12 July – Feast Day of Saint Veronica

veronica iii Today’s issue of the New York Times Travel section has a short but not so sweet piece on our Los Angeles neighborhood, Highland Park.

Sadly, NYT’s first foray into the 90042 got it wrong, or at least came up woefully incomplete.

Three of the four businesses mentioned lie along a mere block-and-a-half of York Boulevard;
and the fourth, the admittedly fun Society of the Spectacles eyeglass shop, is just down the street.
What??
No Figueroa Street, the long, broad and longtime heart of Highland Park??
Apparently not:
The most egregious comment (one hopefully taken out of context)
comes from Cafe de Leche’s owner Matt Schodor, who says,
“The landscape has changed significantly. Now, everything is centered on one street.”
Oh. Is it? What about:
Avenue 50 Studio, a non-profit community arts and culture gallery, founded in early 2000 by local artist Kathy Gallegos, was one of the first – and still flourishing – cultural outposts to put out a shingle in the neighborhood. Housed in what was, decades ago, a small automotive garage, in a hardscrabble landscape abutting the Metro line snaking up to Pasadena, Avenue 50 now shelters two artist studios and an Etsy-ite fabric artist, as well as providing Northeast L.A. with monthly exhibitions of cultural significance and outreach; as well as concerts, poetry readings and workshops, weekly yoga classes, the occasional Women-Only massage party, and more.
[Note: I had the good fortune to have a solo show for my then-a-birthing “All the Saints of the City of the Angels” project there the year Avenue 50 opened, and I have had (I think) four more shows there in the intervening nine years, and was tapped to serve on its Board of Directors when the gallery went 501 c-3 several years back. ]
Figueroa Street between Avenue 50 and York boasts all sorts of cultural richness of the sort that precludes many of us from ever needing to fight the westbound traffic of the Santa Monica 10 Freeway:
Chicken Boy, the once-beleaguered and now much-beloved tongue-in-cheek Statue of Liberty of Northeast L.A., perched (of course) above Future Studio Gallery, an appropriately quirky venue for pretty quirky art, replete with a souvenir shop;
The Highland Theatre, where first-run movies are shown in modest circumstances for less than the cost of a louche’s latte;
A cornucopia of great taco trucks and, increasingly, pirate/private nighttime taco stands, where dedicated men and women sizzle buche, carnitas, cebollitas y mas, with griddles and gas tanks under jury-rigged mood lighting in alleyways and in front of grocery stores and (Yes!) tire repair shops  – Just one dollar for a salsa verde stairway to heaven.
There’s much more I could add, but the morning grows long. In the end, perhaps there’s little reason to fault the New York Times for its incomplete reportage on a distant zip code, for naively compacting a vibrant community to four shops on three blocks.
After all it took the Los Angeles Times nine years to write its first review of Avenue 50 Studio, just down the hill from where a number of its now-laid-off reporters once lived and commuted….
As Saint Veronica’s vera icon teaches us, the truth is often far more complex than it looks on the surface.
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The Feast Day of Saint Reinhold and the Passing of Robert Graham

robert-graham-reliefFrom what I knew of the man, Robert Graham would have enjoyed this little tale.

 

Saint Reinhold was a tenth century bishop, assigned to oversee the construction of an abbey in Cologne. No mere supervisor, however, Reinhold threw himself into the abbey’s stonework with such skill and zeal that his carving soon outshone the handiwork of the stonemasons under his care. Disgruntled by this turn of events, and envious of the saint’s superior craftsmanship, the stonemasons grabbed their hammers and beat him to death.

 

Ah, the tempestuous art world.

 

Last Wednesday, on the 1048th anniversary of Saint Reinhold’s final, crushing critique, hundreds of us gathered at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, in Downtown Los Angeles, to honor the gentleman carver and sculptor Robert Graham.

 

I came alone and sat near the back – as misfortune would have it, I had yet another memorial service to attend, and would need to leave before the final benediction. Even so, when that time came, the rows all around and behind me would be filled: Frank Gehry in the row before me; Donald Sutherland across the aisle; Harrison Ford passing in front. Really, though, the mind registers the faces and names, then rapidly – especially in such a setting – readjusts to the realization that we are all, at base, small and frail human beings.

