My name is Elba, and I’m a Latina. I usually follow that up with the fact that I’m born and raised in Los Angeles because it usually saves people from asking their thinly veiled questions of the where-are-you-from-originally or where-are-your-parents-from variety. Because, of course, if you’re not white you must have some sort of origin story, like a comic book character. Hey, maybe that’s a compliment, then? For the record, my parents and older siblings ARE immigrants, from El Salvador! My family has had a long and arduous relationship with this country, having been both legal and illegal throughout their 40+ year history with this great nation. But that’s a much longer story for another day, what’s important is that they’re American citizens now, tiny American flags and all.
We’re from a predominantly Hispanic/Latino working-class city named Huntington Park, also known as H.P. (pronounced, aitch-PEEEEEE). Whenever people ask me where I grew up, I never actually say Huntington Park, because I’ll usually get something like, “Oh YEAH, that’s by Huntington Beach, right?” No girl, NO. Let’s face it, you’ve probably never heard of it unless you happened to catch the name at the tail end of some primetime news report on gangs or illegal immigration. That’s cool, I’ve watched Born in East L.A., I get it, that’s where we’re all from, right? Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE that movie, and many of the other Latino classics, but they’ve been almost too effective. It’s like all those stories have created this large homogeneous area, roughly situated somewhere east of downtown L.A., where we all congregate with our carne asada and Jesus candles. We’re all in just one great barrio, right? When in reality, we’re peppered all over the damn place, and in particular, have dominated South Central, and South East L.A. for some time now, and that’s where I’m from. We are the forgotten cities, small communities like Downey, Bell, South Gate, Lynwood, Whittier, Pico Rivera, and tons of others. Nobody thinks about us, let alone writes about us unless it’s to report on the latest naughty thing we’ve done. Because that’s all we’re good for, right? Back in the 90’s we were just as invisible, until one day we weren’t.
If you’re a person of color, chances are you’ve had that moment when someone tries to see you as less-than, an “other,” a second-class citizen, solely because of the color of your skin; this is a rite of passage unique to all POCs. When I was a kid, I’d watch TV shows like The Wonder Years and it would make me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. See, I would think, we’re all the same! We all have crushes on our elementary school teachers, and fights with our best friends! I really WANTED to believe this, if it was on television it had to be true, right? After all, TV was my biggest frame of reference for white culture, because the only white people in my neighborhood were the teachers in my school, the people in the bank, and the supervisors in the factories. I had to believe that white people were like me, and I was like them, with maybe some minor cultural differences here and there. And I had to believe that they thought the same about me! We were all human beings, so what was the big deal anyway? I stayed in my bubble for as long as I could, and then one day I was snapped into reality, and it was the beginning of my wokeness.
It was the spring of ‘92, I was nine years old, and while enjoying my afternoon cartoons—one leg hooked on the arm of the living room couch—my life was rudely interrupted by said reality. There was a news brief about the Rodney King trial, a case that I knew nothing about, except for a grainy video showing four white police officers beating a black man. On a basic level, I knew it was wrong for somebody to be beaten like that, but at the same time, I had to wonder whether the police officers had a reason for it. This thought sprung from a young and naive world view; I thought that the people put in charge of serving and protecting us were incapable of doing harm or evil. I didn’t understand all the nuances of systematic racism back then, and I definitely didn’t understand it when the news anchors said that the police officers had been “acquitted,” I even had to look it up in my dictionary. It meant that they were innocent. If a court of law had found them innocent, surely they had to be innocent, right? I didn’t know it then, but I was already being trained by the media to criminalize people of color, even though I was one!
As the evening wore on, the situation got worse. Violence had broken out on the corner of Florence and Normandie, not 5 miles from where we lived, and it was spreading across the city. This would be the beginning of the ‘92 L.A. Riots. I couldn’t believe how fast it was all happening, all of a sudden some abstract trial had turned into real life shit—I was transfixed, I had never seen anything like it. With nobody home to talk to, or hold me back, I plopped my ass down and watched EVERYTHING. The news coverage was particularly perplexing because the citizens being interviewed talked about important issues like injustice, inequality, racism, and oppression, but the news reporters talked about looters, criminals, arsonists, partiers, and even murderers. The footage they were choosing to play and re-play were images of black and brown people running in and out of stores, arms full of stolen merchandise. And when they did stop to actually talk to somebody, no matter how much that person made sense, reporters were quick to dismiss them, which, in retrospect, only reinforced the shit they were trying to say, which was that they were angry and tired of being invisible and silenced. THAT’S why this was all happening, it was much deeper than just Rodney King. I was terrified and fascinated by the whole thing. By the time my parents got home from work, there was no use shielding me from it, I had already seen everything. We hunkered down for the night and waited it out, but my mind was swimming with new thoughts and a vague feeling that something had shifted within me, but I didn’t know exactly what it was, or what any of it meant.
