WARNING: Please do not do what I did. This was the most backwards way to go about writing a book! Also, this post is SUPER long!
I have been a professional writer living in my native San Diego for over a decade now. I've written for loads of online outlets, a few magazines and have even picked up a couple of awards along the way. I guess I imagined that I would one day write a book. I just never imagined it would be this book.
So then, how did we get here?
It was early 2018.
After quite a long run, I had shuttered my beloved and very successful blog, Nacho Mama's Blog. I felt it had run it's course and I was ready for a fresh start. I had already begun my latest blogging venture, The Chingona Homesteader, in which I endeavored to try my hand at the so-called "urban homesteading" movement (despite a deep dislike for the reintroduction of that extremely problematic word, "homesteading," into the vernacular-which we can DEFINITELY discuss at a later time!). Among my many projects related to this new blog was an attempt to re-design my tiny front yard, with some professional help, into a "tiny farm," based on the gardens I remembered seeing throughout my childhood on visits to La Colonia, where both my parents were born and raised.
THEN, in mid-March, I got an assignment from a cultural organization I have worked with, off and on, over the years. They are based on the east coast and had received word about a west coast event featuring Latina artists and they asked if I could possibly go and check it out. I didn't need to write anything, just give them my opinion on whether there was a real scene happening in this part of California. The assignment was right up my alley (I have a degree in Art History and a career at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in my past), so I said, "Sure! Where in SoCal is it?"
"Well...that's part of the problem." they said, "We've never heard of this place, so we're hoping you have. Do you happen to know where Saticoy is?"
"Wow, there's a name I haven't heard in a long time!" I said, "Yeah, I know where it is. I'm on it!" I knew that Saticoy was less than 10 miles outside of Oxnard.
As I prepared for my road trip, my mom texted me that her weekend plans had fallen through, so I invited her to join me. I canceled my AirBnB and we made arrangements to stay with Lupe Lopez Lujan, one of Mom's best friends.
The arts event was fantastic and I was so inspired and moved to learn that, yes, there is a real art movement going on, in every medium, in Ventura county. So what to do for the rest of the weekend? Mom and I spent the next morning antiquing in Ventura. After that, since I'd been working on my "Chingona Homesteader" project from memory, I asked Mom and Lupe to take me to the Colonia and give me a tour along with their memories. Lupe had also grown up there.
Most of the old gardens were gone, but there were still some that remained as they had been since the 1920s. We were delighted to see that my late father's little house on Hayes Street, where he was born and raised, was still there. I remembered that my Mama Lola used to keep her garden in the backyard, which faced a vacant lot that opened onto Garfield Street when Dad lived there. So I walked around to Garfield, to take photos of the back of my dad's old house. Having finished, I turned to walk away but the house I'd been standing in front of, which would have looked right into my Mama Lola's backyard back in the day, caught my eye.
It captured my attention because it looked so much like my own 1910s bungalow back in San Diego, right down to the picket fence. But inside the picket fence of the Colonia bungalow, I found this:
In other words, at the age of 45, with my grandparents and father long dead, I learned for the first time that Cesar Chavez and his family had been my grandparents' backyard neighbors.
I can't tell you how long I stood there with my mouth open, only that I didn't hear my mom and Lupe calling me for quite some time. I simply could not believe my eyes. I did know that Chavez began his activism career in the barrio in the 1950s. I knew he had lived in La Colonia as a boy. I just didn't know he'd lived there.
Standing in front of that plaque, I determined to learn as much as I possibly could about this part of Oxnard's past. I wasn't thinking about writing at all, I just wanted to be able to tell my two children about this part of their family history. So that evening, I went to a local bookseller and asked if they had a section devoted to the history of Oxnard. They certainly did! There were at least a dozen titles to choose from. I did notice they all seemed to have been written by the same author and had been published by the same publisher, History Press. It didn't cause me any pause, though, I just wanted to get as much info about the Colonia as I could get my hands on. So I purchased 3 titles, which I devoured over the next two days.
As I finished the books I'd brought home, I realized I wouldn't find what I was looking for. Though I was disappointed, I couldn't really blame the author or the publisher for pursuing the parts of history that most interested them. I sighed, ready to give up the ghost. But as I closed the cover of the final volume I'd read, something on the last page snagged my attention. It was a line in the bibliography that offered this advice: "To those of you who complain about underrepresentation, this is your call to do something about it and share your resources."
I remember thinking, "Well, hey! They're talking about me!" In spite of the late hour, I took out my computer, looked up the publisher and well...complained about "underrepresentation." Having written my feelings of frustration out of my system, I hit "SEND" and went to bed, thinking the matter decidedly closed.
Have I ever been more wrong?
The next morning I got up, poured myself some coffee and opened my email. At the top of my inbox was a message from the acquisitions department of History Press. Looking back, I'm sure they must have Googled me before responding to my, er, crispy missive. Because their email was clearly written in response to someone they had reason to believe was not a crackpot.
After a boilerplate opening, the personal part of the message began, "I understand you’re interested in authoring a book about the Colonia neighborhood in Oxnard, which sounds like it has quite a history." It ended, "I look forward to learning more about what you’re imagining for your book."
Gulp. My book? Did I say I had a book? It was late and I was tired and angry, but I can't imagine I claimed to have a book.
The well-known saying by Toni Morrison immediately sprang to mind, "If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, you must be the one to write it." (Tangential question: How amazing was The Source of Self-Regard? RIGHT?)
After all, the Oxnard book had said, "this is your call to do something about it and share your resources." There was no denying I had the resources to write the book I so desperately wanted to read, so there were no excuses for me to hide behind. After a bit of back and forth with History Press, we struck a deal.
Over the next 8 months of countless hours in the car driving between San Diego and Oxnard, we collected the stories of nearly 30 people who had called La Colonia home during the mid-20th century. Plus, I spoke with several academics who provided much needed historical context. Early on, I'd made the decision not to include my personal family history in the book, so the majority of the interviews were with strangers I was meeting for the first time. And yet their generosity and encouragement enabled me to complete the manuscript only slightly after the initial deadline. It was so much work, but it was worth it. This project changed my life and exploded my world view in ways I could never have imagined.
Yes, there are easier ways to get published. For example, you could start by writing a book first. Or an outline, at least. Sheesh.
Look, I'm going to try to never write a post this long here again. If you're still reading, I thank you for your attention. I know you may read this entire post and never buy my book or check it out from the library. I'm totally fine with that as long as you don't mention it to History Press.
I've written this absurdly long post because there may be a book you need one day but cannot find. That day you'll discover you have a book of your own you need to write. You may have to go about it in some unconventional way. Your book idea might not have the support it deserves or you may find yourself stunned at how well it's received. None of that is as important as your writing it. Only you will know why it is so important for you to do that, but when you get stuck or have to change course or are discouraged from continuing, I'd like you to know I'm here cheering you on as unflaggingly and enthusiastically as I have been while working on this book.
As they say in La Colonia, buena suerte.