Angel Sáncez (Captain America) and Antonio Mazas (Hulk) take a break between performances during the annual celebration of the Yalalag community in Los Angeles
Just west of downtown Los Angeles, in a derelict American Craftsman house, a group of Zapotec immigrants from Yalalag, a small town in southern Mexico, rush around the dining room. Here in Los Angeles, they’re getting ready for another performance, requiring attire chosen from a wardrobe of popular and global appeal. Outside in the backyard there is a celebration and a growing audience of more indigenous Mexican immigrants.
Most in attendance are Yalaltecos, and other immigrants from the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. Like in their Mexican hometown, Yalaltecos gather to celebrate patron saint days. For this particular saint day, they are celebrating a major Catholic figure, Santiago Apostle, the eponymous patron saint of the gathered community, and the religious icon that brings together the Yalalag community in Los Angeles in a similar way that it unites Yalaltecos in their hometown in Mexico.
For Santiago Apostle’s day, the audience has waited a year, and will wait a bit more, as the backyard fills with people under LA’s relentless summer sun. The saint sits on its handcrafted altar, and the audience waits patiently while watching folkloric performances produced as replicas of the acts from the Mexican community of origin. This is the annual feast, a celebration that reconnects the community as a people despite being immigrants of foreign soil. This year’s celebration, however, finds the attending DJ announcing a forthcoming surprise: “There will be a special dance in this year’s celebration… in a few minutes!”
Antonio Mazas (Hulk) and Angel Sanchez (Captain America), stand guard to the St. Santiago Apostle during the annual celebration of the Yalalag community in Los Angeles.
Hurriedly, the men dig into backpacks and plastic bags. Amid the haste, pieces of outfits are scattered around the floor and the dining room instantly becomes a messy wardrobe. As the men look for new garments, the traditional wooden masks are set to rest and new ones come out to play. On the dining table a range of faces emerge as masks look up emptily at the ceiling, expecting coming conjurers.
Sharing the same table, the masks exhibit different origins. Some were homemade in Los Angeles, while others were mass-produced, likely in China. The first are imported replicas of traditional models and show largely exaggerated facial expressions: brightly colored inflated cheeks, protruding lips, and swollen eyeballs. The second are more conventional, modeled on popular American comic book characters—plastic façades recognized the world around for their heroic and superhuman qualities: unmeasured anger, strength, and infinite power as it is for Hulk, Captain America, and Thor.
For the wooden masks, at an average cost of $40 each, a communal endeavor of cultural reproduction was required. Dancers, their wives, parents, and children shared funds and know-how, either to import paraphernalia or produce the masks at home for a dance now being reenacted on foreign U.S. soil, and by a new generation. For this particular performance, the traditional wooden masks were brought to Los Angeles by relatives who migrate back and forth between Mexico and the U.S. These masks, like other mass-produced ones, came to the performance at the annual celebration of Saint Santiago Apostle in Los Angeles via global circulation. At the event, the masks, like the religious figure, are images of limitless reproducibility, of invaluable unifying potential, and thus stand in as cohesive devices for all in attendance.
Bernardo Velasco (Ninja Turtle) and Antonio Mazas, members of Familia Zapoteca, get ready to perform at the annual celebration of St. Santiago Apostle in Los Angeles.
Unity grounded on Catholicism, however, rarely demands a specific day when the point is to feel at home, far from home. It could be any day, any saint in Los Angeles. Or so it is for Luis Delgado, the Zapotec immigrant from Yalalag, Oaxaca, who arranged the performance at the Saint Santiago Apostle celebration on this particular day.
When Delgado came to Los Angeles over a decade earlier, he found a group of men enacting the traditional ‘danzas’ of his hometown. In time, he joined the group that became: Grupo de Danza Familia Zapoteca.
Familia Zapoteca, now going through a second generation of dancers, is a combination of migrants and U.S. citizens who despite the status difference don’t mind dancing to the same tune. And because the dance group unites different generations, Delgado decided a couple of years ago to assemble a performance that would appeal to the current dancers and attract a younger crowd of U.S.-born Yalaltecos. He thus began outfitting one of the group’s choreographies in American popular characters.
To put idea into action, he instructed the dancers to turn into characters they always wanted to be: Captain America, Batman, Superman, Deadpool, Thor, Ninja Turtles, Hulk, Wolverine… and of course, Chapulín Colorado, the only visible sign of real pop Mexican heroism.
Eulogio Ríos (Thor), Seferino Ignacio (Chapulín), and Luis Delgado (Wolverine), members of Familia Zapoteca, prepare to perform at the annual celebration of St. Santiago Apostle in Los Angeles.
Once Familia Zapoteca turns into this set of makeshift characters, they become “Los Superhéroes,” an assortment of comic book expressions that line up behind a brass band. They sync immediately to the band’s quick tempo and take the stage of communal gatherings, often held on backyards’ flat concrete patios.
For these self-made heroes, audiences wait, as they did at Santiago Apostle’s celebration, and as they frequently do at Oaxacan celebrations in Los Angeles. Invariably, though, whether as superheroes or in any other form, Familia Zapoteca comes as a surprise. Each act, selected from a repertoire of over twenty possible performances, is an opportunity to extemporaneously engage people in the audience; to invite them to relate through the culturally shared elements the characters represent. At least, that was the purpose Luis Delgado had in mind when he organized the performance in 2014.
Now, as performed, Los Superhéroes is no joke. Its performative function is one where Familia Zapoteca breathes new life into a dance tradition that enables them to make sense of being in diaspora.
However, Los Superhéroes was not really Luis Delgado’s idea originally. It came to him from Oaxaca as part of the transnational exchanges that connect Los Angeles-based Oaxacans to their villages in Mexico. For Delgado, this particularly inspiring exchange happened in the form of a homemade DVD that a relative sent him from Yalalag, his own hometown in Oaxaca.
The DVD featured a visual rendition of what could very well be the first satirical enactment of American superheroes in a traditional celebration from Yalalag. The visual rendition thus presented an instance where the dance tradition, through the performance of the superheroes, confronted Yalaltecos from their own town with the specter of their own migrants living in the United States. Upon watching and replaying the DVD in Los Angeles, Delgado set out to replicate what was conveyed through the recording as a process of mimesis, a cultural reenactment that displayed the social and symbolic remittances that migration enables so that a community in diaspora remains interconnected.
Asai Alejo (Deadpool) stands ready to perform as a superhero for members of the San Andrés Yaa community in Los Angeles.
In Yalalag, where the DVD was recorded, when the ‘superheroes’ first appeared, the act was within the parameters of the traditional dances commonly known as ‘danzas chuscas,’ or funny dances. Through such dances, performed mostly by men, the Yalalag community parodies other communities, taking elements of their identity. One well-known example, and perhaps one of the first acts that started the ‘danzas chuscas,’ was when a dance group in Yalalag enacted the ‘danza de los mixes.’ The Mixe region, like Yalalag, is in northern Oaxaca, and the Mixe have been customarily derided for being too traditional, according to nationally recognized Zapotec writer and cultural promoter, Javier Castellanos.
Since the 1980s the danzas chuscas have been directed at immigrants returning home from abroad. For Yalaltecos in Oaxaca, the U.S.-based immigrants embody traces of assimilated American values, which the performances reenact as a form of cultural resistance and social critique with the intention of cultivating self-reflection.
Through parody and tradition, that first time the live performance of the ‘superheroes’ came to Yalalag, it arrived as an unsolicited trade and was welcomed as a reminder of distant members navigating other cultures. There in Oaxaca, Yalaltecos got to see, in a single act, the visual and symbolic dimension of transnational migration. In all its brevity, the performance was a single act of American fictional heroism that assaulted Yalalag from within, disappeared into the lens of a video camera and turned out into a DVD that was then exported to Los Angeles.
For Delgado in Los Angeles, replaying the performance from the imported DVD was more than symbolic and satirical. It was an overdue epiphany. As he blankly stared at the streaming video, he understood that cultural distance had been somewhat bridged. What he once perceived as culturally foreign was now, in fact, his own. For him, Yalaltecos in his hometown had embraced the image of the superheroes as a proper sign, much in the same way he had long ago accepted that same image as part of who he is as an immigrant in the U.S. So, when he decided to recreate the performance, he chose not to do it as a form of social critique, but for more meaningful reasons.
Familia Zapoteca performing the “danza de los payasos” during the celebration of St. Francis of Assisi organized by the San Francisco Yatee community in Los Angeles.
In Delgado’s version, the performance became a way of paying tribute to the audacity of the Yalalag performers, who figured out that beneath American mainstream characters, traditional practices are reproduced. But above all, his Los Angeles version was a way of projecting to the local audience a new sense of self by recognizing that one can be part of the U.S., and especially California, without ceasing to be Zapotec and specifically, Yalalteco.
After a few trial runs, and some minor negative responses from community members, Los Superhéroes became a crowd favorite. The reason is simple: “The dance allows young kids to identify with each character and see how their favorite character connects to their culture and traditions. And that is the dream of any kid,” Delgado said.
Representing the dreams of young children might be just a projection of the dancers’ own desires, but that is not all what Familia Zapoteca enacts. Since the success of Los Superhéroes in 2014, the group continues to enact the performance and has added other singular acts to the repertoire. For instance, “Los cocineros” pays tribute and satirizes the numerous members of their community who work in the food industry. As it specifically relates to men, Los cocineros points to shifting gender roles, and comments on the fact that immigrant men must enter the kitchen setting for economic survival.
Another performance, “Los turistas,” references the modern Hawaiian-shirt tourist that hordes ethnic paradises in the third world. It also, quite possibly, alludes to the returning immigrant who enters the community of origin as a temporal visitor.
In “Los payasos,” the group embodies the popular figure of the clown, as to take to the extreme the satirical nature of their dance tradition. And, in “La danza de Santa Claus,” the yearly act with which the group celebrates and ends a long year of performances, an empty-handed Santa Claus comes in a shopping cart, to make communion with an immigrant Zapotec community celebrating yet another Catholic festivity, this time Christmas.
Members of Familia Zapoteca arrive as Santa Claus at a community Christmas celebration in Los Angeles.
In all, the performances are new only superficially and each is new only momentarily. In due time, just as other performances have become integral acts of Yalaltecos’ dance selection, “Los Superhéroes” will secure a place in that list of possible acts, or at least the current dancers seem to expect this to happen.
Asai Alejo, who performs as Deadpool, likes to think that the superheroes will remain in the Yalalag dance tradition as a reminder of what his generation contributed.
“Children love the dance… and I hope that the dance will remain as part of the other acts we perform because it is something we have accomplished. And I hope it can continue for many years to come,” Alejo said.
Alejo speaks with self-assurance and without a hint of satirical intent. He is hopeful and confident because he knows that behind the paper-plate shield of Captain America, deep beneath the backpacks bulging out Santa Claus’s belly, and the countless folded garments that shape up the characters, there lays the fundamental grain of a tradition that allows the dancers to sustain a dance that incorporates what is foreign into their own. For that reason, the dancers rehearse each step arduously.
At weekly practices, dancers line up face to face in two parallel rows. As the music begins, each dancer steps forward then strides side-to-side, and the rows move in opposite directions. At each step, they pace gleefully and rotate around each other. As if forming couples, they raise arms high and faces look jauntily into the horizon beyond the backyard of the American Craftsman house, where Familia Zapoteca earnestly practices for upcoming performances.
Familia Zapoteca rehearsing for a performance. The group was founded by Zapotec immigrants from the Yalalag community in Oaxaca, Mexico.
All photos taken by Leopoldo Peña.
 Zapotecs are one of the largest indigenous people in southern Mexico. The Zapotecs, like other Mexican Indigenous groups, began migrating to the United States in the 1980s.
 Yalalteco/a is the Spanish term for natives of Yalalag.
 Another feature of the transnational aspect of the performance is the importation of music scores. For these, the dancers share the expenses for having a musician in their hometown produce a score sheet that a Los Angeles-based band plays for the performances. For details on how transnationally plays out in indigenous Mexican migrant communities see Jonathan Fox and Gaspar Rivera-Salgado, Indigenous Mexican Migrants in the United States, Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, UCSD/Center for Comparative Immigration Studies, 2004, and Lynn Stephen, Transborder Lives: Indigenous Oaxacans in Mexico, California, and Oregon (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007).
 Funny is a literal translation of “chusca/o”; however, within the semantics of the performance, “chusca/o” contains a stronger element of parody, satire and intent to caricature.
 Personal interview, 3 August 2016, Los Angeles.
 For a discussion of how “danzas chuscas” engages questions of gender and class differences, see Adriana Cruz-Manjarrez, “‘Danzas Chuscas’ Performing Migration in a Zapotec Community,” Dance Research Journal 40 (2008): 2-33.
 Performances, even funerals, in Los Angeles are also recorded and these recordings are sent to Oaxaca as well.
 Personal interview, 24 June 2016, Los Angeles.
 Personal interview, 24 June 2016, Los Angeles.
Leopoldo Peña is a Mexican-immigrant, photographer, and Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at UC Irvine. His dissertation focuses on photography in early twentieth century Mexico, and maintains interest in Zapotec literary production.
Orange County flag design, 1968, courtesy of Orange County Archives via Flickr.
Naming a literary depiction of Orange County is no easy task. One or two sitcoms that describe the place may come to mind, along with movies depicting decadent capitalism or theme parks of overly-controlled leisure. Some may know the songs that offer resistance to that glossy, shallow image of Orange County. But novels or poetry? Those seeking literary guides to Southern California have had David Ulin’s magisterial Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology (Library of America, 2002), but now those seeking the literature of Orange County have their own guide: Lisa Alvarez’s and Andrew Tonkovich’s anthology, Orange County: A Literary Field Guide (Heyday, 2017). Drawing from community-college literary magazines as well as literary luminaries, this is a work of impressive research and discovery. Arranged geographically and then, within each region, chronologically, this book portrays an Orange County of consummate surprise.
There are no Stepford wives here. While Michael Chabon’s short story “Ocean Avenue” features a beautiful woman of leisure buying coffee in exercise clothes, she is neither one-dimensional nor docile; she’s unforgettable. And she is not alone. Her neighbor, in this anthology, might be a large Gullah-speaking mother of two football stars, displaced from home and determinedly seeking public space in her red tile roof and white stucco walled condo development, depicted in Susan Straight’s I Been in Sorrow’s Kitchen and Licked Out All the Pots. Beekeepers, bicyclists, day laborers, artists, fishermen, surfers aggressively protecting their turf, Vietnamese immigrants protesting each other, Iranian teenagers desperate to fit in to a gated community painted endless shades of white, a lonely teenager who keeps giving her phone number to undocumented immigrants, the ghosts of an agrarian past, and a nervous young man serving an eviction notice at the beach mansion of his aging rock hero: this is a complex, divided, fractious, and deep depiction of Orange County. It is, in Aracelis Gormay’s poetry:
Santa Ana of grocery carts, truckers,
eggs in the kitchen at 4 am, nurses, cleaning ladies
the saints of ironing, the saints
of tortillas. Santa Ana of cross-guards, tomato pickers,
bakeries of bread in pinks & yellows, sugars.
Santa Ana of Cambodia, Viet Nam, Aztlán
The Orange County in view is a fictional one that many locals will recognize as true. It is also, in Lorene Delany-Ullman’s prose poetry, a space of “wetlands and weapons.” Violence, racism, and “the meeting of boom and loss,” in Tom Vanderbilt’s penetrating expression—all are here, in complicated histories bursting out beneath tidy suburban surfaces, like weeds pushing through sidewalk cracks.
In a region famous for its history of forgetting, to borrow Norman Klein’s title, a place of “willful amnesia” where “a sales pitch… has always been substituted for history,” in D. J. Waldie’s depiction, this is a book startlingly full of what the editors call, in their introduction to Lisa Alvarez’s poetry, “the contentious, unresolved history of Orange County’s suburban milieu, which is never far below the surface—if it’s below it at all.” Too literarily clear-eyed to be called nostalgic, there is still something close to nostalgia here as character after character laments the effects of development on beloved pieces of nature, while story after story faces paved-over land and dreams. In this book’s Orange County, a sense of place comes with a sense of history.
