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By Jian Huang

________

Nobody here understands what I say. They just look at me funny when I ask them which way is home. At school, the kids sing songs that sound like they could be Chinese. I try to sing along, but I can’t make out the words. Then Mrs. Wintersmith gets mad at me because I don’t participate. I want to participate. I want to tell her I want to participate. She called Mom in recently for a parent-teacher meeting and spent 20 minutes gesturing like a mime before giving up and sending both of us home with a D+.

“Wrrrr wrrrr wrrrr.” That’s what English sounds like. How am I supposed to understand that? Dad tells me that one day I’ll understand this new language and that I’ll speak it so well I won’t even remember that I was ever Chinese. He says little kids can adapt anywhere.

I used to ask Mom when we would go home. I ask her on the bus, I ask her when she walks me home from school, I ask her at dinner. I want to go back to that house that smelled like smoked pickles in the mornings. I even want to go back to that old Mrs. Li who shooed me away with her corn husk broom whenever she caught me picking at her hanging anchovies. Each time Mom answers me with “Soon.”

Nowadays I don’t ask her. I just watch TV and try to learn English. Little kids like me are not supposed to ask too many questions. Little kids are supposed to make Cup O’Noodles for themselves and stay home while Mom and Dad are at work. During breaks from school, Mom says to turn on the TV if I ever feel lonely, so I have it on all the time. When the TV is on I’m not so sad anymore: “I Love Lucy” at 9, “The Jerry Springer Show” at 11, “The Ricki Lake Show” at 2, “Animaniacs” at 3, then “The Simpsons” during prime time. I watch and laugh and try to remember that we are now free.

Dad brings me to the motel sometimes. He says it’s a boring place and that there are no kids around, but at least it gives us enough money to make ramen with bean sprouts for lunch. While he’s checking the rooms, I help him cut a stack of papers into squares he could use for notes when customers pick up their keys. I cut a few extra sheets to make birds. My kindergarten teacher taught me how to make them before we left China. I fold a beak, a tail and a pair of wings. I even draw eyes on it to make sure it could see.

In between bird-making, I watch customers walk in and out of their rooms. They go to their cars, they go to the store, they go to the vending machine upstairs. Most of the time people stay here alone. They get donuts and beer from the liquor store across the street and eat them in their rooms with the doors bolted shut. Each room has prison bars on the window so no one can get in without a key. Sometimes the men check in with one of the ladies from across the street. Couples in love are called “birds” in English. Pretty girls are called “birds,” too.

The motel seems gigantic, with 28 rooms and two floors. The ocean blue paint underneath the stairwell is chipping. I rarely see the same customer more than once. There are so many rooms, and not one is filled with anyone I know. A couple of weeks ago, a little girl about my age named Annie checked in with her mama. A few days later I noticed that somebody drew hearts and flowers in pink chalk on the ground.

Recently, I’ve been asking Dad to bring me to the motel more. Annie is here. She’s the only other person I know here. He tells me I could play outside in the parking lot, but I can’t go beyond the driveway, where the asphalt meets the sidewalk. Growing up in a new country means I have to learn new rules. It’s different here than it is in China, but Dad promises that this is better. He’s always teaching me smart things, like how to spot shady people, how to spot fake money, how to clean things with rubbing alcohol and how to play poker. Now I’m learning how to be suspicious, which means furrowing my brow and not smiling. Dad says there are a lot of bad people in this city, and I need to learn to protect myself.

I don’t think Annie goes to school. She’s always here. Often, she’s squatting outside their first-floor room doodling on the ground with chalk. Sometimes I see her mama keeping her company while smoking cigarettes by the dumpsters barefoot. Annie doesn’t have any siblings either.

Her mama has a big blue Cadillac with paint coming off its fender. It is filled with so many paper bags that it looks like a suitcase on wheels. I never see her talking to anybody except a few words to Dad once a week when she pays for their room. She says Annie gets picked on too much at school, which explains why she doesn’t go. Most days they just stay in their room, coming out only once or twice to buy a soda or unpack something from the Cadillac. Sometimes her mama puts on a pretty dress and takes that Cadillac to work for a few hours. Her brown hair is so messy it looks like a tornado came through. She asks Dad to keep an eye on Annie but never tells him where she goes.

