As a thoroughbred Canadian who moved to California to study at USC, my idea of what Los Angeles would be like was almost exclusively cultivated by the mainstream media. In my first week in Angels City, I hit the In-N-Out, Santa Monica Pier, Hollywood sign and took a ride down the Pacific Coast Highway through Malibu classic staples, right?
As I became acquainted with the city and evolved from tourist to resident, I quickly realized that the landmarks I had raved about were basic tourist traps, dismissed by most LA natives as grossly incorrectly representative of the city’s soul and spirit. I grew to share this belief and learned that the stereotype of fame, fortune and glamor was only a minute fragment of a vast metropolis that had far more to offer than traditional depictions of the city allowed.
A melting pot, a kaleidoscope of cultures, a region filled with inappropriate power structures that take the form of a chaotic and colorful landscape – is that LA Hollywood? Not so much.
This semester, as a senior at USC, I am taking a literature course called “Myths, Heroes and Legends of the Modern City”. In it, we address the question of what are the prevailing mythologies in LA, and how do they interact with its lived realities? The arguments of both my classmates and the professor tell of the city’s sociopolitical climate and are worth sharing here: namely, that the overwhelming pressure from the Hollywood industry complex and the entertainment industry refers authentic Angeleno culture to the margins of invisibility.
Many people – especially those who are not from LA – perceive the city as blockbuster movies like “La La Land” and “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” frame it: limited to West Hollywood and the Hills and the celebrities and uber-rich who inhabit them. The documentary “Los Angeles plays itself”, through a holistic overview of representations of LA in movies and on television, points to the restrictive idea of the city being immortalized and reused by Hollywood, which is an unsuitable match for LA that lives and draws the weather as I write this column.
It is certainly far easier for the industry to reset the decidedly false utopia that is Hollywood than to engage in its quirky, diverse, and at times ugly truths. But it does a disservice, not only to those parts of LA that are forgotten by the glamor and glamor, but also to anyone who hopes to engage in representations of LA that are authentic, raw and genuine.
What is LA, if not its scattered latinx, African American and immigrant communities, the dark and stained colonial history that led to the class difference we see around us today and ignorant of those who made it possible? What is LA, if not the gentrification processes that moved entire South Central communities from their homes to build USC’s sparkling campus, or that brushed Chavez Ravine’s residents aside to build Dodger Stadium in the ’50s? What is LA, if not the homeless capital of the country and city where Skid Row sits next to shiny skyscrapers in the center?
Because LA is such a large metropolis, it is such that tourist incentives and media presentations are particularly incompatible with the true identity of the city. In fact, I wanted to test this theory and did a quick google search for “the best things to do in Los Angeles.” What I got were lists of e.g. The Grove, Sunset Boulevard, Rodeo Drive, the Hollywood Bowl and Universal Studios — none of them, I’m sure we all agree, even crack the top-100 list of things to do in this city.
What was left of these lists? Authentic Mexican street food, the open-air market at Santee Alley and close cultural hubs like Koreatown (which probably won’t be much longer thanks to-you guessed it-gentrification, so go for it, folks), just to name a few of the landmarks that breathes life into this city, and which all too often is rejected or scorned by the mainstream media. Ironically, isn’t it true that the things that make LA the vibrant landscape, that is, are consistently subject to exploitation and erasure?
It’s almost as if colonization has a lasting impact that goes across all areas of life, media presentation included … oh, wait.
In my class, we read this amazing book by Luis Rodriguez entitled “The Republic of East LA,” which consists of twelve short stories, written in the true language of the streets, drawing a deeply nuanced and honest portrait of East LA and its inhabitants. When I was doing research for this column, I looked up reviews of the book and was amazed at the amount of criticism I found. Critics called Rodriguez’s stories “fails to circulate on worthy themes,” arguing that they are “incomplete,” “incomplete,” and “forced.”
Funny enough (and I’m grateful for the course for giving me this perspective), I think this critique is largely rooted in a Western gaze that creates damaging misunderstandings of the lived experiences in the societies Rodriguez writes about . Oh, you are crazy, there was no happy ending in the story of the undocumented family who was deported or the mill worker who worked payslip for wages, caught by the clutches of capitalism and a slave to work of necessity? Wake up and smell the coffee, Karen.
Rodriguez’s stories are at once poignant and beautiful, filled with poverty and injustice, but also laughter and the hope of a better life. It is a shame that we are rarely encouraged to interact with these sources, a shame that we are being force-fed with a one-dimensional view of LA that has corrosive consequences for the marginalized societies it throws aside.
My literature teaching made me aware of the skewed perspective I packed in the suitcase with me on my trip from Montreal to LA. I am grateful for this push, but I can say with certainty that many privileged white people who come to LA, either will not get the opportunity, or will not take it, even if they do. In a moment where media presentation is a hot-button topic, it is helpful to consider how a colonial mindset plays into mainstream depictions of the City of Angels.
Before I sign out, here are some recommendations of texts, shows and movies that I think everyone should experience (thanks, Prof. Ortiz): watch Sean Baker’s “Tangerine”, Issa Raes “Unsure”, the documentary “Chavez Ravine: A Los Angeles Story “and read Rodriguez’s” The Republic of East LA “and Italo Calvino’s” Invisible Cities “.
As gentrification processes pick up speed and exploitation systems tighten their grip, we must fight back and immortalize sources that tell of an LA that can actually hold a light to its colorful, chaotic identity.
Rachel McKenzie is a senior writer on pop culture. Her column, “The Afterword,” typically runs every other Wednesday.