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SGV Connect Interview 106: Chris Greenspon interviews Steve Valenzuela

[Steve Valenzuela performing live at Re/Arte, Boyle Heights]
SV: I'm very, very, very, very proud of where I'm from. I'm from a city called El Monte. If you haven't heard about it or heard of it, you're about to right now. But as you hear this, I encourage you, I tell people, I ask people that we listen to this, these words, insert your city and so your hood because unfortunately, I'm sure that whatever's going on down there is probably going down where you're at to, hopefully it's not, but like the gentrification stuff that is a real thing. Alright, let's get to it. El Monte. The center of the SGV.
Notorious for Flores and crooked police.
Rest in peace David Guerra, Jose Sanchez, and [???],
but those that don't know this city's got a bipolar disease that many don't see.
If you need proof take a walk from the north side of Peck down to the Klings
where people are packed into apartments tighter than a can of sardines,
but up at the Northside neighborhoods stay clean,
ears deaf to the sounds of the South Side screams.
Too many people don't see that they're killing our dreams
in the name of economic progression.
So I rhyme with passion mixed with righteous aggression.
You see, the city council thinks they have the perfect plan to deal with poverty.
Ignore the poor, construct homes they can never afford.
Doesn't matter if they've lived here since before we were born.
Invest millions for a hotel on Valley,
but we can't build homes for the homeless people in the alleys?
They want a Walmart on Arden to get rid of these so-called Mexican stores.
In fact, they just voted to remove trailer parks to replace with expensive apartments.
But it's nothing new. The poor always get hit the hardest.
El Monte: you're my heart, my inspiration, my true motivation, so I won't allow this selfish form of defecation.
Fuck systematic displacement.
It's happening throughout this entire forsaken nation.
We can't be complacent,
there's no need to be patient.
The time is now to react.
Rage against this machine and take the power back.
Take a look around, you know that everything's changing.
And if we don't do something now we're all gonna drown in a sea of policies
that are funded by greed, never meant for you and me.
So be aware of their misleading lyin' language before we all languish.
When they say beautification that's code word for gentrification,
which means your broke ass is about to take a permanent vacation.
High end retail means mom and pop stores will fail,
then big corporations will take your money to add to their sales.
Modernization means the cost of living will rise
and we already know the rent's too damn high,
so open up your eyes and realize the enterprise of our demise and how tyranny's disguised.
More retail means more cops on the blocks, protecting private pockets,
and the longer we wait, the harder it's gonna be to stop it, but together we got this.
We can stand up to the nonsense. Disrupt the grandiose plans.
Let them know this is our sacred land.
El Monte: my heart, my inspiration.
And wherever you live, make that your sole occupation.
[Steve Valenzuela interview with Chris Greenspon of Streetsblog]
CG: All right, name and title if you feel that you have one. SV: Steve Valenzuela. Title? Teacher, poet. Yeah. CG: So tell us about what's going on with the Zamora House and what are you going to be doing there? SV: So from what I've been told, I haven't seen the house myself yet, from what I've been told is SEMAP - South El Monte Arts Posse - was able to acquire I don't know if I'd say rights, but pretty much as a space for people in the SGV area, the community, who I would say in some ways are all like minded to have a space to create and to do things. They've asked me to be a writer, the writer residency there. I know they've had someone from I believe Avocado Heights that does some activist work. They have another artist I believe., Ellie. I think I've met her but don't really know her to do some artist stuff like visual art. I believe they're gonna have photography. Just a bunch of stuff, like creative outlets, I guess. This place is going to be like a hub essentially for us to do these things. I'm not sure of all the specifics of how they were able to do it, but somehow they were able to finesse it where they got it for like $1 a year, something like that. And this house - I'm not really sure the history of the house either - I know that that there's definitely... every space has history, right. But I don't know what the history of this this specific place is. So I don't know if it's like a reclamation, like we're reclaiming the space that used to be once used for something that was maybe oppressive or it's like no, this space always was a space that people should be gathering in and it became something different. I