Leslie Patron: Capturing the Stories of A Changing San José

Leslie Patron is a writer born and raised in the Alum Rock neighborhood of Eastside San José. She created Cheers from the Wasteland, a place-based journal featuring creative work by people with ties to San José, California. She is also one of the organizers of the South Bay DIY Zine Collective (sbDIYzc), a group of zinesters and zine lovers who maintain a zine library at the San José LGBTQ Youth Space, bring zines to the community through their pop-up library, and host zine-making workshops around the South Bay Area. She has been organizing zine fests for the past four years.

Leslie and South Bay DIY Zine Collective founder, Poliana Irizarry, at San José ZineCon in 2018.

What was it like to grow up in San José and how did your childhood shape your writing?

I grew up in Alum Rock where I lived for the first twenty years of my life. Up until I was a teenager, I don’t think I really left the East Side or Downtown. As a teenager I got really interested in the local punk scene, and going to shows was the first thing that got me to realize that there were all these other pockets of the city that I have never really seen before.

An important detail about how I see the landscape has to do with my family’s history here. My mom’s parents were Azorean immigrants that came here in the first half of the last century and my dad’s family has been here much longer. [His paternal ancestors came] to San José from Mexico in the 1840’s to work in the Almaden Quicksilver mines. So I’ve been hearing people from his family tell old ghost stories and other family stories my whole life.

My grandparents worked in the canneries, my dad worked in the canneries, and my parents picked apricots in the orchards. So I grew up driving around with my dad and hearing him point out the window and say “that used to be an orchard” or “that was a cannery” when I would be seeing strip malls. I was reflecting the other day that it’s strange that the things I mourn in the landscape are not these beautiful things that my dad could see.

I felt really sad when they were tearing down the McDonald’s on Third Street and they were putting in these high rise apartments. It’s like, I never thought would I mourn a McDonalds. In downtown now, businesses that serve a more working class population or people experiencing houselessness are being shuttered. They’re being replaced by Chipotles and fancy gyms. I tie that in my mind to when I was a teenager, they built this big pavilion in downtown San José that had these jewelry stores and clubs and everyone said these things will never last, and they didn’t last. They were only there for a few years and then they closed. But now, fancy businesses catering to the wealthy transplant community are seemingly thriving downtown and that’s really scary to me. I’m scared to see how the East Side is going to change when they bring BART in.

What gravitated you towards storytelling and zine making?

I became interested in riot grrrl and queercore which are types of punk music in the late 90’s. I made my first zine Shy Violet — a split with my high school girlfriend — when I was 16 years old. It was just a way for us to document our own story, things that we were thinking about related to being queer at a Catholic school or learning about feminism, and [we could] control the distribution of that information. I think we made 10 or 15 copies of that first zine and just gave it to our friends, the people who we trusted with that information. One of the empowering things about zine culture is that you control what you say, how you say it, how it’s edited, and who gets to read it. You don’t rely on the sort of same gatekeeper structure that I’ve observed as I had the opportunity to publish my writing in literary journals or when I send out manuscripts to presses. I am really inspired by that idea that people can choose for themselves what they want to share in the world and how they want to share it.

Leslie looking through clipping files in The California Room at the Martin Luther King Kr. Library in San José.

The other forms of writing that I’ve gravitated towards are, as academics would say, lyric essay and documentary poetics — kinds of writing that blends research and poetry. [I document] topics that are rooted in San José’s present and history. I’m drawn to that kind of research-based writing because I like that it’s a slow process that allows me to investigate questions I have about my community and the history of place and then share it back with people who are interested. I am fascinated by who gets to define what is “true” about San Jose, and what words get used to express those facts. I incorporate a lot of academic and journalistic language from newspaper articles, online message boards, films, and other artifacts, as well as my own observations and imaginings in a more poetic voice. I spend a lot of time visiting the sites that I am writing about to soak in their vibes.

How did Cheers from the Wasteland and the South Bay DIY Zine Collective come about?

I had moved to Providence, Rhode Island which has a very vibrant arts scene made up of both locals and transplants who had moved there for one reason or another — it’s very well coordinated. It was so simple to figure out what was going on any given night. It’s very rooted in Do-It-Yourself (DIY) culture. A lot of people [were] doing these self-directed community-supported programs. I moved back here and I felt really isolated even though my family is here and all of the markers and landscape make me feel at home. I had a difficult time connecting with other writers and that is what inspired me to start Cheers from the Wasteland.

I thought about Cheers from the Wasteland as the title because I wanted it to be something that celebrated San José — that kind of “cheers” — and a project where people had the opportunity to see for the first time who else was out there — kind of like a “Cheers!” or a “Hello.” I put out a call for submissions. I was not very connected with any writers or artists in San José and I had to push it out as hard as I could. I asked friends to boost it on their social media, and then I started really combing the internet looking for writers and artists from San José. That’s how I found out about local poet and essayist Janice Sapigao, for example. Over time I’ve gotten to know more people. I’ve had community support from co-editors like Erick Saenz and October Montoya. As editors, we try to offer resources to people who are interested, and we get inquiries from artists and writers who say I’ve never submitted before or say, I just do this work privately. We try our best to support folks to say, what can we do to help you feel more comfortable sharing this work. We try to be conscious [about] representation and I’m thinking more about how to reach more local artists and writers outside of my ripple effect, outside of my own circles.

The South Bay DIY Zine Collective Library on display at the Mexican Heritage Plaza.

