Upon my mother’s death in 1994 I became the eldest in my family at the age of 39. Without the abuelitos (grandparents) to pass on my family’s Chicano* (American of Mexican descent) heritage, I began writing family stories for my children.
I was born “Linda Lee Dunton” in San Pedro, California. I loved my English surname (my great-grandfather was English) because I was ashamed of my Mexican heritage. No matter what name I had, I still had an ethnic look, however, I was always mistaken more for Polynesian than Latina. Tagged with the Anglo surname of Dunton, I remember many first days of school when teachers took roll they’d asked, “What are you?” My current Spanish surname, Delmar (of the sea) flows much easier. Now my kids don’t look Latino but have a Spanish surname – so here we go again!
I truly wish I had more pride in my Mexican heritage as a young person. My grandmother, Lupe, forbade us to speak Spanish. She didn’t want us to experience the brutality she experienced from her teachers at school for speaking Spanish. The only reason I learned to understand Spanish was so that I could get in on the jokes and gossip my elders told and to find where the Christmas presents were hidden.
With my parents and grandparents gone, I have fond memories of superstitions, brujas (witches), curanderos (healers), magic, connections con los espirtus (the spirits), fear, respect, love, laughter and the aroma of Mexican food with which I was nurtured. I write stories to share the magic de los Mexicanos.
In 1997, my brother Bobby, was murdered, due to drug and gang violence. I grew up in a rough neighborhood. I’ve seen multiple generations of gang culture. A few of my poems are about the gang culture. They don’t judge gangs, they just tell what I’ve seen. I started out as a storyteller, but because of my brother’s gang involvement, I was moved to write my first play “Behind the Eight Ball”, and because of his violent death, I wrote my first poem. Sharing my “gang” poems and memories of Bobby has helped me heal the pain of losing him. My brother’s death gave me a new life as a poet and a playwright.
As I continue to write and share my stories, poems and plays, I realize that people like to hear stories. It doesn’t matter what ethnic background the story comes from. A good story can capture an audience’s attention and take them somewhere they have never before ventured; a sneak peek into someone else’s life story. I began writing for my children, but have found that many people are delighted by the true “characters” I write about, my family who are no longer alive. Because I’ve experienced so much death in my family, I can honestly say that there is freedom in death. I LIVE for all the dead folks in my family who died too young. I really LIVE and every day is an adventure. Accumulating things is not important to me – people and time with them are.
After performing my play “Shadows” in my hometown, San Pedro, CA, then taking the production off-Broadway to New York in December 1999, I realized that no one’s life is insignificant. My simple family and the way they thought and lived captured the imagination and attention of audience members on both coasts.
Older and wiser, I know who I am and why I am here.
* Chicano (feminine Chicana) is a politically-loaded word for a Mexican American (in the sense of native-born Americans of Mexican ancestry, as opposed to Mexican natives living in the United States). The terms Chicano and Chicana (also spelled xicano) are used specifically by and regarding some Americans of Mexican descent. Most Chicanos view the term as a positive self-identifying social construction.
My writing journey began at Homeland Cultural Center with my writing mentor, Manazar Gamboa.
In February 1996 my ex-husband told me about a poetry reading at Cultura Latina Bookstore, near Long Beach City College. The readers were students of Manazar Gamboa. I took my three kids with me; it was so crowded we had to sit under the table that held the coffeemaker and pan dulce (sweet breads). The poetry and stories were raw, powerful and real – they touched me so deeply that I cried and I was excited and looking forward to attend Manazar’s next writing class.
The following week I went to the writing class at Homeland and met Manazar Gamboa – a 62 year old, Chicano, ex-heroin addict, ex-convict, who taught himself to write in prison. He told the story of an inmate, a white-collar criminal, who would prepare bogus tax returns for the inmates. With his tax refund, Manazar bought a typewriter, paper, dictionary and a thesaurus.
