The View from Los Angeles
Nuestra Señora Reina de los Angeles de Porciuncula or Simply LA
In 1999, on returning home to LA after four years at Harvard and in the Boston area,I ascended to the city of Angels for the annual gala dinner of the premier civil rights firm: the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, MALDEF. At our table were a federal judge, his wife, and several recent Yale and Harvard law school graduates. I found myself surrounded by what I had missed so dearly in New England: Latinos. I was at ease not having to explain, over and over, where was I really from. The pride that buoyed the gathering had been entirely absent in my experience in New York and Boston. Here, we were Latinos in the majority; we were Mexicans in Los Angeles.
Since its founding on September 4, 1771, Los Angeles has known diversity. Historian Richard Griswold Del Castillo (The Los Angeles Barrio 1850-1890) lists the city’s founding fathers and mothers: 8 Mulattos, 9 Indians, 2 Negroes, 1 Mestizo, and 1 “Chino.” Today, LA constitutes the largest assemblage of Mexicans outside of Mexico. Numbers do not translate necessarily into political or economic power. My Chicano Studies professor at East LA College, Frank Gutierrez, was the first to suggest to me that East LA is the largest reservation in the U.S. Though it seemed far-fetched, it also made sense the Indian features, skin color, and blood. I pondered this idea years later in cafes and bookstores. Essayist Richard Rodriguez expressed a similar thought: “Kevin Costner would have you believe the Indians disappeared. Nonetheless, as I drove through the streets of Los Angeles today, I saw the Aztecs, Mayas, and Chichimecas.” Rodriguez’ description of LA pedestrians, day laborers, street vendors, and Latina soccer moms matches my own observations. I, too, see brown folk. Indigenous to the land, both to Mexico and to Los Angeles. Los Angeles has become, in the view of its inhabitants, the new world center. Like a New Yorker’s view of the world, spilling over to the rest of the nation. The nation is becoming like LA: Latino.
Mexicans in Los Angeles
Forget Nashville, the nation finds itself consumed with the latest Latino beat. The city of angels has been busy composing, recording, and producing heavenly music sung in Spanish with occasional English or Arabic. Jalapeno-relish fills McDonald’s dispensers in LA (I can’t decide if it tastes better on a Quarter Pounder or a breakfast burrito wrapped in a cold pasty tortilla). Menudo and horchata on Sizzler’s menu surprised me, but then again this is Los Angeles. Jorge CastaÃ±eda, Berkeley’s visiting professor and Mexico’s current Secretary of Foreign Affairs, suggested that the border has always been seen by Mexicans, in LA and abroad, as a Yankee imposition and stubbornness. Proposition 187 was the last official attempt to deny the reality. The border is vanishing before our eyes. Los Angeles led the effort decades ago; the nation has followed. In LA, remnants of the border have been practically erased, like a persistent stain, almost gone.
Half a century ago, while visiting Berkeley, Mexican author, Octavio Paz, wrote about his compatriots, Mexicans in East LA. Paz’ portrayal of the colors, sights, and sounds of East Los was accurately detailed, almost prophetic. Bright colored graffiti, neon lights, and homes described in detail, the pachuco who had a defiant attitude and demeanor. She is now called a chola-gangsta, a homie. The aesthetic portrait was an identical split image even today. Yet Paz’ analysis was as superficial as his upper class Mexican background. He described Mexicans in LA as tainted and contaminated with America, devoid of roots to the motherland. Paz, although familiar with Siqueros, Orozco, and Rivera, had somehow overlooked Mexican resiliency. The loss of our roots was central, like original sin to Catholicism. Reading his thoughts was painful for me even as a college student. Displaced by choice or by luck, Mexicans in economic exile have always created a new song and a new culture. Paz did not have a notion of this new global multinational economy and the experience that came along with it. Today, Mexicans are part of the LA dialogue on business, education, and politics. Fifty years later, several pachuco descendants have run for mayor, sit on the county board of supervisors, and decide state and federal policy. Paz means peace in Spanish; LA is making its peace with Paz.
Bilingual, Bicultural, and Transnational
In 2001, Mexicans in Los Angeles have captured the market, media, government, and private sectors by understanding the language and culture of Iberia and Latin America, as well as that of the U.S. Agents of America’s penetration by Latin America and the world. California has replaced the United Kingdom as the fifth ranked economy in the world; Mexican LA fuels a third of California’s economy.
