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SGV Connect 126 Interview : Chris Greenspon interviews Melissa Mora Hidalgo

CG: Okay, we're with Melissa Mora Hidalgo here at Penn Park in Whittier, which is SGV adjacent, it gets a pass. And so Melissa, you're a writer of many hats, covering primarily queer culture, specifically in SoCal, but also beer is Dr Beer Butch. You wrote a whole book on the age old love affair between Mexicans and Morrissey, or I should say Latinos and Morrissey, make it a little more broad, and you lecture at Cal State Long Beach on women's gender and ethnic studies. I'm guessing you probably have some ink on the underside of your hands right now. So when exactly did writing become important to your identity, and why? This is a take it way back question.
MMH: Thank you for that. I love thinking about this question because I feel like I think about it often because I don't consider myself a writer enough. I think primarily because I make my living paycheck to paycheck as a lecturer at Cal State Long Beach. You know, as an academic, as a academic worker, I teach many classes. My PhD is in literature, so I teach a lot of classes in literature, cultural studies, film, pop culture. You know, that's all fun stuff. But I don't, we don't have time to think about ourselves as writers or as scholars in that respect. And so I think during my time as an adjunct, which has really been now in the last 10 years, almost, writing has become really central to my mission, as far as my own sort of personal cultivation of myself, not just as a teacher in the classroom, but as a scholar, as a researcher, as someone who is interested in public history, in communities, in what and what does it mean to produce knowledge, and how do we take knowledge production outside of the walls of the academy? Right? So to me, writing becomes that bridge, and it became really important to me, I think, as an adjunct, as someone who literally had one foot in the academy, not both feet, because, by definition, as an adjunct, I am a contract worker. I don't have a permanent tenure line, which most people tend to think of when they think of professor at university, right, like I have. And in fact, we went on strike at the beginning of this academic year. The California Faculty Association went on strike for these very reasons, because of our over reliance non-tenure faculty like myself. So, you know, increasingly, as the as a university, just continue to see me as simply, quote, unquote, just a lecturer, right, literally paying me per classes, you know, this effectively meant that I was shut out from things like funding opportunities that quote, unquote, full time tenure line faculty got. And so in order for me, then to to do the work that I wanted to do, the research and the writing I wanted to do that for, you know, didn't have anything to do with my professional work, right? Because, normally, as an academic, your writing belongs to the university, right? When you write as an academic, you know, we're teachers, we're professors, we teach in our field at the university, but we also write books, we write articles, we conduct scholarship, right? We produce knowledge in our field as an adjunct, you know, the university pretty much only hires me and pays me to do just one of those two things, and that's teach, right? So you know, who am I? Then as a scholar. You know, when you get a PhD, you get a PhD with the aim of having a career in academe, right of teaching and producing scholarship in your area of study, in the field of your training. And that's you know, essentially, what I wanted to do. There's a whole other way we can talk about the new neoliberalization of public education, and how the corporate model now sees us relying again, on contingent labor. So, you know, I think that I really wanted to carve a path for myself that wasn't about relying on the university for funding, wasn't about relying on the University for a sense of identity and who I am professionally. And that's really when writing sort of as a when I started thinking myself as a freelance writer, right, as a writer, as someone who has knowledge and insight and training and has a unique perspective on things like popular culture, on, you know, beer, you know, not just because I have the degree and, like the formal training, but because, you know, sort of my on the ground, lived experiences in this body, you know, as a queer Chicana, someone who was born and raised in east of East LA County, and all of those experiences I sort of grew to understand were also important things to write about, right? So I know that was a very long winded answer, but writing really became central to me as a way to, on the one hand, distinguish myself, and to carve out a space for myself as a kind of scholar, writer, public facing scholar, writer, but also as a way to learn more about myself, about my community, about my family.
CG: I was expecting you to say something along the lines of, you know, in your teen years or whatever.
MMH: Oh, way back. Yeah.
CG: But that's,
MMH: I'll tell you what it was, though, if you don't mind my interruption, the reading was important in the teen years and early on, because my mother was a librarian. So the reading, you know? And I think that I'm able to be the writer I am because of the reader I was growing up in my youth.
CG: Oh, wow. So you're supposed to do that first, huh? Okay, so again, going back to youth, where, if anywhere, were the queer spaces or queer-ish spaces in the San Gabriel Valley and Whittier area for you, do you have good or or bad memories attached to this area around your queer identity?
