During his decades as a journalist, Hermosa Beach's Ron Arias dodged bullets while covering wars, saw first hand the aftermath of natural disasters, covered headline-making murder trials and interviewed numerous celebrities, but his fiction writing often took a backseat to his many adventures. More than 30 years after he published his National Book Award-nominated “The Road to Tamazunchale,” Arias tells tales inspired by his youth growing up near the Los Angeles River in “The Wetback and Other Stories.”
“Even though I went out into the world, I came from a little neighborhood … I've always been interested in knowing how I got to be who I am,” Arias, who will turn 75 later this month, said.
“Wetback” focuses on the Mexican-Americans he knew who lived in the Elysian Valley neighborhood between Elysian Park and the Los Angeles River. One story was inspired by a tale he heard in the 1940s about a “good looking” dead man found in the dry river bottom.
“One of the central characters in the title story is Mrs. Rentería, an aging spinster who at last finds love in a very unique way,” Arias said. “Since it’s an allegory about how blind and fierce love can be, I think readers can sympathize with her longing. Her character springs from my great aunt Pema, a kind, hardworking woman, who was beautiful but never clicked with the right man ... until the handsome wetback David. I don’t use the word as a derogatory term for an illegal or undocumented Latino immigrant. Actually, I try to humanize, not demonize, the wetback image, all with a heavy sense of irony.”
Arias had two fathers. His biological father left when his parents divorced, but he later became acquainted with him in his 20s. His adoptive father was absent as a soldier who became a prisoner of war in North Korea for three years. Arias' mother was “very religious and set the tone of what we could believe.”
“She pretty much made up things about our past,” recalled Arias. “That we weren't Mexican, we were Spanish, or from Portugal, or French, yet she was born on the border in El Paso. I had a very Mexican grandmother who taught me Spanish … I spent a couple years with her as a child.”
Arias was in an all Spanish speaking class in kindergarten while living with his grandmother.
“In those days the word Mexican was a derogatory term as a nationality in this country because the powers, the elites were all white and I didn’t know that as a kid,” said Arias.
Arias' world travels began after he was 13 years old when his father returned from Korea. Arias would later write a book “Moving Target: a Memoir of Pursuit,” in 2002, about his childhood recollections and search for his POW father. They moved to Air Force bases around the world, from Kansas to Germany. Whenever he had the opportunity, he would take off and hitchhike, he said. When he was 17, he had an encounter with Ernest Hemingway, which he details in his 2015 collection of essays about his travels, “My Life as a Pencil."
“He gave me advice and was just curious ... of course he had been a reporter himself,” recalled Arias, who said he already had ambitions to be a writer. “I’ve since met other professional writers, they’ve always been inspiring because I find out what they went through.”
Hemingway's advice to Arias was to “keep writing." So he did because he was “hungry to learn more about the world.”
He ended up at Mira Costa College in Oceanside and was an editor of the school newspaper, but spent most of his time at the library. He wanted more than what Mira Costa was offering so he transferred to the University of California Berkeley where he was an English major and saw the “possibility of words.” He eventually dropped out because he wanted to travel. He answered an ad from the Buenos Aires Herald, for a reporter who could speak Spanish and write in English.
“I went to Buenos Aires in 1962, I was 20 years old, I was green, but I covered everything from revolutions to dock strikes,” Arias said.
Arias worked for the Buenos Aires Herald for a year, while also stringing for the Associated Press, where one of his first stories was interviewing golf legend Arnold Palmer. He later worked for a year at the Daily Journal in Caracas, Venezuela. He wanted to see more of Latin America so he entered the Peace Corps as a volunteer in Peru, where he contributed to the Christian Science Monitor and wrote stories about farmers being massacred by government troops.
He spent two years in the Peace Corps before returning to California where he attended UCLA, and met his wife, Joan, who was then working on her doctorate in Hispanic language and literature. They would later have a son Michael, who is now is a filmmaker living in Japan. He said he would have been willing to go to Vietnam, but his wife was a “raging pacifist.”
