Leaving Your Lane: A Conversation with Lydia Otero
By Tom ZoellnerNovember 13, 2023
L.A. Interchanges: A Brown & Queer Archival Memoir by Lydia R. Otero
In their recently published L.A. Interchanges: A Brown & Queer Archival Memoir, Otero (disclosure: a friend) tells a coming-of-age story amid the electrical guts of various Los Angeles building projects and the lesbian activist scene of the early 1980s, written not just from Otero’s memories but also from their personal archive. “During my time in Los Angeles,” they write, “I squirreled away documents, as well as photographs of the Brown queer activists I worked alongside.”
TOM ZOELLNER: In your prior memoir, In the Shadows of the Freeway, the slash of Interstate 10 through Tucson plays a major role, both as a setting and as a symbol. You’ve extended the leitmotif further into this memoir of your young adulthood. It’s right there in the title, and even on the cover. And the urban roads also seem to have both positive and negative connotations in this account of your young adulthood. Was this a conscious decision to emphasize freeways, titular and otherwise? Or did it just happen?
LYDIA OTERO: It just happened. I had envisioned the cover as a collage of photos, and the book title was going to be L.A. Intersections to emphasize multiple and overlapping ethnic and gender identities. Earlier this year, I contacted the Laura Aguilar Trust because Laura had taken photographs of two individuals mentioned in the book. For those not familiar with her photography, Laura was a groundbreaking Chicana who produced innovative and intimate representations of marginalized communities.
The trust sent me eight random outtakes from the Latina Lesbian Series. Among these, the last attachment I opened featured me sitting on a rail with an L.A. freeway behind me. I had forgotten this photograph even existed but immediately recognized that this 1986 photo taken by Laura was perfect for the cover. From my perspective of the photo, I project strength and convey that I harnessed the freeway in L.A. to serve my purposes. I am a living embodiment of the intricate interplay between individual agency and a sprawling network that both physically and metaphorically threads through the city’s heart. The freeway, once an imposing divider that separated my family and community from the city’s pulse during my childhood in Tucson, now becomes an empowering part of my narrative. The decision to rename the book L.A. Interchanges felt almost predestined. Interchanges suggests more than mere roads and connections; it evokes a transformative odyssey, a journey where individuals reach pivotal junctures demanding difficult decisions.
You write about experiencing a moment in a movie theater hearing Thelma Houston’s “Don’t Leave Me This Way,” and being overcome with “unexpected emotion” at the opening of new possibilities. You and I have talked before, sort of jokingly, about the joys of 1970s radio-friendly soft pop, and I was of course pleased to see that the underappreciated Montreal balladeer Gino Vannelli also gets a favorable mention in this book. Most music critics, however, regard this genre as uncool and even embarrassing. Why do you feel so strongly about it, and why do you think it hit you as it did when it did?
Music possesses the unique power to transport us back to times and places where it held meaning. Amid an enduring episode of depression in 1978, I chanced upon Thelma Houston’s voice, its initial notes arriving as a lingering hum followed by seductive moaning, in “Don’t Leave Me This Way.” This marked a time of isolation and self-repression for me. The song’s entrance stirred up long-buried emotions, igniting a surge of desires and suppressed sexual expressions that I had kept hidden due to societal and family expectations. That song hit me so hard that I packed my bags and moved to Los Angeles that very night. Throughout my book, I weave songs into the narrative, anchoring them to specific moments, people, activities, and places. For instance, Gino Vannelli’s “I Just Wanna Stop” instantly triggers memories of intimate car make-out sessions in Downtown L.A. during the latter part of 1978 with a married woman who wanted to keep our relationship secret.
Having recently moved to L.A. just a few months earlier, I often found myself feeling far from cool. Despite having spent childhood summers there, I still grappled with the sense of being an outsider and was seeking a sense of belonging. While I was determined to connect with the Brown and queer community, I also had to prioritize securing a more stable economic footing. Although I managed to secure an apartment, my clothes were so worn out that it prompted a co-worker to gift me some new clothing.
By 1986, the puzzle pieces of my life started to fit together. I had completed my electrical apprenticeship program and had found kinship in my chosen queer family of fellow activists. My journey continued, punctuated mostly by the reverberating beats of disco songs forming a unique soundtrack of my life. Incorporating what may be perceived as “uncool” songs into my chronicle serves as a poignant reminder that life’s trajectory often follows its own musical course. I never held the presumption of positioning myself as an arbiter of what constitutes cultural “coolness.”
We’ve also had lots of conversations about the hidden hand of urban development projects in changing the personality of a city, often for the worse. Tucson had a piece ripped out of its ancient soul, for example, when real-estate entrepreneur Roy Drachman led the charge to knock over most of Barrio Nuevo to build the convention center, a civic murder you document in La Calle. But as your new book shows, you were in the frontline army of helping to remake Los Angeles in the 1980s, working as a union electrician on big-ticket projects like the Library Tower, Universal Studios’ CityWalk, Cedars-Sinai Hospital, and the Metro Red Line. Did you ever feel a sense of conflict about this, then or now?
I found immense satisfaction in my role within the construction trades. Being a part of IBEW Local 11, I wore a hard-hat sticker that proudly proclaimed “8 hours work for 8 hours pay.” The AFL-CIO had recently, although reticently, allowed women to enter the construction trades when they accepted me in 1982. I worked diligently, realizing early on that I could often outperform men due to the extra drive to prove myself. When I reached “journeyman” status in 1986, it afforded me more choices, and I purposefully opted for projects like the Library Tower and CityWalk during the late 1980s and early 1990s. However, I don’t hold fellow blue-collar workers, like myself, accountable for the rapid development of that era or for the social issues that Los Angeles grapples with today. That line of thinking would also make steel mill laborers responsible for urban growth, given the steel they produced went into constructing bridges and skyscrapers.
