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A Poet’s Passion

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Michele Serros leans into a classroom podium, reading her story about discrimination in the frosty depths of a supermarket’s frozen veggie section.

The poet pauses, scans her audience of Venice High School seniors--attentive, waiting for the storyteller to play out the next scene. Vicariously, they are there with Serros and her activist friend Martina, on aisle 9, digging through the deep freeze for pre-cut carrots and peas that will give their Spanish rice dish some zing.

Serros lets loose:

Seconds after she opened the glass door Martina said: “Look! Look at this!” She pulled out two frosted bags from the bottom compartment.

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“Malibu Style Vegetables. And, check this out, Latino Style Vegetables, as if we all eat alike. I’ve never seen this. Man, even in the lousy freezer they divide and they discriminate!”

“Martina,” I asked her, “they’re vegetables. How can they be discriminating? Get real.”

She went on: “Man, you don’t even see it. You’re so, so unaware. Look, look at this picture. Latino Style Vegetables, they have the vegetables cut up all small. Like, what’s that supposed to mean? Like, little food for little people, little minds, little significance? And this Malibu kind, the broccoli, the carrots, are cut up large, all big and grand, like ‘of great worth,’ or something. The cauliflower, which is WHITE, is the biggest vegetable in the picture, overpowering all the rest.”

“Oh, Martina,” I told her, “you’re seeing something that just isn’t there. You’re crazy to get so worked up over vegetables. Now just grab a bag and let’s go.”

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A few paragraphs later, Martina waves the frozen bags over her head, calling for everyone to join her new revolution, to become liberated consumers. She flings the bags to the floor. A Korean woman stomps on Oriental Style Vegetables. A cowboy plays football with Country Style Vegetables. And a handsome dark-haired man rips open Italian Style Vegetables, scattering them everywhere.

From beginning to end, the story, “Attention Shoppers” is a grabber. Many of the students hang around, knowing they’re late for their next class. But they want to thank Serros for sharing. They want to discuss the “stereotypes in a bag.” They want to write.

Serros scores.

She has connected with the young people she says she wants to reach with her work, which is now available on a CD, “Selected Stories From Chicana Falsa” that is inspiring industry buzz.

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The spoken-word recording on Mouth Almighty / Mercury Records plays like a series of radio dramas, richly crafted stories in which Serros invites listeners into her world, her culture, her life as a hyphenated American reared on cultura Mexicana (glitzy quinceaneras) and mainstream pop culture (Judy Blume books).

Vivid with sound effects--a piglet oinking, birds chirping, a knife chopping cilantro, onions and tomatoes--Serros’ stories and poetry are about family. Her dad, George, then a janitor at the Oxnard airport (today he is a court reporter), who never believed in owning a phone, eating at restaurants or paying for parking. Her sister Yvonne’s bad luck as a contestant on “The Price Is Right.” And Serros’ own dangerous appetite for the crunchy chicarrones, or pork cracklings, that choked her and made her pass out on the floor only to be revived by her younger cousin Amy, who happens to have a pet pig.

Writes Joie Davidow of Si magazine: “Because [Serros] has the genius to create full-blooded characters in just a few sentences, the poems lend themselves to performances, which are part poetry reading, part stand-up comedy, part theatrical event.”

Elena Oumano’s review in the Village Voice: “ ‘Chicana’ encompasses more than the vagaries of Latina life in La La; the pressures and yearnings Serros describes are those of anyone anywhere in America.”

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And says Pedro Trino of Latin Style magazine: “Unlike most of the well-known Chicano writers, Serros is not a writer from academia; she writes from her life experiences, and that gives her work the added poignancy and urgency literary intellectualism will never achieve.”

Serros, 30, smiles and shrugs at such adulation, at the tags “rising new poet,” “a new voice on the Chicano horizon” and “L.A.'s next big thing.”

Her sculpted eyebrows momentarily hide under her seriously straight little-girl bangs. The ends of her shoulder-length dark hair curl into an itsy-bitsy “That Girl” flip.

She welcomes the attention but says all she has ever wanted to do was make someone--anyone--happy with her work. She writes in an office that is really a pantry because she likes to be near food when she creates.

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“Intense stomachaches--and when there’s nothing on TV--inspire me.” And then she eats, she says, glancing--con carino, yes, lovingly--at the red fridge within arm’s length of her Macintosh, fax and phone.

Her CD is based on her 1993 book of poems and short stories, “Chicana Falsa and Other Stories of Death, Identity and Oxnard” (Lalo Press, which is now defunct; Serros has a closet full of copies). She wrote the book while still an undergraduate at UCLA, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in Chicano Studies.

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The title “Chicana Falsa” comes from a moniker given to her by a chola everyone called La Letty, who “had a strong definition of what a Chicana was.”

