A Street Called Brooklyn: Memories of Boyle Heights in the Age of Trump

I knew the street as Brooklyn when I was a child and to this day cannot let the words César Chavez Avenue roll off my tongue without some sense of loss. A tribute to our transforming landscape and the struggles it took to get there, this new boulevard is still dotted by our diverse past. Down Boyle St. from César Chavez is the plaza where proud mariachis strut and pose, hoping for a good day’s work so that they may pay the bills.

There sits a charming used bookstore called Libros Schmibros, a non-profit lending library whose name recalls the neighborhood’s multicultural past and present. Where Jewish immigrants who once came from New York brought with them their beautiful little piece of Brooklyn, now brown children read in the shade of skyscrapers while musicians strum their guitars.

A new president was elected – not by the people directly, but by a system that is a relic of a time when it took months to travel the same distance now covered by hours. Perhaps the dawn of a new era awaits Californians who sit on the edge of a nation whose racism and antisemitism has been awoken from its steady but lumbering sleep walk. 

Brooklyn Theater
The Brooklyn Theater on César Chavez Avenue. It was demolished a few years after 1987, when this photograph was taken. Photo courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection – Los Angeles Public Library.

These uncertain days, I am reminded of the neighborhood I was born in, Boyle Heights, because of the rich history of resistance and diversity it represents. The place where you could dine on “kosher burritos,” and now Korean tacos, seems to define the California experience. It is also a deeply American one to me.

The role of California in this, as it has always been, will be to join with the other forces of modernity around the country, protect the road we have already traveled, and pave through the barriers we will see erected by the forces now gathering in Washington D.C. To oppose attempts to further suppress voter participation in those crucial states in our union.

California has wrestled these demons before, and I must clearly say we still have work to do ourselves. But the nation today seems as embittered with progress as we once did in the time of Proposition 187, the “save our state” referendum that, too, sought to resist our nation’s destiny. We should be reminded that, a mere 22 years ago, Proposition 187 passed quite easily, and on its coattails was re-elected a governor now synonymous with pettiness and failure, Pete Wilson.

Proposition 187 protest
Young Latinos protest Proposition 187, which California voters overwhelmingly passed in 1994. Photo courtesy of the Gary Leonard Collection – Los Angeles Public Library.

The day after this year's election, California Senate President pro Tempore Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) and California Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Paramount) in a joint statement voiced their sadness at our country’s desperate attempt to revive old ghosts. “Today, we woke up feeling like strangers in a foreign land, because yesterday Americans expressed their views on a pluralistic and democratic society that are clearly inconsistent with the values of the people of California,” they wrote.

Governors Jerry Brown and Pete Wilson
Governors Jerry Brown (left) and Pete Wilson (right). Photo courtesy of the Gary Leonard Collection – Los Angeles Public Library.

At the rumored involvement of Kris Kobach from Kansas – the author of anti-immigrant legislation in Alabama and Arizona, who intends to institute a Muslim registry – our state’s highest ranking Latino official issued a warning. California Secretary of State Alex Padilla said, “Mr. Trump’s selection of Kris Kobach to the immigration transition team sends a deeply troubling message that telegraphs an imminent assault on our collective voting rights and civil rights.” In a statement, today, Secretary Padilla gave no signs of compromise with the likes of Kobach and Bannon, calling them “direct threats to American liberty, multiculturalism and equal opportunity.”

Leaders across California seem unified and steeled to resist. Gov. Jerry Brown and mayors across the state have issued statements declaring that any attempts to turn the clock back will be resisted. From New York to Chicago to Phoenix to San Francisco, the diverse humans of our earth pumps through our country’s veins as the lifeblood of our still young nation. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, a man of Mexican and Italian stock, has also taken to the airwaves to declare that Los Angeles, too, will stand against those who would tear our families apart.

A street called Brooklyn fondly rests in my memory, as what it represents has made an indelible imprint on our state and on our nation, never to come back, but never to leave.

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