George J. Sánchez was born in a loud neighborhood, dressed in murals and its people’s stories — the Boyle Heights section of Los Angeles, perched above the 101 Freeway. It’s easy to gloss over the history of loud neighborhoods, to view the stories of a marginalized place as merely a pain narrative. We tend to see race, immigration, gentrification, ghettoization, and other significant matters as isolated subjects, dropped from the sky, without understanding how they fit into historic continuums. In his pathbreaking civic history, Boyle Heights: How a Los Angeles Neighborhood Became the Future of American Democracy, he writes:
I grew up seeing segregation as normal, and living among people from all racial, ethnic, and national backgrounds as rather anomalous. […] I am interested in telling a different story, one of solidarity that helps inform the possibilities of a progressive, democratic culture in a city that tends to forget or erase this tradition.
I am also from Boyle Heights, and as gentrification threatens to erase the cultural history of our streets, Sánchez’s work feels crucial. He organizes his book chronologically, with individual chapters dedicated to the specific groups that formed Boyle Heights. Sifting his way through the tiniest dust particles of the neighborhood’s past, he draws the reader close to his characters.
One such character is Daniel Kawahawa, a Japanese Los Angeles resident displaced by President Roosevelt’s forced removal of “enemy aliens” during the Pacific War in the early 1940s. Ironically, Kawahawa had graduated from Roosevelt High School in 1937. He states, “Everything I had of Japan, I dumped it.” Stripped of both Japanese and American heritage, he didn’t have an identity to turn to; he was not allowed to “be” anything.
As I read stories like Kawahawa’s, I realized I had little understanding of my hometown’s history. Like Sánchez, I was born at White Memorial Hospital; I walked the same streets that he and Kawahawa did, and I’m proud of my home. But in a place often associated with its gangs and race wars, history is often obscured. Sánchez does not dwell on the frightening surfaces of the present; he sinks into the roots.
Boyle Heights was once known by its Spanish name, Paredón Blanco (White Bluff). Its character began to change when Andrew Boyle, a veteran of the Texas War of Independence, migrated from Mexico to the northern settlement then called El Pueblo de Los Angeles and built a home. His son-in-law, William H. Workman, subdivided the area and renamed it Boyle Heights. From the 1920s to the 1960s, Boyle Heights was inhabited by diverse ethnic groups that included Jewish, Mexican, and Japanese immigrants. It also hosted Yugoslavian, Armenian, African American, and Russian people. The Jewish residents gradually left as banks denied their home improvement loans, and their houses were lost or devalued by new freeway constructions.
Today’s Boyle Heights looks different. Sánchez attributes its violence to “families of the undocumented experiencing increased poverty, a decline of youth problems, repressive police violence, and the incarceration of minority youth.” At Belvedere Middle School, I watched security guards tase students, friends openly smoke weed in class, and food fights and fistfights erupt daily. Eventually, the chaos becomes all you know. And when you grow up in a city of fighters and survivors, you master the art of blending in.
A lot of us raised in Boyle Heights are taught that we need to “get out.” Though this is where many of our parents came for a better life, they tell us, “You are going to grow up and leave this place and move into a big house with a white-picket fence and with neighbors with obedient dogs,” as if the smell of this home is not worthy. As if happiness and success cannot be found here. As if the memory of the immigrants selling flowers and tacos and hand-washing my car and making heaven out of a place that was handed demons in the City of Angels can be erased.
But many Boyle Heights inhabitants do not seek a way out because they don’t know it exists — at least not for them. Rising rents and gentrifiers are forcing some out and obscuring memories of the hands that held it together for decades. Preservation and love for our streets are often confused with being anti-white or rebellious. Sánchez recalls when somebody spray-painted “Fuck White Art” on the Nicodim Gallery: LAPD’s Hollenbeck Division promised extra surveillance for new art galleries. Latino-owned businesses don’t receive such protection — any protection — when their stores are vandalized.
Locals have organized groups against gentrification, such as Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement and Defend Boyle Heights. But it has become difficult to distinguish gentrification from perceived gentrification. Many enterprising Latinos have opened their own “white-like” shops, often recognized by their higher prices and non-traditional menus. Reconstructed houses mimic the architecture of West Los Angeles as newcomers hope for siren-free nights where the dogs rest quietly. But silent neighborhoods don’t understand the meaning of noise, and they can’t stop the cacophony.
In a neighborhood defined by, and struggling to maintain, the local, Sánchez’s own voice would have elevated his work. Though the book’s strength lies in the personal histories of residents like Kawahawa, I’m left hungry for Sánchez’s own stories of the city, why he embodies Boyle Heights. I’m also left wondering: Are all ethnicities in Boyle Heights equally American, or do they and outsiders view themselves as differently American? Do they coexist and learn from one another? If so, how?
For those seeking a less detached view, the book to read is Gregory Boyle’s Tattoos on the Heart. The founder of Homeboy Industries, a gang-intervention program in Boyle Heights, Boyle touches on universal kinship and “the power of boundless compassion.” Though Sánchez discusses Homeboy Industries in a more factual manner, Boyle shares the personal in-depth stories of locals, past and present.
People who grow up in Boyle Heights find the beauty in the struggle because, from a young age, they learn resilience and the language of the streets. Some never see danger; others live it; others personify it. Boyle Heights: How a Los Angeles Neighborhood Became the Future of American Democracy is a historical journey through the beginning, middle, and present of one of Los Angeles’s most prominent neighborhoods. Sánchez counters the fear that shrouds its image and allows us to understand why this neighborhood is the way it is — powerful and pure of heart. Boyle Heights can intimidate those who do not know it or have not given it the chance to speak for itself. Its people sell fruit, start nonprofits, attend Ivy League schools, write book reviews, and, most importantly, hustle.
This barrio speaks honesty because its people and streets move with purpose. The sounds of sirens and the people’s dreams yearn for the same chance of hope. They did not come here seeking the “American Dream” only to realize it is but a dream. They create their own dream until it becomes reality. Boyle Heights is an oasis where the plagued relieve their thirst, and where its occupants’ mere existence is a success story. In this kingdom, elementary students sell gum at gas stations and flowers by the 60; survival overshadows pain through hard-earned wisdom and redemption. Sánchez tells an important part of this story.
Helen Cabrera is a writer from the Boyle Heights section of Los Angeles. Her nonfiction piece, “The Crying Animals,” was published in Angels Flight.