Origin Stories: Los Cuentos

It was the 1980s, and hailing from the steep trails of San Pedro Cajonos, mom’s hometown atop mountains in Oaxaca, Mexico, it took her over 2,000 miles to find work in downtown Los Angeles’s garment factories.

Shortly afterwards, she met my pops. He had just missed the height of a civil war in El Salvador, leaving home in his teens, and was working as a handyman for a local landlord in the Hollywood area. Mom and dad were both in their mid-twenties when they met. Soon thereafter, they married and give birth to yours truly in the winter of 1990.

Ten years later, things would change irreversibly for our family; my dad had a different calling, and suddenly mom became a single mother to my brother and I. But the fact is that it wasn’t the first time the world just fell on her shoulders.

Before mom reached her teen years, her dad—a local and respected tradesman of San Pedro Cajonos—was shot and killed by a jealous ex-business partner; my abuelito’s sudden death forced mom to leave the one thing besides her papa that she loved: a budding education at her school through reading and writing; as the first daughter, and oldest of nine, mom left school in the middle of her sixth grade year to care for her brothers and sisters alongside her mom—abuelita—for the next ten years.

In 2001, after nearly twenty years, mom left garments in downtown L.A. to start her own business: a newsstand on the streets of East Hollywood. I was just on the cusp of reaching my teen years when she set out on this path, but still couldn’t understand why she chose to start selling newspapers and magazines for a change.

I would realize just a short life-time later that while mom’s experience in school was short-lived, she loved learning too much to let it go completely. Her newsstand was a place where she could finally reconnect with her childhood dream of being surrounded by words, fellow literary lovers, and the Cuentos they all told together.

Over twenty years since mom’s unlikeliest of dreams came to stand, Los Cuentos by J.T. now emerges. On the one hand, each Cuento carries these ‘old’ legends and trails, and on the other, an emergent new dream: a world rising fiercely from the city’s schools, buses, subways, garment shops, and more.

But more is right. More Cuentos are on the way again in no time, Los Angeles



It was the summer of 2014, and after graduating from school up north for a couple of years, I felt an enormous need to return to the city of Los Angeles for all the human reasons: to see my mother, as well as my old friends and teachers, and to enjoy the sunshine only Southern California offers. Returning was every bit as enriching as I had imagined it in my mind; it was once only a dream of mine to take hold of that priceless piece of paper, a degree from an American university, and yet there I was, “Home Again,” with one. After my graduation, our little familia was–even if just incrementally–in a better position for a better future together.

Then one evening, I found myself walking with mama through the “old” neighborhood when a vision took hold of me. Crossing shoulders with our fellow pedestrians, I was taken aback by all the families that could be our own. They looked and walked as we did, and put up their storefronts down the street no differently from mom and I at la caseta.

Their faces were filled with dignity, and as I heard them chatting and laughing charismatically with one another, I could feel the resilience and generosity of their character as warmly as the sunshine ebbing away in the distance.

The Ensenada Market at Virgil avenue and Burns street in 2015.

Then I looked at the whole boulevard, and its warm and brilliant lights under the vast sky filled me with a euphoric feeling. I fell hard. I saw myself in the city and its endless neighborhoods, and I haven’t been able to shake the vision ever since.

That fall, with the humbling support of the community, I fundraised for my first “(semi) professional” camera, a Canon Mark I, which I then used to develop “J.T.,” something I thought of as a “re-discovery” of the city I grew up in at every turn and photograph. To sustain the website and make other ends meet, I found work wherever they were hiring, landing a position at Vons as a cashier, then at Starbucks as a barista. After a couple of years in these roles, I accepted a position with the Inside Out Writers, a special nonprofit in Los Angeles working for juvenile justice, becoming a writing instructor with their organization. I also found a role with the Plus Me project, another organization doing storytelling at different middle and high schools across Los Angeles.

My time serving at each “gig” taught me a great deal about myself, but more than anything, it taught me how to manage my time, one second at a time, JIMBO TIMES style. Seven years later, I see JIMBO TIMES more than ever in the endless shades of brown masses streaming through L.A. Metro buses, subways, sidewalks, storefronts, and more.