While good, this anthology is not perfect. The editors call the foothills area “the flatlands.” The excerpted stories by Christopher Isherwood and a few others end a bit abruptly. But like any anthology, this one serves up appetizers that may lead readers to investigate the fuller works of authors like James Blaylock, Martin Smith, Kem Nunn, or Anh Chi Pham. Gustavo Arellano’s “Foreword” mistakenly regrets the omission of Tom Vanderbilt’s Baffler piece about the Crystal Cathedral, which actually is included. Orange County’s oral histories, corridos, and church-newsletter literature also might have been included. But there is already so much in this volume that it seems churlish to state that it is unclear why the literature of Richard Henry Dana, Carey McWilliams, and Viet Thanh Nguyen are absent.
This book is for readers who relish knowing that LSD tablets were once dropped from an airplane to a crowd of hippies gathered in Laguna Beach, and that the unobstructed Santa Ana winds were once so strong they wore grooves in the floorboards of Jessamyn West’s house in Yorba Linda by repeatedly pushing the beds across the room. It is for those wanting to know “what’s been lost,” in Edward Humes phrase, or anyone who wants to name the history of what Tom Zoellner calls, in an essay written specifically for this anthology, “The Orange Industrial Complex.” The collection is for residents, students, teachers, tourists, and all who wish to understand America’s complicated suburbia.
This book, filled with empathy and environmentalism, is poetic critical geography. It is wonderful.
 Norman M. Klein, The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory, new and updated ed. (New York: Penguin Random House, 2008).
Elaine Lewinnek is professor in the department of American Studies at California State University, Fullerton. She is the author of The Working Man’s Reward: Chicago’s Early Suburbs and the Roots of American Sprawl (Oxford, 2015), and is currently working on a bottom-up history of Orange County with Gustavo Arellano, Thuy Vo Dang, and Michael Steiner, titled A People’s Guide to Orange County (UC Press, forthcoming).
July sky at Bahia de Los Angeles, Baja California, Mexico, courtesy of Bill Gracey via Flickr.
Gerald W. Haslam
Growing up in an oilfield community at the southern end of the Great Central Valley, I for many years believed California ended where the Tehachapi Mountains met the Temblor Range. Southern California seemed to be a continent away. Then my parents transferred me to a Catholic middle/high school in Bakersfield, and I encountered many Latino students, some of whom spoke of a mysterious place—perhaps part of California, perhaps not—called simply “Baja” or sometimes “la frontera.”
Few, I recall, claimed to have visited there. Rather it existed for us as a dangerous (but tempting) idea, a no-holds-barred locale that produced “Tijuana bibles” and tire-tread huaraches, and that housed a fabled red-light district. In our imaginations, that frontera was a remnant of the wild west, the sin capital of the west.
The actual place, as Verónica Castillo-Muñoz reveals in The Other California: Land, Identity, and Politics on the Mexican Borderlands, was culturally and economically far more complex than we had imagined. It slipped in and out of the grasp of Yankee capitalists (principally in the guise of the Colorado River Land Company and the International Mexican Company) in the late nineteenth century. Those companies “transformed Baja California from a Mexican backwater territory to one of the most prosperous cotton-producing centers along the U.S.-Mexico border.”
Castillo-Muñoz presents a detailed outline of how Baja California, a region of northern Mexico, was for a time an economic pawn to Mexican politicians, was a Pacific entry for Chinese and Japanese immigrants to the Americas, and was treated as an outlier (it didn’t gain statehood in Mexico until 1952). It was slowly built by hard-working people who came to largely ignore static gender roles and varying racial barriers, thus enriching the cultural landscape of western Mexico. The book traces no utopian society, but rather reveals “how ethnicity and racially diverse communities of laborers changed the social landscape of Baja California,” and does a good job of that.
Social stability and economic viability were by no means quickly achieved. The society detailed by Castillo-Muñoz’s book churned and boiled. Part of that was due to the self-serving influence of absentee owners, especially Yankees. But locals were capable of shooting themselves in the foot, too. For instance,
Chinese and Japanese earned an average of 40 centavos per day, while mestizo and indigenous workers earned average of 1.25 pesos. It was only a matter of time before Chinese and Japanese workers discovered the wage disparity, and they held strikes against the company [Compagnie du Boleo] several times.
Despite discrimination, “By 1920 the Baja California peninsula stood out as one of the most diverse communities in northern Mexico, with a growing population that spoke nineteen languages.”
Although women in Mexico did not get the vote nationally until 1953, their activism played a steady role in the social and economic development of Baja. “Ejido [communal land grant] distribution shaped gender relations and campesino [farm worker] identity in the Mexicali Valley where women saw their role on the ejido equally important to that of men.” World War II solidified that.
In 1942, Mexico entered the war on the side of the Allies. That little-discussed fact (in the USA, at least) led to the Bracero contract that sent male Mexican workers between the ages of seventeen and forty to “fill jobs in the farming and railroad sectors caused by the US labor shortage.” That, in turn, opened jobs in Mexico for women, “Thus both ejido farmers and private farmers in the Mexicali Valley came to rely on women’s labor for the cultivation and picking of cotton.” In 1944, President Manuel Avila Camacho smoothed the path toward gender equality when he “endorsed a campaign for women to join the workforce in northern Mexico to offset the shortage of labor caused by the Bracero Program.”
Castillo-Muñoz’s slim book (113 page text) is literally packed with such information, and is supplemented by 30 pages of valuable notes, a detailed bibliography and an index. For better or worse, the author shows, Baja California reflects many of the same issues that have plagued us here in Alta California—think of water, for instance, or racial tensions or gender discrimination. The Other California’s academic tone might be off-putting to some, but the text is so rich in information that this reader hardly noticed. It is an excellent intro to California’s southern namesake.
Gerald W. Haslam, an Oildale native, is professor emeritus at Sonoma State University, and the author of, among other books, The Other California: The Great Central Valley in Life and Letters (University of Nevada Press, 1994).
One of the most famous attempts to describe Los Angeles depicts it as an enclave of communities without a focused core; a collective search for a pulse that does not exist. One version of this characterization suggests, “Los Angeles: seventy-two suburbs in search of a city.” Another narrows the scope: “nineteen suburbs in search of a metropolis.” Assigned to a series of writers, most famously Dorothy Parker, but also Aldous Huxley and H.L. Mencken, the words reverberate an anxiety about Angelenos’ collective experiences of space. Pointing to the uniqueness of Los Angeles’s geography and topography, it also reveals the challenge of trying to capture the essence of a multi-nodal place with words alone. This essay examines how digital mapping can help to foreground localized knowledges of Los Angeles by introducing a pilot multimedia project called the Barrio Suburbanism Map.
In recent years, the digital-turn has birthed a new version of spatial musings similar to those of Parker, often in the form of maps. Rather than plotting points on a grid, digital mapping often combines practices of cartography, photography, narration, active revision, and public-orientation. These contemporary multimedia renderings demonstrate the continued active and critical searching for what it means to live in metropolitan Los Angeles. From this search, several questions emerge. Who decides what a place is called: barrio, suburb, neighborhood, ghetto, colonized territory? Where are its edges? How does a space become more than a location, but instead a site imbued with meaning? And, to whom? These questions move us beyond the iconic scene of Los Angeles produced from the studios of the Hollywood Hills to the lived experiences of space radiating out from Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights to the Tierra Mia coffee shop in Huntington Park. This essay explores how digital mapping might inform our understanding of metropolitan Los Angeles, both in the academy and beyond. Specifically, by pairing photographs with student ethnographies, the Barrio Suburbanism Map complicates popular perceptions of the suburbs as sites of homogeneity in order to reveal the dynamic diversity of suburbanization in multiracial Los Angeles, with a focus on Latinx communities.
Since the writings of 1920s social commentators, a range of urban historians, planners, creative writers, artists, and preservationists have created a wealth of scholarship and resources concerning Los Angeles and its suburbs: as bustling sites of working class identity, as spaces of queer sociability, and as areas of relocation for urban Chicanxs. Yet, suburbs are habitually understood through the lenses of homeownership, whiteness, middle-class status, and conservatism in popular discourse. These depictions of suburbs eclipse the equally important histories of “triangular race relations” and “relational racialization” exemplified in places like Los Angeles, where complex interactions between race, class, and gender have accompanied the social segmentation of the metropolitan region. Rather than a fixed set of characteristics, suburbia is networked, ever shifting, historically contingent, and defined by much more than political boundaries.
This essay explores how digital mapping can function as an active means for engaging ongoing process of place-making, one that can offer unique contributions to both student learning and public engagement. Beginning with a brief account of digital mapping projects in Greater Los Angeles, this essay provides a series of mosaics from one such project designed by the authors, the Barrio Suburbanism Map. A collaborative research project created by UCLA undergraduates in the Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies, its aims are two-fold. First, it builds upon studies of the barrio and diverse suburbs to examine how these sites operate in multiracial and metropolitan contexts. Second, it foregrounds undergraduate research aimed at reaching a public audience through multimedia mapping. Piloted in an upper-division research seminar in the Winter of 2016, the project asks how Chicana/o and Latina/o populations have impacted the economic, social, and spatial contours of specific suburbs, with attention to how place-making and the built environment have changed over time.
Although academic sources and public humanities projects have identified diverse histories of development in Los Angeles, there is still much work to be done if we hope to uproot the white-picket fence. For instance, many students found a dearth of digital and visual sources highlighting the intersectional histories they had personally experienced, as residents or visitors to these spaces, available within the public domain. Digital mapping provides these students an opportunity to actively engage in the processes of revisionist history and public facing scholarship with the potential to provoke critical discussion about the meanings of these places. And, as an infinitely buildable platform, future students can reply to those conversations through introducing new topical layers to the map over time. Rather than statistics-based work, this is an exercise that can not only historicize, but also humanize national trends in which Latinx, immigrants, refugees, and other historically marginalized populations are increasingly calling suburbs and exurban areas home.
Mapping Place, Constructing Place
Maps are powerfully operative in the ways we understand the world around us. They have been used as tools of empire in far-reaching colonization endeavors and wielded by states to convert the commons into private property. However, as much as they have been used as blunt instruments of the powerful, maps have also served as the tools of everyday people. In many cases, residents who have struggled to be heard at city planning meetings have turned to collaborative mapping, where they identified unrecognized community resources and provided blueprints for alternative futures. Maps do not represent pure truths about the physical world, but rather create space as much as they reflect it. Maps can also help facilitate dynamic conversations about the places we occupy. For instance, a national dialogue concerning urban development and gentrification is taking place through maps, from the views of LA neighborhoods, crafted by the Los Angeles Times, to the interventionist mapping projects of public scholars. Looking to these undertakings helps underscore what might be gained from a similar exploration of Latinx communities in LA suburbs.
Critical cartography teaches us that every line drawn reflects a set of decisions about spatial meaning, social identity, and the boundaries between insiders and outsiders. For instance, in the Los Angeles Times project Mapping L.A., “neighborhoods” are a product of combined staff decisions, census tracts, and reader contributed drawing of geographic boundaries between notable Los Angeles districts. Although disproportionately shaped by the perspectives of “affluent” English-dominant Angelenos, who comprise a sizable share of the newspapers’ readership, the resultant neighborhoods have become the definitive guide to LA neighborhoods. Each map includes extensive neighborhood data, such as ethnicity, housing, income, and education statistics. Prominent among the information provided are crime statistics: violent crime, property crime, time, date, type, location, weekly totals, monthly totals, and a six-month summary. However, the stories of the people who occupy these spaces are lost in the data. When the mismatch between the Los Angeles Times’ readership and the city’s shifting demography combines with the heavy focus on crime statistics, Mapping L.A. may inadvertently create a deficit perspective of working class communities of color. This risk both underscores the limitations of mapping and its uneven consequences when written from a deficit perspective.
In an effort to increase the agency of stakeholders outside traditional map-making processes, asset mapping seeks to identify sites of neighborhood significance from the alternative perspective. Such mapping can raise political consciousness, enhance local knowledge, and build the capacity for community mobilizations with the potential to foster claims to place and secure control over resources. Along these lines, the number of scholars engaging public-facing mapping projects has grown significantly in recent years. In particular, a number of notable Los Angeles based projects have pushed the boundary of mapping technologies and laid the groundwork for new approaches to community engagement. Consider, for instance, the HyperCities project, a collaborative online tool based on Google Earth technology, has served as an incubator for multiple critical cartography projects, including LA-based Historic Filipinotown and Mapping Jewish Los Angeles. Hypercities was one of the first platforms to allow multiple users to layer demographic data (census, etc.) alongside videos, audio, photographs, and other multimedia resources to create an immersive storytelling experience. Another, more recent example, offers a unique and pathbreaking method for community asset mapping: Project Willowbrook. This effort focuses on a workbook model that asks community members to define their own neighborhood. And, there is Ride South L.A.: Watts Ride, a print map designed by local residents using camera phones to document places and routes of interest to bicyclists. In each of these cases, community members use maps to tell their own neighborhood stories and to create a space for dialogue in public forums.
Digital mapping is a tool that fosters reflection about place-making and offers a promising avenue to think through metropolitan Los Angeles and its history. Two trends have combined in recent years to warrant increased attention to Latinx suburbanization, specifically. First, as of 2010, suburbs became the primary site of residential life for the United States as a whole. As a nation, the residential experiences that shape daily life are centered in our suburbs. Second, in 2015, the U.S. Census Bureau found that Latinx communities formed the California majority for the first time in recent history. These trends intersect. According to a joint study by the Pew Hispanic Center and The Brookings Institution, 54 percent of all U.S. Latinxs live in suburbs. The study found that Los Angeles illustrates national trends in which Latinx residents are choosing suburbs and rural areas over city centers and disrupts assumptions that the Latinx community are more concentrated in urban settings. Using the mapping platform Social Explorer, the map below illustrates the Latinx population’s growth across LA census tracts between 1970 and 2015, reflecting a significant growth outside of the central city.
The scholarship on Latinx suburbanization demonstrates that Latinxs make residential choices with many of the same aspirations as other Californians, including access to jobs, opportunities for homeownership, and pursuit of the suburban dream. Yet, their pathways and experiences of suburbia have been, by no means, equal. For early Latinx suburbanites, it meant staying in place as semi-rural colonias were enveloped by suburbanization. For others, it entailed pursuing social mobility through geographic movement from LA’s urban centers and colonias to inner ring suburbs, as both middle class homeowners and working class laborers in areas of new construction. And, for others, suburbanization has been as a strategic response to circular displacement, from the redevelopment of urban centers to dislocation from one’s home country. In each case, many of these Latinx suburbanites face the legacies of racialization, discriminatory lending, and generational spatial inequity. Multimedia mapping can help visualize and narrate these varied histories, as well as where they intersect.
The Barrio Suburbanism Map focuses on the first metropolitan region to double its non-white population, explores the shifting economic, social, and spatial contours of suburbs in Greater Los Angeles, and illustrates national trends of Latinx suburbanism in its everyday context. If Los Angeles is a harbinger of the nation’s future, as it has often been, then we can expect that Latinx will increasingly shape the meaning of suburbs in the United States. To paraphrase urban and cultural historian A.K. Sandoval-Strausz, Latinx history is key to rethinking suburban history. In his insightful article, “Latino Landscapes: Postwar Cities and the Transnational Origins of Urban America,” Sandoval-Strausz asserts that alongside quantitative studies of Latinx in the postwar city exists an equivalent need to examine “the culturally specific ways they occupied and produced urban space: their everyday behaviors, residential practices, ownership and patronage of small businesses, and commitment to public presence.” Likewise, in the case of Latinx suburbs, statistics do much to provide a snapshot of recent transformations in suburbia, particularly growth, but they fail to represent the ways Latinx create meaning in the places they occupy. We suggest that multimedia mapping can help inform how we understand these places in light of demographic transformations. Digital mapping, photography, and student research combine here to prompt reflection of how Latinx (sub)urbanism shapes metropolitan space.