 

Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. For me the twin moments were the human ones at, or near, the beginning and end of the service:

 

Noriko Fujinami, Graham’s studio director, presiding quietly and comfortingly from the center aisle, moving over to place her hands on a mourner’s shoulders from behind; silently embracing a newcomer.

 

And then: As the service began, we were asked to join the choir in singing “Amazing Grace,” a song that hadn’t passed my mind in decades, as Cardinal Roger Mahony and entourage entered with the casket from the rear. Looking up from the printed lyrics – “How sweet the sound / that saved a wretch like me” – I caught the cardinal reaching into the fount of holy water at the rear of the cathedral, and taking great handfuls and literally pouring out great draughts of it, repeatedly: the holy water cascading over the beautiful wood, as though Roger was trying to exorcize some deeper personal pain at the loss of his friend.

 

Much later, after Communion, and before the Eulogies would restore a sense that our life, at least, goes on, Robert’s widow, the actress Anjelica Huston, was escorted by Msgr. Kevin to a podium, from which, veiled in black, she read William Butler Keats’ poem “He Bids His Beloved Be at Peace.”

 

First, what a joy it is to hear poetry read by someone who knows how to do so. But of course, how fraught with emotion and meaning this was, given the context. As Anjelica came to the sixth line – “The South is pouring down roses of crimson fire” – her voice broke, became hoarse holding back her tears, as ours poured down. She struggled to regain control over the next two lines, and then spoke the rest quietly, tarrying softly over the half-benediction / half-plea of the final four lines:

 

“Beloved, let your eyes half close, and your heart beat
Over my heart, and your hair fall over my breast,
Drowning love’s lonely hour in deep twilight of rest,
And hiding their tossing manes and their tumultuous feet.”

 

Whatever followed seemed superfluous.

25 September – Feast Day of Saints Eusubius, Peregrinus, Vincent, and Pontian

Little more is known of today’s second-century saints than the manner of their dying: “stretched on the rack, beaten with clubs, burned, then beaten to death with lead-tipped whips.”

An altogether damnable way to treat one’s fellow humans; yet one is pained to recognize the continuity of suffering that man imposes on his sisters and brothers.

The video at this blog post’s beginning records the seconds leading up to, and following, the extraordinary recent terrorist attack on Mexican soil (and honor) by fellow Mexicans –
the tossing of a grenade or two into the central plaza of Morelia, Michoacan, during the annual “Grito” cry for independence, this past September 15.

Annually, Mexicans gather in their town’s central square shortly before midnight, at which moment the cry of “Viva Mexico” resounds through the land and, most profoundly, through the people’s hearts.

This year, in Morelia, just after the cries for freedom, there sounded the thud of a fragment grenade, tossed into the crowds, and ridiculously murdering eight mostly young persons, and critically injuring dozens more of all ages.

We reel, fully off-balance, wounded in our hearts, grasping at any manner of understanding this most un-Mexican way of bringing death to one’s brethren.

Where, and who. are we?

The questions reverberate through our hearts and conversations; and answers are hard to come by.

What is most noticeable, however, throughout the video (which is not, i assure you, bloody or invasive), is the humanity, dignity, and respectful proportionality with which the victims comport themselves.

Shortly before the video’s end, one hears the National Anthem begin its pre-recorded broadcast: a reminder of how casually and naturally one responds to tragedy:

There is no break with protocol; society’s decorum is never broken or threatened.

Viva Mexico!

Published in: on 26 September 2008 at 12:20 am  Leave a Comment  
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15 September – Feast Day of Our Lady of Sorrows

detail of Santa Maria Road
detail of Santa Maria Road

Sometimes a story will arrive to fill a void. From the beginning of my time working on All the Saints it was my goal that it not be seen as “capital C” Catholic, but as “lower case c” catholic: that is, not institutionally religious, but drawing from and encompassing many cultures and experiences.

 

Still, because All the Saints clearly riffs on traditional Christian/Catholic imagery, I occasionally sensed a discomfort among Jewish friends, which gave me pause and occasioned a sense of personal artistic regret. I hoped for a way to illuminate our tortuous history together; a way to honor the ways in which the symbols I was using had caused so much pain.

 

I found the path on Santa Maria Road.

