working and welding. She saw the toll it took on their health and homes, and that's why she wanted to do this story.
IP: These industries, you kind of see the product that you get, the stories or wherever you're consuming it, but a lot of the times, you're not thinking about the bodies that are sacrificed for creating this capitalist good. And so that also plays into how someone sees themselves, and how you know, someone unmakes the home, because the home itself that Denny was living in was also a place where you're producing work. And you also have to understand that there's this like non normative understanding of home, the physical space itself is deconstructed through the people, through the emotions, through the production. And so I think that's what really drew me to this story, because it's a story that I could relate to, and what I could see through my own family, especially the women in my life. I think that's why, in my comic, I ended up like using my dedication page to dedicate this comic to all the women in my life who sacrifice their bodies, sacrifice through burdening grief, burdening labor and burdening all the strength that a family endures living here in LA and what it takes to be a person of color, I think struggling to just survive sometimes.
CG (studio): Pan's comic strip is an impressionistic pen drawing of strip malls, flower stands, screaming traffic, little post war tract houses, a Tascam tape recorder, Pho Filet, McDonald's, huge liquor store signs, a sad young man with short hair and big glasses, unanswered questions, the buzz of a television, a message in a cookie tin, Garvey Avenue, Tyler Avenue... In short, the streetscape of El Monte.
IP: What I knew going into the comic before I even found someone to interview, I knew that I wanted it to be El Monte specific. Locationally wise, I think geography is something that's not always talked about, and it's something that I learned and was given the language through, like academia, the classes that I was taking in the last two years that I've been in college have been informative of how I see space and land and how it's really informative the communities in which it serves and which it sometimes doesn't serve. So I knew that my choices to like, okay, yes, you know this is specifically Garvey, or like that liquor store you passed by where it's like, near the Tyler's market. I wanted this to be recognizable to those who living El Monte. "Oh, you're talking about specific places that I know and pass by all the time." And so it was something that I needed to talk about, because in media, maybe LA is very compartmentalized, and there certain places that are depicted where you kind of recognize, like, okay, that's the west side, or it's like a different location that's usually not El Monte and so this is also part of the LA landscape, and how it informs, like pop culture here, and also it's informative in other ways, where my personal experience, I always drove up and down Garvey because I was going between Rosemead and Monte so I've always passed by these plazas. And I know you referred to them as strip malls right now, but it was very interesting, where I've seen it in media talked about as strip malls. And that's common in LA, but for me, growing up like my dad has always called it plazas. And so it's, it's interesting, because when you look up the word Plaza, it's like a space where it's community, a square. And so sometimes you, like, think, okay, it's a strip mall. It's just a it's just a parking lot with, like, shops, and it's kind of like ugly looking or something where it's not pleasing to the eye. But for me, like I think plazas are very significant. When thinking about the San Gabriel Valley and what culture stems from that, there's a lot of mom and pop shops that really inform the life that grows out of here. And for me, I think the places I depict, I depict with love and care, and the way, even just drawing it is, was really nice experience for me, because I know that I was putting love and care, and like the details of these places, it's not something that I'm depicting just to depict as an image, but that there's a lot of character and significance, or people who also go to like these plazas a lot.
CG: Isabel Pan, thanks so much for coming on.SGV Connect,
IP: Thank you for having me.
CG (studio): Isabel Pan's, comic strip Má, can be found at Matalija Lending Library in El Monte, and you can see excerpts online at I'm Chris Greenspon, thanks for listening to SGV Connect.