don't know. But I know that  my intention is to use a space to like for creativity and definitely to help the youth, to have a space where youth can come and be creative. I used to... Me and one of my former partners we used to do poetry and stuff like that workshops at the Boys and Girls Club which is right there off of I can't remember now. Peck? Durfee? I don't know. But that was kind of like a hub for for Flores [gang] in a way and for a bunch of other just like not good stuff. But put it this way; me and her did things there, and no one fingerprinted us, no one checked us... We were just some random people off the street that were in there with kids. Like straight up. It could have been all bad, right? But that space was like it was really cool because we're able to do stuff with kids in Monte, little Monteros and y'know some creative stuff. And I haven't been able to do that since or I just haven't done that since in this community at least. So for me that's how I want to use that space. You know, space for me to write for sure as an individual, but also to help other people kind of find their creative outlets and if it's not writing cool, then we have like I said, Ellie, I believe her name is no she could do whatever she's doing with the art stuff. Or we have I don't know who it is gonna be photography stuff, but we have that and hopefully they have the same mindset. I can imagine they don't. But even if not, it's all good because we're gonna find a way to make it happen. I think or at least for me, I'm gonna find a way to make it happen with the writing you know. CG: That's a pretty good overview. So as you understand it, what are the terms and goals of your engagement as a writer in residence? SV: So they... they being SEMAP has been very... So I'm a teacher, right? And I was just talking about this with someone that it's pretty cool. It's like a blessing and a curse, but more of a blessing there at my school, we don't really have curriculum, we don't have set curriculum it's kind of like hey, you all teach what you want, you know, and I kind of feel the same way coming into this is that it's just very "Hey Steve you do kind of what you want, like here's what we want you to do, or what we have ideas of the space," which I kind of already mentioned, "but you do what you want with it." So I guess in terms of like set goals, I really want to they 've hooked me up with a mentor also named a Sesshu Foster and he's an accomplished writer, he's written books of poetry and stuff like that, and I'm not sure if he's done prose, but I've said I want to make a book, but I've never put in the work to do it and I'm sitting on all these poems. So I think for me, one of my goals is to like, my personal goal is to get a book out of this, you know, like somehow like okay, you have the space to do this and to write and do that that's like a tangible goal. More on a theoretical or philosophical whatever type of way. I do want to just get back into writing and have a space to do that and really hone my, I don't know if I call 'em skills are what I would call them. I don't know if it's skills, just hone my sense of identity as a writer because I don't, I shy away from it a lot. And so I think that's more again, little personal, philosophical, whatever. But then, kind of just to reiterate what I was saying earlier about the student or the the youth in the area that's like a primary goal is just a have a space where they could come and and write. I don't know if they're into rhyming and then like hip hop stuff, cool man all about that, let's get down we just have a day where we'll flow, I don't really care or if it's let's be all creative and artsy and shit, you know, not that hip is not art, but like, I don't know. I just know that I want to be able to connect to the youth and I want to be able to have a space for the youth. I want it to be. You know, there's this hip hop documentary I saw a while ago my homeboy put me on I forget what it was called. But there was a space called the Good Life, I think, in-- CG: Is that in Watts or in Oakland? I've heard of this, Good Life Cafe right? Or Good Times Cafe? SV: Yeah, it was for sure LA. It wasn't, maybe there was Oakland too, but LA was where it was at because that's where J5, Jurassic Five came out of, I want to say Charlie Tuna would we rhyming there, man like just old heads from LA area Hip Hop scene. And whatever that space was that I believe was a woman that that was like the head of that cafe or that market that sold that good food or something like that, whatever it was, that she was able to attract people through art and through rhyming, you know, and poetry. Hip Hop goes alongside all those. And I feel like the vision is the same for me in a way, you know, like, I would love to have a space where people would say, oh, yeah, let's got to Zamora House. You know, like, we could kick it