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By Saúl Soto

Boyle Heights Beat

The actors were supposed to represent Lucha, a Mexican girl, and Jameson, an Anglo boy, falling in love and sharing a first kiss in romantic Hollenbeck Park. It was a scene from “Hopscotch,” a mobile opera that carried performers and audience members in limousines through various Los Angeles neighborhoods, including Boyle Heights.

The New Yorker said it was “awe inspiring” and the New York Times called it “haunting”. But in a lengthy Tumblr post, “Serve the People Los Angeles” –a Maoist organization that gave away food at Hollenbeck Park– declared it an “exclusively white petite-bourgeois circus-like performance.”

Angel Luna, a member of Defend Boyle Heights, leads a protest against Weird Wave Coffee in Boyle Heigts. Photo by Antonio Mejías-Rentas

The group asked the performers to leave the park and, when they refused, they enlisted members of the Theodore Roosevelt High School Marching Band to disrupt the show. That final performance of “Hopscotch,” on November of 2015, marked the beginning of Defend Boyle Heights.

“We used that as the day that folks realized that we needed something stronger than just individuals fighting gentrification in Boyle Heights,” said Angel Luna, a 24-year-old Boyle Heights activist and a leader of Defend Boyle Heights, a coalition of five Eastside-based community organizations.  “That we needed an aggressive and militant front […] saying out loud we don’t want gentrification and we’ll do whatever it takes to push back against it.”

Defend Boyle Heights’ coalition members include the radical East LA Brown Berets, whose history dates back to the1960s, as well as Unión de Vecinos, a tenants right group that formed to fight against the displacement of families in the Aliso Village housing project in the 1990s. The other coalition members are the feminist Ovarian Psycos Bicycle Brigade and the media group Undeportable Productions.

Defend Boyle Heights in-your-face visibility prompted the appearance in late June of a Facebook page that dubs itself “Defend Boyle Heights from Defend Boyle Heights.” Although critics say that their sometimes angry, aggressive tactics have a polarizing effect in the community, Defend Boyle Heights argues that its militant work is essential to the preservation of the neighborhood. Those tactics and the attention they generate have helped push the discussion around gentrification in Boyle Heights front and center.

PSSST gallery in the Boyle Heights Arts District. Photo by Antonio Mejías-Rentas

Defend Boyle Heights members hold community meetings where its leaders use Power point presentations to detail the causes and effects of gentrification and identify the movement’s biggest foes. Attendees are mostly young people of color, the majority of them Latinos.

Defend Boyle Heights is part of another coalition too, Boyle Heights Against Artwashing and Displacement, or B.H.A.A.A.D, and both have targeted the art galleries in Boyle Heights’ warehouse district, calling for a boycott and staging protests. The recent arrival of these upscale businesses, the activists believe, will push up rents in surrounding neighborhoods and force the displacement of low-income tenants.

Last year, Defend Boyle Heights’ slogan “F__k White Art” was spray-painted on one of the galleries. Defend Boyle Heights denied any involvement. In February 2017 the owners of the gallery PSSST said they felt threatened by the attacks and decided to move out of their leased space in the district.

Members of the two coalitions paint the galleries as connected to developers and “very big political economic players in Los Angeles,” and as not caring about the needs of the local community.

“We’ve had sit downs with artists and curators and players in the art industry,” said Luna. “We’ve seen time and time again their deliberate, ignorant, arrogant carelessness.”

Joel Garcia, Director of Programs & Operations at Self Help Graphics. Photo by Saúl Soto.

Defend Boyle Heights leaders aren’t shy about finger pointing. They also accuse some well-established local nonprofits of being in developers’ pockets, including the East Los Angeles Community Corporation (ELACC) which develops affordable housing projects and organizes food vendors and small businesses, and Leadership for Urban Renewal (LURN), a community development organization that raises capital and provides consulting to local entrepreneurs.

But the organization that Defend Boyle Heights has singled out in its rhetoric, social media campaigns and protests is Self Help Graphics & Art, calling for a boycott of the 45-year-old arts community organization, widely seen as a key player in the Chicano Arts Movement of the 1970s. Luna said that the group was targeted because some of its leaders worked as consultants with the “Hopscotch” opera. He accuses the non-profit of  “material aiding” of the Boyle Heights art galleries.

Joel García, director of programs and operations at Self Help, denies the organization has any involvement with the galleries. He said that Defend Boyle Heights and Self Help actually share some of the same goals.

Self Help Graphics “was founded because there hasn’t been space for artists of color in those galleries,” said García.  “So, why would we work with entities that do not want us there. We don’t work with any of those galleries, and they don’t want to work with us.”

Counterprotestor at Defend Boyle Heights protest against Weird Wave Coffee. Photo by Ernesto Orozco.

García said that Defend Boyle Heights’ attacks are misguided. “Why aren’t we talking to policy makers, why aren’t we talking to elected officials about really providing resources for the community.”

