Tag Archives: Mexicans

Movie Review: “East L.A. Interchange” – A Documentary

east la interchange

Does a documentary film about the Hispanic community of Boyle Heights shy away from tackling the major issue of the day?

Boyle Heights, a community just east of downtown Los Angeles, is a very interesting place. When I lived in Los Angeles, I would often head there on the weekend to make use of the parks, eat at the fine hole-in-the-wall restaurants, or soak up the multicultural feel of the community. “The Heights” was once known as the “Ellis Island of the West” because of its multiracial nature (it was once the largest Jewish community on the West Coast until the end of World War II), but tensions have hit the barrio. As the Los Angeles Times (“Gentrification pushes up against Boyle Heights – and vice versa”; March 6, 2016) recently noted: “Once the landing spot not only for Mexicans, but also for Japanese, Russians, Italians, and Jews, Boyle Heights has long been perceived as a neighborhood sitting on the brink of the next metamorphosis.”

Yes, the dreaded Spanish word gentefication, or gentrification in English, has now struck. Like Brooklyn, Sacramento (Oak Park), and San Francisco (The Mission District), Boyle Heights is trying to decide whether it wants to be old, interracial, and comfortable; or hip, progressive, and an expensive place to live. Community activists vociferously argue that there are too many art galleries in the city and they rail against the replacement of neighborhood bars by overly cool brew pubs.

brooklyn theater boyle heights

Against this background, I had high hopes for the documentary East L.A. Interchange, a one-hour documentary film narrated by actor Danny Trejo. It’s a film that’s currently being screened at selected colleges. To my eyes, it’s a missed opportunity.

One problem is the title. East L.A. Interchange leads people to think this is either a program about East Los Angeles – which is just east of Boyle Heights, or about the Los Angeles freeways. A better title might have been La Colonia: Boyle Heights.

I will return to the problematic issue of gentrification. What Interchange does well is to deal with the history of Boyle Heights, as heard mostly from U.S.C. professors. And one of the intriguing points made in the documentary is that social discrimination issues began to ease as the predominantly Mexican-American students at Roosevelt High School began to learn about the history of their city: “One of the cradles of Mexican-American culture in the U.S.” Knowledge precedes pride.

To its credit, Interchange is not only well researched but beautifully filmed. And yet its Achilles heel is that the documentary refuses to take a stance on the key issue of gentrification. We learn that Jews first left the community, then Russians were forced out by freeway construction, and now the low to middle-income Hispanics who live in Boyle Heights are threatened by newly prosperous Hispanics and rich hipsters.

BH protest

In order to afford a typical new housing unit in the area, one needs an income of $90,000 and above. Yet the median household income in the Heights is $41,821. It’s a big problem and results in stress, grief and anger. As one current resident states, in Spanish: “I would like it to stay just as it is.” Gentrification, of course, will make this impossible.

The creators of Interchange, after illustrating how the poor have been displaced from the area in the past, inform the viewer that 1,187 affordable housing units are scheduled to be destroyed and replaced by 4,400 new and pricey units. And yet, even after imparting this information, they remain neutral.

The documentary asks the question, “What constitutes beneficial (versus harmful) development?” but fails to answer it. Instead, at its conclusion we hear an elderly Jewish gentleman assure us that, despite recent changes in the neighborhood, everything will be alright. It’s hardly convincing.

Boyle Heights

One key statement heard in Interchange is, “We’re not trying to get out of the barrio. We’re trying to bring the barrio up.” Fine, but in life one must ultimately choose between stasis and change. In electing to support neither the status quo nor change – neither the past nor progressivism, East L.A. Interchange loses its raison d’etre.

Joseph Arellano

The reviewer was provided access to a press screener. The film was directed by Betsy Kalin.

This review was first posted on the Blogcritics site:

Movie Review: ‘East L.A. Interchange’ – A Documentary

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On the Border

The Madonnas of Echo Park: A Novel by Brando Skyhorse (Free Press, $14.00, 240 pages)

“A work of fiction is an excellent place for a confession.”

To be truthful, this is a collection of short stories with a common theme, not a novel.   As author Skyhorse makes clear in the introductory author’s note (items which always take away more than they add to the reading experience), one of the stories is based on something that happened to him in grade school.   At the time Skyhorse presumed that he was a Native American and, thus, refused to dance with a young girl who was Mexican.   Since that time the author, who has worked as an editor in the publishing industry, has learned that he is in fact primarily Mexican-American.   This collection of stories, then, is intended to honor the culture – and the people – he once snubbed.   It is an act of contrition, of penitence.

In the eyes of this reviewer, this collection worked a bit more than half of the time but was not fully successful.   On the positive side, Skyhorse gives life to people on the peripheries of Los Angeles who are often invisible.   They are the house cleaners, the bus boys, the hotel maids, and the daily contractors who scrape along in L.A. without set plans for their future.   Many of them are Hispanics (who have displaced African-Americans but themselves are threatened by newly arriving Asians) from Mexico or Mexican-Americans born in the U.S.   As Skyhorse makes clear, these are the people who take buses to work across the great expanses of L.A. and their lives tend to be at the mercy of factors beyond their control.

“The areas around St. Vincent (Hospital) and MacArthur Park are Latino; some Mexicano, some Salvadoran.   A new influx of Koreans hit the area several years ago, but there aren’t enough of them yet for tension.”

