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LAist Interview: Daniel Hernandez

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Meet Daniel Hernandez, one of this LAist Interviewer's most elusive targets.

He's only 25, but he's already an important voice in the Los Angeles media. Always on the go, we've been chasing him for an interview for the past year. We're glad our persistence paid off because Daniel has a keen sense about what's really interesting about this city.

We first noticed Daniel's writing when he wrote a piece about the endangered graffiti artat the Belmont Tunnel for the Los Angeles Times. His stories about the destruction ofLA's art murals influenced subsequent press about the issue. Indeed, his work predated the June fracas involving the city's destruction of Kent Twitchell's six-story mural, "Ed Ruscha Monument."

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If you see a newspaper article about something cool in Los Angeles or hear someone screaming about how the media has portrayed a volatile issue, it's highly likely that Daniel wrote it.

Now he is a staff writer at LA Weekly, where he has covered the immigrant rights movement and the 2006 presidential election in Mexico. In fact, the paper published his first cover story, "Down and Delirious in Mexico City," in its August 11, 2006 issue.

Prior to joining the LA Weekly, he was on the staff of the Metro section at the Los Angeles Times, where he wrote cultural stories for the front-page such as his profile of OC Weekly columnist, Gustavo Arrellano.

Others are beginning to celebrate Daniel's accomplishments, as well. Daniel is the 2006 recipient of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists' "Emerging Journalist of the Year" award and was a 2006 fellow of the Getty/USC Annenberg Arts Journalism Program.

Below are his responses to a few questions posed outside of our regular Q&A format. For this interview, Daniel put links into some responses, as he wanted to "respond creatively to the format."

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Why did you become a journalist?

Let's take it way back. I wanted to be an architect, but I couldn't deal with trigonometry. When my older brother Surge was in the ninth grade and I was in the seventh, my parents made him take Journalism. He wasn't into it; I read his textbook on my own and became enamored with the concepts, the ideas, the traditions, the practices. I've been doing journalism in one way or another since I was 14. It lets you constantly nurture your curiosity, your sense of justice, your sense of humor. I love the element of surprise that is the primary appeal behind a good news story. You're always learning. You also can't deny the appeal of deadline pressure, the adrenaline.

Why do you live in Los Angeles?
Initially, a job brought me. My first year in L.A. was miserable. I was living in a plain apartment on Rowena in Silver Lake with almost no furniture and just a few contacts. I started exploring, and things changed. L.A. messes with your depth perception, among other things. There is no city like it in the world, and because it's so impenetrable, dabblers tend to stay away. It's constantly shifting, constantly surprising you. And it's still trying to figure itself out. For journalism, it can't get any better than that.

What's the most overused phrase used to describe our city?
Plastic. It's overused and inaccurate. To me, most of L.A. is crumbling.

How do you describe the L.A. journalist personality?
I don't think there's a single personality type for the L.A. journalist. But I do think all the solid L.A. journalists have a certain indefinable instinct, they know that the cliché is rooted in some truth, that nothing in L.A. is what it seems. The spectacle of the news here is just smokescreen. There's always a back story, and a back story behind that one, connecting you to something else entirely. It's sexy.

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What are your favorite beats to cover and why?
I like writing about immigration, subcultures, youth, Latino L.A., stuff like that. On a broader level, I like stories that help illuminate the intersections between art and politics, the intersections between cultures. I am suspicious of dogma, of any sort. That's why I really only believe in art, the primacy of it, the primitive attraction we have toward color, light, shape, objects.

That's why I love writing about public art, graffiti, muralism; L.A. is a rich city for that. And I like writing about hipsters. It's easy (and lazy) to loathe hipsters, but their way of living, dressing, talking, and thinking are now internationally exported and show up in every mall across America. Hipsters are the market.

I guess I've been trying to formulate a dada approach to journalism. No subculture has meaning beyond the meaning its adherents attach to it; whatever interpretation you bring to it is none but your own. This makes all subcultures interesting, worthy of analysis and consideration, and, at the same time, sort of absurd. And that's fine. So I don't have patience for stories that pander, sneer, or "parachute" into the city's little worlds: hipsters, immigrants, Latinos, Westsiders, Eastsiders, blacks, yuppies, gays, the homeless, and so on.

Forced liberal pity is a common pitfall in well-intentioned journalism, patting your subjects upon the head, regarding others as provincial. I find this highly disrespectful. I try to acknowledge and honor people's concerns and obsessions, approach them eye-to-eye, give them a mirror, but at the same time, give outsiders an entry point. And I try to always be aware of how my own cultural perspective informs the process. You can't not. For journalism, abandoning cannibalizing hang-ups is bliss.

