The “Gente-fication” of Boyle Heights: Decolonizing Cultural Work in Contested Urban Space
by Magali Miranda
Maga is an Eastside native, born and raised where Boyle Heights borders/embraces unincorporates East L.A. She is a first-generation Xicana with roots in DF and Michoacan. She is currently appropriating knowledge at UC Santa Cruz where she is studying Community Studies and Feminist Studies.
Gente-fication (n): Contraction from the word “gente” (Spanish for “people”) + gentrification = gentefication. Michelada-drinking, college-going, newly-minted professional Latinos moving back home to over-priced transitional neighborhoods, who move back ‘home’ only to find a new crop of (non-Latino) upwardly mobile gentrifiers, thus inducing an identity crisis.
Example: All this gentefication is getting out of control… my ma ain’t gonna be able to stay here.
Example: Am I part of the gentification problem because I like trendy carbs and cocktails?
(Adaptated from an entry on Urbandictionary.com)
I was freshly out of high school when I began to hear rumors that Josefina Lopez had decided to put her theater company, Casa 0101, in Boyle Heights. Lopez could easily have put her theater in Hollywood, having just received critical acclaim for her screenplay, Real Women Have Curves (2002). I mean, sure she was a Chicana raised on the East Side, but she was upwardly-mobile. Surely upwardly mobile Chicanas would try to move out of “the barrio,” not back in. It wasn’t long before I heard the strange term, “gente-fication” to describe this phenomenon of upwardly mobile Chican@s coming back to the barrio. This paradox is made sense of at least partly by activists through a form of hybridity.
This hybridity is known as rasquache. Rasquache is a Mexican and Mexican American aesthetic characterized by multi-layering and incongruousness (Taylor 97). “It is citational, recycled, transposed itno a context that brings about the reversal from high to low, from reverent to irreverent”(Taylor 126). “Gente-fication” is a rasquache term that combines “gente” and “gentrification.” And this hibridity is a way of making sense of the world where dichotomous thinking would not suffice, and could lead to an identity crisis. Rasquache has the ability, then, to temporarily disrupt taken-for-granted dichotomies. Many of the dichotomies rasquache seeks to disrupt are perhaps best understood through Jose Munoz’ conceptions of “majority culture” and “minoritarian counter-identity” that tent to lock individuals in given identities. By invoking art and performance, la gente appear to be separate from the gentrifiers who use cold facts and data. In this way rasquache, and specifically “gente-fication,” is a form of disidentification. In the case of Boyle Heights, disidentification is particularly important given the tendency for discourses of gentrification to replicate binary thinking, as exemplified by the dichotomy of gente/gentrifier.
“Gente-fiers” are in a state of nepantla, or a state of in-betweeness. In her seminal work, Borderlands, Gloria Anzaldua describes nepantla thus:
“Bridges are thresholds to other realities, archetypal, primal symbols of shifting consciousness. They are passageways, conduits, and connectors that connote transitioning, crossing borders, and changing perspectives. Bridges span liminal (threshold) spaces between worlds, spaces I call nepantla, a Nahuatl word meaning tierra entre medio. Transformations occur in this in-between space, an unstable, unpredictable, precarious, always-in-transition space lacking clear boundaries. Nepantla es tierra desconocida, and living in this liminal zone means being in a constant state of displacement–an uncomfortable, even alarming feeling. Most of us dwell in nepantla so much of the time it’s become a sort of “home.” Though this state links us to other ideas, people, and worlds, we feel threatened by these new connections and the change they engender.”
The state of nepantla for “gente-fiers” goes something like this: Am I gente or a gentrifier? Is my project producing exchange value or use value? Am I an artist or a laborer? Am I living in the past or looking toward the future? Going backward or forward? What clues does the hybridity of “gente-fication” give us for knowing ourselves differently? For building bridges to new worlds? In what follows I want to use a decolonial methodology that precisely bridges scholarly work and activist practices gathered from informants who live and work in Boyle Heights. Many of them do not describe themselves of “gente-fiers” but grapple with these questions in their cultural work on a daily basis.
James Rojas is a Los Angeles-based city planner. He was born and raised on the eastside, and studied in MIT where he wrote his dissertation about 1970’s city planning in East LA and Boyle Heights. Particularly he studies the neighborhoods as a site of “Latino urbanism.” In his 2015 piece “How the Civil Rights Movement Shaped Latino Urbanism in East L.A.,” Rojas defines Latino urbanism as a phenomenon that “goes beyond creating great public spaces… [It] includes cultural identity, which is shaped by needs, desires, and imagination.” The examples he gives include structures in a style of architecture that reflect what he refers to as a Chicano utopia. For example, the Doctor’s Hospital in East LA which still currently stands as a monument to modern and pre-Colombian medicine. However, Rojas does not push his concept of a Chicano utopia far enough in as far as he remains in the domain of urban planning that focuses on murals and plazas, as well as materials like stucco and metal. Surely, these styles evoke a certain consciousness, but aesthetics by themselves do not a Chicano utopia make. Nevertheless, his insight is helpful for imagining that there is some precedent for gente-driven urban planning. He writes that “the initial grassroots artistic Chicano interventions of the 1970s created civic discourse and influenced architecture.”
