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Neighborhood Spotlight: East Los Angeles a physical homeland and cultural touchstone

East Los Angeles is both a place and a mode of being, a physical homeland and the spiritual heart of the Mexican diaspora in the United States.

The cultural and political effects that this vibrant neighborhood have had, across the country and around the world, are hard to overstate. It’s impossible to imagine Los Angeles without East L.A., but although the two are often conflated in the popular imagination, the latter is actually an unincorporated part of L.A. County, lying just across the Indiana Avenue city limit from Boyle Heights.

From the early days of the original pueblo until the 1920s, the land that would become East Los Angeles was primarily agricultural. With Boyle Heights and the other L.A. neighborhoods east of the river filling up, real estate developers realized that the cheap land along Whittier Boulevard, served as it was by a trolley line that put downtown Los Angeles within easy commuting distance, was ripe for the creation of new subdivisions.

Belvedere Gardens was the first of those subdivisions. Like Boyle Heights and other Eastside neighborhoods, it benefited from lax enforcement of exclusionary racial covenant laws, allowing immigrants of all backgrounds, but especially Mexican-Americans, the opportunity to buy homes. As the neighborhood grew, it developed its distinctive, world-famous cultural markers, from zoot suits to lowrider cars cruising down Whittier Boulevard.

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In the 1960s, it was an important scene in the burgeoning Chicano political movement. The awakening was crystallized during the East L.A. Walkout by students protesting substandard schools and the Chicano Moratorium march against the Vietnam War, in which four people — including noted journalist Ruben Salazar — were killed by L.A. County sheriff’s deputies.

Today, East L.A. remains an influential — perhaps the most influential — Latino neighborhood in the region, with more 120,000 residents, 96% of whom are Latino. Whether in the visual arts, in music, the written word, or in the realm of political thought, East Los Angeles continues to make unique and important contributions to the culture of Southern California and beyond.