We know it as the spiritual capital of Mexican Americans in Southern California. Outsiders like me might visit a few times a year: to buy tamales at Christmas, perhaps, or for a weekend meal on Whittier Boulevard.
I discovered a place of movements and miracles, where the old and the new live side by side.
On one corner was a Starbucks with armchairs, Christmas carols on the sound system, and middle-class professionals circulating a petition. On another, a shrine of fresh roses at the spot where neighborhood lore says a man cheated the Angel of Death.
At the same moment, on the same busy day, the people of unincorporated East Los Angeles celebrated the completion of an "independencia" petition drive for cityhood and the annual pilgrimage of the Miracle of the Bleeding Street Vendor.
After crunching some census numbers with my Times colleague Doug Smith, I found out that East Los Angeles had become the most ethnically homogenous place in Southern California. It seemed to be the tragic underside to the happier news we reported last week -- that Southern California suburbs were more racially integrated than ever before.
In the center of Southern California, the numbers showed an opposite reality, with a bigger slice of the metropolis a de facto segregated Latino barrio than in any time in history.
After studying Census Bureau surveys from 2005 to 2007, Doug and I concluded that about 1 million people live in Los Angeles County communities that are 90% or more Latino. And more than 800,000 of them are in one contiguous area that stretches from MacArthur Park to Pico Rivera and from the fringes of downtown's Garment District to South Gate.
East Los Angeles, it turns out, had become 98% Latino. The community lost a quarter of the tiny white population it had in 2000.
The little liberal in my head told me to be outraged. After all, the numbers seemed to me to confirm a central, underlying injustice of Los Angeles -- that the separation of ethnic groups lives on in our 21st century city.
But it's hard to feel either outrage or pity when you walk among people who look you in the eye and tell you that they are protected by a higher power, and who dare to imagine a renaissance is just around the corner. That was what I found when I visited the most Latino core of the overwhelmingly Latino community, centered near the corner of Eagle Street and Kern Avenue. There the Rodriguez family dispenses milk, candy, beer and other sundries on the holy ground of a store called Tienda La Milagrosa.
"When we tell people where our store is, they say, 'Isn't it ugly there? Aren't you afraid? " said Maria Teresa Rodriguez, a Mexican immigrant and resident of West Covina who commutes to the liquor store several days a week. "But it's very calm here."
Rodriguez and her husband inherited a legend when they bought the store seven years ago. Back in the 1960s, the story goes, a fruit vendor was robbed at knifepoint nearby. Stabbed and bleeding, he looked up at the mural of the Virgin of Guadalupe painted on the store's wall, prayed for help and stumbled inside.
An ambulance came and took him away, though not before he left a small trail of blood on the store's floor. At the hospital, doctors took off his bloody shirt but found no wound. He was hauled off to jail on an assault charge but was soon released because no one else had reported a stabbing.
The vendor returned to the store and shared his story with the owner. They agreed that the Virgin Mary had healed his wounds. People have been coming to pray before the mural ever since.
"We have truckers who pray here when they get back from a long drive," Rodriguez told me. "And sometimes people come before they have to go to court. Sometimes you see a whole family come to light candles."
Because last Friday, when I visited, marked the birthday of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico's patron saint, neighbors had organized a day of celebration outside the liquor store. It was the sign announcing those events that first caught my attention: "4 p.m. Pilgrimage . . . 6 p.m. Raffle . . . 7 p.m. Holy Mass . . . 8 p.m. Dinner."
Near Eagle and Kern, the homes are well-tended, generally speaking, with succulent gardens that mimic the landscape of northern Mexico. About 200 people emerged from those homes Friday: They closed off the street and celebrated a neighborhood Mass and dinner.