there or Saturday, we know we go there and just like, it'll be chill, you know, because we're gonna be doing some writing or we're gonna do some stuff or we're just gonna kick it. That's kind of what I think but again, I have no idea if that's the vision that that SEMAP has or the that the other people who are going to be occupying that space have, but again, like knowing SEMAP and what they're about, I can't imagine that would be counter to what they want to accomplish, you know? And again, it's kind of like, similar to when I became a teacher like, I don't get this feeling as much, but sometimes when I walk into school like these motherfuckers gave me keys like, the fuck? like they don't even know like, you know, and i feel the same here, like alright man, y'all want me to do shit, I'm gonna do shit. And-- CG: What don't they know? SV: Like, more for my school. Like, I don't know what they assume teachers are but I'm a teacher who became a teacher because I think the education system is fucking bullshit, you know? So I was like, Cool, you gave the keys to the classroom.. Like some of my old teachers would probably when I was in High School be like, what the fuck, this guy, you know? So I think that's what I say about my teaching. But in terms of SEMAP, no it's like, nah, they know like, they know what I'm about, you know? But it's still kind of like, hey, let's, let's fuck shit up in the best kind of way. You know? CG: So I saw you perform. Not that long ago. Maybe it was what like four or five days ago, I saw you at RE/ARTE in Boyle Heights. And you made a big point, I want to say within your first like 20 seconds that you got on the mic of saying "I'm from El Monte. I'm super proud of where I come from." And in - I think you read like three poems - I think in two of them you talked about El Monte. What are you trying to put out there through your writing about this place? SV: You know, I think that when I try to put stuff out there, it comes off too much, like I'm trying too hard to do something. I think it just so happens that at least a couple of those poems and like, if you write from experience then where you're from is obviously going to be reflected in that. And I think I'm a lover of hip hop, you know, I definitely love hip hop and that informs a lot of my writing whether I like it or not. And hip hop very much. It's like where you're from, right? It's constantly out there like "Oh, Queensbridge. Oh fuckin like, Watts" like people are always like shouting it out right - as they should. And because you know that where you're from, like, for better or worse we kind of judge people, like "Oh, so you're from there, so you know about this, this or that. Maybe there's a little bit of this - as if we can - you shouldn't make generalizations, right? But I know that's the way that we operate, it seems. And so, for me I grew up in Monte, and then you kind of hear growing up the people who claim Monte the hardest are always the gangster fools, you know, and they'd be like throwing up the F and all that like "oh I'm from Monte," you know, blah, blah. And I'd say, Well, why do they get to do it? You know, like, why? It seems like only they get to do it - when I was younger, right? That's how it felt. And then it's like, well, I'm proud of where I'm from too, and part of why I'm proud is also because it's been shit on you know. And even from my high school, of course the high school shit was like, oh you know, El Monte Roaches, you know, like, the we were the Roaches. Mountain View was the ducks. I forgot what South was called. But like Roaches like damn, that's fucked up you know? And so, but you want to you want to rep it because like no you can't put me down where I'm from. I'm proud of where I'm from right? And our first year proud just because yeah, I didn't know why I was proud but I was just like, nah because I'm not going to not be proud right? Then you get older and you realize like, Nah, it's from a place of hardworking people. It's from a place of of history, like some real deep history, you know, which is every place but like, I don't know those histories and I've learned more about the history of El Monte. My family... My dad actually - my biological father - was a member of Flores and like that's like for me to be interested in like certain statistics. I am the son of a gang member. So what should my path be, right? Probably one would suspect, even though I'm sure there's plenty of us out there, not a teacher, you know, not a quote unquote, successful teacher right? And so like those stories, I want to be told, I guess. Well it's my story. So I want them to be told and El Monte is part of that, because it informs who I am too. Why am I into - not into  but like, I've experienced the punk scene. I've experienced the like skaters and shit, I have experienced paisas. I've been to like - all that kind of shit, and all that