A specialty coffee shop on César E. Chávez Avenue has become Defend Boyle Heights’ latest target. Minutes after Weird Wafe Coffee Brewers opened in mid June, protestors started marching on the sidewalk in front of the café and the coalition called for a boycott. The activists saw the arrival of the upscale café as a first sign of gentrification, pointing to the growth of trendy specialty coffee shops in Highland Park and Echo Park.

Two men running the shop –co-owners John Schwartz and Jackson Defa – posted a “Latino Owned Business” sign in the window. Mario Chavarría, a third co-owner, dismissed the protesters as a “polarizing group” that does not represent the Boyle Heights community at large

“I think their whole message is getting lost and they’re actually here highlighting race, simply because my friends happen to be Caucasian,” said Chavarría, who was born in El Salvador and raised in Inglewood. “The rhetoric doesn’t make sense, it’s backfired. It has actually made the community engage us more as a new shop and a new business and they’ve all come out and supported us.”

Weird Wave helps the local economy too, Chavarría said, by purchasing from Homeboy Industries, a gang-re-entry program, and other local vendors.

“Gentrification already took place and we’re just a mom and pop coffee shop that’s trying to sell coffee,” said Chavarría. “I don’t see where the problem is with that.”

Luna disagrees. “At the end of the day we do this because we love our neighborhood,” he said. “We do this because we want to live in our neighborhood with dignity and without the fear of displacement.”

Photo above: Members of Defend Boyle Heights protest in front of Weird Wave Coffee Brewers. Photo by Ernesto Orozco.

Saúl Soto is a rising senior at Francisco Bravo Medical Magnet School. He enjoys photography, spending time with friends and watching movies. He hopes to attend a four-year university after high school.

Ernesto Orozco is finishing his last year of high school and hopes to attend art school and study photography. He enjoys video production and exploring the city.

5 Responses

  1. Ledi

    Thank you for mentioning the facebook site Defend Boyle Heights from Defend Boyle Heights. If what this sites claims is true about the leadership/ members of Defend Boyle Heights and affiliated groups, i.e. Elizabeth Blaney, Walt Senterfitt, Leonardo Vilchis, Nancy Popp, and Timo Saarelma to name a few then this is truly a disheartening “peek behind the curtain”. Yet another example of the corruption of the american left. Not to mention, I don’t see “DBH” protesting Carl’s Jr™©, Jack in the Box™©, and McDonalds™©. Maybe they think these “european-american” corporations deliver an acceptable service to the community; i.e. cheap toxic food, and add to it’s unique cultural fabric. Defend Boyle Heights “critical analysis” of the issues and essentialist identity politics are so underwrought and myopic it’s hard to take them seriously let alone support their positions.

    Reply
  2. Khadija Anderson

    Weird Wave is not a “mom and pop” business. That is the only “controversy” I see here.

    Reply
  3. Lucy Herra

    I welcome new business in my neighborhood. How many liquor stores, water stores, quick loan stores, check cashing stores, junk dollar stores do we need. We need new options, sorry but this boyle heights homeowner is all for it. Been living here with my family for over 3 generations. We are done with the lack of respect that our neighbors have for the area they live in.. trash everywhere, graffiti, furniture out in front of there homes for weeks on end. Sorry you guys are losing the battle and there’s a lot of people who live here in this area who are ok with it. My family and i have lived in boyle heights longer than Mr. Angel Luna has been alive, and we are sick of the lack of pride the residents have had in this community. You come along now, what about 10-20 years ago, what about then?? Sorry but too little too late. You may huff and puff all over social media but trust me, there is a lot of boyle heights residents/homeowners who welcome the change.

    Reply
  4. Mike

    I want to thank all the anti-gentrification activists in this Weird Wave controversy for finally pushing me over the edge.

    Weird Wave is run by LA residents, one of whom is a Salvadorean immigrant. They partner with LA-Based Homeboy Industries. They’re a small business providing a good service.

    And those are the people you’re protesting?

    No protests for big multinational corporation Starbucks, who will never care about your community?

    No protests for the predatory lending company which is right next door to Weird Wave?

    So yes, thank you … this is the turning point where I no longer care about whether I’m gentrifying your neighborhood. I will go to Weird Wave and spend my money there. When my lease downtown is up, I will move into Boyle Heights because it costs way less than what I’m paying now. By being such over the top misguided idiots, you’ve made me stop caring about whether you’re offended. Thanks again!

    Reply
  5. Gene

    Well……I personally know of 3 fantastic eateries that will be moving into BH next year. They will offer some wonderful dining options for the neighborhood. Why did they choose BH? Because BH has so many residents that welcome the change and want their neighborhood to keep up with the exciting growth we are seeing all over L.A. Also, the proximity to DTLA is a great plus. Funny…., the media coverage of Weird Wave and the art galleries has been great for business.
    As they say, “there is no such thing as bad publicity!”

    Protesters are sad…..maybe concentrate on becoming moe vested in the neighborhood with home ownership, etc, instead of spending their time protesting……

    Reply

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