I now strive 365 days a year for the website as a full-time editor-in-chief for the site, so as to ensure the world sees and hears from someone born and raised by the scale and scope of the megalopolis known as Los Angeles.

From the East to the South side, and from Central L.A. to the Valley, our communities are teeming with workers and dreamers, and J.T. the L.A. Storyteller is still committed to honoring every single one of them as much as scale and scope allow.  

For more of this story and those of our fellow L.A. storytellers, please RSVP to our special gathering online tonight at EastHollywood.Eventbrite.com.

And through it all, REMEMBER: J.T. remains committed to the tenacity of Los Angeles, tipping hats to the hustle and bustle of our familias all the time and everywhere we’re to be found.


(Re)Making Our Neighborhood – An Excavation of East Hollywood, Part III

This is the third installment of a three-part series.

“The Marshalls were close to their Japanese-American neighbors, particularly the Hoshizakis and the Kakibas, who lived on either side of them. Their daughter, Barbara Marshall, remembers food and culture being exchanged over the hedges of their houses.” – Samanta Helou-Hernandez, This Side of Hoover

The Japanese American and African American families documented on This Side of Hoover were the types of families in East Hollywood whom a band of real estate appraisers & L.A. County officials in the 1940s would come to label “undesirable” for investment. Today, the area, east of Hollywood and west of Silver Lake, is a majority-immigrant community where nearly 4/5ths of the population rent apartments, and which is also disproportionately policed over increasingly valuable real estate for appraisers.

Now, nearly one hundred years since deed restrictions in Los Feliz–a wealthier neighborhood to the north of East Hollywood–stated in their clauses that only members of the “Caucasian Race” were allowed to own property in the area, Black residents there and in East Hollywood face the highest rates of homelessness and policing of their bodies. Non-white immigrant communities face the second highest rates of homelenessness and policing in Los Feliz and East Hollywood.

Data also shows that from 1980 – 2014, when areas like East Hollywood saw their largest waves of immigration from Latin America and Asia, rents in Los Angeles jumped 55%, while incomes increased only by 13%.

In 2018, according to the California Housing Partnership (CHP), “Renters in Los Angeles County [needed] to earn $46.15/hr – more than 4 times local minimum wage – to afford the median monthly asking rent of $2,400.” The CHP also estimated that Los Angeles County needs at least 500,000 additional affordable rental homes to meet current demand, a number that’s only increasing due to Ellis Act evictions.

Ellis Act evictions take place when landlords decide to convert buildings, including rent-stabilized (RSO) buildings, into condominiums. Since 2000, Ellis Act evictions have taken nearly 500 housing rent-stabilized units out of East Hollywood and nearly 27,000 RSO units from the city of Los Angeles overall. At the same time, since 2000, homelessness in the 13th district, of which East Hollywood is a part of, has accelerated, with at least 544 families without housing as recently as 2019. The total number of unhoused people in the 13th district is now at least 4,000, according to the most recent numbers from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.

As we discuss redlining in East Hollywood then, it’s also important to note that Los Angeles was not always segregated between wealthy neighborhoods on the west and north sides and impoverished neighborhoods in the central, east and south sides. Redlined neighborhoods in Los Angeles actually meant that neighborhoods were integrated, made up of Black, immigrant, and European-born residents. The clearest consequence of redlining and related policies was therefore explicit government investment in dividing cities by racial makeup, which came to promulgate the false notion that universal human necessities like housing, education, and healthcare should serve only some residents at the expense of others.

Also consider that Black and immigrant groups called “undesirable” for investment by the Homeowners Loan Corporation (HOLC) were groups of laborers, many of whom worked for the city’s biggest industries in the 20th century before WW2, that of service and agriculture. Black, Japanese, Mexican and other “minority” residents served wealthier white families in areas like Los Feliz as babysitters, nurses, fruit pickers, and more. Historically then, Black and immigrant communities in Los Angeles played critical roles in making the state of California the fifth largest state in the U.S. by 1950.

