Why Gentrification Will Never Kill Barrio Magic

The rough-and-tumble streetscape/ abandoned factories/ warehouses/ scrap-metal yards/ sidewalks still largely devoid of life/ metal gates and barbed wire/forbidding allure
/desolate/

“It’s all about discovery and taking chances and hopefully finding something revelatory”
“The social aspect is essential for artistic innovation”
“There’s a sense of Peter Pan’s Lost Boys around here.

– Gentrification, a study by The New York Times.

When white gentrifiers suddenly appeared sauntering down Boyle Height’s sidewalks
turning heads of abuelitas sitting on sunny porches
my neighborhood became important.

Important destination for bicycle tours featuring artisanal snacks
organized by developers for urbanites
with enough courage to venture to Los Angeles’s eastern frontier
in search of charming little Mexican homes to buy flip own

Important incubator of vanguard art hosted by emerging art galleries
the kind that boast of grimy freeway overpasses
city garbage and poverty providing
great dramatic contrast to their gallery’s impeccable white interiors

Important business endeavors for breweries serving up pale ales, saisons, porters
to patrons clueless of the brown bodies surrounding the renovated warehouses

Important because when gentrification sprang up in talks around dinner tables
we suddenly feared losing what we thought had always been and would always be ours

Safe space
where eating, laughing, bridging, organizing, and caring
are ways to heal our collective spiritual wounds
where we hold space to be fully ourselves

Presence defines us here
where we are more than just those who crossed the borders barefoot
the people who trim your yard
prepare and serve you your ramen, steak, or burger
More than just your maquila worker
your nanny or token Latinx voter

More than just those who were displaced from their campos
gunned down by police
ignored and pushed to the fringes of invisibility
beyond the reach of accountability, respect, and justice

Here we have nurtured a life filled with marvelous moments of
brown brilliance and barrio magic

What our parents carried on their backs
and imbued in us
what makes our lives
exceptionally beautiful and us
resilient

Barrio magic like
the morning strolls looking for the tamale lady
like that’s all the soul searching we’ll ever need

It’s the little brown girl posted alongside the raspado lady
digging through the mountain of 50-cent chips
holding up bag after bag to momma

Her moppy black hair frames her bright eyes peeking above the bag of Doritos
pleading to her momma too busy with the chisme

It’s the street-side food hustle that fills our bellies
with the blue corn quesadillas and deep-fried garnachas that remind us
of cities and pueblos that some of us have only been to in our dreams

The grandkids riding inside their abuelita’s black basket shopping carts
blabbering their Spanglish adventures to the wind
happy, invincible, and impeccably groomed
warmth between the little loves and the worlds that embrace them

Barrio magic is filling public space with our presence
musicians, migrantes, paísas, metalerxs
niñxs comiendo sus tostilocos on a plaza bench a luz de día
a luz de las nubes

Chambeadores, cocinerxs, gardinerxs, estudiantes, madres, abuelxs
seres who find home, space, and the rest
expressed in the beautiful word my momma always demanded
of my younger desmadrosa self: resollar, rest.

Rest in a world that is violence without cease,
toward the people who fill my community
means resisting in the way our communities have done all along:
inhabit and exist.

We recognize what gentrification means for us
not because it makes us suddenly visible or important
to those who will never see our magic

But displacement has followed us across
Mexican, Salvadoran, Guatemalan, Honduran, Peruvian, U.S. borders

Unbearably important when we feel that stinging anger rise from the pit of our stomachs
as we witness whiteness and power
discover
purchase
occupy
colonize
anything it wants to and map it on Yelp.

The power to build, as if nothing was there before

Revamp as if structures, homes, life, and cultures crafted by the displaced into art and love are lives to be torn down by developers

Revitalize, as if life lay there listless, absent, and invisible

Rehab structures but shoo away street side-beggar plagued with cirrhosis
that take up space on the bus benches in front of their galleries

Overwhelming fear of seeing all the magic erased forever
what we love buried and built upon, torn down and redesigned

Our parents and ancestors forced to leave pueblos
have gone back to only find maquiladoras where before stood their apple orchards
where before beautiful soil persevered their memories, love, and life like shrines

Ensuing gentrification make me feel desperate to preserve the physical
structures
the places that nurture all that is love and presence

But this presence and magic lives in shrines within us
magic that whispers
We will not let them erase us.