Eventually, the National Guard was called in to squash the riots, and a couple days later everything had returned to normal, or so I thought. My mom and I had left the house to run some errands, and we were surprised to see that the National Guard was still there. Streets were barricaded and soldiers stood guard at major intersections, semi-automatic rifles in hand. I had never seen a soldier close-up, in full gear, ready to shoot, it was a trip! Walking the streets of Pacific Blvd. was surreal, like something out of a post-apocalyptic zombie movie: boarded up windows, broken glass everywhere, graffiti all over the walls, and distraught store owners trying to get their businesses back on their feet. The frenzy, chaos, and anger I saw on the news had been replaced by a morose haze. We were like the dog that had been smacked on the nose with a rolled up newspaper; made to grovel with our tail between our legs and hope for our master’s forgiveness.
That’s when it hit me, the imperceptible change that I couldn’t place suddenly made itself clear—they weren’t there to control the criminals, they were there to control all of us, all the poor browns and blacks. It didn’t matter that the violence was perpetrated by only a few people because in the eyes of the white man, all of us were a problem to be neutralized. It didn’t matter that most of our neighbors and friends didn’t even set foot outside their homes while the riots were happening, because of our black and brown skin, we were a risk factor. Because “our kind” had engaged in it, we were all capable of it, we needed to be monitored and put in place, ALL of us. Surely these soldiers weren’t out in Santa Monica or Pasadena, even though riot activity had happened there too. It was an epiphany that, in the immediate moment, made me feel like it didn’t matter how I lived my life because as long as there was a brown person out there engaging in criminal activity, I was always one subconscious association away from being a criminal too. It was guilt by association. Heavy thoughts for a nine-year-old, but it would be a theme I would see over and over again, manifested in many different ways, this was just the first time I saw it clearly. Where does one go from here?
That was almost 25 years ago, but I’ve been thinking a lot about it recently. I think about it when I see what’s happening in cities like Chicago. I think about it when another POC is unnecessarily beaten or shot by law enforcement. I think about it whenever somebody tries to tell us about how much better things are. I think about it when yet another crooked cop escapes punishment for their mistreatment of a POC. I think about it when someone tries to tell me about progress. I think about it when the president of the United States tells me that all Latinos have to give to this country are drugs, crime, and rape. I think about it because, when I compare notes, I can see that the exact same thing is happening again, except this time I’m old enough to understand.
There are so many reasons to feel dejected, but there are even more reasons not to be. If we let that man take our spirit, then we’ve lost everything. If we approach every single story in the news cycle with doom and gloom, instead of an opportunity to unite our country, we’ve already failed. We can spend our time talking about the hateful, racist people he’s emboldened, or we can marvel at all the people he’s motivated to action. As I write this, the Women’s March on Washington is assembling one of the largest crowds in history as a means of displaying opposition to tyranny. When I see my friends and co-workers participating in acts of political warfare and activism, instead of whining about it, it makes me proud. When I see the creative community using their voices to speak for the disenfranchised, instead of sowing seeds of discontent, I feel uplifted. When I see artists using their artwork to give a face to those that need visibility, I feel unity. I guess, in a way, I’m still as naive as that nine-year-old me, because I think love trumps hate, and that humanity can win. We’ve got to, right?
The point is, for the first time in a long time, I feel like change is really possible, and instead of feeling dread, we should feel empowerment. Some of us will march, some of us will use our purchase power, some of us will volunteer our time, some of us will amplify the voices of others, some will call their congressmen, some will help their neighbors, some will donate; it doesn’t matter how you’re a part of it, as long as you’re a part of it. What if the most painful, embarrassing, shameful, hateful, angry, moments we’ve experienced as a nation, were the very things that gave us the motivation, and grit, to power through and see things out the other side, stronger, better, more united. Is that just fantasy talk, or can we really make it happen? I couldn’t tell you for sure, but I gotta tell you, it FEELS like we can. Si se puede!
One thing’s for sure, I choose to reject the Latino stereotypes that Trump would have us believe. We AREN’T the criminals you see on TV, but we ARE the labor power that moves the nation’s economy. Los Angeles is the #1 manufacturing city in the United States, and that’s because of US. The Latinos I grew up with, living in these communities, carpool, bus, and bike into these factories and work their asses off every single day. And it’s easy to write them off as illegals, dishwashers and maids, gardeners and plumbers. But it’s our craftsmanship, creativity, and artistry that moves this country. Don’t believe me? Look in your fridge, that Farmer John’s bacon? Butchered by our hands. That crop top you bought for $5 at Forever 21? Stitched by our fingers. That fresh produce you picked up at Whole Foods? Hand-picked by our gente. Want to meet my mom? If you own a Ford F-Series, Dodge Ram, or a Ford Mustang, then all you have to do is check out the excellent work on your seats, my mom’s arthritic hands stitched that for your personal enjoyment. Our bodies deteriorate to bring you the comforts you enjoy, and then we can’t even afford them for ourselves. Try to tell me we’re a burden on this country…
THAT’S who we really are. We were invisible, but now, I really feel like those days are over.