The short tales are interesting and make for relatively fast reading.   But I did not find the boldness, the vividness in the telling that some have focused on.   If anything, Skyhorse too often writes in the style of Junot Diaz and Oscar Hijuelos, as if starkness and drama and scenes that are a bit too descriptive – and occasionally disorderly – are essential to Hispanic writing.   This is offered as a critical point because a number of the tales were just this side of charming, and that charm was lost in the translation to grittiness.

Hispanic readers – and most especially those who have lived in L.A. – are likely going to see these tales as non-exceptional reflections of real life.   This is fine, but it’s hard to expect that most non-Hispanics will relate to them except as curiosity pieces.   And while Skyhorse pays tribute to Mexicans/Mexican-Americans, he also shows in one particular story that there can be troubling differences, and real anger, between the two groups.   This was a bit troubling even if it reflects reality – the laundering of dirty cultural linen in public.

Some readers will be put off by the round-robin nature of the tales, which cross-reference each other in terms of characters and situations.   What seems at first cute becomes somewhat tiring after the first hundred pages.   The most troubling issue for this reviewer, quite surprisingly, had to do with editing.   Mentioned repeatedly is the fact that the Mexican-American residents of Chavez Ravine were forcibly evicted (and their homes destroyed) in the early 1950s to make way for what would become Dodger Stadium and the LAPD Academy.   This is raised as a grievance in so many of the stories that one becomes surprised that Skyhorse did not catch his own repetitiveness and deal with it.   Or was it meant to be disruptive to the reading as an analogy to the disruption of these residents’ lives for what was claimed to be the greater good?

All in all, this is a fine debut for a first-time author.   Yet this reviewer feels that Skyhorse has a choice to make when it comes to his next release.   He can either use his calming voice to write about life in a style that is a bit more positive and charming, or he can rachet-up the grittiness and become an angry voice.   It is hoped that calmness prevails.

Joseph Arellano

Take Away:   Skyhorse has a lot of obvious writing talent, but let’s hope that next time he pens an actual novel.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   “There was a time when the Los Angeles neighborhood of Echo Park was known for silent films — not for drive-by shootings.”   NPR

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Over the Borderline

The Madonnas of Echo Park: A Novel by Brando Skyhorse (Free Press, June 2010)

“A work of fiction is an excellent place for a confession.”

To be truthful, this is a collection of short stories with a common theme, not a novel.   As author Skyhorse makes clear in the introductory author’s note (items which always take away more than they add to the reading experience), one of the stories is based on something that happened to him in grade school.   At the time Skyhorse presumed that he was a Native American and, thus, refused to dance with a young girl because she was a Mexican.   Since that time the author, who has worked as an editor in the publishing industry, has learned that he is primarily Mexican-American.   This collection of stories, then, is intended to honor the culture – and the people – he once snubbed.   It is an act of contrition, of penitence.

In the eyes of this reviewer, this collection worked a bit more than half the time but was not fully successful.   On the positive side, Skyhorse gives life to people on the peripheries of Los Angeles who are often invisible.   They are the house cleaners, the bus boys, the daily contractors who scrape along in L.A. without set plans for their future.   Many of them are Hispanics (who have displaced African-Americans but themselves are threatened by newly arriving Asians) from Mexico or Mexican-Americans born in the U.S.   As Skyhorse makes clear, these are the people who take buses to work across the great expanses of L.A. and their lives tend to be at the mercy of factors beyond their control.

“The areas around St. Vincent and MacArthur Park are Latino; some Mexican, some Salvadoran.   A new influx of Koreans hit the area several years ago, but there aren’t enough of them yet for tension.”

The short tales are interesting and make for relatively fast reading.   But I did not find the boldness, the vividness in the telling that some have focused on.   If anything, Skyhorse too often writes in the style of Junot Diaz and Oscar Hijuelos, as if starkness and drama and scenes that are a bit too descriptive – and occasionally disorderly – are essential to Hispanic writing.   This is offered as a critical point because a number of the tales were just this side of charming, and that charm was lost in the translation to grittiness.

Hispanic readers – and most especially those who have lived in L.A. – are likely going to see these tales as non-exceptional reflections of real life.   This is fine, but it’s hard to expect that most non-Hispanics will relate to them except as curiousity  pieces.   And while Skyhorse pays tribute to Mexicans/Mexican-Americans, he also shows in one particular story that there can be troubling differences, and real anger, between the two groups.   This was a bit troubling even if it reflects reality – the laundering of dirty cultural linen in public.

Some readers may be put off by the round-robin nature of the tales, which cross-reference each other in terms of characters and situations.   What seems at first cute becomes somewhat tiring after the first hundred pages.   The most troubling issue for this reviewer, quite surprisingly, had to do with editing.   Mentioned repeatedly is the fact that the Mexican-American residents of Chavez Ravine were forcibly evicted (and their homes destroyed) in the early 1950s to make way for what would become Dodger Stadium and the LAPD Academy.   This is raised as a grievance in so many of the stories that one becomes surprised that Skyhorse did not catch his own repetitiveness and deal with it.   Or was it meant to be disruptive to the reading as an analogy to the disruption of these residents’ lives for what was claimed to be the greater good?

All in all, this is a fine debut for a first-time author.   Yet this reviewer feels that Skyhorse has a choice to make when it comes to his next release.   He can either use his calming voice to write about life in a style that is a bit more positive and charming, or he can ratchet-up the grittiness and become an angry voice.   It is hoped that calmness prevails.

Joseph Arellano

Take Away:   Skyhorse has a lot of obvious writing talent, but let’s hope that next time he pens an actual novel.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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