Revealing the Soul Behind the Stigma

Screening of “East LA Interchange” tears down the stereotypes of the city

Janice Peregrina, Staff Reporter

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You never really know a city until you hear its story from the people who live there. The Cross Cultural Center closed out its long-running film series, Independent Visions, for the Spring semester with the 2015 documentary “East LA Interchange”. Directed by Betsy Kalin and narrated by Danny Trejo, this film tells the history and rich culture of the city of Boyle Heights as well as some of the past and current problems its residents face.

The film features heartfelt recounts of previous and current citizens of Boyle Heights dating back to as far as the 1920’s. Described as a “quintessential American neighborhood” in the film, citizens reminisce about being close and generous to their neighbors and community at large. “There’s a real bonding in Boyle Heights,” one longtime resident stated. Between the 1920’s and the 1940’s, Boyle Heights had a largely diverse population that included immigrants including but not limited to Jewish, Japanese, Latinx, Black, and Armenian descent. In this time period, Boyle Heights also housed the “largest Jewish community on the west coast.”

With the end of World War II, Boyle Heights was met with some changes to its population. The film introduced a case study through the eyes of Cedrick Shimo, a Japanese-American who got drafted into the war. During the end of the war, around the period of Pearl Harbor, Shimo recalled getting letters from his mother and father living in Boyle Heights that they were being sent away to internment camps. Shimo, who was barred from reentering the US for the same discriminatory reasons, was unable to see his parents before they were gone.

Forced to leave all valuables and possessions, the Japanese-Americans who lived in Boyle Heights were unable to return to their homes after the dust settled. Also following the war was the white flight. It was where white populations were able to live cheaply in places like the San Fernando Valley due to restrictive real estate policies subsidized by the government barring minorities from living there. Some of Boyle Height’s white passing populations, such as its Armenian, Jewish, and Greek citizens, moved to these new communities. This shifted the city’s levels of diversity, although not completely.

Boyle Heights has faced a number of stereotyping and harmful changes at the hands of both federal and state governments including gentrification, prejudiced construction, and overblown media images. In 1944, the building of many freeway interchanges through the city literally dissected the community. Because Boyle Heights was a low to middle income community, it was unable to fight more wealthy neighborhoods against the freeway construction ruling. The health and traffic effects have been staggering. One Boyle Heights teacher in an elementary school right next to the freeway reported that “nose bleeding and coughing up stuff” among students is a common occurrence.

On top of this, the unfortunate rise of gang violence in Boyle Heights throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s painted the city as the height of danger even to this day, due to negative media depictions. The citizens in the documentary all agreed that Boyle Heights is not like that at all anymore. Despite all this, Boyle Heights stands strong. “The spirit in Boyle Heights cannot be broken by California planners,” evoked a resident in the film.

The film also focused on the rich political and artistic culture throughout the city. Community businesses and programs, such as Casa 0101 Theater, and Libros Schmibros thrive and display perfect examples of homegrown care and community. Boyle Heights also has Homeboy Industries which is the largest rehabilitation and employment agency for previously incarcerated individuals. Community groups, such as Mothers of East Los Angeles, work toward bettering the infrastructure of the city. In 2011, the group worked hard to improve the air quality systems in Boyle Heights schools to keep its children safe. Photographs of residents working and interacting with each other closed out the film, hitting home the message that Boyle Heights is not everything they told you it is.

The screening closed with a discussion fronted by Frederick Smith, director of the Cross Cultural Centers. Smith invited audience members to share their feelings and responses toward the movie. Many audience members admitted that before the screening, they had not known about the history of Boyle Heights. The discussion also revealed a few real and current Boyle Heights citizens.

Daniela Barranco, a senior in high school and reporter for local newspaper Boyle Heights Beat, highly approved of the documentary. “I think the movie was everything I expected for. I was really happy with the outcome…I was like ‘yes, that’s so true,’ there’s so many things that are changing in Boyle Heights and I feel like we don’t get enough representation in our community.” Her sister, graduating Cal State LA student Ana Gabriela Barranco, agreed. “It’s very rich in culture and we’re very united,” she affirmed.

“East LA Interchange” is a film that will open your eyes to how loyal the citizens of Boyle Heights are to a beautiful community that is so maligned by mainstream media.

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Revealing the Soul Behind the Stigma