February 21-27, 2007

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The Millners

'California made it possible for us': Millner and family in her childhood years.

Growing Up Valley

Caille Millner's memoir 'Golden Road' leads outside Silicon Valley's comfort zone in its frank look at unspoken issues

Several authors of fiction and nonfiction can lay claim to having placed their work in San Jose. But almost always, those narratives focus on the high-tech industry, the rise of Silicon Valley, the dotcom boom, etc. With her recent book, 'The Golden Road: Notes on My Gentrification,' Caille Millner, 29, has done something that no else has done: She's written a top-notch coming-of-age memoir about growing up as a black woman in an east San Jose Chicano neighborhood. She documents the streets, the schools and the people. She weaves a near-flawless tale of how her family then migrated to Almaden Valley, into an upper-class gentrified white neighborhood, where she further sank into the abyss of having no identity.

Millner thoroughly nails teenage life in San Jose in the late '90s: music, drugs, Chicano culture, goth dudes with six-figure high-tech jobs, lowriders, greasers, endless suburban expressways, poverty, boredom and sex. She eventually escaped it all and made it to Harvard; these days she's set up shop at the San Francisco Chronicle's op-ed depot.

The following excerpt is a prime example of Millner's ability to tell it like it is about Silicon Valley. It is reprinted by permission of the publisher.

From The Golden Road: Notes on My Gentrification; Penguin Press; 256 pages; $22.95

We are a successful American family.

California made it possible for us.

I began this book to explore the idea that California could still make life possible for a family like mine. It was an attempt to wrestle with the different ways that California worked for my parents but did not work for my brother and me. California does not work for many people these days; but, then, maybe it never did. Maybe a close familiarity with that fact is what one needs to succeed here. Even in San Jose.

San Jose was and is a dull, faceless city. Most people who live outside California do not realize that it boasts more than a million residents and is the physical base of the America technology industry. Fifty years ago the city was prime property for the prune-growing business; perhaps as a result of this, San Jose has been unable to rid itself of the unfortunate tinge of provinciality, even when it was at the height of its cultural and economic power during the late 1990s. It is still seen as a far-flung suburb of San Francisco. This reputation is not helped by San Jose's sprawling development and demoralizing architecture: Almost every building resembles a suburban Elks hall. While I was growing up, one of the city's largest employers was IBM, but many IBM employees preferred to live in prettier places like Saratoga or Los Gatos. San Jose possessed few attractions—a destitute theater company, the hopeless, downtown shopping promenade, the spooky Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum—to keep them there.

But San Jose did attract large communities of ethnic minorities, including the second-largest Vietnamese population outside Vietnam. Filipinos, Japanese, Koreans, lower-middle-class whites, a few blacks, and—especially—Latinos, who in 1980 represented 22 percent of the city's population. By 2000 they represented 30 percent of San Jose; African Americans claimed 5 percent.

But these are merely numbers; they mean nothing to a child. The only thing I understood, growing up in my part of San Jose, my neighborhood, my street, was that the children I played with and fought with and learned from weren't black. The parents whose homes I entered and whose tables I ate at—those people weren't black either. But these were the people who gave me my first idea of what it meant to live as a person of color in the United States. Spics, the children at my middle school taunted them. Greasers. Messikens. And my first stirrings of racial consciousness, my first awareness of prejudice and the variety of responses to that prejudice weren't based on what black Americans call "the struggle." They were linked to a different, more ambiguous understanding, a history more or less alienated from white America, a code of humiliations and humilities that can be summed up in two words: la lucha.

And because I grew up with la lucha, I didn't just grow up with the neighborhood's vision of American history—a history that seemed to begin with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, only to swerve and dip among Homestead Acts and zoot suits and bracero programs to reach its culminations in the figure of Cesar Chavez—I grew up with the neighborhood's culture as well. Or perhaps I should say I grew up familiar with it. For my first lesson was to learn that I never really got past the door.

MY BROTHER AND I pushed past the threshold into the church. As we stormed in he plucked a bit of holy water from a stand and crossed himself. Then he grabbed my arm and thumped into a pew at the back of the church. This is where we sat, since he decided that in the course of a four-year Catholic-school education I had not been properly educated on the procedures for mass. I sat. I folded my hands in my lap. My brother knelt beside me and pressed his fists into his brows. All around me, people knelt, murmured, hummed. Some wandered around the church, dabbing themselves with holy water, pushing at saints' statues. At the door, those who were presumably unconcerned by blasphemy and fornication walked in, their shoes clattering on the coral tile. The grim-faced priest was at his labors with the jugs of wine, the platters of wafers, the leatherbound books. I sat. I watched. So this is what goes on behind the door.

The Millner kids

As a child I spent my holidays at Emmanuel Baptist Church, a stucco cavern some twenty minutes and two or three worlds away from our house. Our mother was quite open to the diverse backgrounds of our friends, but she had her cultural requirements, one of which was that her children would grow up in a black church. So every Sunday morning, while our friends went off to mass—which was in my imagination less a church service than a brief carnival of elaborate prayers and lacy clothing—my brother and I went to Emmanuel.

