How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Angelenos and Angeleños in the age of the Korean taco

Photo by Ron Reiring/Flickr (Creative Commons)


And while those of us there didn't come away with any clear answer, we did come away with some great ideas and insightful observations from both the audience and the panelists.

The idea for the panel came out of a piece written a couple of months ago by Southern California author D.J. Waldie on the disappearance of the Spanish consonant ñ, pronounced “enye,” from "Angeleños" in the late 19th century as eastern and midwestern migrants came west, diluting and eventually burying the city's Spanish-speaking identity.

But with all of the demographic changes that have occurred in Los Angeles since, a discussion of the city's evolving identity today seemed in order. Waldie joined me on the panel, as did Eric Avila, an associate professor of Chicano studies, history and urban planning at UCLA.

So as Angelenos, who are we?

In a city that is still deeply segregated by race, ethnicity and income, it's hard to find much of a common thread among its residents. It goes without saying that the experience of being an Angeleno in Boyle Heights is very different from the experience of being an Angeleno in Brentwood, Reseda, South L.A. In a city made up of geographically and economically disparate communities, it's often easier to define ourselves in other ways.

Still, there is a sense of pride and a sense of connectedness to something bigger, if just to the very concept of Los Angeles as a large, living, breathing thing. A couple of audience members described feeling an even greater sense of connectedness after moving away.

"I've always considered myself an Angeleno," more than one person said.

Last week, several readers responded to a post in which I asked how they defined themselves as Angelenos. Among the more interesting comments was one that read: "Angelenos are all a little Mexican a little Korean, a little Jewish, no matter where they're actually from."

True? My panelists had different opinions. Waldie described the interest that younger members of his family took in other cultures, while Avila wasn't convinced this was a widespread attitude. I referred to Los Angeles as being in "the age of the Korean taco" (thanks, Kogi), the most modern incarnation of that sweet sense of multi-cultiness that some Angelenos embrace, but that remains far from many others' reality.

Is Los Angeles still a place to reinvent oneself? Christina Schweighofer, an immigrant from Austria, described growing up in a bilingual, bicultural family in monocultural Innsbruck, always feeling like she didn't fit in. It was in Los Angeles she said, that she finally felt at home.

"This is the perfect place for the people that come from the in-between," she said.

Reinvention comes more easily to some than others, as Avila pointed out. Race and socioeconomic class play a part in that dividing line, as they do in the more general ways in which Angelenos define themselves, if they do at all.

But slowly, the city's diverse population, with immigrant communities now into their second, third, and fourth generations, is propelling a different kind of L.A. reinvention. In the mid-20th century, the city's image was a whitewashed romantic picture of sunshine and beaches, with nary a minority in sight. That image has begun to recede from memory, much as the ñ did.

Going back to the story of the ñ, Waldie pointed out that forgetfulness has always been rampant in this capital of reinvention, and has led to some bad policy decisions. A good lesson to take from the lost ñ, he said, is that as Angelenos/Angeleños, it's important that we not forget out past.

If anyone reading this was at the panel, I'd love to hear your thoughts on what you took away from it. Feel free to post comments below.

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