 

Santa Maria Road, as I wrote in my book, “arches north and eastward off Topanga Canyon Boulevard,” where it is defended by “Restricted Entry” signs; and, after passing through a shady glen of horse ranches, becomes “a dirt and dusty pathway into the southwestern reaches of the San Fernando Valley.”

 

When I stood, caked in Santa Maria’s dust, gazing into “this canyon of willow and sage,” I thought of one of several saints named Santa Maria: Saint Mary of Egypt, an early – and rare female – mystic hermit, who dwelled in the wilderness for forty years, her clothes worn away in decades-long penance, her body covered by her long tresses. It was easy to picture Mary of Egypt enraptured in this near-wilderness, and I couldn’t wait to return to my studio to portray her.

French miniature of Mary of Egypt
French miniature of Mary of Egypt

Unfortunately, a bit more research provided a historical source for the road’s name. Jesus Santa Maria, a Mexican settler from the 1870’s, endures on this sole Topanga Canyon road sign. Jesus lived in Topanga for decades, “hauling cords of manzanita into [Los Angeles] via the circuitous route of the period: north from his ranch to El Camino Real (now Ventura Boulevard); and from there, southeast into El Pueblo.”

 

Now my Road had a namesake; what it needed was an origin for Jesus’ last name. Wondering how someone acquired a last name like Santa Maria, I phoned one of my advisors on All the Saints, historian Stafford Poole, whose focus is on life in Colonial New Spain.

 

As fate (or the saints) would have it, Father Poole had recently researched this very theme – the naming practices of New Spain – with an emphasis on the Sephardic Diaspora. Indeed, he had just given a presentation on this very topic.

 

Father Poole informed me that nearly all Mexicans with last names such as Santa Cruz, Santa Fe, or Santa Maria are descended from the forced converts – conversos – from Judaism to Catholicism during Spain’s and Portugal’s periodic medieval pogroms. Forced to convert and take on uber-Catholic names, and still expelled from their home countries in 1492 by King Ferdinand (Yes, it wasn’t just Columbus who set sail that year), many became “Hidden Jews” who, over time, assimilated and adapted, integrated or reinvented themselves, into anti-Semitic societies in the New World.

 
 
I thought of Our Lady of Sorrows, La Virgen de Dolores, one of the more empathic depictions of Santa Maria, for my painting; and I thought immediately of my friend Doris for my model – a dear friend of many years, whose face traces her life’s experiences.

 

 

As it happens, Doris, who is Jewish, has always joked that I should portray her as a saint; now I was about to invite her to let me do just that:

 

“Doris,” I began the phone call, “Remember how you always want me to portray you as a saint?”

 “I want to be the Virgin Mary!” she startled me.

“Well,” I considered, “That’s actually why I called – but first let me tell you the story and see if you still want to do it.”

 

After I related the history of Santa Maria Road, and after Doris and I had a good cry, she insisted that she had to do this; and we set a date for me to photograph her.

I think the resulting painting – her haunting visage as Our Lady of Sorrows, drifting above “this pilgrim’s dirt path, a Road affronted (as Jews have been for centuries) with “Restricted Entry” signs” – is perhaps my finest portrait. It certainly conveys the pain and endurance hinted at in its tale.

 

As we prepared my All the Saints exhibition for the Autry Museum, Doris confided that she was herself a hidden Jew: her parents elected to hide their heritage to facilitate assimilation into the Navy and a Wasp-only government society. Only in college did Doris discover – and embrace – her true inheritance. Her parents had erected “Restricted entry” signs on the branches of their family tree.

 

 

04 September – Feast Day of Santa Rosalia (la Santuzza)

Santa Rosalia Interceding on Behalf of Plague-Stricken Palermo, by Antony an Dyck
Santa Rosalia Interceding on Behalf of Plague-Stricken Palermo, painting by Anthony Van Dyck

There’s a special wonder to Rosalia’s legend. Even the faithful declare that she “died alone, in 1160, ending her strange and wonderful life unknown to the world“, and that “Nothing was heard from her again until 1624.”

From my story, in All the Saints of the City of the Angels,  for Santa Rosalia Drive, in the Crenshaw area of Los Angeles:

In 1624 the Flemish artist Anthony Van Dyck traveled to Sicily at the invitation of the Spanish viceroy. While he painted portraits of the Genoese aristocracy, the Black Plague raged across the countryside.