The congregants who filled Emmanuel every Sunday came from all over the Bay Area. Nearly all of them were born and raised in California but were determined to preserve a black Southern Baptist image of church, an image that many had received from their parents and grandparents and their faint inklings of atavistic memory, and that some had received from televisions. But since it was so removed from the historical context it sought to emulate, Emmanuel was a parody of everything Americans associate with black Baptist churches. So there were the four-hour services. There was the enormous choir clad in bathrobes. There were the fainting scenes every month. There was the pastor, a huge man with a Jheri curl, who wore white suits with pink suspenders and pink spats and drove a Cadillac. Some actual worshipping may have gone on there, but I am not the one to ask. My brother and I came home on Sunday afternoons feeling lost and bewildered, eager to shake off the bizarre ordeal and our envy of the other children, who had been playing in the streets for hours. Neither my brother nor I really made any friends at Emmanuel.

There were two other black households on our block. One of them was an older woman who lived alone. Paula kept a crumbling canary-yellow house with no lawn. A chain-smoker, hideously wrinkled, deathly quiet but for occasional outbursts, she was our most feared neighbor. Those outbursts alternated between domestic disputes with her boyfriends and attempts on her own life. Both scenarios tangled the streets with yellow tape for hours. Our mother warned us to stay away from her, but no such precaution was necessary. All the children weaved around the orbit of her house in half-moons. Nor did any of the children associate with the other black household, where no adults seemed to be present. With the exception of Ingrid, a tall, graceful girl who spoke gently and inhibited a soft, dreamy space, the house consisted of intimidating teenagers. One of them, Jason, robbed my family blind while babysitting my brother and me.

Neither my brother nor I really made any black friends at all.

This became a problem when our mother decided it was time to teach us what she knew and we would need for our emotional and psychological survival: the history of black people in America. She knew she was fighting against the currents of everything we would face for the rest of our lives—the indifference of mainstream culture, the entrenched subtleties of white racism, the devastation of black self-hatred—and she tackled her task accordingly. She crammed our bookshelves with histories of slavery and the civil rights movement. She selected our books for school reports, inevitably biographies of Harriet Tubman or George Washington Carver. She organized weekend trips to Oakland, where our father dutifully pointed out the site of Huey Newton's murder. She read us Langston Hughes' poetry at bedtime and played Motown records after dinner. She bought us T-shirts printed with black heroes and power slogans. And she taught us, mostly by example, the importance of forcing a black presence into every possible milieu. Each February brought dramatic scenes in the offices of our clueless elementary school principals. Our mother would march in and demand to know what the school was doing for Black History Month. Did they have their posters, their announcements, an assembly. Did they need materials? She could recommend some and, if asked properly, could even loan them to the school for the season.

But there was one thing she could not do, and that was make the history come alive for her children in their bubble of east San Jose, the bubble of banda music and Western Union cables to Mexico. Because I was young and black people were in short supply, the history of black people in America felt foreign, thrilling, even a little exotic. Shackles and chains! Freedom by the North Star! White riots! Bull Connor! Black American history was a catalog of spectacular atrocities to rival the history of early Christians in the Roman Empire—and it felt about as far away. Whereas the history of la lucha taking place around me was a history of misery and regret, of silent anger, a series of small daily humiliations that left everyone ragged at the seams. A history of ambiguity: the ambiguity of the migrant workers shivering outside McDonald's at five o'clock in the morning, of the Norteño gangs and their coats of many colors, of the free-trade agreements, of the border itself. The American history that books and T-shirts and posters are unable to capture, much less explain, that is the history of mundane misery.

Culturally speaking, I had what will soon become the American childhood, a mélange of cheerful American pragmatism and Latin baroque and African American skepticism. The hybridity seemed irreconcilable for so many years until I understood the American habit of maintaining a reductive naivete through compartmentalized guilt. I hadn't yet learned to feign ignorance toward the different parts of myself, to participate in national innocence through collective delineation. Until I understood this, it was impossible for me to integrate my childhood memories.

At every birthday party a piñata, the beating of which heralded rips and grass stains on massive white dresses. Sporadic attendance at mass, but baptisms and first communions requiring a rented public space and a mariachi band. At least three cars to every house: two beached in the driveway or on the curb, or without wheels. Every Saturday afternoon, a team of oil-stained men surrounding the cars, fortified by a cooler of beer and a beat-up radio booming Mexican rock. Scant mention of Mexico in school history classes; still, a regular festival for Cinco de Mayo (but only those aspects that could be safely dehistoricized and commodified, such as folklórico performances and trays of empanadas), which was much more fun than Martin Luther King Jr. Day (always a dreary assembly, with the tone-deaf lower grades crooning "We Shall Overcome" to a piano arrangement that sounded like a dirge). Long, bedazzling days of fruit-picking in Watsonville with friends' families. Childish beauty fantasies guided by the hands of older Chicanas, who insisted on the elegance of black lip liner and Aqua Net hair spray. Cafeteria burritos on Monday, tacos on Thursday. Innumerable aunts and cousins in every family, and at least four godparents for every child. All-night story sessions when la abuela y la tía came to visit. First crushes named Cruz. A Spanish vocabulary consisting exclusively of cuss words and slang. Slip 'n Slides, kiddie pools, and jugs of Kool-Aid dragged out to front yards during hot summer nights. Parents drunk enough on the heat and the long conversations to slosh in the pools by midnight. Joking discussion of la dueña when the prettiest daughters started to date. Family photographs on every available surface. Letters from Mexico. The rosary. Black beans. Guilt.