MMH: Well, I think this is where books are important. So I have good and bad, you know, positive, negative. I think, as the young baby queer, before I even had the language to call myself, that I knew I was different. I knew I liked girls, I know I knew I never liked boys. I'm the oldest kid in the family. I have two sisters, and you know what I understood to be queer spaces were my first exposure to pop culture, right? So things like Grease, musicals, music, Prince, right, Madonna, you know, definitely pop culture. And then, as you know, I grew into my junior high years, Sinead O'Connor, right? Really important musical figure. So I found sort of, you know, queerness. And I didn't, I know it then, but I found myself gravitating towards certain pop culture, I think, based on the kind of nascent queer sensibility, you know, that was emergent within my own sense of self. But as far as, like other physical spaces in the community, I mean, look again, I grew up a block from the Orange County Line, deep suburbia, primarily at the time in the late, mid to late 80s, primarily white, primarily middle class. This is Reagan era, Orange County. I didn't know what... you know, queer spaces for me meant at the playground. You know, if I'm a tomboy, right? I love sports. My queer spaces were playing basketball with the boys on the playground. I didn't know it - again, I didn't know them to be queer spaces - but when I'm the only girl playing with all the boys and all the girls are talking, or they're jump roping, or they're playing hopscotch, or, I don't know, you know, I was too busy trying to play some kickball or to play hoops, or, you know, to play baseball. So I definitely, you know, sports for me, was with schools and libraries. I have a theory that for many of us queer kids, especially those of us who grew up without any models, you know, I didn't grow up with queer people in my family, very conservative Mexican Catholic family, because even if the queer people were there, I'm sure they were silenced, or they were not talked about, or they were like, given some sort of euphemisms. I'm sure my father has gay cousins somewhere in Texas. You know, I know for a fact, my mother had queer cousins on her side of the family, but they were never present. You know, they were never a part of my life growing up, I grew up with, in fact, like most Mexican young queer kids, grew up in a Catholic family, grew up questioning and hating and learning to call that a sin, right? So, you know, there's a lot of Catholic Stuff to contend with, and so I think for that reason too, the more I came into my queerness, the more I wanted to leave and go home, you know. So, you know, to talk about youth spaces as a young queer kid, I feel like I have to think about it in terms of where I felt comfortable, right, like sports and that kind of thing. But then, as I became a young adult, I left. I went away to UC Berkeley, right because I knew at that point I was queer. I could not be queer here at home in Whittier or La Habra, and I had to leave. I escaped to Berkeley, and I was in Berkeley for four years. And then I kept leaving. I went further and further away from home. I didn't find any sense of queer community until I moved back home in the year 2000 and then I found Oz. I was 26 which I guess is kind of an old maid, but can still be considered youthful, if those of us who came out later in life often feel like our 20s are our teens. So even though I was 26 and I came home and I'm out, you know, I still very I feel very much still like I was a teenager, like I'm going through this for the first time. You know, I'm learning how to not just know what it means to like another girl, but oh my god, she likes me back. And what do I do? And you know, where are the gay bars? We would go to Oz and Buena Park. I wrote about, in fact, how important Oz was to those of us who lived in the LA Orange County Borderlands, you know, who didn't really feel like we could go to West Hollywood or sort of be part of the mainstream gay groups, but we went to Oz and Buena Park. So those were some of the most earlier queer spaces. I know it's not San Gabriel Valley, it's adjacent, but I'll tell you that a star of the San Gabriel Valley, Raja [Gemini] the drag queen, went to Bassett High School and got her start there at Oz in Buena Park, because of a lot of the queer youth of color who would frequent her shows. This was 18 and over back in the day, you know. So I feel like because I came out later in life, I didn't find the queer spaces around here at home until my mid to late 20s.
CG: Well, fast forwarding a bit... Do you see any like heartening development of queer space here in SGV now? And you can also lump in Whittier area.
