Category Archives: I heart Cali

Los Angeles Through the Viewfinder

Great swaths of Los Angeles are downright hideous. Being from Sonoma, a place that is ridiculously gorgeous, this complete lack of natural beauty and human disregard for aesthetics initially wore on me.

There is a particularly bleak patch on the I-5 between my house in Boyle Heights and where my boyfriend lives in Norwalk. You pass the Citadel, an outdoor mall with an Eqyptian theme, which is epically garish and the “Destiny Inn.”

Then the smell hits you, a smell so sickly you can’t help but think it’s causing you cancer (I’m pretty sure it’s coming from Vernon). For the next few miles through Commerce, it’s nothing but ugly industrial buildings cluttered with an ungodly amount of billboards, punctuated by chain restaurants and one huge casino. There isn’t even enough dirt on the side of the road for weeds to grow. Even better, there’s often bumper to bumper traffic through this stretch so you have plenty of time to take in the vistas. And don’t even get me started on the “LA River” (picture the last scene of Grease).

Fortunately, my boyfriend happens to fully embody a classic Angeleno quality – imagination bordering on the delusional. I see what’s there, he sees what COULD be there. To illustrate using a “location” from our Halloween Back to the Future photo shoot:

And all those ugly spots I pass daily? I regularly spot them in TV dramas and car commercials, re-envisioned through the viewfinder by people like my boyfriend. The recent movie, “In Time,” was filmed entirely in ugly spots near my house. Yes, it was supposed to be an impoverished, dystopian wasteland, but let’s not take the shine off of it…

LA ugliness as seen in the movie "In Time"

The LA River in the movie "In Time"

Just to hit this point home, I’ll share a couple of videos of the I-5 freeway. This video was made by tourists on the way to Disneyland in Anaheim (0:50 – “Sign says we just entered downtown Burbank. Is this what you call beautiful? Because I sure don’t think so!”). And this was made by an Angeleno.

Los Angeles looks like a different place when you have a camera in hand. I’m going to be sure to keep mine on me.

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Filed under California, I heart Cali, Los Angeles

Please stop making 4th graders build models of the California missions

If you attended fourth grade in the state of California, chances are good that you built a model of one of the 21 Spanish missions stretching from San Diego to Sonoma. Chances are also good that you remember almost nothing important about the missions’ critical role in California history nor the painful and fascinating story they tell.

San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo
Model of San Carlos Borromeo, posted by dlofink on Flickr – See the full gallery of his students’ models. Please note that even if this post calls for eliminating the mission model project, these models are still pretty awesome.

Knowing how the missions were built is, indeed, the least interesting thing about them – who build them and why is the story that is really worth learning. For example, when I was a docent at the San Francisco de Solano Mission in my hometown, Sonoma, I could have casually mentioned that the original chapel stood on western side of the four-sided complex. The more interesting tidbit that it was burned down by Native Americans revolting against Father Altimira’s tyrannical rule (yes, the man for whom one of Sonoma’s middle schools is named). My favorite thing about history is that it’s surprising – shocking even. You would think that historians would really have this pinned down by now, that we would know definitively everything that every happened and why. The reality is that the past is as expansive as the future. If you ask the question: “What really happened?” you can spend a lifetime chasing the answer.

I love California history because it is practically a telenovela – full of unexpected twists and turns and lots of crazy characters. To that end, I’d like to take all of you back to fourth grade and share some of the things you should have learned when you were instead gluing together sugar cubes and spray-painting macaroni. (If you were wondering what you were supposed to learn, please refer to History and Social Science Standard 4.2 on Page 13. Note that “Students must be able to build a scale model of a mission” is not indeed a standard. If anyone has insight into the origins of this tradition, please let me know!)

California was not empty.
It’s hard to say exactly, but there it has been estimated there were more than 200,000 Native Americans speaking more than 100 languages living in California when colonizers started showing up. You think our state is diverse today?!
Back then, everyone wanted a piece of California. The first explorers to land in California hailed from various world powers – England, Spain, Russia…Those countries’ rulers were doing anything they could to get a foothold and get control of California’s abundant resources. Spain’s approach was to found missions, with military outposts alongside them, which were supposed to become fully functioning towns.

The mission fathers were benevolent AND cruel.
It’s hard to make a broad generalization about an entire group of people. First and foremost, remember that these priests were political operatives, tasked with turning Native Americans into Spanish-speaking, Catholic citizens of the crown. They grew so powerful that the Spanish crown eventually expelled all the Jesuits from the new world, secularizing the church’s assets.
That said, they were on the front lines and anyone well knows that things look different from the frontier than they do from headquarters. I won’t discount the good works that individual priests did in their mission communities or the advocacy of those like Spanish priest Bartolome de las Casas, who was one of the few people at the time who chronicled and protested the mistreatment of Native Americans. But the priests were also spreading and perpetuating a system that did tremendous harm to California native peoples and that, too, cannot be discounted.

