Recently, I’ve been contemplating what it means to belong, be displaced, and occupy the cityscape — any cityscape. Given all the experiences and circumstances that shapes our lives in cities — how does this inform how we feel included and present? How does who you are, and what you experience, inform the kind of life you live in a city, be it Mexico City or Boyle Heights?
These questions arose in me while living back home in Boyle Heights earlier this year. It was the first time I consider that I fully, spiritually, and creatively was present. In between traveling to and from Santa Cruz and Mexico City, I never allowed myself to relish and really be witness to the beauty and singularity of my community. Though, as a nostalgic, I always appreciated its specialness in one way or another while away, from its murals to the smell of freshly baked pan dulce. My time in Boyle heights was usually always just a visit, a vacation, a fleeting moment. But that changed this year.
I met many people, including activists, artists, mothers, students, baristas, musicians, and lovers. I deeply enjoyed the sunsets and evenings, the strolls along First Street with my mother, dancing cumbia in a Mariachi Plaza illuminated by a vibrant orange sunset, all the while witnessing the music and life that pulsates in my community…palpitations that prove to me that we live and thrive today more than ever. And as I (re)connected with Boyle Heights, I became more familiar with the dimensions of the changes that many expect and are either planning or organizing against.
Gentrification. The seemingly inevitable fate of low-income communities of color that are positioned in marketable, profitable, accessible — read displacement — urban spaces. In as much as people anticipate gentrification’s success, many are actively organizing against it. I participated in a series of discussions and initiatives with people organizing to stop the gentrification of my neighborhood and I also witnessed how this process has displaced people of color in surrounding communities in the city. And how it’s already begun in Boyle Heights. The renovation of empty lots, the presence of art spaces on Anderson street, new businesses and the influx of consumers pouring in from Echo Park and Downtown.
It’s a very visible change, promoted by a relentless and violent process to renovate, improve, and occupy, that has induced the anxiety and resistance of the community. Why should we move, why should we allow these processes of displacement to drive us out of our communities — communities once considered unappealing and dangerous to those who now consider it charming, attractive and thus attainable at the cost of our displacement. I witnessed and shared these sentiments, while I also began to read cultural publications discuss the novelty of my “vanishing neighborhood”.
Meanwhile I share the anxiety and urgency to organize against gentrification, I also witness and am angered by how Boyle Heights has become important only in relation to gentrification — that is, to its inevitable erasure and not its historical, spiritual, and cultural permanence.
And this is not exclusive to Boyle Heights. Because what facilitates the erasure of a community is a process that requires the erasure and displacing of our people. It did so upon forcing our rural communities into cities, then across borders, then across county lines.
And in this sense, not only are we not meant to be occupants of space in cities but we are expected to accept a process that relegates us to evermore obscure, desolate, unwanted, unprofitable corners of this world ruled by capitalism.
What helps me understand place and belonging in Boyle Heights, is my life in Mexico City. It’s being physically distant from Boyle Heights. Because when I say I miss my home I’m not saying I miss the US. Or the physical manifestation of home. What I miss is the essence of something you can’t exactly capture or freeze in space or time. I am part of a community that has constantly been under siege by processes of displacement. And we have survived it all — moved, rebuilt, recreated, persisted.
Boyle Heights is alive with memories, with expression, and with a certain permanence. I believe the key to our survival is not so much an interest to belong to any cityscape, for we have learned that it can and will do with us what it wants, but the perseverance of the ability to keep an essence and a resiliency that is also an important part in confronting and resisting the violence so bent on destroying us.