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By Omar Pablo
Growing up in the 1950’s in the San Gabriel Valley city of Monrovia, James Demetrio O’Balles experienced racial discrimination and saw people beaten up by other people or police. That helped him become aware of the issues that affect his community and world. At one point he realized there were few art galleries where people of color can visit or expose. In the interview, in which he introduced himself as “Jim,” he described his journey and the experiences that inspired him to become an art curator.
Even though this was a virtual interview, O’Balles was very respectful and welcoming, even invited the reporter to come over to his house, to observe his art collection. He says he enjoys observing the diverse colors that illuminate the artwork. Very familiar with the history of Boyle Heights (and other places), he enjoys sharing his knowledge, observation, and experiences with others.
This interview from March was translated and edited for length and clarity.
Boyle Heights Beat: What was your hometown when you were a child?
Jim O’Balles: Monrovia, California. Monrovia. Was born there.
BHB: Is there any particular place or experience within your hometown that you [recall]?
JO’B: When I was a child in Monrovia [it] was segregated… From Colorado Boulevard to way down to the railroad tracks, Duarte Road, black and brown people lived. Mexican Americans, African Americans. All the white people lived above Colorado Boulevard, up to the foothills and above the foothills. It was very segregated. During the summer, we can only go to the plunge, the swimming pool, on one particular day, black and brown kids. The rest of the week was for white kids. I experienced [that] as a child growing up in a segregated neighborhood. But we had a lot of fun in the streets playing.
BHB: I am aware that you’re involved in the Roybal Foundation, and that your father was part of his campaign.
JO’B: Mr. Roybal was the first Chicano, Mexican American, whatever you want to call him, from Boyle Heights… actually, he was the first Mexican American to become a city council member in LA, back in 1947. And he later became the very first or the second in the whole country, congressman in the United States, Mexican American, Chicano. And his daughter right now Lucille is a congresslady, you know. She doesn’t represent East LA, it’s more Santa Fe springs and that area. Lucille Allard is her married name. She’s the daughter of Mr. Roybal and during his time as Councilman and Congressman, he was like the mero mero for Chicanos/Latinos in California. United States actually. I’m a board member of the foundation.
BHB: Is there any particular thing that you learned from your father working at the Roybal campaign? Did he mention any messages or anything inspiring?
JO’B: Well, he said a lot of things inspiring, but he was very pro our gente, to get education and to pursue your career. And to never forget your own. Your own people, your gente; he was very, he was really proud. Nobody called themselves Chicanos back in those days, when he was coming up. That came later in the 60s. You were either a Mexican or… American if you were born here. My dad called himself a Mexican American. I think later, they started getting into Latino or Latina, now it’s Latinx, right? And then Chicano or Chicana, Chicanx, right? That all happened later.
BHB: How have you experienced your community changing over time? Did you witness any racial discrimination against you? Or any people of color? Or against minority groups?
JO’B: All the time, growing up. Except they used to beat you up, the police, or other people, they didn’t shoot you, you know, like they do nowadays. A lot of them do, right. They just beat you up back then. So I got beaten up a lot of times, not just by the police. You know, if you went into the wrong barrio, you’re in trouble.
BHB: Was there any particular or upbringing experience that inspired you to organize cultural events, and [become] the founder of organizations such as the Monrovia Latino heritage Society?
JO’B: Well, I’m one of the founders of the Monrovia Latino Heritage Society. And that was back then, but I’ve always… I remember when I was a kid, I’ll tell you the story if you want to use it. So I was young,18, I got drafted into the army, and I was at Fort Ord which is in Central California, and was going to the training. I then went to Vietnam after the training, I was lucky enough to come back. I was in the army for two years. While I was up in Fort Ord they gave me a leave pass, so you could go to town. So I went to Salinas. While I was in Salinas, having something to eat and drink with some guys in the army, a little kind of a bar, I heard a lot of marchers come down the Main Street and, and… so this is 1968. So, before you guys were born, right?
JO’B: So they were coming. They were marching down the street. It was the farmworkers, César Chávez and Dolores Huerta. They were a big parade coming down to, you know, for the farm workers. And, I have never seen that. So many Mexicans, Mexican Americans, Chicanos organize that way. This was way before the moratorium they had here later, right? In the 70s. So, the police came and just start beating all these people. You know, men, women, kids. So that’s the first time I’d ever seen that kind of brutality, like mass scale. This is before I went to Vietnam, so I was upset. I think that was the beginning of my social consciousness. Wanting to get well, which I did after I came back to Vietnam, I had to stay alive, right? So there you go.
