MAY 20, 2019
SEVENTEEN AND HIGH, Nikki Darling swaggers down the middle of Garvey Boulevard, a busy thoroughfare in the San Gabriel Valley, as cars swerve around her: “‘Three Days’ by Jane’s Addiction is playing on my Walkman and I feel like I’m in a movie, like I’m an assassin.” She stands in the street with a cigarette hanging from her lips, with “someplace to be or maybe nowhere to go.” She taunts the cars as they pass: “Fly around me, motherfuckers! Fly around me like I’m not even here!”
In an opening scene brazen with feminine adolescent rage and emotion, Nikki Darling the author dares readers of her debut novel, Fade Into You, to come in close. By writing in the New Narrative style popularized by Eileen Myles (Chelsea Girls) and Michelle Tea (Rose of No Man’s Land), Darling keeps the veil between fiction and nonfiction purposefully thin, and having her protagonist carry her name builds intimacy. In an interview with the popular feminist podcast Call Your Girlfriend, Darling said she named her character Nikki because “being in the interiority of a teenage girl is not something readers are always familiar with.” In Fade Into You, Darling gives us more than an intimate view of a teenage girl; she gives us an intimate view of a young, mixed-race Chicana living in the suburbs of Los Angeles, the kind of portrait that is nearly nonexistent in L.A. letters.
Luis J. Rodriguez’s Always Running: La Vida Loca: Gang Days in L.A., an award-winning 1993 memoir that shares the tale of a young man struggling to survive gang life and addiction in the 1980s San Gabriel Valley, is the most notable and celebrated literary depiction of Chicanx teen life in Los Angeles. But not every Chicanx can identify with living “la vida loca.” Darling’s protagonist struggles to find her identity in a city that says to be Mexican can only be one thing, an issue many Mexican-American/Chicanx Angelenos understand. As Nikki thinks,
It would be my luck not just to be half-Mexican, but the wrong kind of Mexican. I am not from East Los. My people are borderlands, the frontera. I am a pale ghost of a bloody past. A daughter of the viceroyalty. A lady of Spain. But I’m not that either. I’m me. I’m SGV. I watch from the schoolyard as the sad boys mark up the EMF, throw down the emero. I live in the cool shadows of libraries.
I grew up in the SGV in the ’90s, and when I was 17 I liked to wear loose-fitting, faded blue jeans with a white T-shirt and blue Chucks. It’s how I felt most beautiful. One afternoon as I was sitting on the front stoop of my grandparents’ Boyle Heights home, my party-crew cousin from La Puente, in stiff Dickies and dark hoodie, looked down his chin at me and asked, “Eh, you like a rocker? You a skater? What are you?”
“I don’t know,” I said. I read his questions to mean, Why aren’t you more Mexican?
On a different day, a friend from my hometown of San Gabriel came with my family and me to that same Boyle Heights home for Sunday menudo. When my father parked in the driveway and I slid open the door to our Dodge van, she refused to get out. “I’m going to be shot!” she screamed, tears running down her face.
Her shocked reaction meant, I didn’t know you were that kind of Mexican.
By the late ’90s, I had not yet seen in books or TV these disparate expectations of what it meant to look and act Mexican. But I had seen them in two movies: My Family (1995) and Selena (1997). The latter, written and directed by Gregory Nava, put into words how I often felt, a dilemma perfectly articulated by Selena’s father, played by Edward James Olmos, as he rants to his family about the possibility of Selena touring in Mexico:
We gotta prove to the Mexicans how Mexican we are. And we gotta prove to the Americans how American we are. We gotta be more Mexican than the Mexicans and more American than the Americans both at the same time. It’s exhausting! Man! Nobody knows how tough it is to be a Mexican-American.
But Selena grew up in Corpus Christi, Texas, a vastly different setting from Fade Into You’s San Gabriel Valley, California, which in Darling’s hands becomes its own character. Schools, streets, and favorite hangouts of this L.A. suburb east of downtown are namedropped with acute knowledge, and the dialogue between Nikki and her friends — with all its dudes, mans, and bitches — is so accurate to the time and place it sounds more like transcription than fiction.
