Vote for North Virgil’s Very Own Arasele Torrez

Arasele Torrez, Lockwood Elementary
Arasele Torrez, Lockwood Elementary; Summer 2018

In the throes of Los Angeles, where traffic jams crowd out hopes of a day when the world might move differently, it can be difficult to imagine things actually changing. Yet when one encounters stories of the shakers and movers right in our midst, it’s clear that even if it appears like we’re only slouching in limbo out here, things are actually moving around us each day. Arasele Torrez tells one such cuento.

Age: 28

Where are your parents from? Do you know how they met and/or when they were married? My parents are from San Luis Potosi, Mexico. They met when my dad was visiting their town of Rio Verde in 1989. My parents never got married. However, they have been separated for over eight years now.

When did you all arrive to the Virgil Village community? We arrived to the neighborhood in July 1999 when I was nine years old. So we’ve lived in the community here for almost 20 years now.

Were you the first in your family to go to college? And how many people from your graduating class do you know who went to college? I was the first in my family to go to college. I graduated from Marshall High School in 2008 and went on to UC Davis, where I graduated in 2012. I was also the first in my family to get my master’s degree (Cal State Northridge, 2015). I don’t know how many people from my graduating class also went on to college. However, I’m sure there are statistics available somewhere.

What made you decide to return to Virgil Village? And how did you start to become an advocate for people here? Ever since I was very young, I always loved being of service to my family and neighbors, and volunteering at school. I went to Davis with the idea of returning to East Hollywood and giving back to make a difference. Los Angeles is my city and I can’t picture myself leaving again. I learned so much in college. In particular, I loved my Chicano Studies social policy class, in which I was able to focus my research on East Hollywood, its economy, educational makeup, labor and health statistics. When I learned that our statistics showed a low-income and vulnerable community here, it increased my desire to get involved.

Arasele Torrez, 'Virgil Village'
Arasele Torrez, ‘Virgil Village’; Summer 2018

When did you first get involved with the East Hollywood Neighborhood Council? I had learned about the council when I researched the different groups making up East Hollywood, and decided to run for a seat on the board not long after college in September 2012 to become the Virgil Village North Representative. But my race was contested with two other candidates. Although I beat the gas station owner, I lost to the incumbent by about 16 votes. However, because I truly cared about my community, unlike other candidates who lose, I chose to stick around. I was then appointed as the Student Representative because I was taking courses at LACC for my paralegal program. Since then, I’ve been a part of the neighborhood council for over six years.

Where do you see yourself and this work going within the next three to five years? I’m not sure where I’ll be in three to five years. Hopefully, I’ll still be living in Virgil Village and making an impact if my landlord doesn’t sell us out like other owners have done to several families in the neighborhood. I hope to stay involved locally, and making a difference for the community, for the low-income and underrepresented, in whatever job I have.

Lockwood and Madison, 'Virgil Village'; Spring 2018
Lockwood and Madison, ‘Virgil Village’; Spring 2018

Would you have any advice for other people looking to become more involved in their neighborhood? If so, what would you say is a good way to start? I would say, if you live within LA City Council districts, first look and see what neighborhood council you belong to. You can start by attending their monthly governing board meetings. Just by attending a meeting and voicing some of your concerns, it’s a start to becoming involved in your community.

Also, see if you’re interested in joining one of the committees of the Neighborhood Council as a community member, or stakeholder. At the same time, find out what local non-profits are in the area. And especially if you’re a first generation college student, get involved with the local public schools. Talk to students, our youth and the parents. If you’re in Virgil Village and need any other suggestions, or help getting started, you can also contact me via email at: araseletorrez@gmail.com.

Arasele Torrez, 28, has served as President of the East Hollywood Neighborhood Council since February 2017 and is now running to represent stakeholders as the EHNC’s Virgil Village Representative. To see her Candidate’s Statement, please follow THIS LINK. On the search tab, select “East Hollywood NC.”

GO Arasele!

J.T.

L.A. Metro’s Buses Are for Writers

I can still remember riding Metro’s 780 bus –from North Vermont and Prospect in the Los Feliz neighborhood–out towards Pasadena City College. With my notebooks in hand, I mused about the world I viewed through the windows. Still a teenager at the time, in true L.A. fashion I’d always take the seat all the way in the back-corner, right next to the windows, where I could watch nearly everything and everyone in front of me.

