Boyle Heights

BH intro


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…

Anyway, LA.

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?



Juan on accordian and Ismael on Bajo Sexto guitar :: 1

Juan on accordian and Ismael on Bajo Sexto guitar :: 1





Juan on accordian and Ismael on Bajo Sexto guitar :: 2

Juan on accordian and Ismael on Bajo Sexto guitar :: 2





Cesar on tololoche, from El Salvador

Cesar on tololoche, from El Salvador





"I decorated it myself"

“I decorated it myself”





may you and your tololoche be blessed with many open wallets

may you and your tololoche be blessed with many open wallets





minimalist, not

minimalist, not





Mexican waves

Mexican waves





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.



yeah, what he said - Ashley and Omar in front of 'We are NOT a minority' Che Guevara mural

yeah, what he said – Ashley and Omar in front of ‘We are NOT a minority’ Che Guevara mural





up up and away?

a fantasy of flight?





the next generation of Chicanas and Chicanos

the next generation of Chicanas and Chicanos





Omar's other favourite mural

Omar’s other favourite mural





watching Coco do cartwheels

watching Coco do cartwheels





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.”



Yesil, here for a 'cleansing' from Hortencia

Yesil, waiting to see the “witch”, Hortencia





"It's pretty weird, you have to rub yourself with lemon, egg and a white candle"

“It’s pretty weird, you have to rub yourself with lemon, egg and a white candle”





inside Hortencia's healing room

inside Hortencia’s healing room





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.




for example, to dominate a man like Louis, you need to use this soap

for example, to dominate a man like Louis, you need to use this soap





"I pray for the blockages in my life to be removed"

“I pray for the blockages in my life to be removed”





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.




not even she can save you from LA traffic

not even she can save you from LA traffic





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.




"to me LA stands for unity, hope and beauty"

“to me LA stands for unity, hope and beauty”





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.



floral border

floral border





Our Lady of Guadalupe - she's everywhere, from churches to garage doors

Our Lady of Guadalupe – she’s everywhere, from churches to garage doors





potential life changers

potential life changers





Aside from Our Lady of Guadalupe, there are loads of other painted images in Boyle Heights, ranging from the utilitarian to the political.



doing the shopping - for the practical vs the spiritual

doing the shopping – for the practical vs the spiritual





that looks so good

that looks so good





bred from tough stuff - Eileen

bred from tough stuff – Eileen





And lastly, a  few more images from around the neighbourhood, because I like them…



after dancing they always went to George's

after dancing they always went to George’s





let's go drivin'

let’s go drivin’





Part 5: Random walls, fences and a freeway



fun and games

fun and games





6pm, somewhere in East LA

6pm, somewhere in East LA





lawn's overrated anyway

no lawn but lots of palm trees





little Latino League

little Latino League





the calm before the storm

the calm before the storm





The Wrap

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.




a Chicano, a Chicana and a Coco

a Chicano, a Chicana and a Coco




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.


  1. Di @ beachtropic says:

    Thanks Louise, fabulous as always. Hope you guys feel better soon.
    Di x

  2. Chris says:

    Loved the post Louise — glad you’re getting into your LA groove. NY misses you and Coco.

  3. jann says:

    Absolutely fantastic images!!!! I don’t like LA, but you make me want to head there immediately with my camera. The musicians against the yellow wall blew me away. I met you at a bus stop in Rome, and have loved your blog ever since!!!!

  4. Sarah says:

    Welcome back for another week – loved the images, and the light… Glad you feel ‘right’ about your Mexico step next after this week… Hope you hear more for the lesbian wife etc – seems such a contradiction of terms, I’d love to know more!

  5. John Ellis says:


  6. Gloria says:

    great post as always Louise x

  7. gayles says:

    Hi Louise, this is rather interesting. Without a shred of desire to ever know more about the place, you now show it to be colorful and fascinating. Of course this is normal Louise!! Watch out for those gangs! Loved the musicians against the stunning orange wall. GG

  8. Bianca says:

    Love this post. I can’t wait for Mexico City!

  9. Noni says:

    you keep finding it …love ya work!

  10. Louise says:

    Di – Many thanks. I normally don’t mind being sick but I have no time for it with this project!
    Chris – Glad you enjoyed it – and we miss you and beautiful Bella the dog!
    Jann – Oh yeah, the bus stop with that nun remember? So glad to hear you’re still with us!
    Sarah – I want to know if the cleansing worked!
    John – Yeah, I’m looking forward to discovering more about all the superstitions in Mexico.
    Gloria – Thank you!
    Gaylee – As much as I’m curious about the gangs and would love to photograph them, I hope never to cross their path!
    Bianca – Me too!
    Noni – Gracias!

