Orange County Writers of Color Rise to the Moment

Photo courtesy of Pacific Symphony

A performance of "Festival of the Dead" at the Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in October 2019. The performance was written and directed by Sara Guerrero.

Writer and literary activist Marytza Rubio has never felt out of place in her hometown of Santa Ana. Spanish was her first language, and she grew up surrounded by people who looked and sounded like her.

Photo courtesy of Greg Camphire

Santa Ana writer and literary activist Marytza Rubio.

But she recalls visiting Laguna Beach two to three years ago with her in-laws, who are white. They were waiting to get dinner at Eva’s Caribbean Kitchen (now closed), walking casually around the neighborhood beforehand.

“It felt very tense. It felt like I wasn’t welcome there,” said Rubio, a Mexican American who founded Makara Center for the Arts, a volunteer-run nonprofit library and art center that closed its physical Santa Ana space at the end of May.

“They’re going to question why I’m here, they’re going to question my relationship,” she continued. “At the restaurant, this woman came out to talk to us. I was worried she was going to ask me something inappropriate in front of my in-laws. I tried to put on a pleasant face when I was with my family. But I later shared with my in-laws that I didn’t feel totally welcomed. I didn’t think about it until I was confronted with it. It was a place where brown people aren’t welcomed. At the same time, I was confronted with my own fears and prejudice.”

Rubio is not the only writer of color in Orange County who has felt discrimination and the awkwardness of feeling out of place in a town that’s still 90.8% white, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau statistics.

But this isn’t a story about Laguna Beach. It’s a story about what being a writer of color means in a county that has historically been conservative, suburban and majority white. Yet the demographics and cultural landscape have been changing dramatically in the past 16 or so years.

Since 2004, Orange County has been a “majority minority” county, or a region where people of color actually comprise the majority, according to the U.S. Census. Asian and Latino populations have been steadily increasing over the past two decades. More cultural arts centers have been built. And during the 2016 elections, the “blue wave” turned every U.S. congressional seat representing Orange County into a Democratic-held post.

Still, as the Black Lives Matter protests and other incidents and issues have shown us, racism and inequality persist in Orange County and nationwide, and the fight for justice and true equality is far from over. Even the concepts of race and color can be blurry sometimes, as the standard categories and classifications don’t always fit individual, specific identities.

While acknowledging it’s a financially difficult path, Rubio has found success as a writer, publishing stories in literary magazines and gaining recognition as a nominee for a Pushcart Prize and a finalist for the 2017 “Best American Short Stories” collection.

Her latest collection of short stories, “Maria, Maria,” will be published in winter 2022 by Liveright/Norton. According to Publisher’s Marketplace, it’s a “short story collection about Mexican American mystics and misfits and the creatures they love, bury and bring back to life, set across the tropics and megacities of the Americas, including a futuristic California micro-rainforest.”

“It took me about a decade to write and edit, so I am incredibly happy to finally have the chance to share these stories,” Rubio said.

At the same time, in her own backyard of Santa Ana, she has found it difficult to even find a public library. That was the reason for founding Makara in 2016.

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Founded by Marytza Rubio, this is the interior of Makara Center for the Arts, which operated from 2016 until March 2020 in Santa Ana. Photo by Julie Leopo.

“I grew up, like most writers, with strong relationships to libraries. My mom took my sister and I to the library all the time after school. We only have one full-service library in Santa Ana. It’s just shameful. We’re one of the largest cities in Orange County, and the county seat. It’s surprising we don’t have more library services. Cities like Anaheim, or Newport Beach — the ratio of library services to people, they blow us out of the water.”

Rubio is currently re-imagining Makara for the digital space. She will still loan out her collection of about 1,500 books, which focus on Black and historically excluded authors, with dozens of “social justice titles.” She aims to loan them out in an online format, the way Netflix used to with DVDs.

“We are converting everything into an online experience,” she said. “We’re re-imagining what a workshop would be in the virtual space.”

‘Elevating and Opening Opportunities’

Marcus Omari is an African American poet and spoken word artist based in Santa Ana and Irvine. He founded the Poetic Reform Party, leading a team of artists who organize, host and perform in various literary events across Southern California. They also instruct and facilitate poetry workshops in Orange County for women in halfway housing, kids in after-school programs and youths in group homes and foster care. In addition, they conduct writing workshops for homeless transition adults in Los Angeles.

Photo courtesy of Marcus Omari

Poet and spoken word artist Marcus Omari.

Omari has authored several “chapbooks,” or chapter books of poetry, and is a six-time National Speech and Debate award winner. He has taught creative writing in after-school programs for the San Diego, Santa Ana, Garden Grove and Anaheim Unified School Districts.

“I bring people together through literature and creative language for the purposes of changing lives,” Omari said. “I’m all about elevating and opening opportunities.”

Originally from Racine, Wisconsin, he moved to Southern California in 2000 to attend Cal State Fullerton. He’s been in Orange County ever since, living in about six or seven different cities here.