The Native Americans got the raw end of pretty much every deal.
If you think that slaves in the south liked having a master, then maybe you also like to imagine that the missions were happy-go-lucky places and the Native Americans were always thrilled to be there. The treatment of Native Americans is one element of mission history that is probably most disputed and I would encourage you to read different perspectives, but if the only one you’ve heard is “Spanish priests were doing God’s work to save the souls of the Natives and give them food and shelter,” please dig deeper.
Yes, many Native Americans signed up at the missions by choice. However, once baptized, they did not have the choice of leaving and were forcefully kept there and even hunted down if they ran away.
There were a lot of different factors at play – this was a period of huge change. One factor that drove Native Americans into the mission system was that the Spanish introduced livestock to California, which had a huge impact on the environment that Native Americans relied upon for their traditional hunting and gathering. There was also the devastating impact of disease, made worse by the concentration of the population at the missions, which helped disease spread more quickly. The Native American population dropped by an estimated 90 percent during this period. Please try to imagine 90 percent of the people you know dying.
Apart from life under the mission system, the period that followed was possibly worse (refer to the novel, Ramona, which is California’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin). Once most Native Americans were fully dependent on the mission economies they had build up through their labor, the Mexican government decided to secularize the missions. There was talk of splitting the land among the neophytes, but ultimately most of it went to powerful and wealthy men and the Native Americans were thrown out with nothing and ended up having to work on the new ranchos.

If you thought the Spanish and Mexicans were bad…
The Americans soon proved to be just as bad, if not worse, in their treatment of the Native Americans. Spain at least had the stated goal of preparing Native Americans to be citizens with full rights. The United States had no such intention. With the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, ending the Mexican-American War, the United States took over many of the former mission properties, generally didn’t recognize the land titles held by Native Americans and put the reservation system in place.

This is far from a definitive account of the history of the California missions, but I hope it spurs you to visit a mission near you and find out more. And when your child’s fourth grade teacher demands you spend your weekend building a model of a mission, I suggest you take your cue from the mission Indians and revolt.


Filed under California history, I heart Cali, Los Angeles, Mexico


As a native Californian, I always considered myself not to have an accent. Southerners have accents. Bostonians have accents. British people have accents. Don’t even get me started on Indian people.
But me? No way.
After graduating from high school, I made the audacious move across state lines to Portland, Oregon. In terms of the culture shock scale, this hardly registered. Here’s a compare/contrast:

Sonoma/ Portland
Lots of liberal people /  Lots of liberal people
Beautiful wine country  / Beautiful wine country
Stunning coastline / Stunning coastline
Good food / Good food
Sunny / Cloudy
Good Mexican food / Only one good taqueria in the entire metro area

Portland was novel, but not exactly exotic. I considered myself in the same realm – not particularly exotic.
My first day on campus, I was talking to a couple of girls from two other states – the usual chitchat: Where are you from? What’s your dorm? What classes do you have? Pretty banal stuff.
While I was talking, the two of them were smiling and exchanging mildly bemused glances.
When I paused, one of them jumped in, “ Excuse me, where are you from?”
“Oooooooh! I thought you had an accent.”
Honestly, this was complete news to me. I found a fellow Californian and she confirmed – we did indeed have accents.
Suddenly all my verbal quirks were laid bare. Apparently, people in other states don’t generally say, “ I was like…what?!!” or recount dialogues from earlier in the day by saying, “So he was like, ‘What are you doing later?’ and I’m all, ‘Nothing. Why?’”
Apparently, they don’t say everything as if they were asking a question. And they don’t talk so quickly.
My inscrutable accent was confirmed by the ultimate arbiter: someone from another country in the process of learning English. My friend’s Brazilian “sister” came to visit and she rated all of us on intelligibility. #1 by a long shot was our friend from Ohio, proving that state’s superiority in…neutrality. Ohio is prime recruiting ground for bland national newscasters. Wyoming, New Mexico and Oregon were all passable. Dead last: me.
“Sometimes, I do not understand you,” she said in her adorable Portuguese-tinged accent.
After four years living with friends from all different states, I concluded the California accent was not only a habit I was unlikely to kick, but something that I could wear with pride. After all, California is, like, awesome?!
At the same time, I was trying to kick another accent – my American accent.

