La Virgen, Like “Another Mother,” And Reflecting on Boyle Heights

James Rojas at the Virgen de Guadalupe mural at Mariachi Plaza during his Virgencita tour of the Eastside. The Virgen de Guadelupe is a prominent figure on the Eastside that can represent the spiritual and cultural soul of the area, said Rojas. Kris Fortin/LAStreetsblog

Around the Eastside, the Virgin de Guadalupe means a lot to everyone especially on her feast day, December 12. Live banda is bursting from people’s homes, processions leave assortments of vibrant flowers at the foot of  her mural. It’s the start of the holiday season, where toy drives shut down streets, and posadas become almost daily.

“She’s like another mom to us,” said 15-year-old Monica Arevalo of Las Fotos Project about the Virgen mural. Girls Today, Women Tomorrow, a mentoring program for teenage girls,  partnered with Las Fotos Project to help a handful of teenagers learn how to shoot photography, and in doing so reflect on their neighborhood and community.

In their most recent exhibition of photos, “Nuestra Virgen de Guadalupe,” the girls find the Virgen on the street painted to the side of an ice cream trucks, and next to family portraits of deceased family members.

“Forgotten spaces, parking lots, alleyways, car washes, become her haven where people venerate her,” James Rojas, an urban planner and leader in Latino urbanism, said in an email.

Rojas gave a tour Saturday morning of Virgencitas on the Eastside to urban planning and history enthusiasts. His tour was one part Virgencita presentation, the other was explaining to them how it the Virgen and her celebration resonate in the community.

While African Americans had the civil rights, Rojas said, the Chicano movement during the 70s and 80s made an architectural statement. “The murals and all that stuff came from that era,” he said.

As for the Virgencitas, the murals and statues that can be found on the side of businesses or residencies, many can be personal and rarely call attention. A Virgencita statue sat at the entrance of an apartment building on Michigan Avenue, an alter was in the corner of a Car Wash on Third Street and Eastern Avenue.

The thought of Virgencita murals and imagery being absent in the neighborhood? ”It would be blank if it wasn’t there,” said Gaby Cortes, 14.

****

After coming back from a trip from San Francisco, a reporter in the Mission District, a once vibrant Mexican community, made a comment that has lingered with me since: the murals are always the last thing people care about, even after the people they represent are gone.

This doesn’t apply to murals only, but all cultural treasures. But I definitely liked how it was phrased.

It is amazing to see so much appreciation and interest in Boyle Heights culture, at times being mentioned in publications for having the most walkable street in Los Angeles, or a look at the East LA accent.

What has made the neighborhood so vibrant for me- its people, and their relationship with the neighborhood – is also what concerns me about its future. With so many large scale developments, and so much investment into the neighborhood, change is bound to happen.

The Gold Line made it all the more accessible to appreciate the neighborhood, but even the Eastside light rail has been controversial in the past. With new developments and better services, can a neighborhood that has been historically and majority immigrant, low income have a better quality of life? And can it coexist with other middle-class residents concerns, and with new residents slowly trickling in? I don’t know, but the story is unraveling everyday.

I couldn’t argue whether this change is for the better or worse. I believe change is a natural process when living in a city. But, for all these stories I write about the neighborhood and the vitality of the community, I would hate to write about the fossilization of the neighborhood. As much as there are intentions to help Boyle Heights residents, there are more lessons its residents can teach others.

Thanks to Las Fotos Project on letting Streetsblog use their photos for this post. For more information about Las Fotos Project, click here. To see more photos from the Las Fotos Project, including the “Nuestra Virgen de Guadalupe” exhibition, click here.