L.A., LAtinx Style: A Conversation Between Natalia Molina, Juan De Lara, George J. Sánchez, and Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo
JUAN DE LARA: I first want to just give a little bit of context. These scholars have all done work that’s fundamental to understanding Los Angeles history and Latinx L.A. And they each have new books, which take us to three different neighborhoods in L.A. For Natalia Molina’s A Place at the Nayarit, that’s Echo Park; George Sánchez’s latest is Boyle Heights; and Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo (along with Manuel Pastor, who couldn’t be here today) is the author of South Central Dreams.
All of your books, in their own ways, reveal how people in Los Angeles have struggled to make community across racial lines and across the types of social divisions that have been erected by racist practices like segregation. I’m wondering if each of you could speak to the kind of hopeful resilience that all of you write about in your books, as people come together to build community and a sense of belonging.
NATALIA MOLINA: One of the ways that people find resilience in Los Angeles is by making their neighborhoods their own and living their lives in a way that reflects their values, their own communities. One way they do this is through establishing what I call “urban anchors,” such as the restaurant I write about in A Place at the Nayarit, which my grandmother opened in Echo Park in 1951. Echo Park was an interesting area because it didn’t have the same kinds of racial covenants as other neighborhoods. It was multiethnic and politically progressive, home to union workers, activists, and the LGBTQ community, as well as the immigrants who made up most of the clientele at the Nayarit.
Hopefully, we all have anchors like these in our lives — that bar, café, barbershop, nail salon — that place where someone knows your name. For immigrants in particular, these are places where you feel you have dignity, where people greet you, where you can go and speak your own language, and you don’t have to feel like you’re trying to make yourself small in a public space. People who interact with you in public — at your job, for example — might just see you as a worker, but at an urban anchor, you can go and live into your full identity. The bartender is now the guy with a great voice, singing along with the house trio. The housekeeper puts on a pretty dress for Sunday dinner, goes out to eat with her family, and someone waits on her.
GEORGE SÁNCHEZ: I think people don’t always understand that some of the struggles that current immigrants to Los Angeles undergo today have a long, long history here. In the early 20th century, Boyle Heights was a majority-immigrant neighborhood, but it was immigrants from all over the world. In the ’20s and ’30s, Herbert Hoover and other local officials blamed Mexicans for the Depression and organized a campaign of forced repatriation aimed at the Mexican immigrant community, where Los Angeles lost one-third of its Mexican population. Mexicanos who were growing up in Boyle Heights had fought hard to be here, and now they had to fight to stay. They did that by connecting with other immigrants, particularly with Jewish immigrants, to form labor unions. You see it in the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU). When their children came of age in the 1940s, they formed new organizations that dealt with their citizenship head-on, and found new arenas for battle, like the Community Service Organization (CSO), which was a group that got Edward Roybal elected to the city council, the first Mexican American to hold a seat on the council in the 20th century.
PIERRETTE HONDAGNEU-SOTELO: In our book we also look at how changing demographics shape the character and politics of a neighborhood. In 1970, South L.A. was 80 percent African American, but today it’s about two-thirds. First-generation Mexican and Central American immigrants came to South L.A. because this was a step up from the crowded substandard apartments in Pico-Union, downtown, on the east side. They came here hoping to buy their first house or to rent an apartment with a little more elbow room. When they arrived in the ’80s and ’90s, South L.A. was going through a lot of tumultuous changes: deindustrialization, the crack cocaine crisis, gang turf warfare, overpolicing, just a tough, tough environment. A lot of Black families who could moved out to the exurbs, and new Latino families were moving in.
Among the first generation of these Latinx residents, we found a good bit of anti-Black racism, which is informed by a whole set of experiences from Mexico and El Salvador, where there is a different kind of white supremacy, a European supremacy. It was also informed, for many people, by an experience they might have had or heard about — like a little Latina lady having her gold chain ripped off at the bus stop — that, though it happened once, was seared into memory. Over time, though, they developed new relations with their Black neighbors. We look at something I call Black parental mentorship — African American adults and older folks helping Latino newcomers raise their children, answering questions like “what are the good schools to go to?” And then in the second generation of Latinx residents in South Central, we see a total turnaround, a new kind of Latinidad that’s really inflected with deep solidarity and closeness with Black people and Black culture.
JDL: You’re all getting at such multilayered, complicated historical processes — and I know that, to uncover them, you’ve had to find the archive, which also means finding people who have been excluded from the archive. Can each of you talk about one or two individuals in your books, and how you were able to bring their stories forward?