 

At the same time a hunter lost on the mountains above Palermo saw the vision of a young woman who told him her name was Rosalía and that she had died in a nearby cave 464 years ago.

 

Rosalía’s remains were brought into Palermo, her hometown, and the plague ended; she was declared a saint and named patroness of the region; and Van Dyck was commissioned to paint her portrait.

~

Why should, how could, her bones lie undisturbed in a cave above Palermo – a town of over 130,000 – for four and a half centuries? And how did a Flemish court painter, working “from musty bones and fervent spirit” make of it all such art?

 

Published in: on 4 September 2008 at 9:31 pm  Leave a Comment  
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30 August – Feast Day of St. Fiacre, the Misogynist

My muse for my Santa Ynez painting

My muse for my Santa Ynez painting

The fall of 2000, when I began the rich journey through the soul of L.A. that would become All the Saints of the City of the Angels, I was researching – with an eye to portraying – the streets named for saints in and around Downtown Los Angeles.

It was in this way that I found myself one morning in the lobby of a drop-in shelter on San Julian Street in the heart of Skid Row; and it was at that moment that I noticed – how could I not? – the lovely young woman in the photo at left.

Jevona welcomed my request to photograph her, and as I did, she began telling me, unbidden, her life story. It proved a sad, difficult tale, with avaricious men attempting at every turn to take advantage of her. As she told me several times, “If I would sell my body, I wouldn’t be homeless.”

That fall I connected Jevona’s situation with the legend of Saint Agnes – Santa Ynez – whose street I needed to portray. One of the aspects of All the Saints’ first year of of which I am most proud is the positive effect my painting of Jevona as Santa Ynez had on this frail young woman – Ah, if only that could have lasted.

The troubled and troubling ways in which men have, and still, historically abused women is beyond lamentable, thus important to remark and to overcome.

Therefore I bring this relationship up today, for today – Saturday – is the feast day of a particularly unpleasant misogynistic saint (so-called), Fiacre, of Ireland. I recommend taking a few minutes to read his tale from Jacobus de Voragine’s great Golden Legend.

The gist of it is that he felt himself wronged  – “full sorry and wroth” – by one woman and then, after solitary reflection, decided to take revenge on all women.

As Jacobus tells “he made his prayer to our Lord that no woman should never enter into his church, without she be punished by some manner of sickness. ”

His awful prayer, it seems, was granted: one woman lost an eye; the foot of another “swelled by such manner that all the leg, knee, and thigh of it was grieved with sickness.”

Nor were these isolated instances: “many other miracles have been thereof showed.” It seems also a continuation of his demonization of women, that he is invoked against syphilis, venereal disease, and sterility.

As we struggle for gender equality and for honest and open relationships between women and men, let us recall today all the Santa Ynezes who have struggled – and struggle still – against all the Saint Fiacres.

20 August – Feast Day of St. Oswin, Murdered Saint

Me Voy Pa el Pueblo, color pencil/paper, 1980s
Me Voy Pa el Pueblo, Going to the Village, color pencil/paper, 1980s

Sadly, apologetically, this posting is neither fiction nor legend:

Last Saturday evening the hounds of hell, brandishing AK47s and bearing the black ski mask mark of cowards, emerged from a trio of hulking SUVs in front of a group of regular, everyday muchachos standing in front of one of the few civic halls in nearby Creel, a small rustic tourist outpost in my beloved Sierra Tarahumara, and – I hesitate to write this -, without speaking, they calmly massacred twelve young men, one college professor and – how does one write this? – a fourteen month-old baby.

Driving away, taking the only road leading into and out of town, witnessed by many and identified (understandably) by none, they left victims so utterly destroyed by their ruthlessly outsized firepower that several teenagers were all but unrecognizable and indistinguishable.

I think we need Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings at the moment.

Thirty-four years ago the smiling universe dropped me, innocent and open-hearted, into the most beautiful  place i had yet to experience.

The small one-engine plane made a curving landing onto the dirt airstrip of Sisoguichi, in the Sierra Tarahumara mountains of Chihuahua, Mexico; and as we swooped to earth,  impassively studied by a single Tarahumara man in yellow floral blouse and cream-colored cowboy hat, hand resting on his chin, amid the flourishing greenery and cool-grey rock outcroppings, I knew that I had somehow come home.

