During the early 1990s, images of the gang life in East LA were all the rage. Talk shows like Sally Jessy Raphael and Jenny Jones featured “Gang Girls” with their signature bandanas and penciled eyebrows. Snoop Dog and Dr. Dre were churning out multiple hits and for part of my childhood, from my corner of the gritty Northeast, I wore my plaid shirts and Doc Martins wondering what it was like on the West Coast.
Nearly two decades later, I was invited on a group tour of Eastern Los Angeles. This was not a typical trip to LA --there were no walks of fame on this agenda. Instead, this trip was about visiting the stomping grounds of the Chicano civil rights movement and getting a crash course in southern California’s Mexican-American history.
The morning began in the oldest part of Los Angeles, known as El Pueblo. We visited the “LA Starts Here” exhibit at La Plaza de Cultura y Artes, a museum dedicated to the Mexican American experience. In this renovated building across the street from the historic Pico House, I quite literally ran through hundreds of years of history segmented into categories like Californio (when the land was owned by Mexico), Mexicano (when the land was owned by the U.S.) and Chicano (a term coined during the Mexican-American Civil Rights movement).
Growing up Puerto Rican in New York City, I have always thought of the Chicano community as a distant cousin. They were the other Latinos in that other city. Now as I looked at the images from the Chicano civil rights movements of the 1960s, I was reminded of pictures that my father had shown me as a child of the Puerto Rican civil rights group the Young Lords. The similarities were everywhere.
As we exited the museum I found myself looking around the streets with new eyes. Just like my walks around Lower Manhattan cause me to reflect on the days of the Five Points district and the gangs of New York. Here in East LA, I thought of the Californios, former Mayor Pio Pico, the shops on Main Street and the days of the ranchos on the Northern frontier.
Back on the bus, we crossed the LA River and arrived at the Estrada Courts housing project. Instead of the tall, brown brick monstrosities that adorn the streets of NYC, these housing projects were more like an art gallery, emblazoned with colorful murals.
There I met with members of the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles, a group dedicated to saving the artwork found in Estrada Courts and elsewhere in LA. Most were murals painted in the 1960s and 70s that have since weathered the storm of constant sun exposure, vandalism and LA County politics. They vary in focus and style but each one depicts an aspect of the Chicano experience. The MCLA plans on restoring as many murals as possible--but with the help from local children.
A combination of the original artists (some 81 years old) and volunteers of all ages have picked up paint brushes. By getting the area’s youth involved in the restorations, members of the MCLA hope that it will reduce the chances that these historic murals are vandalized with gang graffiti or the like because a new generation will be connected to them.
While my group toured the grounds and listened to passionate artists like Willie Herron and Richard Haro speak of their motivations and inspirations behind the murals, life continued in Estrada Courts. A young girl stood in front of her door taking pictures for her Quinceñera and ranchera music could be heard from a second-floor window.
Besides the plaid, the murals and the tortillas --it doesn’t get more East LA than the “lowrider”. Thinking back to the early 90s and my childishly romanticized ideas about the West Coast “thug life”, I can remember being fascinated by these cars, hoping to one day be able to take a ride --or as they say in LA--cruise.
Until it was outlawed, people in East LA would “cruise” down Whittier Boulevard in elaborately painted or “pimped out” classics like Chevrolet Impalas. The cars are not only known for their design, but for the modified tire suspension and installed hydraulic systems; the features that allow them to hop up and down on command. Men who have these cars generally belong to a car or motorcycle club that requires members to follow certain rules.
The clubs are so ingrained in Chicano history that recently it has been officially recognized by one of the most symbolic brands of Americana--Harley Davidson. Harley sponsored this tour of East LA in an effort to paint a clear picture of the Latino motorcycle rider or Harlista. The motorcycle giant released the “72” named for Route 72 or Whittier Boulevard. The 72 is unique because the factory model is much like the customized versions popular in the Harlista community.
As I headed on to the last leg of the tour, I noted some of the changes taking place in the area. New developments and businesses dotted the streets amid old storefronts and homes. Much like NYC, gentrification is alive and well in East LA. My final stop was the headquarters of well-known tattoo artist Mr. Cartoon. Along with the tattoos, Mr. Cartoon is the head of a car club named Lifestyle. It was here that I got up close and personal with a lot full of lowriders, and my first official ride in one of the classic vehicles.
There I was, a Nuyorican from the Fordham Road section of the Bronx, cruising down Whittier Blvd in Boyle Heights, embracing what I long considered to be the "other" side to the American Latino coin.
While we inched through the notorious LA traffic to a Dodger’s baseball game, I spoke with the owner of a bright orange '76 Impala--who explained his fears of the violence in Mexico and why woman have a place in car clubs but are not exactly members. As the car bounced up and down in the street and people along the sidewalks smiled and took pictures with their cellphones--I could tell that there was a certain pride the onlookers took in these cars.
It was what these rides represent --a time when East LA was a battleground for the Chicano community and when one of the only silver linings to the constant violence and crime were shiny automobiles and colorful, expressive murals. Perhaps those days were harder--but there is a certain fondness associated with those memories.
I can identify with that idea. There are many New Yorkers who are nostalgic for the times when the city had a certain grit and when subways were covered with graffiti. I suppose it is somehow connected to that childish romanticism I mentioned of life on the wrong side of the tracks --but it exists.
What was validated in my tour of East LA was my notion that both Nuyoricans and Chicanos are indeed two sides of that coin. We are communities with ties to neighborhoods that are just as rooted in violence as they are family. Communities that are bracing for the “threat” of increased gentrification.
Communities thick with both American and Latino pride that are using their past to work toward a better future.
Erica Y. Lopez is a freelance writer based in New York City. She can be reached at Ericaylopez@gmail.com or via Twitter @Lalosays