NM: This book started as a family history, but I knew I wanted to embed it in larger L.A., using an immigrant story to tell a story about Los Angeles. My grandmother came to Los Angeles at the age of 21 in 1921, sola, and she died before I was born. I did oral history interviews with friends and family to try to learn about her life, and the lives of people like her, and I looked through government archives and Los Angeles Times records to try to get a sense of Echo Park and the people who lived here. But the archives had so little. I was searching for what I call underdocumented history. It’s not just that libraries and institutions don’t keep people’s papers and records, their archives — it’s that even our own families don’t.
And then one day it hit me — a memory of my great-aunt, sitting on her porch in Echo Park on Thursday afternoons, reading the Nayarit newspaper El Eco. My grandmother had helped her to emigrate, giving her a job at the restaurant, and renting this house to her until my great-aunt had saved enough to purchase it on her own. And every week, she’d receive the hometown newspaper. I went to Mexico City and read 20 years of El Eco. It had a social column called the “Ferris Wheel,” which often included news about people who had moved to L.A. or gone to visit family there. Once a year, people would also buy ads in El Eco for its anniversary edition, and they’d say, “Hi, this is Chayo here in Echo Park. Here’s my address. Come visit me if you’re in L.A.,” or “I’m so and so. And I live in Beverly Hills.” And I thought, “How does she live in Beverly Hills?” Later, I figured out that she was the housekeeper for Dominick Dunne, Joan Didion’s brother-in-law. I was able to match names from El Eco with census records, track people down, and interview them. Immigrants are everywhere. Our history is L.A. history. We just need to find those stories and tell them.
GS: So often, we really do have to construct our own archives. I think the most significant part of my own research was being the lead investigator for a 2001 exhibit on Boyle Heights at the Japanese American National Museum. There weren’t many records to work from, so we conducted numerous interviews with past and present residents. One woman I met, then in her seventies, was Molly Wilson. She came to a discussion at the museum and gave us grocery bags full of letters she thought we should have. Molly was African American, and her best friends in middle school and high school in the ’30s and ’40s were Japanese Americans, all of whom were taken away to internment camps after Pearl Harbor. This was an outrage to her. Her protest was that she was going to write to her five best friends every week while the war lasted, one on Monday, another on Tuesday, another on Wednesday, another on Thursday, another on Friday. She kept that up for three and a half years. Now, she was giving us the return letters that her friends had sent back to her from the various camps.
Later, Molly’s friends told us that, when they were all in Hollenbeck Middle School, Molly was the most popular kid on campus. She was going to run for student body president, but the principal took her aside and said, “Molly, we don’t think it’s a good idea for the middle school that you run for student body president.” Molly had been taught by her parents that those kinds of discriminatory behaviors are going to happen to you, and you have to keep your head up and just continue. She did. But all her friends, who are Japanese Americans, said, “that’s horrible,” and they all decided nobody was going to run for any office at Hollenbeck Middle School that year. Everyone backed out. Friendships like those were incredibly important to the story of Boyle Heights.
PHS: I did this work with a research team. Manuel Pastor, my colleague and co-author, is a quantitative social scientist, who collected lots of mapping census data. What I do as a qualitative sociologist is called participant observation or ethnography, but basically, it means I interview people or just hang out with them. I did this with a team of about 15 amazing young people, many of whom grew up in South L.A. and had deep connections to the community. Altogether we interviewed 197 people.
One was a Salvadoran woman — I’ll just call her Doña Elvia — who came to South L.A. with her family looking for a better life. Every year she would go to the school, and she would fight with the principal and the bilingual coordinator who wanted to put her kids in bilingual classes. She said, “No, they’re going to learn English at school, Spanish at home.” That meant her kids were the only non-Black kids in the classroom. They had Black teachers, Black friends. She would take them to the library where Black senior citizens read to them to help them with their English. Her kids did very well. One went to an Ivy League college and the other one went to a UC. Her story shows us a route of Latino immigrant integration that depended on closeness with African Americans.
Another Salvadoreña of about the same age — I’ll call her Doña Zulema — told me so many stories about problems she had with Black people when I first interviewed her. She moved in next to a crack house. She thought the Black teachers were unfair to her children at school. She thought she had lost a baby because of poor attention from a Black nurse at the hospital. And she tells me, “Oh, I cried for three days when my daughter in high school told me she had a Black boyfriend.” Well, now her daughter is married to this man, and Doña Zulema loves her Black son-in-law who lives with them, her granddaughter who sleeps with her every night, and his family, who are like her sisters. She still retains some of what we’d call discursive anti-Black prejudice, but she lives with, and loves, African American family members.
JDL: One of the fascinating things about your book, Pierrette, is that you show how old models of immigrant integration and assimilation don’t work.
PHS: In sociology, a lot of my colleagues are still using 100-year-old concepts like “assimilation,” as a cultural change that involves learning English in order to be upwardly mobile. But that’s not necessarily the aspiration people have: they’re often focused on making home where they are. So, I’m very much in line with Natalia and George here: South Central Dreams is largely about placemaking, or even homemaking.
