Benjamin Bac Sierra on the Reality of Fiction

By Ava Cohen


Pura Neta, City College Instructor Benjamin Bac Sierra’s sequel to his first book Barrio Bushido, is a compilation of prose and poetry about growing up in the Mission District of San Francisco and combating the police brutality, racism, and gentrification that the neighborhood faces.


The book primarily follows Lil Cartoon, a character who has been banished from his varrio by his mentors, Lobo and Toro, in order for him to gain more experience to bring back to his community.

Benjamin Bac Sierra, author of Pura Neta and City College professor, holds up his novel and stands on the sidewalk of Frida Kahlo Way on Ocean campus. Sierra argues in the book that words are merely “…spider symbols. They are not true….Once you whisper a word, it is not truth anymore. Why? Because it is a symbol, it is a representation [of the truth].” San Francisco, CA. Jan. 29, 2021. Photo by Melvin Wong/The Guardsman.
His story is almost ballad-like; a traveller communicating mostly through surreal stanzas that address no one in particular and yet everyone at the same time. But Bac Sierra wanted to make it clear, “Cartoon is not a savior.”


Cartoon is a culmination of figures and experiences that Bac Sierra has known throughout his life, and through his journey he discovers that true intelligence lies not in knowledge and academia, but through experience.


Through Cartoon, Bac Sierra communicates his struggles with school, and how institutions want him to use their formalities and education as a tool, but he realizes that it’s all “spider symbols.” A spoken idea is never as powerful as a feeling.


Using amor as an example; we may say it as many times as we’d like, but it will never equate to the real feeling of love. Referring to his characters, Bac Sierra said, “they all realize, there’s a limitation with this language, but this language is what we got.”


Pura Neta means “pure truth,” which Bac Sierra said is a paradox, because the book is fiction. “What I’m proposing here, through the writing, is that fiction is truth … fiction can actually be more honest than so-called reality,” he said.


“In reality, we put up all these fronts.” He emphasized his point, exclaiming, “The most real thing we believe here, on planet Earth, is this idea of death, yet we don’t even know what it is, homes!”


And yet, through works of fiction we are able to apply a narrative to help us mourn, to imagine friends’ experiences in their last moments of life and after it, as Bac Sierra does in Pura Neta.

Pura Neta, as a whole, seems to be based on love. In the book, Cartoon realizes what really motivates him to write his poetry is amor; amor for his community, amor for his homeys, amor for all the people he meets along his journey.


“I know that human beings, we need love, man, we need love. And we need to feel that, and that helps us,” said Bac Sierra. “There is no solution to this thing, you know, just the little bit of love we can get helps us get through every single day, man.”


Of course, while we can certainly help others and cope with issues through love, love can’t necessarily solve things like gentrification and mass incarceration. The system may need more fixing beyond amor.


“The characters are conscious, and technology has come to the hood, and claimed itself as their savior. They’re tryna pull the same thing that they pulled on the natives,” said Bac Sierra on the gentrification in the Mission that Cartoon comes back to after his journey.


“Holding up his copy of Pura Neta at the Forum Magazine’s reading of his book, Bac Sierra said, “I would hope that someone can look at this and be able to enrich themselves. And you know, maybe for Chicanos, Latinos, that they’ll be able to see this, and maybe build on their identity, of what it means to be, especially if you’re from an urban varrio, and especially from a vida loca, a crazy life kind of background.”

The Guardsman