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The Urban Villages

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On the hills of the City of Our Lady of the Angels there are tiers of little houses, like the strings of villages on the sea coasts of Spain or Italy or Mexico. The houses are painted in dime-store shades of yellow and white and lavender and pink. In between the houses are fig trees, and cypress, and cedars, and old cars and palms rise like questioning fingers out of the flower beds of poverty in between freeways. The sky is blue as the Mediterranean, or gray as a dirty window when the smog does not stay downtown where it belongs.

"Wonder at this scene of many-colored houses! The houses of our city makes us, who are miserable, see light among the flowers and songs and see beauty. Where it gleams forth in fourfold rays, where the fragrant flowers bud, there live the Mexicans, the youth." So a poet wrote of the capital of the Aztecs, hundreds of years ago.

In the barrios of Los Angeles the modern descendants of the Aztecs have built a suburb of that ancient city. The metropolis is a paradox composed of oldest Mexico and the newest technological gadegetry in the United States.

Signs of that paradox are on the walls of the barrios: "VIVA KENNEDY !" "ABAJO DODGERS!" "GO, DODGERS, GO!" "EL BAZAAR DE MEXICO": a dry-goods store that sells workclothes and bikinis. "ROPA USADA": the secondhand clothing store with a surfboard and a pair of water skis in the window, besides used brassieres. "VOTE FOR REAGAN!" "GRINGO, GO HOME!" "THE JOKER'S DEN": the hamburger joint with"FINE MEXICAN FOOD." Tacos and Cokes. "TORTILLERIA" Wholesale and retail. "JOIN THE U S. MARINES." "CHICANO POWER."

Old women in black mantillas and floral dresses from Sears buy bananas from an open fruit stall. Across the street, in Spanish, the sign in the real-estate office entices the old women: "Naturalization Papers" and "Income Taxes Prepared."

Here is the religious store: Art'culos Religiosos, Herbas. Candles to the Virgen de Guadalupe. Candles to the Infant of Prague . Candles to Christ. Candles to "Papa Julius." And candles to a huge, ominous Indian chief in blood-red wax.

Here is the secular shrine: the storefront mission of the Remedial Education and Cultural Opportunity for the Rurally Deprived (RECORD, let's call it), where a Berlin café skit by Bertolt Brecht is advertised in Pachuco slang, underneath a plastic piñata made by the Sunset Years Club of retired farm workers.

Here is the "Extermino La Cucaracha" sign in every drugstore window. In sunny California the cockroaches grow healthy and strong. Exterminating cockroaches is the main sport of the barrios' hunters. Who remembers that "La Cucaracha" was the anthem of the Mexican Revolution?

The barrios of Los Angeles are the third largest Mexican city in the world. Guadalajara and Mexico City alone have greater populations. No one knows for certain, but barrio leaders say that from 800, 000 to 1, 000, 000 Mexicans live in Los Angeles. Either population is larger than the population of Washington, D. C., or Cleveland, Ohio. The people of La Raza in the city, by themselves, constitute one of the ten largest cities of the United States.

Los Angeles is the capitol of La Raza. It is to the Mexicans what Boston has been to the Irish and New York City has been to the Jews. Many people are extremely poor. And yet there is a beauty in the barrios. Roses entwine the junked cars in the backyards, much as the tropical flowers cover the poorest Indian hut in Mexico. In one of the cities in the San Joaquin Valley, there is a Community Poverty Council that has a eucalyptus tree on its front lawn, a lemon tree at its back door, and roses blooming on the window sill of the "welfare lady's" office, where the poor come for their alms. The poverty of a rural home is not visible from outside, especially when the home is in a city.

Ever since the Aztecs built the City of Mexico the people of La Raza have been people of the cities. The conquistadors thought their city as magnificent as any in Europe. Bernal D'az del Castillo, the chronicler of Cortés, wrote: "Some of the soldiers among us who have been in many parts of the world, in Constantinople and in Rome, said that so large a market place and so full of people and so well regulated and arranged, they had never beheld before." And Spaniards, too were of the city: "The civilization of Spain is an urban thing," one historian says. "In America it is the one city that symbolizes the rule of Spain," another writes. It is not surprising, then that 85.4 percent of the Chicanos of California live in urban areas.

