As a thoroughbred Canadian moving to California to study at USC, my idea of what Los Angeles would be like was almost exclusively cultivated by the mainstream media. In my first week in the City of Angels, I hit In-N-Out, Santa Monica Pier, the Hollywood sign and took a drive down Pacific Coast Highway through Malibu — classic staples, right?
As I familiarized myself with the city and evolved from tourist to resident, I quickly realized that the landmarks I’d been raving over were basic tourist traps, dismissed by most L.A. natives as grossly misrepresentative of the city’s soul and spirit. I grew to share this conviction, learning that the stereotype of fame, fortune and glamor was but a minute fragment of a sprawling metropolis that had far more to offer than traditional depictions of the city allowed for.
A melting pot, a kaleidoscope of cultures, a region rife with incongruous power structures that take the form of a chaotic and colorful landscape — that is L.A. Hollywood? Not so much.
This semester, as a senior at USC, I’m taking a comparative literature course called “Myths, Heroes, & Legends of the Modern City.” In it, we tackle the question of what are the prevailing mythologies of L.A. and how do they interact with its lived realities? The arguments made by my classmates and professor alike are telling of the city’s sociopolitical climate and worth sharing here: namely, that the overwhelming pressure of the Hollywood industrial complex and the entertainment industry relegates authentic Angeleno culture to the margins of invisibility.
Indeed, many people — especially those who are not from L.A. — conceive of the city as blockbuster films such as “La La Land” and “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” frame it: limited to West Hollywood and the Hills and the celebrities and uber-wealthy that inhabit them. The documentary “Los Angeles Plays Itself,” through a holistic overview of representations of L.A. in film and on television, points to the restrictive idea of the city that is perpetuated and recycled by Hollywood, which is an unsuited match for the L.A. that lives and breathes as I write this column.
Certainly, it’s far easier for the industry to zero in on the decidedly fake utopia that is Hollywood than to engage with its idiosyncratic, diverse and, at times, ugly truths. But that does a disservice, not only to the parts of L.A. that have been forgotten by the glitz and glamor, but also to anyone hoping to engage with representations of L.A. that are authentic, raw and real.
What is L.A., if not its sprawling Latinx, African American and immigrant communities, the dark and speckled colonial history that led to the class disparity we see around us today and the obliviousness of those who enabled it? What is L.A., if not the processes of gentrification that shifted entire South Central communities from their homes to build USC’s sparkling campus or that brushed Chavez Ravine residents aside to build Dodger Stadium in the ’50s? What is L.A., if not the homeless capital of the country and the city where Skid Row sits adjacent to glossy downtown skyscrapers?
Because L.A. is such a sprawling metropolis, it is such that tourist incentives and media representations are particularly mismatched with the city’s true identity. In fact, I wanted to test this theory and did a quick google search of “best things to do in Los Angeles.” What I got were lists with the likes of The Grove, Sunset Boulevard, Rodeo Drive, the Hollywood Bowl and Universal Studios — none of which, I’m sure we all agree, even crack the top-100 list of things to do in this city.
What was left off these lists? Authentic Mexican street food, the open-air market at Santee Alley and dense cultural hubs like Koreatown (which probably won’t be around much longer thanks to — you guessed it — gentrification, so get on it, folks), to name just a few of the landmarks that breathe life into this city and that are too often dismissed or villainized by the mainstream media. Ironic, isn’t it, that the very things that make L.A. the vibrant landscape it is are consistently subject to exploitation and erasure?
It’s almost like colonization has a lasting impact that cuts across all areas of life, media representation included … oh, wait.
In my class, we read this amazing book by Luis Rodriguez entitled “The Republic of East L.A.” made up of twelve short stories, written in the true lingo of the streets, that paint a profoundly nuanced and honest portrait of East L.A. and its inhabitants. When I was doing research for this column, I looked up reviews of the book and was surprised at the extent of criticism I found. Critics called Rodriguez’ stories “misfires orbiting a worthwhile themes,” arguing that they are “unfinished,” “incomplete” and “forced.”
Funny enough (and I’m thankful to the course for giving me this perspective), I think these criticisms are largely rooted in a Western gaze that engenders harmful misunderstandings of the lived experiences of the communities Rodriguez writes about. Oh, you’re mad there was no happy ending in the story about the undocumented family who was deported or the mill employee working paycheck-to-paycheck, trapped by the clutches of capitalism and a slave to labor by necessity? Wake up and smell the coffee, Karen.
Rodriguez’ stories are at once jarring and beautiful, rife with poverty and injustice but also laughter and the hope for a better life. It is a shame that we are seldom encouraged to engage with these sources, a shame that we are force-fed a one-dimensional conception of L.A. that has corrosive implications for the marginalized communities it casts aside.
My comparative literature class brought to my attention the skewed perspective I packed in my suitcase with me on my journey from Montreal to L.A. I’m thankful for this push, but I can confidently say that many privileged white people coming to L.A. either won’t get that opportunity, or won’t take it even if they do. At a moment when media representation is a hot-button topic, it is useful to consider how a colonial mindset plays into mainstream portrayals of the City of Angels.
Before I sign off, here are some recommendations of texts, shows and movies that I think everyone should experience (thanks, Prof. Ortiz): watch Sean Baker’s “Tangerine,” Issa Rae’s “Insecure,” the documentary “Chavez Ravine: A Los Angeles Story” and read Rodriguez’ “The Republic of East L.A.” and Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities.”
As processes of gentrification pick up their pace and systems of exploitation tighten their hold, we must fight back and immortalize sources that tell of an L.A. that can actually hold a candle to its colorful, chaotic identity.
Rachel McKenzie is a senior writing about pop culture. Her column, “The Afterword,” typically runs every other Wednesday.