Is Los Angeles a City of Immigrants?

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Architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne partners with Artbound for an episode that looks into the future of Los Angeles. "Third L.A. with Architecture Critic Christopher Hawthorne" considers the city's changing architecture, urban planning, transportation and demographics. From Venice Beach to Leimert Park, and Hollywood to East L.A., the program also analyzes long-held cliches and stereotypes about the city.

The following essay examines the saying "L.A. is a city of immigrants."

In the essay “Sour Grapes” (2000), Chicana writer Cherríe Moraga writes of going to the San Gabriel Mission, only two blocks from where she grew up in San Gabriel. One afternoon, as the children sit within its “cool stone walls,” after “roll-calling the rolling r’s of each of the Spanish friars' names carved into the man-sized floor plaque filling the center aisle floor,” “[t]he nun tells us, ‘There are dead Indians buried down there, too.’ She said this ‘too’ like an after- thought.” Young Cherríe reflects: “‘Down there’... Down there under my white Oxford mission schoolgirl soles, shuffling against the creaking wooden pews and a buried history.” Looking back, she concludes that she is “neither Spanish friar nor mission Indian, but it's Indian history I'm diggin' up, diggin' for, thirty-five years later... I am once twice three times removed. But I know... I ain't all-immigrant.” 

“I ain’t all-immigrant.” Moraga’s childhood ruminations contain a truth about Los Angeles already known to many about the personal legacies of mixed indigenous, colonial, and global histories in the Americas. However, for many others, this truth has never been recognized, and is usually obscured in mainstream narratives of the city.

“L.A. is a city of immigrants,” we constantly say, and are told. This is true, to a degree. But by saying this, what is not being said? Who are imagined to be immigrants, and who are not? For those of us who are seen as immigrants, how long are we immigrants -- for how many generations? Do Black people get to be immigrants? Where are indigenous people in this narrative?

These questions matter because all too often, only people of color are considered immigrants, while the settler colonial migration of white people from Europe to the Americas, and westward from the East Coast, goes unremarked. In fact, the phrase “L.A. is a city of immigrants” typically excludes white people from its imagination of place, casting them as neutral and natural occupants of the land. In doing so, it implies that “immigrants” (read: people of color) are perpetually new arrivals. It erases the genocide and dispossession of indigenous people and the forced migration of enslaved Africans. More subtly, the connotation that immigration is a voluntary decision made by individuals masks the global power dynamics that have created countless refugees of wars waged by the U.S. as well as pervasive economic and political inequality between nations.

For “The Changs Next Door to the Díazes,” my book about Los Angeles’ San Gabriel Valley, I interviewed people whose families have been in the area for generations, since before the U.S. conquest of Alta California. Their ancestors -- indigenous and Mexican, were buried at the mission. They worked the oil wells in the hills, picked strawberries in the fields, and labored in the blue-collar factories of Downey, Southgate, and Bell alongside African Americans and poor whites. Asian Americans -- Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, and Indian -- have worked the fields of eastern L.A. County since the early 1900s, and settled here for generations, too. Japanese Americans and Mexican Americans in particular made their own hybrid neighborhood cultures in Boyle Heights, East L.A., Monterey Park, and Montebello from the 1950s to the 1980s. After 1965, due to changes in immigration law, greater numbers of ethnic Chinese migrants arrived and transformed the commercial and residential landscapes of the San Gabriel Valley. Southeast Asians from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos came too as refugees, from what the Vietnamese call the American War. 

Now these waves of first migrants have given rise to second, third, and fourth generations. Are they -- we -- still immigrants, or do we need to come up with a better term for people who are not white, who blend non-European cultures into the fabric of a city that has always been multiracial anyway -- and before that, indigenous? Who and what gets to be considered “American”? In violent, polarizing times, how we answer this question is vitally important. Can we transform the term “American” from an exclusionary euphemism into something that is expansive, accurate, and convivial? 

Yes, L.A. is a city of immigrants. It is also a city of the indigenous and a city of settler colonialists; a city of the formerly enslaved; a city of refugees; of migrants, and all kinds of Americans. It is a city in which history is not linear or binary but layered, hybrid, and messy, in which the past -- to paraphrase William Faulkner -- is not over, much less dead.

Our task, if we want to be honest, ethical, and just, is to reckon with all of those pasts, and to scrap and make anew our language, imaginations, and dreams for the future accordingly. To refuse to do so is to participate -- whether knowingly or unknowingly -- in the continuing violence of erasure, standing precariously on a foundation built on top of the bones of the dead.

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