The infamous angelino district of Hollywood is in the business of production, reproduction, and the packaging of American pop culture. California has constantly remade itself. Our pioneering ideas continue to inspire America to change. LA charms and dazzles California, and arguably the world. Mexicans are its backbone. Previously, our gifts to the world were Coke, Jeans, and Rock & Roll. Corona, Guayaberas, and Rock en EspaÃ±ol are now more common in LA than in Tijuana.
Quetzalcoatle’s Shedding Skin: Transforming Angelino Spirituality
To celebrate the success of christendom and the founding of the city, Los Angeles is busy erecting a monument. Harvard Graduate School of Design’s Rafael Moneo was commissioned to design a Cathedral to our Lady Queen of the Angels. The Los Angeles Archdiocese boasts the largest body of Catholics in the U.S. Nuestra SeÃ±ora, built to withstand five hundred years of California’s earthquakes, is intended to endure until 2502, a millennia and a decade after Columbus’ arrival. Historically, the greater challenge for Los Angeles has always been the social one: urban riots, or even worse, the hemorrhage of the faithful. Mexican Catholics are fleeing the mother church in alarming numbers.
As America and Latin America become urban, LA becomes pentecostal at the margins of modernity. Religious demographers predict that it will become Protestant by mid-century. Like any major metropolitan center and crossroads of the world, Los Angeles has had its collection of urban faith communities: storefront churches, mystical and syncretic centers of faith, and other forms of neo-christian sects common in the history of all frontiers. Curanderos (healers) and sobadoras (folk chiropractors) maintain a highly complex and culturally comprehensive health system that links the practices of the village to the urban jungle.
Deciding the Fate of Heaven: LA Politics…
Metropolitan Los Angeles with more than 15 million people constitutes a third of the state’s population. LA’s vote is necessary to win any California race or to secure California’s coveted 54 electoral votes. After the passage of proposition 187, the Mexican-American vote and its activism plays a vital role. Mexican nationals became U.S. citizens in record numbers in reaction to the proposition’s exclusionary practices. At the state level, the Mexican-American vote aided a Democratic clean sweep of the state legislature and governorship, a damaging set back for the California Republican party. During Mexican President Vicente Fox’s first visit to California, he met with Mexican-Americans at yet another fancy MALDEF event, where he stressed outreach and renewed promises of trust. In recent Mexican elections, many nationals living in LA set out to vote in cities that border California such as Tijuana, Tecate, and Mexicali, to participate in the election the made Vicente Fox victor bringing about the defeat of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, PRI.
Tuesday, June 4, 2001 marked the end of two years of a campaign for the next mayor of Los Angeles. Angelinos of Mexican ancestry made history by running the first Mexican-American in modern times for the city’s top post. Although ultimately defeated at the polls, Antonio Villaraigosa mobilized more than 6,000 volunteers to vote for him to be the next mayor of LA. I yearned to understand why the marriage of the old liberal Democratic Black vote in South Central and the Republican conservative-leaning white vote of San Fernando Valley abruptly ended, for now, any chance of a Mexican-American becoming mayor of Los Angeles. With my Harvard Divinity School advisor, Cornel West, I discussed the election and the role of race, American democracy, and evil. It didn’t help that Villaraigosa was brown, indigenous, and cholo-looking. West whispered to me, “Racism is deeper than logic.”
Yet Mexican-Americans can be effective Mexican power brokers. Richard Polanco is one such broker to run Latinos at the state level, outside of the barrios of the city of angels. His success at electing moderate democrat Latinos in non-Latino majority districts has built a powerhouse, bringing significant clout to Mexican LA. Mirroring state demographics, the Latino Caucus is made mostly of elected officials of Mexican ancestry, followed by elected officials of mixed Central American ancestry such as Congresswoman Hilda Solis.
I certainly don’t know who LA’s next mayor will be, but I have a good hunch she must be Our Lady of dark Indian features. A Latina! Perhaps it will be Gloria Molina, the first Mexican female in the State Assembly, in the LA City Council, and on the County Board of Supervisors. The sophistication of the Mexican electorate in Los Angeles should not be taken lightly.
Fall 2001, Volume I, Number 1
Felipe Agredano-Lozano holds a Masters in Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School (1997) and was a former DRCLAS intern. He resides in the San Gabriel Valley, works in Pasadena, and plays in the City of Angels. Torn between ruling the world or becoming immortalized, he is a minister of public service by day and a poetic political priest by night. Felipe may be contacted by e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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