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East L.A.: Past and Present

by Tomas Benitez

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East Los Angeles is a unique environment, not just within context of the Southern California region, but as a national focus of growth, change, challenges and opportunities. Its history is a reflection of the multi-cultural growth pattern of the City of Los Angeles. From its modern founding in the late 1880s to the present, it has been home to waves of immigration, and many different ethnic and cultural groups have at one time or another settled, lived, and moved through East Los Angeles.

Yet its present day population also has been one of the most entrenched and stable communities of the greater Los Angeles area over the past 50 to 75 years. East Los Angeles is not only the single largest Chicano/Mexicano population in the country. It is the largest Hispanic community in the United States. Add to that the proximity of the U. S. Mexico border, and the constant entry of new waves of arrivals into the area, and it is safe to project that the character and overall cultural influence of the population will be in place in the community for years to come.

It is also important to note that, although the majority population is mono-cultural, there is a tremendous amount of diversity within the context of that cultural experience, ranging from new immigration from Mexico, migration from other states, and the long-time presence of multi-generational residents dating back to the ranchos.

By the year 2040, the population of California will be 51 percent Hispanic -- predominantly Mexicano/Chicano. The majority of that population will live in Southern California. The majority of that population will live in the Los Angeles area. The greatest concentration of that population will live in East Los Angeles.

Narrative History of East Los Angeles
The heart of the City of Los Angeles, and precursor to East Los Angeles, was formed centuries ago by the fortunate mixture of volcanic sediment washed over by fresh river water, with desert tough green growth nurtured by year round sunshine. This mixture of sediment and river emerged into a plot of good farming land, about four miles in area, along the banks of the Los Angeles River. The very location that attracted the first settlers of the region -- native indigenous people of numerous and subsequent tribes -- is the same spot that would eventually be called El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora de Los Angeles. It is also known today as La Placita, or to some, Olvera Street, the birthplace of Los Angeles.

For hundreds of years, the inhabitants cultivated the dark and loamy earth, which yielded corn and other food sources. The proximity of a fresh and plentiful water source, as well as the abundant local game that were attracted to the river, made it a hub for generations of denizens who also enjoyed a mild, pleasant year-round environment. Over time, the locals would branch out and discover new and favorable places to start other villages, but that spot would remain the focal point of the region, nexus to all surrounding civilization, and the fateful destination of the first European explorers. One could climb up to the rocky tors that lined the wooded area behind the village (Elysian Park), or cross the shallow river and hike to the bluffs on the east, and be treated to a breathtaking view of the region that could only confirm their belief that they lived in a paradise at the center of the world. Imagine a vista that reached from the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains to the unending vastness of the Valley. Or turn in the other direction, and see a horizon that crossed a verdant basin and ended at the Pacific Ocean. One could gaze west and see fellow villagers along the old pathway (Wilshire Blvd.) that led to and from the tar pits, where the oozing brea was gathered up to use for water proofing roofs and such practical matters. Or one could turn east and see the small delta that marked the merger of the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers, a place that would later become the site of a mission and a very generous vineyard. One could even see as far Southeast as the old trail (El Camino Real) that brought the soldiers and priests of the de Portola Expedition in 1769. By the time the Gabrielino Indian village of Yang Na greeted the newcomers, the heart of the city was forged and the layers of cityhood that have since developed only further embed the legacy of that four mile patch of ancient, good earth.

1781 to 1848: There Goes the Hacienda
Following the arrival of Gaspar de Portola, authorized by the Spanish government to claim the land in its name, the San Gabriel Mission was established two years later, and the city was chartered ten years after that, in 1781. As is the case in most continental collisions, the native population declined quickly, and the citizenry was made up of Spanish settlers. Some were from Spain, but most of them were from New Spain -- that is, Mexico. In the eyes of the pure Hispanics, the Mexicans were second class, and indeed, distant relations. The distance from Mexico City, seat of the Viceroy, and the even greater if not almost unimaginable distance from the crown of Spain, fostered an independent spirit in Southern California that continues to this day. Favored adventurers and pioneers arrived with land grants and established vast haciendas and ranchos, land holdings today that would stretch over several small cities within the county boundaries.

