Who Are We?

No defining answer but some lively conversation flowed from that question at Tuesday's Crawford Family Forum at the Mohn Broadcast Center in Pasadena, the newish digs of public broadcaster KPCC. The starting point was a recent post of mine - Angelino, Angeleno, and Angeleño - that reflected on the names we've given ourselves since the Americanization of Los Angeles began in the mid-19th century.

The hook for our conversation was a squiggle - the wavy line of the tildé that floats over the final consonant in Angeleño:

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So how did the tildé disappear from our collective identity and the Spanish pronunciation that it represents? After the first influx of eastern and Midwestern immigrants in the late 1870s, Los Angeles lost its everyday bilingualism. Ã? was one more letter to maintain in the typesetter's case of fonts when type was set by hand. And the ñ was hard to distinguish from an English n, making typographical errors a problem. The typesetters weren't familiar with Spanish orthography anyway. And we were careless Americans who had little time for the details of Spanish pronunciation.

Leslie Berenstein Rojas of KPCC, who moderated, and Professor Eric Avila of UCLA and I ranged widely through this history as we tried to sort out what it means to be at home in this frustrating, beautiful, and ever-changing place. Inevitably, our discussion led to "Korean tacos" and other metaphors for a place now so promiscuously diverse that our identity is seemingly unmoored from ethnicity, race, or heritage.

With our audience, we paused to celebrate the "Korean taco-ness" of a Brooklynite and an Innsbrucker who have re-invented themselves as multi-cultural immigrants to Los Angeles. But both Professor Avila and I cautioned that re-invention had limits. Professor Avila recognized fault lines of class and race that no amount of "post-whatever" self-definition has redressed. I suggested that inattention to the past has fed our habit of willful forgetfulness, threatening our ability to shape our future together.

We also talked about the built form of Los Angeles, with many in the audience (particularly those with architectural and planning backgrounds) eager to see the city and the region more dense, more walkable, more bikeable, and generally more like Manhattan. That led to more skepticism. Whatever we're making of L.A., Eric and I agreed, it won't be Manhattan . . . but it will be L.A.

It seemed to me, as the conversation continued to move around the room, that the old mythology of Los Angeles is finally slipping away to be replaced by something at least more useful than the fantasy dystopias and utopias we've been taught. I saw a hunger for more opportunities to dig into the city's stories and to give the unsettled parts of the city's history further examination. I heard hopeful, somewhat anxious, engaged Angeleños (whatever their ZIP code) bringing a community to life.

Which is exactly what the Crawford Family Forum has made as its mission.

D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles every Monday and Friday at 2 p.m. on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

The image on this page was made available by flickr user Barack Obama. It is used under a Creative Commons License.

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