Mosaics of Los Angeles Suburbs
We share below six mosaics of Los Angeles inspired by selections from the Barrio Suburbanism Map. Each mosaic is comprised of images and a brief narrative summarizing the map’s content organized by regions that emerged from this research—San Fernando, the Greater Eastside, Gateways, the San Gabriel Valley, Santa Ana, and the Inland Empire. They provide a countermapping to “neighborhoods,” as defined by more mainstream projects that often rely heavily on quantitative data, instead revealing sites linked by place-making and diaspora. Initially, students surveyed demographic data and looked for places where the Latino community had a notable presence. Students, then, explored each area by using a range of qualitative methods, from field visits to analyzing redlining maps to deep reading of archival materials, such as photographs, oral histories, and ephemera. They were also encouraged to reflect on their own experiences within these spaces. Building on that research, map entries were designed with museum length descriptions of 250 words, tweetable links of 140 characters, a bibliography of sources, and, often, original student photography. Although each student focused on an individual suburb or neighborhood, it was through the collective process of mapping that they began to identify spatial forms and cultural practices across metropolitan Los Angeles. When observed online, the digital map underscores shared themes of community formation, immigration, education, art, and public space within the frameworks of (sub)urban studies and planning history. The Barrio Suburbanism Map, itself, contains more entries than the mosaics highlighted here, 80 in total. But it is by no means exhaustive. Rather than seeking to create a definitive survey of LA suburbs, the Barrio Suburbanism Map underscores the ways maps give meaning to place and foregrounds the everyday spatial practices of Latinx communities.
San Fernando serves as a microcosm of shifting land uses and spatial forms in Los Angeles. Situated Northwest of Los Angeles, San Fernando was originally occupied by peoples indigenous to southern California, most notably the Tongva. The city was later colonized by Spanish missionaries and gifted to Californio ranchers during Mexican secularization. San Fernando was one of a few cities in the valley to avoid annexation by Los Angeles in the early 20th century. As demonstrated by Americanist Laura Barraclough, legacies of restrictive housing and exclusionary land-use planning centered on western heritage have maintained privilege in places like the San Fernando Valley when compared to Los Angeles. Map entries follow changes in the town as it transitioned from a Spanish mission holding to Mexican ranch to American farmland to Los Angeles suburb. These transitions culminate in the emergence of local heritage campaigns that foreground San Fernando’s history as a community of “Little Farms Near the City.” In each urban transformation, the presence of Latinxs is steadfast. Yet, the significance of this presence is ever changing as residents react to varying economic, political, and demographic shifts.
Selections highlighting two ways of mapping San Fernando. At left, a historic street map, Shell Oil Company, “Street Map of San Fernando Valley and Los Angeles Northern Section,” David Rumsey Historical Map Collection (1956); at right, a narrative entry, “Barrio Suburbanism: Reshaping Metropolitan Geographies,” 2016, http://uclachicanxstudies.github.io/BarrioSuburbs/#page/about.
In Mapping Los Angeles, the neighborhoods of Highland Park and Lincoln Heights are drawn apart from Boyle Heights. In doing so, “East Los Angeles” is prematurely dissected by lines of class and race that are very much contested. By contrast, Victor M. Valle and Rodolfo D. Torres argue for thinking of these places as part of a continuous landscape, that of the Greater Eastside. This social geography is “shaped by the destructive and creative energies unleashed in the competition between older and newer forms of capital accumulation and the ensuing competition between landscapes.” Rather than reestablishing borders, we emphasize the interwoven patterns of Latinx migrations from urban to suburban and back, as well as the histories that underlie these movements. Valle and Torres offer a poignant vision of the “urban Latino core east of the Los Angeles River… as an organic demographic unit from which other Latino satellite communities would grow, cell by suburban cell.” The selections below give a glimpse of changing communities, but also signal the long-term growth and cohesiveness of Latinx neighborhoods.
Sprouting from the famous “shoestring” of Los Angeles, the Gateway suburbs are a collection of over 25 independent municipalities. This vast area, to the Southeast of Los Angeles and stretching out towards Orange County, has a rich, diverse, and sometimes surprising history. One of the most well-known is that of Richland Farms, a working urban farm located in Compton. The story of Richland Farms situates the Gateways and connects it back to the Shoshone tribes, who lived there before the Spanish missionaries arrived in the 1770s. Stories like that of Richland Farms help contextualize the spatial and demographic transformation of the Gateways through place-based history. It also contextualizes how migrants from Mexico and Central America found a home in a predominately African American neighborhood, which actually was almost entirely white decades before. If, on the one hand, Richland Farms points to the region’s past, on the other hand, the 710 Freeway and its geographical surrogate, the Los Angeles River, points to its future. Its freeway’s construction promised to create jobs by providing an easy connection between the urban core and northern suburbs of Los Angeles to its port. However, the freeway also divided communities, making them all but unlivable due to the accompanying high levels of pollution. In the emerging Los Angeles landscape, the Los Angeles River’s redevelopment may provide a transitional moment for some neighborhoods located along this busy corridor. Map contributions include observations concerning the freeway’s impact, empty lots, changing demographics, and new artistic spaces that give voice to the future.
Selection of photographs from Gateways by Alberto Loaiza, Lynwood, CA, 24 February 2016 (left); Enrique Carranza, Maywood, CA, 12 February 2016 (center); and Berenice Meza, Photograph of Mural by “Latino Barrio Roots,” Bell, CA, 21 February 2016 (right).
San Gabriel Valley
Affectionately referred to as the “SGV” and “626” by its residents, the San Gabriel Valley occupies an important cultural crossroads within metropolitan Los Angeles. Described by scholar Wendy Cheng, “The SGV is not only… a notable site of working and middle-class Chicana/o history—but also east of Little Tokyo, east of Chinatown, and an ancestral home of the indigenous Gabrielino/Tongva people.” It is in the context of an intertwined relationship between racial formation and home that Cheng locates an emergent “non-white identity” that is distinct to these multiracial middle-class suburbs. The layered histories of racialization in the San Gabriel Valley are highlighted by its’ mixture of mission architecture, specialty ethnic marketplaces, and multilingual community resources. Looking to suburban space from this interethnic crossroads, one encounters manga graphic novels from Japan translated into Spanish at the local library and a Vietnam War Memorial honoring U.S. veterans in a city with a sizable Vietnamese immigrant community. Suburbs with majority Latinx and Asian American populations, like Rosemead and Baldwin Park with their vivid ethnic landscapes, appear in contrast to majority-Asian elite suburbs, which concede to an “Anglo design aesthetic,” for a variety of class, cultural, and political reasons. Examples of past and present developments, from the first In-N-Out to the Rosemead Trailer Park, underscore the histories of population change, agriculture, and immigration in this LA region.
Selection of photographs of the San Gabriel Valley by Patricia Gonzalez, “Mercado Latino Inc.,” Baldwin Park, CA, 2016 (left) and Kathryn Loutzenheiser, Rosemead, CA, 20 February 2016 (center, right).
Behind the veneer of effortless suburban homogeneity made popular by the Bravo series Real Housewives of Orange County, sits one of the largest Latinx communities in California. The Logan neighborhood of Santa Ana is among the oldest barrios in the region, with roots dating back to 1886. Santa Ana is now a majority Latinx city, with current estimates near 80 percent of the population. The suburb has become a central node within an alternative Orange County, one in sharp contrast to the O.C.’s central place in histories of conservatism and right-wing organizations comprised of “suburban warriors.” Map entries underscore the ways its built environment shifted alongside municipal demographic changes. Downtown Santa Ana serves as a particularly striking example of place-making, where Logan Park, La Cuatro/Fourth Street, and the East End/Fiesta Village illustrate the varying ways residents of diverse backgrounds use the city. For instance, La Cuatro/Fourth Street features Spanish signage, hosts Mexican national celebrations, and provides a commercial center with restaurants, cafes, and gift shops serving a large immigrant and Latino/a community, at the same time it confronts gentrification. Long-time residents and newcomers, Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants, Spanish-speakers and non-Spanish-speakers, have each left their imprint on the heart of Orange County, from the “Dia de La Independencia Fair” to Carlos Aguilar’s mural Among Heroes, which honors Santa Ana veterans. Where residents have created a rich sense of place, the dense interurban transportation networks of the Santa Ana Regional Transportation Center remind us of suburbia’s connection to the larger currents of metropolitan Los Angeles.
Selection of photographs of Santa Ana by Kevin Martinez, 8 February 2016 (left, right) and Jorge Quiroz, 15 February 2016 (center).
Looking to the Inland Empire underscores both past and future directions in the metropolitan areas’ poly-nuclear development and the growth of Latinx suburbia. The Inland Empire was formerly the “Citrus Belt,” a region dotted with semi-rural communities. The City of Ontario exemplifies these early 20th century “agriburbs,” from the tree-lined Euclid Avenue which served as an early showcase of irrigated splendor, to the Sunkist packing house that fueled agriculturalists’ fortunes, to Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, which served as a place of worship for Mexican American residents employed within the regional citrus industry. Where non-white workers were excluded from central neighborhoods through racial covenants and redlining, citrus workers established colonias at the edges of town where Mexican American customs flourished. These neighborhoods were often multiracial and drew on networks and resources established by earlier migrant workers, particularly from China, Korea, Japan, and India. As metropolitan Los Angeles stretched eastward in the postwar era, fields of green were replaced with stucco. About 10 miles east of Ontario is one of California’s newest incorporated municipalities, Jurupa Valley. Like other towns with historic colonias, the Latinx population has grown steadily here. Bilingual markets, the Rubidoux Swap Meet, festivals, parks, and churches have made the site a cultural hub. More so, the growing warehousing industry and its need for labor have made the town a center of international logistics, debates over environmental injustice, and a popular immigrant gateway.
Selection of photographs of the Inland Empire: “Ontario and San Antonio Heights Railroad Company’s Mule Car on Euclid Avenue, Ontario, ca. 1890,” California Historical Society Collection and the University of Southern California, c. 1890 (left); and Jose Cardona, Jurupa Valley, CA, 20 February 2016 (center, right).
Conclusion: A Community of Mapping
Through digital mapping, projects like the Barrio Suburbanism Map facilitate public-oriented research and student engagement in that process. By pairing photographs with student ethnographies, the map seeks to complicate popular perceptions of suburbia. It highlights the dynamic diversity of suburbanization in multiracial Los Angeles, with a focus on Latinx migration and settlement that aims to provoke critical discussion. In particular, it foregrounds how Latinx suburbanites impact the spatial and ideological contours of Greater Los Angeles. Rather than statistically driven mapping, these types of projects offer a more humanistic approach for interpreting space with the potential to train students in historical analysis. This is the first layer of an exponentially buildable platform. Future iterations, for instance, could introduce new layers to the present map that address labor history, housing prices, racial housing covenants, predatory lending, or fair housing activism, as well as artistic, literary, and architectural interventions in suburban spaces. As noted by the editors of Hypercities: Thick Mapping in the Digital Humanities, “thick maps are never finished and meanings are never definite… and give rise to forms of counter-mapping, alternative maps, multiple voices, and on-going contestations.” In this way, digital mapping offers a promising opportunity to develop pedagogical and public initiatives that are responsive to the changing conditions of the world we live in.
The authors thank Becky Nicolaides and an anonymous peer reviewer for providing valuable feedback on an earlier draft, as well as Priscilla Leiva for image assistance and student researcher Yazmin Gonzalez for editorial assistance.
 Becky Nicolaides, My Blue Heaven: Life and Politics in the Working-Class Suburbs of Los Angeles, 1920-1965 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,) 2002; Karen Tongson, Relocations: Queer Suburban Imaginary (New York: New York University Press, 2011); Jerry Gonzalez, “‘A Place in the Sun’: Mexicans Americans, Race, and the Suburbanization of Los Angeles, 1940-1990,” unpublished Ph.D. dissertation (University of Chicago, 2008).
 For a selection of sources on the relational forms of racial formation in metropolitan Los Angeles, see Scott Kurashige. The Shifting Grounds of Race: Black and Japanese Americans in the Making of Multiethnic Los Angeles (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008); Laura R. Barraclough, “South Central Farmers and Shadow Hills Homeowners: Land Use Policy and Relational Racialization in Los Angeles,” The Professional Geographer, 61/2 (2009): 164-86; Leland T. Saito, Race and Politics: Asian Americans, Latinos, and Whites in a Los Angeles Suburb (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1998); Wendy Cheng, The Changs Next Door to the Diazes: Remapping Race in Suburban California (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013).
 Defined by historians Becky Nicolaides and Andrew Wiese in The Suburb Reader, “In practical terms, we treat as suburban the sprawling territory beyond the central city limits that lies within commuting distance and social orbit of the older core…. In the larger metro areas, it may include places as far as two hours away as job opportunities have leapfrogged outward and metropolitan commuting sheds have overlapped.” Becky M. Nicolaides and Andrew Wiese, The Suburb Reader, 2d ed. (London: Routledge, 2016), 9.
 Audrey Singer, Twenty-First Century Gateways: Immigrant Incorporation in Suburban America (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 2008).
 For a selection of classic and contemporary scholarship on mapping, see Martin Dodge, Rob Kitchin, and Chris Perkins, eds., The Map Reader: Theories of Mapping Practice and Cartographic Representation (Wiley Blackwell, 2011). On decolonizing mapping, see Sherene Razack, Race, Space, and the Law: Unmapping a White Settler Society (Toronto: Between the Lines, 2002). See also ch. 5 in Elaine Lewinnek, The Working Man’s Reward: Chicago’s Early Suburbs and the Roots of American Sprawl (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).
 Robert O. Self, American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003), esp. ch. 7; Jody Agius Vallejo, Barrios to Burbs: The Making of the Mexican-American Middle Class (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012); Jerry Gonzalez, “‘A Place in the Sun’: Mexicans Americans, Race, and the Suburbanization of Los Angeles, 1940-1990,” unpublished Ph.D. diss. (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2008); Audrey Singer, Twenty-First Century Gateways: Immigrant Incorporation in Suburban America (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 2008).
 See Raúl Homero Villa and George J. Sánchez, eds., Los Angeles and the Future of Urban Cultures: A Special Issue of American Quarterly (Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 2005).
 A.K. Sandoval-Strausz, “Latino Landscapes: Postwar Cities and the Transnational Origins of a New Urban America,” Journal of American History101 (2014): 808.
 This project utilizes GitHub as an academic publishing web platform and builds on frameworks developed by UCLA scholar Dawn Childress and programmer Nathan Day. For more on the design and attribution of the map, visit “Barrio Suburbanism: Reshaping Metropolitan Geographies,” 2016, http://uclachicanxstudies.github.io/BarrioSuburbs/#page/about.
 Laura Barraclough, Making the San Fernando Valley: Rural Landscapes, Urban Development, and White Privilege (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2011).
 Becky M. Nicolaides and James Zarsadiaz, “Design Assimilation in Suburbia: Asian Americans, Built Landscapes, and Suburban Advantage in Los Angeles’s San Gabriel Valley since 1970,” Journal of Urban History 43 (2017): 332-71.
 Scott Dunlop, “Real Housewives of Orange County,” Bravo Networks, 2006–2016.
 Lisa McGirr, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001).
 Carlos Aguilar, Among Heroes, Mural, 24-by-27-ft., 2012.
 For more on agriburbs, see Paul J.P. Sandul, California Dreaming: Boosterism, Memory, and Rural Suburbs in the Golden State (Morgantown, WV: West Virginia University Press, 2015).
 Matt Garcia, A World of Its Own: Race, Labor, and Citrus in the Making of Greater Los Angeles, 1900-1970. Chapel Hill and London (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2011).
Appendix: Inspirational Mapping Resources
We have drawn inspiration from a myriad of mapping projects across the Los Angeles region. Below is a partially crowd sourced selection of interpretive projects and archival map resources for feeding your inner-cartographer.