“A lot of places, what they do, they’ll come up with a theme, they’ll post it up, and then they tell artists to submit their work, to be accepted or rejected. I don’t like to do that. I don’t like to tell an artist “man this stuff is no good.” I don’t like to do that. I reach out to the artists I know [can] do the work. And I think they have a feel for the concept of exhibit.”
BHB: I am aware that you have done a couple of shows at Self Help Graphics here in Boyle Heights. Can you tell me more about that?
JO’B: Yeah, I did a number of shows. One show I did was about the 43 college students, that… 43 students in Mexico got abducted by police and turned over to the militia or drug lords or whatever. And they disappeared. And they’ve never recovered them. Their bodies are still… became really a big thing in Mexico. And for a lot of people here too. So I called the show “Ayotzinapa.” That was a big show. There were a lot of artists [who] participated. Another one I did here was “Sanctuary,” about the kids that get abducted on the border, all over actually. The last one I did, Self Help Graphics 2019, was “Black, Brown and Beige.”
BHB: How were you able to come up with these shows? Was it easy for you to organize them?
JO’B: Well, I’m an independent curator. I come up with a theme. Okay, what is this art exhibit going to be about? And then once I come up with a theme, I go to different galleries or art centers and make a presentation and see if it’s something they might want me to put on there. And there’s not a lot of art galleries that you know, Chicanos or Latinos can go to and put on shows. A lot of them are real small. And so if they’re interested, you know, I reach out to artists I know, mostly artists around LA, so I’ll reach out to them. The ones I think, because I know their work, you know, they might be interested in doing… and so they usually all accept. And then I start coming up with, I tell them to start working, I tell certain ones to come up with some artwork that I know, you know, some of the artists work fast, some work slow. So it takes about… from the time I find a place that agrees with the show, takes about three, four months to actually put it together and have a reception and exhibit for one month, two months, three months sometimes. A lot of places, what they do, they’ll come up with a theme, they’ll post it up, and then they tell artists to submit their work, to be accepted or rejected. I don’t like to do that. I don’t like to tell an artist now “man this stuff is no good.” I don’t like to do that. I reach out to the artists I believe… I know they could do the work. And I think they have a feel for the concept of exhibit. And then as soon as I get a good… as soon as one of the artists does something that I think is really good, I’ll take it to the print shop, and I’ll use it as a postcard for the show. You know, then pass them out or put it on Facebook or what you guys are doing now… smart chat. What?
JO’B: That stuff. I’m learning.
BHB: What made you decide to become an art curator?
JO’B: Because, when I was 18, after high school, I was going to PCC in Pasadena, Pasadena City College. And so I did a year. And most colleges, I think to the day, you gotta put one year into education, general ed, kind of.
BHB: Now it’s two years, two years general.
JO’B: Back then it was just one year. Two years, that’s kind of like a drag, like in high school. Right? Before you can jump into what you really want to study. So I did one year of PCC, but I didn’t have a car. So a friend of mine told me… that he knew someone that had a really nice car and it was kind of cheap. So I dropped out of the next semester and got a job, saved my money, and when I had enough I bought the car. [Then] I got a notice that I was drafted. See, back then, if you stayed in college, you had a deferment. You didn’t have to go to the army. If you were working, you had no choice, you have to go. So that’s why I was going to college. I didn’t want to go to Vietnam. I had nothing against the Vietcong. But I wasn’t as smart as I am now. I wanted a car so I messed up. When I came back I tried to go to school, East LA College, just partying too much. And so, now I got married, had kids, and never really got into art, right? Becoming a great painter, artist, and life happened. But I’ve always loved art. I am always involved. I’ve always been involved in art in some kind of way. I’ve had art galleries myself. You know, I’ve always loved Chicano art, or Latino art, right, African American art. So now, my particular art shows, it’s easier.
“I grew up with men who will fight. If you get drafted, they want you to go to war. You can’t say no, you can’t run away. So I went in [to Vietnam.] I had nothing against the Vietnamese people. In fact, I was educated or smart enough to know that we were on the wrong side. [The] Vietnam War was probably one of the few wars United States lost, and I happened to be there. It kind of messed up my plans for my life, but you have to deal with it. It changed me, but I figured things out.”
BHB: You were sent to Vietnam. What was your reaction to leaving the community behind? And how has this experience impacted the way you view your community and the world?
JO’B: First of all, I didn’t want to go. But when you get drafted, you have to go. You either go to Canada, or you go to Mexico. We come back here and then put you in prison.
