Part One of a Two Part Interview with the Former Chula Vistan and UCSD Student
By Brent E. Beltrán
Writer Paul S. Flores grew up in Chula Vista and attended UCSD. He moved to San Francisco to pursue his Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. While there he immersed himself in the Bay Area arts/activist scene, helped found Youth Speaks, co-founded the irreverent poetry troupe Los Delicados, wrote an award winning novel, Along The Border Lies, wrote and performed his original plays, had children, and was recently named a Doris Duke Artist. His play PLACAS: The Most Dangerous Tattoo is touring California with a stop in San Diego April 23-25.
I met Paul, along with his Delicado compatriots, at a Floricanto Festival in San Jose in 1999 while publisher of the grassroots literary publishing house Calaca Press. In 2000, Calaca Press produced the spoken word CD anthology, Raza Spoken Here 2, which featured their poem Presente! In 2001 Calaca released their full length CD, Word Descarga. Since then Paul has gone on to do some tremendous literary work.
With him bringing his play to the place of his roots I decided to conduct an email interview with him. In this installment he answers questions about growing up in Chula Vista and Tijuana, his undergrad work at UCSD, when he felt he could make a career out of creative writing, his move to San Francisco to pursue an MFA and what it was like moving from SD to SF.
You grew up in Chula Vista during the 1980’s. What was Chula Vista like back then and, specifically, what was it like for Latino youth at that time?
I used to ride my bike from Oleander and Mariposa all the way down to Palm Avenue and to the Mexican border. Back then the border fence was only about 3 feet high rusty barbed wire. We built jumps and jumped our bikes over the barbed wire into Mexico and then built a jump back and jumped over the barbed wire into the U.S. It was nothing. No soldiers. No infrared. No razor wire.
We also rode bikes to the comic book stores. I was a comic book collector back then and there was one comic book store I liked over off Palm Ave also.
After that I started getting into hip-hop and had a little dance crew at Greg Rodgers elementary school. I used to pop. Then they built Plaza Bonita and that became an interesting place to go see movies. I saw “Breakin” and “Colors” and “Beat Street” there. Those movies are fun parts of my early life. Those movies and trips to Plaza Bonita with all the Mexicans, and Pilipinos gave me identity as a resident of Chula Vista.
Then as a teen I got into the punk scene and start going to see shows that featured Amenity. Started skateboarding in the cement ditches and dry sewer banks off Main Street and Orange Ave. I remember when they built the trolley and we would take it from H St. to skateboard in downtown’s San Diego Concourse Parking Lot. Then we took the trolley to San Ysidro to skate there too.
I guess I was around for the modernization of Chula Vista all the way up to the militarization of the border in 1994. Little did I know how big it would become with the expansion east. I hardly recognize that spot anymore. I left Chula Vista in 1995 and moved to San Francisco.
You also spent a lot of time in Tijuana during your youth. What was Tijuana like back then relative to now?
We had a family member that lived in Tijuana-one of my second or third cousins. Once in a while my grandparents would leave their house in El Cajon and we would take a trip to Tijuana and I was like six or seven. We would visit, shop, eat something. Everything would be in Spanish and I remember my head would switch to Spanish when I got to Tijuana. My grandmother’s voice and my grandfathers voice would dance together in my head. Their Spanish twirling through the market near the Catedral. Then that crazy long wait to get across back to San Diego. We didn’t go that often because my grandma didn’t have patience for it. And it was all dependent on one of my uncles driving because my grandparents couldn’t drive. That was in the 70s before the trolley.
I didn’t really start hanging out in Tijuana a lot till I was 13. One of my friends in Little League had the balls to steal his mom’s car and we drove to Tijuana when I was 13, he was 14. Was kind of crazy being adolescent roaming the late-night Revolution Avenue. I met a bunch of older teenagers. But it was kind of excepted that when you’re a teenager you would explore and connect with others in Tijuana. It felt like the exciting part of San Diego.
As I got to be an older teenager I spent pretty much every other weekend in Tijuana. We would even skip school and go surf or eat tacos over K 38. I played semi pro baseball in Tijuana. My first wife was born and raised and lived in Tijuana. I got married at the Jai Alai in Tijuana. On the ball court.
It’s always been part of me. I can’t imagine myself without feeling connected to Tijuana. I wrote my novel Along the Border Lies about how we were forced to change our relationship right after the death of Colosio, the explosion of the cartel wars, Arellano-Felix, Operation Gatekeeper. The novel was kind of my goodbye to old Tijuana.
My politics began to change in 1994 once Prop 187 was passed. I decided that I needed to be a voice for my community. I think without the border being near me I don’t become a dynamic artist. An artist connected to real concrete community experience. In other words I don’t represent anything meaningful without that relationship to Tijuana constantly reminding me of my double identity.
Now there’s a new generation of people in Tijuana really connected to the concept of globalization in the city. You see it with the cultural production that began with Nortec, Erre’s Trojan Horse, younger leadership at CECUT, Heriberto Yepéz’s critical commentary on being a border poet, the talk about Tijuana as a world city. I think it is. You cannot avoid it. Unfortunately has a lot to do with the drug trade.
You did your undergrad work at UCSD. What was UCSD like for yourself and other Latinos during the 1990’s?