I started college in the city of Pasadena in the Fall of 2008, or the same year that Barack Obama would be elected to the office of the President of the United States.

It was a radically transformative time for me, and all I could wonder about through the days on the bus was just how much of the rest of the world was changing too. Somehow, I felt right at the center of this change, or at least near the center of something monumental, and I valued that feeling. It’s the reason why I wrote.

I often found myself as the only person on the bus scribbling away at a notebook, but didn’t think it strange. I also didn’t find it odd to spend whole evenings on the third floor of Pasadena’s Shatford Library, even if it meant I’d get to the bus stop after 9:00 PM.

It all came to me naturally as I made my way between what were two very different cities to me at the time.

In the evenings on the bus the stillness of nights lit up by the stars and streetlights above made for dazzling visions to take into my dreams. In the daytime on the bus, the bands of pigeons making their way through the clouds while people darted through the crosswalks made it clear that we were all in it together, separated only by whims of time and space.

And I always cared about these particulars of Los Angeles, seated quietly on Metro’s buses, absorbing the city’s landscape through the deep boulevards, on the way back to or from ‘the pueblo,’ long before it was the pueblo.

I’ve shared the days and nights with Los Angeles on the bus in sequences like these for nearly ten years now, and still do. But I wonder just how many people my eyes have actually seen through all of the rides I’ve taken, and just where they all might be now. I imagine most of them are still in Los Angeles like myself, but only Los Angeles knows.

Since those early days between L.A. and Pasadena, I’ve only gotten to see more of the world.

Other than my hometown, I’ve also been to Seattle, to Washington D.C., to Las Vegas, Phoenix, and New York, Miami and Chicago.

I’ve also been to Sacramento and San Francisco, to the wonderful city of Davis, to Tahoe, Santa Cruz, Salinas, Watsonville, Oakland, Berkeley, Half-moon Bay, Pleasanton, Chico, and San Jose.

San Salvador, El Salvador
City Center; San Salvador, El Salvador

I’ve also been to Mexico thrice since 2008, and seen a number of its beautiful cities; from Tijuana to Guadalajara, to Mexico City, to the city of Puebla in the state of Puebla, to Zacapoaxtla, Oaxaca, Ayutla, and more.

This past summer I also visited El Salvador, to the heart in San Salvador, and to Soyapango, Santa Tecla, San Jose Guayabal, and more. Not one to let the adventure end early, I also visited Guatemala while I found myself on the central side, including the city Guatemala, as well as Tikal, and the adjacent city of Flores in Peten.

In 2017, I even made it to Japan. To the marvelous city of Tokyo and its various mini-cities or Japanese pueblos in Shibuya, Ginza, Harajuku, as well as in historic Kyoto, the wonderful city of Osaka, and Hiroshima too.

I’ve met many wonderful people through each of these trips, and am still in contact with many of them. Together, they form what Los Angeles and the world is to me today.

Yet if ten years ago on that 780 bus route someone had told me that I’d get to see all of these places and more, I can only imagine how curious I’d find the idea to be. Now, I’m only more curious about how the next ten years with The City and the world will unfold.

IMG_4154
Atomic Dome; Hiroshima, Japan (2017)

One thing is certain to me, though. The seats of L.A’s Metro buses–whether on the back-corner or elsewhere–are congenial places to write one’s thoughts out, to claim one’s dreams, and to imagine all the other places we can see and be a part of. Just as well, the city of Los Angeles is quite the city to write in. Together, these are the ‘Goldilocks conditions’ that have transported me across the world and which continue to do so.

So let’s keep writing, Los Angeles. L.A. Metro is but a great place for it.

J.T.

The Summer is Ours Los Angeles

JMBTMS_March082019_1
Less than a week since my return, and once again I’m in the midst of more devising for the vecindad. I took a few days off to center myself back into L.A., but now I can see my focus sharpening like when the aperture of my DSLR is locking into the focus.

It’s a buoyant return to my movement, except that now I’m equipped with an even greater understanding of the self behind the motions. Like my movement through the microbuses of San Salvador, I’ve now seen just how adaptable I am to forces greater than my own. And like my journeying through the jungles of Peten in Guatemala, I’ve also seen just how far into the wilderness I’m willing to go.

