INLANDIA LITERARY JOURNEYS: Writing helped family pursue justice

o5hej0-b88676034z.120160411110922000gh0fr950.10A mother’s worst nightmare became my reality. The midnight phone call from a sheriff’s deputy waking me with horrible news: My son, Mark, had been “in a collision and he did not survive.”

The rest is a huge blur. My adult son was the victim of a hit-and-run crime, and he was unable to defend himself. His voice was silenced. It became our family responsibility to ensure that Mark’s voice would be heard.

During the criminal trial, we were offered the opportunity to address the judge by writing a victim impact statement. It allowed us to tell the court about the effects, the impacts of Mark’s death and the damage the offender had caused.

We read our statements out loud during the sentencing hearing.

I held a large photo of Mark to put a real face on a judicial case number. Like Joan Didion in “The Year of Magical Thinking,” I wanted to scream, but I remained calm. Mark’s voice resonated through me, through his father, his son, his brother and his aunt. We spoke for him.

Victims are seldom called to testify in court, and if they do testify, they must respond to narrow, specific questions.

But the California Constitution allows victims to present written and oral statements. These statements are often the victims’ only opportunity to participate in the criminal justice process, or to confront the offenders who have harmed them.

These are testimonials about how a crime has affected them. They generally are included in the presentencing report presented to the judge and are allowed during the sentencing process.

When a victim is deceased, as in our Mark’s case, the relatives have the right to be heard. A judge may use information from these statements to help determine an offender’s sentence.

I welcomed the opportunity to articulate to the judge how my son’s death was a horrible loss to our family. And I was able to list prior offenses committed by the offender that had been stricken by the judge during a pretrial hearing.

I also helped Mark’s 12-year old son, Paul, write a statement about how the loss of his father affected him. His Uncle Leonard read Paul’s statement at the trial.

There are benefits to writing an effective statement. Fairness and justice for your loved one is the main goal. It could be your best shot at persuading the judge. Like writing in a journal, the reflection process and the act of writing down your thoughts about the crime’s impacts help with emotional healing.

Indeed, it improved my satisfaction with the criminal justice system, especially when the jury ruled in favor of the people of California, as they did in our case.

The Riverside Main Library has stacks of volumes in the 800-section that may help those unsure of how to write a statement. For example, Beth Kephart’s “Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir” and Brandon Royal’s “The Little Red Writing Book” are full of advice and recommendations.

When your case goes to trial, be prepared for the bad memories to be relived all over again. Attend all court hearings, especially the trial. It demonstrates that the victim is loved and supported. Keep notes of the proceedings and visit the Superior Court website frequently to review the minutes and other documents regarding the case.


Inlandia Institute president Frances J. Vasquez writes about the importance of victim statements

Frances J. Vasquez

Remembering Anne Frank

For many of us Gentiles, our introduction to the horrors of the Holocaust often begins with reading The Diary of a Young Girl. Anne’s parents presented her with a red-checked diary for her thirteenth birthday on June 12, 1942. Anne was enjoying a relatively normal life for a Jewish girl in occupied Amsterdam. She lived with her mother, father, and sister, and attended school like others her age. But less than a month later, their lives changed forever. Anne and her family went into hiding in the “secret annex” of her father’s warehouse and office building. During the two-years of their oppressive hiding period, eight people stayed indoors twenty-four hours a day. The Frank family’s love of literature helped sustain them until they were arrested by the Nazis and deported to concentration camps.

World War II was raging. Nazi Germany had invaded the Netherlands. Life was dangerous for Jews. This is the context in which Anne wrote. She became a prolific writer while in hiding. The pen was her best friend. The teenager aspired to be a journalist and to become a famous writer after the war. She documented her two years in hiding in her world famous diary and wrote, “one day this terrible war will be over. The time will come when we’ll be people again and not just Jews!” Anne also expressed herself in short stories, fables, and other creative endeavors. Writing helped Anne cope with the emotional and physical rigors of living in confinement. She channeled her fears and tension into written descriptions of daily events with wit, humor, compassion, and candor.