If there's a Latino pulse in L.A., is there an "LA" pulse in Mexico City/DF? Do you see evidence of how the 2 cultures manifest in each region?

Mexico City and Los Angeles are both about layers. Mexico City's layers are the real palpable layers of history you can feel everywhere: the pre-colonial Mesoamerican civilization, the colonial civilization of New Spain, and Modern Mexico: a place of big, utilitarian architecture, soaring aerial expressways, cafe culture, and radical street life.
They all a mix; it's exhilirating. L.A. is also about layers, but the layers are horizontal. It's concealment, artifice, membranes the city dweller must work hard at stripping away to get to the meat: the inner, secret spaces of private L.A.; the most interesing spaces here are private spaces.

And of course, L.A. is the second biggest Mexican city in the world. L.A. is
like the postmodern suburb of Mexico City. I see the D.F. all over L.A., the
way immigrants are transforming the city's urbanism, irrespective of archaic city codes, especially in places like MacArthur Park and Echo Park. The unofficial market of second-hand goods that happens every weekend at Echo Park Lake. The balloon sellers. The fruit vendors. The taco stand guy on Alvarado who keeps getting moved around by the city but never abandons his stretch of street; L.A. needs him there! He's a patriot! I need his tacos and the sense of community with my neighbors at 1 a.m. That's Mexico. No, that's L.A.

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I think D.F. is barely starting recognizing its own L.A.-ness. Just look at all the Starbucks they have now. The Office Depots, the Wal-Marts, etc. There is growing interest down there in L.A. cultural exports like flashy clothes, flashy cars, flashy faces, excess pop, excess media. It's also incredibly noir, like L.A. Lots of hidden histories. You can feel it on the sidewalks, in people's faces.
Anyway, we're all merging.

Why did you move from the Los Angeles Times to the LA Weekly? How are the jobs similar and different?

I owe The Times lots. They taught me so much. They gave me freedom and room to work, and pushed me to push myself. Everyday the people there amazed me, their talent and drive. But The Times has a very clear, very rigid tradition on how to report the news.

Shortly after I got there, I started having these long, tortured thought sessions with myself about my participation in the MSM. I saw how the people and places the paper chose to cover were automatically political decisions because for every thing you chose to cover there is something you chose to not cover. I started realizing that the mainstream style on reporting the news that most papers employ is not really concerned with depicting the truth, but concerned primarily with balancing lots of competing agendas and offending the least amount of interests as possible.

I saw how so much was looked at from certain assumptions and subtexts, and a very narrow cultural view. When I raised questions about such things, I was told we were writing for a "mainstream reader," which I quickly figured out is basically a euphemism for a middle-aged, middle-class white registered Democrat homeowner in the Valley. From where I stand today, I had very little in common with this "mainstream reader" and I didn't care to be in this person's service. I wanted to talk across to people, not up or down to people. I had to get out. So I thought, why not experiment? Try different forms? Laurie Ochoa and the editors at the LA Weekly said, 'Go ahead, abandon rote objectivity and embrace the subjective lens through which we all see the world--Just report it all out.' It was ON.

The jobs are basically the same: go out there, report the story, think about it a lot, write, turn it in, get edited, learn from it, and start all over. It's been a real challenge. The Weekly is more challenging. At The Times I was just challenging the institutional and cultural barriers of an ultimately very conservative place. That was exhausting, and not very fulfilling. At the Weekly, there's all this freedom, and that means you have to be more careful and more thoughtful.

What do you think of the media attention that focused on Gustavo Arrellano after you published your profile of him in the Los Angeles Times? Did you receive similar attention?
Gustavo is probably one of the most dynamic and unique voices in newspapers, anywhere. I fell in love with his writing after I ran into the Why Latinos Love Morrisseyarticle to rule them all, which Gustavo wrote waaaay back in 2002. Then I came across "Ask a Mexican!" and was just floored. I had never seen writing about immigration and cultural politics like that, as engaging, and given the demographic shifts, as relevant. So I started an email conversation with him and heard the story about how he practically fell into journalism. After telling some editors and colleagues about him, it clicked: profile. I went down to SanTana and hung out with him a couple times, interviewed his editor Will Swaim, and wrote, and wrote, and re-wrote, and re-wrote.