Of course, there is only more from there. On the steep and winding roads through the Northern Sierra of Oaxaca, I saw just how much more terrain I can withstand. And as I learned when I rode the bullet train from Tokyo to Osaka, and then once again in the opposite direction to find Hiroshima, I also know that I’m not afraid to try and try again until I find just where I need to be.

Once again I need to be in Los Angeles. There are milestones in The City that can only be reached if we keep our eyes on the prize, and well, I’m right there, not going anywhere until I can take home the gold. So, what do you say, L.A? Are we ready to make this Summer something fierce?

J.T.

East Hollywood Can Do Better By Its Kids

The following writing places another recent loss of life in “Virgil Village” within the context of the ongoing changes through our community, among vecindades all across Los Angeles, and across major cities everywhere in America. In a picture of the collage of the memorial and candlelight vigil, one of the writings can be found to read:

fuck white people.

On seeing that note, while I couldn’t endorse the statement, I could trace immediately where its sentiment came from. In 2018, with the prevalence of smartphones, videos, and the news flowing trough these mediums, there’s been an increased attention to everything absurd everywhere, but by far there’s been growing attention to what’s called white privilege in America, or the way white people have access to rights and space that non-whites don’t, which has had the effect of dramatically transforming how communities everywhere in this country perceive their standing in a way not seen since at least the radical 1960s.

The most concerning effect of these changes has been the increased backlash from white America to the scrutiny of white privilege, including the rise of white supremacist groups, their gatherings, and the networks developed by these phenomena.

Young people across America with even remote access to smartphones have been able to access information about these ‘backlashes’ through different lenses like those of the meme, the Facebook video, or the hashtag, to see repeatedly how the institution of white privilege plays out daily in the United States. News-clips of police unfairly targeting Black and Brown bodies, or news-clips of rhetoric slandering immigrants, the religion of Islam, and others, show daily how white America continues in its penchant for hating on others.

The message has been clear and consistent through each of these data, so that if there’s ever any doubt in a young person’s mind about the racialized power dynamics of the United States, the evidence is ubiquitous: white people’s ‘rights’ are first and above all. A law of the land. And because these power dynamics are daily made known, the great divide they create between “us and them” encloses itself around young people to a degree and frequency unseen for generations through this country.

‘It’s us versus them.’

In pueblos like those of our communities, this problem is only compounded, not because of these data pervading over screens, but because of data on the street, in the gentrification of the urban neighborhoods that our families and their predecessors were once only relegated to.

Let us be totally clear here: the neighborhood which makes up these blocks, like neighborhoods all through East and South Los Angeles, took generations to develop in the particular ways that they have been. That is, going as far back as the 1930s, the neighborhood has always lacked a certain type of quality due to the certain groups of people who were known to live here, which is to say Black, Brown, and Asian people, many with special needs, and other ‘minorities’ dealing with the ‘lower-rung’ economics that often came with starting or restarting a life in L.A. in the 20th century. As outsiders, the majority of these groups were discriminated against or merely ‘forgotten’ by the city’s, and by extension, the country’s leadership.

This is why, for example, in the late 1940s and 1950s, the 101 Freeway, among others, tore its way through East side neighborhoods to open up a path for more of Hollywood’s commuters to get to downtown Los Angeles and Santa Ana–because the people on the East side were Chicanos and Asians of humble means who would simply have to get out of the way; it is also why the same freeway tore its way through our own vecindad in that process–because the people of our neighborhood–the Blacks, Latinos, Asians, and others–were also people of humble means who would simply have to get with the program or get lost.

Half a century later, from 1998 – 2000, that same humility of means for the people of la vecindad played a major part in why the local police force, the Rampart division, saw a grand total of 70 of its police officers indicted for decades’ worth of charges on corruption when its special task-force, the ‘CRASH‘ or ‘Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums’ unit, was found to have perpetrated scores of unprovoked shootings and beatings of our youth in their patrols through our neighborhoods, the planting of evidence and framing of those same youth, LAPD stealing from the department, LAPD perjury, and more.

