For author and scholar activist Martín Alberto Gonzalez, the joke just isn’t funny anymore. In his book, 21 Miles of Scenic Beauty … and then Oxnard: Counterstories and Testimonies, Gonzalez pushes back against the stereotype that beauty ends at the county line and addresses negative stereotypes residents of Oxnard have endured for decades living in the minds of outsiders.

“Do you know people are telling these stories about you?” Gonzalez asks his students about the impression outsiders have of his city. “Growing up I didn’t know this either because I didn’t get a chance to leave Oxnard.”

VCReporter: Tell me about that title.

Martín Alberto Gonzalez: The title is intentionally misleading; the book is the exact opposite of what the title alludes to, so to speak. The title is inspired by Oxnard having a negative reputation. I’ve noticed that people who are not from Oxnard and even people from Oxnard talk badly about Oxnard, about how dangerous it is and that it’s criminal ridden. The title was inspired by Psychology 101. In psychology, you learn a concept called subliminal messages, which are hidden messages to brainwash us to think in a certain way. The argument I make is a funny one in the first chapter, that we get the first subliminal message before we even get to Oxnard. We get it when we’re in Malibu. Sometimes people forget that Oxnard is the biggest city next to Malibu. When you take the PCH, you pass a sign that says “Malibu, 21 miles of scenic beauty.” After the 21 miles, the joke is that you enter Oxnard, specifically, south Oxnard, that’s what the titles is inspired by. Oxnard is a city that is constantly forgotten, where the people get neglected, where the schools don’t invest in youth as much as they could. It’s a way to bring in some readers that I probably wouldn’t catch in the first place.

Why did you write this book?

I tell people that for a long time it was just a joke for me and I didn’t think it was serious that Oxnard was neglected. I didn’t learn the truth until I left Oxnard and started meeting people who knew about Oxnard and had a misconception about what my community was. For instance, isn’t that where one of the most dangerous gangs is? Isn’t that place filled with people who will steal from you? Is that all that people know about my community? I really want to be informed about what I’m talking about, and as I was conducting my research, I found this very problematic map called the “map of stereotypes” [Judgmental Map of Ventura County California] which listed south Oxnard as “People who drove too far on PCH and weren’t expecting a scary neighborhood.”

What’s your top priority in the book to address?

Schools don’t invest in kids as much as they should. I’m not saying that just because I want to see it — I’m about to become a doctor in education. What’s happening in Oxnard, for example, is that the expectations of our youth are so low that until recently the graduation requirements were not aligned with college requirements, meaning that you can go to school in Oxnard and be an A+ student and still not be eligible for college. When I share my stories with students from New York who come from wealthy neighborhoods, they ask if this is legal. It’s almost unheard of, for a student to not be provided adequate opportunities, for instance, having multiple [Advanced Placement] classes and not just one that gets full. It doesn’t make sense.

How do you combat the stereotypes?

I try to speak to the youth and get them to see themselves as an investment, to see the reality. Do you know people are telling these stories about you? About your family, your older siblings? Growing up I didn’t know this either because I didn’t get a chance to leave Oxnard. I try to keep it as real as possible with them. This is a stereotype we have if you’re coming from Oxnard, especially if you look like me, a brown person. Then what I do is share an experience that changed my life, the idea that we can tell our own stories, because when you get to tell your own stories then you have the power to change whatever you want about that story. Tell me something beautiful about your community, about your older siblings who have a tattoo, that’s one way that I do it.

Give me an example of how you would change a negative story about Oxnard into a positive.

In Oxnard, rent is getting very expensive. What happens is, in a two-bedroom apartment, 10 people will live in that apartment. Any outsider would say, “Look at these savages, oh my god, they don’t know how to live a decent life, look at them, they don’t even take care of themselves and it’s so difficult and crowded to be clean.” A positive aspect of that is, I would say, “Tell me something beautiful about this.” They’d say, “Oh my god, 10 people live in this apartment because they love each other so much, they want to help each other financially because they can’t afford it and want to empower each other.”

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