Border Ballad's Blog

The 82nd Annual Academy Awards

Posted in On Film by borderballad on March 9, 2010

I grew up in Hollywood. Literally. The old ABC studios was a block away from our house. KCET studios, once the site of early talkie production companies, was less than a mile away. We lived in a neighborhood where many livelihoods were connected to the “industry.” My father worked in a print shop that produced movie posters and press kits. (I put in my time driving a forklift in the warehouse, along with a who’s who of the Los Angeles New Music scene of the early 1980s, including several members of legendary r&b act Top Jimmy & the Rhythm Pigs).

My dad hung the posters he’d worked on in the TV room, which of course was the space that the family spent the most time in. Many of these were of films produced by American International Pictures, including Blaxploitation classics like Foxy Brown, or just plain bad 1970s fare like The Island of Dr. Moreau. (A late-career vehicle for Burt Lancaster.) Sometimes it seemed that my father was sending us not-so-thinly veiled messages through the posters. During a particularly troubling season—workaholism, alcoholism, and adolescent children acting out in every way imaginable—he tacked up the poster for The Amityville Horror, which featured an old woodframe house, the flames of hell shooting through the windows, with the heading: FOR GOD’S SAKE, GET OUT!

The Oscars were always serious business for my family. Pop worked overtime through the “awards season,” which began shortly after the nominations were announced in early February (since 2004 they’ve been announced in late January). There were perks, like Academy screening passes and, later, VHS and DVD copies meant for voting Academy members. (All moot these days, since every nominated movie is downloadable on the virtual black market.) I have some dim memories of attending screenings at the Director’s Guild with my dad, and of feeling that we were very much out place as we rubbed elbows with Industry elites. Pop “worked in the industry,” alright, but it wasn’t at any of the studios. Kater Litho held lucrative contracts with several of them, though—including, back in the day, MGM, Warner Bros., and Disney. Pop was the lead “stripper” in the company, an old school printing term for the tradesman who made negatives of the original art, sorted and touched then up (and performed color separation if needed) in preparation for plating and printing. He worked amid the fumes of the darkroom, the ghostly brilliance of the light tables and on the the massive camera (the distance between lens and suction board, in my memory at least, was a dozen feet).

With the work ethic of his Mexican immigrant parents and the ambition peculiar to a kid born in America to immigrants, he catapulted us, the Martínez family, into the middle- and finally upper-middle class, the apotheosis a Mission Revival house in the hills of Los Feliz adjacent to Griffith Park (I’d moved out already, but called the place home on occasion when, as starving artist, I needed a room).

My dad’s job would be an anomaly today—a blue collar position with middle class wages and benefits. (Thanks, Graphic Arts International Union, subsequently the Graphic Communications International Union.)

Pop retired over a decade ago. He made the transition to digital before he bowed out.

My mother brought literature into the house through the poetry of her native El Salvador as well as the great Latin American and Spanish romantics and modernists; my dad brought us Hollywood. Low brow, by comparison? Sure, but the high-low distinction was blasted apart in the latter half of the 20th century and so in our house we were perfectly primed for the postmodern moment—Latin jazz, Blaxploitation, country music, Tex-Mex food, the pop anthropology of the 1960s, Second Wave Feminism.

My father’s love of film has marked our family so profoundly and completely that sometimes it seems meaningless to distinguish between our “real” and “reel” lives.

So yesterday afternoon I arrived at my grandparents’ old place in Silver Lake, with Ruby and Lucía and Costco pizza (which my dad has developed a strong taste for recently). My parents moved in last fall after living in Sedona for several years. I’m still not used to their presence in that house, which I have also lived in off and on for a good part of my adult life.

The single largest piece of furniture in the house is the “entertainment center,” which houses a massive Sony. How many inches, I have no idea. Maybe 70?

We all complained about the multi-compartment monster of wood stained a very dark shade of brown. The thing destroyed the peculiar but striking aesthetics of the living room—Deco-style stained glass windows, a Batchelder fireplace featuring a German Black Forest motif, and a tall domed ceiling with a period chandelier.

But there was no way to send the thing back and what’s more my dad didn’t want to. The 70-incher demanded nothing less.

We watched the Red Carpet coverage on ABC, the network that my family has patronized for decades.

There were three generations seated before the Entertainment Center.

The twins just turned three. I sensed that the gathering—so utterly American in spite or precisely because of our motley immigrant lineages—might turn out to be among their earliest memories.

The family gathered around the grand digital representation of the stories we commit to film—images that so  faithfully replicate the best and worst of our political and cultural instincts as a people.

I was bequeathing this to my daughters, just as my father had to me.

Students & Teachers

Posted in Writing on Writing by borderballad on March 2, 2010

Raj Mankad was a graduate student in my non-fiction workshop at the University of Houston several years ago. It was my first serious teaching gig — tenure track and all. Raj and his partner Miah were part of the activist artist cohort in the creative writing program, which I naturally gravitated towards. It was the dark days of the War Without End, and they helped organize anti-war demos. They pushed me on stage at one to read a poem.

The energy in the classroom spilled beyond it and we became friends; we’ve remained in touch over the years. We’ve attended each other’s weddings. We’ve kept tabs on each other’s projects — books, blogs, editorships, new teaching gigs.

When I first met Raj I was in the proposal stage of the book that I am now finishing. I think I presented pages from the proposal in workshop–who knows to what end, who knows what the students thought!  I’ve been working on that book ever since.


I’m about to turn the manuscript over to the editor. The whole thing is way too long (let’s just say somewhere between 500 and 1000 pages), and one chapter was particularly mangy. The chapter is about Marfa, TX, an art colony on the plains of Far West Texas.

Raj had never been to Marfa, but he’d heard me obsessing over the place for many long years. A place of radical juxtapositions—exorbitant wealth and extreme poverty. Donald Judd minimalism and the still very loud echoes of segregation. All set against an iconic Western landscape. (So iconic that filmmakers keep coming back to shoot it—in the last few years There Will be Blood, No Country for Old Men, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.)

I asked Raj if would read the mangy chapter. I couldn’t look at it again.I was at that stage of over-familiarity with the text that I couldn’t tell if it was genius or bullshit.

Raj. A month before his new child is to be born. Working fulltime at the magazine he edits. In the midst of helping his parents move back to Houston (to help care for their new grandchild).

He said yes.

It took him a while to get back to me, but he did. And just like the workshop etiquette I taught him back in the day, he started out with effusive praise (to salve the perennially wounded writer’s ego) and then proceeded to point out the major flaws, and offer a  prescription to remedy them.

We held  our  workshop session on I-chat. He was in silhouette most of the time. I think I was overexposed. I asked him a lot of questions. We talked deep stuff. About race and representation, about gentrification and modernism and erasure.

But that makes us sound like dour post-colonialists. Nah. We laughed a lot. Raj has a very quirky & performative sense of humor.

By the end of the conversation, I had a very clear roadmap for how to fix the chapter.

Anyway, all this is to say that today, I am Raj’s student.


Posted in Uncategorized by borderballad on February 26, 2010

I was born on the border, that is to say, in Los Angeles. I’ve written about all kinds of frontiers, about how we cross them or not.

Now, I’m finally crossing the line between analog and digital.