Waking before the Storm

The luminous silver sheen of a sky heavy with rain frames the dancing ethereal mauve branches of the jacaranda tree. As I ride the train home, I trace the swaying multi-colored flowers down below through my window and as the sky above threatens to inundate us with the total weight of life and destruction, inanimate and slumbering spirits alike are summoned into movement all around me.

Sprinkled throughout the horizon, like beacons of lavender hued hope, the jacaranda tree reaches the apex of beauty just moments before a spring-time rain storm. These trees, although most abundant and common in the subtropical region of our world, are radiant and wild under rainy skies. Because of their color and beauty, they seem to belong no where else but amidst the chaos and freedom of rain and wind. Dancing and alive under the Los Angeles sky.

As I walk home, eager to both avoid and surrender to the looming rain that has already begun to lightly kiss my face, I walk through familiar streets, the wind sinking into my spirit, unrelentingly piercing through every part of me. Around every corner, towering above homes and lined all along the streets, the jacaranda peeks through with its elegant trunk and far reaching branches that cradle hundreds of clusters of fragrant purple flowers. The only radiant beauty under the grey skies, life surrounded by a colorless landscape.

Everything is enlivened by the rain winds. It is an unbound and powerful silence and upheaval, when the wind animates tree branches into a feverish dance, when human eyes are swept upward, when the earth is caressed by the heavens whose light illuminates and transforms our world, making it wonderful again, undoing and erasing the mundanity we’ve imposed upon it. When everything awakens, we again see and feel the beauty of our everyday lives.

The trees sprinkle their sweet syrupy petals from above, the wind cleanses unnecessary burdens from my spirit, and before thundering forward to do its work on another soul, it caresses a smile onto my face.

To emulate the singularity of the jacaranda, the healing power of wind, the radiance of the earth illuminated and nourished by a regenerative liquid, a spiritual life force, to again feel and see: everything is beautiful, everything lives.

I feel most alive in the moments before a storm.

cities for creatures of pure wonder

From the film, Los Angeles Plays IItself
From the film, Los Angeles Plays Itself

“A single step into the past is enough for me to rediscover this sensation of strangeness which filled me when I was still a creature of pure wonder, in a setting where I became aware of the presence of a coherence for which I could not account but which sent its roots into my heart.” –
Louis Aragon, Paris Peasants 

After traveling home through a daze of side-eyed glances and murmuring strangers casting shadows under neon street signs, I collapse exhausted onto my bed. Intoxicated off a seemingly endless weekend of living. Hallucinating on the thrill of traveling within and beyond the city limits. A city that’s my home, that I know, that I have tried to flee and fight a millions times over.

This physical repose allows me to become overwhelmed with the inebriation, conversation, music, faces, and sights blessed upon me by amazing company, still palpable through tact and memory. Pressed upon my whole being is an affirmation that I am, and have always been meant to be, an unceasing traveler of and for life. For four days, I shared life with a kindred traveler spirit first befriended in Mexico City, and with new and old friends.

For four days, we abandoned all will to excess and serendipity. Propelled by the energy of the collective wanderlust of our borderless party crew, I partied the way I have rolled around and danced in dozens of dance floors in Mexico City. I voyaged through streets so intimately familiar to me with luggage the way I walked through the cobblestone streets of Oaxaca, Mexico for the first time. And from high above, I overlooked the limitless horizon of a city, stretching in every possible direction, a vision so new yet so familiar to one discerned from the balcony of the Torre Latino in DF.

Yet this inspiration that permeates my spirit with bliss feels like the result of all my travels and experiences concentrated into a mere weekend. As if the overwhelming happiness I experience is the sum of hundreds of days of travel, of four years packed into four days in Los Angeles. Because while these moments transport me to a different physical and temporal terrain, I feel newly aquatinted with the beauty that resides in the familiar and the possibility present in the everyday. Through celebrating with friends who also yearn for art, love, and punk rock midnight living, I learned about how thrilling it is to travel even when home, even when neither there nor then. But in the living, breathing, exhilarating moment.