East Los Angeles was but a portion of the Lugo family holdings, a mostly untendered and uninhabited wilderness, bordered by the road to the San Gabriel Mission on the North, the old El Camino Real on the South, the Los Angeles River to the West and the Rio Hondo (river) to the East.

The independent spirit of the region was further ingrained in the locals by the arrival and integration of English-speaking settlers, either Americans from the U.S. or non-Hispanic Europeans. They were welcomed with a set of caveats; to learn Spanish and become citizens, (and Catholics), as well as to promise to live the way of the time, as Californios. Over time, the presence of these adopted citizens grew, and their best intentions and influence upon the Californio way of life further separated the sense of allegiance of Angelenos to Spain.

Mexico broke from Spain in 1810, and over the 10 years of struggle that followed, the local population was initially resistant, but quickly amenable to adjust to a new world citizenship, but remained at a distance from the heart of the Mexican nation. Yet, upon the outbreak of the Mexican American War in 1846, the loyalty of the natives of Los Angeles proved to by surprisingly strong, and it was the locals that stopped the run of the Bear Flag Revolt. The area today just east of the Los Angeles River was the site of numerous battles between the loyal Mexicans and the invading troops. But the war ended in victory for the United States, and the Californios found themselves under a new flag.

Several tenets of the treaty between the U.S. and Mexico guaranteed a dignified transition of citizenship that included bilingual education and fair government, and a protection of land holdings. Fueled by the raging spirit of Manifest Destiny, a hunger for California's rich resources, the caprice of the governmental authorities and the discovery of gold, the next 10 years saw the end of Californio gentry and the savagery rendered upon them during the period of anti-Mexican sentiment left that population impoverished and strangers in their own homeland.

Map of early Los Angeles
Map of early Los Angeles.
Courtesy of The General Libraries,
The University of Texas at Austin.

1848 to 1910: Here Come the Neighbors
The anti-Mexican sentiment continued well into the decade following the war, and Mexican Americans continued to suffer the consequences of displacement. As the center of city was being repopulated by U.S. settlers and some European immigrants, Mexicans were pushed up against and eventually for all purposes exiled to the other side of the river: East Los Angeles. The land had changed hands, parcels were redistributed, but development had yet to occur. However, the time was ripe. The rapid growth of the city, the advent of industry, growth of commerce and the coming of the railroad underscored the boom that captivated the city. A demand for labor, tradesmen, housing for all those newcomers, and the belief that the explosion would only get bigger, compelled the primary title holders to finally build a city in the space where wilderness grew -- East L.A. The region had a long-standing history of being a place where people passed through, and as such, the roads and small and sparse locales where people settled were easily incorporated into the master plan. First Boyle, as in Boyle Heights, and later his in-law Mayor Workman, facilitated the new infrastructure, water, roads and bridges, and a key element, transportation lines. Lincoln Heights was developed along plot lines that reflected the greatest European cities. North Broadway was surveyed in exact proportion to the most ideal boulevards in Paris. Interurban transportation lines, electric cars and trolleys were established from Pasadena to downtown Los Angeles and through East L.A., and a second line went to Orange County, following rail lines along the southernmost border of the area. New housing was sold dirt cheap to attract settlers and low income workers, but certain areas were reserved for exclusive new citizens who wanted to enjoy the view from the bluffs. Today there remains some of the finest examples of Queen Anne and Victorian mansions in the Mount Pleasant area of Boyle Heights. By the late 1880s, the boom had peaked, and some of the dream of a new city East of Los Angeles had given way to concessions to certain other kinds of settlers. The black labor force settled into the East side, as did Italians, who would build much of the houses during the time, Germans and French, followed by the Russian Molokans and Armenians, who were fleeing the horrors of terror and repression in their respective homelands. The small pockets of Chinese and Japanese families that didn't live in Little Tokyo or new Chinatown were also in East L.A., and Mexicans who had survived the push east were still very much a growing presence. Several years before, during the height of the first wave of xenophobia, the city fathers found it appropriate to move the local graveyard, far too close to the civic center, and for sanitation purposes, out to a then remote locale in East Los Angeles. Thus, the Evergreen Cemetery was established, and remains the resting site of many of the new settlers of East L.A., including the oldest Chinese shrine in the U.S., Biddy Mason's current address, and even where Boyle and Workman still meet. A hub of diversity even in the after life, truly common ground.