I purchased a copy of Anne Frank’s Tales from the Secret Annex during a visit to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. This edition was first published in London in 2010 by Halban Publishers, Ltd. The book includes some of Anne’s personal reminiscences, daydreams, and essays. It also features her fanciful fables and short stories. One of the essays, “Do You Remember?” describes Anne’s wistful memories of school days at the Jewish Lyceum. She writes about “many a delightful hour talking about school, teachers, adventures, and boys. Back when our lives were still normal, everything was so wonderful.” Anne remained hopeful of returning to school as she recounted other memories prefaced by “Do you remember?”

Indeed, in the best interests of human dignity, we remember Anne and her writing, and the horrific genocide that resulted in the death of millions of European Jews by the Nazi regime during the Holocaust of World War II. This Wednesday, January 27 is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The Resolution, designated by the United Nations General Assembly on November 1, 2005 declares that member nations “honor the memory of Holocaust victims, and encourages the development of educational programs about Holocaust history to help prevent future acts of genocide. It rejects any denial of the Holocaust as an event and condemns all manifestations of religious intolerance, incitement, harassment or violence against persons or communities based on ethnic origin or religious belief.”

Why January 27? On this date in 1945 the largest Nazi concentration camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau, was liberated. Lamentably, only 21 days earlier, Anne’s mother, Edith Frank-Hollander, perished at Auschwitz. Anne and her sister, Margot Frank, died in the Bergensen-Belsen Nazi concentration camp less than two months later in March 1945. Their father, Otto Frank, survived Auschwitz and was the only “secret annex” inhabitant to outlive the hell of war to carry on his work with vision and tenacity.

After reading and publishing his beloved daughter’s diary, Otto Frank redirected his heartache and sorrow to tell her story. He dedicated the rest of his long life to work on combating discrimination and prejudice: human dignity and rights for all people regardless of race, ethnicity, and religion. Since the first publication of Anne’s diary in 1947, over 40 million copies have been published in 70 languages. In 1960, the hiding place was converted into a museum. It is one of the world’s most visited museums. Otto Frank posited, “to build a future you have to know the past.” When I visited the Anne Frank House in June 2015, the long lines of people coiled for blocks. I didn’t mind. A visit to the Frank’s secret annex was a significant pilgrimage.

Anne was an extraordinary girl whose maturity and wisdom is evident in her writing. In Tales from the Secret Annex her fables and short stories exhibit creative optimism and hope as she transports to other realms. “The Wise Old Gnome,” “The Guardian Angel,” and “Blurry the Explorer” are a few of numerous examples of Anne’s ability to see good prevail over evil and sorrow. The enduring interest and inspiration of Anne Frank’s writing reflect the continued relevance of the topics she expressed in her diary. While there is no happy ending to Anne’s life, her writing is her enduring legacy. The words of one girl made an indelible difference. Anne fulfilled her dream to become a famous author. Brava, Anne Frank! Her memory continues to inspire awe in new generations of readers.


Frances J. Vasquez is president of the Inlandia Institute board and a member of Inlandia’s Riverside writing workshop.

For more literary journeys, visit the Inlandia Literary Journeys Blog or the Inlandia Institute.

Books Illuminate the Days of the Dead by Frances J. Vasquez

In “The Labyrinth of Solitude,” writer-poet Octavio Paz said, “The opposition between life and death was not so absolute to the ancient Mexicans as it is to us.

“Life extended into death, and vice versa. Death was not the natural end of life but one phase of an infinite cycle.”

That view is never clearer than during festivities for Days of the Dead, or Días de los Muertos, when the spirits of our departed loved ones come alive in joyful celebration.

Rituals surrounding the holiday have been practiced by indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica for thousands of years. They believe that the souls of the dead have divine permission to return to earth each year to visit their relatives. Offerings of flowers and food are set out to welcome them. It is a time for feasting and reunion – not a somber occasion.

Celebrations are held on Nov. 1, All Saints Day, for deceased children; and Nov. 2, All Souls Day, in honor of deceased adults.

The relatively recent phenomenon of Day of the Dead in the United States illustrates the power of cultural traditions as opportunities for people to exchange ideas and learn from each other.

The Riverside Public Library offers interesting, authoritative books about the tradition. I recommend “Día de Muertos en México – Oaxaca,” by Mary J. Andrade, and “Fiesta: Days of the Dead & Other Mexican Festivals,” by Chloë Sayer.