The abyss of nocturnal revelry and the luminosity of daybreak peering through windowsills reminded me that it’s possible to feel the intoxication inspired by traveling anywhere and everywhere. As the clock relentlessly winds and begins again, inspired by the sun and moon’s cyclical voyage across the city’s sky, people move through this city often overlooking opportunities to connect with and contemplate each other and their surroundings. To do so is to miss the opportunity to peer into worlds that affirm our connection to far away places while also helping to deepen our connection with the place that physically sustains us, the concrete urban incubator of the mundane and intoxicating existence of our everyday lives.

This is a lesson and a truth unbeknown to thousands of people too afraid to share a conversation with a pensive Kenyan smoking on the steps of the Los Angeles Public Library. Of lying on the grass following the trail of a hummingbird that flutters through swaying branches of the jacaranda tree. Of sneaking up high-rise lofts to discern the waning sun reflected on the diaphanous and translucent arrangement of rising structures and deepening human silence.

During these last few days, I felt incredibly overwhelmed with the certainty and gratitude of fully and wildly living in the present and expansive city of LA. It’s as if in living intensely, I was finally able to travel enough to connect to hundreds of places, sensations, perspectives, simultaneously. In my search and hunger to travel, travel as a place to get to, I had never offered myself the opportunity to occupy and live within that journey. To feel it permeating my skin, in the surf and garage punk tunes rousing a dance floor, in the collective satisfaction of living.

Arriving to the all too familiar place, neighborhood, home, bed, I am physically and spiritually reeling with the highness of living and traveling. Meditating on the assertion that all of us are capable of perpetually exploring and navigating both new and old terrain in search of wisdom and stimulation of the senses, mind, body, and spirit.

To travel, in the measure that it transports us to our past, is to step forward stringing along each sight and person that has inspired wonder, searching and accepting this in every place. And as I write, and as this dazed and delirious feeling leaves my body, left in its place is this lesson on travel and place. Something I have searched for yet is what the city now whispers and what its denizens struggle to keep silent.

The affirmation flows through my bedroom window. The hum of human activity and wind blowing through the tree branches kindles what’s born within all of us. The certainty that life, expressed in our perpetual travels, is not a destination but an unceasing journey, that deepens, extends, animates and awakens.

 

boyle heights como presencia

la primera, boyle heights

In Boyle Heights, the coming of Spring begins to permeate our mornings through the smell of flowers when the wind blows and in the brightening brown faces of gente walking the streets of a community perched atop a hill anchored in the heart of LA. As I walk around my community, up and down streets lined with victorian homes and multi-family apartment buildings bustling with life, on a bright March morning the jacaranda trees bloom and sprinkle its petals on the faces of brown children and viajeras who glance up to embrace its beauty and grandeur. The purple flowers hang off tree limbs that extend expansively into the sky above, a presence unwavered by wind and time.

Spring, as bearer of life and rebirth, serves as a backdrop for a community filled with hundreds of people as strong and as present as the jacaranda trees planted here and throughout nuestra américa, our transbarrios. Yet it was under a patterned blue and light purple evening sky, that I discerned perhaps for the first time yesterday, the meaning of this presence, how tangible, beautiful, and singular people of Boyle Heights are.

My love for this place runs as deep as my love for the smell of moist soil, the taste of food prepared by men and womyn in dozens of its street corners, for happiness and community on a park and plaza bench, and the gift of walking and moving and knowing where I was born, where my parents chose to stay and build, to harvest, and to grow.

Yet for a long time, when I’ve walked down its streets I have seen and felt an absence in this place I love without measure that I couldn’t exactly name. In my treasured ritual of walking down 1st street, an avenue of constant movement where storefronts neighbor the community theater and police station, I often have searched to find a connection, the gaze of my neighbors both young and old, to find reassurance in a smile and in an affirmation. Without understanding this need, I felt I wanted to embrace the people who live in a community I have gone on to carry with me wherever I have traveled, when Boyle Heights has rolled off my tongue when speaking with students and activist in Mexico City, when strolling down the pebbled streets of Oaxaca, when stepping onto the campus of a university in a small predominately white town in Northern California.

Many times I have instead seen the downward gaze of an elder man dressed in a sombrero and guaraches walking in the opposite direction determined to get to some place. I have seen lackluster storefronts, one after another, profiled against a sunset peaking through the skyline down below, absent of people, absent of warmth. As a community so close to downtown and so familiar to migrant spirits, its sidewalks and bus benches become home to lingering souls, momentary refuge for rest and sleep. Through the unceasing cycle of night and morning, I have yearned to feel and to see and to know that collectively us gente from Boyle Heights know how beautiful it is to be and to be together, here.

