The Santa Ana Sentinel

A Discussion with Eileen Hsu

Posted in Conversations, Downtown, Ward 2 by Omar Ávalos Gallegos on October 9, 2011

Eileen Hsu did her master’s thesis at Cal Arts on the changes occurring in Downtown Santa Ana. She proposed a number a changes or solutions to the “downtown problem,” and it seems that some of her ideas have already been enacted.

I recently read an article of her’s titled “Downtown Santa Ana as an Invisible City” here on WordPress and I had some trouble and disagreement with the fifth point that she made in it, concerning the removal of Mexican identifiers i.e. images of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, “Mayan” (she meant to say Aztec) calendars, (by the way the “Aztec calendar” is not really a calendar) and Día de los muertos. Right away you see that according to her views, places like Calacas shouldn’t have a place in the downtown given that Calacas’s business is heavily about Mexican identifiers and symbolism.

Here is a written exchange that I had with her recently:

Me: I have trouble with your fifth point. I don’t think that anyone can preach openness and hybridity but not accept Mexican symbols, especially in a city that is overwhelmingly Mexican or of Mexican descent.

I understand that there are those in the Downtown that do not want to have these images be synonymous with the area, but enacting a double standard is just plain wrong. This is an affront to those of us of Mexican descent.

What is also offensive is not being precise when it comes to mentioning “Mayan” calendars. That famous symbol that you mention is in fact an Aztec and not a Mayan symbol.

Her:

Thanks for taking the time to review and to make comments, Omar. I see as well as you have that Downtown Santa Ana is going through a major evolution and self-redefinition. Did you go (or hear on NPR) the interview that Larry Mantle conducted at Librería Martínez? Like I wrote in my post, I highly recommend it. What I understood from that as well as my research is that 1) Downtown Santa Ana is divided as to whether it wants to be perceived as a largely Mexican community or something else (and if the latter, what is that something else?) and 2) if it embraces its Mexican majority, there is a division between recent Mexican immigrants and second/third generation Mexican-Americans as to what traditions and visual forms they want to represent their Santa Ana Mexican identity. As for #2, when I spoke to people such as the owner of the taqueria Guadalajara on Fourth Street, he did not want to deny his Mexican heritage but he wanted it reinvented, looking “up-to-date”, modern, fresh— and this is my own extrapolation: perhaps he sought a look that is not 100% pure Mexican tradition but something melded with the polish, control, and contemporariness associated with Orange County as a whole.

I see what you mean that ignoring tradition and history can be seen as a betrayal of one’s identity. My question is if there’s a way to recognize that tradition and history through new or unconventional visual forms? As many in the business community of Downtown Santa Ana urged, how can these visual forms be both sincere to the identity of the community and appealing to visitors?

As an outsider to Downtown Santa Ana, I lack the depth of experience and personal tie with this place, community, and history that you clearly have. At the same time, I am a graphic designer doing an experimental student project and not a community activist or business person or someone else with a political agenda or financial stakes. For me, this project has been an attempt at observation and interpretation of a discrete place based on research. Through the journey of this project, many people have come forth generously to offer perspective, personal stories, and fervent opinions,—such as yourself. I have walked its streets many times, day and night, taken two semesters of Spanish at Santa Ana community college, and made new friends from the surrounding residential areas. So this place has endeared itself to me along the way.

In the end, I’m in no position to guess what the future of Downtown Santa Ana will be. It’s for you all—the community—to decide. As a graphic designer, my goal is to try to design systems through which you all can elaborate your purpose and expression, like the way a trellis works in a garden. Of course, I have to consider that any system made will be advantageous to certain growths and less so to others. Understanding the “growths” that needed room was the objective of the ethnographic component of my project. Certain opinions and points-of-view were more vivid and repeated than others. Certainly, the Mexican community in Downtown Santa Ana made it loud and clear to me that it is here to stay and to flourish.

The weekend before last, I went to Downtown to see the gallery shows. It was so vivacious. There was a car show, outdoor documentary screening, another film screening in front of Calacas, folk singers at the restaurant near Calacas, flamenco performances at the dance academy, a bevy of art shows, crowds on the streets… not to mention all of the packed restaurants. It was so alive. Creativity is exploding in Downtown in an impressive way.

Finally, thanks for letting me know about the Aztec calendar. I had not verified my information on that earlier. Right now, I’m working at LACMA as an environmental graphic designer with a curator of Pre-Columbian artifacts, so I should soon get my Incan, Mayan, Aztec anthropology straight!

Me:

I knew of the event at the bookstore before it happened but was unable to go. To me it was about the usual people raising a stink about the changes in the downtown. I’m all for, and have argued for improvements but I want to strike a harmonious balance.

I make it a point to remain objective about the improvements occurring downtown but I don’t see or hear other ethnic groups speaking about striking a balance, or having a diverse downtown represented by business owners of various ethnic groups. You see, I want to see more people of Mexican descent owning new or souped-up businesses.

I have heard some comments concerning a white takeover of the downtown and I have also seen a lack of desire for conserving Hispanic culture. The naming of Plaza Santa Ana was an example of this as some people came out to argue for naming it French Plaza or something other than a Hispanic name. Naming it anything else would have been a deliberate whitewash. So, this is an attitude that exists in the downtown.