The South Bay DIY Zine Collective (sbDIYzc) started around two years ago. I see it as an ever-expanding group of volunteers—predominantly people of color and queers—who work together to put on free, all-ages community events like San Jose ZineCon. We saw an opportunity to have more structures in place around zinemaking, offer more resources, get out into the community, and let people know that zines are an option that they’re out there. Anyone can do them. You can create them with free and readily available materials. The free workshop series that sbDIYzc founder Poliana Irizarry hosts at the LGBTQ Youth Space has been a really great way for experienced zinesters s to get their faces out there and connect, especially with youth, who I feel are often overlooked as important voices and contributors.

What have been challenges and victories in capturing the stories of San José, a city that is quickly changing and gentrifying?

With the South Bay DIY Zine Collective, the first thing that comes to mind is that we are very committed to having all our events be accessible. All our events are free or sliding scale with no one turned away for lack of funds and open to all ages. There’s a real lack of affordable space to hold events. We’ve been fortunate to host events at Silicon Valley DeBug and at the library. Choosing to partner with local organizations has enabled us to prioritize first time zinesters, folks who wouldn’t pay a $100 tabling fee in another city. Because there’s no tabling fee, they think, I can sign up and it’s low pressure.

At the last zine fest, we created a San José room. We put all the San José zinesters together so folks from San José can say there are people who are in my community who are doing this work. Cheers and sbDIYzc share in this desire to use our resources to raise the visibility of people doing creative work in San José. We hope to enrich the landscape by having these stories out there.

[For instance,] for Summer of Discontent Zine Fest in 2016, I worked on this long zine project documenting the history of St. James Park which I knew a little bit about. The deeper you go into the research, the more people you can reach out to and ask questions. I learned you can’t unsee the things that you uncover once you start researching. Now whenever I see St. James Park, I have all of those stories hanging around in my head. As I read or look at art from other folks who have different perspectives, it continues to enrich my view. What are the concerns of folks who live here especially folks who have roots here? It’s a great concern of mine that a dominant narrative in San José is the Silicon Valley narrative of prosperity and all those bootstrap narratives of people rising the ranks of society. I want folks to know that there’s so much more going on here and so much rich history here.

What were some valuable insights from MOBS: A History of St. James Park, and what led you to create a zine around the park?

I was interested in St. James Park initially for two reasons. One was that I had gone to a poetry reading there that was sponsored by the Downtown Association and some other groups in San José that was about “re-activating” spaces in Downtown that are “underutilized.” I thought, this was not an underutilized space. It’s just not utilized by people with disposable income who the city finds desirable . What does it mean to go into this space and change the dynamic of it? Why can we have a big tent in St. James Park if someone is doing yoga in it, but we can’t have the tent if somebody is in it to escape the heat and relax? Also around that same time, I learned that my grandfather was in the crowd during the 1933 lynching that happened in St. James Park.

Leslie at St. James Park with a copy of MOBS: A History of St. James Park.

I started doing archival research and I got a subscription to the site Newspapers.com. I started combing for stories that were about St. James Park and I found, for example, that St. James Park had been a haven for people experiencing houslessness since the turn of the last century. It’s been a decades-long gathering place. Part of the thing that I noticed in the language about St. James Park is that it’s going down the tubes — it used to be “insert whatever language” and now it’s fallen into disrepair and we have to do something about it. I really question that narrative and I found out that a lot of things have happened in that public space — protests, parades, and two different hangings were there over the years. The first gay pride parade in San José was in the St. James Park. There’s another family story where people that my dad went to high school with at San Jose High School murdered a priest there in 1966. It was a meeting place for queer folks in the 60’s and 70’s. I didn’t know most of that stuff. Prior to that, St. James was just a random park to me in San José where I did Food not Bombs in the 90’s.

How has your own family background impact your writing?

There’s an anchoring nature to my family’s stories. It’s what helps me feel like I’m the right person to position myself to tell the stories that I have to tell about San José as well as the things I’m interested in and investigating. Talking to my family about the stories here is important to me — it’s enriching to my life.

What have been some trends you’ve seen amongst the stories submitted by people with such a deep connection to San José?

There is a real sense among folks who have submitted to Cheers that we’re trying to grasp on to the final bits of something that feels like is slipping away from us. I see folks from San José wanting to document things before they change for good, or wanting to tell their stories both visually and with words of what it’s like to be in a San José that operates outside of tech. I’ve included things from transplants as well in Cheers. I want the magazine to reflect a lot of different voices but to me the priority are folks who are from San José. There’s a certain mournfulness to the way people are experiencing San José right now and an urgency behind wanting to capture the stories that make this place ours.

What dreams do you have for San José and your community of artists and writers?

I want folks to feel like they already have what they need to share their stories. A zine doesn’t have to be highly produced. You don’t have to make 1000 copies of it. You don’t need any gatekeeper stamp of approval to say it’s good or bad. Folks should find their people and support one another. Offer support and seek support. When you see someone doing really good work, especially someone who has ties to San José, lift up what you see and tell your friends about it. Those kinds of gestures are really important to building community in a place where there’s a lot of misinformation such as you need certain credentials to be legit.

I attended this event at the library a couple weeks ago that was a community dialogue around conceptions of home in San José. They asked folks who were from San José to raise their hands and only me and one other person raised their hands. There was 30 people. The conversation didn’t center around the topics I was hoping for, but it made me think about the transplant voice in the arts. My hope for folks who come here from afar, especially folks with money, is that they really think about their imprint in our community and care about finding out the history of this place. There’s really push in San José for the most lauded public art to be art that increases property value. How can we find opportunities outside of these big structures to raise up each other’s work and find community in San José?

What are your words of wisdom to fellow zine-sters, creatives, and writers?

Find people and take risks and start small if it’s overwhelming. If you have an idea for a project, go for it and don’t get tripped up if you stumble at first. It’s hard to put yourself out there, but we need it. We need people who can take risks for our community.