Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

'It wasn't just about Rodney King': Perspectives on the riots, 20 years later

An apartment building damaged by fire during the 1992 Los Angeles riots
An apartment building damaged by fire during the 1992 Los Angeles riots
AFP/Getty Images

During the last month, KPCC brought together four panels of Angelenos to share their recollections of the deadly riots that began April 29, 1992 in an informal series of private conversations led by journalists and other members of the staff.

The panelists were people from throughout the city, of different ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds. Many had little in common save for having been old enough 20 years ago to remember the rioting began that day, after a jury acquitted four Los Angeles police officers of savagely beating black motorist Rodney King. In the violent, confusing, smoke-filled days that followed, more than 50 people died and property damage mounted close to $1 billion as arson fires and looting spread. To this day, the riots remain a defining moment in L.A. history.

The discussions were broken down by ethnicity: a panel of black Angelenos, a panel of Latinos, a panel of Korean Americans and one simply dubbed “other.” The resulting conversations were eye-opening. Panelists shared not only their recollections, but how they interpreted the legacy of these traumatic few days long ago, and how the riots have shaped the city since, for better or worse. 

The discussions, which informed a recent town hall event at KPCC’s Crawford Family Forum, were not open to the public. But those who led the talks have been sharing what they learned this week on Multi-American. For a conversation with a diverse group of Latinos, some of them immigrants, some born in the U.S., Power 106 radio host Wendy Carrillo volunteered her time. Carrillo was born in El Salvador and arrived as a girl with her family fleeing that country's civil war, as had many newly arrived Central American immigrants in Los Angeles in the early 1990s.

Here's what Wendy shared:

For many Angelenos, remembering the events of April 29, 1992 begins with one fundamental thing: what they call it, be it the L.A. riots, the L.A. uprising, the civil unrest or the Rodney King riots. They all mean different things to different people.

For Latinos, the events of 1992 expand far beyond the streets of South L.A. and the conversations surrounding the theme of black-white race relations. In a focus group of ten people I facilitated a few weeks ago at KPCC's Crawford Family Forum, Latinos of various backgrounds and ages expressed anger, courage, confusion, and hope.

Unai Montes-Irueste, a young professional in the education field, was the first person to bring up the beating of Fidel Lopez, a Guatemalan immigrant who has largely become one of the forgotten victims of the riots. Lopez was dragged out of his truck at the corner of Normandie and Florence during the riots and severely beaten by a mob, alongside Reginald Denny.

For Montes-Irueste, the story of Lopez brought up rifts within L.A.'s larger Latino population. How he perceived it: “It became very clear that not only was the mainstream media blatantly missing the story of Lopez, but Latinos of Mexican or Mexican American descent ignored the story because Lopez was Guatemalan.”

Montes-Irueste recalled feeling for the first time in his young life that Latinos were not united, that the division between Central Americans in Pico Union and Mexicans and Mexican Americans in various other parts of the city was palpable.

Another distinction took shape as Evelyn Aleman, an immigrant from El Salvador and a public relations professional, talked about having been a recent arrival to Los Angeles during the riots after escaping her native country's civil war.

“I didn’t feel safe,” Aleman said. “I didn’t understand what was going on, or why people would burn down their own community or loot stores...the only time my family and I felt safe was when the National Guard finally came and there was curfew and order."

For Aleman, hearing L.A.-raised Javier Gonzalez unapologetically admit to looting during the riots was at times overwhelming. “I came from a poor neighborhood but I did not loot, steal, cheat, or hurt people,” she wrote in a later email to me. “My family was poor, hardworking, and in many ways disenfranchised but they tried their best to live their existence and provide a legacy for their children with dignity regardless of the circumstances around them."

Gonzalez, who lived in Inglewood near the boundary with South L.A. at the time of the riots, talked about a very different life experience - and expressed very different feelings towards the riots, which he referred to as "the L.A. uprising."

“For us, it wasn’t just about Rodney King, it was about Latasha Harlins, it was about the way in which the Rampart police was getting away with corruption, it was about how our communities were being treated and how unjust the system was,” Gonzales said. “As a young man, I was angry; we were full of rage and we didn’t know why, we just knew we wanted to do something.

When asked if he still felt the same, Gonzalez admitted that looking back, the lack of jobs, the oppressive nature of South L.A., the crack epidemic, the gang violence, the relationship between community and police and the feeling of always being “suspect” when walking into a Korean-owned liquor store, all played a role in the way young people of color felt in their community.

Gonzales talked about the tensions between immigrants, an animosity that went between the much-discussed rift between black residents and Korean immigrant business owners. Latinos felt it, too, he said. He talked about youths being patted down by store owners when they went in to buy something, something he said left young people feeling exploited.

“They wanted our money, yet didn’t trust us,” Gonzales said.

Others recalled very different relations between Latinos and Korean immigrants. Jessica Valle, who grew up in South L.A., used to walk home from school near the intersection of 104th and Compton. There Valle got to know a man she remembered as Mr. Lim,  a Korean immigrant store owner who would often give out food to the community.

During the riots, Lim’s market was burned down.  While the store was later rebuilt, Mr. Lim was never seen again.

“I always wondered what happened to him,” Valle added. “I was only eleven at the time and I kept asking, ‘where’s Mr. Lim?’”

Oskar Toruno, a film producer and community college professor, was in Huntington Park the evening of April 29, the day the verdict in the King beating case was announced. He, a cousin and a friend armed themselves and went out to the Pacific Blvd. commercial strip to stop looters and protect their community. He was 19 years old.

“When we got to the mini mall, a Korean store owner asked us if we would help protect his store next to the Miller’s Outpost,” Toruna stated.  “We stood right outside and this group of guys in a truck passed us by and just stared. It was only a few seconds, but it seemed to last forever.”

Caught up in the chaos, Toruno pointed his gun to the truck and pulled the trigger.

In that split second, the truck ran through the windows of the Miller’s Outpost, glass shattering everywhere.

The gun never went off.

“I didn’t know how to use a gun,” Toruno remembered. “Had the safety been off, it would have been the dumbest thing I’ve ever done.”

“After the police came, we barricaded the area with shopping cars. It was the longest night of my life,” Toruno told the group.

For the Latinos who attended the focus group, it was the first time that they'd talked about the riots in years, let alone about  impact it had on L.A.'s diverse Latino communities. They've let me know since that it sparked conversations between them that spilled over to coffee shops, dinners, emails, Facebook and Twitter.

As the city observes the 20th anniversary of the riots this coming Sunday, bigger conversations remain to be had about the economic and other problems that today still plague many of the communities flanking the 110 Freeway. The demographics have changed as more Latinos have moved in, but these neighborhoods are still hard hit by unemployment, foreclosures, high dropout rates and incarceration rates, which affect both blacks and Latinos.

As a city, we still have a long way to go.

Read earlier posts from KPCC reporter Corey Moore, in which he shares his impressions from a small panel of black Angelenos, and from KPCC's Elaine Cha, who spoke with a panel of Korean Americans about their views of the riots' legacy. And hear more viewpoints by linking to the recent Crawford Family Forum discussion here.