I like Annie. She’s the first little girl I ever seen around here. She came out to play with me while I was poking at the ants by the magnolia tree. At school pretty girls like her wouldn’t play with me, but Annie’s different. She’s not from around here, just like I’m not from around here. She lets me use her chalk and shows me how to shuffle cards.

People around here are mostly dark or tanned, but not Annie. Her skin is fair and white, like soft serve vanilla. Her freckles run all along her arm like sprinkles on a sugar cookie. Once she even let me scratch one of them so I could see for myself that they were real.

I look forward to seeing Annie. I try to see her whenever Dad brings me to the motel. We manage to find all sorts of things to play with here: hide and seek in between the parked cars, jump rope with Dad’s VCR cables, and even superhero with bedsheets tied to our shoulders. Her favorite game is House. She shows me how to tie a towel around my hair the way her mama does after a shower, and I show her how to bundle up her sweatshirt to look like a baby the way I learned it from school. We call the sweatshirt our baby brother and name him Bart. We make a little house out of a cardboard box and cut flaps for the doors. In our fake kitchen, I motion like I’m flipping hamburgers while Annie serves dinner to our make-believe family. Nobody could eat until we sat down. We were the oldest for a change, so we set the rules.

In the parking lot, the magnolia tree opens up far beyond the roof of the motel with its branches stretching out into the sky above. During the daytime, the flowers disappear into the clouds, and at night, the blooms seem to hum along with the sounds of snoring strangers who sleep here.

It must be lonely to be Annie. I imagine that on days when I’m not here, she must spend all day in her room watching TV. I ask Dad why Annie can’t go to school with me, and he shrugs. He says it’s best to keep that to myself because it’s none of our business. We’re only guests in this country.

Before Dad clocks out for the day, I make plans with Annie. We mark up the hopscotch squares to show where we left off. We fold up our cardboard house for our next sit-down dinner, and put it in the closet with the maid’s cleaning cart. We fold our superhero sheets and agree that next time we’ll both be Wonder Woman.

Today I come to the motel and see that the blue Cadillac is gone. I peek behind the open door to their room, and all I see is a messy bed inside. Lucy is vacuuming what’s left in Annie’s room. I ask Dad when she will come back.

“Soon,” he says.

________

Jian Huang was born in Shanghai, China and grew up in South Los Angeles. She has worked in the arts and for local nonprofits. Her interests include watching old Hollywood movies and writing about social justice issues that deal with class barriers, the American Dream, and finding a place of belonging. She is a 2016 PEN USA Emerging Voices fellow. Contact her at: jenhuangg@gmail.com.

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CaliforniaFeature Section 1Home Page SliderLos Angeles

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By Cristian Vasquez

____

We had a clear shot on the 110 South after Downtown L.A.

At the Century Boulevard exit, Dad’s white Chevy Cavalier station wagon idled at the red light when the song playing on K-LOVE was interrupted by Pepe Barreto’s voice:

“Breaking news: the four Los Angeles Police Department officers accused of police brutality against Rodney King have been found not guilty.”

As dad turned east to make our way home, Uncle Heli, who hadn’t said a word from the passenger seat during the ride home from work, blurted out “No way! That’s bull.”

Dad, not one to trust authority figures, took a drag of his Marlboro red and shook his head.

“We’re screwed.”

* * *

Uncle Heli is the third-youngest in a family with 13 siblings and was one of two who finished high school back home in Michoacán, Mexico. My dad, Rafael, is the oldest male in the family. When my dad was 15, Grandpa fell ill. So my dad made his way to America.

For a few years, half of Dad’s income was wired home to his parents and siblings. My parents met at a soccer league trophy ceremony that each was pressured into attending. They were both immigrants from Michoacán, Mom from the state capital of Morelia and dad from a small town named Pajacuaran. It didn’t take long for Mom to ditch her senior year in high school and leave behind her sheltered life in Culver City.

She was the youngest daughter and overprotected. My great grandmother raised my mom and her siblings in Michoacán while my grandmother made her way in the United States. My great grandmother was rigid. On the rare occasion that it was allowed, socializing with boys outside of school required chaperones.

At the dance where she met Dad, mom and her youngest brother were shadowing my aunt and her boyfriend, making sure they behaved. Mom left the safety of Culver City to bunker down with Dad in South-Central Los Angeles. It was 1980 and they lived on 49th Street and Compton Avenue, one of three Mexican families in an African-American neighborhood. I was born there. We lived there until 1984: just the three of us.