My grandparents, you know, before the 20th century, after the 1890s, they came from . Zacatecas, which is [one of] the northern states, next to Jalisco. So my dad was born here. Mexican American. I was born here, Mexican American. So, you know, World War I. World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War… the most highly decorated soldiers, like the bravery and battle and all that, were Mexican Americans. They got more medals than everybody else, you know, every white, black or whoever, Mexicans got the most medals, because they’re like, they listen to Mariachi music and they want to go fight. Right? So, I grew up with that kind of, I grew up with men that way, who will fight. So if you get drafted, you’re supposed to… they want you to go to war. You can’t say no, you can’t run away, your family like, “hey!” So I went in, and like I said, I had nothing against the Vietnamese people. In fact I was, I think, educated or smart enough to know that we were on the wrong side. The Vietnamese were in a civil war, like the North against the South here in the United States, and if you join the south you’re on the wrong side. And if you were fighting the Vietnamese, who were fighting for North Vietnam, that was their country. And, they were fighting against the South Vietnamese, and they had the backing of the United States. Way across the Pacific Ocean, because the United States didn’t want to lose that country to communism, because they had political reasons. They end up losing. Vietnam War was probably one of the few wars United States lost, and I happened to be there. It kind of messed up my plans for my life, but you have to deal with it? It changed me, you know, but I figured things out. Right now, we’re sitting here talking, there are guys on Skid Row over there Fourth, Fifth and San Pedro, that came from Vietnam. They were so messed up, they’re still there. That’s like 50 years ago. You know, they were 20. Now they’re like me, 70. That’s how messed up they were. So I was one of the fortunate few that survived and went on with life. By the way guys didn’t because a lot of them had blood on their hands, maybe accidentally killed kids or something messed them up. So, if you ever have to go to war try to figure out a way to get out of it. Same thing with the guys going to Iraq, Afghanistan. They’re coming back all messed up.
BHB: Is there anything particular that you’re really passionate about, being an art curator?
JO’B: Well, I think that, like all art, with some art… if you were here, you’d see what I mean. You [could] see what Jackie sees. So you would know what kind of art I like. You’re invited to come with Jackie next time and check it out.
BHB: How would you describe your art to someone who can’t see it?
JO’B: It’s art that celebrates Latino cultura. It celebrates our culture. Not just Mexico but from here, in Central America, South America, the Caribbean, because I feel that Latinos, Latinas, Chicanas, Chicanos now, is hard to kind of identify because even now there’s Afro Latinas, right. It seems to me, we, Latinos and Latinas are, Latinx are gifted in the visuals. You know, you go to Mexico or Central America, South, Caribbean, this color, lots of color, bold color. We as a people, I’m not talking about country, or ethnic; we love color, you know, visuals. And it seems to me that African Americans excel in music, I mean, not that we’re not good musicians, right. If you go through all Latin America, and United States, its African American music, you know, that has influenced all of us. You go through Mexico, all the different forms of music, Central America here in the United States, you know, whether it’s soul, rhythm and blues or rap, all of it, jazz, stems from the Black experience. And same thing.
[…] That’s the art. Long way to tell you, that’s the art I love.
BHB: Yesterday, I was walking here in Boyle Heights, going to the store. There was a wall that didn’t have anything and then just yesterday, they created it. They kind of presented the Mexican culture. And for me, I don’t see art that much, but when I see art, I see it and I try to take it in. As you mentioned, I try to take every color that there is, and try to find the meaning behind that art. That’s what I found interesting about art. So do you think it helps build connections with other people or with other culturas? With people with different backgrounds? Do you think that it helps connect both people within the art? Do you think we’re able to unite or bring communities together with the help of art?
JO’B: Well, that’s a good question. […]
So about five years ago here in Boyle Heights. People [with] money had taken over the art district, the art district was totally different, right across the river, where Little Tokyo is, right? So Little Tokyo is over here and the art district was here, and then the river, the bridge… the Fourth Street Bridge comes over to Boyle Heights. So right there on Mission and Anderson, there’s a lot of factories and warehouses. But five years ago, people were coming in, like they did in Highland Park and Silver Lake, they were coming in to gentrify Boyle Heights. They were buying the big warehouses turning into big art galleries. And that’s the first step. What they do, they come in, they open up art galleries and shops and coffee shops, and so on, boutiques. And then the developers come in, that’s what they call whitewashing, you know, and they come in and establish a trendy place. And so everybody started hanging out, coming. Then they build the condominiums, and they push all the poor people, the renters, people in little houses. They buy up all that land and keep pushing.