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And, according to La Letty, Serros was not that image. “Here I was in school thinking maybe I’d go to college and become a writer. My Spanish was horrible, I wore Vans to school and La Letty was like ‘What a Chicana falsa you are.’ ”

Serros admits she doesn’t speak Spanish fluently (she wrote a poem about it called “Mi Problema” after a Latina dissed her about it). She is addicted to chicarrones (thus the poem “Dead Pig’s Revenge”) but is crazy for Cocoa Puffs (“Haiku for Cocoa Puffs”).

She uses a tortilla maker because, really, who has time to roll out the masa? Sometimes she rolls the double rr’s in her surname and sometimes she just forgets. She collects snow globes (more than 200 are kept in a lighted Timex watch glass case she bought at a thrift store). She’s a regular at Hot-Dog-on-a-Stick, loves TV (but not all that cable stuff), 1940s fashion, 1950s furniture and has an amazing collection of 1960s vinyl albums in the living room of the cozy home she shares with husband Gene Trautmann, a drummer for the band Dig.

At 17 she developed a crush on Trautmann after seeing his picture on a poster, which she bought. As fate would have it, the two met several years ago--in Belgium, of all places--and last year they wed. Serros made snow globes for all the wedding guests, painting the hair on the plastic brides and grooms to match their own.

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As a child her heroine was author Judy Blume--"and she’s Jewish,” Serros says, yanking a letter from Blume off a wall in her cubbyhole office. Blume’s book “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret” helped Serros, at age 11, deal with her parents’ divorce.

“I didn’t know what to do with all these emotions, anger and fear,” she says. Her parents discouraged her from revealing them at home or in public. She says she was taught not to be opinionated because her parents kept their feelings bottled up, a cultural characteristic of their generation.

So she wrote to Blume, who responded: “Divorce can be painful. You may want to keep a journal and write down what you are thinking and feeling.”

Serros has been doing that ever since.

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Born in the La Colonia neighborhood of Oxnard and reared in nearby El Rio, Serros says relatives gave her a quarter for every story--always funny and always about private family matters, like her mom spending too much money--she told at her great-grandma Pete’s backyard barbecues. Her mother would give her 50 cents to zip her lips.

She also made books from cardboard and paper, drawing and coloring her own stories, gluing flowers and grass on the pages in the fashion of scratch and sniff books. She was barely 6 then, she says, turning the pages of one of her many childhood books kept in a cabinet with her Blume collection.

Serros signed her name on each one, but Yvonne, now 36, told Michele that to be a serious writer she would have to change her name because that was what writers did.

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So the two came upon Michael Hill: Michael for Michele and Hill for Serros because cerros in Spanish means hills.

As a youngster Serros practiced the name over and over again as she turned to her diaries, intact with a lock and key, and spilled her feelings onto the pages.

She also started experimenting with poetry without even knowing it. She broke up sentences, turned phrases into fragments, making them look like poems. “I had no idea what I was doing but it looked like a poem and I’d have one word way over here and then a few words on a separate line.”

Still, poetry was the great unknown to her because in school “the poetry I was reading was about life in New York or Europe,” not about her worldview. “So I thought ‘I can’t be a poet. I don’t write like that. That’s not my world.’ ”

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After high school she took journalism courses at Ventura College, thinking maybe her father was right: “A writer is a reporter.” But instructors told her she had too much emotion in her stories and that was a no-no.

“I was so confused. I didn’t know where I was gonna fit with my writing.”

She switched to Santa Monica College, where a Mexican American literature course provided some answers. She began to read the works of Latino writers and poets she never knew existed. She also took workshops outside academia, at Beyond Baroque, a literary center, which gave her the boost she needed to pursue writing her way: no rules, no fear of dissected poems and, best of all, she dumped Michael Hill.

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These days, Serros is an award-winning and often-anthologized poet. Last month the Greater Los Angeles Press Club honored her work with a first place award for radio commentary for a story on how her family ditched her for Madonna on Christmas Day. Serros refused to see “Evita,” paying homage to Uncle Charlie, who never supported a film in which a non-Latino played a Latino.

Three years ago she toured as a Road Poet with Lollapalooza, inspiring Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins to play behind her during one of her shows.

She teaches poetry to students through PEN Center USA West’s high school program and to teenage girls at the California Youth Authority prison in Camarillo.

Nike is interested in her for a commercial, Mother Jones magazine has just named her “Hellraiser of the Month” and “Mi Gente,” a New York-based variety and talk show, wants to book her.

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Tonight, Serros will launch her CD at a party at a performance venue in Hollywood where Cocoa Puff treats, cheese bologna rolls, Latino and Malibu style vegetables and, of course, chicarrones, will be dished out in true Serros form.

Still, not everyone “understands my work, they don’t ‘get’ me,” she says. “Some people get on their pedestal and say their way is the real Chicano way.” And sometimes, non-Latinos just aren’t interested.

