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Column: This Mexican nerd’s guide to coronavirus lockdown reading

A family outside a trailer with a sign pleading for families in Chavez Ravine to be paid a fair price for their property
Victoria Angustian stands in the doorway of her family’s trailer after bulldozers destroyed their home in Chavez Ravine. With her are Manuel Angustian; children Ivy (sweeping) and Ira; and family matriarch Abrana Aréchiga.
(John Malmin / Los Angeles Times)

So ready for the coming lockdowns? Of course you’re not!

That’s why your humble columnist is here to help the best way a nerdy Mexican with glasses can: offer a Christmas reading list.

One of the few good things Southern California saw in 2020 was a bounty of history books on the region. The ones I’m going to recommend all hit issues — protests, politics, representation and the Dodgers — that are ever-present ’round here but which shared the spotlight with the coronavirus.

What’s past is prologue, as Shakespeare wrote in “The Tempest,” and these tomes not only remind us of that but also offer a way forward from our current mess. So bundle up with some to-go coffee in hand, a mask by your side, and find a moment of distraction from a year with the scope of Tolstoy, the heaviness of Joan Didion, the absurdity of David Foster Wallace and the Gothic horror of Mary Shelley.

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Mike Davis and Jon Wiener have long been the Jeremiah and Ezekiel of the Los Angeles Left, historians with national acclaim for their fulminations against corruption national and international. “Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties” represents their first major work together, an 800-page beast that benefits from the knowledge of these grizzled prophets that there is nothing new under the activist sun.

Their book offers a semblance of a narrative by patching together chapters on disparate social justice movements from that decade — Black Power, the Chicano Blowouts, feminism, the underground press — that fought for their causes but rarely intersected.

It works best when Davis and Wiener remind readers of the unlikely roots of local institutions now long past their glory days: KPFK-FM 90.7 before it became an endless fund drive loop, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles when it was a far-right outfit instead of today’s open-borders champion.

The stories Davis and Wiener gather aren’t exactly new, but few historians ever bothered to gather them together — and none had the institutional knowledge and bomb-throwing mien of the authors.

The story of how Los Angeles officials booted out Latino families from Chavez Ravine to make way for the Dodgers has been portrayed in books and documentaries, turned into a play by Culture Clash and even inspired a concept album by Ry Cooder. So “Stealing Home: Los Angeles, the Dodgers, and the Lives Caught in Between,” by Eric Nusbaum, looks superfluous at first glance.

But the sportswriter crafted a quick, elegiac read by focusing on an angle totally relevant today that makes this well-known epic seem ripped from the proverbial headlines: housing.

He highlights the Aréchiga family, nowadays mostly remembered for the members who were dragged away from their home by L.A. County sheriff’s deputies as the Dodgers were marching toward a World Series title at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

The parallels between 1959 and today — on Thanksgiving eve, California Highway Patrol officers ousted Latino families from long-vacant homes in El Sereno with the Dodgers’ most recent championship barely a month old — are obvious. But Nusbaum handles them gracefully, without hammering away at the point like Wally Moon used to launch baseballs into the Coliseum seats so long ago.

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Part of the nation’s moral reckoning in the wake of George Floyd’s killing was a reexamination of our local histories: who gets celebrated, and who gets ignored. On Instagram, I’m now seeing young people make archival photos and newspaper clippings go viral, while others create online projects or tours to document the hidden histories of their communities.

To them, I’d recommend the anthology “East of East: The Making of Greater El Monte.” It’s the culmination of a long-standing project by the South El Monte Arts Posse, a collective of artists, authors, urban planners and even swap meet sellers committed to write their too-often overlooked hometown into the Southern California narrative.

Contributors resuscitate heroines like Toypurina, the Tongva medicine woman who tried to lead an uprising in the early days of California’s mission system. They knock down villains like the Monte Boys, whom city fathers long portrayed as just some good ol’ boys out of “Gunsmoke” but were really racist vigilantes. Locations like Durfee Avenue and Rush Street get praised as equals to Whittier Boulevard or Sunset.

Best of all, “East of East” is both chronicle and challenge to all of us: Know your local history, document it and spread its gospel to the world, no matter how seemingly small.

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And though Geraldo Cadava’s “The Hispanic Republican: The Shaping of an American Political Identity, from Nixon to Trump” is national in scope, California Latinos play an outsize role in the phenomenon. The Northwestern professor wisely doesn’t use academic gobbledygook in what amounts to be a secret history of American politics that became particularly relevant this election cycle.

Cadava shows how, although always the caboose of the GOP train, Latino conservatives from Southern California helped Republican presidential campaigns going back to Eisenhower. This group arguably found their Zapata in Richard Nixon, whose childhood living and working among blue-collar Mexicans gave him an appreciation for their work ethic and what he felt was their inherent conservatism.

The author profiles Romana Acosta Bañuelos — founder of Ramona’s Mexican Foods, and the first-ever Latina U.S. treasurer. And he also finds a surprising anecdote about how Nixon was so moved by the plight of Latino parishioners at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Pomona that he planned to pen the nation’s first amnesty for immigrants in the country illegally (too bad Watergate got in the way).

“The Hispanic Republican” makes the convincing argument that even more Latinos would be Republican if the party didn’t engage so much in xenophobic politics (pioneered by the California GOP, of course). And Cadava also offers a warning to Democrats: Don’t dismiss Latino conservatives as sellouts. You do, and, well, a third of them just might vote for a blowhard like Donald J. Trump.

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Any of the above titles would make great gifts, but why not buy all four for friends and also yourself? Small bookstores need the revenue now more than ever. So forget the ugly-sweater parties and shelter in place with great reads: the reason for this pandemic season.


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