it's because of El Monte. You know, like, it's a pretty unique place. And when I go to LA - because I teach in LA - and some of the experiences that I've had with my students, and I'm like, "Oh, damn, it's hella different." Some of my students had never seen an Asian person when I was teaching South Central. Not an Asian person who didn't own a store, straight up. I'm like, what? Like, that's... what?! And I feel so like, blessed if you will. You know, like, privilege. I don't know what the fucking word is like that yeah, I've had pho before, you know, and it's more than just food, but it's like, "Nah, I'm around this shit." You know? Like, they're like, what the - pho? Like, what is that shit? You know? Like, Oh, damn, let me put you on you know like, and in that also telling stories of look, these are the people I grew up with. Right?  And the reason I say that is because I feel like so often we get minimized to our food, right? Our culture is just like, Oh, okay. Oh, yeah, I love this. Oh, I love my whatever - it just gets we get minimized to food shit, and it's like, no, we're more than fucking food. Right? And there's stories that go behind this and I don't just like growing up around Asian folks because of food. You know, I'm saying of course, I love food, but it's like, no it's also as a culture, right, who people are and whatnot. And so, LA is fucking diverse. I love it. It's also very segregated. El Monte is not as diverse, but I don't think we're as segregated to a certain extent, you know, to a certain extent. Things are definitely changing now, and I say that yeah, well, that's that's like I say that not being in the city. I live here but not here as much, you know, and so, yeah, anyways, in terms of my poetry, like, El Monte's just part of who I am man, like so why would I be ashamed of that? You know, and I do love to wrap it just because it's so small too. Like part of this - and that was a long winded answer - but in going to UCSC, Santa Cruz, and even before that, partying with people at different colleges UCLA and stuff and they were like "I'm from the valley" and all that like what the fuck, the valley? Like okay, the valley is San Fernando, apparently Okay, cool, whatever. But hella people would say, I'm from LA. People that were from El Monte be like I'm from LA... You're not from LA. What the fuck? Like, it's very different, you know, like, you're not. And so I was like, No, I'm not gonna say - I would say I'm near LA. I'm like from the city east of LA called El Monte maybe because I'm expected to know Monte either, but like, no I'm from fucking El Monte, I'm from 626 if I have to narrow down to that, you know, because no, I'm not LA and I'm not dissing LA at all, I fucking love LA. But it's like, I'm not you know, and so why be something you're not, I guess. CG: So, what kind of curriculum do you try to give them with basically no structure laid out for you, for your students? SV: Um, I was part of a program called Upward Bound, which was fucking life changing in so many ways. I don't know if I'd go as far as to say life saving, but possibly. And they taught very much from a student centered, culturally relevant point of view and so that's what I try to do with my students. I don't teach ethnic studies, but the approach I have is an ethnic studies-based approach where it's like, you know, questioning powe, or questioning white supremacy, questioning knowledge and how we how our knowledge is attained if you will. And so, it's like that constantly getting the students to question question question, you know, that's what I like to do. And a lot of writing too. Not as much as I like to, to be honest. But I just think it's important for them to write whether it be again, like, essay type shit, which if they need if they're going to do the whole college route. Or if it's how to write a fucking email, because gotta learn how to do that shit. Or if it's writing for creativity, just because that's, you know, freeing and all that others, you know, so yeah, I guess it's ideally, I would say my curriculum is - and I hesitate to say this cuz I don't feel like I'm doing this to the point that I should be - But it's to teach as a teaching as an emancipatory practice, you know, so they can free themselves of whatever they feel they need to free themselves from. CG: What is that called? The Pedagogy of the Oppressed? SV: Yeah, I definitely read that a couple of times, but man that shit's so fucking like dense. Again. I would hesitate to say that I'm teaching from that way. I would like to, but I still realize that I have a lot of other oppressive ways of teaching you know that I'm like, fuck, I'm still doing this. Like, I didn't like when teachers did that. But wait, I'm doing that you know, things like that. And so I am not a revolutionary teacher yet, but I aspire to be and I am definitely not on the side of... I'm definitely