Remembering Mike Davis, Social Change Agent

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Michael “Mike” Ryan Davis, often revered as a “brilliant,” a “North Star” and an “enemy of the state,” died Oct. 25 at his home in San Diego. He was 76 years old.

Davis was battling esophageal cancer. His publishing house, Verso, made the announcement on October 26. Since then, memories have been pouring in on national and international social networks and media. Davis’ partner, Mexican artist Alessandra Moctezuma, posted photos to her Instagram, honoring her with a Día de los Muertos, a Day of the Dead altar.

Altar Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) in honor of Mike Davis. The altar was made by his children and his partner, Alessandra Moctezuma. (Photo courtesy of Alessandra Moctezuma)

Davis is the author of more than a dozen books, including his best-known works, “City of Quartz: Excavating the Future of Los Angeles” and “Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World” . His work made him a leading writer, political activists, urban theorist and historian who influenced my theories and philosophies of Karl Marx.

He first joined the creative writing department at UCR in July 2008 and retired eight years later. He remained a distinguished professor emeritus until his death. In 2020 he received the Lannan Foundation Cultural Freedom Award, he was among three recipients of the 2020 award alongside political activist and author Angela Davis and prison abolitionist and scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore.

Davis was born in Fontana but has lived in San Diego for most of his life. His heart has always been in the Inland Empire, he said in a 1998 interview with The Sun.

In July, he was interviewed by the Los Angeles Times. During this conversation, Davis recalled UCR students and the time he spent speaking to them about changing times that threatened their political, social, and economic rights.

Letter written by Alessandra Moctezuma, partner of the late Mike Davis.  The letter explains the items Davis and Moctezuma's children put on the altar on Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead).  (Photo courtesy of Alessandra Moctezuma)
Letter written by Alessandra Moctezuma, partner of the late Mike Davis. The letter explains the items Davis and Moctezuma’s children put on the altar on Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). (Photo courtesy of Alessandra Moctezuma)

Any memories shared by reporters, alumni and faculty are appreciated, said Moctezuma, professor of fine arts, museum studies and gallery director at San Diego Mesa College, via email.

“It’s nice to see all these memories and tributes,” Moctezuma said. “I know Mike would be very grateful as well.”

At UCR, professors shared their memories of Davis:

“I met Mike when he was at UC Irvine. I audited a class he was teaching. His knowledge of history and places was vast and intricate, and he was so generous with his time and his expertise. He made me proud to be from the Inland Empire.
—Alex Espinoza, associate professor and holder of the Tomás Rivera Chair of Literary Creation


“I once took a quiet, unsuspecting grad student to spend a day with Mike in San Diego. After showing us his collection of Pleistocene rocks, his impressive array of Soviet posters, serving us the goat he cooked, and convincing my student that the Mormons are the last communists in America, Mike drove us to a cult, an Iraqi Chaldean lunch (where he knew everyone), a truck stop on the eastern outskirts of town where a union revolt had taken place in the 60s (and where we picked up sandwiches), and, finally , a remote cactus-covered mountain on the border with Mexico, where barefoot he raced to the top (with us heavily behind him) while declaiming into the desert air an entire volume of Freud, verbatim.

It set the tone for all my journeys – pilgrimages, in my heart – until I saw Mike. They were always days of at least ten hours – ten hours of being charmed, fascinated and enchanted by a man who was enchanted by a world he knew, more than anyone, wildly, gloriously, perfectly imperfect. He devoted his days, his whole life, to knowing this strange place.

My own enchantment with Mike began in 1989 at CalArts graduate school – where he gave us the handwritten chapters of “City of Quartz” as he wrote them and took me and a few other students in all his secret Southern California spots (well, he kept a few to himself) – and continued through his years at UCR and beyond. Mentor, colleague, friend, hero. He showed me how a person could live nobly in the midst of an all too often despicable human world.

We often dreamed of going on trips together. One was to climb the steep north face of Mount San Jacinto (the highest urban mountain on the continent, Mike liked to remind me), which involved illegally weaving through a private alluvial fan and negotiating two kilometers almost verticals of rattlesnake-infested rocks, then navigating slippery ice. I asked Mike if he would do it barefoot. Mike sometimes liked to be answered by silence: a mischievous gleam rose to the surface of his eyes, then he burst into a smile. Another trip we often consider was up some forgotten back road that followed a major fault line and hadn’t changed since Mike was in his youth – “pure California gold”, I- he said. We never got there, but in his last month I was able to tell him that I will do it in his honor. He replied, “I can’t tell you how much that means to me or how tickled I get when I visualize you going through the tectonic plates.” And then he added, “Say hello to James Dean for me.”
—Andre Winer, associate professor of creative writing. Winer was instrumental in bringing Davis to UCR. They had known each other for 33 years.

Mike Davis and his partner, Alessandra Moctezuma.  (Photo by Jason Sexton, courtesy of Alessandra Moctezuma)
Mike Davis and his partner, Alessandra Moctezuma. (Photo by Jason Sexton, courtesy of Alessandra Moctezuma)

Header image: late author Mike Davis. Photo by Cassandra Davis.
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