“She said, 'It's either me or Vietnam, so I said 'I’ll take you any day.'”
The People years
Arias began writing for People in 1985, beginning his 22-year relationship with the magazine.
Arias had been with the magazine for about a month when he raised his hand in the newsroom when an editor called out for someone who spoke Spanish. He was reluctant at first.
“I finally raised my hand and they sent me to cover the earthquake in Mexico City,” he said. “From then I was sort of the world correspondent.”
His writing assignments for People took him to the Arctic, Sarajevo, Moscow, Somalia, the Amazon, Ethiopia and all over Latin America, where he was covering wars to famine.
“It was a roller coaster and I was trying to get back to writing fiction, but I couldn’t make up this stuff ... it was so much better than my own little head,” Arias said. “I was absorbing wars ... it was adrenaline pumping, it probably caused a heart attack later (in Sarajevo).”
Arias added, “It took its toll and I had to slow down. I guess my editors knew that too. That coincided with me wanting to go out to California.”
During his later years at People, his stories were “celebrity heavy,” from interviews with Shaquille O'Neil to Donald Trump, but he also specialized in crime and medical stories. He covered the Michael Jackson child molestation trial as well as Scott Peterson murder trial. Arias and his team won a Los Angeles Press Club award for their coverage of the Peterson trial, where he was convicted of murdering his wife Laci and their unborn child.
Arias said the older he got the less likely he would interview a young star. When he was the oldest on staff at the L.A. bureau, he thought himself as the “guy who interviewed geezers.” The last story he wrote for People was in 2014 was a remembrance of Shirley Temple, in part because he was the last to write a story about her, in 1998.
“Shirley and I just clicked for some reason and then we had this friendship by phone. She would just call just to chat about her kids or grandkids,” Arias said.
For years, People paid journalists to cover major news events around the globe, which Arias was a large part of. He said other journalists would “scratch their head” wondering what People was doing in El Salvador or Nicaragua. That changed when Arias' story on children in Nicaragua helped shed light on their plight and Congress passed a bill in 1988 that aided children wounded during its civil war.
“They would spend money,” said Arias of People. “I trashed cars in Saudi Arabia in the sand. I would burn them out. They didn’t even blink or even ask me to cover $15,000 SUV.”
But times have changed. Between competition from other magazines, and a new focus on celebrity gossip and features, Arias knew it was time to move on. It struck him while he was waiting outside of Tom Cruise's house in Beverly Hills at 2 a.m. for a pregnant Katie Holmes to emerge and head to the hospital to give birth. When a “fancy sports car” backed out of the house, he started to chase Cruise down Sunset Boulevard in the middle of the night.
“I’m thinking this is stupid,” said Arias, who has written a book about his experiences and is currently looking for a publisher. “I’m going to get killed or arrested. I’m going to lose my license. I was doing U-turns and the guy was obviously trying to lose me. I said screw it, that’s it ... this is dangerous. I don’t want to do this kind of journalism … and I backed away from that stuff.”
Back to fiction
“The Road to Tamazunchale,” which depicts the last days of a widower who is visited by his dead wife in visions, received critical success and was a “breakthrough in Chicano fiction” when it was released in 1975 and currently is being optioned for film.
With “Wetback” Arias said he wants to bridge the “white world and the darker Spanish-speaking world” that “doesn't meet much.”
“They are right next door, they are in our backyards. they take care of our kids, they wash our dishes ... who are these people?'” Arias said. “This is who they are. It's is a literary treatment or peek at that but ... I want to humanize Mexicans or people from my kind of background, not just Mexicans, but all Latin Americans because I do have their perspective.”
Arias' book is currently for sale at Curious Home Decor and Novelty Shop, located at 128 Pier Ave. in Hermosa Beach, and Pages bookstore, located at 904 Manhattan Ave. in Manhattan Beach.