I was in first grade the first time I met an uncle from Dad’s side of the family. I came home from school one day and there was a guy sitting on the couch.

“That’s my brother Juan. He’s your uncle. Shake his hand.”

After that, my dad’s family began making its way north. It became normal to come home from school and find a new uncle, cousin or family friend on the couch. Eventually that two-bedroom apartment became overcrowded: My mom, dad, newborn-brother Jorge and I crammed into the master bedroom. The bed took up the southeast corner of the room, leaving just enough space for the door to open on the west wall. At the foot of the bed, cornered on the northern wall, was a dresser where the television sat. Sleeping in the living room were four of my uncles and three of their friends. In the back of the apartment, next to the bathroom, was a small room where my uncle and his friend, who shared a car and worked the same 2 a.m. schedule in Downtown Los Angeles’ produce district, decided to make their room.

The landlord took care of this overcrowding with an eviction notice. After three relocations in less than two years, Mom found a two-bedroom house in Watts. The house was on the back end of the property and included a garage but shared a yard with the front unit. Rent was $750 a month and the owner didn’t care that 15 people crammed into their property.

In 1992 Watts was a mixture of African-American and Mexican families, each group representing half the population. Our family lived next to an apartment building on the corner of Lou Dillon Avenue and 105th Street. Toward 103rd Street were the projects, but in between, the street was sprinkled with black and brown families of all ages. The language barrier kept my parents from being closer to the older African-American neighbors, but there was a mutual respect and a genuine liking in their interactions. The same goodwill didn’t exist between each group’s youth. Alliances to control turf, drugs and money were defined by race and geography, and disagreements were solved with violence. So when I was on vacation from school, Dad refused to leave me home alone; at 11 years old, it was time I learned what it was like to work for a living and he took me to his construction job.

* * *

Our drive home from the freeway usually took 10 minutes, but that afternoon the streets overflowed with angry people armed with rocks, bottles and milk crates. The red light at Main Street and Century Boulevard was the first to trap us. The mob hurled bottles, rocks and any heavy object at our car. An uncoordinated “No justice, no peace!” chant pierced our closed windows. Dad and Uncle Heli looked in every direction, scanning for anyone trying to approach the car. A rioter tried opening the door to the car in front of us.

“Lock your doors. Cristian, get us the hammers,” Dad barked, with a cigarette pinched between his lips.

I jumped off my seat, crawled over the back seat, flipped over Dad’s tool bucket and pulled out two hammers. Dad took the wooden-handled one while Uncle Heli took the metal-neck concrete hammer with the blue grip. I moved from the window seat to the middle and snapped on my seatbelt.

Dad raced through the intersection when the light turned; bottles smashed at the station wagon’s side panels, rocks skipped across the hood of our car and kicks and punches landed from every direction.

We caught another red light at Century and Avalon Boulevard. An RTD bus was stopped to our right next to the curb. Nobody was getting off and no one was attempting to board. An angry mob unleashed its rage on the bus. A handful of teenagers beat the bus windows and headlights with sticks. The bus pressed forward, and the teens gave chase, swinging their frustration at it. With the bus out of reach, the mob turned its anger on us and, as we sped off, it punched, kicked and launched debris at us.

“How’s Andrea getting home?” asked my uncle.

“Have to go get her. She took the bus today.”

Panic set in. Mom wasn’t home and Dad had to go back out.

Central Avenue and Century gave us a green light. Dad turned right, drove one block down to 103rd Street and turned east. No lights for a while and the streets were clear. Another green light took us across Compton Avenue, past the Food4Less shopping center, over the Blue Line tracks and into clear streets. Lou Dillon Avenue was only blocks away; we were almost home. Wilmington Avenue was another green light, but traffic was stopped by a sea of angry people. Fists and spit landed on the windshield as Dad inched the car through the mob, forcing it back onto the sidewalk from where they hammered it with more rocks, trashcans and tires.

Dad slammed the brakes. “Shit.” He cut right through an alley that came out on 105th Street: clear, not a soul in sight. He went east a few blocks and made a left into the dirt alley behind our house. I opened the door to get the gate; it was always my job to open the gate.

