You may be already familiar with the robust and diverse digital collections on the Los Angeles Public Library’s online archive, Tessa. Tessa hosts various collections of photographs, maps, menus, and graphic illustrations from travel posters to fashion plates. I would like to introduce you to a collection you may have overlooked, our oral histories. LAPL has collected a number of oral histories over the years as part of ongoing projects, including the Shades of LA collection and LA Made. For this post, I will highlight oral histories from the Eastside neighborhood of Boyle Heights.
Boyle Heights is integral to the historical fabric of the City of Los Angeles. Yet for many years, many in our city have ignored or disregarded the Eastside neighborhood. Segregation and racism, supported by federal redlining practices, are two important reasons that Boyle Heights has not been prominent in the global view of Los Angeles. However, in recent years, residents and former residents have endeavored to give this historic neighborhood the recognition it deserves. One of the best ways to learn more about the rich and diverse history of Boyle Heights is by listening to the stories shared by the neighborhood’s proud residents.
Boyle Heights has sometimes been described as the 'Ellis Island' neighborhood of the West Coast. Many immigrant and ethnic groups excluded from other Los Angeles neighborhoods found a place to establish homes in this area east of downtown Los Angeles. While Boyle Heights has been home to diverse working class communities for the past century, the neighborhood was established as a well-to-do suburb of Los Angeles for the primarily Anglo residents who were moving outward from the downtown city center in the 1880s. By the early 1900s, new populations began to settle in Boyle Heights, including immigrants from Mexico, Japan, Armenia, Russia, and Europe. Other major populations who contributed to the life of the community include indigneous people, descendents of Californios, people of the Jewish diaspora and African-Americans. The original residents of Los Angeles, the Kizh-Gabrieleño, or Tongva, if you prefer, lived near the Los Angeles River and other smaller waterways in the Eastside area prior to European settlement and continue to live in the area.
The boundaries of Boyle Heights are now more or less established by official City markers and neighborhood organizations. However, locals, non-locals, and old-timers sometimes have their own markers for delineating where the neighborhood begins and ends. Current residents of Eastside neighborhoods generally accept that Boyle Heights is a neighborhood inside the City of Los Angeles. To the east, Indiana Avenue is the dividing line between Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles. The Los Angeles River defines the neighborhood’s western boundary. In these oral histories, both East Los Angeles and Boyle Heights are used interchangeably by the subjects to refer to the same area. Pete Rodriguez states in his oral history, “East Los Angeles is from Main Street to Ford Blvd.” Interestingly, he makes a distinction between Boyle Heights and neighborhoods like Belvedere and Maravilla which he deemed as being more “dangerous.” Cesar Chavez Avenue, the main thoroughfare and business district of Boyle Heights was formerly known as Brooklyn Avenue until the name change in 1994, and is also used interchangeably in the oral histories.
The oral histories presented in this post provide a unique and engaging perspective on Boyle Heights’ history, particularly in the 1940s and 1950s. They represent three of the significant ethnic groups who have historically called Boyle Heights home. Pete Rodriguez discusses growing up in Boyle Heights as a Mexican-American. Nancy Oda chronicles her experiences as a Japanese-American youth. Helen Bialeck, Arlene Dunaetz, Charlotte Gussin-Root, Armony Share, Joyce Sindel, and Jackie Waterman are childhood friends who collectively share their remembrances of Boyle Heights’ Jewish community. Listening to the oral histories together, one begins to gain an understanding of how early multicultural Los Angeles developed and grew. Additionally, these stories illustrate how even small cultural exchanges can contribute to a more egalitarian and welcoming Los Angeles.
Journey to Boyle Heights
For many new residents, Boyle Heights was a safe and welcoming place to start their lives in Los Angeles. Many other neighborhoods were off-limits to non-Anglo ethnic groups in the early part of the 20th Century due to racially restrictive covenants and federal redlining. In Boyle Heights, Jewish, Japanese, Russian, and Mexican residents found a place to continue their cultural traditions, attend religious services, and start new businesses.
While the oral history participants come from different ethnic and religious groups, and from different parts of the world, the similarities between their stories and backgrounds are striking. Both Pete Rodriguez and Armory Share’s parents ended up in Boyle Heights after fleeing their respective home countries due to political persecution and radical political activity. Pete’s Mexican father was involved with Ricardo Flores Magon and the Magonista movement in Los Angeles and Mexico. Armory’s Jewish parents were “peaceful anarchists” who fled Bolshevik Russia, moved around Europe, established themselves in Mexico, and finally ended up in Boyle Heights.
Nancy Oda’s Japanese-American father, Tatsu Inouye was born in Montebello and worked his family’s farm near the Rio Hondo River until he moved to Japan for his education. He eventually returned to Los Angeles and settled in Boyle Heights with his Japanese-American wife, Lily, Nancy’s mother, who was from Lancaster. Pete also talks about the importance of the Rio Hondo River in his young life, since it was one of the few recreational areas where Mexican-Americans were allowed to congregate and swim. Mexican-Americans fondly called this part of the river Marrano Beach.
Joyce, Arlene, Helen, Charlotte, and Jackie’s respective parents came to Boyle Heights from different parts of Europe and the U.S., eventually settling in Boyle Heights, where they found an open community, shared cultural organizations, and a place to establish businesses.