A female journalist helped him get published internationally while he was still serving time. She gave him his pen name – his birth name Manuel + Azar (teacher). And so he became a writing teacher. Manazar was an enigma that even with his O.G. (original gangster) past, he had a soft spot for his favorite poet, Emily Dickinson. He told me once, while he closed his eyes and swayed, “Oh, that woman, what she does to me!” I can still see that moment in my mind’s eye.
The team of Dixie Swift, Founder and Director of Homeland Cultural Center and Manazar Gamboa as Artistic Director had the vision to take theater to the people. People in the Latino, African American and Asian community, where Homeland is centered, do not go to mainstream theater. Dixie wrote grants for a “Concept to Curtain” Theater program, where we’d write our own original plays and stage them for the Homeland neighborhood. Manazar pushed the writers to act. He said, “If you want to write plays, you need to know how someone else’s words feel in your mouth.” We worked with great directors like Bruce Nelson, Mark Piatelli and Jose Garcia. I got a crash course in Guerrilla-style Theater. Mark Piatelli coached me into “being in the moment” as an actor, and Jose Garcia coached me to “go inside” and following the guidance of Frederico Lorca of finding “El Duende” (the spirit) and in the Bertolt Brecht style of theater. Jose Martinez, a neighborhood graffitti artist, encouraged by Manazar and Dixie who went on to get a degree in art and is now an internationally famous graffitti artist, was our set designer.
Homeland Cultural Center is in the heart of the Asian, Black and Latino gang areas. The other writers and I wrote our own plays and we also collaborated with the At Risk Youth of the Homeland neighborhood to bring their stories to the stage. I hate labeling the youth as “At Risk” because without the healing I feel I got through exploring my creative writing, I could have been an “At Risk Adult” for something scandalous!
At Homeland Cultural Center, with Manazar and Dixie, I found a “safe” place to express my creativity.
Manazar was well known around Los Angeles and elsewhere in the literary scene. He had made a name for himself in the community of poets. He’d take all the writers from Homeland, “The Homeland Players” out to poetry readings in different cities. It was exciting being one of his entourage. He’d say as he’d lead the way into any venue, “Here comes the Riff-Raff”. When we were with Manazar, we were “cool”.
In the late 90’s a student filmmaker from USC filmed a documentary about Manazar’s life, “Poetic License”. I was lucky enough be a small part of that film as a “jailhouse angel”. The film was selected as a short documentary at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival.
During his last months a few stories stand out in my mind that demonstrate the man behind the words:
One incident was a reconciliation of our relationship. I came back from New York after performing my play Shadows off-Broadway and when I’d go to the writing class it seemed like nothing I wrote was good enough for Manazar. I had the feeling of being dismissed by him. Soon after we did the spring play project with the youth, Manazar’s health declined rapidly. I offered to do acupressure on him to help relieve his nausea and severe cramps in his right shin and foot. After a few weeks of treatments, he confessed, “I was mad at you. I expected you to become arrogant after New York. I know I would have. But instead you still helped with the youth theater and you really pissed me off!” I was fortunate to hear that from him myself before he passed.
One day my son was suspended from school for fighting. I took him with me to visit Manazar. I kept referring to my son as “my bad boy”. Manazar told me, “He’s not a bad boy. I wasn’t a bad boy…I just did bad things.” Then that mischievous little boy in him got the giggles and we couldn’t stop laughing.
Days before he died, I shared an experience of a boring party I attended. Manazar said, “I’d rather be dead than bored.” He thought a moment, looked around as if a higher power was watching him, then covered his mouth and said, “Ooops!” and laughed.
Manazar pushed me to go to my first poetry reading at an event that was hosted by Jose Cuervo in Santa Monica. He encouraged me, “They need to hear what you have to say.” Manazar Gamboa was my writing mentor but I’d call him my “TorMentor” – he made me re-work a piece until it was right. He helped me find my voice, giving me an “Orale Pues!” (alrighty, then) when my writings were done.
With Manazar as my mentor I accomplished dreams I never even knew I had.