'Connection, History and Resilience': Capturing the Heart of LA's Boyle Heights in Song

Musicians stand in Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights. One song in a new collection celebrating the neighborhood's music takes its cue from the plaza, where mariachi from across LA have gathered since the 1930s. (ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images)

How do sounds capture a neighborhood? What does it mean when local residents archive their own local soundscape?

Those are the driving questions behind a new project in the East Los Angeles neighborhood of Boyle Heights. The Alliance for California Traditional Arts has commissioned 10 original songs from local artists, focused on themes of anti-displacement and belonging, along with stories about the immigrant experience.

Grammy Award-winning musician and ACTA program manager Quetzal Flores has been helping to curate the project.

The California Report Magazine host Sasha Khokha sat down with Flores to talk about the project, and how it focuses on immigrant narratives and culture. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

On Boyle Heights, a Community of Immigrants

Boyle Heights has been a community of immigrants since its inception.

There were communities that could not live anywhere besides Boyle Heights, Compton or other parts of the city that were designated [for immigrants and BIPOC people] through redlining policies. We look at how the economic powers within the city of Los Angeles are positioning themselves to to gentrify Boyle Heights, to displace people, to prey on economic opportunity in the place that has been their sanctuary.

There's a history of defiance, resistance to power and to the oppressive tactics of capitalism, patriarchy and white supremacy.

A group of anti-eviction protesters in downtown LA. (Courtesy of Eva Garcia/ACTA)

On Cross-Cultural Neighborhood Connections

There's a great story that I was told by a friend: an Eastern European woman would walk by my friend's house every day [when she was little].

One day she stopped and said, 'Hey, little girl. Come here. What's that smell? I pass by your house every day and that smell reels me in.'

The little girl says, 'My mom is making tortillas.' So she brought her a tortilla with some butter on it. And the woman said, 'This is incredible. Can we exchange? I make sour cream. I will bring you a batch of sour cream every week and you give me tortillas and we'll exchange.'

These two women became best friends and were connected for the rest of their lives.

On Reclaiming Boyle Heights' Narrative

Eddika Organista’s song "Their Landing" chronicles her family's migration story from Tijuana to Boyle Heights — the story of many people living in Boyle Heights. Eddika told the personal story of her parents arriving from Tijuana, being homeless in the city and finding home in Boyle Heights.

When artist Nobuko Miyamoto was a young girl, she and her family were incarcerated by the United States government. Coming out of camp they landed in Boyle Heights. Miyamoto sings about seeing her mother restitch their lives back together, and healing from the trauma of being forcibly removed and incarcerated.

Miyamoto became a trained dancer who landed in Broadway and landed a part also in "West Side Story." During that period she was very active in the movement for Asian American rights, so she's been a deeply rooted activist and performer for many years.

Miyamoto is also a community elder, and she holds a very important perspective. The cross-generational dialogue within these compositions is key.

On Blending Genres and Languages

Angelica Mata's song, “Mariachi Plaza" is a song in the collection that is bilingual, both in English and Spanish, and it also blends different genres of music.

Angelica is the child of two prominent mariachis in Los Angeles. In "Mariachi Plaza" she blends a lush ballad-like introduction into a mariachi piece with fervor and intensity and pride that mariachi elicits.

Angelica's main tradition is mariachi music, but she's a lover of all genres of music. She loves Brazilian music. She loves jazz. And lyrically, she loves her neighborhood.

Oftentimes, what happens in the process of gentrifying a community, there's an erasure of culture and the people.

To center the culture and the people is a way of reaffirming our existence — it's the mirror that people can look at and say to themselves, 'I matter. I have value. My value is not determined by how much money I make, but the deep connections I have to people in this neighborhood and the sounds that remind me I belong here.'

The Sounds of California project will launch a website in the Spring, where listeners can access sounds from many vibrant communities across the state.

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