Shared cuisine has often been the first way Angelenos learn about each other's cultures, and in midcentury Boyle Heights it was no different. Pete fondly remembers his visits to Canter’s Jewish Deli, originally located on what was then, Brooklyn Ave. Nancy Oda talks about her Japanese-American mother’s love of Mexican food and their pilgrimages to the Eastside landmark eatery, Manuel’s El Tepeyac. She also recalls how neighbors would share homegrown vegetables and invite each other over for meals. The childhood friends recall their visits to the many Jewish bakeries that lined Brooklyn Avenue, like the Warsaw Bakery, Detroit Bakery, and Rosner’s Bakery. Currie’s was the spot to go for ice cream. For fancy occasions, they visited Joyce Sindel’s family restaurant, the only white tablecloth eatery in 1940s Boyle Heights, The Famous, located on Brooklyn Ave and Cornwall Street.
It was in high school, namely Roosevelt, where many of the teenagers really began their multicultural explorations and friendships. They attended dances together at places like the recently closed International Institute which was established as a place to assist immigrants to assimilate to their new country and to formally share in the cultural experiences with other newly arrived immigrants. Pete talks about a city-wide baseball championship in which he participated, and in which a team of Japanese, Russian, Jewish, and Mexican students took home the winning trophy. Residents of all ethnicities shopped at Zellman’s on Brooklyn Avenue, a business started by Armony’s uncle. It began as a haberdashery and eventually grew into a clothing store. Zellman’s remained popular among residents of Boyle Heights until 1999 when it closed after almost 80 years in business. While the oral history participants’ parents created businesses, community spaces, and organizations to continue their cultural and religious practices, there was still space and freedom to share and explore their neighbors’ traditions and cultures.
Armory learned Jewish cultural traditions and Yiddish at the Workmen’s Circle Yiddish School on Soto Ave. She fondly remembers writing letters in Yiddish to her aunts in Mexico. Many of the group of childhood friends attended the Congregation Talmud Torah, more commonly known as the Breed Street Shul. More recently, there have been initiatives by the Breed Street Shul Project to rehabilitate the Shul and honor the multicultural history of Boyle Heights.
Mexican-American youth in Boyle Heights adopted the Pachuco style, imported from El Paso, Texas, as a way to differentiate themselves from everyone else. Pete admired the Pachucos for their sharp fashion and cool slang, called Caló. Some of this slang is still used in Boyle Heights today. The Pachucos were known for their zoot suit fashion, which was frowned upon during the war. Officials perceived the oversized suits’ use of fabric as excessive during a time of government-ordered rationing. Like other subcultures started by urban youth of color, Pachucos were looked down upon by mainstream society - their cultural pride and fashion was an affront to Anglo society. Armony recalls a chilling experience of being at the Meralta Theater on 1st in Boyle Heights when a marauding group of servicemen walked through the aisles with flashlights looking for zoot suiters to beat up. This incident would come to be known as the Zoot Suit Riots.
World War II was a formative event for many of the interviewees, whose descriptions of how the period affected their families and community underline its importance. Nancy Oda shares her family’s experience of forced relocation to internment camps during World War II. When Nancy’s family discovered that they would be interned, they turned to the Gomezes, a local Mexican-American family, to watch over their Boyle Heights home and business. The forced relocation affected the whole Boyle Heights community and Pete shares the pain he felt when his Japanese-American friends were forced to leave. Helen and Arlene talk about the fear they felt for their family in Europe during World War II and the Holocaust.
Their experiences growing up in Boyle Heights continue to inform and influence the oral history interviewees’ perspectives today. Nancy Oda talks about her commitment to “activate” the next generation and her continuing connection with the communities of Boyle Heights. Pete Rodriguez went on to become one of the first Mexican-American TV producers and used his personal struggles to help inform his news coverage of the Latino community in Los Angeles.
These oral histories provide the listener with opportunities to understand how multicultural experiences can benefit individuals and communities, increasing inclusivity, diversity, and cultural exchange. People may consider their memories and stories insignificant, but in fact their perspectives are a unique record that enriches our sense of history. Sharing your personal history can enhance our understanding of local history and impart deeper meanings to well-known events from LA’s past.
“Memory cannot be reconstructed after a person passes away. After a community’s elders pass away they take with them a history we can’t replicate any other way. Recording a verbal history is so superior to anything a writer can accomplish later.” - Helen Bialeck, Six Jewish Girls from Boyle Heights.
Do you feel inspired to start recording your own oral histories? Many of us are at home and spending more time with our families and loved ones. Now is the perfect time to start recording your own oral histories. I have provided some resources below to help you start.
Oral History Interview Form
This interview form can be used as a guide for oral history interviews. Open ended questions and free flowing conversations can also be great ways to help the interviewee recall memories and experiences. Try and plan for more than one interview session. Oftentimes remembrances and details are recalled at a later date and the interviewees might be eager to share more recollections.
There are many free and low cost apps available to download which can assist with audiovisual recordings. Google Voice is a free and easily accessible audio recording utility and has been used in the past for oral history projects. Ocenaudio is a free software that is easy to use for editing. Another good audio editor is Audacity.
Online Oral History Resources
For more on best practices and oral history principles, please see the The Oral History Association website. Capturing the Living Past - An Oral History Primer is an easy to follow basic primer for oral history interviews. Just remember, the goal is to record memories and personal histories before they are gone, so even if you don’t have access to a recording app or have the time read over any of the oral history primers, that’s fine. If your family member or neighbor wants to talk and share some memories, take out your mobile phone or notebook, and start recording - with their permission, of course. You never know what they know, until you ask.