But let’s say we wanted to push Rojas’ thinking a little bit further to think not just about the style of architecture but the function of urban space. We don’t have to look far to find a contemporary example. White Memorial Hospital is situated in a central area of Boyle Heights, Cesar Chavez Ave. The large buildings that make up the hospital complex are decorated with murals similarly to the Doctor’s Hospital on First Street in East LA, an example that Rojas touts as a classic example of Latino urbanism. What distinguished White Memorial, at least before last year when Proyecto Jardin moved its operation, was that part of its property was utilized by a non-profit community garden where people could practice indigenous and land-based forms of wellness. While significant, the shortcoming of Rojas’ analysis is that it pushes up against but does not fully attack or reject the dichotomy of gente/gentrifier.
Rojas sort resolves or rather avoids this question through championing a familiar trope of minoritarian counter-identification—Chicano nationalism. Desiree Martin describes how “Chicano nationalist identity is especially symbolized by the claim on the U.S. Southwest and Mexican north as Aztlan, an indigenous ‘nation historically anterior to the founding of the United States’ and Mexico(Martin 117)”. In this way Rojas’ “Chicano utopia” is a new articulation of Aztlan, a site of a cohesive Mexican and indigenous identity. In the discourse of gentrification, this strategic essentialism may be a useful tool for counter-acting the whitewashing of public space, but it falls short of faithfully capturing power differentials among Chicanos that are informed by class, immigration status and gender. Drawing from her study of Cesar Chavez, a hero of the Chicano movement, Desiree complicates the homogeneity of Chicano/a identity first by complicating the narrative of male heroes that has eclipsed women’s participation (ibid). Furthermore, she says:
“[Romano V.] calls the Chicanos/as inspired by a man in Delano shouting !Huelga! (Strike!) ‘descendants of the Aztecs’(77-82). But this cohesive Mexican indigenous past is unsustainable for contemporary Chicanos/as, while the myth of Mexican solidarity rings false for several reasons. It should not be forgotten that many Mexicans, especially those from the middle and upper classes, either ignored Chavez or were simply unfamiliar with him. The Mexicans who were familiar with Chavez’s deeds and legacy often criticized him, interpreting his support of immigration controls as an affront.”(ibid)
This begs the question, what is left unexamined in Rojas’ analysis?
In this sense, Chicanismo is another state of nepantla, or in-betweenness. It champions discourses and aesthetics that refuse to white-wash and sterilize Mexican and indigenous history from the landscape, at the sake of creating a Mexican and indigenous identity that perhaps never was a viable identity for many Eastside residents, including the middle class, undocumented people, women, and Central Americans. Can we imagine another “Xicanx utopia” that takes these questions—of gender, immigration status, class, nationality and perhaps others—into consideration? If so, what might that look like? How can we use Rojas to push back against majority discourses of gentrification that seek to sanitize and whitewash culture without reifying the other binaries in the process? How do we not only minimize but eliminate the “collateral damage” (according to NPR, the most vulnerable are people who lack rent control, people with disabilities, and the elderly) of gentrification, as Xela de la X, a local artist and activist, put it? What is the role of nepantlero “gente-fiers” in decolonizing urban planning processes, and can decolonization move beyond discourses and aesthetics? Are there sites where this is already happening in some degree, such as in Proyecto Jardin? I believe these questions are of great importance to barrio creative workers in contested urban space.
The next part of this project I hope to complete will focus, through a similar process, on disturbing and decolonizing other discourses of gentrification by complicating the binaries of past/future that anchor “the myth of the disappearing native”; use value/exchange value that anchor commodification of culture in a capitalist economy; and art(ist)/labor(er) that anchor discourses about the value of labor.
Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands: The New Mestiza = La Frontera. San Francisco: Spinsters/Aunt
Taylor, Diana. The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas. Durham: Duke UP, 2003.
Martin, Desiree A. Borderland Saints: Secular Sanctity in Chicano/a and Mexican Culture. New
Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2013.
Muñoz, José Esteban. Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics.
Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 1999.
Rojas, James. “How the Civil Rights Movement Shaped Latino Urbanism in East L.A.” KCET.
KCET, 21 Jan. 2015. Web. 14 Feb. 2015.
Rojas, James. “Looking for the Rasquache at Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights.” KCET. KCET,
29 Jan. 2015. Web. 18 Feb. 2015.
Interview with Xela de la X. Conducted February 28, 2015.