A man leans over, stretching his neck to catch a glimpse of the slowly approaching bus. He digs desperately in his pocket for the loose change that will complete his fare. Writer Marisela Norte observes, fascinated by his every move.
“She watches humanity, in certain corners. She gives us the raw material,” says Roberto Cantu, professor of Chicano studies at California State University Los Angeles.
Norte, 55, is an East Los Angeles-based writer who sees different shades of color in a black-and-white world. She draws from life on the streets to tell stories of often-overlooked human interactions that reveal raw emotions.
“If you want to know about Paris, read [Balzac’s] novels,” said Cantu. “You want to understand Mexico City, you want to read Carlos Fuentes.”
Marisela Norte, he adds, “is a key to Los Angeles.” Norte, who was born to Mexican parents and has Jewish ancestry too, grew up in East Los Angeles, where her surroundings became a vital setting for her fiction, poetry, and performance art.
Norte’s “reality stars” consist of local characters, such as an old lady carrying her groceries home, a man drinking in a bar, and kids playing at Evergreen Cemetery. She is an observer of the working class.
“I gravitate towards people who you may never hear about, much less, [see] written about,” she says. “Those are the lives that I find very interesting.”
A WITNESS TO EVERYDAY LIFE
Norte’s first book of stories, “Peeping Tom Tom Girl,” is narrated by a woman who eavesdrops, witnesses, and observes life as it passes by. “I am ‘peeping Tom Tom girl,’” she says, “and from my seat on the downtown bus, I have been driven though, been witness to, invaded by, las vidas de ella.”
Although many in literary circles consider Norte to be a model for the growing number of Chicano writers today, she rejects most labels, including poet, Catholic, Jewish or Chicana. In a story called “976 Loca,” she writes about the removal of labels from discount clothes, which she compares to her rejection of personal labels.
Instead, she prefers to describe herself as a bus rider, a friend, a lover, a cousin, a sister, a person who likes shopping on César Chávez Avenue.
ROOTS OF A WRITER
Since she was a child, Norte had been private about her writing, until the day she saw an advertisement for a Latino Writers Workshop in a sketchy part of downtown Los Angeles. After persuading her reluctant father to drive her there, Norte walked into a room and gathered the courage to read her stories aloud.
She remembers the crowd’s reaction. ‘“Where have you been? How come we don’t know who you are?” they said to her. Norte had just opened the door to a future as a writer and spoken word performer.
A STINT IN A “CIRCUS”
Soon, Norte began experimenting with other forms of art and briefly joined the influential Chicano performance art collective known as Asco, which emerged from East Los Angeles in the 1970s. Norte said of her experience with Asco: “I just want to say it was a circus. I have always wanted to run away and join a circus, and I did.”
“Marisela just stepped to the stage and did a piece with us, and we really enjoyed the way people responded to her and her uniqueness,” says Glucio “Gronk” Nicandro, of the first time Norte performed with Asco. Nicandro, an internationally-renowned visual artist, was one of the original members of Asco. Over the years, Nicandro and Norte built a close friendship, and they continue to draw inspiration from each other.
“Creatively, she doesn’t buy into a lot of the notions of what’s expected of her, as a woman in particular,” says Nicandro. “The environment she’s exploring ”“ that is the uniqueness of her work, something engaging and poetic.”
At a very young age, Norte developed a passion for film, photography and literature””interests introduced to her by her father, a film projectionist, and her mother, an avid reader. Later, her passion for film and art developed into something more complex.
Her father told her that all of Los Angeles was hers. Norte took that invitation to heart. Today, she can’t resist writing and photographing what she sees on the streets. She came to understand that art was everywhere in the city, including in people’s interactions.
“Peeping Tom Tom Girl,” her collection of stories, was published in 2008. Norte said a book was “long overdue.”
Cantu recommends Norte’s book to his students because he feels it connects people and makes them analyze life in Los Angeles. Norte’s writings have made him see his city in a different way, he said.
“I feel like taking the bus now,” said Cantu, flipping through “Peeping Tom Tom Girl.” “She does things my eyes and my imagination will never be able to replicate.”