Phillip Ethington, “Los Angeles and the Problem of Urban Historical Knowledge,” A Multimedia Essay to Accompany the December 2000 Issue of the American Historical Review, published by the org, http://lapuhk.usc.edu
Genevieve Carpio is an Assistant Professor of Chicana/o Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. She earned a Ph.D. in American Studies and Ethnicity from the University of Southern California and previously held the Cassius Marcellus Clay Postdoctoral Fellowship at Yale University. Her work engages relational ethnic studies, 20th century U.S. history, and critical geography, particularly as it relates to notions of place and mobility.
Andy Rutkowski is the Geospatial Resources Librarian at UCLA Library. He is interested in how GIS applications and methods can be applied to traditional library collections and archives in order to improve discoverability of collections as well as provide richer context and meaning to materials. He is also interested in the role that GIS and mapping can help play in community building and providing spaces for discussion, dialogue, and engagement around a variety of topics and issues.
Frequently overlooked in California’s ongoing discussions about criminal justice reform are the places at which many individuals have their first experience of being detained—juvenile halls. In 2014, California had more than 86,000 juvenile arrests and more than 51,000 juvenile court dispositions.
Further overlooked is the fact that kids continue going to school while they’re awaiting legal proceedings or after they’ve been committed to a facility (which might be a juvenile hall, a camp, or a ranch). Like all kids, young people in the juvenile justice system are entitled to an education—the California constitution does not make an exception for kids who are locked up. They enter what are known as ‘‘court schools,’’ for weeks, months, or even a year or more at a time. It’s a window that offers kids caught in the system a chance to change their course, and the system a chance to connect with kids who have few connections.
They connect with various teachers as well, which are the same mix seen at any public school—some who have been doing this sort of teaching for a long time and are committed to working in justice settings and others who are there for much shorter periods of time. The subjects taught, hours per day for instruction, and people teaching vary.
More than 47,000 kids spent time in one of California’s seventy-six court schools in 2014. The vast majority came from low-income households and were Black or Latino.
The schools offer an opportunity to change kids’ lives while they’re a captive audience. But in California, that opportunity is being wasted because the schools are failing. In a state preoccupied with reforming education and moving away from mass incarceration, the schools that exist at the intersection of these movements are habitually ignored, under-resourced, and not held accountable.
In a study released this spring, Youth Law Center (a national firm based in San Francisco that works on behalf of kids in the juvenile justice and child welfare systems) found that more than 40 percent of the kids in court schools don’t make any progress in reading or math while they’re there. Many even find that their skills actually decline. Most of the kids aren’t even assessed academically, despite assessments being a federal requirement for long-term students.
‘‘Juvenile court schools can be the first stop on moving young people into the prison pipeline, or they can be an opportunity to intervene,’’ says Youth Law Center (YLC) managing director Maria Ramiu. According to Ramiu, the kids in court schools have ‘‘high aspirations for what they want to do with their lives.’’ They’re hungry to learn, and the system meets them with low expectations.
Ayanna Rasheed. Photograph by Anna Challet.
YLC’s findings are borne out by the experiences of many young people who have spent time in the juvenile justice system. Ayanna Rasheed, now twenty-two and living in Oakland, entered the child welfare system as a baby. Today, she’s studying to become an emergency medical technician and wants to do advocacy work on behalf of kids in foster care. Her adolescence was marked by a series of unstable housing situations, and she spent much of her ninth-grade year in a juvenile facility in San Joaquin County.
Rasheed says that all of the students were taught the same material, regardless of grade level: “The math was the same math we learned in sixth grade.’’ To her knowledge, she didn’t receive credits for any of the work she did there; she says none of it appears on her transcript.
Moreover, she expresses frustration that none of the teachers made much of an impression on her. ‘‘They need to put some heart in it,’’ she says.
And yet, Rasheed’s experience isn’t universal. For Eddie Chavez, nineteen, who spent time in juvenile hall in Fresno County, court school ended up being a turning point in his life. ‘‘You have to focus no matter what because you have a guard watching you, and it’s so quiet, and you can’t mess around,’’ he says. ‘‘I think that’s what was able to keep me focused on my work, because I can’t focus in regular schools. Regular schools just aren’t for me.’’
Chavez recalls having a substitute history teacher for about a week in the court school who brought in a suit of armor and had the students try on the parts while they were learning about the Middle Ages. He also had an art teacher who, in addition to teaching Chavez how to draw, drew him a portrait of his girlfriend and his new baby who were waiting for him on the outside. Chavez still has the portrait. He says he ended up earning the most credits he’d ever gotten in any school.
While he was still in detention, he came into contact with Barrios Unidos, a violence-prevention organization. A mentor would come to the detention center and talk to youth about job training, work opportunities, and education before their release. Chavez ended up joining the organization’s character-building program when he got out and started going to support groups. The organization helped him get a job at thrift store in Fresno.
Chavez’s experience was exceptional, and far too many juveniles wind up with ones like Rasheed’s. Overhauling the system to be more responsive to the needs of young offenders in court schools is a mammoth undertaking. Change will come slowly, if at all. Yet, a number of alternative facilities are creating new models of providing treatment and education, improving the futures of young people in the system.
Margot Gibney was the founding executive director of Youth Treatment and Education Center (YTEC) in San Francisco, the city’s first juvenile ‘‘drug court,’’ which provided treatment, therapy, and high school classes for juvenile drug offenders. An independent study of the school’s students (between 2006 and 2010) found that their recidivism rate after one year was less than 10 percent, says Gibney.
Eddie Chavez. Photograph by Charlie Kaijo.
The educational approach at YTEC echoed the suit of armor moment that captured Chavez’s imagination. Describing her time there, Gibney recalls, ‘‘The kids were rapping the Constitution, creating machines to talk about the Industrial Revolution. We’d have family nights and the parents would come in and kids would teach what they learned, and the parents could see their children in a positive light instead of just coming to court and hearing about all the awful things they’d done.’’
Gibney also says it’s crucial to have highly trained staff who have first-hand knowledge of the communities that the kids come from. ‘‘Their education and where they go with their education is such a strong determinant in the options and opportunities for their lives,’’ she says. ‘‘You have to help them find the things that they can get really excited about.’’
Dr. Teri Delane fits that bill. She’s principal of Life Learning Academy, a charter school on San Francisco’s Treasure Island that serves at-risk youth and those involved in the juvenile justice system. Delane spent time in juvenile detention after being kicked out of high school because of heroin abuse. She says that what saved her life was becoming part of a community at the Delancey Street Foundation, a non-profit in San Francisco that supports people dealing with substance use disorders.
Life Learning Academy serves sixty students, about 40 percent of whom are on probation. Delane says that in the school’s eighteen-year history, they’ve never had an act of violence on campus. And, she notes, they have a 95 percent graduation rate.
For Delane, ‘‘It is not just about staff and everybody else giving to the student. It is the students becoming their own community and helping each other,’’ she says. ‘‘It’s not about just giving kids things. One of the most important things is giving back—a piece of your life has to be giving back. The kids work together and they give their word to nonviolence.’’
At the same time, she says, ‘‘We try to close the circle around them. In that circle are family support, community support, mentor support, job support, friendships, and a safe environment in which to live.’’
About a third of the kids in the school are currently homeless or unstably housed. Despite this, they get themselves up and make it to school every day. Many are sleeping couch to couch, and Delane knows of one who sleeps in Golden Gate Park. Finding housing for her students is critical, and the school is working on raising the money to open a residential facility behind the campus. ‘‘There will not be kids in our school that do not have a safe place to live and a safe place to thrive,’’ she says.
The decision to house kids who don’t have homes is an obvious one, with an enormous pay off. It’s a lot like the approaches trialed by successful alternative models for educating juvenile offenders and at-risk youth.
Margot Gibney emphasizes the need for caring adults who have high expectations and hold kids accountable. ‘‘The research shows that if there’s at least one person in a young person’s life that follows them and provides support in a positive way, that can be the strongest determining factor. However, if you have a team of people, a community, then you just take those benefits and you maximize them,’’ she says. ‘‘Young people don’t need programs—they need family, they need community, they need opportunities and safety.’’
They also need the support of an educational system that takes their aspirations seriously. At minimum, this ought to include teachers and mentors who understand these kids as the future of California, as those who will be shaping this state in the coming years.
Youth Law Center’s findings about the failure of court schools, operated by County Offices of Education, come at a time when the State of California has dramatically reordered the way schools are funded. With the desire to direct more money to districts with higher numbers of underserved youth, a major reform measure, the Local Control Funding Formula, went into effect in 2013; it allocates more money to districts with higher numbers of high-needs students. While all students in the juvenile justice system are considered high-needs, at this point it is unclear what impact this is having with court schools.
What seems to be the case is that while California education reform is addressing important areas, court schools go completely ignored. If this is true, the education reform movement is entirely missing the opportunity to address the needs of a cohort of students who want to learn and whose futures hang in the balance.
Anna Challet is a reporter with New America Media with a focus on health care, public health, and issues local to San Francisco. She has also written about child welfare and juvenile justice; housing and homelessness; and criminal justice, education, and immigration reform.
In 1964, British sociologist Ruth Glass coined the term “gentrification” in her study of young creative professionals moving into the working-class, largely West Indian neighborhood of Islington, London. She explained, “Once this process of ‘gentrification’ starts in a district it goes on rapidly until all or most of the original working-class occupiers are displaced and the whole social character of the district is changed.”1 The late twentieth- and twenty-first-century tech-boom-related gentrification of San Francisco has undeniably changed the city’s character and its accessibility to the diverse groups—writers, artists, activists, the working class, queer people, and people of color—who have made it such a unique city in California and the world. In contrast to poet George Sterling who called San Francisco a “cool grey city of love” in 1920, writer Rebecca Solnit now deems it a “cold gray city of greed” as the incursion of new wealth has rapidly and violently displaced longtime residents.2
The predominantly Latino neighborhood of the Mission District has been particularly affected. In the longer historical view, San Francisco’s Latino demographic is highly distinctive because it has been strong and variegated since the nineteenth century. Central Americans, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, and Latin Americans of other nationalities moved there beginning in the Gold Rush era; the only other city to have such a diverse Latino population so early on was New York City (which claimed more of a Caribbean demographic), to be followed much later by cities like Los Angeles and Miami. The Mission District has been San Francisco’s “Latin” neighborhood since the 1940s, but now many fear it will lose that label as thousands of its Latino residents are evicted to make room for tech titans and their employees. While some may characterize this moment of gentrification as more economically than racially consequential, the data on tech industry hiring points to the contrary. A whopping 94 percent of Facebook’s employees are white or Asian while only 3 percent are Latino, 2 percent are mixed race, and 1 percent are black. Meanwhile, blacks and Latinos together comprise only 6 percent of Twitter’s workforce and 5 percent of Google’s.3 With little overlap between the Latino and techie demographics, the threatened dilution or disappearance of Latino San Francisco is very real.
The Virgin of Guadalupe shares space in the Mission District with a sign of the sharing economy. “La Virgen De Guadalupe” by Francisco “Twick” Aquino, 2007.
A long-defining characteristic of the Mission District has been its public murals, which first appeared in the 1970s in response to various local and global events as well as new city funding for public artwork. Located mostly in Balmy and Clarion Alleys, the murals infuse the neighborhood with color, creativity, and visual interest. Ironically, the cultural vibrancy that newcomer techies, investors, and young professionals value so highly in their choice to move to the Mission is exactly what will be eliminated over time with continued evictions, takeovers, and buildup. This essay offers a brief history of Latino San Francisco, using the murals of the Mission as the lens from which to examine Latinos’ historical presence in the city and to interrogate what part they will play in its future.
Historically, Latino artists in San Francisco and elsewhere have used murals as vehicles for, and symbols of, their social and political activism. They have articulated their stances on local and global issues—civil rights at home, civil wars abroad, racism, policing, and now gentrification—with paintbrushes and spray cans, and in the process have helped to cultivate a sense of Latinidad, or cultural interconnectedness between Latinos that surmounts differences in nationality and citizenship status.4 This essay showcases older and newer change of Mission murals, both of which comment on the simultaneous persistence and precarity of Latino artistic production on San Francisco’s streets. Many early murals have disappeared either through a lack of restoration funding or new property owners’ decisions to whitewash them. What does the erasure of some murals, and the survival or appearance of others, help reveal about the future of Latinos in the city? A few years ago, journalists and demographers questioned the future of black San Francisco (and now African Americans comprise only 6 percent of the city’s population).5 As one of the first big “Latino” cities of the US West, San Francisco is becoming so economically inhospitable that it is in danger of losing that historical title. With the exodus of Latinos to suburban and rural Northern California, we may be witnessing a shift back to pre-World War II demographics in that region, as well as the creation of a marginalized commuter class of Latino workers who will continue to serve an influential city but no longer be able to call it home. Do murals and the fight for their preservation have the potential to mobilize a diverse population of Latinos who want to push back against being pushed out?
• • •
Living in San Francisco even before it became San Francisco, Spanish-Mexican (Californio) rancho-owning families established deep roots in the area near the present-day Mission District. After the end of the US-Mexican War in 1848, however, these families lost their land grants to white squatters and even their own lawyers.6 The next year, the Gold Rush attracted migrants from all over the world and anti-Latino violence spiked. “Whether from California, Chile, Peru, or Mexico…all Spanish-speaking people were lumped together as interlopers and greasers,” and Latinos were either chased away from the gold fields by white miners or lynched by vigilante groups.7 In response to these attacks, Latinos turned inward and formed community with each other, constructing a Spanish-language Catholic church in the “Latin Quarter” of North Beach in 1875. When San Francisco became a leading processer of Central American coffee, Central American migrants added to the community’s diversity, as did Mexicans fleeing the Mexican Revolution of the 1910s and Puerto Ricans transitioning from jobs on Hawaiian plantations during the 1920s.8
After World War II, increasing rents in North Beach and urban development pushed Latinos to the South of Market Street Area (SoMA) and the Mission. The German, Irish, and Italian residents who had been living there began moving to newer housing in San Francisco’s western neighborhoods, which facilitated Latino settlement in the Mission along with small numbers of African Americans, Native Americans, American Samoans, and Filipino and Chinese-origin peoples.9 The first significant cluster of Latino restaurants, bakeries, and specialty shops soon appeared along 16th Street, and the neighborhood absorbed more newcomers, including Mexican farmworkers escaping the Bracero Program, Puerto Ricans who jumped ship instead of becoming Hawaiian sugar workers, and Nicaraguans and Salvadorans recruited by shipyards and wartime industries. By 1950, San Francisco’s Latino population totaled approximately 24,000 people, with almost a quarter of them living in the Mission.10
As San Franciscans heard more Spanish spoken on Mission streets, the perception of the neighborhood as a “poverty area” solidified.11 If one looked closer, however, multiple Latino political and social organizations had been founded by the 1950s, and a Latino-centric economy of small businesses, restaurants, grocery stores, record shops, and bookstores was thriving. When the 1960s ushered in War on Poverty initiatives and urban redevelopment, many Mission Latinos resisted the plan to build two Bay Area Rapid Transportation (BART) stops in the neighborhood. In city authorities’ eyes, BART would ostensibly revitalize and sanitize a district “well on its way to becoming a slum,” but residents rightly predicted that this infrastructure building meant displacement from several homes and businesses.12 As new waves of Cold War–era migrants—mainly Asian and Latin American refugees fleeing invasions and civil wars—moved into San Francisco, they increased the Mission’s percentage of Latinos to 44.6 percent and its foreign-born residents to 33.5 percent by 1970.13
Details from the mural “Mission Makeover” (2012) by Lucia Ippolito and Tirso Araiza.