Take her recent appearance at a mostly white Kern County college campus. When she stopped a student for directions, he said, “ ‘I’m skipping class today because your book caused a lot of controversy.’ ” Her reception was hostile. Several other students bailed. Many made disruptive noises--turning magazine pages, opening backpacks-- and several more never made eye contact with Serros. When the class ended, one student wrote, “I don’t like poetry, especially that of a Chicana’s.” When she left, no one, except for the teacher who apologized, said thank you.

At another engagement, Serros read her heart out to a Montecito writers’ group--again, mostly white. Later, as she reached for corn chips at a buffet table, a man quipped: “Oh, didn’t you get your fill of tortillas this week?” Serros kept her cool as the man repeated the question. “I don’t get it,” she told the man, who responded, “Never mind.”

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At the same reading, a woman shared a joke with Serros: “ ‘What’s the first thing Mexican kids learn in English?’ I said I didn’t know. She goes: ‘Attention Kmart shoppers!’ and started laughing.” Again, Serros was dumbfounded and bluntly told the woman, “I don’t get it.”

Serros knows other Latino poets who have refused such hoity-toity invitations they say reek of tokenism. She is often asked why she accepts them. “I do it because I think many people have this certain idea of what a Latino, of what a Chicano is, and I just think ‘God, they really need to be educated.’ They’re defining who I am” and only Serros can do that.

Solid in her identity and grounded in her writing, she says she will continue to push her fresh, cutting-edge poetry until she’s gone. And when she dies she wants to be remembered as a poet.

She recalls writing her mother’s obituary. Beatrice Serros died in 1991 of kidney and liver failure. She was a draftsman who designed the home Michele grew up in. But her passion was painting.

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“In the obituary I wrote that my mother was an artist, because she was,” she says. Some in her family scoffed.

“And it made me think, ‘God, I don’t want people saying in my obituary, “Well, you know, Michele really wasn’t a writer.” ’ “

She wants her readers to say they were inspired “to document their stories.” Especially young girls.

“I want them to say, ‘I could do that,’ and then do it. I want bookshelves and libraries filled with their stories. I just want that so badly.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Michele Serros

Claim to fame: Poet and storyteller who just signed a five-year contract with spoken-word recording label Mouth Almighty / Mercury Records.

Back story: Born in La Colonia neighborhood of Oxnard, today lives in Culver City.

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Family: Married to Gene Trautmann, drummer for the band Dig. No kids.

Passions: Collecting snow globes, vinyl records, bowling, couples-only skating at the roller rink, girls-only pajama parties and devouring corn dogs from Hot-Dog-on-a-Stick as well as her beloved chicarrones.

On her definition of a poet: “There’s the stereotype, someone who is just incredibly deep and intelligent and so intense. An icon. But I don’t see myself as a poet. No. No. No. I feel like I’m this counter girl who got lucky. I worked the counters at Sizzler, Aaron Bros. and Michael’s Arts & Crafts. So I was always witnessing life from the other side of the counter and on the back of order forms I would just jot down funny things I would see.”

On reading her work in public: “I still get real nervous performing. But then I think about what I’m going to eat afterward and I’m OK.”

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Advice to young people about writing: “Through writing, young people can break down incorrect and demeaning stereotypes of their own community. But the majority of the students I speak to haven’t read anything that’s similar to their world or their community. So, I’d challenge a teacher about that or I’d pick one person who is supportive about one’s writing--and that’s not always going to be your teacher, your parent or even your best friend.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Three Poems by Michele Serros

Haiku for Cocoa Puffs

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Choc-late flavor balls

of corn, my people call maize

breakfast gone cuckoo.

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Tag Banger’s Last Can

Flaco held his manhood

steady.

Aimed it at

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a city block

pissing boosted Krylon

citrus yellow

cherry red

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black.

His defiant stand

earned him

a loyal crew

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customized baseball cap

TV tabloid expose

and a toe tag.

***

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Excerpt from “Dead Pig’s Revenge” by Michele Serros

One ordinary visit

while I sat in the coach’s shade

I could see my father

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talking chickens with Uncle Vincent,

my mother inside with Aunt Dolly.

I was shoving my dear chicarrones

into my mouth.

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Something happened.

They stayed right there,

in my throat.

I swallowed hard to help them down,

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coughed firmly to help them up,

but they wouldn’t budge.

I could feel coarse pig hairs

tickle my throat,

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but I wasn’t laughing.

This was not funny.

I couldn’t breathe.

I was going to DIE!

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My mother was right,

the dead pig’s revenge!

I was going to DIE.

My father

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was suddenly miles away . . .

Thoughts raced through my mind,

who’ll take care of Miss Rosie,

my pet goat?

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Still haven’t got “Student of the Month.”

But more agonizing than

any of these things,

than any of this,

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I thought of the headline,

the headline in my obituary:

Chicarrones Choke Chicana Child to Death (in Chino)


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