Category Archives: Southern California

The Corner of the Virgin: 41st and Broadway

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No corner of the city appears better protected than 41st and Broadway in South Central LA.

There are five virgin murals on three buildings at one corner, and another two on a mini-market a block away.

“We’ve put up flowers and kind of modern rock n roll paintings,” said a woman named Dolores, from Guatemala, who was behind the plexiglass at the mini-market.

“But the cholos come and spray-paint them. So we had the Virgins painted. They’re not cheap – one cost $800 and the other $500. But the cholos respect them.”

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Faustino Diaz: Trombone master from Oaxaca in L.A.

Faustino Diaz, the Oaxacan trombone master, returns to Los Angeles this weekend for a concert at the Ukrainian Hall, 4315 Melrose Ave., this Sunday at 2 p.m.

Diaz thrilled Mexico last year when he won the International Trombone Competition in South Korea.1511733_908562385837387_4934257276349175473_n

A few days later he visited the Pico-Union District and the music school run by director Estanislao Maqueos, who has used his school to organize Oaxacan youth orchestras.

There, I had the chance to sit down and talk with him about his life, and having to venture out into the world to find his music like a migrant finds a future.

The interview is above and in Spanish.

Check out the concert. Should be good.

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Barefoot Triqui Indian BB players in town

 

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The barefoot Triqui Indian basketball team, from the mountains of Oaxaca, is in Los Angeles for a couple weeks.

The team of 10 and 11-year-olds from the village of Rio Venado, Oaxaca was welcomed with a brass band and a press conference at Casa Oaxaca in Mid-City.

A full schedule awaits. A tournament next two Saturdays. Visits to UCLA, USC, Disneyland, and the Lakers. As well as meals at several of the many Oaxacan restaurants that have proliferated in Pico-Union and West LA in the last 10 years.

The team formed out of an academy set up three years ago in Rio Venado, with a focus on bringing education to the isolated Triquis in the mountains of Oaxaca.

Since then, the boys, playing barefoot, have become something of international stars. They won a tournament in Argentina. They’ve toured Orlando and played the San Antonio Spurs barefoot in Mexico City, winning 10-4.

IMG_5957The Triquis (Tree-Kees) are considered among the poorest indigenous ethnic groups in Mexico. (Los Angeles has few Triquis, but they form a large part of the Central Valley agricultural labor force.) For years, the Triqui region has seemed stuck “in the 18th Century,” said Sergio Zuniga, the coach. “Their dream before was to finish elementary school and go the U.S.”

The academy formed to change that, with Triqui teachers. It adopted the attitude of making do with what it had available, which in Rio Venado doesn’t include tennis shoes. One thing that was available was basketball, which is a huge sport across the mountains of Oaxaca.

“In Mexico, we don’t teach the culture of competitiveness,” Zuniga said. “What we’re doing with these kids is teaching them competitiveness — that they learn to win and lose.”

Since then, the image of shoeless four-foot Indian basketball players has captured the imagination and sympathy of people across the continent.

The team amounts to a public-relations strategy to call attention to the long-forgotten Triqui region, where average education is four years. The Indian-taught academy spent its first 18 months without any help at all. But as the team garnered attention in the Washington Post and CNN, the Mexican government has supported it, promised to build houses for the players’ parents and pay for the kids’ education, including college.

“The idea for the school wasn’t to place blame [for the Triqui situation], but simply to act,” Zuniga said. “With Indians, we’re forming winners. This has astonished people [across the Americas] — how Indians are changing their history.”

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El Super workers are demanding…now that illegal immigration has slowed

Workers at the Southern California supermarket chain, El Super, are protesting conditions there — in what could be the beginning of an upheaval in the Southern California grocery industry.

Up to now, nonunion immigrant supermarkets have been a low-cost place to shop for food — with prices based at least partly, I’ve always suspected, on an especially compliant workforce.

I shop often at El Super, Northgate Gonzalez, El Tapatio, and many others — far more than I go to Ralph’s. I find the produce especially good quality and cheap.

All are owned by immigrants (or folks in Mexico, in El Super’s case). They are staffed by Latino immigrants and target the Latino immigrant consumer. They see cactus leaves (nopales), tortillas, dried black beans, chorizo and often feel just like supermarkets in Mexico.

Many are in spaces once occupied by Ralph’s, Von’s, Alpha Beta and other non-immigrant supermarket chains — buildings many of them moved into after the other businesses were burned out during the 1992 Rodney King riots.

For consumers who’ve known where to go and what to buy, these markets I’ve long thought were a benefit of living in Southern California — same as cheap flooring installation.