A concurrent influx of internal migrants, including Puerto Ricans and Mexican American farmworkers leaving California’s San Joaquin and Salinas Valleys, boosted the 1970 citywide Latino population to over 101,000.14 Still attractive for its affordability and proximity to industrial and service jobs, the Mission cost residents an average monthly rent of $105.15
Two major phenomena of the 1970s that kickstarted mural production in the Mission were the Chicano civil rights movement and the multiple civil wars taking place in Latin America. In 1970, local artists active in the Chicano Movement founded La Galería de la Raza, a nonprofit community arts organization intended to foster public awareness and appreciation of Chicano/Latino art. When the city of San Francisco began commissioning murals in the 1970s that depicted events, people, and images associated with Latino communities, Galería-affiliated artists and others painted at least fifty major murals in the Mission by 1985. Inspired by Chicano Movement graphic art as well as older Mexican artists like Diego Rivera and David Siqueiros, muralists paid tribute to a wide array of subjects including the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexican cinema stars, farmworkers, zoot suiters, and Vietnam veterans. A great number of the Mission’s early murals were painted by a group of Latinas called Las Mujeres Muralistas who fought for their place in the male-dominated world of mural-making and pointedly included women and children in their pieces. Their 1974 piece Latinoamérica intentionally strayed from the style of Mexican master muralists and paid homage to Peruvian, Venezuelan, Bolivian, and other Latin American cultures, as well as US-born Latinos, in an effort to affirm the Mission’s pan-Latino identity.17
Often the product of several artists’ work, murals are collaborative and collective art pieces that can function as an empowering mode of social bonding and an assertion of a community’s presence in a certain space. In requiring people to gather and decide what kind of art they want to live with, murals work to—as Cary Cordova argues—“solidify local and transnational communities.”18 Indeed, murals are landmarks of belonging and texts to be read for their expressed social values, political stances, or emotional responses to certain events. During the 1980s, some Mission murals commented on the farmworker movement in California. Juana Alicia’s Las Lechugueras/The Women Lettuce Workers depicted a group of women harvesters, including a pregnant worker, being sprayed with pesticides. Meanwhile in Balmy Alley, artists painted twenty-seven murals that addressed the United States’ intervention in the Nicaraguan, Guatemalan, and Salvadoran civil wars and communicated the trauma and violence experienced by these Central Americans.19 The pieces Culture Contains the Seed of Resistance and A Past That Still Lives feature ominous military police, critique economic disparities between the United States and Latin America, and express a hope for sanctuary.
As much as the 1980s witnessed intra-Latino mixing in the Mission, they also witnessed intra-Latino tensions. Central American and Mexican day laborers jostled each other figuratively and literally as they competed for work. Branches of the Sureño, Norteño, and MS-13 gangs staked out territory and engaged in open violence. The Mission’s reputation as an increasingly dangerous neighborhood resulted in heightened police surveillance. This, however, did not diminish the area’s real estate value. After the 1989 earthquake, white and Asian residents unable to buy property elsewhere in the city flocked to the Mission, where they beat out Latinos (who made a median annual income of $11,400 compared to $26,222 for whites) for housing. By 1990, Latinos accounted for 51.9 percent of the Mission’s population, while whites comprised 30 percent and Asians 13.1 percent.20 The later 1990s ushered in the dot-com boom, and as housing prices continued to soar, entrepreneurs erected high-end restaurants and boutiques next door to taquerias and thrift shops. Taking advantage of the fact that the Mission had the highest concentration of renters in the city (70 percent), landlords raised rents, evicted tenants through owner move-in evictions (OMIs) or the Ellis Act, chopped up buildings into multiple units, and converted warehouses into live/work lofts coveted by tech startups.21 In a land grab reminiscent of the post–US-Mexican War era, many Latinos were displaced and those who remained struggled to meet the median rent of $1,600 a month for a two-bedroom apartment (a price that only about 38 percent of all San Francisco households at the time could afford). “People who have been the heart and soul of this city for decades—artists, writers, musicians, senior citizens living on pensions, blue-collar workers, students, people on welfare and disability, and service-sector employees—are increasingly in danger of becoming an endangered species,” journalist Daniel Zoll wrote.22
Details from the mural “Mission Makeover” (2012) by Lucia Ippolito and Tirso Araiza.
This endangerment was reflected in a particular episode involving a beloved Mission mural. On 25 July 1998, the colorful four-story piece Lilli Ann by Jesus “Chuy” Campusano (commissioned by the city in 1986 for $40,000) was whitewashed after the building was sold to the Robert J. Cort Family Trust. A major real estate investor, the Trust wanted to provide ad space for its new tenants’ multimedia game company. According to the federal Visual Artists’ Rights Act (VARA), the mural’s copyright holders (Campusano’s children and fellow muralist Elias Rocha) were entitled to ninety days’ notice before any alteration. They ultimately sued the Trust for $500,000 and won their case, but the mural had already been lost with no planned replacement. This destruction of a Latino-produced mural came to symbolize the whitewashing of a larger Latino presence and culture in the Mission, or what scholar Nancy Raquel Mirabal has termed “culture deletion.”23 With one stroke of a delete key in the digital gold rush, the many strokes of a Latino artist’s paintbrush were rendered invisible.
Detail from Josue’ Rojas’s 2014 mural “Dedicated to the Migrants of the Mission,” which depicts a young Honduran boy crossing into the U.S. where he is met by a welcoming embrace to San Francisco.
By 2000, the Mission was making headlines for the tensions erupting between the new Silicon Valley digerati and older residents who were organizing themselves into anti-gentrification and anti-displacement coalitions. Accusing newcomers of taking advantage of the Mission’s low-income renters of color (in 2000, the neighborhood was 62 percent Latino and 83 percent renter, with a per capita income of $20,112 versus $32,441 citywide), activists added that many Mission residents were undocumented or could not speak English, making them more vulnerable to intimidation and being pushed out of their homes.24
Furthermore, on a national scale, Latinos had been deemed “the furthest behind in the race to become connected to the Internet,” and therefore lacked desirable cultural capital in the digital era.25 By the year 2000, more than one thousand Latino families had been displaced from the Mission; and between 2000 and 2005, the Latino population of San Francisco decreased from 109,504 to 98,891, making it the only major city in the United States to experience a loss in its Latino population.26
The national media continued to discuss, but not always with informed nuance, the Mission as a space of Latinidad. In a 2008 travel article on San Francisco, The New York Times praised the “wonderful mishmash” of the neighborhood. “Where else can you find epicurean vegan cafes, feisty nonprofits, and a Central American butcher shop?” the author asked, disregarding the community tensions keeping these nonprofits “feisty.”27 Along the same vein, a 2016 USA Today contributor living in the Mission sentimentalized her “discovery” of her local Mexican restaurant:
I had burritos delivered from Pancho Villa twice before I ever stepped in the well-known staple in my Mexican-influenced neighborhood.…I felt the energy of the staff wrapping perfectly cylindrical burritos at light speed and heard each order called out in Spanish and English. The burrito tasted better when I could appreciate the soul that went into making it.28
Essentializing Latinos as soulful workers who rapidly met her needs with a comforting bilingualism, the author extolled her choice to personally interact with this Latino business rather than rely on a food delivery app. This ability of newcomers to choose whether to interact with residents closely or distantly through technology is what many Mission Latinos decry as an uncomfortable and even hostile social environment.
In response, La Galería de la Raza and Precita Eyes Mural Center artists have produced powerful anti-gentrification pieces. The 2012 mural Mission Makeover hits upon the gentrification-related consequences of racially-targeted policing and price gouging. As young Latino and African American boys are detained and arrested by police, eviction notices and For Sale signs hang in windows while coffee shops fill to the brim with laptops and expensive lattes. Looming riot police don helmets with Facebook and Google logos; a Mexicana Airlines airplane flies overhead (presumably taking San Francisco–weary people back to Mexico); a blonde woman holds a Dia de los Muertos mask in a sign of cultural appropriation; and a faceless figure in the center symbolizing the Latino working-class majority proclaims, “Aquí estamos y no nos vamos! (Here we stay and will not leave!).” The directional landmarks in the mural—street signs reading Uan Wey and Otro Wey (wey meaning “dude” or “dummy” in Spanish)—communicate a frustration and hopelessness with what the neighborhood has become.
This explicitly anti-gentrification mural, and others like it in the Mission, works to counterbalance the disappearance of the older, historically significant Latino murals that came before it.29 Community action around mural preservation has increasingly become the way for Latinos in the Mission to keep their voices heard. In 2013, when the owner of a new wine bar decided to paint over the building’s large murals that depicted scenes from Latin American history, he incited vociferous protest. In the summer of 2015, hundreds of people rallied outside La Galería in support of Por Vida, a digital mural depicting two Latino same-sex couples and a transgender man that had been repeatedly defaced. Defending murals has become shorthand for defending Latinos’ presence, diversity, and deep history in the Mission. Murals have marked Latinos’ past and present in San Francisco, and therefore efforts to protect them stand as acts of community cohesion and persistence in the face of what feels like cultural warfare or erasure. With such a heterogeneous population of Latinos living in the Mission, no one civic, social, or political organization can represent them all. Yet, arguably, murals have helped to create a more tangible sense of Latinidad through their creation and subject matter.
By that token, if murals have played a key historical role in the making of Latinidad, do they hold the potential to mobilize and preserve San Francisco’s Latino community? By virtue of being visually provocative or beautiful, murals may be easier magnets for community support and thereby effective political tools. Nicaraguan immigrant and longtime San Francisco resident Erick Arguello has recently convinced the city to create the Calle 24 Latino Cultural District because of the number of murals in the area. If city authorities proceed to grant Twenty-Fourth Street special-use district status, local residents would have more say in decisions concerning further residential and commercial development.30 By tying the murals’ survival in the city to their own, Latinos could use historical preservation arguments to maintain the landscape they created as well as their place within it. While numerous cultural districts and street art conservation programs exist in the United States from Los Angeles to Harlem, to date Calle 24 seems to be unique in its fight to preserve not only particular works of art, but the right of a particular ethnic community to keep living among them.
• • •
Because the Mission District was not always a Latino neighborhood, some might argue, it should make sense that it will not always be one. People move in, people move out, and environments change. In 2015, studio apartments in the Mission were renting for $2,700 a month, and the neighborhood was more popular than any other area of San Francisco on Airbnb.31 As San Francisco city budget authorities predict that the Mission will lose 8,000 Latino residents by 2025, Latino organizations like the Mission Economic Development Agency are holding free computer and coding camps in the hopes of giving Latino youth a better foothold in the tech world.32 Local architect Evan Rose has argued that the Mission’s transformation simply reflects “the nature of a city. Cities grow and respond to growth pressures.”33 Mission artist and evictee Tony Breaux opines, however, that once tech monoculture takes over, “you are dealing with a dead city, creatively.”34 If city authorities give only certain groups the opportunity to grow and be creative, other groups—in this case artists, working-class people, immigrants, and people of color—will not be included in the future of San Francisco. In fact, they will be rendered as even more foreign and powerless outsiders.
Writ large, Latinos crisscross all of these vulnerable positionalities. If they will no longer be able to reside in the city unless they possess a certain amount of wealth, what will result—and what has already begun to emerge—is a large Latino commuter underclass living on the periphery of San Francisco. Latinos and blacks have already moved to suburbs like Richmond, Vallejo, Sacramento, Antioch, Tracy, and Stockton. Though superficially cheaper, these new homes result in more expensive work commutes and profound disconnection from old places, people, and routines. This shift in San Francisco will no doubt shape the future of California as more people of color move to suburban or agricultural communities that may or may not be accustomed to their presence. In some cases, Latino families with farmworker heritage that worked their way out of the fields in the post–World War II era are returning to places like the San Joaquin and Salinas Valleys out of economic necessity, a move which likely provokes anxieties about re-experiencing racial and social marginalization and downward mobility.
San Francisco has rebuilt itself several times after natural and economic disasters— this time, is it doing so without imagining Latino residents in the picture? Or, as some believe, are intentional disasters being created to erase this population? After BART’s establishment in the Mission in the 1960s, 133 fires erupted within a three-block radius of the Sixteenth Street station, eliminating low-income properties and paving the way for redevelopment. In an eerie echo of the past, mysterious Mission fires over the past few years have displaced hundreds of people.35 Latinos’ historic contribution to San Francisco’s social diversity and cultural production is profound, yet the threat of their (as artist Rene Yañez terms it) “cultural eviction” looms large.36 Murals have given Mission residents access to beauty, creative work, and cultural pride amidst the local and international political turbulence of the past fifty years. This current moment of turbulence is about who can claim access and belonging to this influential California city. By painting and pointing to murals, Latinos are engaging in a type of community cartography, fighting to map themselves onto the past, present, and future of a changing San Francisco.
Detail from Josue’ Rojas’s 2014 mural “Dedicated to the Migrants of the Mission,” which depicts a young Honduran boy crossing into the U.S. on La Bestia, the infamously dangerous train used by undocumented immigrants where he is met by a protective angel on the journey.
The author gratefully acknowledges Francisco Aquino, Lucia Ippolito, Tirso Araiza, and Josué Rojas—the artists whose work is featured in this essay—along with Tatiana Reinoza…along with Tatiana Reinoza, Susannah Aquilina, and an anonymous reader for their feedback and suggestions.
1 Ruth Glass, London: Aspects of Change (London: MacKibbon and Kee, 1964), xiii–xlii.
2 George Sterling, “Cool Grey City of Love,” The San Francisco Bulletin 133/31 (11 December 1920), 1; Rebecca Solnit, various Facebook posts—for example, 7 May 2016.
4 For more on Latinidad in San Francisco, see Tomas Summers Sandoval, Latinos at the Golden Gate: Creating Community & Identity in San Francisco (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013).
6 Brian Godfrey, “Ethnic Identities and Ethnic Enclaves: The Morphogenesis of San Francisco’s Hispanic ‘Barrio,’” Yearbook: Conference of Latin Americanist Geographers 11 (1985): 48.
7 Abraham P. Nasatir, “Chileans in California during the Gold Rush Period and the Establishment of the Chilean Consulate,” California Historical Quarterly 53/1 (Spring 1974): 62.
8 Godfrey, “Ethnic Identities,” 46; Cecilia Menjivar, “Immigrant Kinship Networks and the Impact of the Receiving Context: Salvadorans in San Francisco in the Early 1990s,” Social Problems 44/19 (February 1997): 111.
9 Eduardo Contreras, “The Politics of Community Development: Latinos, Their Neighbors, and the State in San Francisco, 1960s and 1970s,” unpublished Ph.D. diss. (University of Chicago, 2008), 6.
10 Menjivar, “Immigrant Kinship Networks,” 111; Godfrey, “Ethnic Identities,” 46, 50; Contreras, “The Politics of Community Development,” 6.
11 Godfrey, “Ethnic Identities,” 50.
12 Contreras, “The Politics of Community Development,” 32.
13 Godfrey, “Ethnic Identities,” 49.
14 Contreras, “The Politics of Community Development,” 6; Godfrey, “Ethnic Identities,” 46. This is likely a conservative and low number because there were many undocumented Latinos working in San Francisco’s underground, informal, and cash economies.
15 Contreras, “The Politics of Community Development,” 7; Godfrey, “Ethnic Identities,” 52.
18 Cary Cordova, “Hombres y Mujeres Muralistas On a Mission: Painting Latino Identities in 1970s San Francisco,” Latino Studies 4/4 (2006): 356.
19 Timothy W. Drescher, “Street Subversion: The Political Geography of Murals and Graffiti,” Reclaiming San Francisco: History, Politics, Culture (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1998), 235.
20 Menjivar, “Immigrant Kinship Networks,” 110–111. Again, because the Census has historically undercounted Latinos due to the population’s undocumented immigrant element, 51.9 percent is a conservative number. African Americans (4.5%), Native Americans (0.3%), and Other (0.3%) comprised the remainder of the neighborhood’s population in 1990. Simon Velasquez Alejandrino, “Gentrification in San Francisco’s Mission District: Indicators and Policy Recommendations,” Mission Economic Development Association Report (Summer 2000), 18.
21 Nancy Raquel Mirabal, “Geographies of Displacement: Latina/os, Oral History, and the Politics of Gentrification in San Francisco’s Mission District,” The Public Historian 31/2 (Spring 2009): 13–15.