MMH: Yeah, you know, I mean, when we think of spaces like queer spaces, I think historically, or what we might conjure is, you know, we think of bars, at least I do right away. I go to the bars, right? I go to lesbian bars or the gay bars. I think about like theater spaces, art spaces, even, you know, music spaces to an extent, I think that Whittier I know has used to have a gay bar, or a kind of a queer bar here at one point in the 1990s. I wasn't here in the 90s, I was living in the Bay Area. But I hear from locals who remember going here to Whittier... That's no longer there. I believe it's in the space that's now the Whittier Brewing Company. It used to be in that space, but I know that queer spaces have sort of had kind of flickers of life, you know, in and around Whittier, definitely in El Monte, definitely the SGV. In fact, there's a wonderful article written by, in fact, my partner, who does sort of an oral history with the lesbian bars in the San Gabriel Valley back in the 1990s. Today, in the 2020s I do see some flickerings and some light. I think the youth are in the right direction. I think that when Whittier finally had its first Pride in 2019 I think that's when I kind of see, like a kind of emergence or, you know, a sort of toehold or an interest, sort of, you know, sorry, I'm a little distracted by the ice cream truck so you might have to edit this stuff out. But what I'm trying to say is, like, I think the Whittier pride in 2019 really, kind of jump started really, sort of on the one hand, open up our eyes to the need for these kinds of queer friendly spaces here in the SGV, because these are the spaces that tend to be overlooked. More generally speaking, as we know from the book East of East, for example, right? Spaces that tend to be in the Greater East side of Whittier, right? We get written out of LA history. We get written out of sort of mainstream accounts of gay history. So it is important. And I do see the growth of these community little pop up prides happening. I think since 2019 of course, the pandemic, you know, kind of threw a wrench in what you know, I feel like they were gaining steam, and then the pandemic happened, and they couldn't do anything. But then now, what I've noticed, in fact, is there's a, you know, there's an San Gabriel Valley LGBT center that's headquartered in El Monte. I noticed that this month, for example, that they hosted pop up prides all around, cities all around the SGV, 11 Cities around the SGV, right, everywhere from Altadena to West Covina to La Puente to actually here in Whittier. So the SGV considers Whittier part of its, you know, pride circuit. So what I notice about these prides is that, unlike the kind of big, famous West Hollywood la prides that most people kind of see in the news and, you know, the sort of fear mongering that happens culturally speaking around pride, right? The fear mongering and the stereotypes around, you know, naked men and, you know, whatever,
CG: "Oh no, a dog mask!"
MMH: Right? Whatever, these, whatever, non-pride attendee, right, whatever, the hetero sort of straight view is a pride. What I've noticed ever since Whittier pride is the effort and the attempt for a lot of these small pop up community prides to be very self consciously, intentionally, family friendly, right? They're happening during the day, they're happening in parks. They're happening at farmers markets, right? They're sort of happening in these very kind of open, family friendly during the day, no alcohol, right? Very sort of nonprofit community oriented, which is great. And I also think there's something I almost feel like we're, you know, there's a part of us, it's like we're trying so hard to present ourselves in such this family friendly like, "look us too." How can it not be a response to, again, another wave of vitriol, right? Sort of, culturally speaking, across this country, across this world, anti trans, anti queer legislation. So, you know, and I think historically, you can see that, right? There are waves of, you know, on the one hand, we want to be included, and, you know, moves to inclusion and LGBT inclusion, but then we get included. And, para que? what are we being included in? What are we being included for? If you know, there are still laws being written against our lives, and there's still legislation. There are still culture wars that, you know, prompt politicians, not very far from here, in fact, to do things like ban books in Huntington Beach, the Latina right? Or the City Council of Downey to ban a pride flag. So we're not that far from these very real displays and expressions of anti queer, anti trans ideology, because that's what it is. It's ideology that's powerful. So of course, then we have to come back as like, "Well, look, we're fine. We're family friendly. We can have pride in the park. And we don't have to have alcohol, we don't have to have a float, we don't have to have, you know, naked men dancing, and we can still have pride." So I think, you know, that's one strategy that I see. Yeah, and, you know, I can't, you know, it's for me, it's, it's, it's, I understand it, and yet, I'm like, I can't help but think this is a nagging response to the other stuff that's happening in the world, right? So, when are we just going to be able to ... and I don't know what I want really, you know, what kind of pride do I want to see, right? Do I want to see pride that's sort of in response to this stuff? Because it keeps happening, and it's continually happening. You know, do we want to make pride about something else? Because, I guess part of my fear, too, is that we lose this sense of pride as a protest, right? If we make pride too much about being a party. You know, party's great. Look, I love a party myself. However, I think that it's so important to get back to understanding what pride is. Pride is at root of protest, is about social justice, is about holding police accountable. You know, about holding communities accountable, and at the same time opening up people's eyes to the fact that we're here and we're queer and we exist, and you know, we're going to keep wanting to ask for riots. We're going to keep wanting to take space in the communities where we live, right? We're part of these communities too. So there's that part of me that's like, hell yeah, we're here too. Let's take it, you know, we're here. So what are you going to do about it?
CG: So it sounds to me like you have a maybe 50-50, or slightly, like 52 to 48 kind of feelings towards the uptick in local, civic recognition of Pride Month.
