When I decided to become the culture editor at L.A. Weekly, I had a revelatory conversation with my father about it. We talked about what it was like growing up in L.A., and how the places we lived and the things that we did shaped my perspective and my passion for covering the city. My father came to this country as an immigrant child (though he wasn't illegal, the current immigration crisis and separation of children from their parents still hits close to home), and growing up in lower-income neighborhoods with English as a second language meant there wasn't a lot of opportunity. I had more opportunities than he did, but realizing my goals was still a challenge due to financial hardship. Still, as a Mexican-Ecuadorian-American woman, I'm proud of where I come from and I've seen a lot of changes to the neighborhoods where my dad and I both grew up. Gentrification has its bad side and its good side, and nobody knows this better than someone who's lived through it like we did, and still do. We both continue to revere this city — past and present — and it is my life's goal to celebrate it. For Father's Day, I asked my dad to share his experience as a boy and as a man growing up in L.A. and raising two kids. I think this piece shows how culture can change around you but also how it transcends time and place, because ultimately, it's not about where we live or what we listen to or what we wear; it's about who we are inside. —Lina Lecaro
As an immigrant to this country, my life in the United States has been exciting. The first thing I remember, when I arrived in L.A. 60 years ago, was the name of the city. The fact that Los Angeles was a Spanish name gave me a feeling of comfort, especially considering I was a 10-year-old kid from Ecuador, South America. My mother, who at the time was a 28-year-old widow, came to the U.S. for the same reason that all immigrants do — to look for new opportunities and a better way of life.
When we came to the United States in the late '50s, life was a little different for Hispanics than it is today. Before my student visa ran out, we applied for permanent residency and within a few months it was granted. In those days all you needed was a signature from a U.S. citizen, who would become your “sponsor,” for lack of a better word.
Now 60 years later, and a naturalized American citizen, I find it interesting to remember the many experiences that living in L.A. has given me and how my perspective has changed. I can remember a time when the City Hall building was the tallest in L.A.
My first year of school I started junior high in the Highland Park area of L.A., which at that time was about 50 percent Anglo and 50 percent Mexican-American. Not speaking a word of English, I was put in a special class for immigrant kids; as we made progress speaking, we would transfer to regular classes.
By the time I went to high school I was able to communicate in both Spanish and English, and therefore I had different groups of people I would associate with. One of them was a Mexican kid who got me a part-time job at Grand Central Market in downtown L.A. We would go there three times a week for two to three hours after school and on Saturdays. and our job was to go to the basement of one of their stores, where we would open boxes of fruits and vegetables, clean them, trim them and get them ready for display on the stands outside. That was my first experience with work in Los Angeles.
It was also in my first year of high school that I encountered racism and discrimination. Going home on the bus, I was sitting next to one of my Mexican friends and we were having a conversation in Spanish. I noticed two older white students sitting behind us, making jokes and repeating in a mocking way some of the words that we used. As they got up to leave the bus, one of them looked at me and said, “Why don't you go back to Mexico!”
When he said that I realized that for all practical purposes, I was always going to be thought of as Mexican, which was OK with me, for in reality, other than some differences in culture like music and food, the bloodline is very similar. South Americans are predominantly Spanish or mestizo (part Spanish, part Indian) depending on the individual. There are indigenous people who still live in both Mexico and Ecuador.
Growing up in a Mexican neighborhood as I did, you can be influenced to some degree by the styles of the kids in that community. I noticed that some of them had a special way of dressing and a special way of fixing up their cars. As I made friends with some of them, I found myself trying to fit in, and before I knew it, I was wearing the same type of clothing and I made my cars look just like theirs. My first car was a black '58 Chevy Bel Air, and by the time I was through fixing it up, it was in my opinion one of the best-looking cars in the neighborhood.
My friends and I would listen to oldies and doo-wop and “cruise” in our cars a lot. One of our stomping grounds was Whittier Boulevard, which was popular at the time as it was referenced in a song by a group called Thee Midnighters. The cars were called lowriders, which is a style still appreciated to this day. I tried very hard to pick my friends carefully, because I knew that some of these guys were gang members who had a tendency to get into trouble very easily. Fortunately I was able to stay away from serious trouble, and as I grew older I began to get away from that lifestyle. In my last year of high school I went out for sports, taking track & field and gymnastics, and by the time I graduated, I had a more mature attitude and was looking forward to finding a good job and making my way in life.
It was the '60s and the times “were changing,” to quote Bob Dylan. I began to change, too. My hair grew longer and my style of dressing and taste in music also changed. Peace and love was in the air and I found myself connecting with this new attitude. It was around this time that I met the girl who would become my wife of 50 years now and the mother of my daughter, Lina, and son, Damon. My wife, Sandra, raised in L.A., was a second-generation Mexican-American and we were married one year after we met. I was 19 and she was 18, and that was the beginning of a new chapter in my life.
One year later our daughter was born. Not having the means to further my education, I had no choice but to take any job available. I made a modest living and therefore our housing was also modest. But in spite of our financial limitations, we always managed to do lots of fun and interesting things in our city. We would go all over L.A.: street fairs, arts and crafts fairs, music shows, car shows, etc. The fact is, you don't need a lot of money to be well-rounded culturally. You only need to experience that culture, which is what we did as a family.
Another way I tried to compensate for the hard realities of our economic situation was to instill in my daughter and son a sense of values that would keep them from bad influences and from experiencing some of the negative situations I encountered growing up. In the process I may have also influenced them with my taste in music and food and my political convictions — which happen to be progressive and liberal — a fact that I am very proud of to this day. When I think of the woman and the man that my kids have become, I feel that these efforts paid off, but I must give credit to the positive influence of their mother as well.
My family has always lived in predominantly Mexican-American neighborhoods like Glassell Park, Atwater and an area near Glendale called Toonerville, which was at the time considered a ghetto and known for gang activity. Like many other areas in L.A., these communities have improved and have now become “trendy,” but they weren't even very safe when we lived in them.
When I was married for about five years I met a photographer named Gusmano Cesaretti. He was putting together a book about graffiti, specifically gang and Chicano graffiti. It seems that someone in my wife's family who knew about my background as a young lowrider told him that I could help him with the book. The fact is I did not ever engage in graffiti, but the photographer thought I had a look that would be good for the book. When he knocked on my door, I was not wearing a shirt, so I told him to let me put one on. He had his camera ready, and said, “No, I want the picture like you are right now.” So there we are, me and my wife sitting for a photo that I sometimes find to be embarrassing but my daughter and son assure me is “cool.” And that's all that matters to me.
When I think of my family and the experiences and hard times we've shared, I can't help but think that they were instrumental in making us stronger and better able to cope with adversities. I'm proud of my son and of my daughter — who against all odds managed to get a degree in journalism. She's written so many great articles for magazines and newspapers, but what I am most proud of is the honesty and integrity with which she makes all the important decisions in her life, both personally and professionally. I say this not only as a father but as someone is also a writer, and also open to criticism, which as all of us who write know goes with the territory, sometimes unfairly so. And so these are just a few examples of what coming to America and living in Los Angeles has meant to me, as a father and an immigrant. The city has changed a lot and continues to change, but there's nowhere else we'd rather live. As the song says, “We love L.A.”
John Lecaro's book The Pathway of Harmony: Utopian Principles for Peace and Happiness is available on Amazon.