APRIL 4, 2015
MICHELE SERROS WROTE for the same reasons many of us write — to share stories, to tell jokes, to tackle issues, to make a living. But, on top of all that, or maybe even before all of it, I believe she wrote to know people. She would prank call her friends, make them underwear with Tom Jones lyrics on it, write them messages in the dust on their cars, doll them up in quinceañera dresses for a poetry reading, laugh and laugh with them and send them her stories and tell them to go write their own. And she treated her readers with the same kind of playful goodwill.
“She was the same person to everybody. Only one Michele. Thousands of others,” her good friend the poet Joseph Rios said recently.
Once you knew Michele, she held on to you, and it was a good hold.
Michele died in her Berkeley home on January 4, after a nearly two-year battle with cancer. She was 48. Her books — witty stories and essays about growing up Chicana in a Southern California farm town — are required reading for many cultural studies and writing courses. After coming up in the Los Angeles slam poetry scene in the early 1990s, she toured with Lollapalooza in 1994, performing poetry from her debut Chicana Falsa. After her second book of stories, How to Be a Chicana Role Model, became a Los Angeles Times best seller, she spent a season as a writer for the George Lopez TV show and was named in a Newsweek list of “women to watch in the new century.” She later shared the stage at Lincoln Center with Dorothy Allison, Arthur Miller, and George Plimpton, where she read an original essay about John Steinbeck, and wrote two young adult novels, Honey Blonde Chica and ¡Scandalosa!
Radio journalist Steven Cuevas, who met Michele when she was contributing humorous social commentaries to NPR’s California Report, remembers the intimacy and accessibility of her work. “Her writing is razor sharp and fluid, like she’s talking to you. Writing is like breathing for her,” he told me at a recent memorial in Oxnard, while Nancy Sinatra and Ritchie Valens played against a slideshow of Michele skateboarding through schoolyards and sporting her signature “Medium Brown Girl” T-shirts — a riff on Nordstrom’s Medium Brown Bag.
Michele was the punk-rock surfer girl — the teen in Ocean Pacific shorts with handmade lightning bolt stickers pasted all over her Pee-Chee folders, the twentysomething selling Grunge on a Stick (a patch of flannel sprayed with Teen Spirit) at concerts. But she was also a working-class Chicana — whose family had lived in California for five generations — who ate chicharrónes, watched novellas with her tias, and spliced Spanish words (some of her own creation, ¡Scandalosa!) into her sentences. She wrote about a disparity of identity, about being either too Latina or not Latina enough, through tight, punchy narratives and quotidian anecdotes, eschewing didacticism for humor. Michele published Chicana Falsa with a small press in her late twenties, while still a student at Santa Monica College. (It was later reprinted by Riverhead.) At a recent tribute, Daniel Cano, one of her first writing teachers, said Michele was a lot like that first edition: “a little off-color, rough around the edges, but speaking in a way that demands attention.” When she arrived at UCLA in 1995, she enrolled in Chicana Feminism with Sonia Saldivar-Hull, and her book was already required reading for the class.
“Her writing spoke to people and experiences you didn’t typically hear about,” Cuevas told me. “Not the border story or immigration story or barrio story. A uniquely American story.”
The first time I met Michele, at a capacity reading at Pegasus Bookstore in Berkeley in January 2012, she signed the title page of my book, “Jessica, Do you know ‘How to be a Chicana Role Model?’ Yes, No. Pick one.” I didn’t check either. “No” seemed like the correct answer. Did I know how to be a feminist role model? Yes. A creative role model? I thought so. A white ally role model? I hoped so. But a Chicana anything? I didn’t think so. For a while, I thought she’d made a mistake, just written her usual line without much thought. But as I got to know her better, I learned that Michele didn’t do anything without much thought. Her stories didn’t merely fold together certain tropes of Southern California culture with the experiences of growing up Chicano; they proved that Chicano culture is integral to California identity. I realized I wanted to check “yes.” I wanted to learn how to be — how to write — from Michele. When I flipped back to that title page of the book the day I got the news that she had died, I realized that her question was her first challenge to me, an invitation to enter her world, to find the place where my narrative met up with hers.
The stories she read that night in Berkeley were all snappy, dialogue-rich blasts from her own life. One was about her father coming from Oxnard to visit her in LA for the first time — and in the scope of a few pages we know him as well as our own parents. He comes four hours early to get good parking (why give any more money to the city?), wonders why he should see a movie about someone else’s story (he has his own stories to tell!), and, ultimately, tells Michele she’s doing pretty well when he learns she’s won a $3,000 scholarship for an essay that took her a few hours to write (he’s going to let her pay for dinner!). Each time she finished a story, I wanted another. I would’ve stood there for hours, hanging out in her world.
That night, after she signed my book, Michele asked if I’d gotten any vegan taquitos, proudly telling me that her husband had contributed them. I knew those taquitos well.
Every week for years I’d been going to Flacos, the local vegan Mexican restaurant that produced them. Just as Michele had reinterpreted what it means to be Californian and Chicana for her readers, Antonio Magaña built Flacos on the idea that California Mexican food didn’t just mean overstuffed, meaty burritos. Instead, he served all-vegan and organic fare — hand-rolled taquitos, tamales wrapped in banana leaves, tacos with thick, handmade tortillas and faux meat simmered in mole sauce. His catchphrase is ¡Feed la Revolucíon!