It turned into a Column One during the editing process with Steve Padilla, who's an editor in Metro; he helped shape piece into an exploration of both Gustavo and of his writing, by letting both speak mostly for themselves. Roger Smith, the Column One editor, was really behind it, too. Which was good because the piece was pushing lots of boundaries for the paper: on language, on political correctness, on media navel-gazing, on Latinos at large.

When it finally hit, the response was overwhelming. I think it's because people are hungering for new voices, for frankness, for a new conversation, because one of the unfortunate legacies of the movements of the 60s and 70s was this obsession with identity politics and a rather constricting political correctness. Gustavo's work is a direct attack on those ways of thinking. People are electrified by it.

There was some attention thrown my way, but I'd like to think I was just doing my job.

The effects for Gustavo's career were not that surprising--the airtime, the cable appearances, the book deals--but they never figured into the reporting or the writing. My sole intent was to tell the world about a revolutionary journalistic voice causing desmadre right under our noses. Whatever happened after that was not my concern. But it was cool to watch, definitely.

Is Los Angeles still a segregated city and how?
Yes and no. The geography makes it easy to declare L.A. is segregated, but I think L.A. is really quite integrated, more than a lot of other cities I've seen. At the street level, everyone pretty much gets along and goes about their day like people do all over the world. At the edges of the city's cultural nodes, where the different cultures meet, interesting hybrids happen: in the music you hear out the windows, in the food, in the storefront signage, in the clothes people wear, in the colors of people's skin. For the most part, I think racial tensions in L.A. are exaggerated and media-fueled and politicized, but that doesn't mean they aren't real. Maybe I'm naïve, but isn't everyone everything by now? We're in L.A., we have access to and interact with the entire world, because the entire world is here. I just don't see how everything comes down to race. People are more than the sum of their ethnic heritage and the color of their skin. Just ask them.

What's the stupidest story that you've had to cover?

No story is stupid! (I'm winking.)

What types of graft and dirty dealings do you see go on in our local government? Is it just an LA thing or a California thing or a national phenomena?
Mostly I follow the juicy and slimy stories dug out of City Hall by my colleagues at the Weekly. It's part of the lore that dirty dealings are in the city's political DNA. Can't even begin to ruminate on an explanation for that. Maybe it's something in the water, or in the "Water & Power." For me, it's just interesting to see how the city's rising Latino political stars--I like calling them the Mexican American Princes--are morphing into politicians like any other politicians anywhere else, in any other period. They just happen to be brown. We'll see if they can come up with something transgressive at the upcoming National Latino Congreso, but I'm not holding my breath.

What's your favorite meal and where can you get it in LA?
Chicken smothered with mole and topped with shards of onion and queso fresco, followed by a strong Americano and a small plate of bananas topped with sweet cream. A friend served me this at El Generalito in Mexico City's Centro Historico once. It was a revelation. I've been searching for the L.A. equivalent ever since. (Frowning.) They got good mole at Guelaguetza and at the puestecitos at El Mercado in East L.A., though.

Why are you attracted to Mexico as a journalist?

This is a huge question that American journalists for generations have tried to answer, the pull of Mexico. Mexico is one of the richest, most complex, most contradictory societies anywhere in the world. Its history is millenial, filled with really epic variations on how to build civilizations--and today, it is becoming the United States. Because the United States is becoming Mexico. Thank you, NAFTA. We can fret about this on both sides of the border till the end of time, or we can adapt, learn from each other, and hang on for the ride. As a journalist, I feel that to understand our own future better, we have to understand Mexico better, make those bridges. Plus, the living there is simply better. Compared to the U.S., like a lot of other places, there's more of an appreciation for food, for music, for art, for hanging out, for friends, for living. And for the power of ghosts, death, and ancestors.

If you could cover any story, from any location, what would it be and why?
Right now I can't imagine a better story than Cuba. It's all about societies in transition, facing the tensions brought by globalization--China, Turkey, Mexico. What's it like on the ground? How are the creatives responding? The youth?

What subject matter would you want to 'own'?
None. That kind of thinking is bad for my field of work. I really wish there were more young bicultural voices in L.A. journalism, complicating the dialogue, bringing their own perspective and experiences into the mix, challenging assumptions. I wish I had a view into Koreatown by a good, curious, bilingual Korean journalist, for instance, or with L.A.'s Persian population. It's up to the daily papers in L.A. to look past the J-school and Ivy League pools and actively recruit and shape talented young journalists from campuses in our own backyard(s), because they're out there. But that's just my opinion.