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A Cultural Victory : Con Safos, a writers group, has restored the voices of those once told their stories were'too ethnic.'

June 26, 1995|MICHAEL QUINTANILLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Corina Carrasco is the first to read her cuento , a story about growing up in a big family, and wishing--just for a moment while eavesdropping on her parents--that she hadn't been born so they could afford to pay the bills.

Several poets and storytellers--old-timers affectionately known as Los Rukitos Chimuelos (the elderly, toothless ones) and a younger generation of Nuevos Pensadores (new thinkers)--gather around her.

Their two worlds have merged to revive a 27-year defunct magazine, and Chicano writers workshop, called Con Safos. A popular underground publication from 1968 to 1972, Con Safos told stories of the barrio experience, of el movimiento , capturing the feelings of an era and its gente Chicana.

This is the monthly Thursday-night session of the Con Safos literary group that began meeting three years ago at Highland Park's Arroyo Books. They share poetry and prose--and most important of all--their cuentos , '90s version, a lo Chicano .

Taking turns, everyone eagerly participates, some acting out the dialogue in falsetto voices, others discussing the writing process involved or a story's content, nearly always related to a personal experience.

The group released a new issue last week, its third since late last year when publishing was made possible with money raised by the writers. The magazine takes its name from the calo, or slang, spoken and written by Chicano graffiti artists since the 1930s who added con safos or C/S under their names to protect their creations. Con safos was a dignified way of saying "the same to you" if another person destroyed, defaced or denigrated one's graffiti.

For the writers group--as well as old and new readers--the comeback of the literary imprimatur, noted especially for its use of "Spanglish" (the mix of English and Spanish sans translation), is a cultural victory. Recently, the Smithsonian Institution requested copies of the journal for its archives. More businesses and individuals are contributing financially to the magazine's publication. And the monthly workshops, funded by a grant from the California Arts Council, have been renewed through 1998.

At this night's session, Carrasco reads from her story, "The Apartment." Some of the writers stare into the waxed, wooden floorboards as they listen. Others have their eyes shut, their heads heavenward. Only the wooden chairs that make a snapping sound like brittle twigs with every shift of a leg or arm can be heard above her voice.

*

I always liked to listen to my parents when they talk at night and they think us kids are all asleep. One night I heard my parents say something about how they owed too much money and my father didn't earn enough to pay it all back.

Then they said they wished they didn't have seven kids and I cried because if they weren't my parents, they would only have six kids and they would have more money to pay the bills. . . . Finally my father said that the only thing to do was to make our house bigger so that we would all fit in it.

"Si abremos el soterran~o, podemos hacer cuartos alli abajo y podemos rentar el otro lado como apartamento." ("If we open up the basement, we can make rooms down there and rent one side of the house as an apartment.")

*

Ralph F. Lopez-Urbina, known to writers as "Rafas" (short for Rafas de Dog Town--named for his barrio, located near a dog pound), founded the original Con Safos with Frank (Pancho) Sifuentes. Today, Sifuentes is the magazine's publishing editor as well as the coordinator for the writer's workshop.

Lopez-Urbina, who has rheumatoid arthritis, prefers to remain in the background, consulting with Sifuentes about the magazine's vision and attending the workshops when his health permits.

The 60-year-old retired, self-proclaimed "hack" recalls starting the magazine because of what he called "institutional racism" at Cal State Los Angeles, where he earned a bachelor's degree in English literature.

"When I started going to college I found out that any time I tried to write about my experiences I was told my point of view was too ethnic," he said. His stories, he was told, were "not universal, not the kind that everyone could relate to."

His world view, he said, came from living in a Chicano barrio. And as far as he was concerned, the stars and the moon he looked at each night were part of the same universe everyone else saw. He just described them "with a different accent." And with different words: estrellas y luna .

"Most of us were willing to put up with the racist posturing that was going on," he said. "I felt it was an indignity. I began to think, 'There has to be a way to address this whole issue.' "

Entra Con Safos.

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