In the Southwest the number of city dwellers is but slightly less; only in New Mexico are the urban Chicanos a minority—little more than one-third of the state. The population of La Raza in urban areas from Arizona to Texas ranges from 69. 3 to 78. 6 percent. The Chicano population of Los Angeles, Denver, and Phoenix is 10 to 20 percent of the city; in Albuquerque it is 25 per cent; in San Antonio and El Paso 40 to 50 percent; in Laredo 85 percent.

Even so, the barrios of the Chicanos are not the gray tenement tombs of the ghetto. The barrios sprawl over the hills and into the arroyos and valleys, amid the weeds and flowers, like wandering Indian villages. They are a paradox that defies easy comparisons.

Ghettos are the refuse dumps of the industrial city.

"Who creates the ghetto?" asks Eliezer Risco, the editor of La Raza, the newspaper of the barrios of East Los Angeles. "The ghetto is where you are forced to live by housing discrimination. But La Raza has been living in the barrios for hundreds of years. No one has forced us. The barrios are not ghettos, although we do have ghettos in the barrios. There are suburbs and there are skidrows; there are ghettos of the poor and there are neighborhoods of the rich. We have everything here that you have in the larger city, but one thing—you, in the larger city, govern us. We do not run our own lives because you do not let us. You run the barrios and you don't know how."

"Barrio" is a Spanish word that simply means "neighborhood." In the colonial era of Mexico the Spanish rulers subtly changed the meaning by using barrio to designate the "native quarter," where the Indians lived. It was a word of contempt. The word barrio, as it is used in the United States to designate the Mexican or "Spanish" neighborhood, is a modern version of that colonial term; except that today the Chicanos have once more changed the demeaning meaning of the old colonial word to one of pride.

It is a city within a city. Wherever the outsider sees one barrio, there are not one but many barrios within the boundaries of family ties, origins in Mexico, or simply street-map geography. Each barrio has its own loyalties, churches, local shrines, shopkeepers, gangs of boys, customs, history, and old village patriarchs.

"Urban villages" may be a better definition of "barrios." In these communities the Chicanos try to live in the best of both worlds: those of the village and those of the city.

"Why do you still live in East Los Angeles?" a man on the street is asked by La Voz, the newspaper of the Community Service Organization. "Just a matter of being in a place something like the old country," one man replies. Incongruous? Where in Los Angeles is Mexico? He feels it is in the barrios.

Men and women who come from the rugged mountain towns or northern Mexico and the rural valleys of the Southwest to seek jobs in the city do so warily. In self-protection they bring their village ways with them. The rural feeling of independence, the little gardens, the religious ecstasies, the large and comforting family loves, the communal ways of life—all of these give the urban villages and villagers a resilience that resists the numbing conformity of the concrete streets. None of these human exuberances fit within the confines of gray ghetto walls.

In the old days a goat and a vegetable garden were more of a necessity for the survival of a barrio family than a car port. Some of the barrios are still derisively referred to by outsiders as "Goat Hill."

"Years ago Los Angeles was rural. It was all farms," says Eduardo Perez, a barrio leader. He remembers that is was just one generation ago. "Where I was born, in East Los Angeles, there were Japanese farmers. Hundreds of vegetable farms. In World War II the Japanese farmers were put in concentration camps. And their land was confiscated. Up to then the Mexican people used to come to Los Angeles to work on the farms."

It was not simply out of migrant camps that the barrios grew. The people of the Sonoran deserts and mountains on both sides of the border could have moved into the ghetto tenements, but they would have been suffocated. "We need open sky," Perez says, or we would die.

"Our people in northern Mexico are rural people," Perez says. "We're in the mess we're in partly because of that. Mexicans coming to this country head for the countryside. We're always going to the rural towns first to work in the fields, to do stoop labor. We're being displaced by automation on the farms.

So we go to the cities. In the barrios we know our country-men will help us. We're desperate. Where else can we go?"

Sources

Hispanic Immigrants: Trials and Tribulations

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Copyright 2008, by the Contributing Authors. Cite/attribute Resource . factcouraud. (2007, May 22). The Urban Villages. Retrieved January 08, 2011, from Free Online Course Materials — USU OpenCourseWare Web site: http://ocw.usu.edu/English/introduction-to-writing-academic-prose/the-urban-villages.html. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License Creative Commons License