I’ve never heard of any of them being struck. But that was then — during years of seemingly unending flow of illegal immigrants from Mexico and Central America into the region.

I suspect the El Super protests have something to do with the dramatic slowing in the flow of illegal Mexican immigrants into the US in the last few years. Not to mention, the record numbers of  deportations in the last few years.

A smaller supply of workers means those who have jobs gain confidence in their ability to demand better treatment.

The gravest threat to an illegal immigrant without much education or English is a lot of immigrants with the same limited skill set.

That’s why so many Latino immigrants have left L.A. over the years for places like Kentucky, Tennessee, Minnesota, etc etc. They weren’t escaping the migra. They were escaping others just like themselves, who bid down wages and forced up rents.

Now there are fewer of them.

So … might we see immigrant workers at more companies objecting to their treatment by their immigrant owners? Perhaps in other industries — home improvement, for example?

I’d say chances are good.

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Compton Latino gang members and race

IMG_9401Two Latino gang members from Compton pleaded guilty (Thursday, Oct. 16, 2013) to federal hate crimes in attacks on black youths in a case that showed how much the town had changed.

Jeffrey Aguilar and Efren Marquez, Jr., admitted to violating the federal Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

They each face a maximum of 10 years in prison, said Reema El-Amamy, the federal prosecutor in the case.

Aguilar and Marquez are reputed members of Compton Varrio 155, a small street gang that has feuded for years with a black street gang a couple blocks north. They were arrested in January. Sheriff’s officials said at the time that the family they allegedly targeted had no gang association and had only lived on the street for a few months.

I went out to the neighborhood one rainy day after these arrests were announced. The street is working class, with stucco two-bedrooms crowded next to each other.

What struck me was that the gang seemed especially energetic. Their graffiti was everywhere. This is something you don’t see so much in Southern California any more. Most gangs don’t have the same public presence — largely because of federal indictments and gang injunctions. Graffiti, certainly, is far less common.

The case seemed to me emblematic of many that have taken place over the years and have gone largely unnoticed. They involve Latino street gangs targeting blacks who live in their area.IMG_9395

Beginning in about the mid-1990s, Latino gangs emerged as the leading perpetrators of hate crimes, especially violent hate crimes. This happened all over: San Bernardino, Pacoima, Azusa, Canoga Park, Highland Park, Harbor Gateway, Hawaiian Gardens, Pomona, and so on.

Compton, long a black enclave that gave birth to gangsta rap, has transformed into a majority Latino city in the last 15 years. Nothing showed that more than this case, unless it’s the school fields on Sundays that are filled with people playing soccer.

ADDENDUM: By the way, if you go back further — into the 1980s — you find that black gangs preyed mightily on Mexican immigrant kids in much the same way. this coincided with the influx of Mexican immigrants into black areas like South Central, Inglewood and Compton during that decade, which in Mexico was an economic catastrophe.

I’ve heard this from many people. But here’s what one blogreader just wrote, remembering those times:

“…back when I lived in Compton, specially when I went to Compton high school between 89-93, things were tense between the black gangs and the mostly Mexican students at Compton, there were a lot of instances where I witnessed Latino students not gang members being jumped brutally for no reason…there were even riots on my senior year where these black gangs that were around Compton high school would start hitting random Latino students and these students would fight back with their cowboy belt buckles, this was the time of quebradita and chalino Sanchez….so a lot of us would go semi cowboy to school….”

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The Dead Presidents Case…Finally the End

On the night of July 9, 2000 on the West Side of the city of San Bernardino, several armed gang members went into the driveway of a duplex and opened fire.

Johnny AgudoFour people were killed that night. They included two brothers, Johnny and Gilbert Agudo. The Agudos were presidents of their respective west side gang cliques — 7th Street Locos and the Little Counts.

The incident became known as the Dead Presidents case and involved betrayal and greed and murder worthy of Shakespeare’s best tragedies.

The Agudo brothers’ murders changed gang life in the West Side Verdugo area, the flatland barrio separated by the 215 freeway from the rest of San Bernardino and made up of families whose ancestors first settled the area in the 1920s and found work at the Santa Fe Railroad.

What made it more amazing was that it was the Agudos’ own homeboys doing the killing.

The case came to a long-awaited end last week, when the last of four defendants to be convicted for the crime, Froylan Chiprez, now 36, was sentenced to four life terms without parole, and 31 years for the attempted murder of two others at the scene that night.

Chiprez, a gunman that night, was arrested in December, 2011 in Tijuana, where he’d been living for a decade.18-e1381189731659

The case fractured West Side Verdugo, the largest Latino gang, then comprising four cliques, in San Bernardino, said Denise Yoakum, the prosecutor in the Chiprez case.

