Spotlight Excerpt from ‘Underneath the Palm Trees’
This memoir excerpt was written by Eva Recinos in Megan Stielstra’s 12-Month Memoir Generator
Growing up in one of the most stereotyped neighborhoods of Los Angeles, a short drive from one of the wealthiest private universities in America, Eva Recinos saw higher education as a means to reach the American Dream. Underneath the Palm Trees is a reflection of her journey as a first-generation student pursuing perfection and her own dreams, all while telling herself she can’t let her parents down.
Structured around the rules she and others imposed on herself, this vibrant memoir in essays asks the question: If you follow all the rules, will you become the perfect daughter, student and American? And at what cost? Recinos touches on the effects of straddling two disparate worlds at home and at school in essays on her bisexuality while at Catholic school, gentrification within her neighborhood and herself, and the often unseen mental health difficulties of first-generation daughters.
If I had to be alone anywhere, it would be in a museum.
I discovered this as an adult but I can trace back some of that passion to little kid me, the girl with braces and glasses trying to get straight As. In middle school, I wrote a paper analyzing a painting—I can’t tell you exactly which one, but my mind conjures up a classical landscape piece—that made my teacher pay attention. She asked me, after class one day, if I’d plagiarized the paper. I was flustered and said of course not, because I didn’t like to break rules. Especially that one. School meant everything to me. I told her I just looked at the piece and read a little and wrote the essay. I don’t mention this to brag, only to bring up the image of that little girl in a museum, making the connection between visual art and words in a way that felt new.
I forgot about art history for a bit, until high school when I immediately signed up for AP Art History because I wanted another AP class on my transcript, since my counselors told me it would help my chances of college admission. Our class felt intimate and focused, a group of female students led by a teacher who obviously loved talking about art. The textbook was huge, chronicling art through the ages. I carried it proudly like an ancient tome. If someone had offered me the chance to stay in a castle somewhere remote so I could read and annotate the entire book, I would have said yes in a heartbeat.
I felt a sense of calm in the dark as we looked at the slides in class. The images told chapters in history in a way that drew me in more than any other textbook had. Art history proved that people had been creating since the beginning, putting visuals to the places and events around them. In that first exposure to art history, I thought about the ways in which we left legacies behind. Even if the artist was unknown, someone made that piece. And we sat in the dark and studied it, from its materials to its era to its composition. Time frozen, history preserved.
I was disappointed every time class ended. I packed away my index cards and flipped through them when I got home, trying and trying to soak in the dates and the knowledge and the inspiration. My love for art history happened unexpectedly, but I knew I wanted to learn more.
College exposed me to even more mediums and eras. I watched my history of photography teacher give lecture after lecture and wondered how she could hold so much information. But when I started to think more closely about museums, and when I learned that the history I needed to know was mostly comprised of white artists, the subject didn’t feel so close to my heart anymore.
I started to think that I’d better get used to not seeing my experience reflected. I was willing to learn about all the classic paintings: the Renaissance pieces with their weird-looking holy babies; the Greek statues that mimicked the texture of marble and drapery; the architectural parts of chapels in European places I’d never been to or heard of; the portraits of posh, fair-skinned people.
But I wanted, craved , something different from art, especially contemporary art. And I found it—only to realize I wouldn’t often see it in institutions.
There are a few exceptions to the rule, but they are rare. I learned that visual art is about beauty, but the definition of beauty is anything but apolitical. Art is anything but apolitical. Those classes I took aren’t just about rote memorization. They’re about creating a culture, and marking what’s important and what’s not. To prove I really knew my stuff, I had to name all the old school masters (all men) and then all the contemporary icons (mostly men, or white women). I realized, soon enough, that none of the bodies reflected in these masterpieces looked like me or the people around me.
Somehow, I missed the history in my own hometown. I don’t remember anyone telling me much about it, at least not so urgently that it stood out in my memory, the way the old masters did. The art movement in Leimert Park, just a ten minute drive away from my home, happened during the same decades that proved formative for contemporary art.
Brothers David and Alonzo Brockman opened the Brockman Gallery in 1967 because they wanted to offer the space and support that Black artists lacked. Though the gallery shuttered in 1989, its impact on artists and the surrounding community remained. It’s telling that spaces created by white men, like the Ferus Gallery of the 1950s and 1960s, came up often in contemporary art texts when I was a student. Who gets named a major player and who gets left out?
