California is a state with nearly 40 million people spread over 163,000 square miles, so how can it have a singular identity? The best writing about the place has long operated out of such a contradiction, between the mythologies of the popular imagination—California as promised land or beacon of possibility—and the more complicated realities underneath. Drought, wildfires, gentrification, income inequality, the crisis in housing: each brings with it a particular set of narratives. Then there are our rapidly evolving demographics; California is much less of a transplant culture than it once was, and in 2014, it became the first state to have a Latinx plurality.
This is the “disjointed mosaic” that José Vadi seeks to capture in his first essay collection, Inter State. The grandson of a Mexican migrant farmworker, Vadi is an ideal observer, with roots in both the Southland (where he grew up) and Northern California (where he now lives) that afford a variety of insights. He never attempts to speak for California as a whole; rather, he writes from his own individual experience. His goal is “bearing witness, remembering and documenting the befores and my place within its breathing afters.”
That Vadi is an avid skateboarder makes him not just advantageously mobile but also uniquely credible. I can think of few contemporary figures more identified with the state. Skate culture has deep roots and a vibrant presence here, and at its best, Vadi’s prose replicates the slang and syntax of both a seasoned skater (“grind a fence,” “bomb two hills into oblivion,” and “snap a slow ollie”) and a millennial Californian (friends “talk shit”; going to the airport “is trash”; a store manager shoots him a look that “tells me dude is serious as hell”). It’s in these moments—when Vadi is colloquial and dripping in attitude—that his voice feels most vital and fresh. A passage I adore: when the author heads home “before it gets too dark and the mountain lions stop giving a fuck and devour me like they should.”
Vadi is better at observation than critique—that is, at crafting moments rather than mining them for meaning. His scenes are remarkably well rendered. In my favorite, at the San Francisco dive bar (since closed) where he is a regular, the owner tenderly “extends her hand with an avocado in her palm, says ‘Take one home.’” The instant needs no analysis; it’s inherently beautiful. His attempts at commentary or condemnation—of the city’s politicians and corporate raiders, the encampments in the shadow of Salesforce Tower or the neo-’49ers seeking not gold but silicon—are less resonant.
That said, Vadi excels at addressing California’s spotty “collective memory,” only exacerbated now that the state has been “wiped of its longtime residents,” many of whom were priced out of their communities. California has a habit of ahistoricism, and Vadi worries that Californians will soon “know nothing about the generations that molded the state’s 1950s surfer stereotypes, its ’60s heyday, its ’70s resistance and challenges, its ’80s suburbia, its riots and smog alerts and blackouts culminating in the ’90s.”
The collection’s title essay revisits one of California’s most essential legacies—that of migrant agriculture—particularly well. After driving the Grapevine (an automotive “rite of passage” for many Californians), Vadi explores the Central Valley’s rich but often buried history. His point of entry is his grandfather. “There’s never been a time,” he writes, “that I’ve driven through the Central Valley without thinking, ‘Is this where he worked?’” So Vadi treks across the Tehachapi Mountains, through Kern County, and finally to the Salinas Salad Bowl, where he finds that the “underbelly of California history lies exposed at each harvest.”
Vadi reflects on the Bracero Program and its injustices, the United Farm Workers union and its limitations. He recalls disasters that took the lives of dozens of mostly unidentified migrant laborers. He considers the inhumane living conditions that continue to plague migrants in the region. The essay is an impressive work of travelogue-cum-reportage that reveals both a state’s blighted history and a grandson’s fierce love.
Reading Inter State, I marveled to see California captured with such specificity: the tradition of Disneyland grad night; the special hell (and occasional bliss) of the freeways; the refuge of the Getty and the record stores on Telegraph; communing over late-night In-N-Out or scarfing carne asada quesadillas near Lake Merritt.
For all his complicated feelings, Vadi’s devotion to the state—a place he’d “rather die in than live outside its borders”—is rooted in a hope so sincere it is contagious.•