“NO! Don’t open the door.”

There was fear in Dad’s eyes. We ran into the house. Dad rushed into the bedroom, where my 4-year-old brother Jorge was watching “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” In the living room, three uncles and two cousins hung on the television’s every word.

“Protesters are gathering at different points in the city after the Rodney King verdict,” a woman said. It was happening along Florence Avenue, down Manchester Avenue and all the way down Imperial Highway.

“Nobody leaves the house,” Dad yelled, tucking something into the back of his pants. “Carlos, come with me to get Andrea.” He pulled me away from the television. “Don’t go anywhere unless your uncles say so. Understand?”

I wanted to go with him but just said, “Okay.”

“Not guilty?” Uncle Carlos said. “I expect this in Mexico but not in the United States. Governments are trash everywhere.”

Uncle Carlos and Dad left. We were hungry but there wasn’t any food and nobody was going to disobey my dad, so we watched the news and waited. The mobs became more destructive and the violence began to spread. Rioters destroyed storefronts and looted businesses; when the stores had nothing left to take, the hordes began targeting people. Pedestrians were beaten; drivers were dragged out of their cars and kicked on the ground even after being knocked unconscious. The phone rang.

“He’s on his way. He left a little while ago with Carlos,” cousin Jose said.

“I want to talk to her.” The phone still to his ear, Jose brushed me off.

“He’s okay. Don’t worry. Be safe. Bye. Your mom said don’t worry.”

Nobody was trying to stop the violence; the fires raged, the looting grew and the beatings continued.

“Where are the cops?” Uncle Heli blurted as he took a drag from his cigarette. “Haven’t seen one damn patrol car.”

The television cut to an aerial shot. A big rig pulled up to the intersection of Florence and Normandie Avenues. A group of four men approached the rig, opened the door and dragged out a man. His hair flailed as he was kicked, punched, dragged on the asphalt and beaten some more. The driver crawled, inch by inch, back to his rig when, from the right side of the screen, a rioter in a white T-shirt and a baseball cap rushed in and hurled a rock to the side of the man’s head, then celebrated his feat. The driver stopped moving.

“Animals.”

Uncle Heli was watching from the doorframe of the kitchen. The living room was filled with cigarette smoke. He walked to the front door, looking back and forth between the street and the alley. Nobody in sight. Uncle Heli made his way to the front house. Our neighbors were also locked inside, watching Univision.

“They’ll watch the front and we’ll watch the alley,” he told us.

From the alley we heard two voices: “Hey, amigo!”

It was the neighborhood twins. They were drug addicts who fed their addiction by selling stolen items. We never knew their names; everyone just called them the twins and, despite the language barrier, these two African-American men befriended my uncles. One of the twins had a birthmark on his left cheek, right below his eye, making it easy to tell them apart. For drug addicts, they were pretty well kept and had a change of clothing every day.

“Can we have a cigarette?”

“Wait here,” said Uncle Heli as he walked toward the back gate. He lit their cigarettes, and after brief exchange he walked back to the porch. Cousin Jose was standing behind me.

“What they want?” Jose asked.

“They asked if we wanted beer. That they would bring us some and we just pay them later,” Uncle Heli replied.

“Where’s he getting beer from?” I asked.

“I don’t know. We’ll see.” He took a seat on the top step of the porch.

It was getting dark when the back gate rattled again. Dad and Mom hurried inside.

“It’s a mess out there. Lock the doors.” Mom was panicked. Uncle Carlos ran to the garage and grabbed a machete.

“They’re burning stores, beating people. You’re not going to school tomorrow,” Mom said in a broken voice. “What if they start coming into houses. Should we leave?”

“Where? We have to stand watch,” Dad said. “We didn’t see one fuckin’ cop. Everyone takes a two-hour shift by the doors and windows, and then we switch. If anyone pokes their head in, smash it.”

We took two sledgehammers, an ax, the two hammers and a steel rod from the station wagon. From the garage my cousin brought a monkey wrench the length of a baseball bat. As everyone scavenged for tools to use as weapons, I noticed flames in the dark sky. To the west, on 105th and Hickory was the liquor store my cousin worked at on weekends. The owners, Middle Easterners, would let me hang. If I swept or took out trash, I’d get a bag of Cheetos Puffs or a Springfield soda. Any other day we could see the store from our porch; all we saw that night were flames.