I loved UC San Diego. My first writing advisors were Quincy Troupe and Victor Hernandez Cruz. I learned to love bilingual poetry and Miles Davis while looking out my classroom window at the sunset on Blacks Beach, hang gliders dotting the sky and surfers coming to class with sand still in their hair, setting their surfboards down before taking a seat. I felt a million miles from Chula Vista. I was in awe.
My fiction advisor was Mel Freilicher, who was a total New York Jewish, leftist Beat. He wore his Franz Kafka shirt all the time to class and he lived in Hillcrest and told us we will never make it as writers and to find another profession to pursue. He helped me write my first honest prose.
UCSD was where I first met Adrian Arancibia [of the Taco Shop Poets]. When he was editing Temper the literary magazine of the college. It made me so happy to see bilingual poetry inside an institutional magazine. Inspired me to really access that legacy in Chicano poetics. For the most part UCSD was a lively place. That was where I got exposed to Union Del Barrio. I read Voz Fronteriza and joined la Resistencia. My dream was to be a Red poet back then. Write for La Causa. I wanted to be a militant. Because I felt Prop 187 was attacking my family, my immigrant grandparents. I learned to raise my voice about self-determination and justice through poetry and spoken word at UC San Diego.
At what point in your life did you start writing creatively? When did you feel you could make a career out of it?
I started writing when I was nine years old. I was reading novels at a young age so I was thinking creatively already. I had an active imagination. An addiction to story. My father was a journalist. But I was raised by my single mother. So I had a lot of alone time being an only child. I was influenced to do a lot of reading and writing even though I was seriously active in sports and music and skateboarding.
I always knew I wanted to be a writer. I also wanted to be professional ballplayer. I became a pro at both.
I think it’s nearly impossible to make a career out of art in the United States. Americans don’t value artists unless you’re a commercial, pop artist. So investment in art is very minimal in comparison to sports or gardening even. Thank God for nonprofit art. I’ve made most of my career inside the nonprofit arts area. You don’t grow up in America learning that’s a career option.
What is nonprofit arts? People don’t know what that is. It’s learning how to effectively ask people to support your work and getting a nonprofit tax exempt status along with it. You learn how to budget. Write grants. I’ve been able to raise money for my projects because I’ve been able to refine my personality and also stay very passionate and true to what I want to see in this world. I maintain integrity. I help put other people on. I don’t have a lot of haters. I’m sure they’re on their way.
I guess I realized I could make a career out of art when I helped start Youth Speaks in San Francisco in 1996. We worked for free the first three years until we got our first grant in 1999 that provided me a salary and then I started making a livable wage in the arts. I also worked simultaneously at La Peña Cultural Center. I learned arts administration and fundraising while simultaneously building a concept of future asthetics and developing my community of artists who you can now see on stages all over the nation–including Doris Duke Artists like myself and Universes and Marc Bamuthi Joseph.
And now I have three jobs. I work at the Unity Council, I teach theater at USF, and I have a theater career. And I have three children. So I’ve always been a hustler. Nonprofit arts and arts in America is a labor of love. I love the community that I live and work for. So I put in that extra work to build paths for my children to know their culture while following in the footsteps of artists before me, like Culture Clash, like Jimmy Santiago Baca, like Juan Felipe Herrera.
You received your Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. What was it like going from San Diego to San Francisco? And what was the program like?
I had no idea what an MFA was until Cole Heinowitz told someone in class at UCSD that she wasn’t sure if she was going to Brown or Naropa to get her MFA after she graduated. Then I started asking fellow writers what they knew about MFA programs. I reached out to professors to get their opinion whether I was a good candidate for an MFA program. They encouraged me to keep developing my craft and apply to programs in New York and San Francisco. I was accepted by CUNY Brooklyn and SFSU. I decided to stay true to California. I wanted to start something in the West. I went to SF.
San Francisco in the 90’s was absolutely magical. It was a dream of artistic activity. San Francisco artists took so many chances, created performances on the outside of building walls, took to the street literally to express themselves daily. It was an exhibitionist scene. Taking off your clothes in public was the norm. Gómez-Peña confirmed this. Ridiculing the state apparatus was expected. No one was quiet.
It made sense I would continue my political growth from the anti-Prop 187 Movement I had joined at UCSD to the beat, hip-hop and protest influenced literary tradition of San Francisco. I also learned what experimental art was in SF.
San Diego had no experimental art scene, really. There was no concept of Avante Garde. The Campo Ruse was not trying to be experimental. But I loved the Ruse in the 90’s. And Cafe Chabalaba. These San Diego venues were neo-bohemian, not experimental. It was jazz, hip-hop and Taco Shop Poets. It was fun. There was Sushi Gallery, but it was so small in the scene. The work produced at Intersection for the Arts, SPD, The Lab, SOMArts, the SF Arts Institute, was multidisciplinary, hyper textual and robust enough to include artists of color inside the context of experimental art.
But I don’t like language poetry. And language poetry, experimental poetry was the norm in the MFA program in poetry at SFSU. I was forced to learn it or be ignored. I nearly alienated myself from Raza by adopting this dense and deconstructed syntax to describe a new indigenous urban identity I was forming.
Thank God I found Los Delicados, Darren de Leon and Norman Zelaya.
Look for Part II of the interview tomorrow.
Performances of Paul S. Flores’ play, PLACAS: The Most Dangerous Tattoo, will take place April 23-25 at the Lincoln High School Performing Arts Center, 4777 Imperial Ave. Tickets are $12 in advance through Brown Paper Tickets and $15 at the door. For more information please visit http://www.placas.org.