Brockman Gallery supported artists whose work you can see in major museums today in permanent collections, not just the (often) one-time-a-year show that an institution puts on to meet its diversity quota. Galleries and museums in major cities are still grappling with this issue today because art lovers are asking for more. We want to see the populations of these cities reflected in the people who work there and the people who get exhibited. We want the spaces to feel more welcoming for everyone, not just an elite group. Galleries and museums have catered to white, rich art enthusiasts for much of their history and it was tough to love a world that made me feel like an outsider so often.
Even the major art terms and styles were often attributed to white men. In the 1960s, artists like Noah Purifoy and Judson Powell re-envisioned objects from the Watts Riots as pieces for artworks. Yet, found object art (where you turn an existing item into something else) and assemblage (where you put seemingly unrelated items together to create an artwork) are both linked to Picasso and then, up until contemporary times, associated with non-Black and non-POC artists.
In South of Pico: African American Artists in Los Angeles in the 1960s and 1970s , Kellie Jones writes that the found-art exhibition “66 Signs of Neon” featured the work of numerous artists shaping this aesthetic. It debuted at the Simon Rodia Commemorative Watts Renaissance of Arts Festival and then “traveled for three years nationally and internationally, an envoy from the streets of South Central Los Angeles.” It all started with six assemblage pieces that were “ created from the lead drippings of melted neon signs, artifacts of the riots,” according to the exhibition catalog. These are the types of artworks that require close looking from multiple angles so you can see each part.
I didn’t find assemblage interesting in college when we talked about it, and I thought it was because the idea of found object art didn’t move me. Why did I care about objects that didn’t have a specific tie to the artist? And why should I spend time with a work that often seemed haphazardly put together? But the root of the work that Judson and Purifoy created was different. “The transformational action that Purifoy found in the creation of assemblage refuted the negative spin found in the materials themselves and in the places they came from. It was the difference between ‘Watts knows about junk’ and ‘Watts is junk,’” Jones writes. These objects were part of the spaces around them and part of a turning point in history.
I didn’t learn much about these artists or spaces in college—even though USC is in the same city, the same geographical area as this history. I vaguely remember a school visit to Leimert Park, perhaps in elementary school, but that was it. I would’ve traded the multiple visits to established museums in college for ones to Leimert Park, not for the white kids in my class to exoticize the area, but for me to see it with new eyes.
There’s another education I did get. I learned about color and movement from the hand lettering on the painted signs of the small businesses in South Central—the corner store or the fish shop or the wig spot or the car wash. I learned from the graffiti across from the Slauson Super Mall, an outdoor feast for the eyes.
I started to look again, closely, at the art near me—like the long, vivid mural known as “The Crenshaw Wall” (or “Great Wall of Crenshaw”) that was just a short drive from my house. Created by Artist collective Rocking The Nation, it’s a twelve-artist effort that takes up a long wall you might miss if you’re just driving by. It’s an homage that traces slavery to Black Panther history and leads up to Afro-futurism. The text “in the beginning” floats in blocky letters that seem to almost emerge from the wall with bright blue and yellow hues.
A Black woman with long braids lets out a breath that reveals birds flying toward the pyramids of Egypt, a vignette that shows the start of civilization. The next text block reads “Ancient Kemet” and shows animals and kingdoms before the wall is covered in dark blue waves of the ocean and the word “stolen” surrounded by chains. We see ships and people who are enslaved, before the composition transitions to a portrait of Frederick Douglass, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Black Panthers, interspersed with scenes of athletes. We see musicians, dancers, artists—and a young figure putting their pen to the page. The Afro-futuristic scenes tie everything together, showing complex architecture and a woman giving birth to an inky scene punctuated with color that represents the cosmos. To see this history displayed outside—with no need for museum admission or a time limit to view it—is to bring art and visibility to the community in a way that spans generations.
I owe a lot to the artistry that doesn’t get an entry in a textbook—and doesn’t need one to be legitimate. In college, I started a street art blog, keeping my identity mostly anonymous and focusing instead on taking pictures of the pieces I saw. I didn’t discriminate: I snapped photos of murals on the walls of liquor stores and large pieces done by artist groups in other parts of the city. Once, a Latinx couple watched as I took photos of a piece near a gas station fifteen minutes away from home. I’d parked my car right next to it, stopping to get my photos.
They asked, “Did you paint this?”
No, I replied. I was just appreciating it.