Both books are beautifully illustrated. Andrade’s is bilingual and Sayer’s is in English.

Death for the indigenous of Mexico signified a stage in a constant cycle, not an end of life. Aztecs and other Mesoamerican cultures kept skulls as trophies and displayed them to honor the dead. The skulls symbolize death and rebirth. In Mexico, the deceased are honored at cemeteries, homes and businesses through elaborate altars displaying offerings of candles, incense, photos, memorabilia, favorite foods, beverages, and flowers (particularly cempasuchitl, or golden marigolds).

Why marigolds? According to legend, during the Aztec travels in Mesoamerica, the ruler Tenoch led the Nahua tribe in search of a place to settle. Many people died during the arduous journey. The travelers stopped to pray to the sun god for flowers to honor the places where their loved ones perished. A day later the fields were covered with beautiful golden cempasuchitl. The ancestors adorned the graves with this flower, hence the traditional flower of the dead.

Legendary Mexican printmaker José Guadalupe Posada used calacas, or “skeletal” images, as political and social satire – making fun of the aristocracy during the repressive Porfirio Diaz presidency. Posada’s caricatures in Mexico’s newspapers sent direct messages that even the illiterate could understand: the disdain for the corrupt regime. His illustrations successfully molded public opinion against Diaz, and served as the “face” of the Mexican Revolution. Posada’s calacas are favorite images in U.S. Day of the Dead memorabilia.

UNESCO declared the city of Oaxaca in 1987 as part of the cultural heritage for mankind, and in 2003, UNESCO recognized Day of the Dead celebrations as part of the intangible cultural heritage of world humanity. A dream came true for me last year when I traveled to Oaxaca for the weeklong Day of the Dead festivities where the meaning of the indigenous beliefs are kept intact.

According to Andrade, the author, “The new gods have yet to displace ancient ones.” It’s the season in which bright magenta and golden orange flowers cover the expansive fields like a fine cape.

The Central Valleys of Mexico are sprinkled with rural towns imbued in tradition and culture. I visited several Zapoteca and Mixteca quasi-ceremonial centers: Teotitlán del Valle, Etla, Mitla, Ocotlán, Tlacolula, San Martin de Tilcajete, and Zaachila where the land is infused with history, legend and folklore.

Subtle variations in the festivities reflect each town’s particular cultural character. Everyone anxiously awaits this short but substantive season when aromas stimulate one’s senses to reflect on those who have departed physically, and share in famous Oaxacan delicacies: mole, bread, tamales, chocolate, mezcal. The capital city of Oaxaca is the jewel of the valleys whose architectural design is a colonial monument.

Residents hold colorful processions through the streets featuring large puppet figures. Elaborate altars are installed everywhere: homes, businesses, hotels, restaurants and cemeteries.

The Inland area’s premier Day of the Dead festival will be held 3-10 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 7, in downtown Riverside on Market Street between University Avenue and 12th Street. The family-friendly celebration will highlight a procession of Aztec danzas to invite the spirits to dance and rejoice during this symbolic annual reunion. Of special interest are the family and community altars along 10th Street from Market Street to the Ysmael R. Villegas Medal of Honor Monument.

Visitors to the community altar are invited to write down the names of departed loved ones and include satirical, brief poems in the form of epitaphs, or humorous anecdotes about the deceased. Admission is free.

For more information, visit www.riversideca.gov/museum/day-of-the-dead.asp.


Frances J. Vasquez is president of the Inlandia Institute board and a member of Inlandia’s Riverside writing workshop.

For more literary journeys, go to inlandiainstitute.org.

Cinema Culturas Film Fest – Stories Matter by Frances J. Vasquez

I cut my front teeth watching Mexican cinema at “el Teatro Azteca” on Mt. Vernon Avenue in San Bernardino. As the eldest daughter, it was my good fortune to accompany my mother to the cinema on occasional Sundays. I have fantastic memories of lively musicals, comedies, and intense dramas depicted on the silver screen. Pedro Infante, Mexico’s Clark Gable, was my movie idol. He was handsome and lovable.

