The average Angeleno may not consider Japanese and Chicano cultural crossovers going beyond sushi-burritos at food trucks or Hot Cheeto-tinged Japanese snacks in Little Tokyo. But students, professors, and community members met last week inside Cal State LA’s Student Union building to discuss the relationship between the two Eastside communities and how deep the connections go.
The occasion was an event put on by the Department of Chicana/o and Latina/o Studies’, “Listening for the Chicanx-Japanese Cultural Bridges”. Speakers included associate professor Dr. Jose Anguiano, filmmaker Rubén Guevara III, and MoNa a.k.a Sad Girl, a Japanese artist who draws influence from Chicano culture and style.
The basis of the presentation was to encourage dialogue through the exploration of the historical ties between Boyle Heights and Little Tokyo, two neighboring Eastside communities that, despite their contrasting demographics, have a rich history and impact on one another.
Rubén Guevara III, son of the famous Eastside musician of the same name, also discussed the process of producing and directing a documentary series tentatively titled Far East L.A., slated for a 2025 release. Guevara explained how every episode will focus on both a Japanese-American story and Mexican-American story and discuss the interwoven connections between the two.
“We’re finding common themes, whether it’s food or music or art, and how to share these stories that are really shaped by history like World War II, but also things that are happening now,” Guevara said.
Guevara said the cultural commonality between the neighborhoods and residents runs deep and goes beyond misconceptions based on demographics.
“I don’t think it’s just because there’s a lot of Japanese Americans here and a lot of Mexicans here,” Guevara noted. “I think there’s something a little bit deeper going on, and this series is an exploration of that.”
Guevara continued, saying that the relationship between the two neighborhoods wasn’t established by accident. City redlining prohibited minorities from living in other parts of the city, but allowed the communities to develop a unique relationship.
“It’s not like these communities necessarily wanted to be next to each other, but they found themselves next to each other because they couldn’t live anywhere else,” Guevara explained. “They couldn’t live on the Westside. They all lived on the Eastside together. It wasn’t just Mexicans and Japanese, it was African-Americans, Jewish communities, Russians. So you have basically this microcosm of America in Boyle Heights.”
Dr. Jose Anguiano, Associate Professor at Cal State LA, also saw a deeper connection that goes beyond “music or lowriders or pop cultural stuff.” He published an academic article, “Rólas de Nipon”, earlier this year and sought to explore the complexities that influence cultural and community connections.
“In these kinds of cultural exchanges, I do think that there’s a moment where people have to actually meet real people and see just how people are, not just like media figures or media images,” Anguiano said.
MoNA, a.k.a Sad Girl, is a living representation of that idea. Born and raised in Japan, she dedicated over 20 years of her life researching, honoring, and being influenced by Chicano culture thousands of miles away from the Eastside. She’s realized it’s more than just a sound or “look” – it’s a lifestyle with a rich history that deserves respect.
MoNA, who emulates a “Chicana” look, sported hoop earrings, a white huipil, and Nike Cortez on her feet at the event. In her music videos, MoNa is often heard rapping in a blend of English, Spanish, and Japanese, her native tongue.
But her stylistic choices go beyond admiring Eastsider looks. MoNA said immersing herself into Chicano culture with movies, magazines, and music from artists like Kid Frost, brought her out of a deep depression at 16. From that moment, she dedicated her art to learning about the intricacies and histories of the community that changed her forever.
“This is all my life,” MoNA said. “I’ll live this way until I die.”
The union of Japanese and Chicano artistry that is very unique to MoNA and her community, represents how these historical ties have laid the foundation for collaboration, inspiration, and a sort of cultural synthesis within this niche Japanese community, low-riders and eye-liner included.
“I’m sure there’s going to be more creative fusions just because we are living in these spaces together and inspired by one another,” Anguiano said.
Guevarra brought up bold culinary fusions like Hot Cheetos Musubi, an amalgamation of the classic Japanese snack, coated in the infamous, bright-red-finger-staining Cheeto dust, sold locally by East Los Musubi.
“But that’s kind of what America is, right? It’s like taking these two identities and trying to create something new. America is remixing. It’s reinvention. And how that’s manifested in these kinds of things I think is really interesting.”