But it was under the illuminated lavender sky of March that I finally found what I had for so long searched for. Walking home from work, while waiting at the intersection, across the street I discerned my community convening to share tacos and company. Posted all along a rail in front of our local surplus food store, the man who sleeps at the entrance of the youth center sat awaiting his order. Beside him was the older man who wakes up early every day and tours the neighborhood to pick up plastic bottles to recycle. And surrounding them were men, womyn, elders, and families all lined up at Tacos y Burritos El Texano, waiting to scarf down an order of 4 tacos de al pastor each, some seriously considering buying a champurrado or tamale from the man stationed with his shopping cart right at the corner.

This vision, people who I greet day after day on my walk through Boyle Heights were together, eating, sitting, existing, and occupying space in a community that is ours. I discerned presence. I discerned space. I discerned the existence and being of individuals that for many never exist. In my search to affirm the communality and love of Boyle Heights, I have not only learned that the sadness of our people informs our collective existence, but that many times what we consider absence, is really living and breathing presence.

As the light turned green I walked across the street, exchanging a wave with my neighbor and plastic-bottle collector, and began my way down the street I have known as home for twenty-four years, the wind caressing a smile onto my face. Somos como la jacarandá, sigilosxs y presentes.

Gentrification in Los Angeles: Why We Must Choose To Stay

Featured in Los Angeles For La Gente: One of the worst things about being poor is always being forced to interact with, and cede to, the interests of rich people. Now add race, and gender, geopolitics, and immigration status to this equation of extraction and displacement: poor people are always forced to move, to migrate, to conform to new and more desolate street-side homes and barrios. Across the bridge from Skid Row – in Boyle Heights, CA – barrios suddenly become attractive and the novelty of poor, but charming, immigrant neighborhoods draws in the privileged capital – ‘cuz in this country not every dollar wielding individual is created equal – to displace and run-out the eternally displaceable. “Gentrification” is the displacements of migrantes de America, de agua por Coca-Cola, de milpas por Monsanto, of barely there sustenance under cardboard homes for luxury condos – todo para volver a vendernos lo que nos han quitado // all in order to sell us back what they have taken from us.

This is a matter of dispossession and displacement. In the (pict)oral histories that map the movement of people, we find patterns marked by displacement. While all of us remain individually terrified of displacement, of ambiguity, of the stripping away of all of our comforts and support, many people’s hxstories remain deeply entrenched and informed by displacement. Displaced from their pueblos. Displaced of their food ways. Displaced of their language. Displaced even from the comfort and security of their urban poverty. It is as if some communities are destined to be perpetually driven to the most remote corners of the earth. On the intention and meticulous planning of economic interests informed by appetites for the consumption of “culture” and “diversity” – a perpetual search to fill the voids constructed by racial violence and capital accumulation – people seek to occupy the cultural spaces built by perpetually displaced communities who had hoped of “finally being able to stay.” Hope after having traversed thousands of miles, having ceded to the social and political rituals of a new place, having hoisted up the social and cultural infrastructure to both cede to the demands of a hostile society and challenge and attempt to transform it, still they have no place.

In the name of advancement, governments have bastioned transnational economic policies like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). In the name of progress, governments have ceded to the demands of transnational corporations and a result have poisoned hundreds of communities with toxic waste and genetically modified food. And in the name of development, city officials and realtors seek to cultivate communities as if weeds inhabited them. Yet in all these instances those who continue to be chased away remain to be the same people. They are the working class brown bodies chased away from their communities because of U.S. political and economic intervention abroad, by racism and discrimination, and by greed.

Gentrification is displacement. It faithfully follows a pattern that has chased and driven away people across borders, willed on not with the interest of their well-being but the profits to be made by their dispossession.

We can survive and flourish in the condition of displacement, and even in our apparently sedentary lives we experience the threat of rupture through the deportation, the arrest, the silencing and reprimanding of everything we know. But we cannot continue our movement willed by the demand of those whose insatiable hunger knows no limit, whose greed remains unperturbed by our historical expulsion.