Looking north, across the street from the Jordan Downs Housing Projects, was another liquor store. The Korean owner saw my dad enough to extend him a line of credit on smokes and beer; the owner would let me have one item of my choosing. He always told Dad I wasn’t his kid; “He has Korean eyes. You not Korean” and would let out a boisterous laugh. That liquor store, too, was engulfed in flames.

“Get inside!” Mom said. She dragged me to the house.

“If there aren’t any police, what’s going to happen?”

“For tonight, we’ll stay here. We’ll figure something else tomorrow,” Mom said as she locked me in the room.

From the window I could see the flames that destroyed the nice Korean man’s store. In the distance came shouting and random gunshots. From behind me, Mom’s voice told me not to worry. We sat and leaned against the headboard of her bed, Dad settled at the foot of window. We watched television. The panic faded to uneasiness once the grownups took a position defending the house. I’d seen my uncles fight before, so I felt reassured.

“I want to watch the movie,” Jorge whined. His 4-year-old brain was scared but bored with the news.

“Yes. Both of you stay in here and watch the movie.” She fed the VHS to the VCR and walked out of the room. I followed.

The cloud of cigarette smoke hung over the living room as everyone was glued to the television. Usually our refrigerator was empty and when we got home everyone would pitch in for a food run. Curled up next to Mom, I whispered that I was hungry. She got up, told me to go to the room with Jorge and wait.

Jorge was stuck on his movie. Mom walked in, took her purse out of the closet and pulled out two Nabisco Swiss cookie packs.

“There’s no milk but have this. Eat them in here; if I see either of you outside with these, I’m spanking both of you.”

I sat on my parent’s bed. From the bottom bunk to my right Jorge mouthed the lines to “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” Outside, the flames destroying the liquor store on 103rd Street lit the sky. I wondered if the nice Korean owner was watching his store burn.

I awoke to a dark room and Dad by the window. I couldn’t see any more flames and it was finally silent: no outside noise, no news updates and no adult voices.

“Dad.”

“Go to sleep.”

“Can I watch TV?”

“No. The electricity went out. Just go back to sleep.”

“Why is the electricity out? Did you forget to pay the bill?”

He chuckled cigarette smoke from his nose. “No, son. These assholes made the whole street black out. Nobody has electricity. Don’t worry. Sleep.”

The next morning Mom and Dad had to go to work in the morning, but they weren’t leaving us home. As we piled into the station wagon, Dad checked in with the neighbors in the front house; none of them was leaving. They would guard the front and my uncles the back.

The sky was lit but the sun still hid in the horizon. The chop of helicopters cut through the quiet morning. The Chevy bounced through the dirt alley, on to 103rd Street, west to Avalon Boulevard and then north. Avalon is a wide corridor connecting Downtown L.A. to South-Central. That morning Avalon was littered with broken glass, trash and charred vehicles on their sides blocking the road; burning businesses and smoldered buildings lined the street. Dad snaked through the debris.

We sat in silence, moving past the ashes, as KLOVE chattered in the background.

________
Cristian Vasquez was born in Los Angeles in 1981 and was raised in a Mexican-immigrant family. He grew up in South-Central and Watts until his parents settled in Inglewood in 1993. During the last eight years, Cristian has been a reporter for community newspapers in Inglewood, Hawthorne, and Torrance. Contact him at cristian.vasquez81@gmail.com.

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By Susanna Fránek

[dropcap1]I[/dropcap1]n 1984 I returned to L.A., my hometown, after being away for almost 17 years. With my 3-month old son Tomás in tow, I arrived from Mallorca, Spain with the clothes on my back, and a few battle scars from a tumultuous relationship with his father. I was ready for a new start, and the safety net of home and family.

I had grown up in the San Fernando Valley and never experienced much else of the city. During my teens, crossing into Laurel Canyon down into Hollywood was an adventure that mostly got me into trouble. I was always intrigued by the canyon where my favorite musicians, Joni Mitchell and David Crosby, lived. I never quite fit the Valley girl stereotype; instinct drove me elsewhere the first opportunity I had. I also remember being glued to the TV in 1965 watching the Watts riots unfold. It was hard to fathom it was taking place within my own city.