Antonio instantly recognized Michele when she came into Flacos in 2010. Flattered, Michele assumed he knew her writing, but it turns out he remembered her from high school. He was also from Oxnard, a freshman when Michele was a senior. Antonio remembered her as popular and confident, with a perfectly sculpted ’80s bowl cut. Michele didn’t remember him, but less than a year later they married; Antonio in a handlebar mustache and Michele with white flowers in her hair.
After the reading at Pegasus Books, I went to Flacos and told Antonio I had just seen his wife, the writer. “She’s an author,” he’d corrected me gently, while ladling out a complimentary horchata.
It was Michele’s confidence that most struck the author Rubén Martínez, who remembers her from the Los Angeles spoken word scene in the ’90s. “She had a tremendous amount of poise as a performer, mirroring how clean her prose and clear her ideas were on the page,” Martínez said in an email, adding that she seemed to have “exorcised the identity-demons in her writing in a way I never could.”
According to author Steve Abee, who was quoted in a recent tribute story on KCET by Mike Sonksen, her performance of the poem “Mr. Boom Boom Man,” about getting catcalled, inspired such a strong reaction at Lollapalooza that, at one point, Billy Corgan from the Smashing Pumpkins backed her up on bass.
Begun at Lollapalooza, Michele’s integration with the alternative rock community was so lasting that, in 2014, when her friends and family launched an online fundraiser for her alternative cancer treatment, Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who was a fan of her work and later became a good friend, was a major backer, donating $3,000. After Michele died, Flea tweeted, “The beautiful writer the great woman one of my favorite people I was so proud to call my friend. Michele Serros. R.I.P. Wow. Too Much. Love.”
“She was just like that. She clicked with everybody,” said poet and young adult author Mona Alvarado Frazier at the UC Santa Barbara tribute to Michele a few days before the Oxnard memorial. “She made you feel like you were the best friend she never met.” In 2000, when Michele had become a nationally recognized author, Frazier and another Oxnard author, Amada Irma Perez, introduced themselves at a bilingual education conference. As soon as Michele found out they had a writing group, she asked if she could join.
Filmmaker Lucy Rodriguez was another fan who became a close friend. “I’m probably one in hundreds of people who met Michele because I wrote her a fan letter on MySpace,” Rodriguez told a crowd of about two hundred people at the LATC tribute in February. Michele wrote back, outlining her schedule (6 a.m. write; 10 a.m. snack; 3 p.m. Judge Judy), and asking when Rodriguez could call her. When they did speak, Rodriguez wanted to ask about making one of her stories into a film, but Michele was more interested in talking about Rodriguez’s recent divorce, asking if she had enough support and trying to arrange a time to get together. Three years later, Michele was the maid of honor at Rodriguez’s wedding.
Adrianna Simone, a PhD student at UCSB who is writing her dissertation on Michele, discovered Chicana Falsa when she was a Master’s student at Humboldt State, halfway through her thesis on South Indian writers. She read the book in one sitting, right there in the library stacks, and instantly decided to abandon her original thesis and write about Michele instead, recasting identity binaries as multiple consciousnesses. Riffing off the book’s title, she explained to me, “Something can’t be false if you have multiple consciousnesses.” Over the years, Simone interviewed Michele many times by phone and email, and though she had only met her once, she considered her a good friend.
Sometimes, Michele’s fans didn’t even have to seek her out to establish a relationship with her. At the UC Santa Barbara tribute, one poet read from a forthcoming essay about being “Chicana Role Modeled” by Michele without even knowing it. She stopped by Flacos one day for some vegan taquitos, and was talking about how nervous she was to start teaching. A woman she didn’t know told her she’d taken a lot of city college classes and would have liked to have a Latina like her at the head of the class. Only later did she realize it was Michele Serros.
Michele had gone public with her illness, a rare malignancy of the salivary glands, in July 2014, when she published an essay on Huffington Post about discovering she had Stage 4, employing her signature combination of raw honesty and wit: “‘Your cancer,’ my newly-appointed oncologist sighed, ‘has spread.’ My cancer? I didn’t recall co-signing for such ownership.” She had already begun updating her army of Facebook followers on her condition — photos of her in the hospital wearing four-inch leopard-print pumps, Sasquatch socks, or embroidered eye masks, along with commentary that made it clear how frightening the struggle was, but also how determined she was to beat it. “Now I gotta lug an oxygen tank around? Time to get the BeDazzler out. ‘Make it work.’”
On January 4, a massive fundraiser had been arranged for Michele at UC Berkeley. Literary landmarks like Cherríe Moraga and Celia Rodriguez had donated work to the auction, along with dozens of other writers and visual artists. But, as the holidays neared, it became clear that time was running out for Michele. Joseph Rios remembers her saying that she wanted the event to be good, a celebration rather than a preemptive eulogy. And it was. People who’d known Michele for decades came out — from Southern California and New York — and read stories from their books, shared their own favorite memories of being pranked or Chicana Role Modeled by Michele, laughing heartily. A few blocks away, Michele rested at home. Rios remembers one of the hospice workers who was caring for Michele saying they hadn’t expected her to live past Christmas, and asking what she was hanging on to. When the final auction item sold at the event, just after 11 p.m., Antonio called Rios and said Michele had just passed away.