Were I to draw a timeline, the list would end during the summer after my first year of middle school. I can place an exact moment, in fact: a hot July evening during the summer of 1991.

That was the night I discovered a cheerful rap group from Los Angeles. My teacher in rap, as in so many things that summer, was a girl named Indiana. We were constant companions. Our friendship was based on our shared ability to join any acceptable clique at school. Indiana was wiry and nervous and possessed of a schizophrenic beauty. It was the nervousness, and the fact that she was flaca at a time when most Chicanas were developing curves, that kept her locked out of the group she desired to join. She was also unsuitable—though I didn't realize this at first—because she was not really Chicana but some inexplicable white ethnic mix that failed to make the cut. I was withdrawn into myself even then, socially awkward, and far too developed for anyone's good. We made an interesting pair that summer, cruising the mall begging our mothers to leave us unchaperoned at the amusement park, stealing candy and cigarettes from the pharmacy.

One Friday night, an uncle or cousin or one of Indiana's mother's boyfriends—there were always men at Indiana's house, men who were gruff and burly, men whose clothes shone with permanent grease stains—announced his intention to drive through east San Jose in order to pick up a spare part for his car. Indiana wheedled him into taking us along. The wait for the spare part would be long and stifling and he would threaten to abandon us before it was all over, but we knew that before we drove off, and we knew, too, that it would be worth it. He had to drive down Santa Clara Street.

Caille Millner as a kid

During the week, Santa Clara Street was a six-lane road connecting a mercantile stretch of east San Jose (panaderias, pool halls, tattoo parlors) with one downtown (flagship investment banks, high-rise hotels) and the Rose Garden district (historical-society homes, attorney-at-law offices, parking regulations). Then it passed the 87 freeway and became the Alameda. The Alameda ran into the netherworld of Santa Clara (Santa Clara University, gourmet coffee shops, weekend farmers' markets). So the street attracted all types of people. But many of those people stayed far away from the east San Jose side on weekend nights.

Because when the weekend came, the cars came out of hiding. Long, sleek, candy-colored machines with fantastical names like LeBaron and Eldorado and Monte Carlo. Cars with periwinkle interiors and sparkling headlights. Suicide doors, Daewoo speakers piled in the back, whitewall tires, rearview mirrors draped with green pine trees, embroidered Mexican flags, rosary beads. Twenty-inch rims. The license plates read LINDA and MAMI and SANCHA, and the trunks told an airbrushed story about La Morenita, the Virgin of Guadalupe, re-envisioned with buxom curves and a ripped red bodice to match her sheaf of roses. These were cars that demanded the sacrifice of every Friday afternoon for polishing, cars that insisted upon trips to Richmond or Daly City for the special mechanics who could make them bounce. These were exacting vehicles, and what they exacted on Santa Clara Street was a traffic flow of about five miles an hour.

So there we were. Our driver was thirty-five years old, with two jobs, two kids, and a gambling habit. He had no patience for Santa Clara Street. He snarled and honked and ducked in and out of lanes. Our vehicle was a rust-colored hardtop, completely at odds with protocol. But although we were ashamed, neither Indiana nor I expected anything else. We knew that Santa Clara Street was not for the likes of us. Content to be in the crush, the excess, the sweat, the beauty, the noise, we pushed to each side of the bench seat in the back and hung our heads out the window.

That's when I heard "On a Sunday Afternoon" approaching from a red Sentra on our right. Sentras were not designed to cruise—they were Japanese, for one thing, and aesthetically they were far too small and boxy—but this one was trying its best, with gleaming rims, tinted windows, and a sound system blaring the song of the moments. I was enthralled: The song's focus was a rolling barrio voice, which looped and hopped down one of the melodies I had heard so many times from my mothers' Motown collection.

I asked Indiana about the song, and she shoved over to my side. The song, she said after a moment's listening, was enormously popular on all the local radio stations. Everyone she knew from our school was listening to it and she heard it everywhere she went—in shopping malls, parking lots, corner stores. She was amazed that I hadn't heard it before. Maybe, she said, such silliness could be explained by the name of the group in question, A Lighter Shade of Brown, and the fact that by choosing such a name, they were saying that they were a shade too dark for her and a shade too light for me.

Caille Millner appears at a booksigning event on Thursday (Feb. 22) at 7:30pm at Kepler's Books, 1010 El Camino Real, Menlo Park. Admission is free. (650.324.4321)

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