Well, there was a group called Defend Boyle Heights, bunch of young militants. They would go into the dark galleries with buckets of paint and just barge in and just blast the walls, even the paintings and the people with paint. And they did it for a couple of years. And they ran them out. People started closing down all these art galleries and shops. It’s not to say they won’t come back, but they stopped them. Otherwise around here would be very trendy, probably right now. A lot of young, white people, and all these Latinos will be pushed that way or pushed somewhere else.
So, when you put art on the walls, you know, when you see art all over the walls and the neighborhood, the people trying to gentrify have a hard time knocking down a wall or painting over it, because it’s been registered as a monument. A historical monument. So that’s why they were going to Mission and Anderson, there’s no murals over there. If they come over here, they have to knock all the buildings down, they’re gonna have a hard time getting permission […]. So Boyle Heights is safe for now. Would you want gentrification to happen here?
“There’s sad music, the blues. And you have the rancheras, right? There’s all kinds of music. And art is that way. Some art is joyful. Some art is sad. But I like colorful art. I like art that celebrates life. And most Latino art is that way, very colorful. So it’s like we celebrate our cultura and our history. And if you raise kids around that, they get a sense of wellbeing. If you raise kids with music and art, they learn better, easier. And feel good about themselves.”
JO’B: Neither would I. Okay, so artists and activists are the ones who have stopped them. They didn’t stop them in a lot of places around LA, even South Central. You know, they haven’t stopped, but here they have. That’s something good, right? That’s why I’m here.
Did you take all that down?
JO’B: Well, you don’t have to use all of it. Use what you want.
BHB: Was there a particular awareness or message that you wanted to express to your audience or to the people through the arts?
JO’B: Art [is] like music, right. There’s sad music, the blues. And you have the rancheras, right? There’s all kinds of music and people express… You want to feel really good about ,you know… You can listen to whatever you want to party, listen to whatever. And so art is that way. Some art is joyful. Some art is sad. An artist can take you on a deep dive, you know, whoa… But I like colorful art. I like art that celebrates life. And most Latino art is that way, very colorful. So it’s like we celebrate our cultura and our history. And if you raise kids around that, you know, they get a sense of wellbeing. If you raise kids with music and art, they tend, they tend to be, you know, they learn better, easier. And feel good about themselves.
BHB: So do you think that through this art you’re able to know more about your community? Do you think that you’re able to understand the issues or the problems that your community has faced over time?
JO’B: Well if people read the Boyle Heights Beat every time it comes in, they’ll understand what’s going on. Right?
JO’B: They’re gonna get an idea if they read every issue. You know what you guys focus on, like this assignment. If we were at the East LA Library, you go in there and you walk to the Chicano Resource Center, they have books and stuff. There’s always art there. A lot of kids, you know, from working families. Parents work one or two jobs and mamas, grandmothers, take care of the kids. And if you’re poor, or doing better than being poor… If you’re lower middle class, and you had one of the nice homes around here, but if you’re like, struggling to get out of that poor label, you live in an apartment, you live in a little house or something, you work hard, your family’s hard working, so… who gets to take the kids to the museums over there in Beverly Hills? Or downtown, or big music centers? A kid can grow up here and never go to a big museum unless the school takes them. By keeping art here, and having galleries and putting shows on, like Self Help Graphics, kids can actually come in to experience art, or have concerts in the park. So that’s what we do. We try to bring cultura, you know, celebrate our culture here. Other people’s culture, too, other people come. So kids can see it, and it’s free, And, you know, some people collect art, and then the artists are able to make a living, but they’re committed. You know, writers, reporters are committed, some do really well, some just, you know, takes a while… artists are the same thing. You got to believe in what you’re doing.
JO’B: So how did I do?
BHB: Yeah, well. Thank you for allowing me to interview you. It was an honor to hear from you. And tell me your story. I really appreciate the time you spent.
Boyle Heights Beat reporter Jackie Ramírez contributed to this interview.
This is an abridged version of an interview recorded as part of “Voices/Voces,” a storytelling project that aims to connect youth reporters with Boyle Heights and East LA elders. Voices/Voces was a 2020 finalist in (and partially funded by) the LA2050 Grants Challenge. It is also partially funded by the Snap Foundation.
Read other ‘Voices/Voces’ stories:
- Music has been a lifelong passion for Joseph Torres
- How Rubén Guevara became a Chicano Culture Sculptor
- Eloísa Venable Is happy she chose Boyle Heights to retire
- Guillermo Morales: proud to serve the best elotes in Boyle Heights
- Boyle Heights is not what it used to be, according to Ernestina López Muñoz