A Cultural Victory : Con Safos, a writers group, has restored the voices of those once told their stories were'too ethnic.’
Corina Carrasco is the first to read her cuento , a story about growing up in a big family, and wishing--just for a moment while eavesdropping on her parents--that she hadn’t been born so they could afford to pay the bills.
Several poets and storytellers--old-timers affectionately known as Los Rukitos Chimuelos (the elderly, toothless ones) and a younger generation of Nuevos Pensadores (new thinkers)--gather around her.
Their two worlds have merged to revive a 27-year defunct magazine, and Chicano writers workshop, called Con Safos. A popular underground publication from 1968 to 1972, Con Safos told stories of the barrio experience, of el movimiento , capturing the feelings of an era and its gente Chicana.
This is the monthly Thursday-night session of the Con Safos literary group that began meeting three years ago at Highland Park’s Arroyo Books. They share poetry and prose--and most important of all--their cuentos , ‘90s version, a lo Chicano .
Taking turns, everyone eagerly participates, some acting out the dialogue in falsetto voices, others discussing the writing process involved or a story’s content, nearly always related to a personal experience.
The group released a new issue last week, its third since late last year when publishing was made possible with money raised by the writers. The magazine takes its name from the calo, or slang, spoken and written by Chicano graffiti artists since the 1930s who added con safos or C/S under their names to protect their creations. Con safos was a dignified way of saying “the same to you” if another person destroyed, defaced or denigrated one’s graffiti.
For the writers group--as well as old and new readers--the comeback of the literary imprimatur, noted especially for its use of “Spanglish” (the mix of English and Spanish sans translation), is a cultural victory. Recently, the Smithsonian Institution requested copies of the journal for its archives. More businesses and individuals are contributing financially to the magazine’s publication. And the monthly workshops, funded by a grant from the California Arts Council, have been renewed through 1998.
At this night’s session, Carrasco reads from her story, “The Apartment.” Some of the writers stare into the waxed, wooden floorboards as they listen. Others have their eyes shut, their heads heavenward. Only the wooden chairs that make a snapping sound like brittle twigs with every shift of a leg or arm can be heard above her voice.
I always liked to listen to my parents when they talk at night and they think us kids are all asleep. One night I heard my parents say something about how they owed too much money and my father didn’t earn enough to pay it all back.
Then they said they wished they didn’t have seven kids and I cried because if they weren’t my parents, they would only have six kids and they would have more money to pay the bills. . . . Finally my father said that the only thing to do was to make our house bigger so that we would all fit in it.
“Si abremos el soterran~o, podemos hacer cuartos alli abajo y podemos rentar el otro lado como apartamento.” (“If we open up the basement, we can make rooms down there and rent one side of the house as an apartment.”)
Ralph F. Lopez-Urbina, known to writers as “Rafas” (short for Rafas de Dog Town--named for his barrio, located near a dog pound), founded the original Con Safos with Frank (Pancho) Sifuentes. Today, Sifuentes is the magazine’s publishing editor as well as the coordinator for the writer’s workshop.
Lopez-Urbina, who has rheumatoid arthritis, prefers to remain in the background, consulting with Sifuentes about the magazine’s vision and attending the workshops when his health permits.
The 60-year-old retired, self-proclaimed “hack” recalls starting the magazine because of what he called “institutional racism” at Cal State Los Angeles, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in English literature.
“When I started going to college I found out that any time I tried to write about my experiences I was told my point of view was too ethnic,” he said. His stories, he was told, were “not universal, not the kind that everyone could relate to.”
His world view, he said, came from living in a Chicano barrio. And as far as he was concerned, the stars and the moon he looked at each night were part of the same universe everyone else saw. He just described them “with a different accent.” And with different words: estrellas y luna .
“Most of us were willing to put up with the racist posturing that was going on,” he said. “I felt it was an indignity. I began to think, ‘There has to be a way to address this whole issue.’ ”
Entra Con Safos.
After getting his degree, Lopez-Urbina gathered several of his friends--writers, poets and artists-- and launched the magazine. He named it Con Safos because at that time, he said, “the only people who were generating any kind of creative activity were the pachucos [cholos]. The dress, the Spanglish--that was marvelous. There was a lot of imagination coming out of that culture. They represented Chicano pride against all the bigotry and prejudice.”
