A crash course in southern California’s Mexican-American history.
Roosters crow sporadically, the sweet smells of meats and tortillas waft through the air and sunbeams kiss vibrant murals on store fronts. Yet hidden behind the palm trees that line the streets of the unincoporated neighborhoods that make up East Los Angeles is a turbulent history born from peaceful movements and epic battles led by heroes such as Cesar Chavez and Sal Castro.
Before Mexican-Americans became the political and cultural force that they are now in East Los Angeles (where they have also been the dominant ethnicity for about 60 years), the neighborhood went through a series of anti-Mexican sentiments.
It all started, of course, centuries ago.
Some Spanish but mostly Mexicans claimed large swaths of Californian land in the late 1700s. The Lugo family built the largest estate in California history that included the area that is now East Los Angeles.
In the mid 1800s, the gold rush hit and anti-Mexican feelings raged. The Mexican gentility that had thrived in California was crushed. The great Lugo estate was partially stolen and partially carved out politically. All that remains is what is now called the Gage Mansion. It sits in a trailer park that is now part of Bell Gardens, outside of East Los Angeles.
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In the late 1800s, East Los Angeles housed the working forces and refugees of many ethnicities: Blacks, Italians, Germans, Armenians, Japanese and Chinese and some of the Mexican settlers who were displaced.
Through the end of World War I, Jews sought refuge in East Los Angeles and Brooklyn Avenue (now East Cesar Chavez Boulevard) was a hot spot. At the same time, the Mexican revolution drove Mexican immigrants into East Los Angeles where they were met with tolerance and affordable housing. Some barrios formed in low-lying areas where makeshift homes popped up on cheap parcels of land. They had no water, electricity or adequate sewage system in place.
In the 1940s, anti-Mexican sentiment reared its head again in East Los Angeles. A young Mexican-American who had enlisted in the army was killed in what became known as the Sleepy Lagoon murder. Police stood by during the racially-charged aftermath, when army and navy servicemen raided Latino neighborhoods. They stripped Latinos wearing baggy pants and long coats, known as zoot suits, that had become affiliated with gang members.
By 1950, the Jewish population that had been present began relocating to Los Angeles’ west side and the Mexican population was well on its way to becoming the second largest Mexican concentration, outside of Mexico City.
In the 1960s, as the push for civil rights was gaining steam, East Los Angeles became an epicenter for political and social activity, especially for the Chicano movement.
In 1958, Cesar Chavez moved the headquarters for the Latino civil rights group the Community Service Organization to East Los Angeles. Eight years later, under the United Farm Workers union, he would lead strikers on a march from the Northern California city of Delano to Sacramento, a 300-mile trek that was the culmination of a years long movement to encourage a grape boycott.
Showing support for the United Farm Workers Union was almost synonymous with being part of the Chicano movement. That sentiment remains — the main thoroughfare of East Los Angeles was renamed Cesar Chavez Avenue in 1993, over some objection by residents who thought the move would detract from the neighborhood's Jewish history.
In East Los Angeles, educational inequality was a tremendous issue. Instrumental in the reform push were local teachers such as Sal Castro. In 1968, Castro encouraged a student walk-out to protest poor funding and unequal education which they said was supported by a lack of emphasis on college and reflected in astronomically high drop-out rates.
Later, in 1970, the Chicano Moratorium, a social justice group opposed to the Vietnam war, organized a march in August that would traverse Whittier Boulevard, a main drag. About 30,000 demonstrators came. The rally turned violent as police used tear gas to disperse the crowd. Four were killed, including journalist Ruben Salazar.
“In the 1960s, East Los Angeles became an energetic hub for political organizing in grassroots and electoral politics,” said Irene Vasquez, director of Chicano studies at University of New Mexico. “The numbers of Mexican Americans and Latinos in public office have grown at all levels, which [had] its antecedents in 20th century developments. Now as one of the largest city in the nation, [Los Angeles] boasts a Mexican American mayor and several Mexican American council persons.”
East Los Angeles now makes headlines in the culinary world especially now that a new line of public transportation has expanded into the area. With it comes more visitors, drawing attention to storied neighborhood restaurants and the rich cultural history – part Mexican, part American – that the community clings to strongly.
Soni Sangha is a freelance writer based in New York City.