How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Hand-drawn map illustrates a starkly divided L.A.

Screen shot from www.kcet.org


A city that's perceived by some as multi-culti heaven is a starkly segregated place for many Angelenos, and this map serves as a reminder of that.

The map was submitted recently to KCET as part of an ongoing "Map Your L.A." contest, in which the station is seeking hand-drawn maps from residents. Contestants are asked to map the city as it applies to them and their experience of it. One contest entry portrays the city as a simple path from downtown to the beach; another focuses on the region's waterways.

This blunt, not-necessarily-PC entry from "A Concerned Citizen" makes no bones about the city's racial and ethnic boundaries. From the KCET Departures contest entry page:

This map illustrates an L.A. that is segregated by race, ethnicity, class, and sexual orientation all under an editorial title that calls for concern. The map itself is simple, with a larger message written between, under, across, and on top of the lines.

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'Ecuadorean by birth, Mexican American by accident...and Angeleno by geographic location'

Photo by Keith Skelton/Flickr (Creative Commons)

The skyline as seen from the east, November 2009

A post yesterday on the unexpected questions scattered around the new LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes museum in downtown Los Angeles - some of them printed on the floor - prompted a response from reader Diego Cardoso that resonated with me, as it might with other readers.

The questions at the museum, which highlights local Mexican American history, included these: Do you identify yourself by your nationality? What would you bring if you had to move to a new place?

Cardoso, who was born in Ecuador, wrote:

I migrated to the U.S. when I was 17 years old. My hopes at that time were very modest. I wanted to learn English and hope for the best. Since I was granted a student visa and attended Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights, my first impression of Los Angeles was through an Eastside perspective.

As my life evolved, I became more Mexican/Latino and never thought about a nationality. I do not know when I realized that that my home had become Los Angeles. At times in my life I hated L.A. (the urban infrastructure) but loved the magical synergy of different communities and people. I got lost in L.A. and succumbed to its magical power of allowing me to reinvent myself. Nowhere to return; home is L.A.

The day I became a U.S. citizen was an ordinary day in my life. The extraordinary day was when I first went to the polls to cast my vote. That day I realized I had became a citizen of the Americas. Ecuadorean by birth, Mexican-American by accident and culture, Minnesotan by marriage, and Angeleno by geographic location.

If I had to move to a new place, I would take the photos I have taken of Los Angeles, the memories of an ugly, always evolving and magical cultural place I call home.

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At LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes, the questions are on the floor

Last weekend I paid a visit to LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes, the new museum chronicling Mexican American history and life in Los Angeles that opened Saturday.

The museum's downtown location is itself noteworthy: It sits across from Olvera Street near the city's birthplace - so close, in fact, that construction turned up the bones of more than a hundred early residents from a cemetery believed to have been exhumed in the mid-1800s.

The museum pays worthy tribute to early Angeleños, and the Californios and Mexicanos whose history has at times felt close to lost as waves of newcomers arrived and reinvented Southern California. Its interactive displays also highlight the more recent and familiar history of Mexican Americans in the West, from the Chicano civil rights movement to the farm workers' labor struggle in the Central Valley.

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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.

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Angelenos/Angeleños speak out on who they are

In a brief post yesterday, I mentioned that I'll be moderating a panel next week at KPCC titled "Angelino, Angeleno, Angeleño: Who are we?"

It's going to be a discussion on the evolving identity of Los Angeles, based on a popular post on the KCET website a couple of months ago by author D.J. Waldie about the disappearance of the Spanish consonant ñ (pronounced “enye”) from "Angeleños," the original Spanish term for city residents.

I threw out a few questions yesterday: What is an Angeleno today? How does the culture we were raised in, and the part of the L.A. area we call home, shape how we define ourselves? In great polyglot Los Angeles of the 21st Century, do we still define ourselves geography, by area code, by ethnicity?

On KPCC's Facebook page, several readers shared their thoughts. A particular line from one of the readers below resonated: "Angelenos are all a little Mexican, a little Korean, a little Jewish no matter where they're actually from."

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