He wanted his magazine to be equally evocative, broad and diverse: about his community, his culture, his cuentos.
Originally conceptualized as a literary work, Con Safos soon was exploring social and political causes. But it all came to an end in 1972, when, due to lack of funding, the magazine published its last issue.
For many years, Lopez-Urbina and other original Con Safos members--Peter Fernandez, then known as El Pete de la Amelia; Oscar Castillo, known as El Oscarito de Echo Park; Sergio Hernandez, known as El Sergio de Florencia, and Sifuentes El Pancho de A.T. (for Austin, Tex., his hometown)--talked about reviving their quarterly magazine.
But it wasn’t until Sifuentes, who has also retired, wrote a proposal for a grant that the dream was realized.
Like the other old-timers, Sifuentes, 63, is most excited about the new generation of writers he guides at the workshop sessions, often pulling out of them--during discussions--poignant experiences that later lead to creative writing.
“Us old-timers represent a continuity of artistic expression,” he said. “But the newcomers, they represent an incredible future, a legacy for us.”
Alberto Ledesma, 29, is of the younger generation. He is working toward a doctorate in ethnic studies and has studied with author Sandra Cisneros, feminist Cherrie Moraga and poet Gary Soto.
Since joining Con Safos, he has had six stories printed, all about “the condition of being undocumented.”
“It is a fascinating condition and I feel that those stories--life about undocumented high school students, housewives, fathers earning a living, children chasing the American dream--need to be written about no matter how political they may seem,” said Ledesma, a naturalized citizen, who, as a child, moved with his family to California from Guadalajara.
In the latest issue of Con Safos, there is a story by Carrasco, 39, who has a degree in Spanish literature from Stanford University and is the magazine’s editor. Recently divorced and now the single mother of three, Carrasco has nonetheless managed to attend every meeting since she joined the group three years ago.
The cuento , titled “Julia,” is about the spousal abuse Carrasco witnessed as a child during visits to the homes of relatives.
For a few of Los Rukitos Chimuelos the story is disturbing. And on this particular night of reading, Carrasco, a Nueva Pensadora , is asked to, por favor , read something else. She relents graciously and then leads the group in a lively conversation about the subject.
“Why hide it?” she asks about the topic. “I think we learn more from exposing those things, than from hiding them.”
Peter Fernandez, 54, a Los Angeles Unified School District teacher on leave, welcomes the discussion. As an original member--and one whose writing “is political because being Chicano is political"--he recalls how the Con Safos of yesteryear was a macho-thinking, macho-dominated group.
With the new, improved Con Safos has also come a more sensitive bato or guy, he says. “We should be asking ourselves, ‘What is it that Chicano women haven’t told us or that we are afraid to ask?’ Corina’s story about ‘Julia’ is political and talks about something that should be on the social conscious of everyone.”
Acculturation and assimilation have been the subjects of 38-year-old Therese Hernandez’s six stories--including a piece on her mother’s comida mexicana (Mexican food) and another on her own Catholic school upbringing.
“When I come through these doors, it’s like savoring una copa de chocolate [a warm cup of chocolate]. There is warmth and a welcome here. A place for you. This writing experience is not about popular culture. It’s about my experience. It’s about my culture.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
To a Beloved Grandmother
So well I remember
mi querida abuelita,
--a thousand Monarchs cuddled
in the cocoon of my corazon
bursting from my eyes, my ears, my mouth
--fluttering to the taconasos of my happy heart
--twittering, buckling, gliding
in a festive jarabe of love,
as you ran a comb through my unruly hair
al salir a nuestra parranda;
the subtle smile
resting on your pretty face,
offering the perfect countenance for
the love-crystalled sweetness
sparkling in your sorrowful eyes.
* An excerpt from the poem “Manuelita, Mi Querida Abuelita,”
by Ralph F. Lopez-Urbina, a.k.a. “Rafas”
* Mi querida abuelita / my beloved grandmother
* Corazon / heart
* Taconasos / passionate beat
Jarabe / dance
* Al salir a nuestra parranda / as we prepare for a day of revelry