MMH: Yeah, and again, it's not too, you know, I don't want, I know it's hard to speak from this sort of position, because I know I risk people, you know, "ar ar ar!" she's not look I'm an ally at the end of the day, and I have a critique. And I think part of what I do as an instructor, as a teacher, in fact, is to remind students that it's okay to hold both things right. I love the fact I see the uptick in pride, and I think it's wonderful. I didn't know when that was happening, and that was part of the problem, to be honest. For example, I didn't know that there was a pop up here in Whittier a couple days ago. I only found out because I happened to get on Instagram that morning, and I happened to see something because of the algorithm, you know, because I'm always looking at stuff, and I saw a pop up pride at the Whittier historic Museum, and I thought, Oh, great. Now it turned out on a day that I, you know, I wasn't feeling well myself, and I didn't go. And then my cousin texted me about it. Are you going to go to this? I saw it on Instagram. Had I not seen that post, I would have no idea that there was even that. So I guess part of my thing is, like, I really want, if you're going to have pride, like, let us all know about it, you know, let us know about it so that we know to show up and to take part of it. I absolutely think it's important. I think where it starts to rub me in different way is when I start to see the Civic, you know, the officiousness of it, right, the kind of performative displays by the city council and the politicians, right? Like, it's like, okay, this becomes about you all now, this is not about our communities, right? So that's why I kind of, because, you know, I want to know, okay, who's sponsoring it, like, who, who are the city council people who are signing off on this? And, you know, are they? Does the, you know, la board of supervisors really want to fly that pride flag in Downey because they support us, or is because they're trying to have power over the Downey City Council who didn't want that flag on their property, right? So, you know, the lifeguard, right, who didn't want to work in LA County with the pride flag hanging next to him? You know, like, these are cases where it's just like, unnecessary kind of reminders of this manufactured thing called a culture war, where then, you know, you have to have, like, the politicians, sort of, you know, perform and do all these things. And I understand that's important, but, you know, I can't help but feel that a lot of the official activities ring hollow, just like the corporate pride, right? Just like, weho pride, just like, like, you know, Ricky Martin, cool, I'll go see Mariah Carey, yeah. You know this, these are the opinions of the people who are at big LA pride. Big pride, yeah, but you know, the corporate sponsors, you know, all of a sudden it starts to not feel anymore a about us and our communities and what we need on the day to day, right? Like anything, you know, we don't need a party every month. We don't need you to fly a flag on city property like I need real policy changes, you know, I need politicians who are actually going to vote to do things like protect trans kids and get them access to the things they need. You know, mental health, counseling for students, give us that stuff, give us give us housing, right? Give us affordable housing. Give us access to good food. Give us access to community, into places where we don't have to have a police presence all the time. Because I don't look this is hard for me to my father's he was, he's a retired police officer. It's hard for me to see cops at pride. That does not make me feel safe, because I know my history. Historically speaking, those are the very same people who are arresting us for looking the way I look, right? So it's hard, right? We have to be able to hold all of it. It's never going to be clean or pure. I want pride. I want community spaces, and I also want us to be able to hold and to ask us, you know, who are we doing this for? Why are we doing it, right?
CG: Well, you blew through a few of my questions, which is good, but I want to add to what you're saying here another one on the spot, which is party or no party, as far as a grassroots presence of gay pride in this area, what's holding that back? I'm talking about coming from the queers themselves, not the recognition and the permit to go do something G rated in the park.
