I was born at 2:57 am in Los Angeles California on Wednesday, October 31, 1984.
On this day Indira Gandhi, India’s first and only female Prime Minister was assassinated by her own bodyguards, Ronald Reagan was only a few days away from being re-elected despite rumours he was suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease, Billy Ocean’s "Caribbean Queen (No More Love on the Run)" was the US number one single, James Cameron’s The Terminator was the top film at the box-office with a just-over four million dollar gross, and, after 359 years, Pope John Paul II declared the Roman Catholic Church had wrongly condemned Galileo for his work that said the Earth revolved around the Sun.
Supposedly I was meant to be born the next day, November 1. But the way my mother describes it, once I decided I wanted out, there was no stopping me. In fact, she once referred to her birth canal as a “waterslide,” which used to gross me the fuck out. Apparently, they almost didn’t make it to the hospital. As a soon to be Scorpio, I probably relished the drama of being born on the side of a freeway in the middle of the night, but it also makes a lot of sense that my love of drama was trumped by my love of good art direction, and the inside of a beat-up dark green AMC Gremlin was certainly not serving up that fantasy. So instead, I gripped the sides of the waterslide and held on until we were safely inside White Memorial Medical Centre.
At birth, I was nineteen and a half inches long and eight pounds, zero ounces. The back of my birth certificate features my tiny footprints in light purple. The left is rubbed almost clean, and the right is on its last leg. There is a clear imprint on the right foot of a round bandage where they pricked me for a blood sample. My first photo shows gigantic cheeks, an almost full head of hair, and pale skin that had yet to darken up to the caramel lusciousness that it is now. My parents used to joke that the staff actually mixed up photos and for all these years we’ve been looking at the baby of the East Asian family down the hall who was born on the same day.
My mother and I were soon discharged and we returned to my father and sister. We lived in a room of a house located in el barrio of East LA, a place that according to Wikipedia is 96.7% Latinx. The exact number of people who also lived in this house varies. The figure seems to have fluctuated between 10 and 20, all illegal save for me. The four of us slept in one bed. My sister was three, my parents were in their early twenties. Occasionally, with terrifying clarity, I can understand how, when they look at me, a barely educated, just above poverty line 33-year-old with no children, living in a run-down townhouse with three other people in one of the country’s biggest most competitive cities, it might look less like progress and more like a lateral step. Then I think of the time I read somewhere it can take a whole generation for immigrant families to truly see advancement in their new home and I wonder if I shouldn’t have children after all. You know, for the culture. Then I remember I'm too selfish for children and the weight of expectation returns.
At the time of my birth, my father was working at a tortilla factory, an experience he has described as pretty horrible. My mother worked for a rich Latin-American family as their maid and occasional nanny. She has said her employers were wonderful, still in touch with their roots, but their children, having grown up with everything, were terrible brats.
I have no memory of Los Angeles in 1984. After I was born, we lived there only until Monday, April 15, 1985, a few days after Madonna launched her Virgin Tour, when South Africa ended its ban on interracial marriages, "We Are the World" was at the top of the charts, and Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment was number one at the box office. We moved to Saskatchewan where, as the plane was touching down, my mother peered out her window, saw the dead trees, and thought to herself while clutching me tight, “What have we done?”
It's been said by people much smarter than me that we’re shaped by our landscapes. Five months in a city seems like nothing, but babies are basically loaf-sized sponges. They have no idea what anything is yet are acutely aware of and affected by their surroundings. I’ve always tied my deep desire to live in large urban centres to being ripped from the hustle and bustle of LA and being dropped into the flat nothingness of Saskatchewan. I tie my distaste for being even slightly cold to the contrast between my first weather experiences: the harsh bite of early spring in Canada after the warm samey-sameness of beautiful southern California.
It’s a bit of a cliché to romanticize The Golden State, I know. Especially for a Canadian in the arts. It’s probably even more problematic for someone whose family experienced some of the worst poverty, racism, and classism that Los Angeles had to offer. California, like America, is sold to the world as the place where dreams come true, where magic is created, where the tortured artist can become fabulously wealthy and celebrated. These things can be true. But we’ve also all seen its dark side: the exploitation of foreign workers, the exploitation of young performers, the steep class divide. It’s a place, like so many others, built on broken bones and dreams. Yet somehow it still calls to me.
I’ve examined this impulse in the past and come up with many reasons why. I’ve told myself this compulsion is based on an immature yearning to run away, or the infant sized void only a pilgrimage to one’s birthplace can fill. I’ve convinced myself LA is the only place one can truly “make it,” the only place to gain the kind of recognition I crave for my art. When I talk about this desire my friends roll their eyes, immediately conjuring up the same images we’ve all become accustomed to: the sun-dappled beaches, the endless traffic, the new age-y faux spiritualist posture of the uber rich, the stars in the eyes, the delusion.
No, America is not the only place to “make it.” California is not the only place with nice weather. They're places with shitty health care, astronomical rent, horrendous immigration law, the kind of racist vitriol that turns your blood to ice. Where queer identities and women’s bodies are disrespected, where corruption and ignorance have become a new religion. America the dream maker is a shambles. And Hollywood the mighty machine is destroying itself from within.
Still, it calls.
I think buried beneath it all is a need to conquer the place where my family lived with those 10-20 illegal immigrants, where we slept in one bed with rats on the floor, where we were refused food stamps for anyone but the legal baby, where the threat of deportation and familial separation hung over every move. Things I wasn’t even conscious enough to understand but that were inherently woven into the fabric of our time there. Things that have since been reiterated to me again and again, seeping into the deepest recesses of my being. It’s not enough to be satisfied with the country we escaped to and it’s supposed promise of safety and diversity. I’ve got to go back and show the place we escaped from who's boss.
This is the kind of thing I’m not supposed to write. It’s considered un-Canadian to speak freely of our ambitions. We’re supposed to be humble and nice, beset by crushing inferiority complexes, the polar opposite of Americans. We're never supposed to be churlish to the land that made us modest and kind. This cultural rule is as much a part of me as my need to subvert it. Because as much as these qualities can be good, they can also be stifling, and can most definitely be a facade. Humility becomes performative, drive is suppressed. There should be nothing wrong with wanting to - and believing - you can make it all the way to the top. In Canada it seems we’re expected to be grateful for settling somewhere in the middle.
Every industry has its problems, no doubt, but the Canadian need to find an umbrella identity of “Canada Nice, Canada Humble” (aka Rural, majority white) in my opinion often pushes more artists away than it welcomes in.
And so, it calls. And calls. And calls. And calls…
Maybe now… now that I’m five foot, eight and a half inches, about 140 pounds, when my footprint wouldn’t even fit on my birth certificate, when Post Malone’s "Rockstar" is at the top of the charts, when Thor: Ragnarok is the number one film at the box office, when the world and my chosen industry seem at their scariest... maybe I could return. To the place I was born, a land of perpetual summer and dreams beyond any dreams. Maybe, Los Angeles, 1984 was not only the beginning but also the end.
Or maybe I’m crazy, maybe I'm delusional, maybe I'm ungrateful and I should just be happy with where I am.