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Photos: Santa Ana's Underrepresented Citizens

Santa Ana Tattoo
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Communities that have historically been disinvested, such as Boyle Heights, Santa Ana and East Oakland, have established rich community networks, informal economies and culture.
Ch. 2: Resilience

Launching September 13, City Rising is a multimedia documentary program that traces gentrification and displacement through a lens of historical discriminatory laws and practices. Fearing the loss of their community’s soul, residents are gathering into a movement, not just in California, but across the nation as the rights to property, home, community and the city are taking center stage in a local and global debate. Learn more.

With a seventy-eight percent Latino population, Santa Ana has become a sanctuary for Latinos in Orange County. Generations of U.S. born Latinos and Latino immigrants have taken refuge in the city, maintaining traditions from their homelands that have in turn cultivated Santa Ana’s distinct culture.

As a native of Santa Ana, I have taken it upon myself to visually document the stories of overlooked residents: the ones who don’t have time to go to town meetings; the mothers working three low-paying jobs and subsequently can’t afford to see their kids more than twice a week; the kids that at age eight can name all the gang territories and signs in Santa Ana; the immigrants that only can speak Nuahtl; the immigrant families that don’t identify with the ever so changing downtown area; street vendors, disabled seniors; and the children that play on concrete parking lots and so on. Santa Ana means different things to many different people, but to the residents, it’s a sanctuary. With the many recent developments and rising housing costs, many locals voice concerns of displacement, uncertainty, and confusion.

"At times it's easier to escape crowded homes and relax in empty parking lots." - Anonymous | Julie Leopo
Supporters at a local carwash for a young 17-year-old, Isaac, shot dead in the streets of Santa Ana. | Julie Leopo

In recent years, Orange County has ranked tenth on paying the highest rent when compared to the other eighty-four metro cities in the U.S., and rent prices are exponentially growing, reports the Orange County Register. Specifically, in Santa Ana, the impact is dire. On average, two families live in one-bedroom apartments. “We divide the rent between the families. I pay $200 a month. It’s the only way to do it,” says a local renter whose family lives on a $12,000 yearly income. Throughout my interviews, many residents spoke of the recurring domestic violence, gang activity and sexual abuse of children that goes on behind closed doors, exacerbated by these overcrowded housing conditions. With many parents juggling three low-paying jobs in order to pay the rent, childcare services are a luxury. There are many renters who aren't aware of their rights as tenants and they are scared to come out of the shadows, particularly during this current political climate.

Toys of all the neighborhood children are gathered on the patio. | Julie Leopo
Mother cooking in the communal kitchen. This particular house has ten rooms. In this house, 10-15 families are housed. The living room has six refrigerators and two couches. Bullet holes are scattered along the walls, have since been patched up. | Julie Leopo

Many local business owners in downtown Santa Ana also fear the current forces of gentrification. Many worry they may not be able to afford the rising rents and will be forced to leave their businesses behind. New developments in downtown cater to higher income patrons; highlighting the class and cultural disparity of this new investment. One local comments, “I can’t bring my family (to dine) here, it costs too much. Also, I don't like eggs on top of my hamburgers.”

Santa Ana’s rising homeless population further illuminates Santa Ana’s housing crisis. Hundreds of people have created their own makeshift shelters on the Santa Ana Riverbed. Meanwhile, there is an established homeless community in the Civic Center. But in the midst of all this, Santa Ana residents are continually taking a stand against displacement. The coalition Equity for All is working to establish community land trusts throughout the city, a model that takes land out of the free market to ensure the land’s affordability in perpetuity. The coalition is compromised of residents and local non-profits fighting to create a culture where developments are manifested with the help of the community members.

As a visual communicator, the love and admiration I have for my community is at times difficult to put into words. The task to verbally decode and encapsulate in a few paragraphs what is Santa Ana is difficult. However, with the help of my subjects and their stories, together we offer you a glimpse of our community, resilience, culture and, most importantly, a window into Santa Ana’s soul and why it is important to preserve it for future generations.

Trockas (trucks) sell the essentials to the neighboring residents. This little boy is excited to purchase some Mexican candies, while Adela (truck owner) looks on. She has experienced gang violence during her shifts. "It can get dangerous, but this is where I make my money, I can’t just give this up. I’ve invested so much; I take pride in my business."  | Julie Leopo
Maria, a frequent downtown customer, stands between two Downtown Santa Ana businesses. "This is all changing so fast. I don’t know why they are all (Latino businesses) leaving."  | Julie Leopo
"Living out here is hard, and as a man, I’m going to tell you this, the women in this camp have it harder than I do. You have to be vigilant. I pray for them." Civic Center resident. | Julie Leopo
"These houses are occupied by two people, and the people who constructed these were construction workers. They used the leftover material from a job and constructed these tiny homes. They pay the landlord what they can. There’s no set price." - Anonymous | Julie Leopo
Maria & Emily. Emily brushes her hair while applying water from the green bowl — which she uses as a sink. | Julie Leopo
Community listing board used for job and housing opportunities at El Toro.  | Julie Leopo
Estetica Guadalajara, 40 years in business. Above, a recent closure of a popular Mexican restaurant karaoke bar, "Rancho del Mendoza."  | Julie Leopo
"I dig in trash cans all day, sometimes if I’m lucky someone will give me their cans."  | Julie Leopo
"A lot of my friends died crossing the border, I’ll never forget seeing my friend in a coffin, but you know I just couldn’t understand how this country didn’t accept him when he was alive, but once he was dead they let him into this country to have his funeral. He was wearing such an ugly suit too. He would have hated it."  | Julie Leopo
"It’s been hard not having him around, and I will decorate every month and season, I will not let my son be forgotten." – Mother of a 20-year-old who was gunned down in Santa Ana.  | Julie Leopo