“I feel like a fish out of water being a creative person in Orange County,” he admitted. “The temperature is cold enough. Being Black doesn’t make it colder. One of the blessings as far as Orange County is concerned, and not originally being from Orange County, is I’m coming in as an outsider, nearly 20 years ago, to the community. I had to work hard for the relationships, friendships and connections …. Being a Black person, being a Black artist, being an artist comes with challenges. Finding your tribe lets you maintain focus on your purpose.”

Omari said his unique perspective allows him to connect to the young people he works with.

“I know what it feels like to be the only young Black student … in the Shakespeare class. That feeling makes its way down to the kids. That feeling of validation was a little absent in my case. But I stuck around in Orange County, even though it meant seeing one Black student in six months.

“But seeing kids who I know receive that validation, in terms of what their capabilities are, re-invest in their county — that’s what makes it hard to leave.”

‘A Place to Quiet Your Mind’

Victoria Chang is a nationally recognized poet who won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2017. She lived in Irvine and Rossmoor for 10 years, until moving to Torrance a little over two years ago.

Photo courtesy of Margaret Molloy

Poet Victoria Chang is a former Irvine and Rossmoor resident.

Chang has taught poetry classes at Chapman University and wrote several poetry and children’s books in Irvine, including “Salvinia Molesta,” “The Boss,” “Barbie Chang,” “Is Mommy?” and “Obit.” Her forthcoming “Love Love,” to be published by Sterling Books, was also written in Irvine and Rossmoor.

While describing Irvine as “sleepy” and “conservative,” she does admit to missing it quite a bit.

“It’s super Asian, almost all Asian,” said the Michigan native. “What I miss about it is hearing the language all the time. I miss the fact that I can relate to so many people who could live there. My parents immigrated when they were 20. My dad is Taiwanese. That’s familiar to me.”

Despite the presence of an Asian community, writing is still a solo craft. As many writers can attest, it can get lonely. And for Chang, Irvine accentuated those aspects.

“It was a little bit depressing; it was very quiet,” she said. “It was a place to quiet your mind, in many ways. I didn’t hear anything. It really was conducive to a certain kind of introspection. It’s just slow. I can imagine horses and buggies going on in that area. It’s very conducive to slowing down, and being a slower writer, that worked.”

At the same time, Chang encountered difficulty finding a community of writers in Irvine, outside of UC Irvine’s prestigious writing program.

“It was a little bit — I don’t want to say vacuous — but culturally slow. I feel like the big authors aren’t going to go through there. Orange County has a fair amount of culture and arts. But it’s not like L.A. Stuff you can see in Orange County is amazing. There’s definitely some arts and culture there. But artists and writers don’t necessarily want to land there.

“For me it was a mixed bag. But everywhere is a mixed bag.”

Blurring the Boundaries

San Juan Capistrano novelist Aline Ohanesian can relate to the cultural quietness that can sometimes settle in Orange County. When she first moved to the county 23 years ago, she found herself driving up to Los Angeles frequently for literary events.

Photo courtesy of Aline Ohanesian

Aline Ohanesian, author of “Orhan’s Inheritance.” She is a San Juan Capistrano resident.

“I will tell you, I’ve driven all the way up to L.A. to get to a reading, only to find out the person canceled. It definitely takes a tremendous effort to be a literary citizen. I live in San Juan Capistrano, which is a sleepy little town. I used to like to tell people that our sheriff still rides a horse around town. It’s quaint and quiet — it’s a good place to raise children and write.”

But Ohanesian, author of “Orhan’s Inheritance,” has seen the county change in recent years. She credits people like Barbara DeMarco-Barrett and her radio program on KUCI (88.9 FM), “Writers on Writing,” for raising awareness and bringing writers to the O.C.

She also tipped her cap to the Community of Writers, a series of literary workshops that takes place during the summers in Olympic Valley, near Lake Tahoe. Many Orange County writers have participated in the Community of Writers, including Lisa Alvarez, an English professor at Irvine Valley College who serves as fiction co-director for the program. Alvarez, a Modjeska Canyon resident, co-edited “Orange County: A Literary Field Guide,” which is a treasure trove of Orange County writing, especially by writers of color.

Other Writers of Color in Orange County

If you are looking for more Orange County writers to read, here’s a good place to start:

Chieh Chieng – Author of “A Long Stay in a Distant Land” and lecturer at UC Irvine

Ngugi wa Thiong’o – Kenyan novelist and scholar; Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at UC Irvine

Lisa Alvarez – Poet, professor of English at Irvine Valley College; co-director of fiction at Community of Writers; co-editor of “Orange County: A Literary Field Guide

Sarah Rafael García – Founder of Barrio Writers; founder and curator of LibroMobile; co-founder of Crear Studio in Santa Ana

Anh Chi Pham – Vietnamese American fiction writer, yoga therapist and wellness coach

Gustavo Arellano – Journalist, staff columnist for the Los Angeles Times; author of  “¡Ask A Mexican!,” “Orange County: A Personal History” and “Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America”

Namrata Poddar – Interviews editor for the Kweli journal; contributor to various fiction magazines and nonfiction publications

Also, the Boca de Oro Festival of Literary Arts & Culture is an annual gathering in Santa Ana which highlights writers of color, among others.