My journey as an electrician concluded with my work on the L.A. Coliseum in 1994, yet an unexpected twist of fate led me down the path of obtaining a PhD in history in 2003. The research involved in locating the “hidden hand” of urban development for my debut book, La Calle, took me down a trail of greed. The onus of significant projects rests on the shoulders of entities entrusted with planning, financing, and overseeing development—the so-called growth machines consisting of real-estate developers, construction companies, banking and investment firms, and other stakeholders.
In La Calle, I had become an outspoken critic of growth machines in Tucson. Construction workers were excluded from decision-making processes that resulted in unprecedented community displacement and destruction in my hometown. They earned hourly wages and didn’t share in the profits reaped by figures like Roy Drachman, who had unconstructive influence in reshaping Tucson according to his visions of racial exclusion and segregation.
I do not carry a sense of conflict over being part of construction crews that invested their labor into structures and transportation undertakings, such as the Metro Rail and the Century Freeway, now emblematic of L.A. Over recent years, my focus has shifted toward acknowledging the laborers behind these distinct structures, rather than merely memorializing the politicians, developers, and architects enshrined on plaques of commemoration. Apart from the failure to organize, I never hold the laboring classes guilty of the ills of capitalism.
You were an activist with Lesbians of Color in 1979, and later in Lesbianas Unidas, and welcomed the term dyke for its candor and brash quality. Today, you identify as queer and nonbinary. The terminology has certainly gotten more expansive in the last four decades, and the changing terms have been disorienting to some. Have you noticed a difference between how sexual and gender identities and their evolving language are discussed in two worlds that you know well: that of progressive-minded academia versus blue-collar households in Tucson?
Both these realms acknowledge the ongoing expansion of gender identity; it’s hard to overlook. I don’t exactly see these two worlds as being at odds. Among academics, I know some that resent and resist using more inclusive language when discussing gender identity, even though they work in institutions at the forefront of adopting gender-neutral terminology and fostering conversations about gender diversity and identity.
In both spheres, it appears that I frequently encounter generational resistance when the topic of gender identity arises. These shifts often indicate a refusal to change, like when someone says, “I grew up in the 1960s. I shouldn’t have to keep up with all these new identities popping up.” Such statements seem to justify their lack of understanding across gender-diverse communities. As a queer individual, this attitude signals to me that they may not genuinely want to comprehend my experiences. In the 1980s, I often felt constrained by the rigid gender norms, and I know now that I felt uncomfortable identifying as a woman. Instead of saying, “I am a lesbian,” I mostly referred myself as a dyke because the term seemed more to the point, and it reflected my masculine-leaning resourcefulness. Despite my lingering discomfort, lesbian spaces came closest to mirroring my experiences and desires in the 1980s, and I was forced to fit into the “women” category. I value the increasing diversity in gender identities. Personally, identifying as trans nonbinary more accurately encompasses my authentic self, my life experiences, and my evolving gender identity.
A good portion of the book deals with the intersection between political activism and friendship. You met a ton of interesting people through the movement—it feels like there were as many parties as there were petition drives, and also some infighting. Do you see the same kind of spontaneous community formation in today’s politics now that LGBTQ+ is more mainstreamed and less “underground”?
Back in the 1980s, there wasn’t a road map for organizing. My personal inspiration came from the United Farm Workers and the women’s movement, although I opted out of joining the ranks of white feminists due to their racism. I also wanted to avoid the potential stigma of being openly queer in a Chicano-inspired movement. Gay and Lesbian Latinos Unidos managed to weave elements from both movements into their ideological fabric. While we felt that we were charting novel paths for organizing, I wouldn’t exactly label them as “spontaneous community formations.” Their inception in 1981 marked the beginning, and they gradually gained members over the subsequent years. I’d perhaps reserve that term for entities like ACT UP that mobilized within a short period in response to the HIV/AIDS crisis. However, it’s true—I did cross paths with some intriguing individuals. [But] I wasn’t connected to the social circles of influential queer rights advocates like David Mixner, who held a close association to Bill Clinton. In the cover photo of Mixner’s autobiography, he stands before the White House, underscoring that LGBTQ+ organizing has always encompassed a more mainstream and politically connected sector. Presently, social media has completely reshaped the organizing landscape, and what might have been deemed “underground” two decades ago is now just a click away on a Google search.
Dr. Lydia Otero is a writer in Tucson and a former professor in the Department of Mexican American Studies at the University of Arizona. They are the author of La Calle: Spatial Conflicts and Urban Renewal in a Southwest City (2010); In the Shadows of the Freeway: Growing Up Brown & Queer (2019); and L.A. Interchanges: A Brown & Queer Archival Memoir (2023), as well as the editor of Notitas: Select Columns from the Tucson Citizen (2021) by Alva B. Torres.
Tom Zoellner is an editor at large for Los Angeles Review of Books.
Tom Zoellner is the author of five nonfiction books, including Train: Riding the Rails that Created the Modern World. He is the co-author of The New York Times bestselling book An Ordinary Man, and his book Uranium won the 2011 Science Writing Award from the American Institute of Physics. His writing has appeared in Harper’s, The Atlantic, Time, Foreign Policy, Departures, The Wall Street Journal, Men’s Health, the Oxford American, and many other places. A professor of English at Chapman University, he lives in Downtown Los Angeles.
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