My fave song about being bilingual – con mis dos lenguas te voy a enamorar!!! Watch out…

Learning another language is always a comedy of errors, and my foibles in Cuba and Mexico were no exception to the rule. Some classmates along the line seemed to pick up the language effortlessly, others had been studying for years and were still painful to hear. I thought I was doing pretty well until I heard any recording of my voice.
After a year in Mexico, my friend, Diana, said to me, “Sierra, I am begging you to do me this favor. PLEASE change the message on your answering machine. It’s horrible!”
I had recorded it my first week living in Mexico, giving it a couple of tries, then just simply giving up. As she pointed out, she was the one who had to endure my mangled Spanish every time she called me. We recorded a new one – the crowning achievement of my progression in the Spanish language.
There are other indications of my progression – as well as the limits of my fluidity.
At a recent quinceanera, the priest battled through the entire mass in his leaden book Spanish, with that American twang. Afterwards, I asked my boyfriend if I sounded like that sometimes. He told me I didn’t sound that bad – then again, he has a vested interest in not pissing me off.
Perhaps the best compliment I’ve gotten was from a Spaniard who called a wrong number. A guy called our house in Portland speaking Spanish so my roommate passed it over to me. Confusion ensued. After 10 minutes of back and forth, we were able to establish that this guy did indeed have the number correct, but the former girlfriend he was trying to reach no longer lived there and I didn’t have any idea where she might be.
“You speak Spanish very well,” he lisped. “I cannot tell where you are from – Eres Latina?”
By this he meant someone with Spanish-speaking parents who grew up in the US.
You know what? I’ll take it.


Filed under Getting personal, I heart Cali, Los Angeles, Mexico

I’m going to the Oscars!

By which I mean, I’m going to the bleachers outside the Oscars!!! Sorry to mislead you there. If you’re thinking that doesn’t sound like such a big deal, think again, my friend.

Winning an Oscar puts you in an exclusive club – so does winning the lottery for a red carpet bleacher seat. There are only about 700 seats…and up to 200,000 applicants, putting your chances at about 1 in 286 (thank you, high school algebra). I would never know any of this, except that my boyfriend is somehow an expert on this shadow world.

Here are the eHow instructions.

In fact, he has applied for seats every year for the past decade, and 2011 is our lucky year! People are super hard core. This year, folks are coming from: Baltimore, Sydney, Buenos Aires and Finland! Not to mention West Hollywood and Camarillo!
For you poor unfortunate souls who are not among the chosen few, I will allow you to live vicariously through me and – don’t worry! – I will live tweet the festivities.
It all started with an email:
“Congratulations! You were chosen from our waiting list to fill a vacancy that has opened up in our Red Carpet bleachers for the 83rd Annual Academy Awards. In order to claim your seats, please read carefully the following instructions…”
These instructions involved filling out a background check form with my addressees for the past seven years (no small task for someone like me who has had about seven addresses in that time, including two in Mexico), and getting a passport photo at CVS (In mine, I look like a thug or maybe a mother who just drowned her three children – I hate you fluorescent lights!). Fortunately, we both passed the criminal background check and got our fan packets -yay!

Email #2:
“Hello Bleacher Fans!
We’re only a few weeks away from the Oscars! Attached you will find the following PDF documents:
· Information Packet with Arrival Time
· Parking Map
· Viewing Party Invitation
Please review all materials carefully. If you registered with a guest, he or she should have receive this email, with the same assigned arrival time.
Note: Your RSVP to the Viewing Party is required by February 11, 2011.
If you haven’t already, please join our official Facebook Group at XXXXX, exclusively for this year’s Bleacher Fans! Chat with us, connect with other bleacher fans, and stay up-to-date on all things bleachers.
And if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact us!”

This email brought a few more surprises – namely that winning the lottery not only gets us a bleacher seat within spitting distance of the most beautiful people on the planet, but we also get to go to a viewing party at El Capitan…with free dinner! Awesome! As if that were not enough, there is also a secret Facebook group.

German and I have been participating fairly actively. The general tone of discussion ranges between extremely excited and breathless. Top topics have included other LA tourist activities, questions about logistics (Is this a nursing mom friendly place?) and predictions on who will win. Apparently an innocuous question about what to wear prompted one gentleman to suggest all the ladies should wear some really high heels, which set off a pretty intense exchange that was actually taken down. What happens when you bring together a random group of people from all over the world? Well, perhaps the show “Lost” could be illustrative. Think on it. Here are some voyeuristic screen shots.

Basically, we are pretty psyched to be so close, but yet so far, to the Oscar action this year. More fun updates coming soon…

PS – Is it a bad sign that the first title that popped into my mind for this post was “I’m going to the Oscars, bitches!” Apparently, my vocabulary has been completely co-opted by So Cal slang. “Grip,” “OMG,” and “LOL” have also been popping up with alarming frequency.