He sang popular Mexican tunes like no other: rancheras, boleros, corridos. His characters, his songs spoke to me. Pedro could do no wrong – even when he notoriously portrayed a boracho, or drunkard on screen.

The power of cinema to portray and teach social commentary is boundless. I learned about the injustice of racism at el Azteca. Pedro, the protagonist in the Mexican film, “Angelitos Negros” (little Black angels) helped instill my values about racial diversity. The film title and melancholy theme song were inspired by “Píntame Angelitos Negros,” Andrés Eloy Blanco’s moving poem written in 1946 about the lack of Black angels depicted in church artworks.

The riveting story mattered. It was persuasive. Pedro’s film character taught me the meaning of true love and racial tolerance. I despised his blonde, racist filmic wife for rejecting her own baby because she was a “negrita.” The story moved me at many levels. How terrible! Poor baby. Bad mother. Good father – Pedro loved his daughter unconditionally. By the age of five, before I learned to read, I was forever hooked on Mexican cinema.

I came of age during Mexico’s Golden era of cinema. Stories were the main attraction – compelling storytelling that made us think and reflect on the dramatic plots. We laughed to comic relief in Mexican comedies. Sooner or later, Mexico’s best films made it to el Azteca where captivated audiences viewed the artistry of legendary cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa. We were exposed to the gripping writing of Joselito Rodríguez, who scripted the “Angelitos Negros” movie loosely based on Fannie Hurst’s novel, “Imitation of Life.”

A renaissance of superb Latino film offerings is emerging in our region. Cinema Culturas proudly presents the first Latino film festival to the Inland Empire on October 17 – 19, 2014. The festival theme is “Todas las historias cuentan / All Stories Matter.”

The festival will open on Friday, October 17 at the Fox Performing Arts Center in Riverside. It will feature a screening of the acclaimed film “La Jaula de Oro,” which swept the Mexican Ariel Awards, winning in several categories, including Best Picture, Best Cinematography and Best Screenplay. Although the English title is “The Golden Dream,” the title translates literally to “the cage of gold,” a reflection of the expectations and realities of those who brave the journey north to the US. The film director, Diego Quemada-Diez will be on hand for a discussion and answer questions from the audience.

Before Friday’s feature film, the Symphonie Jeunesse from San Bernardino will perform live accompaniment to a film montage highlighting the history and “Golden era” of cinema in Mexico. Compelling storytelling was the core aesthetic to their cinematic greatness.

My grandmother’s home in rural Mexico featured a huge console radio. No television. In the evenings, storytelling was our family’s favored entertainment. During one of our trips when I was ten years old, the first film story my mother asked me to recount was “Angelitos Negros.” It was a chilly evening, and family members were all gathered together around a wood-burning fire circle. I told the story and everyone engaged in dialogue to discuss the implications, the consequences, and the moral of the story. To be sure, the oral tradition of storytelling was an important part of our family culture. It inspired me to become an avid reader of books. Stories matter. They have the wonderful power to transport us to another time, another place.

Film aficionados have a unique opportunity to view superb, new, award-winning feature films, documentaries, and animated short films in Spanish (with English subtitles) and English. We can view them here in the Inland Empire. Our spirits will surely be uplifted by the stimulating stories depicted and the participatory dialogue with the film makers.

Screenings on Saturday, October 18 will be at the AMC Theaters at the Galleria in Riverside. They will showcase an outstanding selection of feature films, documentaries, and workshops with film makers. Included are films about the contributions of founding Hispanic families of Southern California.

The Sunday, October 19 program at Riverside City College features a FREE family day dedicated to acclaimed Spanish-language animated short films, community workshops, and outstanding selections from this year’s student film competition.

FACTBOX: CINEMA CULTURAS

What: Riverside’s Latino Film Festival

When: October 17 – 19

Where: Fox Performing Arts Center and AMC Theaters, Riverside

Admission: Tickets for opening night are $20, general admission; $25, preferred seating. All films on Saturday are $10, adult admission; $8, students and seniors. Free admission on Sunday.

Information and ticket pricing: www.cinemaculturas.com.


Frances J. Vasquez is native to the Inland region. She has an extensive career in education and public service. Her short stories have been published by MUSE Journal, Inlandia Anthology, and Orangelandia. She serves on the board of the Inlandia Institute.