Letter From 2042, an L.A. Memory

Richard Rodriguez, the author of "Days of Obligation: An Argument With My Mexican Father" (Viking), is an editor at Pacific News Service

What do I remember of those days in 1992? I remember standing on a rooftop along Sunset Boulevard and seeing the southern horizon filled with smoke. Some terrible excitement, some evil thrill, made me shiver at the destruction.

Here I sit, a dry old man. Fifty years have passed. So much has changed in Los Angeles. The city seems younger to me now that my eyes are bad and my hands shake. I remember how the newspapers and the voices on television talked about the “black riot.” But I saw hundreds of Latinos rushing out of stores that had been busted open, rushing out with their arms full of appliances and tall boxes of Pampers. It was as though the Latinos had stolen the black riot and made it their own.

I stood watching, almost ready to steal something myself. I remember the cops coming and, when they made a half-hearted show of force, I found myself running with the mob and I heard myself laughing--it felt like my mouth was unconnected to the rest of my body--as I ran with the panting crowd.


Many people said after those violent days that L.A. had killed itself, slammed open its soul on the street and left it to bleed on the pavement with all the broken glass. I knew people who left town, left L.A. for any place else. I knew people who would never again go downtown without feeling afraid of the stranger.

But L.A. did not die. L.A. is too resilient. L.A. is filled with too many babies and teenage fathers and too many grandmothers who hope for the future. Sometimes I think that L.A. saw its future for the first time during those terrible days of late April and early May.

Karl Marx wrote that the discovery of gold in California would prove to be a more important event in the history of the world than the discovery of the Americas by Columbus. When the European met the Indian in 1492, two continents met. But after gold was discovered in California in 1848, the entire world converged. For the first time in human history, the African met the Filipino met the Peruvian met the Mexican met the Australian met the Chinese met the Russian. Men fought over gold in the muddy fields. Men died. But the world had met.

I think about Marx’s prediction whenever I look at Los Angeles, this city so full of life, so full of babies who look like none of their grandparents exactly. I know children who are Jewish Filipinos with Iranian cousins who are married to Guatemalans. No wonder L.A. has become the true capital of America.

Already in the 1990s it was predicted that L.A. was becoming a Latino city, and California was becoming Latino. But nobody really knew what any of it meant. Many people thought that Latinos were a racial group comparable to “blacks” or “whites.” They thought that L.A. was literally becoming a brown city. They did not understand brown as a figure of speech.

L.A. a Mexican city. Did you know that by the 18th century, the majority population in Mexico was “mixed”--neither pure European nor pure Indian? Did you know that the highest rate of intermarriage between the Indian and the African in the Americas took place in Mexico?


You read in your school book about Rodney King. I do not remember what finally happened to him. The history of the United States is filled with many such men as King.

By 1992, once again, a black man had been brutally beaten by the police. But the incident was caught on videotape. The white cops went on trial; the cops were judged innocent. Which sent young blacks into a rage in South-Central when that was still mainly a black neighborhood.

Strangers pulled strangers from their cars. Blacks attacked whites. In those first hours, before darkness fell, it seemed like a simple story, a story we had known before--another Detroit, another Harlem, another Watts--a story with a narrative line we knew from memory. What nobody quite understood in those first hours was the problem of having a black riot in a brown city.

The city slept restlessly. The next day there were black mobs attacking Korean stores. And Koreans stood on rooftops with guns in their hands. And Vietnamese were mistaken for Koreans by the black mob. And Salvadoran kids went downtown shouting revolutionary slogans in Spanish.

California is not an innocent place. Think of the terrible cruelties against the Chinese. Remember San Francisco: Early in the century, striking workers were shot by the police and they died on Market Street in neat pools of blood. And don’t forget that L.A. had seen murder in the 1940s, when Mexicans fought the police.

There are many grievances in a place as big as this place, and sometimes those grievances are not contained. People go crazy. A rock is flung through a window, the mob senses its power when the initial offense goes unchallenged. The mob feels its muscle swell. The police are surprised at first and then in awe of the swelling. And then the police turn angry.


These are not matters for an old man to remember. It tires me to recall the waste, the destruction, the death of the young--why is it always the young who riot?

The thing that was different about 1992 was the size, the scope. The entire city felt implicated and afraid. Los Angeles--an entire metropolis--felt threatened as block after block fell and the fire spread. Soon the freeways filled as people tried to leave town, seeking safety from the mob and the fires. Fear slowed the San Diego Freeway and gridlock turned into panic.

It was the worst moment for Los Angeles. It was also the first moment, I think, when most people in L.A. realized that they were part of the whole. The city that the world mocked for not being a city, for lacking a center, having only separate suburbs, separate freeway exits--L.A. realized that it was interconnected. In fear, people realized that what was happening on the other side of town implicated them.

Isn’t that odd? You’d think, maybe, that the idea of our human interconnectedness would be a pleasing one. But no, it’s a hard idea. Sometimes the truest ideas, the most durable insights, come when the heart is racing and the air is full of smoke.

I do not know how to say this even now, so many years later. But I think that L.A., the idea of the city entire, was born during those dark nights while the sirens wailed and old women in Santa Monica realized that they shared the same city as teenagers in Compton.

It is an odd inheritance that my generation has passed to yours. We have given you the idea of a city. And of course, because you are young and innocent of the cruelties of history, you do not understand that yours is a hard-won inheritance. Perhaps you assume it.


It is 2042 and you know things that we did not know 50 years ago. You realize better than we did that Asia is close. You realize that Seoul is closer, more important to your daily life, than Brussels. These are new ideas in America. Treasure them.

It is your generation’s luxury to realize that L.A., even California, is part of Latin America. You expand our sense of the city in directions far beyond the city limits. You understand, in ways my generation did not, that Tijuana is part of Southern California. We had no idea.

We lived, for the most part, in separate suburbs until 1992. We thought of ourselves in discrete little categories, white or black or Asian or Latino. These were categories given to us by government bureaucrats, and for a while they made sense to us.

I remember an actor named Keanu Reeves--his mother was Anglo-Saxon, his father was Hawaiian Chinese. And I remember a golfer--an elegant young athlete named Tiger Woods. His mother was Thai, his father was black and Caucasian and American Indian. When such people came into prominence, their complexity astonished America. We were just then beginning to exhaust the old ways of talking about ourselves.

I sit in late afternoon and hear the unruly, the rude, the laughing young people coming home from school. There are times when their voices wake me from my nap. Sometimes I lie in bed and time seems the mystery of life. I feel myself a boy, imagine my mother downstairs and my sister coming home from school . . . I am an old man. I sit here remembering a riot that took place 50 years ago, 1992.