The mission pilot was wrangling his little plane into its corrugated metal hangar as a broad-smiling nun came crossing the creek to receive me, her indefatigable sidekick, a Tarahumara orphan girl named Tati, bobbing at her side, hand in happy hand.

Madre Olivia and I somehow made ourselves mutually understood, despite being monolingual in separate languages; and I can still recall clearly – 34 years, 2 months, and 18 days later – the major events that followed on that first day.

Clearer still is my recollection of the moment the next morning – my 22nd birthday – when I spotted the tall, thin, apple-cheeked girl who immediately became my reason for remaining in la Sierra after my volunteer work was done – and who three years later became (as she remains) my wife, Mimi.

La Sierra’s endless and endlessly amazing skies; its Rembrandtian light penetrating adobe walls; its rich and communitarian cultures; its trusting and generous people; their melodic and laughter-filled languages -all bore into my heart’s core and erased any longing I harbored before arriving. Each assured me: you are from here now, you are of this place.

So it has remained, more than thirty years, that whenever we return to la Sierra to visit family, I feel an easing of nerves, an erasure of tension, when our car begins its ascent into those gorgeous green mountains bedecked with great grey rock. To this day I refer to la Sierra as “back home,” as assuredly and naturally as if I had been born there – because I truly felt, that first summer, that I was reborn there, both culturally and spiritually.

All of the art and writing I have created in the three decades since that summer has been nourished by my immersion in that world.

Which is why Monday night’s hope-crushing news, with its murder and its grief, weighs on my chest like one of la Sierra’s gargantuan grey rocks.

As unimaginable arms and inconceivable outside forces converge on this isolated countryside of great beauty and hard labor, the traditions and certainties of generations are sent spiraling out of orbit, and gravity loosens its grip. 

Folklore to the contrary, violence has been rare here and trust and courtesy the norm. My first summer in la Sierra Tarahumara, without exception, strangers received me into their homes, sat me at their kitchen table, and served me coffee and flour tortillas as a civilizing bond.

When violence erupted, it was individual and focused, and its narrative easy to follow.

What do we do now, when the janjaweed of the drug lords are unleashed unannounced, to slaughter a meek and humble people already battered by drought, poverty, and scant access to education and jobs?

Saint Oswin’s Feast Day is today, his tale – like the news back home – one of conflict, treachery, and wanton murder. 

As our family, friends, and neighbors, in Creel and beyond, pace uneasily, ashen-faced and heartbroken in their now-threatened homes, Venerable Bede’s description of Saint Oswin rings true for last weekend’s victims – and for the people there I’ve known, as well:

“most generous to all men and above all things humble… of graceful bearing, with pleasant manner and engaging address”

En Paz Descanzan.

 

Published in: on 20 August 2008 at 12:14 pm  Comments (1)  
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18 August – Feast Day of Santa Elena (St. Helen), part ii

Detail, my portrait of Saint Helen, from "All the Saints of the City of the Angels"
Detail, my portrait of Saint Helen, from All the Saints

Saint Helen is a fascinating character to consider.

I’ve written about her twice in my book, All the Saints of the City of the Angels: once in connection with Santa Cruz Street, in San Pedro Bay; and again, in connection with the curiously named San Teala Court, in Woodland Hills.
As I wrote in the San Teala piece, she
“was Constantine’s mother, a pious woman with a penchant for organizing, and an eye for buried treasure. In the fourth century she bustled about the Holy Land, uncovering relics which had lain unnoticed for three hundred years.  The cross where Christ died; the nails which had secured him; the notice which hung above his head; the crown of thorns that rung his brow – all these freely presented themselves to her, as if awaiting her arrival.”

 And she, via her legend, is responsbile for the naming of both Santa Cruz Street and the island to which its name is directed, out beyond the harbor’s horizon.

The tale goes that, after millennia of living in relative harmony, the Chumash peoples of Limuw, a large island near present-day Santa Barbara, were visited by Spanish explorers from the empire to the south.

