This year is the 50th anniversary of the Chicano Moratorium. For me, this local event marked the beginning of the Latino transformation of the American landscape. When it occurred, however, I was blissfully unaware of it. As I played in my backyard in East Los Angeles on August 29, 1970, a Saturday, just a few blocks away the streets were ablaze. The day began with a 20,000-strong march against the compulsory conscription of young Mexican Americans into the U.S. Army, for service in the Vietnam War. The peaceful march ended at Laguna Park (now Ruben Salazar Park), with speeches and entertainment. But it was a short-lived day of celebration: Los Angeles County sheriffs brutally disbanded the gathering, and a riot broke out.
The next day I rode my bike to Whittier Boulevard and saw blocks of smashed plate-glass windows. It was thrilling, scary, and disorienting, all at once. I was looking at a profoundly altered urban landscape, one that was deeply familiar and violently shook. Even at 10, I realized I was witnessing the aftermath of a powerful combination of rage, race, and place, and that sudden awareness had an intense impact on me. The word Chicano became almost physical. It took on the characteristics of this no- shattered place and prompted me to take a critical look at the world around me. It’s clear now, five decades later, that this seminal event launched my urban planning career and research into what today I call Latino Urbanism.
In 1970, Los Angeles was a sort of modern utopia-in-progress. The physical world was being radically reshaped. Hilltops were scraped clean and leveled, gleaming new downtown skyscrapers loomed over City Hall, housing developments replaced orange groves, and roaring freeways ripped through my neighborhood. At the same time—and for the first time, really—Mexican Americans were becoming an economic, cultural and political force. East Los Angeles became the center of the Chicano Movement, Whittier Boulevard its bustling “Main Street.” We shopped for clothes there, got our hair cut or styled, went to Latin jazz clubs, saw movies, cruised, hung out—everything happened on Whittier. It was the aspirational gateway between the prewar Mexican Barrios and the new, affluent Mexican American suburban developments to the east. Thee Midniters, the so-called “Beatles of East L.A.,” immortalized Whittier Boulevard in song, capturing its raucous urban energy.
With this rising economic prosperity came a political awakening. In some ways, the Mexican American quest for self-determination and cultural identity paralleled that of African Americans. Just as African Americans choose the word Black to describe themselves, Mexican Americans did the same with Chicano. For years, my family debated the meaning of that word. According to the Mexican archeologist and anthropologist Manuel Gamio, the term Chicamo (with an m) was first used as a derogatory term by Hispanic Texans for recently arrived Mexican immigrants displaced during the Mexican Revolution at the turn of the 20th century. My grandparents still felt the intended sting of the word and considered it an insult. A couple of generations later, the context for the word had shifted, and my parents embraced it as a point of pride.
The charred aftermath of the Chicano Moratorium marked the physical end of Anglo-dominated modernism in East L.A. The damage from the riots pushed the political agenda into a rebuilding phase. Artists, architects, activists and residents were all asking, in different ways: What might a new Chicano utopia look like? Because Chicanos had few financial resources for rebuilding, we relied on our instincts, crafting a series of provisional and permanent interventions. The Chicano way of thinking about space also derived from centuries of turbulent history. Like most Chicanos, my own being is heavily influenced by the indigenous past (according to DNA tests, I am 48% indigenous, 27% Spanish, and the rest is mixture, including African). Our deep indigenous roots connected us to the land and to each other, long before the Spanish arrived in 1492. When the Spanish arrived, they imposed a new way of city building based on their Law of the Indies, which for centuries regulated social, political, religious, and economic life. At the time of the conquest, the indigenous peoples could not speak Spanish; thus visual expression in the landscape became the language between the two groups, as well as with the slave populations. The Spanish used this civic communication to subjugate the indigenous people by razing their temples and building elaborate Catholic churches. And yet out of the cauldron of suppression came a new way of thinking about space derived from four centuries of mixing, adopting, and evolving. It represented our tortuous—and joyous—way of becoming American.
In contrast to L.A.’s tabula rasa of the modern city, the Chicano version of placemaking embraced its past. Chicano artists, architects, and residents transformed their visual and spatial landscape with a series of fine grained urban design interventions. East Los Angeles became the visual manifestation of Aztlan, the mythical region where the Aztecs are said to have originated from. Aztlan was scrawled on many walls alongside gang graffiti. Murals educated and celebrated the power and struggle of the community and were painted on the blank walls of the private and public buildings. ASCO, a group of Chicano artists based in East L.A., used ephemeral interventions, such as a dinner party in a traffic island, performative murals, and sidewalk parades down Whittier Boulevard to create identity through the use of public space.
