Where Is East L.A?

Leonardo DiCaprio with director Alejandro González Iñárritu at the Oscars on Feb. 28EXPAND
Leonardo DiCaprio with director Alejandro González Iñárritu at the Oscars on Feb. 28

Where is East Los Angeles?

It might seem like a lame question to longtime Angelenos, but it seems the location and history of this community might need some fresh explaining.

You see, Leonardo DiCaprio says he's from East Los Angeles. He's said it twice during awards events, including on the Oscars' red carpet, this month.

He is not.

The thing is, many of you reached out to say we're wrong and DiCaprio's right. His rough childhood in Echo Park, East Hollywood and Los Feliz constitutes growing up in East Los Angeles, some of you argued.

It does not.

Let's be clear here: We're not saying that DiCaprio didn't grow up in a tough environment. If biographies and profiles are correct, he certainly did. We're not saying he didn't grow up in Echo Park, East Hollywood or Los Feliz. We're not even suggesting that he wasn't raised around Latinos. If he spent time in those areas, he certainly was.

We're just saying he's not from East Los Angeles, a specific place that's central to Los Angeles' cultural history.

The Los Angeles Times' Mapping L.A. project has East L.A. right: It's an unincorporated community east-southeast of Boyle Heights. Unincorporated means that it is not a city and that it's directly governed by Los Angeles County.

The community found its name around the 1930s after it was established a decade earlier as Belvedere Gardens. Before that, Lincoln Heights to the north laid claim to being East Los Angeles. Never was the term officially applied to communities northwest of downtown.

East L.A. has 126,496 residents, according to the U.S. Census. Yes, it's even recognized by Big Government. It's 97.1 percent Latino. The median individual income is a very low $12,905.

It has an L.A. County–run East Los Angeles Service Center at 133 N. Sunol Drive, a U.S. Post Office East Los Angeles Branch at 5019 E. Third St., and an East Los Angeles Sheriff's Station at 975 S. Atlantic Blvd.

We double-checked all this to make sure we weren't seeing things. We also found entire books written about this place called East Los Angeles.

East L.A. has pondered cityhood multiple times. If it was successful, we probably wouldn't be having this conversation.

Still, there's enough history in East L.A. to confirm that it has existed apart from Echo Park, East Hollywood and Los Feliz for years, apparently.

"It has very rich cultural traditions and political organization," says Mario T. Garcia, a UC Santa Barbara history and Chicano studies professor who wrote the book on the 1968 student walkouts. "It's where so many Mexicanos live, go to churches and carry out their daily lives. It has a sense of physical community, unquestionably."

Its history includes the 1968 student walkouts, the Vietnam war protest in which Times journalist Ruben Salazar was killed by sheriff's deputies in 1970, Whittier Boulevard lowriding, the capture of the mid-'80s serial killer known as the Night Stalker, the Paul Rodriguez movie Born in East L.A. and the success of a band called Los Lobos, among other things.

The walkouts, inspired by dire educational conditions, and the Vietnam demonstration were central to the Chicano movement that presented a new Mexican-American identity in the United States. Salazar's death led to the creation of the nation's first Latino journalists group.

Ali Modarres, director of urban studies at University of Washington Tacoma, says that Los Angeles' continued evolution toward inner-city density and urbanization after decades of spreading out to freeway exurbs means that places like East L.A. are being targeted for what he calls "reappropriation" by the mainstream.

"East Los Angeles signifies more than geography — it signifies a culture that has resisted an idea of being put into the larger systems of control," said the professor,  who has studied L.A. for decades. "When we talk about East L.A., we talk about a culture that shaped itself in the face of external pressure and treatment."

The community is integral to the world's view of Los Angeles as a heavily Latino city. Thai cholos and Tokyo lowriders are, in a way, channeling East Los. And it gives claimers an authenticity they might not have had, Modarres said.

"You're imagining an authenticity" when you're talking about East L.A., he said. "You're searching for authenticity and belonging."

As for DiCaprio, even if he was subjected to the worst barrios of 1980s Echo Park, he's not from East L.A., the academic said.

"Unless he grew up east of the L.A. River," Modarres said, "I don't want to hear about it."


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