Susy Chávez Herrera grew up in City Terrace, Los Angeles, CA and Colima, Mexico. After years away from home she’s recently returned to LA. A trained anthropologist whose favorite subject are urban settings, she enjoys gardening, and loves nothing more than to lose herself in the sunny streets of Oaxaca, Mexico on a quite Sunday morning.
We headed out early enough on Saturday morning August 10, 2013 that the Inside Out 11M rolling photo booth crew was still setting up when we arrived at Mariachi Plaza.
Like most weekends, the western side of the plaza was already buzzing with morning activity. We watched a recovering Mariachi, trumpet in tow, make his way across the plaza as we stood next to the photo truck on the eastern side of the plaza. Three generations of my family decided to participate mostly on the grounds that this was a nationwide group action project highlighting immigration as it sought to “create a portrait of America that includes immigrants and the descendants of immigrants.”
The addition of the Metro Gold line into East L.A. has turned Mariachi Plaza into the kind of downtown destination it has always been for those of us from the area. Eastsiders have met the Metro addition with a mix of hope and unease. The addition of green bike lanes, the opening of Libros Schmibros sandwiched between a liquor store and an AA meeting site, and the christening of Mariachi Plaza as a destination for CicLAvia have all pointed towards the unknown for a neighborhood largely ignored.
As noted in recent articles focused on the changing face of Boyle Heights, the changes have not all been external. The exit of Homeboy Industries for a nearby downtown location, the relocation of Self-Help Graphic’s to a factory building just before the First St. Downtown bridge, a stone throws away from the “Artist District,” and a growing population of those of us from the area who have returned “home” armed with the college educations that were supposed to take us out of the neighborhood, have begun to change the once largely poor and working class area.
Nowhere was this tension of in-betweeness more evident than that morning.
The photo booth visit to Boyle Heights was unlike any of the other three scheduled in LA, a public space site in an actual neighborhood. Mustached young men waited with brooms and wheat paste in hand ready to place the oversized portraits of participants onto the floor of the plaza while groups of paisanos, longtime residents, and musicians gathered in the opposite side of the plaza, the traditional kiosk donated by the Mexican state of Jalisco standing between the groups.
The young volunteer crew for the JR Inside Out project set up quickly and began to take the pictures of the handful of anglo customers that had made their way up from the Gold Line’s exit. Instructions were all in English and the local intergenerational women that soon stood in line helped one another fill out release forms. Daughters’ came to the rescue of señoras confused by the volunteer who placed an ipad in front of them asking for email addresses and for signatures onto the shinny glass top. A young Latina juggled bouncing her baby as she translated for her mother and simultaneously explained her mother’s lack of email address to the volunteer.
We made small talk in Spanish with the older woman who had decided to participate after watching her daughter and granddaughter’s pictures pasted on the floor of the plaza. “To me it’s a form of protest,” she went on, “ It’s important to participate to make a statement, you know.”
One thing was clear after we had all pasted our oversized portraits on the floor, despite the changes, generational gaps, and backgrounds participants left satisfied in their own way. The portraits pasted on the plaza brought smiles, attracted the curious, started conversations, and even a few phone calls.
For her part, Delia Herrera summed up her experience by saying “It felt nice to drive by and see the faces, all the caras, los personajes (the characters). In the day to day bustle we forget to see each other, acknowledge each other, we don’t appreciate that. When we actually put our pictures down it was so cool our pictures with all the others creating a mosaic of photos.”