Twenty years later, of the 70 officers implicated by the investigation into Rampart’s ‘CRASH‘ unit, only five of those officers are known to have been terminated as a result of the findings; the humility of means of their victims in these crimes has much to do with those numbers.

There is also a ‘flip’ side to such histories: the fact is that through each period before today’s, to any discrimination against the character of a people there has also been a resistance and opposition.

In Rampart’s case, two years after the indictment of its CRASH unit: “Defense attorneys [were] still scrutinizing thousands of convictions that might have been tainted by Rampart wrongdoing, and plaintiffs’ attorneys [were] awaiting settlement decisions in a hundred and fifty lawsuits and claims against the city.”

In the 1950s, when it came to the construction of the freeways in East Los: “Residents did fight back, flooding public meetings and picketing construction sites. But unlike the mostly white and politically powerful neighborhoods that killed plans for a Beverly Hills Freeway, L.A.’s Eastside couldn’t stop the bulldozer. By the early 1960s, all seven of the planners’ freeways crisscrossed the community.”

And in a similar spirit of resistance, the oldest ‘gang’ in Los Angeles, the White Fence gang of the Boyle Heights area, was formed in the 1940s as a way for Chicano youth in that part of The City to defend themselves against their white counterparts when the latter targeted and attacked them without penalty from law enforcement. To be sure, the documented Zoot Suit ‘Riots’ of Los Angeles in 1943 speak precisely to how this played out.

We are of course not in the 1940s or 1950s anymore, but these periods are still relevant to us not only because of the parallels between them and the state of violence in the U.S. against its ‘others’ today, but also because of their legacy for both white and nonwhite Angelenos when it comes to occupying spaces in proximity to one another today, as we do increasingly in the 21st century.

For historians of Los Angeles, then, or for anyone with an interest in how the city came to be, and how it is still coming to be, there’s a responsibility to make these histories and others known.

The same day as this most recent tragedy in our neighborhood, the White House made a press release dated for May 21, 2018 entitled What You Need to Know About the Violent Animals of MS-13. The memo references President Trump’s State of the Union speech, when he called upon as his guests the parents of two young women who were killed in Long Island, New York by alleged gang members, whose son’s death the president proceeds to list handpicked details of for his audience.

The memo then follows this account with brief mention of other cases and selected details from their records as to how alleged gang members behind them carried out their crimes. It is a thinly veiled form of propaganda designed to rile up support for an official dehumanization of youth identified as ‘gang members.’ But rather than hailing from an ‘alt-right’ website or some neo-nazi’s basement, the statement is listed as the official position of the executive branch of the United States.

Of course, the memo is from the office of a president who just last summer had the audacity to claim after the white supremacist gathering in Charlottesville, Virginia, which cost Heather Heyer’s–a Jewish woman–her life, that between the white supremacists whose intention it was to attack and the counter-protesters who defended themselves from their assaults, there were “good people on both sides”.

It’s likely that the youth at the heart of our community’s most recent loss, like most of the people in the neighborhood, did not hear about the memo, but it’s also likely that over the last year and a half in particular, he and several of his peers did hear about the litany of racist, misogynist and ableist put-downs from the president who as a candidate for executive branch promised to ‘build a wall’ between the United States and neighboring Mexico, as if there isn’t one there already.

Yet even through the days of the president’s candidacy and on through his administration’s memo last week, neither his uninspired words nor those of his staff could actually so much as graze the curb of the street that my peers and I stand on, let alone graze us; they are words made for televisions we turned off years ago for having nothing to do with our day to day means of survival. It is the histories on which such statements are built that do and have had a lasting impact on our communities, however. Jeff Sessions looks to be John Wayne in the 21st century, but this time the natives are gang members.

It is a central concern of this writing that in the city of Los Angeles in the 21st century, many of the natives of the neighborhoods here are so-called ‘gang members’ and that their families, who have made life through the intersections of their barrios daily and over decades, now find themselves increasingly cornered by an enemy of far greater proportions than any other clique in the gentrification of la vecindad.

The influx of middle-class types making their way through these blocks, who’ve never encountered Latinos and others like them before, is sanctioned by the state and seemingly immutable.