During the late 70s when I had returned from abroad to visit family, crime was up; L.A. appeared to be in lock down, reeling from the Charles Manson and Hillside Strangler murders. I feared having a flat tire on the freeway at night; worried a stranger might stop.

Now, after 17 years away, I was back in L.A. and needed a job. I had done some photography and sold ads for an English-language weekly newspaper on the island of Mallorca, so I walked into the Spanish-language daily newspaper, La Opinión, and asked for a job. They handed me a box full of old client files and a spot at an old clunky, gray metal desk in the sales department on 14th Street downtown, known as the “White House.” Named for its older, shabby brick building painted white, it was separated by an alleyway from the paper’s modern offices at the corner of 14th and Main. The sound of the press cranking out up to 80,000 newspapers every afternoon was an adrenaline rush. I ignored the mouse droppings in the desk drawers and got to work calling on inactive advertisers.

I called on clients throughout the small cities southeast of L.A. Old auto, rubber factories, and metal-bashing industries, were now gone, as were the predominantly white, blue-collar residents. Latinos were recreating the landscape. Lining Pacific Boulevard were a Mexican Canada shoe store, a 3 Hermanos clothing store, a Gallo Giro fast food restaurant, and stores selling Western boots, jeans and cowboy hats, catering to the Mexican ranchera, banda and quebradita dance crazes of the day. I brought the advertising team from The Broadway Stores down for a walk so they could see the independent shops that catered to the outfits needed for a baptism, first communion or quinceañera. Within a 3-block radius along Pacific Blvd. we counted nine stores with elaborate Cinderella ball gowns displayed in their storefronts, catering to girls turning 15.

I was working for the Spanish-language daily that catered to the immigrants of the “lost decade” of Mexican economic stagnation, and Central Americans who were fleeing civil wars. My early clients were small business entrepreneurs. There were the Iranians who had fled the new Islamic Republic that came to power in 1979. Savvy entrepreneurs that they were, they set up shop in Hispanic neighborhoods, learned Spanish, and sold electronics, appliances and other household goods.

One of my first sales calls from the box of inactive clients was to Daryoush, a Jewish Iranian who owned Top Discount Stores in East L.A. and Echo Park. Balding and disheveled, he was a shrewd businessman. During our first meeting, he took me back to his messy cubbyhole of an office; I let him rant. He was upset at La Opinión for raising his column inch rate, which he felt was unfair given the number of consistent full-page ads he’d placed for years. Plus he was not happy with the rep that previously handled his account. His cantankerous mood was also due to his Echo Park location not doing well. The mostly off-brand appliances and electronics sold on layaway at Top Discount were ideal for blue-collar, newly arrived immigrant families, but had less appeal for a neighborhood starting to gentrify.

After rounds of negotiating, Top was back in the paper. I started looking forward to my weekly meetings with Daryoush. We’d sit in his office, go through the changes in his ad and sip tea – there was always a pot of Persian tea brewing – while exchanging border crossing stories and chatting about his life in Iran, how the revolution unfolded, and how they had underestimated Khomeini’s Islamist movement.

Daryoush came to the U.S. right before the revolution broke out, but his family waited. They hired guides, not unlike the “coyotes” that bring Mexicans into the U.S., paying hefty amounts to take them through the treacherous Kurdish mountain region from Iran into Turkey. Leaving everything behind except the few belongings they could carry, petrified, they escaped on foot and on horseback, knee deep in snow; his elderly parents barely survived. They eventually made it to Ankara, and onto Vienna, then reuniting with Daryoush and other relatives in L.A.

As Daryoush and I became friends over the years, I had the honor of meeting his parents. I was invited to a gathering held in their large apartment on Beverly Glen, south of Olympic Boulevard in West Los Angeles. I walked through the door and was immersed in the aromas of homemade Kosher Persian food, a meal that included classic Tabrizi meatball dishes, stews and kabobs, and Chelo Persian rice. Surrounded by ornate Louis XIV-style couches, tables and chandeliers, it dawned on me they had replicated their home environment from back in Iran. Melodic classic Persian music played in the background; nostalgia filled the air. This could have been a gathering in Tehran, not Los Angeles. As the night progressed, they switched to Persian pop music that fused the traditional tonbak finger snapping-style percussion with electric guitar and organ. When the music of the well-known queen of Iranian pop music, Googoosh, came on, the volume went up and everyone jumped up to dance, me included. Hard to believe the older generation had survived such a harrowing escape, their joie de vivre so contagious.

Then there was VJ, who was from India and had a business in the garment industry right around the corner from the White House. One of the many subcontractors in L.A.’s fashion district, he finished sewing party wear for women that would end up in department stores like The Broadway, Robinsons May and JCPenney. His wholesale showroom was full of racks of blue, red, turquoise, pink and black sequined dresses, skirts and tops; the type of glitz older Iranian and Armenian women would wear to weddings and formal gatherings. The showroom bustled with retailers, buyers and designers that came through, scrutinizing the merchandise, discussing price per piece, delivery deadlines, etc. I often came in while VJ was on the phone or dealing with a vendor or client; he would always introduce me. The warehouse behind his showroom housed roughly 20 workers, all Mexicans, their sewing machines a constant hum.

Once in his office, I saw the close resemblance VJ had to the yogi Paramahansa Yogananda, whose photo loomed large on the wall behind his desk. They shared the same sculpted facial features – eyes, a distinguished nose with wide nostrils, and chin dimple – and they both beamed the same mild and tender look of peace and compassion. Under the gentle gaze of his guru we chatted about his business, the results of his latest ad campaign, and meditation.

VJ was a successful businessman; he was optimistic and generous, and he incorporated his guru’s teachings into his business practice. Though a garment manufacturer, he appeared to treat his employees well. There was no overcrowded, dark and dank working conditions, or shouting, or any abuse. One day VJ drove me up to the Self Realization Fellowship mother center on Mount Washington and bought me a copy of the Autobiography of a Yogi, a book I had been introduced to back in a college comparative religion class; this time I read it.

During the 80s and 90s, Teatro Los Pinos in South Gate catered to the Latino community offering up slapstick acts that the operator, Simón López, brought from Mexico. The vaudeville, comedy performances were sometimes full of social satire that mirrored the plight of Mexicans on both sides of the border. The transvestite, Francis, was a popular show that often doubled booked, lasting weeks. Her shows were full of slang and, regardless of the kids in the audience, lots of swearing. She wore big, extravagant costumes, reminding me of an overly dressed Barbie doll. Dancers pranced around in the background while she sang and played with the crowd. She was a pioneer using comedy to introduce the topic of homosexuality to a mostly culturally homophobic audience.

Simón was always doing three things at once; he would run a dress rehearsal, and give orders to employees while he was on his big, chunky cell phone negotiating with theatre troupes he was booking for future performances. But he always gave you his undivided attention when he finished. That we spoke only in Spanish was a treat; I got a kick out of his Mexico City chilango accent. We talked about the rise in Latino gangs. He would remind me that the behavior of the parents of these kids mirrored what they were used to back home where they could always count on relatives or neighbors in the village to keep tabs on their kids. Here it was a different story as their teens were left alone a lot while they worked two or three jobs to survive. I always came away with material galore about the local Latino politicians starting to unseat the incumbent white politicians, which he felt were out of touch with the predominant base of Mexican immigrant residents.

As I moved from handling local businesses to major national accounts, I developed market tours that allowed corporate clients to learn more about the Latino community, a precursor to getting them to advertise. I’d take corporate packaged goods clients, food manufacturers, and major retailers to walk Latin grocery stores such as Northgate and Superior. Folks from Sears were amazed how much floor space was given to setting up first time credit accounts at Dearden’s and La Curaçao, and the hefty interest rates they charged. One of my bigger accounts, Target, sent executives from their real estate division out with me to scout potential, new store locations.Sears tower edited

I set up cooking demonstrations at Chichen Itza restaurant near MacArthur Park for the corporate chefs at Kraft so they could learn about the intricacies of making mole, Cochinito Pibil, and Kibi, a dish that was brought to the Yucatan by Lebanese immigrants in the late 18th/early 19th centuries. Ten of us squeezed into the tiny kitchen to gather around the owner/chef Gilberto Cantina, Senior, and Junior, his son, while they prepared the marinade of achiote seeds, sour orange juice and spices used for the Cochinita Pibil. They wrapped the pork in banana leaves while they explained the traditional blending of Mayan, Spanish and Middle Eastern flavors that make up these regional dishes, thus expanding my clients’ knowledge of Mexican cuisine beyond burritos and tacos.

On these tours I made it a point to mention the changes taking place at the local government level as Latinos began to win elected office. Throughout the late 80s and 90s it was not uncommon to see “Henry Gonzalez for Mayor” signs on almost every front yard throughout the city of South Gate; later, political scandals involving the new guard of Latino politicians would unravel throughout southeast cities, including South Gate, although Gonzalez was one of the good guys.

I called often on Al Tapia, a store manager at the old Sears Tower in Boyle Heights. Built in 1926, the building became a dominant icon on the Eastside. Having toured different parts of the Sears complex over the years, I got stories from both Al and his secretary about how common it was that people met there and ended up marrying. Employees roller-skated around the building, sending merchandise down the huge chute that traversed several floors of the art deco tower, fulfilling orders. The place was haunted too. Years before, someone had died on the premises and was often seen by employees working in the store.

The tower handled the nationwide distribution for Sears’ mail-order catalogue business until 1992. The ground level retail store stayed open, but the tower and distribution centers passed through the hands of different developers with plans to turn it into housing, offices and stores.

Al, a Mexican American born and raised in Los Angeles, was an unassuming, simple guy who wanted to be a teacher, but started working for Sears instead. He was a family guy, his desk covered with photos of his wife and children. I loved sitting in his office where I could look at the large black-and-white framed historic photos of the tower as the neighborhood changed over the decades. I’d show up with research to show how he could make his case to the corporate advertising guys back in Chicago to invest in the Latino community. He was promoted to a coveted national Hispanic marketing director position in 1991 and moved to corporate headquarters in Chicago to handle a $20M ethnic advertising budget.

Koreatown, meanwhile, continued to grow with an influx of Korean business entrepreneurs; many also advertised in La Opinión. I saw some of these business owners develop strong ties with the Latinos who were then forming a majority of the residents of Koreatown. I used to take my son Tomás to a hair salon there, at a time when the community was perceived as mostly insular and isolated. The women who washed hair and kept the floors clean were all from El Salvador. They had learned enough Korean to carry on what seemed to me extensive conversations with their Korean colleagues and clients. I tried selling advertising to the owner, but to no avail since she spoke no English or Spanish.

Crime kept rising through the 1980s due to crack and gangs. Things seemed to fall apart even more desperately during the 90s as the economy slumped.

I watched on TV as the riots broke out in 1992, and saw a client’s building burn to the ground. We stood on the rooftop of La Opinión’s new press on Washington Boulevard, and saw fires burning everywhere. A few of us drove around town. At Beverly Boulevard in the Pico-Union area, the flames from fires were so hot we had to roll up our windows and drive in the center lane. People ran from stores, with TVs, diapers, athletic shoes, and whatever they could get their hands on. With a gun in each hand, a Korean storeowner shot into the air to fend off looters. Samy’s Camera on Beverly was on fire, and later that day we saw looters coming out of the Samy’s on La Brea with Hasselblad and Nikon cameras. It was the first time any of us had seen army tanks roll through L.A. streets.

Many of our clients went broke. Most of the Iranian-owned discounters lost stores, gave up and closed – including Top Discount. La Curaçao’s Olympic store, owned by Israelis, was burned down, its inventory destroyed. National retailers including Circuit City and Radio Shack were also hit hard; looters drove trucks into their stores to load up on merchandise causing major damage and losses. All these clients stopped advertising while they got back on their feet.

I spent 15 years selling ads for La Opinión, touring a city under construction in many ways; a city I had never known as a child.

After the riots, I lost touch with Daryoush. At some point VJ closed his business and moved back east. I’m not sure what happened to Simón. He ran the theatre for 17 years and then moved on. Teatro Los Pinos closed its doors in November of 2014, the new company owner, Esperanza Molina, wasn’t able to renew the lease with the theater owner. I read that Al retired from Sears in 2000, after 33 years of service. The battle over how the Sear Tower will be redeveloped has not ended. La Curaçao rebuilt immediately and now has five locations in Los Angeles.

I live in Silver Lake and recently walked up Sunset Boulevard in Echo Park where Top Discount was located. The shop still caters to the few Latino residents living in the area. It is surrounded by tattoo parlors, cafes, bars and eateries, and a trendy boutique that sells $50 t-shirts.

Susanna Whitmore

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