  11. Jackie Nolan says:

    Louise, the introduction to Boyle Heights and its
    history/background is ‘mucho’ interesting.This
    suburb is a good choice re a prelude to Mexico..
    LA “to me stands for unity,hope and beauty” says
    it all. Our Lady of Guadalupe is obviously an icon.
    Staying with friends in Pasadena.would be a delight.
    Especially liked the colourful wall with a chicano,a
    chicana and a Coco.!
    Languishing for more posts etc.! Jackie Nolan

  12. Suzanne says:

    ok you’ve made LA look slightly attractive but I think your first impression is still on the money :-) x

  13. Sean says:

    Another great post about a city that I haven’t beyond the obvious and being a jump off point to elsewhere. Your photos and prose keep delivering, thanks!

    Oh and don’t forget to watch out for a “Negro woman” and a “short, wide man” :)

  14. Peter McConnochie says:

    A visually rich post – some amazing pics – I love LA despite it being a bit scary in places!

    The shots of the musos were compositionally superb and I loved the old Burger place – looks like a set from The Big Lebowski!

    Super – have fun and thanks as always!

  15. ellen says:

    when i was in la last year i felt at home do you get that feeling climate so much like sydney not like vegas where it is stinking hot or orlando where its so humid plus everyone is nice as with the rest of the us i did notice the mexican spannish part of la to it was in disney land it was in everywhere even at the airport anouncements were made in english then spannish and actualy at the charge conf i kinda wandered into a spannish session that was kinda funny actualy i saw on e of the great my great firends whos also been to confrenc3es here and i thought ok im going to his session i love his he looked at me said you are not coming to my session im here yes but this is actualy spannish oh n funny enough he and the person that was doign it are form california LOL love ya

  16. Louise says:

    Jackie – Muchas gracias!
    Suzanne – Not a fan then?!
    Sean – I know, problem is, there are a fair few of both of them around these parts!
    Peter – Many thanks. Yeah, there are some great food places that are genuinely old rather than made to look old. Haven’t yet spotted the giant hamburger/hotdog ones but keeping my eye out.
    Ellen – There are bits of LA that remind me of Sydney and yes, they’re both incredibly sunny places but aside from that…

  17. Sonya says:

    Hi Louise, well have just caught up with your blog and looks like we’ve been trailing you! Just spent 2 weeks in NY & Wash DC with the kids & then a week in LA (leave tomorrow). Stayed at Venice Beach, we had a great time, scary in places but fascinating too. Have spent many hours on bikes, watching the skateboarders & muscle-men – awesome. Girls favourite place on beach near Santa Monica with heaps of gymnastic-rings and some amazing people-watching – am sure Coco would love it. Loving following your travels, take care & enjoy. I agree, have had enough of beans! Love the Sleigh’s

    • Louise says:

      Sonya – I keep hearing about those muscle-men! If we have any time I’ll try and get down there so Coco can have a gawk. So glad you’ve had a great time in the US and please say hi to the kids from me – that woman with the camera!

  18. Rob Steer says:

    Beautiful colour, vibrancy and words. Sounds like ann interesting neighbourhood and I would have loved to hear some of that music they play, but perhaps another day…

    • Louise says:

      Rob – Gracias! (About the music – these particular guys looked like they knew what they were doing but another lot came into the restaurant one day that we were eating in – they were not good – terrible in fact! Ah well, they added colour and movement to it all.)

  19. Eric Brightwell says:

    I was just in Boyle Heights yesterday. I discovered a beautiful community garden and had lunch at a place where they credit card machine wasn’t working. They still fed me and said to pay another time. Love the photos and also hate traffic. The secret is public transportation. I took the Silver Line. The Gold Line connects Pasadena to Boyle Heights and is very scenic.

  20. sylvia castaneda says:

    Great piece on my beloved Boyle Heights. Just a siden note: Boyle Heighs is not a suburb of L.A. It is a easternmost district of L.A.

    • Louise says:

      Sylvia – Glad you liked it! (And yes, I know it’s not a suburb in the way most of the world understands the term ‘suburb’ – to Australians ‘suburb’ can mean any neighbourhood, not just the ones located further away from city centres in ‘the suburbs’. So I just mean ‘neighbourhood’ not suburb. Hope that explains it, in a confusing sort of way!)

  21. sylvia castaneda says:

    Great piece on my beloved Boyle Heights. Just a side note: Boyle Heights is not a suburb. It is the easternmost district in Los Angeles.

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