From that most vertical of cities, NY, to one of the most horizontal, LA…
I know it conjures up images of celebrities and Hollywood to some, but to me LA is what the moon would look like if ever it were colonised. Something about the scrubby hills and the endless yet low-lying sprawl that’s sprouted despite the odds (desert, earthquakes, fires, etc), overlaid by a massive set of tentacles (freeways) that seem somehow wildly malevolent. A desolate place in other words, save for the thousands of impossibly tall palm trees (how do they not fall down?) that soften the landscape immeasurably and bring to mind Hawaii…
To be honest, other US cities like Chicago, Memphis and Miami drew me far more. But I suspected they’d be easier pickings – oddly enough, considering my weariness at 10 months in, I was up for a challenge. LA was it.
Those other cities also didn’t have Fiona, a dear friend of mine as well as provider of accommodation, gratis – a not unimportant consideration given my rapidly shrinking budget (thanks Fi!).
Aside from that, I was interested in finding out a little more about Mexican culture before we hit the real thing; LA was once Mexican territory and still has an enormous Mexican population. Considering I know zilch about their world I thought by visiting LA I could avoid landing in Mexico City in a few months time completely clueless.
Hence my choice for week number one here – a very Mexican neighbourhood called Boyle Heights, just east of LA’s downtown.
Some facts: Like all of LA, the area was originally populated by Native American tribes before becoming part of the Spanish Empire in 1542, Mexico in 1821 and finally America in 1848. Named after an Irishman, Andrew Boyle, it’s had a number of different cultures pass through it since then (including Jewish and Japanese) but today the area is overwhelmingly working class Hispanic/Latino – Mexican Americans (Chicanos and Chicanas), Mexican immigrants, and Central American residents.
Seat belt on? Let’s cruise…
Part 1: Play it again Juan
While NY felt overwhelmingly black to me, LA’s population of almost four million (18 million in the Greater Los Angeles Area) is almost half Latino – and getting more so by the day.
A huge percentage of those live and work in Boyle Heights and East LA, including the musicians we met on the main drag, Cesar E Chevez Avenue.
They were the first thing that caught my eye on our first drive there last Monday – men in Stetsons sitting on a bench surrounded by accordions, guitars and woah, a double bass?
As soon as I could find a park we whipped back to see what the deal was. Tricky given that most of the guys didn’t speak much English (and I speak even less Spanish). But from what I could gather they were waiting for people to drive past and hire them for between $150-$200 an hour. Either that or they’d hit the local restaurants at lunch and dinner, playing for loose change from those enjoying their enchiladas.
They seemed like lovely guys (who doesn’t love a man who can play an instrument?) but I felt kind of sorry for them. When I asked them, do you like LA, they all said absolutely. But it can’t be easy; given the tough times, how many people are prepared to fork out for live music?
Part 2: Chicano power
It was a very different experience the next time we visited the neighbourhood, when we met a few American born and bred descendents of Mexican immigrants – called Chicano/Chicana. While they speak fluent English and sound like any other Angeleno, Chicanos are hugely proud of their Mexican heritage and aware of the struggles their families have been through and still face.
This was at Estrada Courts, a public housing estate in Boyle Heights that I’d heard had a handful of significant murals relating to the Chicano Movement in the 70s, when Mexican Americans united to end the discrimination against them and improve their political and economic rights.
Coco and I were checking out one of the murals when 18 months old Ashley tottered up to us. Her mum’s cousin, the delightful Omar, then took us and Ashley around the estate to look at his favourite murals.
By the time we’d seen them all, the strong LA light was starting to fade and it was time to hit the road. I don’t know how the subject came up but Omar told me that there were gangs in the area and that, yes, some of the members probably lived in Estrada Courts, and that, yes, they would’ve been watching me – but that if they were going to do something, it would’ve already happened.
Gangs in LA, okay, sure (this is after all the ‘gang capital’ of America with 450 of them scattered around the place). But gangs in the neighbourhood we were standing in? Cripes.
Part 3: Weird and wonderful
“Well, I call her a witch.”
34 year old Mexican American, Yisel, was telling me about Hortencia, the woman inside Botanica Sagrado Corazon, one of a handful of ‘spiritual shops’ along Boyle Heights’ main drag, Cesar E Chevez Avenue, that I stuck my head into on our last visit to the neighbourhood.
She was there with her wife – “wife, partner, friend, you know, depends who I’m talking to” – for a “cleansing”. “Yesterday I came here to see Hortencia for a tarot reading ‘cos someone busted my car window and I wanted to know who it was. Then Hortencia told me I needed a cleansing for bad energy that’s blocking me in my life. I had to rub my body with lemon, egg, a white candle and flowers, then wash with this nice smelling oil. Then you write your name and birth date on the egg, lemon and candle. Now I’m back for more.”
Witch? Cleansings? White candles? I didn’t have a clue what it all meant but I loved how this tough born and bred East LA Angeleno, tattooed to the hilt and proudly gay and Chicana, was so into what I assumed was ancient Mexican spirituality. We talked outside the shop while she waited her turn to see Hortencia – there’s always a queue to see Hortencia – about LA and her life. “My dream? To leave my job as a food production assistant at a school and get a well paid job so I can support my wife and her four daughters. Maybe at the jail – the pay is good. But I keep getting turned down. That’s why I’m here, to clear the blockages.”
While Yesil was waiting, she explained what the various soaps in the shop were meant for. There were soaps to make people follow you or love you or whatever.
Speaking of blockages, I wondered if anyone ever came to Hortencia and asked to be saved from LA’s horrendous traffic. Probably not – I suspect the clogged freeways are above any sort of divine intervention.
Before I left Hortencia’s shop I asked Yesil for her phone number so I could check back and see how her cleansing went – I’ll update you next week with any news.
Part 4: Our Lady of Guadalupe and other passions
Our Lady of Guadalupe is Mexico’s ‘it’ girl – the Virgin Mary with streams of light radiating out behind her. She’s everywhere in Boyle Heights and East LA, from churches to shops and garage doors.
Aside from Our Lady of Guadalupe, there are loads of other painted images in Boyle Heights, ranging from the utilitarian to the political.
And lastly, a few more images from around the neighbourhood, because I like them…
Part 5: Random walls, fences and a freeway
If Boyle Heights is anything to go by, I think I’m going to love Mexico City. The musicians, the pride, the Hortencias (yes, I did get a tarot reading myself – all good but Hortencia told me to watch out for a “Negro woman” and a “short, wide man”.)
And my ‘introduction to Mexico’ worked a treat. Above all I learned that I need to brush up on my Spanish and that really, I should steer clear of beans.
On the ‘home front’
It was a wrench leaving NY I have to say (and while I’m at it, to our friends in NY who were incredibly generous with their hearts and homes – Chris, Mary K, Bill and their kids, as well as Craig, Anna and their small ones – many thanks!).
But LA is warm and spacious and Coco has kids to play with here too. We’re staying with my good friend Fiona and her family in Pasadena, right at the bottom of the San Gabriel Mountains. A lovely place to come back to after the hours we seem to spend on LA’s freeways, either getting lost or sitting in traffic.
We’ve both been sick with filthy head colds – first Coco, now me. But as soon as my head doesn’t feel like cotton wool we’ll be back on the roads, full of fight and ready to explore our second LA hood, wherever that may be. Until then, adiós!
This suburb has been brought to you by Eugene
See you next Monday-Tuesday.