Accompanying the soldiers who came ashore was a Franciscan priest; All were welcomed by the islanders, who took them to their chieftan’s village of Xaxas, set in a great forest.
After their warm reception, and an exchange of gifts, the visitors headed back to their canoes, and from there to their ship anchored offshore.
Overnight the priest, Juan Gonzalez Vizcaino, discovered he had forgotten his cross-topped walking staff (no mention is made of whether he had imbibed any welcoming inebriants during the welcoming ceremonies).
Despairing of seeing this treasure again – and admittedly harboring suspicions that the natives had gained the cross through clever means – , the Spaniards awakened at first light to the cheerful sight of the men of Xaxas guiding their great tomol towards the ship; and in the center of the tomol sat one of the Chumash, bearing the lost cross.
Like Saint Helen of old, some Limuw maiden had recovered the Friar’s lost cross.

 

17 August – Feast Day of San Jacinto (Saint Hyacinth)

San Jacinto, by J Michael Walker, color pencil/paper

San Jacinto, by J Michael Walker, color pencil/paper

What can I say; I have a particular fondness for San Jacinto, the purple saint. There’s a street bearing his name in the Silver Lake Hills of Los Angeles, north of Sunset and overlooking, intermittently, the silvery lake to the northeast.

It’s a rather sedate drive – apart from the confectionary castle at its mid-point – but, as I wrote in my book (p.65), the street exhibits some mystic tendencies, as it “ambles lightly about the Silver Lake hills, tracing a circumscribed path: Two hundred paces downhill, south by southwest. Turn. Then two hundred paces uphill, north by northeast. Repeat. A sacred Zen dance, good for the heart and legs.”

San Jacinto’s best legends are all, in fact, about ambling lightly.

 

One I illustrated some years back (at left) recounts how, when the village of Kiev was overrun by “fierce Tartars,” Jacinto grabbed a large, heavy statue of the Virgin Mary and, ‘though she weighed more than he, carried her with no perceptible difficulty to safety.

 

The legend I treasure more, however, is sometimes confused with this one; perhaps it occurred later on the same journey.

 

San Jacinto came to the River Dnieper or – what do we know – the River Vistula (Wikipedia informs that the two were once connected) and needed to cross whichever river it was that he, short of boat, needed to cross.

 

What to do? He crossed the river on foot.

Indeed.

And, it is recorded in the Acta Sanctorum XXXVII, 316, No. 38, that:

 

“the footprints of the saint remained on the water, even after he had crossed the river; and that, when the stream was calm, they could be seen for centuries afterwards.”

 

Sigh. Aside from its self-evident zen poetry, three things etch this tale in my heart.

 

First, when Jacinto was candidate for canonization, the Acta Sanctorum again assures us, “four hundred and eight witnesses were rigidly examined on this very matter, and they all attested on oath that they had seen these footprints with their own eyes; which, they said, the natives of the country call ‘the way of Saint Hyacinth.’ “

 

The Death of Hyacinthos, by Jean Broc

The Death of Hyacinthos, by Jean Broc

Second, his English name, Hyacinth, traces back to Apollo’s young lover Hyacinthus, who was killed in rivalry with Zephyrus: Hyacinthus’ spilled blood, which Apollo gathered, legendarily formed the liquid seed for the Hyacinthus orientalis (Interestingly, Wiki also informs us that “Hyacinths are sometimes associated with rebirth”).

 

But, for the water hyacinth, I cannot help but presume that the name derives from the legend of San Jacinto, for the plant is a tenacious free-floating perennial, remaining on the surface of any waterway to which it is introduced despite ‘most any efforts at extermination or control.

 

San Jacinto demonstrated this self-same tenacity for me the first year of All the Saints, when I created large prints of the Eastside Los Angeles saint-streets, and installed them in city bus shelters. San Jacinto Street had been among this first batch, and I had focused on his watery legend in my portrayal.

 

My friend Sally Stein and I went around to photograph each of the bus shelter installations. When we came to the San Jacinto Street installation at, as I recall, Sunset and Fountain, Sally remarked that she was surprised she wan’t seeing any light reflected on the glass covering my piece – only then did we realize that the glass had been utterly broken and lay all over the cement, and that someone had pulled hard on my print to remove it, but to no avail:

 

San Jacinto had held on, steadfast even in the L.A. night.

San Jacinto Street, photographed festooned with zempasuchil flowers, the eve of All Saints Day, L.A. 2000

San Jacinto Street, photographed by J Michael Walker, festooned with zempasuchil flowers, the eve of All Saints Day, L.A. 2000