“Gang officers have told me that many gang members weren’t sure who to trust after that,” she said. “They refer to it as their 9-11. A lot of the old gangsters, you ask them a question [about some event], and they’ll say `Was this before the Dead Presidents case or after?'”

The  murders took place supposedly at the behest of Sal “Toro” Hernandez, the Mexican Mafia prison gang member who controls San Bernardino Latino gangs.

One member of the 7th Street gang, Luis Mendoza — aka Maldito — was Johnny Agudo’s best friend. Together they started the 7th Street clique.

Mendoza organized the shooting that night, believing he could be made president of the gang, and possibly a Mexican Mafia member himself, if he followed Hernandez’s orders and killed Johnny Agudo, who was believed to have been talking to police.

Gilbert Agudo was killed because it was believed he would always avenge his brother’s death if he lived.

Mendoza and another shooter, Lorenzo Arias, were sentenced to death in 2008. John Ramirez, another long-time 7th Street homeboy, spent 12 years in prison for his part in the shooting that night, his sentenced shortened due to his cooperation with prosecutors.

These guys all went to school together. Their mothers babysat for each other, and they knew everything there was to know about each other’s families.

I always took the case as a sign of how Southern California barrio life, once so tight-knit, almost cloistered, began to shred under the influence of the Mexican Mafia.The Virgin of Mount Vernon

In the early 1990s, the Mafia came out to the streets and put Latino gangs under its control, forcing gang members to tax drug dealers and kick Eme members a percentage. In time, Eme members began ordering gang members to kill their own.

On the streets of Southern California, this undermined the long-standing, deep loyalty that many Latino gang members felt for their own homeboys. This case, and others, showed that that loyalty pretty much doesn’t exist any more.

A lot has changed on San Bernardino’s West Side since then. Mexican immigrants have replaced many of the Mexican-American families who once lived there.

The Agudos’ parents moved away from the west side long ago.

“Some of the victims moved completely out of state,” said Yoakum.

The physical presence of the gangs in the area has diminished notably. There’s far less graffiti and no gang members hanging out at markets or at a large park on the West Side. That doesn’t mean the gangs have disappeared, Yoakum said.

In fact, more than 13 years after that night, only the influence of the Mexican Mafia remains constant in the barrio where the presidents died.

Photos: Johnny Agudo, Gilberto Agudo, Mount Vernon Virgin of Guadalupe

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Ernie Johnson, legendary coach dies

A great teacher will leave behind a raft of students doing well.

Ernie JohnsonThat’s how I first heard of Ernie Johnson.

As I moved back to Southern California and began writing about the area, I ran into his students, now well on in life and doing very well. The name came up a few times.

Johnson was a legendary football coach, producing dominant teams at El Rancho High School in Pico Rivera and later at Cerritos College.

He was one of the first coaches to meld white and Hispanic players into football dynasties — a rare thing back then.

Johnson died last month at the age of 87.

He was one of those Marine-style football coaches, who took kids by the face mask to make a point.

The first to tell me of Johnson was Ruben Quintero, who played offensive tackle on the great El Rancho teams in the mid-1960s. Quintero is a professor of literature at Cal State, Los Angeles.

(I met Quintero while doing a story in 2007 on the murder of his sister, Maria Hicks, who had accosted some taggers writing on a wall and who fired upon her when she approached.)

In the mid-1960s, El Rancho High School had just been formed from parts of two school districts, after Whittier wanted to rid itself of a chunk of its district that had a lot of Mexican-Americans. On one side of the new district lived working-class Mexican-American; on the other, middle-class whites.

Johnson forged them into a statewide football force. El Rancho crushed its opponents during these years. It was chosen the nation’s best football team one year.

“He had a very successful football program at same time that the city was working to unify north and south parts into one program,” Quintero told me. “We were all part of something that in many ways representative of what Pico Rivera was, a kind of mixed community that was doing something very, very successfully. We were a public school that beat all these Catholic schools that could recruit from all over the place.

“He crystallized in the successful football program something that was larger in the community.”

Johnson didn’t allow dancing celebrations or steroids or trash talking. But the El Rancho squad was so dominant that the players would go three quarters, take no water, never take off their helmets and begin doing jumping jacks as the the fourth quarter started to cow their opponents. That’s what Quintero told me.

A couple years later, I met Ernie Vargas, the recreation director for the city of Hawaiian Gardens, on a story I was doing about his use of rugby as way of guiding kids away from gangs. Vargas played for Johnson at Cerritos College.

Vargas lacked football talent, but had a desire to play that impressed Johnson.