Ohanesian’s 2015 novel “Orhan’s Inheritance” explores the mysteries of Armenia and the last days of the Ottoman Empire, as well as the devastating legacy of the Armenian genocide in Turkey between 1914 and 1918.

The book was a finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize and landed on the long list for the Dublin International Literary Award. Ohanesian was also interviewed by NPR shortly after the novel was published.

“Armenians are not really represented in the general arts,” Ohanesian said. “There’s general confusion about who we are and what we are. The best thing about that book is the people who identified with it and saw themselves or their grandparents in that book. That’s a priceless connection with readers all over the world.”

While she considers herself a writer of color, Ohanesian doesn’t fit neatly into America’s racial categories of black, white, brown, red or yellow.

“My parents were refugees. I don’t identify as white. I grew up in an immigrant family. English is my second language. I consider myself Armenian.”

While many Armenians have “white privilege,” she said, they are not immune to this country’s racial constructs and history of discrimination against non-whites.

“I have a son who’s been racially profiled and pulled over,” she said. “There’s a whole lot of history there. You can identify as person of color and pass as white. Race is a construct.”

Underground Connections

Writer and anthropologist Roxanne Varzi also straddles the lines and boundaries between race and ethnicity. The Iranian American UC Irvine professor can pass as white, but she doesn’t necessarily identify herself in that way. Plus, her experiences growing up (and sticking out) in suburban Gross Pointe, Michigan during the Iran hostage crisis, and later spending time in Iran, have given her a completely different perspective.

Photo courtesy of Kasra Paydavousi

Roxanne Varzi, an Iranian American author and anthropologist, at a LibroMobile event.

“So many people don’t know anything about Iran,” said Varzi, an Irvine resident. “It’s so contextual. I think it means a lot to me in terms of the community I choose to identify with. The things that are important to me are equity, community and I identify more with women of color — that just is my experience and the colleagues I relate to and the community that I see myself in.”

Varzi said she is encouraged by the significant Persian population that lives in Irvine. “We have Persian Story Hour at the library. That was unheard of when I was growing up!”

At the same time, she says her son has heard some nasty comments about his appearance and culture from people outside of Irvine.

While she maintains her academic writing and research, she has also written a novel, “Last Scene Underground,” about a troupe of progressive, young Iranian theater artists who navigate their way through Tehran’s politics and artistic scene. They eventually make their way to Berlin.

“I spent so many years there,” said Varzi, who had been going back and forth to Iran since 1993, until recently. “I had family on the ground, family that’s very intellectual. I was able to make connections through the family. They would introduce me to people. It was a good network and base. I don’t think it would have been possible without them. There are other researchers who have tried to do things and not succeeded.”

Varzi has written a play herself, titled “Splinters of a Careless Alphabet,” which was about to be produced in Los Angeles until the coronavirus pandemic shut everything down.

“Right now during COVID, in some ways, theater has gone underground,” she said. “You can’t really meet to rehearse. Everything’s on hold right now. I’ve done a few things on Zoom. I’m impressed by how well so many theater folks were able to get on Zoom and produce stuff. On the other hand, they’re not getting paid for it. They don’t have an audience.”

Varzi has seen the populations of Asians and Iranians increase substantially in Irvine over the past 15 years. And she appreciates the diversity in her neighborhood and community.

“But we also need to see it on the higher levels,” she said. “We need to see it in politics. We need more representation across the board.”

Woman Warrior

Sara Guerrero is a Santa Ana-based playwright, actor, producer and director. She is the founding artistic director of Breath of Fire Latina Theater Ensemble. She wrote and directed “Festival of the Dead,” a multi-faceted work celebrating Día de los Muertos, or the Mexican Day of the Dead. She collaborated with the Pacific Symphony to present the performance in October 2019 at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall and Meng Music Hall at Cal State Fullerton.

Photo courtesy of Sara Guerrero

Sara Guerrero is a Santa Ana-based playwright, actor, producer and director. She founded Breath of Fire, Latina Theater Ensemble.

“I believe in radically imagining yourself, what that means to your ancestors, to your future, to yourself,” Guerrero said. “I think back to acting, being stifled. How do I move forward, when I do my work? There’s this Mayan saying that I heard from Teatro Campesino — ‘In Lak’ech,’ which means, ‘I see you, you see me.’ It’s one of unity. Seeing yourself in others, that’s what that means. Thinking of your younger self, what you want in others. Wanting to raise others, and not tear other people down.

“I’d like to believe in people speaking up. At least in my community, I’ve seen a lot more people stand up. It gives me hope and courage. I’ve also seen people get shut down. Letting people have their space to survive is important. Then having those uncomfortable conversations — it’s ongoing. If you’re not creating actionable steps, then what are you doing?

Guerrero believes in education, and has spent time as a teaching artist at South Coast Repertory, among other theatrical venues.

“There’s some amazing children, and missed opportunities,” she said. “If we don’t better their situation, we’re losing our future.”

Richard Chang is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC, focusing on the visual arts. He can be reached at richiechang@gmail.com.