Map of early Los Angeles
El Barrelito food store.

1910 to 1945: Persecution, War, Revolution, More War and No Peace
The accelerated repression of Jews throughout Eastern Europe brought a new wave of immigrants to the United States and saw the advent of the Jewish community on the Eastside, of Los Angeles. The influx of the Jewish population flourished from the turn of the century through the end of WWI, and by the late 1930s, Brooklyn Avenue was the main vein of Jewish L.A. With them came a joy for life and family that fostered a complex social system through clubs and organizations; booming commerce and a bustling storefront business world conducted in Yiddish more than English; labor guilds; lefty groups; schools; nine synagogues in a relatively compacted area; a cultural life; and a strong community presence that left a legacy in East Los Angeles that continues to this day.

At the same time, the Revolution in Mexico triggered the greatest concentration of Mexican migration to America over the past 100 years. Attracted by cheap housing, employment, greater tolerance than anywhere else in the city, and the remoteness of the other side of river, the new Mexicans flocked to the Eastside in record numbers. The unstable government and economy in Mexico forced a large percentage of the immigrants to come north, although they did not plan on staying long.

If at first the mindset was to earn U.S. dollars and return to Mexico, the prosperity and opportunity for many changed conditions dramatically, and set into motion the rise of the established Mexican and Mexican-American community in East Los Angeles. Although a significant number of the population remained common laborers, the working poor, an equally strong love of life and sense of family that flourished in the Mexican spirit resulted in an increase in the number of churches and schools, social and political societies and clubs, fiestas and other public cultural celebrations, as well as newspapers in Spanish, commerce along Whittier Blvd., and the growth of a very modest homeowner gentry. The tension between Mexicans that were here, native born, and Mexican immigrants of different decades of residence was also set into motion, and remains in some circumstances part of the local atmosphere.

In many instances, Jews and Mexicans went to school together, played sports together, traded with each other, and particularly among the left wing thinkers, met and organized together. Yet, the greater instance of parallel but separate communities is evidenced in the history of the region. In smaller numbers but still present were the Japanese, Russian and Italian families still remaining in the Eastside, as well as members of other, albeit dwindling, groups of families. The war in Spain fostered alliances with many East Los Angeles citizens of common mindset, but there was also ample conflict and tension between the two leading citizens in the area. After Pearl Harbor, the Japanese Americans were soon removed, and upon the end of their imposed imprisonment, never returned to East L.A. in the same presence. History records that many Mexican and Jewish families stood with Japanese families in protest of the relocation, but none so many as to stop the order from being carried out.

The anti-Mexican rage had become a de facto condition for Mexicans living in L.A., and was most dramatically edified by the attacks upon Zoot-Suiters -- zoot-suit wearing youths -- at the outbreak of WWII by police and military, anxious to do battle with foreigners where they could find them. Anti-semitism, though not nearly as lethal as in Europe, was still very much a constant threat upon the livelihood of Jews living in Los Angeles.

WWII indeed called to service a significant number of young Mexican warriors, and brave Japanese young men, living in relocation camps, who still volunteered and distinguished themselves in battle. The Jewish community, very active and fresh with the memory of sacrifice from the Spanish Civil War, remained vigilant to aiding the relief effort for those people who escaped the Nazi tyranny and in many cases, death camps. For many of the people of East Los Angeles, the war against fascism was an endeavor to overcome bigotry at home and join the national endeavor none the less.