Throughout the next day, all the people who had come for the fundraiser came by the house; all her closest friends and most devoted fans were there in Berkeley, just at the right moment to say goodbye to her. Rios remembers thinking it was the best con she’d ever pulled off. “It was like she was orchestrating the whole thing,” he said. At midnight the next night, her body was carried out of the house under a full moon, the front steps strewn with flower petals and lit by rows of candles placed there by neighbors.
At the UC Santa Barbara memorial reading, Florencia Ramirez, one of the founders of the Oxnard-based writing group that Michele joined in 2000, brought her children to the stage to read their favorite pieces from Chicana Falsa. “This is why my kids love literature,” said Ramirez, as her son and daughter read “Mr. Boom Boom Man,” giggling through the Pig Latin–disguised expletives.
Ramirez read “The Gift,” a story about a high-quality mahogany writing desk that Michele’s mother had saved up to buy her (working weekends and skimping) so that she would have a good place to write. But for years, Michele just sat at that desk, doing homework or writing book reports, but never writing her own stories. Eventually she abandoned the desk, haunted by the shame of not becoming the writer her mother believed she would be. Then, when Michele was in her twenties, her mother became ill and died suddenly, a few days after Mother’s Day. As her mother’s things were being boxed for storage, Michele found the mahogany desk, sat down at it, and, at last, began to write.
Even though Michele was only 48 when she died, as Ramirez said, she accomplished so much. Wrote so much, touched so many people. “We’ve got this one life. This is it,” Ramirez said, “She knew that right away.”
In the hours and days after Michele died, I found myself obsessively reading about her. Reading her commentaries for Huffington Post over the past couple of years, reading the hundreds of Facebook posts on her wall, reading all the blog posts and obituaries that ran in local media outlets, and reading back through every email exchange we’d had. There hadn’t been very many, but I found one I’d forgotten.
In early 2012, I’d edited Michele’s story “Flight” — about leaving California and her first husband to move to New York — and published it in the literary journal where I was working. That summer, Michele and I read together at Oakland’s inaugural literary crawl. I opened the show with a high school story about running into someone I knew at a theme park on the other side of the country and the two of us practicing hard-core, focused snubbing while waiting in line together for hours. Michele closed the show with her most beloved story, “Attention Shoppers” from Chicana Falsa, about uncovering racist marketing in frozen vegetable packaging, and starting a mini-revolt right there in the aisles of an LA supermarket.
Michele had never heard my stuff before, and, after the reading, she pulled me aside and said, “That was pretty good. You’re funny” — as though all this time I’d been hiding something from her and it was time to set things right. A couple of weeks later, she emailed me and asked if we could trade stories. She was looking for notes on a short chapter from her new book, a story about the way her mother and aunts dealt with body image issues. I told her I’d be happy to give her feedback but said I didn’t have anything ready just then, and asked her for a “coupon,” meaning a rain check, and she joked about what kind of coupon I’d like. A month or so later, I finally sent her notes on her story, but said I still didn’t have anything for her feedback. Of course I had stories in the works, like all writers do, but nothing felt ready to give to Michele Serros, and I was struggling to make time to get anything to a “ready” point.
I’d forgotten all about that email exchange. Two and a half years later, with images of Michele and excerpts of her poetry and stories flooding all of my social media accounts, I sat gazing at my sheepish request for a coupon. I’d never sent her a story. I still owed her one, and I would never get her notes.
When Michele got the plum job as a writer on the George Lopez show, Steven Cuevas remembers her struggling with it. He said that, like many great writers who went to work for Hollywood, she found her voice “muted” and “straight-jacketed,” and she left the show after only one season to go back to her own work: writing stories and young adult fiction and doing speaking and reading tours. Some years later, she sent him a draft of an adult fiction manuscript to critique, based on her relationships with men. Again, it seemed to Cuevas like she’d lost that authentic, honest, personal voice that drew so many people to her writing. He advised her to keep writing about herself.
Jesus Gonzalez, who has taught Chicano Literature at Ventura College and Cal State Northridge, said at the Oxnard memorial that Michele’s writing was powerful because she takes a small, unremarkable incident and finds meaning in it. Leslie Berestein Rojas, who covers immigration and emerging communities for KPCC and was sitting with Cuevas at the reception following the church service, agreed that it was the quotidian, personal focus of Michele’s writing that resonated with so many. “Her writing placed value on the ordinary stories worth telling,” Berestein Rojas said.
Michele believed her stories deserved to be told — little everyday stories about one life, hers. But she also believed everyone else’s story deserved to be told, too. It is a notion that still feels audacious, radical, maybe even revolutionary.
“She was always very adamant with me: ‘Your Stories Matter. If you’re not going to value your story, nobody’s going to,’” Rios said. “She felt that about everyone, told that to every single person.”