To be clear: I’m not implying that the youth whose passing this writing discusses was any kind of ‘gang member,’ although he may have been perceived as such. What I am pointing out is that in occupying a space in this neighborhood the youth was part of an environment which for decades has been considered ‘less than’ worthy of many of The City officials’ time and concern, if not only worthy of contempt by many of the city’s police forces. Furthermore, I am also not implying that the newcomers of the neighborhood view la vecindad in this diminished light, but I do believe it’s important that they be aware of how this has been the case for communities here since before World War II.

As with the freeways in the 1950s, the redevelopment of the neighborhood by means of its gentrification happened quickly, that is, in our perception of it, and with such normalization from the city’s leadership that it can be difficult to understand or interpret altogether, but because it’s taking place at the same time that the hordes of data aforementioned make their way through so many of our screens, one sentiment seems to make perfect sense in it all:

fuck them.

In a recent essay for The Atlantic on the increasing inequality characterizing America, writer Matthew Stewart reflects on just why people might feel so much resentment towards his class, which is upper ‘middle-class’ and overwhelmingly white.

“We live in safer neighborhoods, go to better schools, have shorter commutes, receive higher-quality health care, and, when circumstances require, serve time in better prisons. We also have more friends—the kind of friends who will introduce us to new clients or line up great internships for our kids.”

It has circulated throughout the neighborhood that the shooter who took the life of the youth referred to in this writing was a white man acting in self-defense. It’s a damning circumstance to consider under the context, but one can see how the color of a man’s skin when he takes the life of another ultimately changes nothing about how the latter’s loss will be felt.

One can also see, however, the way in which to the young people who have just lost their friend, everything–including the presidency, the policing, and the gentrification which is welcomed by so many of the local ‘elected’ officials whom are supposed to represent them–all actually adds up to place them, the youth, in defense.

This was the case in the 1950s when the residents of Boyle Heights stood against the freeways. It was a defense of their neighborhoods. And it was even true in 1943 just as well, when Black and Chicano youth in Los Angeles defended themselves against the Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome projected onto them by the Navy’s sailors at that time.

The fact of the matter is that many of the lives of the youth in our neighborhood are in danger; even if they and their families have made their way through these intersections for several lifetimes, they are all at the risk of being displaced. It’s a subtle form of the warfare of wealth, but warfare nevertheless against the character of their humble means like that which their predecessors saw. And in resisting that warfare, as I do in solidarity with my peers all throughout Los Angeles, it does not mean it’s time to prepare for 1992’s Los Angeles to make its way through these streets again.

Rather, it means that all of the members of our community, old and new alike, need to seek an end to the collective violence inflicted on our respective communities together, with the shared goal of transforming the current trend of redeveloping our streets only to displace our families into redeveloping these streets for the purpose of coalition-building with families.

It’s only in this way that all of us–from the so-called ‘gang members’, to the Senior citizens, to the children with special needs, to the single mothers, to the young professionals from far away starting over in L.A. and more–will be able to share the endless intersections between us in true harmony, honor and respect, and free of the great division that is so frequently trying to be enforced upon us.

I am willing to stand for it. Indeed, I have to. But I know I’m not the only one who is willing to do so and that gives me hope: we can and have got to do better together, Los Angeles. But the work begins now. Every day another future depends on it.

J.T.

La Gentrificación del Pueblo Continuará

Hasta que el pueblo se levanta y dice ya basta.

A walk through any neighborhood is the most effective way to take in a culture. This afternoon through my own, at the intersection of Madison and Willow Brook avenue, I took a moment to photograph the complex above, which is now in the process of redevelopment. Around the abandoned buildings, power lines idle next to nestles of leaves from tall trees branching out through air. East of the complex, a crosswalk away, is Lockwood Elementary school, where my old friends and I went to school, and where now even some of the children of those old friends go to school.

Today Lockwood Elementary is no longer just one school, but ‘two in one,’ as the site is now split between the traditional Los Angeles Unified School District program (LAUSD), and a charter school overseen by Citizens of the World – Silver Lake Charter (CWC), which serves ‘qualified’ students whose enrollment is based on a ‘lottery.’ But Lockwood Elementary is actually not located in the famed Silver Lake area; instead, it’s in what’s known officially, according to the LA City Clerk, as ‘East Hollywood.’