22 Daniel Zoll, “The Economic Cleansing of San Francisco: Is San Francisco Becoming the First Fully Gentrified City in America?” San Francisco Bay Guardian, 7 October 1998, 17.
25 John Jota Leaños, “The (Postcolonial) Rules of Engagement: Advertising Zones, Cultural Activism, and Xicana/o Digital Muralism,” Street Art San Francisco: Mission Muralismo, Annice Jacoby, ed. (New York: Harry Abrams, 2009), 205.
Details from the mural “Mission Makeover” (2012) by Lucia Ippolito and Tirso Araiza.
Lori A. Flores is an assistant professor of history at Stony Brook University specializing in the histories of US Latinos, immigration, labor, and the US-Mexico borderlands. She is the author of Grounds for Dreaming: Mexican Americans, Mexican Immigrants, and the California Farmworker Movement (Yale), which was named Best History Book by the International Latino Book Awards. Her scholarship engages the public through advocacy for underrepresented groups in higher education and immigrants and farmworkers in the United States.
In 2014, Aljazeera America ran a story titled “Fresno Rated Highly Livable for Young People.”1 The piece cited information gathered by the online news source Vocativ, which used everything from the cost of manicures to real estate prices as metrics for determining “all things that matter to younger people — especially in rough times.”2 Fresno took the number 24 slot on a list of 100 best places for those under thirty-five.
Many say that California’s fifth largest city has always suffered from an identity crisis. Others say that this is not necessarily a bad thing. Equidistant from Los Angeles and the Bay Area, Fresno attracts citizens from its larger cousins who find themselves fed up with hour-long commutes and skyrocketing home prices. Here is one of the few places in California where you can find San Francisco Giants lawn banners jabbed into yellowing patches of grass while, across the street, a dusty Ford F-150 sports a decal proudly proclaiming that its driver “bleeds Dodger Blue.” Here you find a regional dialect that often fuses idioms and verbal ticks from both the Bay Area and metropolitan Los Angeles; sentences are sprinkled with liberal amounts of the adjective hella (from the North) while use of the definite article the when referencing local freeways (an LA staple) has become increasingly common.
Fresno, like its vernacular, like the fertile soil of the Great Basin—carved when an ancient ocean plate called the Farallon surrendered to the more aggressive North American Plate as Pangea broke apart during the Jurassic period—is constantly chafing against external forces determined to define it, to alter it.
Despite its strategic location, its deep agricultural roots, and its close ties with the farmworker movement of the sixties and seventies, in many ways Fresno remains stubbornly un-Californian, reveling in its misfit status. It is home to one of the largest Hmong populations in the United States. It is where in the sixties a man named Boogaloo Sam created “popping,” described as “a dance that combines rigid robotic moves with loose flowing moves.”3 Cher attended Fresno High School briefly before quitting at sixteen to pursue her dreams. The name Fresno means “ash tree” in Spanish, and it’s where Chrissy Snow on Three’s Company was born and raised, and to where she was ultimately banished when Suzanne Sommers, the actress who played her, was enmeshed in contract disputes with the show’s producers.
The topography of Los Angeles and the Antelope Valley, courtesy of NASA/JPL/NIMA.
Before relocating there, I thought of cities like Fresno as places people moved from, not places people moved to. “Fresno is not small. The city has more than half a million residents and is larger than the state capital, Sacramento. But because it’s in the heart of farm country, it lacks big-city glamour. What it does offer is a more compact power structure that allows even the young to make a difference.”4
I remember a relief map of California I made in the fourth grade. I pressed my thumb into the mixture of paste and flour to form the Central Valley. Then, using brown food coloring and water, I painted in wide fields of alfalfa and rows of lettuce and cabbage. I imagined people, cars, small towns, a schoolyard with swings and a metal slide, its patina worn and dull not from neglect but from years of friction, the kind of use that tells you that things as innocuous as playground equipment could be loved.
In the documentary, The City Addicted to Crystal Meth, widely viewed by Brits, reporter Louis Theroux examines the damaging affects the drug has had on Fresno. At the time of its airing on the BBC in August of 2009, the city had the highest number methamphetamine users in the nation.5 “It is quite charming—and this was an extraordinary film, a sad portrait of a very different California from the one you see in Entourage,” 6 wrote Sam Wollastan for The Guardian about Theroux’s documentary.
I had always dreamed of owning my own home. When I was a kid there was no such thing as privacy. When you have ten older siblings, there isn’t much opportunity to cultivate this luxury. I used to dream of space, of empty rooms and a quiet kitchen, a big yard with a giant tree, its branches rocking in a soft breeze carrying the scent of blooming jasmine and freshly shorn grass. I’d lie in a hammock and read and sleep to the sound of birds chirping and the low, lonely bark of a neighbor’s dog.
In 2005, I was fresh out of graduate school and living with my husband, Kyle, in a cramped apartment in Riverside. I was a part-time instructor teaching composition and creative writing classes. I kept an eye on my aging mother who lived nearby in a large house all by herself. I would shuttle her from her doctor appointments to her dentist appointments, grading papers in the lobbies while I waited. At night, I would work on my first novel, sitting at a desk in a dark corner of the bedroom in our small, shabby place. I remember thinking, If only I could get away from the stress of my family, be far enough away from the drama but close enough to drive if there were an emergency. If only we could afford a house.
In 2007, after my first novel was published, I decided to go on the job market. When I came across the announcement for the teaching position at Fresno State, there was only one thing I knew about Fresno: raisins.
On 22 January 2016, The Fresno Bee reported that the county’s unemployment rate for the previous year was the lowest it had been in nearly a decade. “In Fresno County and its neighboring Valley counties, annual unemployment has fallen in each of the past six years, dropping to levels not seen since the early part of the 2007–2009 recession.”7
According to United States Census Bureau, in 2015 52.4 percent of the population of Fresno County was Hispanic or Latino.8
Despite its large Latino population, despite its long history of cultivating artists of color, I was the first Chicano writer ever hired to teach in the MFA program in creative writing at Fresno State.
Call it regional snobbery, but many of my LA friends could not comprehend why I decided to move to Fresno.
“Really?” they asked.
“I’d commute from here,” another friend suggested. “You don’t actually want to live there, do you? Stay in LA and drive up just to teach your classes, man.”
The car was crammed full of boxes, and our dog sat on Kyle’s lap. As we cleared the Tejon Pass, I saw before us a wide valley floor, stretched flat. I remembered the relief map I’d constructed back in elementary school. I imagined a giant thumb parting the sky, the rivulets and swirls of my fingerprint denting the land to form rivers and thin roads that looped around and around one another.
Fresno is located in the fertile San Joaquin Valley in the central part of California, about halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. The terrain in Fresno is relatively flat, with a sharp rise to the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains about 15 miles eastward. The weather is usually sunny, with over 200 clear days each year. Summers are typically hot and dry, while winters are mild and rainy. Spring and fall are the most pleasant seasons.
Area: 99.1 square miles (2000)
Elevation: 328 feet above sea level
Average Temperatures: January, 39.6° F; August, 94.1° F; annual average, 62.5° F
Average Annual Precipitation: 9.86 inches9
The heat was like a blast furnace that first June. Two weeks of triple digit temperatures. Thankfully, the house we were renting had a swimming pool. In between unpacking boxes of books, we swam for hours. I used to love watching the cypress trees lining the perimeter of the backyard bending and swaying in that hot, dry breeze.
Located on Shaw Avenue, just east of Highway 99, the Forestiere Underground Gardens is a series of subterranean tunnels, grottos, and patios that were designed and built by a Sicilian immigrant named Baldasare Forestiere. It took him over forty years to complete, and he used only hand tools throughout its construction. “Forestiere worked without blueprints or plans, following only his creative instincts and aesthetic impulses. He continued expanding and modifying the gardens throughout his life. Baldasare Forestiere died in 1946 at the age of sixty-seven. After his death, the Underground Gardens were opened to the public as a museum.”10 He built it as a way to cool off during the brutal Central Valley summers. The Forestiere Underground Gardens is on the National Register of Historic Places and draws hundreds of visitors year after year.
Coming from Los Angeles, there were some perks to relocating to Fresno:
Hardly any traffic
Lower cost of living
A slower pace of life
I didn’t have time to miss Los Angeles that first semester. I was too busy getting a handle on my new job. Between teaching classes and committee meetings, there was hardly a moment to take in my surroundings. During that time, my mother grew increasingly ill. My sisters and I decided not to tell her that I had relocated. Me being the baby of the family, her favorite child, we thought it would devastate her to know I had packed up and headed north. Immediately after she passed away, I had dreams of her holding the relief map I had made as a kid. In the dream, she squeezed it hard. Dried tan and green-colored chunks broke apart and fell to the ground. She’s scolded me, her face red, her forehead beaded with sweat. “Why did you leave?” she asked. “You weren’t supposed to leave. What were you thinking?”
I should have told her. My mother never knew I left. She died thinking I was still near her.
In a story dated 9 March 2015, Men’s Health ranked Fresno number 1 on its list of drunkest cities in America. “Our statistical sobriety checkpoint shows that the inebriated people there have one of the highest death rates from alcoholic liver disease (per data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention),” they wrote.11
Mt. Pinos and the Carizo Plain in the distance, courtesy of NASA/JPL/NIMA/USGS.
Men’s Health included the following details on measures used to determine Fresno’s “dangerous drinking” ranking:
Deaths from Liver Disease: 2nd
Deaths in DUI Crashes: 16th
Binge Drinking: 33rd
DUI Arrests: 4th
Harsh DUI Laws: 80th
We’ve also been voted among the “dumbest cities” in the United States. On 26 July 2016, the Fresno Bee ran a story citing a national poll that ranked cities in the San Joaquin Valley on their list of least educated areas. WalletHub, which initiated the poll, “compared the top 150 metropolitan statistical areas based on the percentage of adults with a college education and other factors such as the quality of the area’s public schools and universities. Overall, Fresno ranked 145th, just ahead of Modesto at 146th, Bakersfield at 147th and Visalia/Porterville at 148th.
I am not out to dis a place like Fresno. That’s never been my style. Nor am I here to praise it, to paint an inauthentic picture of the city as an idyllic community untouched by problems plaguing it and similar inland cities of California. It’s true that we have a high number of drug abusers, that we drink a lot, and that lack of access and money has prevented some of our citizens from reaping the benefits of higher education. But I can also tell you about the friends I’ve made here, scholars from some of the most prestigious schools in the country. I can tell you how famed novelist Julia Alvarez once taught at the same university I did. I can tell you about the history and legacy of writers like William Saroyan and Gary Soto, and Mark Arax today. I can tell you about Diana Marcum, The Los Angeles Times reporter who covered the Central Valley and who, in 2015, won a Pulitzer Prize for her unflinching coverage of the devastating effects of the drought on farmers, field hands, communities, and families. I can tell you how I’ve picked apricots in the summer, washed them in my kitchen sink, and eaten to my heart’s content. I can tell you that I lived here for nearly ten years, and I was never robbed. I can tell you that I bought my first house and that it was built in 1941, and there’s a tall oak tree full of squirrels and woodpeckers and blue jays that live and raise families in the green canopy above my roof. I can tell you about the dogs I’ve rescued and the one that I lost here and cried over for days. I can tell you that this place, like any other place, is full of contrast and contradiction.
My husband and two dogs have remained there for the year while I ease my way back into a life in Los Angeles. Because I’m returning to the Eastside and the greater San Gabriel Valley, locations holding so many memories—both good and bad—my emotions have run the gamut, vacillating between moments of extreme fear and trepidation to hope and nostalgia. It’s all wrapped up together, coming at me in waves, simultaneously hot and cold, up and down, dark and light. I laugh when I drive by the 7–11 where a high school friend of mine and I scored our first six-pack of beer when we were fifteen, then I cry when I turn left down another street and find myself at the exact spot on Valley Boulevard where my father took his last breath on a cold January evening in 1989.
The past few years, as I’ve commuted back and forth between Los Angeles and Fresno for work between two state universities and as I’ve served on the board of California Humanities, our statewide humanities council, I’ve learned about geographical variances, that we’re not all the same, that we all have stories to tell, and that my notion of California stretches far beyond the factories and freeways of the San Gabriel Valley, far beyond the stucco houses and empty lots of the Inland Empire, where I spent my twenties and thirties, and even beyond the strawberry fields, the orange groves, and the almond orchards and vineyards of the Central Valley.
It’s appropriate for Californians, I think, this constant moving, just like the earth that occasionally rumbles and shifts and flows right beneath our collective feet.
Alex Espinoza is a novelist known for works such as Still Water Saints. A professor at California State University, Los Angeles, as well as the director of their MFA Program in Creative Writing and Literary Arts, he was born in Mexico and raised in Los Angeles.
Cyclist cutouts heightening awareness in Boyle Heights. Mockup by Jeannette Mundy.
“Much of urban history research has sought to pair or categorize cities on the basis of complementarity of existing source material. But these categorizations should be disrupted by a creative use of sources, and increasing inclination to fuse different sources and the adoption of original methods emerging from different interdisciplinary scholarship.” 1
Since time indeterminate, narratives have constructed distant cities for readers—from ancient Pausaneas’s portrayals of second-century Athens, to Baudelaire’s and Benjamin’s accounts of a changing nineteenth-century Paris, to Steinbeck’s depictions of industrial landscapes in early twentieth-century Monterey, to Kerouac’s background of gritty alleys, bars, and flop houses in mid-century San Francisco. Such intriguing urban environments have dominated the imagination of historians, geographers, novelists, and poets. The accounts, often written by outsiders traveling through or living for some time in a city, take the form of urban biography—single-site case studies that examined the relationship between space and society at a distinct point in time.
Urban biographies described cities, their everyday situations, and their architecture according to their uniqueness and distinct features. They include humanist and historically specific works like Walter Benjamin’s Moscow Diary from 1927, which begins with a two-page reflection about how he really got to know his hometown Berlin only after visiting the Russian city.2 Benjamin’s characterizations of Moscow, as well as Naples, acknowledge his own Northern European frame of reference and demonstrate that the understanding of one city never stands in isolation.
If sole-city narrative implicitly depends on comparative urban “other,” how should we think about similarity and difference? What constitutes a fruitful pairing? Fundamentally, urban comparisons rest on a construction of two independent objects viewed in relation to one another, even though cities are difficult to objectify and their similarities as well as differences are boundless. These are issues that scholars, including ourselves, have struggled with in order to better understand the settings of metropolitan life.
Early twentieth-century versions of comparative urbanism generally spanned vastly different cities by relying on the cotemporaneous theories of modernity and development.3 Urban anthropology, history, geography, ecology, and sociology were born from their parent disciplines to conceptualize and even promulgate a more modern, progressive, cosmopolitanism. With the rise of urban studies in the twentieth century, theories about cities—rather than the cities themselves—framed relationships among them so that the American sociologist Robert Park could discuss London, San Francisco, Osaka, and Bombay in a single sentence.4 In this instance, Park’s notion of a “world-city” served as an abstract structure or theory to scrutinize any individual metropolis.
However, in an era of globalization, transnational flows, and cross-border relationships and influences, this single-site focus became increasingly unsatisfying. Scholars who considered it “parochial” and “ethnocentric”5 questioned its utility and argued that “the day of the individually posed idiosyncratic study of a town that has no particular analytical purpose…is now on the wane.”6 In the wake of this, over the last four decades, comparative urbanism has flourished, triggered by a desire to identify, compare, contrast, or juxtapose parallel phenomena that happen in multiple socio-spatial contexts and likely influence one another. Starting in the 1970s, a number of scholars began touting the need for comparative urban research that opens the eyes to broader urban phenomena that can be compared across municipal boundaries and national borders.7 Underlying comparative approaches is the notion that urban imaginaries—this is, cities as they are imagined, contemplated, and written about—are “‘sites of encounters with other cities’ mediated through travel, migration and the circulation of images, goods, and ideas.”8
Children reclaiming the street for play in Mexico City. Photograph by Ryan Hernandez.