Chicano power
“Chicano power”

1950 to Present: Chicano Power and Now What?
The end of WWII was the end of an era for the entire nation, the world, and was the beginning of contemporary East Los Angeles. The impact upon the returning G.I. was profound and keynoted a new sense of empowerment in the Eastside barrio. For returning Mexican-American veterans, it was impossible to ignore the irony of coming home from battle to the same conditions, and the community sprung into action with a level of social and political movement that resulted in unprecedented levels of new leadership. The community organization effort -- through groups such as the CYO, GI Forum and LULAC -- would pose so great a threat to the powers that be that the forces of cold war hysteria began a concerted campaign to destabilize Latino self-determination under the guise of the Red Scare and the HUAC investigations.

The demographic shift, well underway since before the war, was clearly demonstrating a trend toward a majority population of East L.A. in record ratios, coupled with the exodus of the Jewish community to the Westside. The Bracero Program of the 1950s, which undermined labor efforts, still stimulated a new Mexican migration and fostered the emergence of a minority/ majority of the community. In the Jewish community, the call to relocate to the Westside was an opportunity to flourish in a new setting, yet it also signaled the end of an era in the Eastside of Los Angeles. By the mid-60s, the Jewish community was essentially relocated, the Japanese community was hardly present, the Molokans and other smaller diverse groups were gone, and over time, the Mexican-American community grew to become the largest Hispanic community in the United States, the second largest Mexican group outside of Mexico City.

The election of Ed Roybal in the late 1950s, first to City Council, and then to Congress, indicated how far the voting power of the Mexican-American community had come, and how very far it still had to go. Despite the growing numbers, the Mexican-American community lagged in educational opportunity, employment, economic opportunity, political representation, and all the social trappings of fully recognized, empowered citizens. The ardent effort to self-organize and empower, in tandem with the frustration of failure in the face of resistance, particularly in attaining cityhood, fostered a growing pressure and malaise in the East Los Angeles community. Provoked by the success of labor organizer Cesar Chavez and the struggle of the farm workers, as well as the growing combative conditions in the nation brought on by anti-Vietnam War sentiment, the Civil Rights Movement and the student movement, some of the leaders in the cities to began to radicalize their strategies toward social justice. Through it all emerged a new sense of identity, labeled Chicano, and meaning a pro-active approach to self-respect and dignity. Artists and writers helped to greatly promote the call to the reborn Mexican-American and heralded a new day in the barrio. However, the generally good spirit and neo-nationalism of the Chicano Movement was shaken by a series of explosions.

In 1968, over 30,000 students from five local high schools walked out in protest of the conditions of their campuses and the status of their education, the largest ever demonstration of its kind in the nation's history. The students held fast and won a series of concessions from the school board. On August 29, 1970, the largest political demonstration ever organized in East Los Angeles broke out in violence, both at the hands of the police and agitators. A follow up rally in January 1971 resulted in more violence and well into the 1970s, the uproar in the community stimulated a great deal of acrimony and protest, abated by modest gains in the goals of the movement.

In the 1980s, the growing impact of the overall Hispanic economic and political power signaled a new level of negotiated participation in the mainstream. However, this growth with be undermined by new challenges to educational opportunity, affirmative action, the very divisive English only debate, and the criminalization of youth through statute propositions, seemingly directed at minorities. Agitated by the attacks from the extreme right and with inspiration from the revolutionary actions in Chiapas, Mexico, a revived social action network has been building throughout the 1990s. At the same time, the accelerated political gains through elections, the growing Chicano middle class, and an emerging self-realization of Chicanos in all profiles as world citizens indicate that the future does indeed hold promise, but there are remaining challenges to overcome. What strategies and what processes are to be determined and measured by the impact of success and failures, and certainly, the direction of the future of Chicanos, Mexican-Americans, Mexicans, all Latinos, and all Americanos is going to be on an ancient path -- a newly paved road that goes through East L.A.

Tomas Benitez has been a community cultural worker for the past 25 years. Beginning at Inner City Cultural Center with the late C. Bernard Jackson, he has worked at the Bilingual Foundation of the Arts, Plaza de la Raza, and is currently the director of Self Help Graphics in East Los Angeles.

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