NM: Part of what we’re seeing in L.A., too, is people’s inability to stay in the homes they’ve made. When I started writing the book, I used it as a way of getting at the displacement and gentrification going on in Echo Park. COVID seems to have accelerated these processes even more, so that even the businesses that moved in and gentrified the area can no longer afford to stay. For example, my aunt had El Batey market on Echo Park Avenue for 49 years. Her rent was doubled. She had to cut the store in half so that a café, Chango, could move in next door, and eventually her rent rose again, hence pricing her out. Years later, even that café got priced out. The Eastsider recently ran a story about another place nearby, Sunset Beer Company, that can’t afford to stay either.
We’re also seeing the increased amounts of homelessness all over Los Angeles, and in other cities too. We need to ask ourselves, what are we willing to do as a community? If we want to move into a neighborhood because we like the culture, we like the way that the neighbors talk to each other, then let’s make sure the neighbors can afford to stay there. Are we willing to pass legislation, such as rent control? Are we willing to make sure there’s affordable housing, a jobs program? What are we willing to do to actually live in a community with one another? This is an urgent issue that we all have a stake in.
GS: When I was writing my book, I kept asking myself about the legacy of all the multiracial organizing from earlier in Boyle Heights’ history. Boyle Heights turned majority-Latino in 1960 and for the last 30 or 40 years, it’s been between 92 percent and 97 percent Latino. But that’s not a monolithic group: the residents have different levels of “citizenship and legality” — by which I mean that Boyle Heights became a place that undocumented people came to big time. I estimate that somewhere between 40 percent and 60 percent of the population lives in some kind of mixed-status household, where undocumented people live with children who are US citizens.
In the ’80s and ’90s, new organizations in Boyle Heights began to incorporate undocumented people into what I call nonelectoral democracy — political action that doesn’t involve voting. That can mean active protection of the neighborhood, or sending people to Sacramento, which Mothers of East L.A. did quite successfully. They made sure the state legislature translated everything from English to Spanish. Another organization, Homeboy Industries, ran a gang intervention program. Father Gregory Boyle, who ran the program with a lot of support from the Dolores Mission Parish and other residents, understood that many gang members and would-be gang members were children of undocumented migrants, and were sometimes undocumented themselves. No matter what their legal status, they needed help finding jobs. That was a critical part of reducing gang involvement in Boyle Heights, and the program was successful right away.
When you have 11 or 12 million people in the United States that are undocumented, and we’ve been in this demographic reality since at least 1986, you have to figure out ways that those people feel incorporated into community politics. They can stand up and fight for their neighborhood just like everyone else.
PHS: The number of people living in our country without full legal rights is staggering. We have a huge deportation and detention regime, which has been building since the ’90s. But you know what? Not everybody is being deported and detained. Like George says, people are making homes. People are making places. There are vibrant businesses. There are vibrant civic engagements that are happening in Boyle Heights. People are going to Sacramento. People who are undocumented and may not speak English are going to city hall. One man we interviewed, whom I’ll call Don Pablo, is a 65-year-old Mayan Guatemalan — Spanish is his second language. He’s functionally illiterate and working at a hard, manual-labor job, but he’s a civic leader. He’s an elected official at the Stanford Avalon Community Gardens in Watts. He’s been a member of the L.A. Neighborhood Council in historic South Central. And at his church, he started a boxing gym for youth. I’ve seen him also get pushed back and be disrespected at city hall, but he’s not sitting down. He is mobilizing and trying to lift up South L.A.
People like him love and feel pride in their neighborhood. They’ve worked over time to find a place where they feel secure, safe, have a sense of autonomy, walk around and feel as though they belong. It’s an achievement. And it doesn’t just fall from the sky. It’s constantly being made.
Natalia Molina is a Distinguished Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California and is a 2020 MacArthur Fellow. She is the author of the award-winning books How Race Is Made in America: Immigration, Citizenship, and the Historical Power of Racial Scripts (2013) and Fit to Be Citizens? Public Health and Race in Los Angeles, 1879–1939 (2006).
Juan De Lara is the director of the Latinx and Latin American Studies Center and an associate professor of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. He is the author of Inland Shift: Race, Space, and Capital in Southern California (2018).
George J. Sánchez is the author of the award-winning Becoming Mexican American (1993), along with numerous other books, and is a professor of American Studies and Ethnicity and history at the University of Southern California. He is the 2020–21 president of the Organization for American Historians.
Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo is the Florence Everline Professor of Sociology at the University of Southern California. She is the author of Gendered Transitions (1994), Domestica (2001/2007), God’s Heart Has No Borders (2008), and Paradise Transplanted (2014), and is the editor of several others.
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