Moving east across the Los Angeles river is like crossing a border. I have never been to a Mexican city but I can’t really picture it much differently from East L.A.
East Los Angeles became a popular immigrant destination during the early 1900s for Russians, Jews, Japanese, and Mexicans who were working in nearby factories. After World War II, it became more and more Latino and now exclusively Mexican. Today, it is the largest Mexican-American community in the United States and home to over one million people in an area bigger than Manhattan or Washington D.C.
By the way, they tell you…we are not Latinos, we are not Hispanics. We are Mexicans. And that is not hard to believe it if you take a stroll in Boyle Heights, in Cesar Chavez Avenue for example, where English disappears from shop signs and you walk across panaderias Oaxaquenas, tiendas de juguetes, botanica o pieles. You can not miss the “Mercado de Los Angeles” on 1st Avenue and Lorena. On Sundays, Mexican families shuffle in to buy campero boots, religious items of various nature, miracolous herbal remedies, music. And food of course: some hundred different types of chile, beans, tortillas, quesos, tamales, moles of four or five different colors…a real feast.
No wonder the best, by far the best, Mexican restaurants in L.A. – and therefore in the whole world but Mexico itself – are here. Together with dozens of Mexican families, I have been waiting outside for almost one hour just to have the privilege to sit and eat at “La Parrilla“, a 30 year-old institution in Boyle Heights. Well, it was absolutely worthy. Two women are busy preparing and cooking on the spot the best tortillas I have ever tasted. The same is valid for guacamole. Avocado, cilantro, lemon, chili, onions, everything is mixed directly at your table. Then parrilladas or molcajetes. Drink a Victoria or a Pacifico with it and finish the meal with an extraordinary “café de olla” with cinnamon and honey.
Yes, I am always enthusiastic about good and authentic food. Still, I’d like to remember that East L.A. was home of Olympic and World Boxing champion Oscar de la Hoya. And finally gangs which are also one aspect of East L.A. culture. La vida loca, or the crazy life, is what they call the barrio gang experience. In the last ten years the situation has improved a lot and life in East L.A. is reasonably safe. Still, gang wars continue and East L.A. – for very long a neglected neighborhood – has one of the nation’s highest drop out rates from schools and teenage pregnancy is at an all time high in this community.