“In the neighborhood, a lot of kids didn’t have discipline,” said Vargas. “Not only was I being coached, but I was also being mentored to be a better man. These were the principles I live by today. I don’t need to steal. I don’t need to lie. Be true to myself. Coach wanted us to be true to ourselves. I was just in awe of what he had to say.

“He said: Be where you’re supposed to be. Be on time. And do your best. Those three principles are all you need for life.”

(YOUR OWN MEMORIES OF ERNIE JOHNSON? Please add them to Comments below.)

I later interviewed Johnson, the son of Texas cotton pickers who had came to Orange County to pick citrus, by phone. Here are a few things he said:

–“It’s like playing human chess, football is.”

-“El Rancho High School was built to cleanse Whittier High School of Mexicans. We got every gang – Jimtown, Canta Rana from Los Nietos. What they didn’t understand was that they also got rid of a lot of great players and all the good-looking girls.”

-“I was raised in a Mexican neighborhood in Fullerton. They called me Gringo Uno. I learned more in the neighborhood67-00-00_El_Rancho_Johnson Crop that eventually helped me because they couldn’t tell me about being poor. Having been raised where I was, I was a minority for a long time myself. The people in Fullerton honestly thought that I was an albino because they never saw me with anyone but Kiko Munoz and Eddie Montoya.

-“At a reunion not long ago, two guys came up and said., `You don’t know who we are. I’m Naranjo from Jimtown. The other was Ray Chavez from the Montebello Jardines. I had them both in continuation PE. I would tell them,`You change your ways or you’re going to die in the gas chamber.’  They said, `We came here to tell you we did not die in the gas chamber.'”

-“One night we beat Whittier, the team all knelt and prayed. We always sprayed before the game but never prayed to win. We prayed that nobody got hurt, and have the privilege of playing. Then we get a complaint from Whittier about us praying on the field. I said I didn’t tell them to get down and pray and I’m not going to tell them to get up. Then they saw what miserable little people they were.”

And my favorite:

-“If there’s one secret to being a coach, it’d be to show you love your players more than you love the game.”

Two memorials for Ernie Johnson are planned.

One is a tribute at halftime of El Rancho High School’s football game on Friday night, November 1.

The next is a memorial service Sunday, November 3, 1 p.m. at the high school, 6501 Passons Blvd., in Pico Rivera.

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LOS ANGELES: Virgin of The Discount Furniture

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La Jefa is everywhere in Los Angeles.

This is a good thing. It makes L.A. a more peaceful place. Those of us with a spot in our hearts for her always know her soothings aren’t far away, no matter how hard the day.

This is on Florence Avenue in South-Central L.A.

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LOS ANGELES: The Virgin of the Carniceria

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Okay, this is actually in Long Beach.

Was driving down Long Beach Boulevard and spotted her and pulled over.

Just part of my ceaseless efforts to photograph every Virgin of Guadalupe mural in Southern California.

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LOS ANGELES: Hell Restaurant

IMG_3062I was in Compton earlier today and came upon this restaurant on Long Beach Boulevard.

El Infierno Restaurant (English: Hell Restaurant), known for its excellent menudo, was named thus by its owner, a fellow named Andres, who comes from Apatzingan in the state of Michoacan, Mexico.

Apatzingan, you may know, is in a ferociously hot part of Mexico known as the Tierra Caliente, and known for its wild ways. Frankly, I was always afraid to visit and never did.

Andres said he named it for the heat of his native region, though Apatzingan lately has become a virtual war zone, as cartels fight each other and the military.

Anyway, El Infierno Restaurant has had some tumultuous times itself.

When it was in its original spot, in a strip mall elsewhere in Compton, it was burned down during the riots of 1992. Andres rebuilt. Then earlier this year, his restaurant was shot up and then someone crashed a car into it, gutting it with fire (see photo, right).IMG_3056

Andres blamed gang members who wanted to sell drugs and didn’t like his surveillance cameras (there to protect his business). A neighboring business owner said he didn’t treat customers well and some got mad. That seems hard to believe, but whatever the case, Andres moved to the newer, bigger, better location on Long Beach, which he shares with a cleaners. (See photo above)

(Reminds me of the time when, from a bus, I spotted a taqueria in Los Mochis, Sinaloa — Tacos Hitler — no lie).

The stories you hear in L.A. if you stop and ask….

Great menudo, too.

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PHOTOGRAPHY: LA photo walkabout

LA Photo Walkabout 1

Hey folks, the Perfect Exposure Gallery is holding another photo walkabout of downtown Los Angeles, this time with a photographer from Magnum, the great photo agency.

Today at 5:30 p.m. at the gallery in Koreatown: 213.381.1136.