As I read, I was in awe of how much I had in common with Nikki. I, too, had a gorgeous, gay best friend I was in love with. I, too, studied theater. I, too, got high and went for pancakes at Denny’s before driving up to the mountains because they were close and we could. But as I moved further into the novel, I noticed another layer of the Mexican-American experience that is specific to the suburbs. Nikki narrates,
We are the kids of LA.
They write books about us. They make after-school specials about us. And none of it is the real us. None of it really captures who we are. But we eat it, digest it, and let it redefine us until we no longer know what is real and what is fake.
Nikki inhabits the parts of the SGV where teen movies and TV series such as Pretty in Pink and My So-Called Life are filmed, but these stories never center people like her. When she says, “They write after-school specials about us,” the us is never really us. The best we could hope for was to be the quiet and queer best friend, the Rickie Vasquez to the story’s Angela Chase. Hollywood used our streets but not our faces, and this became a kind of trauma.
I attended a private school in Pasadena not far from Casa Walsh and Dylan’s surfer bungalow (RIP Luke Perry), and my friends and I behaved as if we were characters on Beverly Hills, 90210 even though we were in 91107 and a good 25 miles from the über-rich neighborhood. Like Nikki attending a party at a midcentury home at the edge of South Pasadena, nearly everything we did felt cinematic: “Chelo and I walk into the party and I can tell things are about to get real cinema tonight. It’s a night when this city we live in really shows itself.”
To keep the fantasy alive, many classmates bleached their hair, and when people started driving, a good number opted for convertibles without concern for the make or model. But our proximity to Hollywood teen life affected more than our outward appearance — at least for me, it corrupted my very sense of self. I remember one day bounding into my house after being dropped off by a friend in her white convertible and catching my reflection in the large mirror that hung across from the front door. I didn’t recognize the person I saw. The image of my own brown face shocked me, and for a moment I was invisible.
Latinx people make up nearly 50 percent of the population of Los Angeles, with the majority being Mexican or of Mexican descent. And yet even though most films and TV shows are made here, I can count on two hands the number that center Mexican-American stories. In the afterglow of the 2019 Oscars, Los Angeles Times features writer and taco historian Gustavo Arellano tweeted, “Still waiting for Hollywood to give love to Chicanos.” Sure, over the last six years a Mexican director has won Best Director five times, but these are Mexican nationals, which is a very different experience. What of the immigrant families, children of immigrants, and multigenerational Mexican Americans who live in this town and help make it work?
The literary world maintains a similar sparsity. As a senior in high school in 1998, I read The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros in my English class. Though it is set in Chicago, I saw a young, Mexican-American character in literature for the first time, and the book thrilled me. In my 20s, I obsessed over Michele Serros’s Chicana Falsa: And Other Stories of Death, Identity, and Oxnard (1993), and in my 30s I fell in love with Isabel Quintero’s Gabi, a Girl in Pieces (2014), which follows a 17-year-old, light-skinned Chicana who lives in the Inland Empire and loves poetry and hot Cheetos. Author Helena María Viramontes (Under the Feet of Jesus) also tells stories about young people living in East Los Angeles, but a nuanced view of growing up Chicana in the L.A. suburbs has been missing until now.
We SGV kids live close enough to Hollywood to be infected by its story lines and cultural sprawl, and yet only our streets are worthy of making it onto film. We live close enough to East Los Angeles to know we aren’t the right kind of Mexican, and yet we’re at the same time too Mexican. We are pushed into the margins of pop culture. So while Nikki Darling the character is walking down the middle of Garvey Boulevard dying to be seen, it’s Nikki Darling the author who’s shouting: We’re here! We matter! We live on these streets! And that’s a reflection I recognize.
Women Who Submit co-founder Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo’s work has appeared on Terrain.org and in KCET Departures. She is the author of Posada: Offerings of Witness and Refuge (Sundress Publications, 2016).