not like other teachers that are just like fucking do your work or you go to detention or whatever the fuck, I don't know if those teachers still exist, but like, that's not my style whatsoever. I build very strong relationships with my students. And they know that if nothing at all, if they don't learn shit, they still know that I'm like a safe haven for them. And I can say that confidently. The culture of my classroom is really good. It's really good. CG: Where do you teach? SV: I teach at Francisco Bravo Medical Magnet in like the border of Lincoln Heights, Boyle Heights, whatever, CG: In that No Man's Land over by what is it? Like Broadway or something? SV: No it's - kind of - it's by USC Medical Center. CG: I was gonna say that but I wasn't positive which one it is because I feel like there's like two big USC buildings over there. I don't know. Anyway, how do you get there? SV: I get on my baby, my bike, in the morning and I bike up the riverbed to the bus station. And then because El Monte has a hub, biggest bus station. I read someone's like one of the biggest bus stations west of the Mississippi or something like that. Shit that's crazy. Get on there, get on the bus, the 910 which goes down the freeway, stops at Cal State LA, then it stops right there at State Street or something like that. And then it takes me three minutes to bike from there to my school. So I could leave my house at... what... today I left at 7:40 I could get in my class at like 8:02 easily, you know? So it's a chill ride, man. Then I bike home. Usually. But I didn't today. CG: Have you always commuted via cycling and transit? SV: No that happened... I mean, I did when I was a kid, and it's pretty cool because my little nephew or little cousin, Little Robbie does that now he's on a - think he's part of some little biking crew. I don't know. He's a little badass at Arroyo but they they ride chrome bikes. But I started when I was in Santa Cruz. Just because it was so much easier to get around on a bike, but I think that's very typical of a lot of college towns or colleges, right? But man, I fucking love it, and Santa Cruz is hella hilly. And I just... it was fun, you know, very fun. Got back to LA and... LA area I should say. Here I am saying LA when I really mean I got back to El Monte. And I just... I lived with my mom and I was working at Arroyo, so from her house to Arroyo was like a five, seven minute bike ride, maybe. It just didn't make sense to come in a car like what for, ya know, wasting gas and  whatever. So yeah, I started biking more and more, the more I got into it. You know bought a I bought my first like 700 ollar bike which was like whoaaa, expensive. And maybe it was 900 even. And so I was like yeah, I started riding everywhere. Then I moved up to the more expensive and better, a little better. And I was like man, so it just became a lifestyle and I sold a car or something like that. I was like I don't even want this anymore like straight up and so just really get dedicated to it. And even when I was working in LA going to UCLA, it just became it became my like I don't wanna say therapy, but it was therapeutic. You know, to be able to -- all the stress of school and I was bullshit and whatever it is like cool just fucking get on your bike and bust ass down Wilshire and try not to die because people are crazy out there. And I ride crazy too, so let's be fair. But yeah, I love it now and it is aI guess, I don't know what's more the reason, but part of the reason is also like environmental, straight up, you know, like I contribute to the decimation of this earth in so many ways, but I know I don't in terms of the gas, you know, like and so I feel kind of good about that. Not holier than thou or anything, you know, I get people have to do what they got to do and I'm able bodied and all that. But I'm like cool, like riding a bike is good. You know, it's good for me, good for the environment all that, so that's like a part of it, but that's not the whole reason like, I just hate traffic dude. And on my bike - who loves traffic, right? Nobody does - but on my bike, it doesn't matter how much traffic there is. I'm still going the same speed. Like I just cut right through everything. You know? Yeah, might take me longer, but fuck it. I don't have to stop moving. I guess I just like to be in motion. Because traffic sucks, man. And yeah. CG: What do you feel like biking has taught you about El Monte and SGV? SV: It is not a bike friendly space, that's for sure. And yeah they're coming out with more bike lanes and all that, but I'll be real man. I'm not even a bike lane person. Like there's a bike lane on Rosemead. I'm more afraid of that sometimes than just being on the street just because of the way it's constructed, I guess. It's hard to explain well, not really. I just don't trust the cars coming out of the driveways. It's a trip, but it's