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Brazilian woman traces her great-uncle’s Laguna Beach story, three decades later

side-by-side photos of Laura and Cesar Papa
As part of a project to trace her great-uncle’s life, Laura Papa is re-creating photos that César Papa took as an artist after moving to Laguna Beach in the 1980s. This one is of the Hollywood Bowl.
(Courtesy of Laura Papa)

A smattering of faded Polaroid pictures, several meticulously handwritten letters, a few scratchy audio tracks — clues that led one woman to Laguna Beach, seeking the story of her dead great-uncle.

For the past two weeks, Laura Papa, 27, has been winding her way along Laguna’s roadways, tracing history from more than 30 years ago of César Papa — a man she never knew.

“I never met him, [but] I can present him to people,” Laura Papa said. “I can say I know him in some way.”

Laura started probing her great-uncle’s past eight years ago, but the effort began in earnest as a university thesis project five years ago. She said she went from house to house, learning from family members about his childhood, his party style, his friends. She collected nearly 800 of his mementos — photos, letters, cassette tapes and, of course, his artwork.

César, the seventh of eight children growing up in Brazil, was the first in his family to devote himself to a career in art. On the urging of a friend from Laguna Beach, he moved to the artist colony in 1986.

“For the first time in my life I think I’m truly happy,” he wrote in a letter dated Feb. 19, 1987, to his younger sister, Stela. Laura translated the letter from Portuguese. “I’ve never thought that art would be as much of me.”

He soon settled into the thriving local LGBTQ community, exhibited his pencil and oil drawings at several area galleries and explored Laguna’s byways, snapping photos along the way.

Laura, who grew up in the countryside outside Rio de Janeiro, is now literally following in his footsteps. With a trove of digitized documents at her fingertips, she is on a scavenger hunt to learn more about César’s life.

Luckily — almost as if he knew someone would endeavor to piece together his life someday — César thoroughly documented almost every photo he took with dates and locations. Laura has re-created his photos of prominent Laguna Beach spots, finding the exact angle where he took a photo and returning to the spot to snap one herself. She also is searching for people who knew César during the three years he lived in town.

“Isn’t this city beautiful?” César wrote on a Crescent Bay postcard stamped July 23, 1986, and translated from Portuguese by Laura. “Everything is even more beautiful than this postcard shows. I feel I’m in heaven.”

side-by-side photos of Laura and Cesar Papa
César Papa took the photo of Laguna Beach on the left in 1988. His great-niece Laura Papa caught the same scene recently, right, though at lower tide.
(Courtesy of Laura Papa )

An HIV diagnosis sent César back to Brazil in 1989, where he stayed with family until he died in 1990 at age 37. Laura was born two years later.

Though she never met him, Laura said she knew him intimately since she was a little girl through stories told by her mother, grandmother and other family members.

“Every single person who speaks about him has tears in their eyes — but not like when you remember something sad, but like when you remember something you really cherish,” she said. “They didn’t let him die, in some way.”

Her family always told Laura that she and César would be kindred spirits, with their shared taste for art and the Beatles. Even after his death, she said, César continued to touch lives through his legacy of exuding peace and love.

“What really I was interested in was how a person can still touch people in a way, even after he was gone,” she said. “I kept thinking this is beautiful to live like this — you keep touching people even after you’re gone.”

The purpose of her project, Laura said, is to build a body of work that tells more of her great-uncle’s story. It is meant for her, her close-knit family, César’s friends and anyone who wants to learn more about LGBTQ history.

“I don’t think that you can be ... like a single person. You are many stories,” she said.

side-by-side photos of Laura and Cesar Papa
Some of the spots in her great-uncle’s photos, such as the iconic Hotel Laguna, have been easy to find. But Laura Papa has spent hours on Google Maps searching for other places.
(Courtesy of Laura Papa )

In November, Laura quit her job as a marketing manager at Alliance Francaise to take a sabbatical, weighing whether to spend the time pursuing her project. Out of the blue, she received an email from a Redondo Beach man who had known César during his Laguna days. She bought a one-way ticket, packed her bags and flew to California.

“When I got here, I was like, ‘OK, where do I start?’ ” she said.

First, she went to César’s old address and left a note. Then she set to work spreading her message, sending a letter to local newspapers, knocking at nearly every gallery door in town, checking out the visitors center and speaking on Craig Cooley’s radio show on KX/93.5 FM last weekend.

“We’re on a quest here!” Cooley said.

Laura is documenting her findings on her website and Instagram. She will be digging through César’s records and life in Laguna Beach through mid-September. Then, after a brief vacation to Mexico, she will head to Hawaii on the next step of her journey through his art history.

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