Redlining also entailed private and public officials marking people as inherently hazardous to one another due to racial difference, not unlike an unsafe “building condition.” For example, there were certain parts of the northern portion of Hollywood that were redlined not because Black or immigrant people resided there, but due to an unsafe dam.

Private and public officials feared–or at least professed–that racially different groups living together could only lead to racial rioting, which was prevalent from the 50s – 60s, though largely over the same issues: housing, employment, and police discrimination against Black and other non-white bodies. But if groups of different skin color could only lead to rioting, then what explains the inter-ethnic community between Black and Japanese American families like those noted by Making Our Neighborhood…The Panel Series?

Here are also a few interesting questions for readers to consider about any redlined neighborhood in the U.S. today: What would the area look like if Black and immigrant communities had actually been invested in, or allowed to own homes in “white” neighborhoods and supported sufficiently in doing so? How many unhoused “tent cities” would have been prevented in the decades after the 1940s? And how much crime and policing over the last 80 years could have been avoided in the neighborhood?

Now Los Angeles is witnessing the rise of a new generation of multi-ethnic groups organizing to advance justice and equity in the city, particularly in the area of Tenants Rights. More interethnic movements need to be forged, however, at the same time that the vast majority of L.A. and California’s public officials continue to seem as distant as ever from work on the ground towards equity.

But if Los Angeles needed a reminder that Black people have worked to advance justice for ALL groups, or create justice where it was left wanting, including in this city and not just the historic U.S. south, Ms. Marshall’s account of her family visiting their Japanese American neighbors preceding their internment with sweets and other shows of friendship demonstrate it loudly and clearly.

“I didn’t know we were in an integrated neighborhood until I learned about that word. To be able to walk down the street without fear of people calling you names because everybody was part of the neighborhood.” -Barbara Marshall

Ms. Marshall’s endearing description of everyone belonging to the neighborhood is precisely why the pamphlets for Making Our Neighborhood were translated into four of the most spoken languages in East Hollywood today, including Español, Thai, Tagalog, and Armenian. Our pamphlets have been well received by the community, and for good reason: In a city where at least 3/4ths of the population can trace roots to languages other than English, our informational pamphlets hint at what the next chapter of city planning and community engagement needs to look like.

In today’s Los Angeles, every resident, whether in the celebrity or political class, or not, is a part of this city. Indeed, this simple understanding is all that was missing during the days of deed restrictions, redlining, and other discriminatory practices in home-sales or home rentals to non-white communities. It’s the city that “should have been” built at the dawn of the twentieth century, but that we have to build–and fight for–now.

Consider that during the most fatal public health crisis in over a century, civic groups have had almost no break from hounding at L.A.’s political leadership to “seize the hotels” in order to temporarily shelter a fraction of L.A. County’s 67,000 unhoused residents, who are predominantly Black and immigrant residents, even while the federal government ensures 100% reimbursement for this procedure. But the fact is that given Los Angeles Housing policy for non-white and immigrant communities over the last 100 years, the neighborly thing for our civic and political leadership to do would be to ensure such common sense calls don’t have to be made.

At the same time that our communities fight to shelter the unsheltered, we also have to protect what affordable, rent stabilized housing remains in Los Angeles. This includes repealing the Ellis Act, which has damaged East Hollywood and other Black and immigrant neighborhoods throughout Los Angeles.

Finally, we need to amplify calls on our political leadership to stand up to developers on behalf of our neighborhoods as they were elected to do.

Remember: The CHP has noted that L.A. County is behind, by over 500,000 affordable housing units and then some.

Yet if there’s one thing L.A. was known for since before the 20th century all the way up to 1951, when talks of a baseball team coming to L.A. were just getting started, it was setting records, including building records and booms.

For our part as storytellers, our research and documentation work uplifts elders, activists currently on the ground in our communities, scholars, and even more of what makes East Hollywood and any neighborhood like it more than just “worth” honoring for a moment, but something worth honoring at length for a future.

Already, we have taken the historical truths of redlining and gentrification and flipped them to serve more than just one group or narrative. Our political officials can do the same, and then some. Find our recorded panel sessions on YouTube, and pose your questions for us at the new website for the rest of our community: Hope.xyz/MakingOurNeighborhood.