Understanding the Latinx community through music posters

Beginning around 1990, the demographic landscape of the Los Angeles area changed dramatically through the arrival of immigrants from Mexico and Central America. But historian Jorge Leal says its impact on the neighborhoods of the Los Angeles area has never been charted in earnest.

A Study: A New Way of Looking at it…
With his recently published research, Leal has taken a furtive step into documenting the Latinx community’s emerging L.A. footprint. If you want to know about the Latinx community’s presence in L.A. over the past 30 years, Leal says to follow the music posters.

In the days preceding social media and broad Internet access, local music was promoted in L.A. and other urban areas via crude posters taped to store windows and tacked to utility poles. The L.A. music posters tell where the “Rock Angelino” music — and the Latinx community — could be found.

“My study is a first step to approaching the history of Latinx communities at the end of the 20th century,” said Leal, an assistant professor of history at UCR.

A shift into Color 
He said the swift demographic shift also led to “racial anxiety” among a white population that pushed for restrictive policies against immigrants and the city’s nonwhite citizens. This included federal housing policies that Leal said effectively segregated communities of color from white Los Angeles.

“Studying Southern California, and in particular South and Southeast Los Angeles in the latter third of the 20th century with historical lenses is crucial to understand how the current conditions of the metropolitan area came to be after the white flight,” Leal said. “These conditions created new and vibrant ethnically defined areas, such as the Latinx communities in Southeast Los Angeles where ingenious strategies to housing scarcity, public space, and economic subsistence are created by Latinxs.”

“I argue that Latinxs, along with other people of color, have used mapping to proclaim their presence within the Los Angeles metropolis,” Leal wrote.

Understanding Immigration through Music 
“Lyrics also share insights on how Latinxs used the streets and freeways to expand their agency,” wrote Leal, who is the curator of The Rock Archivo LÁ, an online repository of ephemera from Latinx youth culture.

Leal said Rock Angelino “offers detailed lyrical cartographies about sites that are pivotal to the immigrant Latinx experience of this time period, which expanded beyond the confines of the traditional ethnic Mexican neighborhoods of East Los Angeles.”

The music often depicts the workaday struggles and weekend “releases” of workers in the L.A. Latinx community, many of whom were employed in labor-intensive, temporary jobs.

Leal’s paper, “Mapping the city from below: Approaches in charting out Latinx historical and quotidian presence in metropolitan Los Angeles: 1990–2020,” was published this spring in the European Journal of American Culture. Leal will build on the current research with related projects including a collaborative open-source public project in which Latinx community members can chart landmarks in Southern California, and a podcast series titled “The Discursive Power of Rock en Español and the Desire for Democracy,” funded from a grant by the University of California Humanities Research Institute.

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