In Boyle Heights – as in Mexico and as in Guatemala – weeds do not spring from the earth. The evolution of community development and progress has been bastioned by those who found themselves with the opportunity to repose from their ardent journey fleeing displacement. There exists a relationship among diasporas who remain committed to supporting and recognizing the importance of mutually supporting the means for community survival. For a community model that recognizes that the señora de los tamales is more important than a corporation that sells frothy iced coffee drinks, because that womxs is their mother, daughter, abuela, hija, companion in a collective struggle against displacement.

Here, among the backdrop of a cityscape that reflects these journeys in its murals and informal economy of pan Latin American delicacies, among the men and womxn who struggle to feed themselves by feeding us the food that managed to make it across the border, among both the silences and articulation of trans-generational knowledge and experience, there exists an opportunity for a collective resistance against displacement. And to unearth and articulate our deeply embedded desire to confront those who seek to continue to push us and say that, here there exists life. And here we choose to stay.

Escribiendo Los Ángeles: La Música

Ella pisa las estrellas 
todo te lo da y pronto te lo quita 
por los callejones donde nada brilla 
quedan los recuerdos de la Reina..

 La Santa Cecilia, fragmento de la canción “Nuestra Señora La Reina de Los Ángeles” 

En este blog he dedicado mucha prosa y poesía a la Ciudad de México. Aquella es mi musa más grande, fuente inagotable de inspiración para esta viajera. Pero gran parte de lo que me inspira de ella lo asocio a mi experiencia como una mujer y estudiante transfronterista.

To write and understand myself wholly, we must consider all of my experiences relative to borders, and to the ways in which I travel, transcend, inhabit and challenge them.

Before Mexico City there was Santa Cruz, before Santa Cruz Los Angeles, before Los Angeles there was Durango, before Durango…Between all this coming and going, Los Angeles remains one of my more enduring homes. This is the city my parents’ choose to migrate to in the 70s and sow roots, echar raíces, while nurturing a yearning always to return down roads trekked across hills and deserts, rivers and mountains.

Because although I am always leaving, aunque siempre me esté yendo, siempre regreso. Regreso cuando la nostalgia se aproxima en invierno y extraño los apapachos de mi mamá, su olor su cocinar los tamales y el ponche que prepara y escuchar a mi padre tocar el piano y perderme en su colección de records. Recuerdo la letra de una canción de Facundo Cabral, Me gusta andar pero no sigo el camino pues lo seguro ya no tiene misterio, me gusta ir con el verano muy lejos pero volver donde mi madre en invierno…

Porque cuando regresamos al nido, when we return to our earliest home, we receive new opportunities to discern the smallest and most astounding developments, the newness of what we once considered mundane and ordinary, and the beauty and happiness of our most cherished memories.

My piece of Los Angeles is Boyle Heights – un pequeño pedazo de Los Angeles hacia el oriente en donde encontramos mucha gente mexicana, saldavoreña, latinoamericana y todxs quienes se encuentran en medio. This is a community of resiliency where the memory of our pueblos remains preserved in our food, in the aromatic poetry of pan dulce that emanates from bakeries on bright and radiant barrio mornings, in our abrazos and in our music.

The músicxs y música that melodize and fill my community come in diverse melodic and rythmic forms, desde el mariachi al conjunto, del son jarocho al rock  y punk en espanglish. However, the bastions of our musical creative production remain the people who, in their migration and journey through las américas, brought with them their love and necessity. For all of us, music becomes a tool and symbol of personal and collective survival:

© Monica Almeida
Mariachi Plaza © Monica Almeida

Of all ages, de todos los tamaños: trabajando en un oficio ya antiguo, a veces o muchas veces menos preciados, tocando para nosotros los corridos, los sones, los huapangos..siempre en restaurantes coloridos y deliciosos.  The strumming of their guitarras, the plucking of the strings, the loitering, waiting, watching: esperando las oportunidades que a veces nunca llegan. 

 

© Nidia Bautista
© Nidia Bautista

En Los Ángeles, ciudad a veces cruel, es en donde cada vez más los músicos mexicanos y latinoamericanos quedan relegados a la plaza de mariachi y a aveces, al hambre. Los procuramos cuando nuestra nostalgia y soledad lo requiere. Theirs are faces I want to preserve in my heart’s memory forever; las manos envejecidas, mentes lúcidas, miradas agobiadas, melodías dulces.