In any case, when my peers and I finished fifth grade at Lockwood, our next stop was Thomas Starr King Middle School (King MS). King was located East of Virgil avenue on Fountain avenue, and at just under a mile away from Lockwood, if one made the trek to King MS on foot from say, Madison and Willow Brook Avenues, they might reason that the school was actually better situated to serve students located in the wealthier Los Feliz area.

An urban policy planner might say this distance would be an easy fix, however; all the parents at Madison and Willow Brook Avenues had to do was drive their kids to King MS. Of course, that just meant the parents had to be able to afford a car, which wasn’t always the case for many of the single Latina mothers who oversaw many of my peers and I. In 2008, according to the L.A. Times, the median household income for families in East Hollywood was $29,927, while only 13.4% of adults in the neighborhood had a college degree.

Even so, at just under a mile of walking distance to the school, the daily trek couldn’t be that bad of a slog, right? Some mamas did it. Indeed, some had to. There wasn’t a whole lot of support for them otherwise.

When my peers and I finished at King MS, what followed was John Marshall High School (JMHS) for ninth through twelfth grade. At just about two miles walking distance from the old apartment complex at Madison and Willow Brook avenues, Marshall High School was unquestionably farther east of Virgil avenue. Unlike King MS, which an urban planner could argue was located between ‘East Hollywood’ and Los Feliz to serve both areas, Marshall High School was definitely located in the Los Feliz and Silver Lake areas.

As such, Marshall High School was definitely designed to serve the students of parents there. According to the L.A. Times, in Silver Lake, the median household income in 2008 was almost twice that of East Hollywood’s, at $54,339, with nearly three times the rate of adults in Silver Lake with a college degree at 36.2%. In neighboring Los Feliz, the median household income was $50,793. Los Feliz also had more than three times the rate of adults in East Hollywood with a college degree, at 42.7%.

Despite lacking much in terms of income versus these neighboring areas, and hailing straight out of our homes as “first generation” students, many of my peers and I made it in through the gates at Marshall, either by carpooling with one parent or another, or by taking the Metro 175 bus for those of us who could catch it early enough in the mornings.

Only 48% of the class that my peers and I entered into Marshall with in 2004 would walk out of the school with their diploma in 2008.


Was that paltry graduation rate planned? With ten years of hindsight from the day of graduation, it’s clear it certainly wasn’t planned against. From the time my peers and I were at Lockwood, all the way through our time at Marshall, there wasn’t exactly a cultural plan from the urban policy planners around us and the elected leadership at the time–Mayor Garcetti was the local Council Member for East Hollywood from 2001 – 2012–to get young people from our neighborhood successfully to college and back.

Should that have been the work of urban policy planners in the first place? One may argue that it was not; yet it’s precisely that same lack of accountability which leads me to believe that in a significant way, the neighborhood surrounding the old complex at Madison and Willow Brook avenues, like many neighborhoods all across Los Angeles, was either supposed to get with the program, or just get lost. Parents in our vecindad were supposed to run with the market, or be Left Behind.

Similarly, today’s redevelopment of the old complex at Madison and Willow Brook avenues is a matter of getting with the program. Except that the program of the new complex at the intersection will be one of sleek buildings, the flaunt of which will be accentuated by bold fonts, and the grounds of which will be guarded by steep fences shrouding the complex in seclusion and high visibility all at once, thereby earning its ask for the unenviable rent prices it’s destined for; rent prices that virtually none of the trabajadores now reconstructing the complex day by day, nor any of their vecinos in the pueblo surrounding the complex, will be able afford for them and their children.

Asi es. Y asi sera, me dirian tantos compadres en los trabajos por ahi. Pero asi es hasta que nosotros decimos no mas, Los Angeles.

Despite the odds, there is reason to be only more optimistic about challenging this lack of accountability for L.A.’s neighborhoods, or this lack of protection for so many of the working families who make them. Everywhere in Los Angeles a resistance is growing to the “old” order of power, which has stifled pueblos like those of my peers and I, and our movements, throughout The City, for decades.

I’ve got a feeling, then, that even at the intersection of Madison and Willow Brook avenues, a resistance to pricing out the pueblo and its children can grow in the area too. It may not do so overnight, nor even over the course of tomorrow. But it will rise and make its voice heard, one day at a time.

Asi es. Y asi sera, Los Angeles.

J.T.