MMH: Yeah, that's a good one. And I have to think about that, because, you know, we can. We can look at all kind of sort of what we might call oppressed or, you know, marginalized groups, right, historically speaking. And you know, we can ask, you know, what took them so long? Or, you know what happened in this movement? And you know, there's, there's always a sort of blaming, of infighting, or, you know, they couldn't get their agenda straight. I don't know if that's something, that's a thing you know, with our community. I mean, your question about what's preventing it from happening here in the SGV. I think the will is there, and I think the seeds are there. And clearly there, there is enough interest, and there are enough people interested to organize and to do these nonprofits. And you know, part of what I wanted to actually, really do is to get to know some of these nonprofits and to get to know some of these people, because I am curious about who they are, and sort of, you know, how did they sort of come to organize in this way across, when I say groups, I'm talking about some of the nonprofits that are associated with the SGV LGBT Pride Center and the pop up prides that were happening this month, because some of them were listed as nonprofits, right? So, but I think that, you know, I'm not sure what's stopping us. I don't know if it's the same as anything else, right? Are we too busy trying to make a living in this economy, right? Living here in LA, California, and I don't mean to sound flip and dismissive, but, you know, I guess I relate it. I can't help but relate it to see thinking about the broader movements right now, like against the war, like, you know, broader movements against when we think about border and immigration policy, right? When we're talking about gay and lesbian you know, queer rights, you know, citizenship, protection, spaces, right? I think what I like, and I want to continue to see this work being done in the community that's apart from the sort of national agenda, whatever that is, right, the national sort of, you know, I don't care what Biden does. I mean, I do, but I don't right, because in some ways, our fight like what happens in Washington, and, you know, a lot of we see a lot of things happen during an election year, every time, every four years. There's a reason why we see certain things in the news all the time, immigrants, the border, gay and lesbian, trans, right? Banning books. You know, it becomes like predictable, right? So I don't know. Is it a lack of imagination? Do we need something else besides a pride, right? Do we  need to call it something else. Do we need? I'm all for like we need services for youth. We need services, and not even just youth. We need services for all queer people, right, queer elders, in particular, especially queer elders, right? All elders we know, like this country does not like any of its elders. If we cared and respected for our elders, we would not have the kinds of problems with housing shortages. And, you know, you hear about senior citizens who can't afford their gas bill, right? Like so I think just structurally, fundamentally, things have to change. It has to be a paradigm shift. But, you know, I think, I think I don't know what's stopping us, capitalism. I don't know, being like, trying to not having imagine. You know, imagination, are we like, are we? Not sure, and I feel like I can't really answer this either articulately, because I don't know, like, currently, really what the state of it is right now, aside from a few Instagram posts, you know what I'm saying? Like, I see a nascent movement, and I'm really heartened by that, and I'm really happy by that. And I see a nascent movement, and I want to, I want to see it continue to grow. And I guess my other thing is, I want us. I want us. I want to see it become more than something that happens once a month [sic: year]. I guess, you know, like a sustained, like, how do we sustain everything that we want to do every June, and even increasingly, every September, October. Because October is like National Coming Out month. So you start to see a lot more like coverage of gay stuff too, like in October. And I know that when we had Whittier pride here, it was, like in late September. And you start to see like, OC pride happens in October, so sort of between June and October, right? Like, sort of between pride and like, National Coming Out but well, how can we make this more about marking the thing, and more about sort of sustained year long, like constant community support in spaces. And I think this is why the notion of the nonprofits might be really important for that.
CG: All right, well, to go out on, let's take it back to, I don't know, maybe pop culture is there. Is there a queer icon for the SGV who you want to uplift, who you want to spotlight?
MMH: Wow... Kid Congo Powers is number one. Who comes to mind from Bassett High School in La Puente, guitar maestro. Alice Bag, I think counts, because Alice Bag kind of grew up in East LA/Montebello, SGV adjacent. Raja, who I mentioned earlier, the beautiful drag queen, who's my generation from the 1990s who was from Bassett High School in West Covina [sic], and has won Ru Paul's drag race, and is a fabulous drag queen. Oh my gosh. I'm sure there are others. Those are some I can mention in pop culture that come right, that come to my mind right away.
CG: Well, I think all of them fit my follow up question, which is, these are all people who have moved on? Why is it so important to still keep claiming them, even if they weren't long for the area?
MMH: Because they're part of the are history here, like place, right? They're part of when I think of Kid Congo and people like Raja and these kinds of queer, you know, it's about a at the end of the day, we come from a place that shaped us, from communities and from cultures that shaped us and informed who we are, that for better, for worse, made us the queer is who we are, right? And it's important to claim them, I think, as part of our SGV lineage. Because they were here, we were here. We were part of this, you know, we helped to create this culture, you know. I mean, Raja helped, you know, was part of a whole new kind of expression of drag queen that was born in the 1990s with the supermodel era, right? This is Ru Paul, so it's fascinating. Know, we know, if you know about kid Congo in the incredible musical career he's had as an underground punk rock musician, like, even though they're not here, they're far away, like they're part of our constellation of our queer constellation of the SGV, you know, because we have stars here too, they're just, they're not all in WeHo, right? They're not all in Hollywood. They're here too, right over the 60, where the 60 and the 605 meet, you know, between the 10 and the 60.
CG: Melissa Mora Hidalgo, thanks for coming on. SGV Connect.
MMH: Thank you for having me, what a joy.
CG: And Happy Pride Month to you.
MMH: Happy Pride Month, happy one, let's make it happy.