Comparative studies require identification of similarities and differences of at least two entities and use the city or the nation-state as their unit of analysis. But they are also criticized as overly constrained by fixed entities and arbitrary divisions such as municipal or national boundaries. In reality, urban networks and influences are dynamic, diverse, and transcend such boundaries.9 The emphasis on comparison may also bring along the danger of homogenizing differences and disregarding local particularities in favor of extracting universal lessons to urban issues and problems.10
The flaws of comparative studies have been further exposed by postcolonial theorists critical of studies of nonwestern cities and their residents by scholars from the west, which they argue led to culturally inaccurate, even exoticized, representations and understandings of those regions.11 They criticize the kind of patronizing view, for example, that may see Shanghai as the image of Los Angeles’s future, which in turn points the way for the even more “undeveloped” Mexico City. Geographer Jennifer Robinson argues that urban models of both difference and similarity are inadequate: “The persistent incommensurability of different kinds of cities within the field of urban theory is out of step with the experiences of globalization, and the ambitions of postcolonialism suggest that simply universalizing western accounts of cities is inappropriate.”12 Contemporary urbanists cannot and should not imagine that global cities are converging to become more alike, nor exoticize their differences. This conundrum has not slowed the production of comparative urban research.
In more recent years, a transnational perspective has gained favor in urban studies. This arose in response to criticism that comparative urbanism suffers from a static perception of the urban.13 In contrast, transnational approaches focus on interdependencies, movements, and flows across borders in regions and subregions.14 The goal of such approaches is to understand urban settings and experiences, as composed by multiple regional, ethnic or institutional identities and forces.15 In other words, transnational urban studies wish to take down arbitrary divisions between entities so that both their interconnections as well as collisions become more apparent.
For transnational studies to build on the work of previous generations of scholars, urban data and ethnographic evidence that was collected and limited by administrative borders must be reexamined so that “transnational forms and processes are revealed.”16 This requires employing multiple methodological lenses and traditional and nontraditional units of analysis to study the metropolis that may derive from different disciplinary fields. This is where Urban Humanities enters, with its blended trajectories and influences from urban planning, architecture, and the humanities.
If theories of globalization rest on constructs of the state, networks, economic flows, and data, transnationalism emphasizes human connections and their socio-spatial impacts, including migration, immigration, border crossings, political refugees, practices of economic exchange, as well as multicultural artistic influences and hybrid urban landscapes. Rather than flows and networks, urban humanities considers interweavings, intimacies, conflicts, collectivities, and engagement among different people and their socio-spatial contexts. If comparative urban studies lead, in the simplest sense, to ideas of same and different, a transnational urban humanities helps to better understand past and presently linked practices between urban settings and culture.
There are three interrelated ways that urban humanities go beyond conventional comparative urban studies and contribute to our understanding of the urban. The first concerns fused practices of scholarship by which we explore the human dimension of transnationalism. This fusing of different data sources and methodologies from fields of study such as film, mapping, spatial and social ethnography, and public arts interventions helps enrich the description and understanding of the urban (see for example the ideas of Banfill, Presner, and Zubiaurre in this issue of Boom). The second contribution can be described as the projective imperative of urban humanities—that is, the obligation of urban scholarship to open up possibilities and envision alternative and better futures. This is distinct from the modern project’s interest in globalization and innovation, and from the development model’s particular focus on improvement through policy for those deemed deserving. For urban humanities, the emphasis on possibility rests on comprehending a complex past in relation to an intricate present, in order to construct a potential future that is neither obvious nor shared without immersive debate. The latter is part of engaged scholarship, the third quality of an urban humanist approach. Urban humanities scholars working in cities uphold their own agency along with that of others, as intrinsically political, ethical, and positional. To some extent, the projective and engaged character of urban humanities expands upon those very qualities of architectural design practices. A focus on thick methods, open possibility, and engaged scholarship builds upon Benjamin’s thinking about cities by resisting conventional objects of comparison like nation or state. Instead, critically framed questions and more nuanced understandings of the connectivity and influences among urban places are favored.
Photographs of participants at a Boyle Heights bicycle advocacy event. Photograph by Lucy Seena K Lin.
To flesh out this perspective, consider two studies, one in Mexico City and the other in Los Angeles. Both cities erode notions of “here” and “there” that underlie conventional comparative urban studies, because like other polyvalent locales they comprise multiplicities on nearly every dimension of analysis. Their intimate interconnections extend through centuries, connections made literal through conquests, immigration, environmental issues, and economies, to name a few. That connective tissue sets the context for two activist studies of spatial justice in specific urban streets: research in Mexico City about reclaiming neighborhood streets for children’s play, and in Los Angeles, about heightening awareness of bike commuters of necessity, for workers whose primary means of transportation is biking.
From the Mexican governmental organization Laboratorio para la Ciudad, the construct of “legible policy” was adopted to create new urban imaginaries in which streets dominated by automobile traffic could be opened to new uses by neighborhood children and other residents and bike commuters. Families living in a Mexico City neighborhood called “Doctores” joined in a series of street closures in which playing children took the place of the regular automobile traffic, exposing connections between shop and garage owners, multigenerational residents, and street vendors. The temporary closures were consistently marked in the city with signage, banners, and chalk drawings covering the pavement to make legible to neighbors the policy that streets were safe for play.
In the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, Mexican American artists and cyclists allied to make visible their advocacy of safer streets. In collaboration with the local organizations Self Help Graphics and Multicultural Communities for Mobility, UCLA’s urban humanists proposed life-size portraits of individual bicycle commuters be installed along commonly used roads. The portraits could be collaged together with maps, personal narratives, and traffic data to make legible the need for policy to create safe bike paths and increase awareness about a marginalized group of Angelenos.
Urban humanities scholars partnered in both undertakings, deploying traditional research strategies such as data gathering and analysis, alongside critical cartography, spatial ethnography, and creative urban interventions such as street closures to create play space. Lessons flowed in both directions, from Mexico City to Los Angeles and back again, as graduating students returned to project sites to continue their work during the summer. Each project offered activists and residents a glimpse of a new possible future in their neighborhood. The Doctores experience temporarily demonstrated that the unexpected was possible: children could take control of the street. In Boyle Heights, an inventive study made a vulnerable population visible for political urban action and in so doing startled a possible future into view.
Urban humanities attempts to sidestep pitfalls that urban studies has long been prone to: essentialism, homogenization, and the erasure of differences between cities. It also does not seek to become an exercise in futurism. For this reason, it employs engaged scholarship and community input and action to mold its proposals. It deploys a range of thick methods to understand and create possibilities for everyday metropolitan life. Rather than holding cities up as objects for comparison, our efforts link cities through practices that rely on extended engagement. That is, urban humanities seeks deep understanding through the shared actions of scholars and citizens moving within and between cities. Rather than urban solutions per se, the projects are offered as public propositions that will evolve through iterations that may lead to more permanent change. If the urban humanities evolve into a bona fide field of study, they may disrupt not only urban studies but current academic structures as they produce not only transformative urban ideas but also new forms of scholarship that could enrich the study of cities.
N. Kenny and R. Madgin, “‘Every Time I Describe a City’: Urban History as Comparative and Transnational Practice,” Cities Beyond Boarders: Comparative and Transnational Approaches to Urban History, N. Kenny and R. Madgin, eds. (London: Routledge, 2015), 14.
Walter Benjamin, One-Way Street and Other Writings, Edmund Jephcott and Kingsley Shorter, trans. (London: NLB, 1979), 177–78.
Jennifer Robinson, “In the Tracks of Comparative Urbanism: Difference, Urban Modernity and the Primitive,” Urban Geography 25.8 (2004): 709–23.
Robert E. Park, Human Communities: The City and Human Ecology (New York: The Free Press, 1952), 133.
J. Walton, and L.H. Masotti, eds. The City in Comparative Perspective: Cross-National Research and New Directions in Theory (New York: Sage, 1976).
H.J. Dyos, “Editorial,” The Urban History Yearbook (Leicester: Leicester Unversity Press, 1974), 3.
R. Madgin, Heritage, Culture, and Conservation: Managing the Urban Renaissance (Saarbrucken: VDM Verlag, 2009).
E. Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1979).
Robinson, “In the Tracks of Comparative Urbanism,” 709–723.
D. Cohen and M. O’Connor, “Introduction: Comparative History, Cross-National History, Transnational History—Definitions,” Comparison and History: Europe in Cross-National Perspective (New York: Routledge, 2004), ix–xxiii.
C.A. Bayly, S. Beckert, M. Connelly, et al. “AHR Conversation: on Transnational History,” American Historical Review 111.5 (2016): 1440–64.
S. Khagram and P. Levitt, “Constructing Transnational Studies,” The Transnational Studies Reader: Intersections and Innovations (New York: Routledge, 2008).
Dana Cuff is a professor, author, and scholar in architecture and urbanism at University of California, Los Angeles, where she is also the founding director of cityLAB, a think tank that explores design innovations in the emerging metropolis.
Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris is the associate dean of academic affairs and urban planning professor at University of California, Los Angeles. Her research focuses on the public environment of the city, its physical representation, aesthetics, social meaning, and impact on the urban resident.
As music critics release “best of 2016” lists, who can name the most popular musician in America fifty years ago? The Beatles? The Rolling Stones? Wrong. The Supremes or another Motown act? Nope. Bob Dylan? Johnny Cash? The Beach Boys? No, no, and no.
Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass Brand sold about fourteen million LPs in 1966. Anyone who has rifled through old records at thrift stores and rummage sales has seen his albums. Most famously, Whipped Cream and Other Delights featured a young woman covered in (apparently) nothing but whip cream.
No musician sold more records in 1966 than this pop trumpeter. His first ten albums, all released in the 1960s, reached the Top 20. Even more impressive, in 1966 Alpert had five albums in the Billboard Top 20 simultaneously, a Guinness World Record never since repeated. For one week, four of the Top 10 albums were Alpert’s and three of the top four!
Alpert blended multiple sounds perhaps only possible in his native Los Angeles, a city connecting diverse cultures for a century now, though the cover art didn’t hurt.
The origins of Ameriachi
Alpert combined surf rock, West Coast cool jazz, and Mexican mariachi to create a new pop sound. In the late 1950s, surf emerged as a southern California subgenre of the still-emerging rock ’n’ roll. Think Dick Dale, who graduated high school in El Segundo near Los Angeles, and his scorching, staccato guitar riffs on “Misirlou” (1962).
Cool jazz, especially its West Coast variant, also influenced Alpert. Miles Davis defined the sound on albums like Kind of Blue (1959). A growing Los Angeles-based jazz scene, including Stan Getz and Gerry Mulligan, adapted cool just as Alpert started playing professionally.
However, those Mexican horns, so distinctive and, at that time, so unusual for non-Mexicans to hear, probably were what listeners heard first.
In 1962 Alpert visited Tijuana where he attended a bullfight and heard a mariachi band. Inspired, he took that sound back to the studio. Playing all the parts himself, he quickly released The Lonely Bull under the name Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass. After achieving some success and tour requests, he hired musicians to populate his band.
His style quickly became known as “Ameriachi,” a perfect name for his transnational music. In one 1966 interview, Alpert described it as, “a sort of fusion of the mariachi sound of Mexico with a jazz undercurrent.” His songs included “Mexican Shuffle” and “Spanish Flea,” but “A Taste of Honey” typifies his iconic sound.
Herb Alpert, 1966, via Wikimedia
Perhaps shockingly, neither Alpert nor anyone in the Tijuana Brass Band was Mexican or Mexican American. In fact, he joked in concert that his band consisted of “four lasagnas, two bagels, and an American cheese.” Four Italian Americans, two Jewish Americans, and one Anglo American. Alpert was a bagel.
Los Angeles: cultural borderland
Alpert hails from Los Angeles, home to a rich and diverse set of cultures. In the 1950s, that included a thriving, multiethnic community in Boyle Heights, on LA’s eastside. Alpert’s parents, Eastern European Jewish immigrants, gave birth to Herbert there in 1935. Boyle Heights was known as a multicultural, working class enclave with many Mexican Americans and Japanese Americans cheek to jowl with Jewish folks. The sort of place where Jews in the socialist Workmen’s Circle and garment workers’ union advocated a leftist politics that embraced the diversity of immigrants and working class peoples. Historian George Sanchez goes as far as to argue that Boyle Heights maintained this diverse, radical culture into the 1950s, when Alpert came of age.
Though not literally on the Mexican border, Los Angeles might as well be. Just a few hours drive south sits Tijuana, the definitive border town in the American imagination. Of course, the Mexican-US border is an arbitrary line drawn by politicians far removed from this region. People have crossed and recrossed this border endlessly and still do. Or, as some Mexicans declare, “We didn’t cross the border, it crossed us.”
Los Angeles always has been culturally, demographically, and economically tied to Mexico. The Southern Pacific Railroad—the “Espee” Line—terminated in LA with connections to Sonora down to Jalisco. In his book Becoming Mexican American, Sanchez notes that Spanish-language radio stations broadcast to Mexico from Los Angeles as early as the 1920s. LA remains the unofficial capital of Mexican Americans in El Norte.
Alpert in 1966
Undeniably, Alpert stood at the top of the heap in 1966. Record sales don’t lie. Whipped Cream and Other Delights sold six million platters, the best-selling LP that year. “A Taste of Honey” won the Grammy for “Best Record of the Year.” Also in 1966, Going Places, featuring “Spanish Flea,” and a third album, What Now My Love, all went to #1, the latter for nine weeks. All told, Alpert sold around fourteen million albums in 1966—way more than, yes, the Beatles.
Confirmation of his domination of the pop charts came when Alpert recorded the title track (composed by Burt Bacharach) for the first-ever James Bond film, Casino Royale, in 1967.
For this success, what “right” does Alpert have to “take” Mexican music, shear it of some of its native authenticity, and repackage it for non-Mexican audiences? It’s an important question.
Clearly, Alpert merged Mexican horns into his own sound; but artists incorporate elements of different cultures all the time. Picasso and Gauguin did it. The Talking Heads did it. Dizzy Gillespie and countless other jazz artists did so. Commercial success should not be the measure by which such “mashups” are considered theft or respectful.
As a native Los Angeleno born and raised in culturally diverse Boyle Heights, his neighborhood included countless Mexican Americans and was inextricably twined to Mexico. His visit to Tijuana in 1962 was not his first to that city, but was when it inspired him to incorporate Mariachi horns into his own music.
Alpert’s music even gained some popularity in Mexico. His album Whipped Cream and Other Delights was reported as, “One of the top 10 records in sales in Mexico City.” In 1967, he played a benefit concert in Tijuana before a sold-out crowd of 14,500 people, where he and his band recorded a one-hour program for television’s CBS.
Alpert, of course, was hardly the only American to embrace Mexican and other Latin musical traditions. “Tequila,” a Cuban-mambo slash instrumental rock song by the Champs, a LA session group, reached #1 in 1958 and has been repeatedly covered ever since. The LA-based rock music group, Love, channeled Alpert’s Ameriachi sound to create an iconic hit with “Alone Again Or” (1967), which continues to amaze. Further north, in San Francisco, Mexican-born Carlos Santana had a big hit covering Puerto Rican Tito Puente’s “Oye Come Va.” The long list of country singers, from Marty Robbins to Johnny Cash, who incorporated Mexican horns also springs to mind. Arguably, doing so is an acknowledgement of the impact of and respect for Mexican culture in the United States.
Music hardly is the only site of cultural “mashups,” as the recent LA creation, Korean tacos, confirms. They are a product of a city in which vastly different peoples live near each other and increasingly come together. Who doesn’t love the very idea of the Korean taco? But that mélange does not happen just anywhere. Rather, it emerges in cities like Los Angeles, where peoples and cultures meet and mesh.
Though Alpert’s music was very commercialized—i.e. wildly successful—we need popular musicians pushing boundaries. Whether such efforts are considered “appropriation” or respectful integration remains an ongoing conversation.
