Tell the stories

This essay, written by mark! Lopez, appears in the 2023 Mono Lake Calendar.

My first memory of Mono Lake, like many of my first memories, connects to my grandparents Juana and Ricardo Gutierrez, Co-Founders of the Madres del Este de Los Angeles Santa Isabel (Mothers of East Los Angeles Santa Isabel, MELASI). As a kid in the early 1990s I remember seeing paw prints on the window of their van, a van used to mobilize East LA community leaders to communities all over Los Angeles, the state and surrounding states in solidarity against toxic projects threatening the health of communities, typically threatening to poison the land, water and air. I had never seen them return from a trip with paw prints before though. At first, I thought someone had drawn them on the dust on the window, but then my grandparents started telling the story of how a bear was rocking the van at night, trying to grab food containers on top of the van.

My grandparents were invited to the Mono Basin by the Mono Lake Committee. The invitation was to visit and build a connection to Mono Lake, whose tributaries provide much of the water to the faucets at my grandparents’ house in Boyle Heights, along with the homes and businesses of over four million people. My grandparents took a van full of youth from our community with them. They understood and taught us that if you want to have a lasting impact on a community you have to involve the youth. Along with the close encounter with the bear, they experienced some wilderness micro-aggressions from other campers, also known as racism. Despite those experiences, or maybe because of them now that I think about the way they told the stories in ways that made us all laugh at the threats of sharp teeth and claws along with white supremacy, the following year I was part of the group that took the trip up to Mono Lake, along with my parents, brothers, cousins, aunts and uncles and family friends. These trips were the initial connection that would serve as the inspiration for the Mono Basin Outdoor Education Center.

Since then, four generations of my family have been consistently visiting the Mono Basin. Over the last almost 30 years, along with Mono Lake, we have specifically built a relationship with Rush Creek. We supported the planting and watering of some of the first trees to return to Rush Creek. I have distinct memories of standing in the shallow waters of the creek filling buckets and handing them to my family and community members who were watering the foot-high trees in an effort to repair the riparian zone, which at that point was mainly bare soil and rocks. On one of these occasions, when I was around ten years old, we walked the length of the creek down to the shore of Mono Lake, taking in the desert like conditions of the creekbed and surrounding area. At that young age I didn’t fully grasp the impact of what we were doing, the investments we were making with every bucket filled and poured at the base of the saplings. We understood that these little trees needed our support, deep pours to help them reach their roots down from the soil made arid by greed to the groundwater ever present and ready to reconnect despite it all. I don’t know that any of us understood the relationships we were building with the land and the water. Or maybe our elders knew exactly what they were doing, pouring water to feed the roots of our own lives.

Every year I bring my daughters here, the fourth generation of our family to visit with Mono Lake and Rush Creek year after year. As we stand amongst the trees that are now three to four times our height, and as we canoe over areas we used to play in as kids but are now reclaimed by Mono Lake, I tell them stories of how the healing of the lake and the creek are about healing a relationship with water, the land and all of the plant and animal relatives. I tell them stories of how the healing of the lake and creek are related to the healing of our peoples, after generations of colonization, migration, and re-orientation.

The Mono Basin Outdoor Education Center has grown since the 90s. After enjoying the program as a youth participant for most of my life, I have transitioned to supporting organizing youth groups for over a decade. For us, unlike with other urban to outdoor type programs, visiting with Mono Lake isn’t about disconnecting from our communities. It is about understanding our own impact on Mono Lake, examining our responsibilities to Mono Lake and committing to fight for our communities, which includes fighting for Mono Lake. It is about a type of connecting and reconnecting that regenerates the type of community building our elders have taught us.

Connection after disconnection. Commitment to humanity after being dehumanized. Relationships. Once you know and love a place, you have a responsibility to that place. Mono Lake shows us that we have the capacity to know and love a people, and therefore be responsible and accountable to a people. I applaud the efforts by the Mono Lake Committee staff to invest in building relationships with, and fight alongside, the Kootzaduka’a, whose homelands make up the Mono Lake-Yosemite region. If you feel a love for and responsibility to Mono Lake, this must extend to its original peoples and their fight for federal recognition as the Mono Lake Kootzaduka’a Tribe.

Towards the end of this year we will mark the second anniversary of the passing of my grandfather, Ricardo Gutierrez. We celebrate his life, much the way he lived it, telling stories. The many stories of our family in our homelands, on the borderlands, in East LA, and at Mono Lake. Stories of people, lands, and waters. I invite you to share Mono Lake stories, your own and the wonderful stories of the long fight to save Mono Lake.

mark! Lopez is the Eastside Community Organizer & Special Projects Coordinator for East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice. He is the 2017 North American Recipient of the Goldman Environmental Prize. mark! blames the Mono Lake Committee’s Outdoor Education Center Manager, Santiago Escruceria, for the many generations of Los Angeles youth who have their own funny Mono Lake stories to tell.

Top photo courtesy of David J. Gubernick.