Sarah Rafael Garcia types away at her laptop with a view from her apartment overlooking SanTana’s Artists Village promenade. Her arms are inked with tattoos inspired by being a woman of letters. A verse from Garcia’s “Without a Name” poem is etched on skin near artwork from Las Niñas: A Collection of Childhood Memories, her 2008 debut book. The Chicana author may have to consider a new tattoo to mark SanTana’s Fairy Tales, her newest project in the works.
Now an artist-in-residence at Grand Central Art Center in Santa Ana, Garcia came back to the only city that’s truly felt like home with a mission of re-imagining its people in a magical way. “It’s really important to show that artists, musicians and entrepreneurs don’t have to come from outside to create this within the city,” Garcia says. “We are here.”
Garcia’s own life has been a back-and-forth relationship with SanTana. Her family first moved from Brownsville, Texas to SanTana when she was just four years old. Rafael Garcia, her father, wanted to find better opportunities to support his family and worked for many years in the Orange County Register‘s print room. “Santa Ana is the place I learned English and the first place we lived away from our extended family,” she says. “The city is very nostalgic, not only of my childhood, but of the only life I knew with my father.” Rafael passed away unexpectedly from an aneurysm when Garcia was still a young girl; she movingly wrote about her father’s life for the Register in 2008.
When she turned 20, Garcia moved back to Texas to attend college and didn’t return to SanTana until nearly two decades later in 2008 with Las Niñas in hand. “I came with this very naive way of thinking that my little book would change the outcome of so many Santa Ana youth,” Garcia says. The following year, she started Barrio Writers, a summer program that works directly with youth to transform them into published authors. But the challenges of making a living as a writer in OC convinced Garcia to go back to Texas in 2010, where she eventually enrolled at Texas State University for an MFA in creative writing, a strained experience where diversity was discouraged.
Making the best out of the stressful situation, at least the seeds of SanTana’s Fairy Tales got planted during the program when Garcia transformed a feminist short story inspired by a tragic news headline with a dash of imagination mixed with magical realism. She wrote about Zoraida Reyes, a transgender santanera activist found murdered in Anaheim two years ago. Press releases and initial news reports didn’t honor Reyes’ transgender name and the murder didn’t get prosecuted as a hate crime, something that angered Garcia. “They erased her and what she fought for her whole life,” she says. “It’s like killing her twice.”
In the “Zoraida y Marisol” fairy tale, Garcia approaches Reyes in her work morphing the activist into a fairy godmother for trans women at life-or-death moments. “She is known as la madrina de la muerte o la vida,” Garcia reveals. “She listens to the voices of the trans women who have been assaulted and appears to them in the hopes of convincing them to live so that their name can live.”
The artist-in-residence proposal based on fairy tales that Garcia gave to Grand Central Art Center Director John Spiak impressed him. “Her history in Santa Ana is important as an individual and as an observer,” he says. “The artistry and passion that a creative writer brings to those stories, introduces them to new audiences. That’s what this city needs right now.” This past fall, Spiak offered an unfurnished apartment to go along with the year-long residency to help Garcia write her vision into reality.
Still getting settled back home, Garcia has six SanTana fairy tales in mind for her upcoming book. Other fables don’t shy away from hot-button issues in the city like gentrification. A story based on a “ghost” carousel uprooted from the old Fiesta Marketplace twirls and disappears youth. In another tale, the mural of Mexican-American war veterans in the Logan barrio comes alive with those portrayed telling their own stories.
Garcia is enlisting the help of local artists like graphic illustrator Carla Zarate of SolArt Radio on the project. SanTana’s Fairy Tales will come out via e-book by Digitus Indie Publishers; Cesar Ramos of Raspa Books is set to publish it in dead-tree form. Individual chapbooks on each story are planned to be published one-by-one starting in the fall.
The vision for the final exhibit a year from now is as imaginative as its muse; artwork from the fairy tales will adorn the walls with pull quotes beneath them, with actors staging the stories and musicians like SanTana’s own Ruby Castellanos and LA’s Viento Callejero scoring it all.
“I’m ready to hear stories and write them,” Garcia says. “I’m ready to call this home again.”