There are parrots in my neighborhood—feral creatures who were once domesticated, tamed, and now free. If you’ve never seen feral parrots, here is what you need to know: They are loud mother-fuckers and they fly in great packs of emerald and vermillion, like thugs from a gang with outlandish colors. If you have ever been in the presence of parrots like these, you will know it.
There was a time when feral parrots wandered all over Los Angeles. I still remember them as a kid on the posh Westside, making their wild unmistakable ruckus. It is one of my earliest memories in a refugee childhood where, somehow, through the grace of God and the whim of circumstance, I ended up in a good place with great schools and clean water. This is not always the case with refugees, something my parents never let me forget.
I still remember playing in my back yard, smelling dinner, but resisting the urge to come in–the sky still had not darkened. When one of those birds land, all of them land—and they stake out a tree or a telephone wire and, like a meeting of Shriner’s with little red Fez plumage, hang out in the arbor of their make-shift hotel lobby, yucking it up with their chums.
Those strange birds pretty much disappeared from the Westside at a certain point—a victim of the overexpansion of the city. The Ballona wetlands, a marshland that served as a wildlife sanctuary–now covered in concrete, probably their resting place—is now stucco condos and strip malls…despite loud protest from conservationists. The parrots have been displaced further east and their sanctuary has become the digs of new birds of passage: tech workers and movie industry grunts who want to build their nests within striking distance of the seagull beaches.
I’ve long since left the Westside and my gritty new neighborhood to the East–Highland Park–still has some open spaces that haven’t been bulldozed. There is Griffith Park—the largest urban park in the nation—that still is home to rattlesnakes and coyotes and cougars. There is the Audubon Center, nestled up against the hills and bounded by the freeway. There is Eugene V. Debs park with its man-made reservoir. And so when I moved to this area just a few years ago, I was surprised to suddenly see, to suddenly hear, these reminders of another time, another place.
There are 13 species of wild parrot that were brought from South America to the United States as pets. Some speculate, that a major fire in Bel Air—that rich part of Los Angeles filled with sheiks and movie moguls—is the genesis of these creatures who were released into the urban-scape by their owners who saw no other way to save them in the face of natural disaster.
But to the people who live in my largely Latino neighborhood, the parrots are not the mascots of the wealthy, but metaphors of the immigrant spirit—its persistence, its hardiness, its collectivity. There is a mural on a portal to one of our iconic stairways, upon which is painted the parrots that are supposed to be stand-in’s for the Mexicans, Guatemalans, Salvadorans that have come from further South to find their home.
I am personally tempted to see the parrot as a metaphor of immigration. The first time I re-encountered the feral parrots–a huge convocation of them–was in the city of Orange, a picturesque little town, anchored by Chapman University in Orange County. Orange County is the adoptive home to Vietnamese refugees and houses its largest population outside of the United States. And it is on the bucket list of every Vietnamese immigrant to visit the Little Saigon that is only a twenty minute drive from downtown Orange.
I was also an immigrant of sorts: I had just returned to California after a few years in the Midwest and, to be confronted with this spectacle in such a place as Orange County, made me immediately realize that the parrots are some kind of a symbol not only of my own migrations across the continent but, also, of the migration of my people across the globe: we are the exotic domesticated–the feral and the invasive—incapable of being caged.
But now I realize that this is just me reading into things—reading into things with the kind of chauvinism that centers myself upon the looking glass of myself. After all, Los Angeles is not just the place where parrots thrive. Neither is the Southland. Rather, we find parrots all over California. And indeed there is even a documentary about the parrots of San Francisco, which makes San Francisco parrots more famous than their thug cousins in Southern California…even though we are so much closer to the movie industry.
And so the parrot is really a metaphor of our great state—of migrants in general, whether they are Midwestern bohunks who come to become actors in the machine of the movie studios, or sheiks from Saudi Arabia who buy up mansions that they will demolish and rebuild in Bel Air, or Guatemalans who cross to the other side to find new homes, or Vietnamese who wheel through the world in search of a place to land. The parrot is our great State Bird.