The Mysteries of East L.A.

by Arturo Romo and Sesshu Foster

Arturo Romo and Sesshu Foster’s work was recommended for Lab 1: Time by Lisa Hsiao Chen, who said: 

Arturo Romo has had museum shows in New York and LA, but he doesn’t really do them anymore. The art world wants you to be a singular artist—the important creator. But Arturo has said, I don’t want to make art anymore unless it’s collaborative and community-based. 

He's also part of an alliance trying to fight gentrification in LA. His work with Sesshu Foster is folk lyric and speculative. It looks like the weird flyer somebody hands you on a bus or something: a whole universe opens up to you in both images and words that feel familiar and completely defamiliarized.

The Mysteries of East L.A. 

This past Saturday at 1 a.m. at the Oscar de la Hoya Boys and Girls Club, or actually at Charlie’s Tacos “Birria Estilo Jalisco” stand steaming under streetlamps on the nearby corner, we interviewed distinguished experts and outlined the Mysteries of East L.A., or as one expert put it, “Chale, we just out here keeping alive.” In-depth, thorough analysis of more than twenty minutes, like half an hour at least (paid for by a generous Cultural Studies grant from the Zoltan Monsanto Institute), helped Jose Lopez-Feliu and me sort and rank the Mysteries of East L.A., according to our experts:

1. The High-Low Radiance Corridor

Strange occurrences in the atmosphere over Lincoln Park and the missing statues of Pancho Villa and Benito Juárez. “They stole all them statues, man! Cuauhtémoc, Lázaro Cárdenas, all of them. They even stole the name plaques!” Ray Palafox remarked. “My girlfriend says you can lay out in full sun and get a tan in like ten minutes! And never get sunburned,” said Michael “Lazy Boy” de la Torre. 

2. The AIDS Moment Portal to Tijuana

“Supposedly, walk through the arch, you get transported instantly to Calle Primera in Tijuana,” Ray Palafox said, “But who believes that? I do hear mysterious Carlos Santana music every time. I can’t tell where it is coming from.” “Maybe they’re thinking of that Chinatown bus to TJ that costs like twenty dollars,” Omar Leyva said.

3. The General Hospital ELADATL airship docking station 

Tina Lerma or Melissa Arana have been known to take parties through the usually closed-off floors to the off-limits 20th floor of the 1932 General Hospital building to tour the abandoned East Los Angeles Dirigible Air Transport docking station. “1930s airships, eh? I’d like to see that,” Ray P. said.

4. The Levitating House

Untethered house seen floating over Elephant Hill from Ascot Park. “Imagine, you’re renting a place like that, then it just floats away?” Mary Medel exclaimed. “Wow, like if that’s not like a symbol for gentrification, then what is?” Omar L. added. 

5. The Stairs to Nowhere

Path to citizenship? Except there is no path. Just enter the country legally? Except there is no legal door. Just keep your head down, mind your own business and you’ll be good? “These Stairs to Nowhere are all over the hills in El Sereno and Lincoln Heights. Probably all over East L.A. You can get a real good workout,” Hector Luna said.

6. The Geyser at Eastern Avenue and Valley Boulevard.

Is this hydrological phenomenon related to purported Underground City of Lizard Men, to a buried Emerald Mountain? How does it relate to Trash Gyres in the Atmosphere or Climate Disasters? “I think they should find out more about this BS!” asserted Mike “Lazy Boy.“

7. Juan Fish 

Juan Fish’s orange 1961 Chevy Apache pickup has been spotted parked next door to the Apparitions of the Defaced Virgin and other Erased and Defaced Murals of East L.A., and so far, Juan Fish is nowhere to be found. “We just have some questions, that’s all,” Steve Alvarez smirks.

8. Oscar Zeta Acosta Safe House

Carlos Montes said, “The first time we met him was at the Church of the Epiphany, where we used to meet at the Episcopal Church in Lincoln Heights, with Father Luce. That was where we met with the Brown Berets and Eliezer Risco (a Cuban who had worked with the United Farm Workers) who put out La Raza newspaper. The first time we met Zeta Acosta he showed up in a suit and tie and we made fun of him, calling him a 'sell-out.' 'I’m not a sell-out!' he said. He gave us his card; it said, 'Oscar Zeta Acosta,' you know, and underneath his name it said, 'Chicano Lawyer,' and remember this was in 1968, and nobody did anything like that then. I mean, a lawyer? ‘Chicano Lawyer.’ So he took off his tie and had a beer with us, and that’s how he won us over.” Write to us and tell us what were Zeta Acosta’s last known addresses in Los Angeles. We have knocked on doors all over East Los Angeles trying to find out where Oscar Zeta Acosta is living now.

9. Bill London’s Blue and Yellow Philosophy of Life

These colors, Bill L. assured me, have metaphysical meanings and the capacity to affect one’s health. Blue and yellow signify life and death, he said, and white means happiness and black means sadness. “For example, if your mother dies, you may choose not to go to the black but to go to the darkness, instead,” Bill explained in Spanish, and he painted his entire establishment, El Pedorrero Muffler Repair, 4101 Whittier Boulevard, in blue and yellow stripes all the way to the the gutter and up the telephone pole on the corner. The history of muffler repair was advanced for all time. 

10. Underground Tunnels of East L.A.

Related to Chinese border tunnels of Mexicali? To so-called delinquent gangs of Mexican or Japanese American or other minority zoot suiters of the 1940s, 1950s? Destruction of mass transit in the 1950s? “That’s really underground,” Omar L. said. “Never heard nothing about that.”

11. Indian Graveyard to Cal State L.A.

Bad grades and migraines? Other causes may be at work. Can’t concentrate on art history or physiology? This could be the real reason. Don’t neglect your personal health. “Who knows what was there before. You know what they say. Who knows where the bodies are buried? Maybe that’s why they named that building after Ruben Salazar,” Hector L. said. Mary M. added, “You guys seen those giant cracks all the way up Salazar Hall? That was from the ’87 Whittier Quake.”

A photo of Sesshu Foster standing beside Arturo Ernesto Romo against a view of the sun setting over the city behind them.
Sesshu Foster taught composition and literature in East L.A. for thirty-five years. He's also taught writing at the University of Iowa, the California Institute for the Arts, the University of California, Santa Cruz, the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University, Occidental College and Pomona College. His most recent books are City of the Future, winner of the CLMP Firecracker Award and ELADATL: A History of the East Los Angeles Dirigible Air Transport Lines, a novel co-written with artist Arturo E. Romo, published by City Lights in 2021. 

Arturo Ernesto Romo was born in Los Angeles, California in 1980. His artist’s practice is intentionally collaborative and made within a variety of social, public and political contexts; he works in partnership with other artists, with youth and within the context of his professional work as a unionized high school teacher. In both collaborative and private studio contexts, his latest work uses mixed-media such as quilting, concrete, and murals to explore the interchange between long historic realities and deep personal movements.