In the end, like you say, it’s up to the community to determine what the downtown will look like. The community happens to be majority Latino and I’ve been encouraging these people in place to get involved in the business and decision-making process, and to have that cultural majority reflected, at least equally, in the downtown.

Eileen:

Yeah, you were not incorrect in assuming that the Airtalk bookstore event would rouse the opinions and arguments heard before. I think the fact that it was broadcasted throughout Southern California made it an interesting platform and opportunity to introduce a compelling discussion and one that would bring up issues broader than Santa Ana. Plus, Larry Mantle is a respected and hard-hitting interviewer. True to his reputation, his questioning took no prisoners. There was good and there was bad, I think. The bad part was during the overtime, when he asked each panelist: Michele, Caroline, and Bustamente: “What would your ideal Downtown Santa Ana look like?” and each of them could only speak in the broadest vagueness. Was it for fear of offending someone with specificity or was it lack of effort in imagination?

From what I see as someone outside the Latino community are cultures (mostly Mexican but also many others such as those from El Salvador and Peru) with very distinct and vivid identities in the arts (both traditional and contemporary visual, music, literature, dance). As a Chinese American, I envy such accomplishment in all of these genres.

I know that the Mexican-American and Latino organizations are actively advocating their constituents on a political level. I wish that these groups would participate as passionately on the level of business and community arts & culture. These would really win the hearts and minds of natives and visitors of Santa Ana towards preservation of the Latino community. Right now, it is mostly the non-Latino members who are engaging in the business and cultural redevelopment.

I really think that Rudy and Jacqueline Cordova are doing a great job with Calacas. There could be more.

Getting back to the Airtalk discussion, the good part was that it seems that Santa Ana is a metaphor for what is going on in a lot of heavily Hispanic communities. People are watching Santa Ana to see what happens here as an indication of what could happen in other similar places.

I know I’m all over the place with this email. I’m at work so I have to go. But, also, it is a class issue. It seems that many of those in power want Downtown to attract and present a wealthier class of members (regardless of race) at the expense of the working class new immigrants.

Me:

I honestly believe that there is a lack of vision and or imagination on the part of some of the councilpersons, and Carolina. That explains why they spoke broadly and vaguely.

I also wish that the groups in place would participate passionately on the level of business, etc. Calacas gets it right, but that doesn’t mean that all Latinos should follow their example and open up solely Latino-themed stores, or that the downtown should be synonymous and known for its mostly Latino-themed stores, right?

It would be great to have a variety of eating and shopping options.

Yes, you make a good point about Santa Ana being a model for what can happen in other heavily Hispanic communities. That’s why it’s important for this city to set the best example possible, preferably through a harmonious ethnic balance, where ethnicities are represented adequately through business I say.

Eileen:

Thanks for your interest Omar and for getting in touch. It’s been interesting for me too to hear your point of view. Wish more young, intelligent, and invested people would be as into the direction of their community as you are.

It’s a complex problem. Pragmatically speaking, I can’t blame the city government and the property owners for venturing towards greener pastures. When I say green, I mean cash. The city is broke. This is a terrible economy and businesses are struggling. Perhaps it takes everybody, no matter of what political bent, sticking their neck out and going the extra mile to make Downtown a better place and put Downtown on the map. One hope I share with many is that it’s not some generic solution of letting in the same old chain stores, like Pottery Barn, the GAP, Starbucks, and Jamba Juice. I would just burst into tears.

Back to what you were addressing about Latinos having representation in the future of Downtown and what that kind of representation that will be in terms of the types of businesses and what it will look like, this reminds me of what another person in Downtown said to me: he was tired of the overused symbols associated with Mexico and its indigenous cultures. It’s a codified visual languages associated with a cultural identity. I suppose it’s like red lanterns and pagodas associated with Chinese culture, which is totally trite by me but it’s an “in” for non-Chinese people, something familiar yet exciting, exotic within a safe distance. If you go to China, most people like contemporary lighting fixtures and go to pagoda temples only to pray to their ancestors a few times per year. I accept the pagodas but yeah, I do wish that there’s new stuff to represent Chinese-American identity. Also, I yearn for the hardcore Chinese things less familiar to non-Chinese like calligraphy exhibitions, poetry readings, excellent green tea, and a deliciously made lotus seed paste bun. So I can understand your wish for the Mexican side.

I mean, would you say it’s up to Latinos to decide what is “a Latino store”? If a Mexican business owner in Downtown Santa Ana runs a pet store which carries a certain selection of supplies and animals, it’s saying something about the community there. Really, it can be anything. (back to the variety of options you were talking about) In a way, we are redefining ourselves to the rest of the world whether we want it or not, by everything we do—good or bad—or don’t do.

talk to you later

Me:

Exactly. It can be anything, even a franchise or two. It doesn’t hurt to have a balance of original properties and franchises because of their brand strength. This is something that I’ve been saying for awhile now.

And no, it’s not always up to Latinos to set up Latin themed businesses. Just look at Taco Bell and Chipotle. The authenticity of those businesses is thrown into question however.

It’s like Koreans trying to make sushi, which has become contentious, or others trying to remake tequila outside of the denominated Mexican region.

Comments Off on A Discussion with Eileen Hsu

%d bloggers like this: