Guest Essay by Joel “Rage.One” Garcia, August 2016
Los Angeles, CA – A lot has happened these past two years in Los Angeles and nationally in regards to this complex thing called Gentrification. I’ll start off by saying that I believe we all are complicit in enabling the displacement of people of color. If we don’t contribute to displacement in our communities we sure do so in other communities without even knowing it. Recognizing that is important because it gives me a higher sense of urgency behind the work I’m involved in. Some of us actively work to prevent displacement in some form or another, but despite that work, we still lose some people. In some cases, those victims of displacement are our friends and family, such as mine. Does the thought that we are not doing enough cross our minds? Does it make us question our role? Do some of us quit our jobs because we feel complicit? Does it create fear, anger and distrust? YES! And after experiencing this through my family and friends it’s given me a perspective that I need to share.
For me displacement has been front and center for a large chunk of my life. I was born in Los Angeles at a hospital that no longer exists, I was raised in the Maravilla Housing Projects that essentially replaced a previous housing development. While growing up in this environment, I began to realize how these developments concentrate poverty and its problems, with no viable support systems in place to support residents. These experiences shaped who I am from day one.
The 1984 Olympics are also a memory of mine in relation to gentrification. In 1984, Los Angeles hosted the “modern day” version of the Olympics. These Olympic games became the template for the monstrosity that it is today; shaping cities and countries in very negative ways. As we have most recently seen in Rio, “undesirable” communities are displaced and the “ghetto” is used as a blank slate for development. This has become the norm in not only the Olympics, but the World Cup, and other major sporting attractions. I witnessed this even in the the housing projects I grew up which border Monterey Park, a host site for the 1984 Olympic games. I clearly remember when Monterey Park maintenance crews drove up to the edge of the projects and installed signs marking their territory and all but inviting an increased police presence who were always a little too trigger happy.
At the same time, the East Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department (fourth largest police department in the nation) began reshaping their current structure of suppression and began incorporating military tactics and weaponry. During this time, they formally launched the Operation Safe Streets Bureau (see the current conviction of Undersheriff Paul Tanaka and the guilty plea by Sheriff Lee Baca) a unit of individuals that created deputy gangs, abused their power, and at times committed murder. The Housing Authority of the County of Los Angeles who manages the projects entered into a contract with the ELA Sheriff’s with a specific work detail to dedicate a team to the housing development I lived in. Soon after we were notified that the City of Monterey Park was making a bid to purchase the projects and redevelop the site. A few blocks northwest of the projects lies the California Highway Patrol, to the northeast the Monterey Park Police Department, to the southeast you’ll find the ELA Sheriffs and directly across the street the County Parks and Recs police sub station, that’s a whole lot of police presence in such a small area. Try growing up in that environment.
My family has experienced displacement for generations. On my mother’s side, my grandmother and her family were displaced through the Mexican Repatriation Act and from Detroit, MI they ended up in Tepic, Nayarit. This relocation of families also impacted non-Mexican indigenous communities and suddenly non-Spanish speaking folks were thrown into a space without any language and communal ties. On my father’s side, my great grandfather was the Sergeant of Arms of Juchitlan and was executed during the Cristero Wars – my great grandmother and grandfather (her son) witnessed this and moved around Jalisco and eventually found a permanent home in Guadalajara, Jalisco. My father left Guadalajara due to state sponsored violence, making the journey many have made, ending up in East Los Angeles and raised my siblings and I in the Maravilla Housing Projects.
Sadly this pattern of displacement has occurred over and over and we continue to have communities dealing with the trauma of a dislocated history and its erasure. Trauma manifesting in fear, confusion and anger.
Gentrification produces Community Trauma:Gentrification, the process of removal and displacement of undesirable populations, usually of low economic status, that is followed by the renewal and rebuilding of their former community in a way that paves the way for the influx of middle-class or affluent people into the affected area (Merriam-Webster Dictionary).
For me, this trauma began manifesting itself at a young age. I was first sent to the principal’s office in 1st Grade because I was attempting to translate for a monolingual Spanish speaking student that had just joined our class. The school administrator that was in charge of checking out all the games during recess heard us, came over, smacked each of our hands using a wood ruler, and stated that there was a “No Spanish” policy in school. I responded in the student’s defense, was sent home and from that point forward I distrusted school and institutions. Although I was part of a gifted program, what some considered a gateway to success, the realities of growing up in concentrated poverty created an explosion of rebellion on my part that led to gang violence. A best friend who was also in this gifted program with me (1st grade to high school) is currently serving 20 years in prison for unloading close to 60 rounds at a Monterey Park police officer and his vehicle. This was tragic for me. He was a promising artist lost to the system.
At 16, I was fortunate to fall under the mentorship of Paul Botello through a mural painting program funded by Ruben Guevara’s Arts 4 City Youth. I managed to graduate and ended up at Otis School of Art & Design, but on the way home one day I was the recipient of 8 bullets shot at me at point blank range, 7 of which found their mark. At any point, the paths my friend and I took could have easily been switched, we both, along with many of our friends are victims of diverting resources towards suppression tactics rather than to positive development of youth. To me, displacement also takes shape in the incarceration of our family members and friends which is fueled by the deprivation of resources needed to survive. Is that fair? Not only here in East LA but also across the city, the nation and other countries, these housing projects have proven to be a disastrous social experiment that urban planners insisted would lift up the poor.
Art and music saved my life, giving me an outlet to all the darkness that came from burying friends and family. Art and music have given me the opportunity to see the world and meet individuals who have had similar experiences. Even despite my involvement in a very violent era, I spent a lot of time in the punk rock scene of East LA/Boyle Heights, escaping to and supporting youth driven art spaces from the No Que No in Boyle Heights to the Peace & Justice Center in Downtown LA to Our House in South Gate (later the Allen Theater), temporary venues in East LA like backyards and warehouses, and spaces all over Mexico. This journey of organizing through art and music began at the age of 15. Art gave me an opportunity to create art for and learn from a record label that was changing the approach to artist development and was celebrated for it on an international level. The concept and framework of building a support system around individuals and nurturing their creativity made sense to me and felt that if applied to a larger local approach like my community, it could do wonders for our youth. That drove me to bust my ass, work various jobs, make money off of my art/design work and put those resources to building and supporting artist networks across LA and Mexico because I felt it was important for artists to grow, learn from and connect with other communities. Networks that continue to exist today in various forms.
This drive and approach to working in variety of intersecting spaces of thought and praxis offered me the skills and resources to also work alongside many grassroots and indigenous movements here in LA and internationally. I’ve learned many things form the Zapatistas, the Cucapa, the South Central Farmers, the anti-displacement work of Casita del Pueblo in Echo Park, the Eastside Cafe, and the Movimiento Por Justicia en el Barrio (East Harlem). I’ve been inspired by the señoras and small business owners of East Los Angeles/Monterey Park who have also prevented gentrifying forces from taking root by stopping the “main street” project on Cesar Chavez Ave to the Chinese businesses organizing and forcing a developer to prioritize their small businesses versus chain brands at the Atlantic Times Square project. All this informs the daily work I do.
These experiences have prepared me to work for and alongside artists (day laborers, street vendors, freelance designers, musicians, etc) who have faced gentrification in one form or another. One which recently had a partner commit suicide and is fighting eviction from an apartment due to his name not being on the lease because he’s undocumented, or artists who have lost work spaces and homes, artists who are mentoring youngsters and have lost them to the criminalization of youth. But most importantly these experiences have given me many tools to assist our community of artists (in whichever form they materialize in) to develop their craft, profession and economic independence with hopes of achieving some form of sustainability. All of this informs the daily work I do around gentrification and displacement.
The personal is always political and succeeding in spite of all these obstacles is dangerous to the system. My friends and I were looked at and labeled as “At-Risk Youth” but I learned while connecting with folks in Chicago that we need to look at our youth as “At-Promise”. At promise of becoming something more for their communities and shifting the narrative of how we look at those we are in service of and how we do our work. Every year we had well intentioned folks come to the projects with this project or that, we had activists and organizers trying to do this or that, only to never follow through (primarily due to lack of resources and funding – because well we need more police, smh). We’re told that this way or that way is the path out of poverty but every step of the way our families end up in more debt, more stress and rarely ever actually owning anything. And when we do own, it comes at the sacrifice of something, like a family member working two jobs or crazy hours resulting in a loss of a parent or parental figure. This addition by subtraction causes additional problems for our communities.
Mainly these problems are also the result of racist policies that concentrate poverty to such a degree that instead of investing in solutions this system has invested in suppression and the criminalizing of each and every one of us with the only intention of keeping us corralled in jails or barrios that suffer from neglect.
The generations before us marched, boycotted, fasted, organized, sacrificed and worked to bring to the table these investments that sadly have mostly been triggered by reverse white flight. For me this isn’t a fight to preserve the structural racism that exists in our communities, this is the point in time that we organize to shape and form our communities from the bottom up, with a perspective grounded in the real needs of people of color. We are at the point that we no longer need outside mouthpieces because we’ve groomed our own folks to speak up about our reality. For us that know how to navigate these systems, it’s our responsibility to get us to the table, organize our communities, step aside and let new leaders grow. And it’s this last part that we need to work on and step it up. That is our fault and we need to change it.
When it pertains to artists, I’m troubled by the notion of some folks implying that artists (a workforce) shouldn’t be compensated for the work they do or that they’re not “down” because they get paid. We need to look at our artists not in the colonial framework that commodifies their work but rather see them as artists and cultural workers in the same way that we did prior to colonization. These individuals played an specific role in keeping our traditions alive, telling and collecting our stories. To suggest that we need to sacrifice this aspect of our culture is highly problematic as it only defines art as something you can buy and put up on a wall. Our peoples had a rich form of trade and commerce that helped connect communities across turtle island (the Americas) and it was those exchanges that helped our cultures grow, build monuments, thrive, map the stars and seasons, and develop advanced philosophies around our connections to this world. You cannot disconnect that aspect of our culture from our communities.
My values and perspective are firmly grounded in the reality that our communities are not made up of immigrants but rather displaced indigenous populations and we must navigate these processes as such. Navigating from any other perspective erases the history of this area and we have to do much much more than simply acknowledging that this is Tongva land.
And frankly I’m offended by individuals who have not lived the realities of the barrio telling people of color what we do and don’t need. I’m offended by privileged people of color (most likely people like you and I) telling poorer folks what they do and don’t deserve. It is our (the woken ones and our white allies) role and responsibility to ensure that those that have long been neglected of these resources are the primary recipients of them. And always negotiate for more.
We need to develop spaces that are inclusive of all voices, experiences and understandings around this topic and work together to find solutions, whether by developing small business sanctuaries (including street vendors), artist unions, fighting to increase resources for youth, truly equitable community benefits agreements, easier access to local, state and federal programs to support economic development from within our own communities so we can acquire our own buildings, businesses and homes. We need to focus on resident retention not just displacement.
Gentrification isn’t solely a one way street where an influx investment and resources are set up for a more desirable population. Gentrification also has another byproduct that is rarely spoken about, and that’s the hot potato game of passing along systemic problems from the city and county level to smaller municipalities even less equipped to handle a higher concentration of poverty. Look at places like Lancaster, Pomona, Riverside, and the Coachella Valley and you’ll see what that looks like.
The one thing we all want is to prevent displacement and it’ll take many strategies and approaches for this to happen. Strategies will be criticized and that’s fine, but what’s the intent? Was it to learn and move forward, or to simply feel good about making a critique?
During the Other Campaign of the Zapatistas in 2006, someone stood up and judged the Zapatistas for selling and drinking Coca Cola in their communities. In the eyes of this “judge,” if Zapatistas were truly anti-capitalists, they shouldn’t be drinking these products. After his comments, some clapped and the “judge” felt good. Those that clapped didn’t ask that individual what brand their clothes were made of, what brand of car they drove to get there, and how they made made the money to get there.
The Zapatistas stated that you can take a stand against Coca Cola in at least two ways: you can boycott products such as Coca Cola and Starbucks, which is a great and a healthy option; and, you can prevent the entry of these products completely into our communities which is is also valid and powerful. But, the Zapatistas see a third way: some, look at the Coca Cola can and see that an employee delivered the can in the truck, which belongs to a boss, who distributes that can for a multinational corporation. In this scenario, the Zapatistas ask – what if there was no boss or no corporation? Here, they see an opportunity to organize and educate for the sake of replacing the boss and the corporation with cooperatives, small businesses, and street vendors. They understand, like we do, that a few own too much and too many own nothing. This needs to change.
For me it’s not about who’s strategy is more valid but more importantly that we stop the exploitation and displacement of our communities. In order for that to happen, we need to respect each other and not minimize anyone’s struggle or fight, no matter how big or small. We have to organize and finds ways to create dialogue and spaces that are inclusive and more democratic.
I’ve rarely shared this much information about myself, but I think it’s important, so we can truly know each other and together learn about the threats to displacement and overcome the fear of new investments that many generations have fought for – we deserve it. We must commit to fighting to make sure those investments reach those who have repeatedly been displaced and neglected.