The public buildings that emerged in East Los Angeles reflected the aesthetics of Latin America’s international architecture movement with a strong political bent. The buildings were designed and redesigned with Chicano identity in mind, using storytelling mosaics, tile, stucco, stone, wrought iron, and patios. The indigenous peoples became Chicano political heroes, and they appeared on many of the public and private commercial buildings. The Pan-American Bank Building, home of the oldest Latino-owned banks, was designed by architect Raymond Stockdale and built in 1965. The five signature arches showcase the five-panel mosaic murals designed by Mexican artist José Reyes Meza. Called Our Past, Our Present, and Our Future, the panels highlight indigenous peoples entering the modern world. Other buildings, such as the First Street Store and the Doctor’s Hospital, also used murals, mosaics, and cultural icons to enhance their buildings. The facade of the Edward R. Roybal Comprehensive Health Center is known as “La Clínica de Colores” for its beautiful facade of brilliant rainbow colors wrapping around the facility with Aztec imagery. These buildings became cultural landmarks that used images of the past to create an idealized image of the future utopia.
In the late 1960’s, Frank Villalobos, Raul Escobedo, David Angelo, and Manual Orozco, a team of young architects, urban planners, and landscape designers, formed a community design center called Barrio Planners. This politically active group focused their practice on building a Chicano utopia, designing El Mercado as a community event space based on the design of a market in Guadalajara, Mexico. El Mercado was financed through a community collective and was originally designed as a two-story building with basement parking. The building had a large patio in the middle that used natural light to flood the Mexican food stalls and the second floor restaurants and shops. El Mercado, or El Mercadito as it is referred to today, remains one of the most popular tourist draws in East L.A.
By the 1980s the Chicano movement had died down, due to cultural assimilation and the rightward tilt of the country under President Ronald Reagan. Murals had become mainstream, and the Latino population had grown far beyond the confines of East Los Angeles. Whittier Boulevard was no longer the center. But was one of many, created by the explosive growth of Latinos in L.A. County. During this time, a second wave of Latinos from Central America and Mexico began migrating into many parts of Los Angeles, making it the entire region a polycentric Latino metropolis.
The loss of manufacturing jobs in Los Angeles during that period made Latino urban interventions economically driven and more ad hoc. In my MIT master’s thesis, “The Enacted Environment: The Creation of Place by Mexican and Mexican Americans in East Los Angeles,” written in the late 1980s, I explored the physical and social changes reshaping my community. Rather than dwelling on the political movement, or civic moments, which were losing steam, I focused on the everyday Latino behavior patterns that were transforming the use of space. Latinos used their imaginations, their hands, their bodies, and whatever scant resources were available to alter the existing landscape, producing jobs, social spaces, and community identity. These do-it-yourself, or rasquache, adaptations created a hybrid style that I term Latino Urbanism. Street vendors roamed the streets and occupied sidewalks throughout Los Angeles. Day laborers hung around hardware stores. House workers would ride the buses across the greater Los Angeles area. Mariachis waited for gigs at a donut shop in Boyle Heights.
Unlike a conventional suburban landscape, in which order, perfection, and a display of values are the ideal, the Latino American suburb is one of cultural, social, and economic production. Nowhere else was the transformation more noticeable than in the Latino home. As immigrants moved into single-family homes, they added their cultural living patterns to the American spatial forms to create a “Latino vernacular.” Every change Latinos made to their homes, no matter how small, had meaning and purpose, representing the struggles, triumphs, everyday habits, and beliefs of the new working-class residents. By building adjoining fences, they bind together adjacent homes; by adding and enlarging front porches, they extend the household into the front yard, reinforcing the social connections of the neighborhood. Every resident has a hand in the production of space. These interventions promote social cohesion and highlight the communities aspirations. Cultural expression, whether it’s political, economic, or social, helps preserve and enhance community values.
Ruben Salazar (1928–1970) was the Chicano Los Angeles Times journalist killed by a sheriff’s deputy during the Chicano Moratorium riot. Today, Ruben Salazar Park has changed very little since that tumultuous afternoon 50 years ago. In 2001, however, Los Tigres del Norte, a well-known Norteña band, commissioned artist Paul Botello to paint a mural entitled The Wall That Speaks, Sings and Shouts. According to Botello, the band “writes about the struggles and strength of the everyday man and woman, and they share my philosophy of speaking out for those with no voice.” I feel the same affinity. Reading the people’s pulse through the landscape is one way of giving them a voice. These visual interventions, which are part of the very fabric of East L.A., convey meanings that words alone fail to communicate. Salazar once said in an interview that the Chicano would never assimilate into Anglo culture, because he is indigenous to the Southwest. Today, perhaps the better question is: Will Anglo culture assimilate into Latino culture? Or will Anglo landscape incorporate Latino urbanism?
Featured image: The Edward R. Roybal Health Center (or “La Clinica de Colores”) was designed by Daniel, Mann, Johnson, and Mendenhall. The East Los Angeles landmark is known for its vivid rainbow wrapping sprinkled with Aztec figures. All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.