After the Sixties
Alpert continued to record, successfully, but perhaps more importantly created and managed a music label, A&M Records, with business partner Jerry Moss. A&M signed, recorded, and distributed an impressive array of musicians including Wes Montgomery, Joe Cocker, Quincy Jones, the Carpenters, Carole King, Cat Stevens, The Police, and many more. He even met his wife, who sang backup for Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66, via A&M, which first brought Mendes to American audiences.
After selling A&M to Polygram in 1989 for half a billion dollars, Alpert became a philanthropist. He has donated tens of millions of dollars, especially to promote music education in his hometown. According to his website: “The UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music focuses on cross-cultural experimentation and musical diversity with an emphasis on music and influences from around the world.” Earlier this year, he donated another ten million to Los Angeles City College that will provide all music majors with tuition-free education, additional private lessons, and additional financial support. In his words, “I love that LACC has helped so many low-income students who have financial challenges but have a strong commitment to education and to self- improvement.” Through such generosity Alpert strives to keep music, the arts, and education alive, accessible, and evolving in his native Los Angeles.
Herb Alpert receiving the Medal of Honor for the Arts, 10 July 2013. Photo by Pete Souza via Wikimedia Commons.
Long-forgotten but shouldn’t be
Today, when considering the greatest American musicians of the 1960s, many spring to mind. The Doors in LA. The Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead in San Francisco. Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix in New York. Stevie Wonder and the Jackson 5 in Detroit. These and many others, much loved and respected, have seen their stars continue to shine.
Still, none were nearly as commercially successful as Alpert in 1966. So, despite John Lennon’s legendary boast that the Beatles were “bigger than Jesus,” Alpert actually was “bigger” than the Beatles if only for a moment. No doubt, he has faded from popular memory. The proof, today, lies in record bins across the land, where it is rare to not find a Herb Alpert album. Believe me, I’ve tried.
So, though every collector has seen—and passed—his LPs, let us not condemn him to the dustbin of music history, “easy listening.” Instead, think of Herb Alpert’s stunning popularity, fifty years ago, as confirmation of Los Angeles as a vibrant city where cultures come together to produce something new and wonderful. Alpert represents the best of an increasingly multicultural America arguably defined, since the 1960s, more by Los Angeles than New York. Proof that borders are meant to be crossed or sometimes even ignored. Proof that it’s better to tear down walls than build them.
Peter Cole is a professor of history at Western Illinois University. He is the author of Wobblies on the Waterfront: Interracial Unionism in Progressive Era Philadelphia and currently at work on Dockworker Power: Race, Technology, and Unions in Durban and the San Francisco Bay Area. He writes extensively on the history of labor unions, port cities, race matters, and politics. He tweets from @ProfPeterCole
Consuelo Flores’s altar created for Self Help Graphics’ exhibition ‘‘The 43: From Ayotzinapa to Ferguson.’’
Tragedy does strange things to our conception of proximity. Sometimes we can connect more easily to another’s suffering in a different country than we can to a tragedy a few miles away. In the expanse of Southern California, where the experience of urban space is fragmented into disconnected islands of community, what does a mass shooting in San Bernardino, at the urban periphery, mean to someone living in the city of Los Angeles proper? How do Angelenos process an act of violence toward a queer, primarily Puerto Rican, community at an Orlando nightclub? Post-feminist cultural theorist Judith Butler, when writing about the conditions for a “grievable life” makes an “appeal to a ‘we,’ for all of us have some notion of what it is to have lost somebody.”1 What can we hope to recover by offering our grief across territories in search of a collective memory in this current era of cultural plurality and technological interconnectedness? Los Angeles, as one of the world’s centers of artistic and cultural production, is a laboratory for interrogating the role of art, informality, and grieving in the global twenty-first century. The case of the forty-three disappeared2 students from Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College in Mexico—a tragedy that reverberated throughout the world—has illuminated Los Angeles’ particular role in the production of collective memory.
On 26 September 2014, forty-three students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College disappeared from Iguala, a city in the state of Guerrero, Mexico. Guerrero is a largely rural state with a majority indigenous population, many of whom leave their home region as economic migrants in search of jobs in other Mexican cities and in the United States. With the bodies of two students recovered to date, forty-one students remain missing. Gema Santamaría, Professor of International Studies at the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México, claims that the Mexican government’s lack of transparency and efficacy in the investigation process reflected its lack of accountability in the aftermath. Indeed, public perception increasingly viewed local law enforcement and the federal government as complicit in the disappearances. “Ayotzinapa ‘fue el Estado’ inasmuch as it was and continues to be the result of impunity and systematic practices of abuse within different levels of government.”3
In Los Angeles, mourning for the students has taken the form of what we call “anti-memorialization,” whereby traditional forms of memorialization are upended through informality, ephemerality, art, and the digital realm, in order to politicize and bring attention to an injustice. While informal memorials have existed as long or longer than their formal counterparts, anti-memorialization moves these informal memorials into the contemporary reality of a digitally networked world and pushes them from private mourning to public activism.4 There was also an outpouring of protests, demonstrations, and informal memorials throughout Mexico in response to the disappearances, with the largest demonstrations numbering in the tens of thousands on the streets of Mexico City. The global response was no less overwhelming: groups of students, local organizations, artists, activists, and other mourners posted their rituals and protests online to signal their solidarity with the friends and families of the disappeared students, and with the Mexican nationals demanding accountability from their government. The reactions and the incident itself went largely unreported by formal local and global news outlets and instead leapfrogged into the digital realm, where a keyword search of “Ayotzinapa” produced numerous links to a variety of alternative online-style reportage, including blogs, political media sites, YouTube pages, and Twitter feeds and hashtags. The Global Anti-Memorial Map for Ayotzinapa’s 43 locates and catalogs the cities where the anti-memorialization activities were presented first in physical form and then posted and shared online. The public anti-memorials ranged from mass protests, demonstrations of candlelit ceremonies, public performances to the recurring motif of empty school-style chairs that symbolized the missing bodies. Documented and archived on the Internet, these acts represent the beginning of a globally oriented collective memory of mourning and protest.
Consuelo Flores’s altar created for Self Help Graphics’ exhibition ‘‘The 43: From Ayotzinapa to Ferguson.’’
Seven months after the disappearance of the forty-three students, families and other activists installed a metal sculpture reading “+43” on Mexico City’s Paseo de la Reforma. Along the sidewalk, the phrase “Porque vivos se los llevaron, vivos los queremos!” (“Because they were taken alive, we want them back alive”) was painted. The installation of “+43” was accompanied by no formal ceremony; there were no government officials present. Rather, the installation of what the activists called an “anti-monument” was a public challenge to the Mexican government that had failed to provide any answers. The anti-monument expresses the public’s refusal to accept death as the final condition. Moreover, the anti-monument’s appropriation of public space, just blocks away from formal memorials to Mexican history Ángel de la Independencia and the Monumento de la Revolución, contests the national discourse of what is worth remembering. With the large metal sculpture by an anonymous artist came a warning: if the Mexico City government removed the anti-monument, they would be seen as accomplices of the crime.5 Several people volunteered as guards of the anti-monument in order to keep it safe.
In Los Angeles, as in Mexico City, the proliferation of anonymous street art, in the form of stenciled and spray-painted icons of the number “43,” political text, and unplanned sidewalk altars nearly two years after the reported disappearance, reflect ongoing informal calls for justice. In an art installation by Consuelo Flores, images of each of the forty-three students are interspersed with floating cutouts of flora and fauna, all suspended above a shrine of red handprints on paper sheets and stones placed in a formation that surrounds a single, black fabric-covered desk to symbolize the student status of the disappeared. The piece was part of an exhibit sponsored by Boyle Heights–based arts organization Self Help Graphics and Art entitled 43: From Ayotzinapa to Ferguson. The exhibition anti-memorializes not just the forty-three students from Ayotzinapa, but victims of police brutality in the United States as well, linking the two social movements across national borders. This anti-memorial was part of a larger, three-part exhibition, Ayotzinapa: A Roar of Silence, which took place over sixteen weeks and involved three other local arts organizations dedicated to social justice: Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC), Center for the Study of Political Graphics, and Art Division.
Embedded in 43: From Ayotzinapa to Ferguson is a cosmopolitan orientation, initiated by the international call for poster art by the Oaxacan-Mexican artist and activist Francisco Toledo to universities, museums, and art communities. The request was Toledo’s way of grieving with mourners around the world, and his action prompted local and global linkages that amplified the otherwise isolated anti-memorialization acts through the organization of political arts spaces in Los Angeles. The coalition among the four arts organizations, prompted by the Center for the Study of Political Graphics in Culver City, is movement-building akin to the sort of organizing in which political activist groups engage. As a group, these organizations assumed the mantle of public accountability even as they contended with their own missions, communities, political and aesthetic principles, and precarity as small, struggling organizations.6 Shown sequentially, the exhibitions amounted to what the LA Times called an “arts festival of protest” by providing a platform for artists to memorialize the victims, for the immediate public to participate in the related programming, and as a cry for Angelenos to resist structural injustice.
The local and global proliferation of anti-memorials undoubtedly places pressure on those responsible—in particular the complicit Mexican government—to provide answers, to hold someone accountable, and in short, to act. Yet the extent to which the Mexican government cannot ignore its citizens’ demands would seem to depend on the intensity and duration of those demands. In other words, it depends on the degree to which the mourning of the event translates into permanent, collective memory.
According to French philosopher and sociologist Maurice Halbwachs, the theory of collective memory alludes to the idea that “knowledge about the past is shared, mutually acknowledged, and reinforced by collectivities such as small informal groups, formal organizations, or nation states and global communities.”7 In light of the 2014 event, collective memory has been shaped and defined by cultural or “collective trauma.” The collective memory of trauma is the “memory of an event or situation that is laden with negative affect, represented as indelible, and seen as threatening to a society’s existence or violating its cultural presuppositions.”8
The instances of ongoing violence in Mexico, government culpability, and state-sanctioned violence are not new to Mexico’s history. In 2013, according to the country’s national statistics institute, 93 percent of crimes in Mexico go unreported.9 During the Ayotzinapa investigation in Iguala, approximately 129 unidentified bodies of disappeared individuals turned up in mass graves unrelated to the Ayotzinapa students.10 Journalist Cesar Martinez wrote that the 1968 student massacre at Tlatelolco, and the forty-three Ayotzinapa students represent the two cultural traumas that have most permeated “Mexican society, political discourse, and civilian dialogues,” in the sense that these events have “usurped a society’s fears and memorialized them as an indicator to prevent a similar case from occurring.”11 To what extent has the collective memory in the aftermath of Mexico’s two “biggest” traumas led to collective action and social change, so that such traumas may never again take place?
Martinez argues that the “collective memories” of 1968 and 2014 have produced art, formal and informal monuments, and film, but no concrete legal accountability for the perpetrators.12 Knowing this, we must ask, is legal accountability the only type of accountability that is valuable to track in these events? In the case of the exhibition at Self Help Graphics, art is the mechanism through which awareness is raised by creating a participatory public, one that invests itself in social change over the long run. While high art is often complicit with the negative externalities of globally networked capital, this kind of participatory, socially engaged, and bottom-up art can be a powerful force for good. In other words, it takes time—and art can be a vehicle through which memory is sustained through time. This is especially important when accounts of “what happened” become increasingly contested.13 It might be better to say, then, that it is the quality and diffusion of the memory of the forty-three students that will ultimately determine the degree to which justice is served. Contemporary memory production, or anti-memorialization, sustains the memory of structural violence to drive the search for justice using tools of the digital age.
Los Angeles has become a key hub in the mourning for Ayotzinapa through its three-part exhibition which extended and amplified its place as a global tragedy. The exhibitions moved the anti-memorials into the gallery, effectively transforming the products of grief and outrage into objects of cultural and aesthetic import. These actions are not to monetize or to fetishize grief. On the contrary, their place in a respected art institution in Los Angeles, a city widely recognized as a cultural capital, state that the issue is important, and that the community of those affected extends from a handful of families in Guerrero to you, a visitor to this gallery.14 Self Help Graphics further localizes a globally diffused mourning by inviting forty-three Southern California–based artists to take part in 43: From Ayotzinapa to Ferguson. The artwork they produced grieves for not only Ayotzinapa victims, but also Los Angeles and the United States, with their histories of institutional violence against people of color. Given the large population of people of color—both immigrants and native-born—Los Angeles as a place embodies this in a heightened sense. In addition, Los Angeles is home to a substantial Mexican population, and specifically communities of indigenous Mexicans from the rural states of Oaxaca, Chiapas, Veracruz, and Guerrero.15 For these communities residing in the United States, they receive news of kin and kith in Mexico digitally, primarily from their online social networks. This is also how information of their transnational communities disperses, creating pathways moving between the local and global. The timeliness of the exhibition speaks to Los Angeles’ unique capacity as a migrant-concentrated, metropolitan node and a center for cultural and artistic production to respond with anti-memorialization, and an exhibition designed to travel beyond its geographic boundaries.
Ayotzinapa anniversary march in Mexico City, September 2015. Photograph by the Organization of American States Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, via Flickr.
The deluge of submissions to Francisco Toledo, totaling 700 pieces of poster art from locales like Iran, Denmark, Poland, Lebanon, Cuba, and Argentina, and the global manifestation of anti-memorial events, collectively represent the emergence of an extensive interconnected transnational network. This network understands the need for acts of solidarity and the knowledge that the aggregation of voices affects how movements, and, therefore, social change takes place. At a fundamental level, the need for global mourning, for a collective memory, and for what theorist Paul Gilroy calls a “cosmopolitan hope”16 to pursue a globalized humanistic existence is made abundantly clear. This is the learned need for solidarity of a cosmopolitan global community interconnected by digital culture that expresses their agency from below rather than waiting for or expecting that their governments and legal systems will enact the necessary justice. The 43: From Ayotzinapa to Ferguson exhibit is a reminder that when communities here and abroad come together to mourn and demand justice via art, the work produced not only serves as a reminder to reflect on these tragedies, it is a deliberate call to action for us all.
A Day of the Dead offering to the disappeared Ayotzinapa students in Las Vegas. Photograph by Marco Mora-Huizar, via Flickr.
1 Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London: Verso, 2004), 2.
2 Desaparecido (the Spanish word for “disappeared”) has a different connotation in Mexico than its English translation. In Mexico, “disappeared” is an active verb rather than a passive adjective. To call the forty-three students “disappeared” is to suggest that someone actively made them disappear.
7 M. Halbwachs, On Collective Memory (Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press, 1992), 42.
8 Neil J. Smelser, “Psychological Trauma and Cultural Trauma,” in Jeffrey C. Alexander, Ron Eyerman, Bernard Giesen, et al., Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity (Berkeley, University of California Press, 2004), 31–59.
13 Andreas Huyssen, Present Pasts: Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), 28, 4.
14 See again Castells’ Networks for more on the roles that community and what he calls “togetherness” play to spark political change.
15 Lisa Kresge, Indigenous Oaxacan Communities in California: An Overview (Davis: California Institute for Rural Studies, 2007).
16 “The challenge of being in the same present, of synchronizing difference and articulating cosmopolitan hope upward from below rather than imposing it downward from on high[…].” Paul Gilroy, Postcolonial Melancholia (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 67.
Before a Justice for All march in Washington DC, December 2014. Photograph by Elvert Barnes, via Flickr.
Maricela Becerra is a Ph.D. student in the department of Spanish and Portuguese at University of California, Los Angeles. Her research focuses on the post-memories of the Tlatelolco massacre in contemporary Mexican authors, and the exchanges between the Chicano student movement in Los Angeles and the Mexican student activists in 1968.
Lucy Seena K. Lin is a master’s student in Urban and Regional Planning at University of California, Los Angeles. Her research examines cultural production in everyday practice and in building resilience and vitality of communities.
Gus Wendel is pursuing a master’s degree in urban and regional planning at University of California, Los Angeles. He is interested in the ways that visual culture informs planning and design, the politics of place and space, and urban planning history.