COLUMN ONE : When Loving L.A. Turns to Heartache : A native son’s affection for the city is lost amid the flames and the violence. For him, everything has now changed.
Los Angeles, you broke my heart. And I’m not sure I’ll love you again.
That’s not an easy thing for me to say. I know, I know--reporters are supposed to be detached observers of the routine and the unusual. Notebooks in hand, we are historians on the run, asking the obvious, repeating the answers and wondering--after the story is done--if we really understood what it was all about.
But I’m also a native son, born 44 years ago in a little hospital near the corner of 4th and Soto streets in Boyle Heights. There’s an air of pride whenever I tell a listener I wasn’t transferred to L.A. like some pro sports franchise.
I know, for example, that real baseball was played at 42nd Place and Avalon Boulevard, where the old Pacific Coast League Angels taught me about balls and strikes long before the Dodgers got here. Ask me about the people of East L.A. and I’ll recite a story about somebody I met inside the First Street Store. Ask me how to get from Downey to San Fernando and I’ll tell you how I was taught: Take Florence Avenue toward downtown; hang a right on Broadway and head north to San Fernando Road. Then, turn left and cruise. It’ll take you a while but you’ll see more of L.A. than just freeway off-ramps and billboards.
Long before Randy Newman sang it, I loved L.A.
That, I’m afraid, changed last week when the not guilty verdicts were returned in Simi Valley.
At first, I didn’t notice. I was too busy being a reporter. Right after the news broke, I interviewed dozens of folks, mostly Latinos, out on my Eastside. At the student union building at Cal State Los Angeles, a black student screamed at the TV set: “How can you look at that video and say those four white officers are innocent! Screw it! We oughta burn this city down!”
Back at the paper, I was taking dictation from reporters out in the field. They were describing frightening images--looting, arson fires, shootings--that reminded me of the violence in 1971 in East L.A. after Ruben Salazar, a Times columnist and news director of KMEX-TV, was killed during a Vietnam War protest march.
My note-taking was interrupted when demonstrators left Parker Center, the LAPD police headquarters, and began trashing downtown, starting with The Times. I rushed outside, to the corner of 1st and Spring streets, to report on the destruction of my newspaper’s first floor offices, when a black man in Raiders garb pointed a gun at me.
After a tour in Vietnam, I thought I’d seen everything. In the years since my return to the U.S., I have tried to discount the increasing violence in my city, most of it the street gang variety. I guess I hoped that what I wrote about the tearful predicaments of its victims might help change things. Now, with my own life in the balance, I told the gunman matter-of-factly:
“I’m a reporter. I’m taking notes. I’m doing my job. I don’t know what you’re going to do but I’m going to do my job.”
He didn’t shoot. He just picked up a rock, flung it at The Times and ran away.
There was no time to ponder what had happened. There were more notes to take and more hot spots to check out.
By Friday morning, I was hurt and depressed. I looked at the morning edition of The Times and thought: My city is getting trashed and I can’t do anything about it. The next time I say “42nd and Avalon,” people will forget beloved Wrigley Field and remember instead that it’s in South-Central L.A. “Hey, I’m not going there,” they’ll probably say.
I tossed the paper aside and started “working the phones and hitting the streets"--something that all reporters turn to to get a real feel for what’s happening outside the confines of the newsroom.
First, I called Middle America. I called Mom.
She was moved to tears by the TV pictures of the uncontrolled beating of Reginald Denny, the truck driver pulled from his rig in the early hours of the rioting. “How could they?” she cried. “How could they?”
A native herself of Los Angeles, she went on to lament whatever she heard, saw or read about the disturbances.
“These looters never heard of Rodney King,” she said. “You see these people on TV? They’re proud of what they are doing. Can you imagine? Here in Los Angeles? When you start seeing a breakdown in society, laws don’t mean anything. Then you start getting scared.”
Mom admitted she was scared.
Then, talking like a Middle American perhaps living in Simi Valley, she reminded me that she was surprised only up to a point by the King verdicts.
“I was very surprised at first but then after that juror talked about watching that videotape for three months, I kind of understand how they felt. They were doing their duty as best they could.”
I wanted to argue, but she’s my mother.
I then telephoned the home of Cristal Anguiano, the brave 12-year-old girl who risked her life to save her 2-year-old brother after she was struck in the heart by an errant bullet fired in a gang fight. I wrote about her several times in the weeks following the shooting in February. The family lives near Manchester Avenue and San Pedro Street in South-Central and I wondered if they were OK.
They claimed to be fine, but I won’t forget the tone in the father’s voice. My heart sank when he said: “I want to stay in Los Angeles but we may have to go back to Mexico. The city is loco .”
I had to agree.
Out at Lupe’s modest hamburger and burrito stand on 3rd Street in East L.A., the business was brisk but the atmosphere was tense. Lupe Portillo, an aunt of one of the five La Verne Avenue soldiers I wrote about during the Persian Gulf War, said she banned any riot talk with unfamiliar customers because “I don’t know who they are.”
“They could start something, trash the place,” she said.
Wolfing down a chorizo-and-bean burrito, I wondered aloud: “Who’d want to trash this place?”
“Anybody who was loco ,” was the reply.
Things are getting bad when you can’t even have a burrito and a diet soda in peace.
I drove around looking for reassurance in familiar places. Old haunts on Whittier Boulevard, Soto Street, Brooklyn Avenue and Atlantic Boulevard were safe. The First Street Store was open, though the windows were boarded up as a precaution.
Frank Villalobos cornered me after a news conference of Latino politicians at the Hollenbeck Youth Center. He is a community activist who owns an urban planning firm on Beverly Boulevard and he wanted to remind me that there were signs of optimism in the midst of despair and depression. The landmark Sears, Roebuck & Co. store at Soto and Olympic Boulevard had been looted but when the young culprits came home with their booty--TV sets and the like--their parents ordered them to return the merchandise to the store.
And they did so, Frank said proudly.
The ultimate dose of optimism came from Diane Gonzalez, a diminutive worker on Leticia Quezada’s congressional campaign whose voice can match the roar of a jet engine. “Don’t you dare call me a political insider,” said Gonzalez, who is on leave from the staff of Democratic state Sen. Art Torres of L.A. “I’m a public servant!”
In between pushing her buttons for lively quotes, she told me not to give up hope.
“We need to return to basic values,” she began. “God, government, faith in the system, family and respect. I believe in basic democracy.”
She argued that those components, coupled with a new President, would make this country a more compassionate place. It would also save my town.
It’s hard to argue with her, especially because she is so articulate, so persistent.
But I’m not sure she is right. And it pains me to say so.
People are afraid. They now talk about South-Central L.A. as if it were a territory in Libya. Before the riots, much of the city’s population barely tolerated driving through those neighborhoods. Now, they will just avoid the area altogether.
I know how hurtful and divisive this can be. I come from a place that has been treated the same way at times.
“Is it safe to go to East L.A. for dinner or a movie?” I am asked. “Of course it is,” I thunder in righteous indignation, “East L.A. is safe. I’m from there.”
Now, I’m beginning to understand why the question is asked. That is why I grieve for my L.A.