also taught me that like, you know you get to see the landscape a little bit more. You realize where there's inclines, and when there's not inclines. When you're in a car you just go and when you're on the bike it's like "Oh this little baby incline," and then so it does kind of like make you... I know you see I biked riverbeds a lot, right. So not every time, but a lot of times you just kind of can't help like "Damn how did this shit look before?" You know? And you know that it was I know that this land was very fertile, I guess it still is. And like fuck- you see cuz there's all these waterways and stuff you know, that connect in the Rio Hondo River in the San Gabriel River and like these little creeks and shit and because I've gone up some of them too, but you don't want to go too far cuz there's tweakers and shit and like in terms of landscape like this must have been fucking beautiful. Because it's so beautiful in some places, but it's also, it's not you know, and that's not just that in the San Gabriel Valley. That's this whole fucking metropolis. You know. My grandmother just passed away. She was 99. She would have been 100 if she made it to next month. And she would tell me like "damn" she wouldn't say damn but she'd be like "Stevie it's so ugly now. It's so ugly like I... Oh before, this used to be so pretty that there used to be flowers, and these be this and the orange blah, blah." And I'm like damn, that must have been beautiful. As she said in the way she grew up. You know? When the river would flood she said they would go swimming, you know, like, not every time but like if it would we would go because - CG: Did your grandma live here like a Hicks Camp [barrio] or something? SV: My grandma was in Medina Court. And then... she never lived in Hicks, but um, Medina court and... or Canta Ranas actually it may have been, might have been... but yeah, she was out in the south area. Well, what is now South area and then Medina Court I guess. Yeah. But kind of like everywhere was kind of close to the water here. That's what I'm saying. Like there was hella like arroyos and creeks... all that shit, you know? So yeah, she crossed the border when she was a year old in El Pas. She was born in Ciudad Juarez and then she crossed with her parents or whatever. And they pretty much came to this area. So she's been living here or she wass living here till since she was yeah, two years, three years old. It's a long time in this area. So she saw a lot of changes, you know. CG: Last thing I want to ask you about is: Is there anyone who comes to mind as who you would like to see follow you into this Zamora residency? Or if there isn't a particular person can you imagine what that person is like? SV: Maybe follow me in terms of..? CG: Like when you're not the Zamora writer in residency anymore and they need to you know, show love and affection to somebody else... SV: Right. I mean, off the top of my head. I'm not connected to so many people, right? So I want to go with people that I that I know, and in terms of people that I know so I know Alfred [Mendoza] who you've interviewed before, that fool can write that he's very he's a trip man. He's eloquent and he can just say things with with so much conviction, you know. I haven't read necessarily so much his poetry but I have read some stuff he's written I'm like, damn man like, you have a way with words. And he also, he -- that fool's fucking Monte right, like he's a Montero you know, like in so many ways. So I think that would be beautiful seeing what he would do, and he's teaching at Mountain View, so it's perfect right? I also have the homie Noe who I haven't spoken to in a while, but he's just he's just a badass too. And also just good with his words. Although I haven't seen his writing a long time. I just know that they have ways. But also, both these men that I mentioned are also connected to the youth. They're both teachers. And that kind of goes in line with what I was telling you earlier. I feel like that space should definitely be used for that. And then if not that that I would say, or not them, shit ,these up and coming youth right, who maybe that's all they need is just that space and someone to tell them you can fucking write like I was never told to write you know, like, not for not for those reasons. Write a essay. Yeah. Write... well fuck, maybe that's it, you know, I was never told to write in terms of like to be free, write to express write to fucking exercise your demons, like I was never told that you know? And so if we're able to do it, we want to do, I'm able to do what I want to do with this space then that means we're gonna find some writers, you know, some young writers and let them shit who the fuck knows. You know? But I think that would be pretty badass. Yeah. CG: Steve Valenzuela, thanks so much for coming on SGV Connect. SV: Yeah man, I appreciate you. Thank you.