The decidely high-brow library at Occidental College normally does not have back copies of Teen Angel, the magazine that exuberantly displays the vivid graffiti, poetry and fashions of Mexican-American street gangs.
Nor does the library usually have issues of El Libro Semanal, the vastly popular, but thoroughly unacademic, weekly Spanish-language cartoon novels of romance, betrothal and betrayal.
And a series of little paperbacks teaching potions for good and bad magic are more often found on newsstands along Broadway in downtown Los Angeles than in the hallowed halls of liberal arts.
So what are these publications doing at the college library, let alone being honored with a special display in the main lobby?
History of Display
If you ask Onofre diStefano, assistant professor of Spanish at Occidental and the man responsible for the current exhibit, he will tell you this:
DiStefano was asked by the college to put together a lecture series on campus about the Southern California Latino community. So he dutifully invited experts to speak on such weighty topics as the Chicano protest movement, undocumented workers and political turmoil in Central America. He even arranged for evenings revolving around Chicano art and Latin American music.
But something was missing, something that reflected the amazing outpouring of the written word in Latino magazines, newspapers, books, journals and political pamphlets in California.
"I took the responsibility to come up with a good profile of the Latino community. But that is virtually impossible, even though we have experts lecturing, unless you look at what the people in the community are reading," diStefano said.
"The vast majority are reading things that don't filter up to the academic level, things that most colleges don't think are worthwhile."
Last summer, diStefano set out to correct that. He made a mission of visiting the newsstands along Broadway, in Echo Park and in the Pico-Union neighborhood, and of visiting the community centers of Latino exile groups and such prestigious Spanish-language bookstores as Hamel's in West Los Angeles.
He bought about 100 different publications, ranging from Low Rider, a magazine fixated on customized cars, to the respected daily newspaper La Opinion, to Sandino, the journal of local supporters of the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua, to the classic novel "Bless Me, Ultima," Rudolfo Anaya's tale of growing up in New Mexico, which is required reading for all Occidental freshmen.
The result, after picking the most interesting and visually appealing, is the library exhibit, which opens today and is called "The Tip of the Iceberg."
Why that name? "Simply because you can spend six months studying the community and its literature and still not exhaust the reading materials found there. It's so diverse," said diStefano.
The Latino community is, of course, diverse in many ways and the literature, highbrow and lowbrow, shows that. DiStefano found that the large newsstand at the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Echo Park Avenue in Echo Park sells newspapers from every Latin American nation, including the Portuguese-speaking Brazil.
A scanning of headlines there makes it clear how different the interests of some Latino groups are from the more numerous Mexican population.
Within the Mexican-American community, the publications reflect the growing movement away from the inner-city barrios to a more affluent, suburban life style as well as the struggle to maintain some ethnic identity in that process, the professor said.
"The farther away you get from the Eastside, the less and less Spanish there is (in the publications) and the more conservative the publications are," said diStefano, 34, who moved from Mexico to Los Angeles as a child with his Mexican mother and Italian father.
For example, the slick, upbeat Firme, published in San Gabriel, is the self-described "magazine of Chicano life" but is published in English. A Chicano cookbook has been published by a La Puente firm, also in English.
Some of the publications reflect tensions of American life. For example, many uneducated Mexican women are great fans of the easy-to-read romance cartoons and of pulp magazines that celebrate attractive Mexican male singers and actors.
Some of those publications, diStefano said, have begun to have more of a feminist tilt away from the stereotype of the male-dominated Latino household. "There is a liberating quality of crossing the border," the professor said. "There is more freedom for women but there is also more friction between male and female as a result."
Another example of adaptation to American life is Teen Angel, the gang-oriented magazine from Rialto, Calif. Gangs from around the country submit examples of their graffiti and even obituaries of gang members in what has become a network to swap styles and news. Advertisers are not shy to have their products seen by clothes- and car-conscious cholos, or young Mexican gang members.
"A lot of the slang in Teen Angels is difficult for an outsider to understand. But just the fact that the magazine exists indicates there is a community among members of different gangs," diStefano said. "Of course, it's not the type of literature you'd encounter in a college Spanish literature course, but it is still literature."
"The Tip of the Iceberg" is scheduled through Jan. 29, from 7:45 a.m. to midnight on weekdays, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays, and from 10 a.m. to midnight on Sundays.
The rest of the series on the Southern California Latino Community includes these lectures at 4 p.m. in the Morrison Lounge at Occidental College, 1600 Campus Road, Los Angeles:
Jan. 15, "Reactions to the Simpson/Mazzoli Bill in the Latino community"; Feb. 19, "Researching the Latino Community in Los Angeles: Methods and Problems"; April 9, "The Plight of the Undocumented Latino Community"; April 30, "Music of Social Protest and Love of Latin American in Los Angeles"; May 14, "International Politics and the Latino Community of Los Angeles."
For information, call (213) 259-2731 or 259-2830.)