Cumbia, transnationally…

Proyecto Sonidero, Livia Radwanski

The transnational soundscapes of cumbia – born in Latin American as testimony of exploitation, perseverance, and intersection during the african slave trade in Colombia and Panama – reverberates through the dance halls of Mexico City and Los Angeles, where people of many languages vibe and dance to music fused together by delicious melodic and rhythmic arrangements.

To dance and play cumbia in any of these two cities is to participate in a translocal musical and corporal dialogue of sorts – mingled among the crowd there are folks who have known cumbia for generations, a rhythm which seems to have informed their corporal movement since time immemorial.

At first it is difficult to write about cumbia because it is difficult to transmit with words the seductive beats and melodic arrangements that entrance souls and bodies into movement, as if palabras are unfit to capture the essence of the music and context in which I’ve experienced this Latin American and always innovative sound. The rhythms, varieties and sensations inspired are difficult to communicate because I approach cumbia, like I approach everything else – transnationally.

My first introduction to cumbia was at a young age at family parties in Los Angeles, Califas – the tex-mex and cumbias norteñas of Selena Quintanilla and Los Relámpagos del Norte would blast from stereos and would inspire a humble dance crowd, where tios and tias would twirl and side step to the flirtatious beats of Suavecito. As child of Duranguense, Sonoran, and Jalisciense predecessors, this was my first encounter with one of more than twelve cumbia varieties.

Through countless hours of thrifting for cumbia sounds, it is hard to miss that many producers make note of its transnational nature; in the introduction to the Danza de Los Simpsons by the Chicha Libre – a cumbia chicha revival band born out of Brooklyn, NY – dice: “se baila así en Colombia, Chile, México, Argentina, Panama y también se baila así, en Peru” – It is danced all over Latin America, and increasingly, all over the world.

My second and most intensive primer on cumbia was in one of the most creatively resplendent and musically innovative cumbia capitals of the world, la Ciudad de México. Mexico City is home to the quintessentially chilango cumbia rhythms of sonidera culture, where cumbia meets public space. Strolling through el Centro Histórico, downtown Mexico City, on a Sunday afternoon you could find dozens of couples of all ages twirling and meneando to the classic guaracha tunes by the dozens in Parque Alameda. And an overview of any YouTube video and many-a-chilango testimonies illustrate the mythical cumbia gatherings in Tepito, a barrio famous for its boxers, Santa Muerte, and cumbia sonidera. But Mexico City is also an incubator of psychedelic cumbias and kumbia queers.

It is in this great city that I was introduced to chicha, a cumbia melodic masterpiece born in the Peruvian Amazon in the 60s, via the quintessentially chilango band, Sonido Gallo Negro. Chicha was born in Peru from Columbian cumbian influences, Andean melodies and Cuban guajiras but with a psychedelic injection. Bastioned by bands like Los Mirlos and Los Destellos, chicha quickly spread to Lima and congealed with the musical likeliness of rock, Andean folklore and Peruvian creole music – and it was radically popular in Peru. With time many of these bands become relegated to the nostalgia of dancers of decades past but recently this 9-piece, instrumental band from east Mexico City took on a project to recuperate the chicha sound but with a chilango flair.

In many ways, dancing to cumbia psicodélica in Mexico City is a ritualistic and spiritual experience; the sweat of a venue filled with the spirits of cumbia psicodélica of the past and the sensual and licentious energies emanating from bodies persuaded by the timbales, congas, güiro and electric convocation of Sonido Gallo Negro in Multiforo Alicia is one of my most cherished and hazed memories.

I recently attended a cumbia gathering in La Cita, a bar once frequented by sombrero wearing and tecate sipping dones in Los Angeles, where I danced to the music of La Chamba Chicha – a resident Los Angeles band – along with a few cumbia loving friends. To the rhythm of sonideras and chichas I was twirled by a querida amiga, where through giggles and smiles we innocently bumped into our neighbors, perhaps over extending our spins and footwork when we heard Guaracha Sabrosona come on.

But within this transnational soundscape in which cumbia rules, there is no room for timidity. La cumbia se baile, y se baila sabroso.