A great way to learn to use those cameras that are now so cheap, but a little complicated to use.

That last one was a blast — with LA Times photo maestro Luis Sinco.

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PHOTOGRAPHY: More photos at Kaldi in South Pas

I have some more photos on display at Kaldi, the cafe in South Pasadena.

These shots are from Jaripo, a small town in Michoacan, which taught me a lot about immigration from Mexico. It was a big part of the introduction I wrote to my second book, Antonio’s Gun and Delfino’s Dream: True Tales of Mexican Migration.

Check them out next time you’re in the area.

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LOS ANGELES: A Recycling Plant in South Gate

I was out in South Gate recently visiting Carlos Herrera, who owns Interior Removal Specialist, a company that takes out the interior of offices that are about to be remodeled.

His mother, a Mexican immigrant, started in the junk collection business years ago, as a way she stumbled on to raise her children alone. In time, she had trucks and drivers. Carlos has continued on in her footsteps.

This place is amazing — piles of drywall, rows of desks and office chairs. Next door is a plant that recycles most of the tin cans used in LA County, most of which will end up in China, I assume.

I’m always fascinated by recycling. So much stuff that once was used — all at the other end of the economy, the one we almost never see.

It’s why I like places like South Gate and Vernon. Their ruggedness makes them photogenic and their stories make them mermerizing.

Here are some photos.

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LOS ANGELES: Warren Oates and migrants to L.A.

Lately, I’ve been struck by how the folks who come here looking for movie or music stardom from all over the US are part of what keeps Los Angeles vibrant.

These are wannabe actors, singers, musicians, dancers, writers — folks who’ve been told by their high school drama or choir teacher in Nebraska or Louisiana that they have talent and ought to test themselves out in Hollywood.

These folks add as much dynamism and energy to the LA economy, I’d bet, as do immigrants from Mexico or Korea or somewhere, here willing to do what it takes to piece together a new life.  They just don’t stand out the way immigrants do.

I wonder what would happen to LA’s restaurant industry if they stopped coming. Probably the same as would happen if all the Oaxacans left. (Just at a Westwood restaurant where our busboy was a man from Abasolo, Oaxaca.)

I was reminded of this just now after seeing a movie with one such fellow — Warren Oates, who for my money is nearly the greatest character actor of American movies. Anyway, I can’t think of any better at the moment.

He made a bunch of great westerns, and Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. I just saw The Brink’s Job, which has a couple of fantastic scenes with Oates. Starred as John Dillinger and was in In the Heat of the Night.

You know it’s gonna be good if Warren Oates is in the thing.

Came from a burg to LA, like so many. A town in western Kentucky that apparently doesn’t even exist any more. He’d entered a drama troupe in college in Kentucky then made his way out west.

Seems to me his career was made possible by a late 1960s/early 1970s’ ethos of casting rugged, authentic-looking guys in westerns and as outlaws and the like. A revisiting of the Western movie, and a revision of the history of the American West in film that took place in those years.

Otherwise, he might well have faced a bunch of Gomer Pyle roles.

As his star rose, he became part of a Hollywood counterculture rat pack that included Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson and did a lot of things that aged him quickly.

Died too young — at 53, I was surprised to learn. I have to say he looked a lot older than that when he passed in 1982.

Warren Oates — an American original, no doubt.

Here’s a conversation with his biographer, Susan Compo.

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LOS ANGELES: Wan Joon Kim — A Compton Rap Legend Passes

Wan Joon Kim died last night, his son, Kirk, tells me.Wan Joon Kim 002

Mr. Kim, originally from North Korea, was one of the first indoor swap meet vendors in Los Angeles, when he signed a lease to rent a stall at the Compton Fashion Center, once a Sears building, that opened as the region’s first large indoor swap meet in 1985.

At stall Z-7 by the building’s main entrance, he and his wife, Boo Ja, sold women’s products for a while, but then switched to records and cassettes.

As these were years when the first rumblings of gangsta rap were emerging from kids working out in Compton garages, in response to the city’s crack and gang violence nightmare, that’s what he stocked.

He spoke almost no English, and didn’t understand the lyrics — he preferred classical music. But like any microcapitalist, he was willing to stock what sold.  Most of the early gangsta rap stars sold their first stuff at his stall, since other record stores refused them. This included records by Eazy E’s Ruthless Records and NWA, and many who’ve since died and others who’ve gone on to other things.

Mr. Kim grew to be loved by customers and rappers alike. He and and his wife were known as Pops and Mama.

I wrote about Mr. Kim last summer. A fascinating fellow straight outta Compton.

NPR’s All Things Considered did an obituary of Mr. Kim that’s worth listening to.

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