Katz connects with ELAC students through literature

By Elizabeth Toy

Author Jesse Katz shared his experiences about his career, family and cultural relations in his book, “The Opposite Field,” yesterday at the Modern Language Lab.

The question and answer session hoped to bring East Los Angeles College students and faculty of diverse backgrounds together to culturally connect to each other.

The book seems to be about baseball, but between the lines, it’s about fitting in, and how Katz found his place in Monterey Park, predominantly Hispanic and Asian community.

Although Katz is Jewish, he admitted he hasn’t explored his own culture as much as other cultures.

“If you don’t speak Spanish, I don’t know how you’re going to function,” Katz said.

“Spanish is a language that makes L.A. work. Not to say other languages aren’t important, but Spanish is an essential part of where we live.”

Once Katz began to speak Spanish, he saw the power and the magic of it, in communicating with community members.

Students expressed that they felt connected, listening to Katz’s anecdotes.

“I enjoyed the culture thing, talking about Asians,” English as a Second Language student Amelia Han said.

Likewise, faculty members could relate to Katz’s struggles with language barriers.

“As faculty, I encounter students with language struggles,” Respiratory Therapy professor Bunnarith Chhun said.

Chhun appreciated Katz’s writing advice, to “first, let your emotions write, write how you feel.”

As an ESL student himself, he agreed that it’s important to connect with a reader first and “you can always correct writing style later.”

A native of Portland, Oregon, Katz first moved to Los Angeles in 1985 for an internship for the San Gabriel Valley section of the LA Times, which was based in Temple City.

“All the stereotypes people have on the outside, (that L.A.’s) superficial, everyone is having plastic surgery, you guys know very well that’s not really the life here,” Katz said.

Though he didn’t expect to live in Monterey Park, he, his wife and their son Max made the move in 1998.

Back then, “Conservative white folks who had been there for many years couldn’t and wouldn’t share their space.  It was very upsetting. They felt like, ‘It’s too foreign, I’m confused, I don’t recognize this place anymore,’” Katz said.

It was around this time that the influx of Asian immigrants settling into the city of Monterey Park hugely changed the local demographic.

As a result, “thousands and thousands of white folks moved out,” Katz said.

Simultaneously, 5-year-old Max was playing baseball and Katz couldn’t help but notice that the local volunteer-run baseball league was falling apart, as many of the volunteer parents were “gangster parents” who helped themselves to the league’s funds at their convenience.

When Max was 9 years old, his father volunteered to become the Commissioner of the Monterey Park Baseball League in La Loma Park.

Katz encountered many challenges in trying to establish himself and gain the trust of the community members who’d lived their whole lives in the neighborhood.    

Students listened as Katz described some of the challenges he’s experienced as a single parent.

While Max was growing up, his father didn’t want to build too many walls around his son for fear that he might make him feel trapped.

“Mostly, I just wanted him to make his own mistakes,” he said. “But I remembered when I was a kid. There are things you can’t control and there are times when you need to let go.”   

Katz’s story connected with many of the students who face parenting challenges.

“I enjoyed the book very much, I can connect with his feelings (as a parent),” ESL student Celia Manjaraz said.

“Our children bring us together. Everyone understands the bond between mother and child and parents, even as we watch our parents grow older,” Katz said.

Katz went on to address students’ questions about writing.

“Sometimes we think that for others to relate to our writing, it has to be universal, but sometimes when it’s so universal, it becomes generic, so I actually think when you write about something that’s very unique and specific to a certain kind of place, that’s when the universal message gets unlocked,” Jesse said.

“Jesse Katz did an excellent job of responding to questions out of left field and he truly found a way of deepening our appreciation of writing, of ESL and learning languages and of life in itself,” professor Cherie Langdell said.

“The best advice I know for writers is…to write! Don’t sit around and wait for the clouds to part and hand you the perfect idea. Just dive in and start telling a story. Inspiration is a byproduct of the process, not the precondition for it,” Jesse said.

ESL Lab Assistant Michael Perrone was pleased by the turnout of the event.

“This is our first-ever speaker event here at the language lab and we’re very proud. Mr. Katz wrote a book that can really connect with our students and the different demographics of the students,” he said.

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