Filed under I heart Cali, Los Angeles

Hands down, the best item ever left on my car windshield

I’m all for targeted advertising. Google, please allow me to give you all my personal information so I won’t be bothered by advertisements for diapers, treatments for balding or Justin Bieber’s latest CD, all of which are clearly not intended for me. Google clearly cares, but the people who leave flyers on my car seem to do so with little concern for who I am as a person and the sorts of products I might be interested in purchasing. Adriana’s Insurance, I’m talking to you. I am also not interested in borderline-illegal weight loss products, the junky house for sale down the street nor selling my gold (if I had any!).
So imagine my surprise when I walked out to my car and discovered this:
“The golden lamb” restaurant offering me the opportunity to purchase an entire lamb cooked in a hole. Now we’re talking. Borrego de Oro, you better believe you’ll be hearing from me as soon as I have 20 friends in Los Angeles “una ocacion especial.” You can leave a flyer on my car anytime!


Filed under I heart Cali, Los Angeles, Mexico

California Country

I’m not sure when I started liking country music. It was a little too hokey to match my teenage angst which was better accompanied by Nirvana and Sublime. However, I grew up in ag country, so the stuff was in the ether, strains squeezing out of huge trucks in the school parking lot, blasting from the main stage at the county fair and accompanying the line dancing at the only place for 18-year-olds to go dance in the Sonoma area – Kodiak Jack’s in Petaluma (“Home of Kodiak, the Mechanical Bull”) which had an all-ages night on Thursdays.
At some point, I decided that I liked the Dixie Chicks and Shania Twain, adding some bluegrass and alt-county through college – Lucinda Williams, Gillian Welch, Neko Case, the Be Good Tanyas. And I got quite hooked on Johnny Cash (and Johnny Cash Radio on Pandora). Since “country music” ranges from Willie Nelson to Tammy Wynette to Carrie Underwood to Garth Brooks, it is both a guilty pleasure and a deep vein of American history with songs that stand the ages.

Here’s a playlist of some of the fun stuff.

The other day, I was listening to the local country station (I am still unclear how the LA market can support two pop country stations since I have yet to meet a country music listener here) and they played this song:

It caught my ear because it referenced California and I realized that the Golden State doesn’t figure very high in the content of country music. Which got me thinking.
Are any country music stars from California?

This being the Age of Google, I was pretty easily able to dig up some California country songs, including this one:

Full disclosure: I found it because I was listening to her other hit, “Redneck Woman,” to see if I could line dance to it.

Here are the full lyrics for those of you with dial-up:

California Girls – Gretchen Wilson

Well I ain’t never had a problem with California
There’s a lot of good women, from Sacramento to Corona
But them Hollywood types, after a while wear on ya
Strutin’ around in their size zeros,
Skinny little girls no meat on their bones
Never even heard of George Jones

Ain’t you glad we ain’t all California girls
Ain’t you glad there’s still a few of us left, who know how to rock your world
Ain’t afraid to eat fried chicken and dirty dance to Merle
Ain’t you glad we ain’t all California girls

There ain’t nothing wrong with plastic surgery
Well, Dolly Parton never looked so good to me
Everybody oughta be exactly who they want to be
But that Paris Hilton gets under my skin
With her big fake smile and her painted on tan
Never had a chance at a real man

Ouch. Good thing Katy Perry and the Beach Boys already prepared a musical retort on behalf of us California girls.

However, I still didn’t feel I’d really found a genuine connection between country music and California. The few songs out there usually reference California as somewhere people are running away to. I did notice an inordinate number of references to one California locale however – Bakersfield. This allowed me to finally connect the dots:

Dust Bowl forced Okies to migrate to California’s Central Valley => Many settled in Bakersfield => Some of them made country music, including: Merle Haggard who is a NATIVE of California and saw Johnny Cash play when he was an inmate => He was later covered by the Grateful Dead => Gretchen Wilson references Merle in her song denigrating California girls

Ta da! I’ll admit, California’s not exactly the birthplace of country, but the love is there. So quit being too cool for school, Cali kids, and embrace your country roots.

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Filed under California history, I heart Cali, Los Angeles

The Captain of Love

When my boyfriend told me our next gig was a wedding on a boat, I had a fleeting moment to picture a luxury yacht cruising down the Baja peninsula. He quickly clarified that this boat is actually a river boat that cruises around Balboa Island in Newport Beach, offering a daily happy hour with tacos.
Okay, not quite Beyonce and Jay-Z, but us photographers are concerned with more mundane details such as availability of natural light. The Angela Louise did not disappoint on this count (abundant! diffuse!), nor on entertainment value.
The captain of the ship looked eminently captain-ly. In a wedding, generally the bride is the star of the show, but this time, the captain stole the spotlight. Just as we all turned in anticipation of the wedding march, it wasn’t the bride that emerged from the curtains, but our very own captain … singing “Love Boat.”

The topper was that we later talked to the bride and groom and apparently this performance was not discussed previously. The guests certainly took it in stride.

The ocean theme was integrated into every part of the ceremony. See if you can count all the maritime metaphors in this speech:

The reference to the “mermaids of temptation” is my favorite part. Stay away from this holy union, Ariel!! Viva the love boat!

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Filed under I heart Cali, Los Angeles, Orange County, Weirdness