Editor’s note: This story by high school student Olivia Teforlack was originally published in February and quickly became one our most read stories ever. Given the ongoing discussions on racial relations –at the local and national level– we thought this would be a good opportunity to take a second look at Olivia’s story.
From the casual use of racial slurs to racist “promposals,” non-Mexican minorities sometimes face the challenge of establishing a safe space in Boyle Heights.
In April, a James A. Garfield High School student’s “promposal” went viral on Snapchat after she invited another student to prom at the East Los Angeles institution, using a racist slur that demeaned African Americans. Although this kind of behavior in Boyle Heights seems shocking, to some it suggests that racial tensions lie just below the surface.
“My father has always told me if somebody looks black, then that’s what they are.”Virginia O’Vincent
With a population that is overwhelmingly Mexican American, Boyle Heights is a unique neighborhood, even for diverse Los Angeles, but one where people of other races or ethnicities can sometimes struggle to establish their identity. Even those with roots in other Latin American countries are assumed to be Mexican and treated as such.
Some members of other racial groups living in this community say they can sometimes feel forgotten and even cast aside due to the lack of ethnic and racial diversity.
Virginia O’Vincent says she has experienced this isolation through much of her life. The outspoken 16-year-old student at Francisco Bravo Medical Magnet is half Mexican and half African American, but identifies as black. Curly haired and dark skinned, O’Vincent believes that the way people look plays a huge factor in the way others treat them.
“My father has always told me if somebody looks black, then that’s what they are,” she says. “It doesn’t matter if they are mixed race, because black people have to stick together.’”
“I was very afraid to wear braids in my hair, because they were seen as ‘ghetto.’”Fanny O’Vincent
O’Vincent’s sister, Fanny, has a similar mindset. For the 17-year-old high school athlete, it is important to represent her African heritage in Boyle Heights, where she easily stands out. Unfortunately, looking different sometimes can trigger discrimination or offensive comments, some intentional and others unconscious, she says.
“I wasn’t really allowed to express the curliness in my hair because many people would call it bushy or unruly,” she says, speaking of peers’ reactions. “I was very afraid to wear braids in my hair, because they were seen as ‘ghetto.’”
Sometimes, tired of not fitting in, the O’Vincent sisters spend time in African American communities of Los Angeles like Inglewood, where they have family. But they say they wish they could feel more comfortable in their own neighborhood.
Claiming a racial identity
Jennifer Noble, a college professor and private practice clinical psychologist who specializes in racial identity and mixed-race experience, says that the racial identity a person claims influences his or her presentation to the world.
Noble describes four types of racial identification that mixed race people use: identifying with how other people see them; choosing a single racial group; identifying with both separate heritage races; and identifying as a member of a new racial group (biracial).
“I don’t recommend one over the other. It depends on the person,” says Noble, an associate professor of psychology at Pasadena City College.
For Boyle Heights resident Ginger Stemnock, identity is “50 percent perception.”
She identifies herself as black, despite her Japanese and white ancestors. She says how she views herself doesn’t only come from her personal experiences or her upbringing, but also from the way the world views her.
“I can’t change my skin color, so it doesn’t matter if I’m multiethnic,” the Felícitas and Gonzalo Méndez High School teacher says. “It doesn’t matter if I’m mixed race. How the world sees me is another identifier. But it is also the one I am most prideful about. I am proud to be a black woman.”
A12th grade English teacher, Stemnock says she witnesses racist behavior daily at school. Almost 98 percent of Méndez students are Latino, with a smattering of non-Latino students, according to the California Department of Education.
“Sometimes students have prejudices that are [based on] color. I see that I’m treated a little bit differently than perhaps a teacher that’s a little darker than I am,” Stemnock says.
Central Americans face different issues in the neighborhood, where they are often mistaken as Mexicans.
Twenty-five-year-old Jennifer García does not feel like she is discriminated against in Boyle Heights. She identifies herself as a Latina, more specifically Salvadoran, and says she is extremely comfortable living in primarily Mexican neighborhood.
“I kind of consider myself a little Mexican. I grew up with it, so I’m a part of it. My mom tells me about her country, and I can’t relate,” García says.
While García feels connected to Mexican culture in Boyle Heights, as a Central American she is a minority in the neighborhood. Still, she feels like she has a place in the neighborhood, even if she sometimes feels misrepresented. “Here, if they say ‘East LA,’ they think Mexican. And I’m not,” García says.
Noble says misrepresentation can force minorities to adapt into the majority racial group. “It’s disappointing, it creates pressure, especially if you are young and trying to figure yourself out,” says Noble.
Stemnock says she tries to change this through educating others. She teaches her students black history, but through the history of the Latino American experience. She dives into topics, like the contributions of Afro-Latinos, to show how different histories are interconnected.
“I represent my culture, but through their [Mexican] history, because I think it’s important to honor all history,” says Stemnock.