Sounds that Bind in Boyle Heights: Memory, Belonging, and Multiracial Histories in a Los Angeles Neighborhood

By Celia Viramontes. Posted Sept. 18, 2021

Boyle Heights is a place of bridges

Stories crossing

Stories never end

From a broken past into the future

Boyle Heights

A place we’re free again

“Boyle Heights: A Place of Bridges”[1]

So begins Nobuko Miyamoto’s song to Boyle Heights, the Los Angeles community that became home following her family’s incarceration during World War II. The broken past references the war-time Executive Order 9066 that uprooted 120,000 individuals of Japanese descent from their homes and imprisoned them. Building a home anew after the war’s end would prove daunting for many Japanese Americans in the face of persistent racial hostility throughout the United States. But in the multiracial community and streets of Boyle Heights, populated by “Garcias and Miyamotos in Evergreen side by side,” she and her family would find a place to be “free again,” “dream again,” and ultimately, “live again.” A Japanese American dancer, musician, and artivist[2] (artist-activist) with deep connections to Boyle Heights, Miyamoto pays lyrical tribute to the multi-ethnic community that helped shape the artist and human being she would become.

Nobuko MIyamoto at Fandango Obon at JACCC, Little Tokyo. Photo by Mike Murase/Great Leap.

Boyle Heights as a place of bridges – both literal and symbolic – figures prominently in Sounds of California: Boyle Heights and its component piece, Rola del Dia (Song of the Day). The statewide Sounds of California, begun in 2015, is a research and community engagement project that explores music and soundscapes as vital expressions of community life. A program of the Alliance for California Traditional Arts (ACTA) in partnership with Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, Community Power Collective, Radio Bilingüe and local residents, it seeks to archive the local soundscape of communities. Quetzal Flores, co-program manager and co-curator with Betty Marín, explains the origins of the project: “It’s been done in Bayview-Hunters Point, it’s been done in Oakland, it’s been done in different places. So when we got around to thinking of Boyle Heights as the next site, we understood that there was this previous work there that we could pull from. And that not unlike the other sites, this was a battle ground for land, for culture, for belonging, and remaining.” Boyle Heights, notes Flores, “has these many generations of very special ways of articulating lived realities via music. An entire political, cultural, and social experience that then is transmitted into song and verse and melody.”[3]

The artists featured in Rola Del Dia represent a wide range of musical styles and share a connection to Boyle Heights that spans multiples generations. “ACTA is proud to commission 10 original songs about the people, places, and cultural heritage of Boyle Heights from emerging and established artists alike,” notes Amy Kitchener, Executive Director of ACTA. “These songs tell us about the past, present, and future of this community through a tapestry of poetry, instrumentation, and melodies that are born out of the very unique soundscape of Boyle Heights. These commissions serve as an affirmation of the neighborhood-led stewardship of community, often in the face of rapid gentrification and other forces causing displacement of local people and cultures.” A digital program that ran from October 23-November 20, 2020 centered the debut of original songs. It was also, notes Flores, “a way to create these conversations between these different artists and their moments and their very different and unique experiences, but to weave that fabric of belonging into everything.”

The ten commissioned artists for Rola del Dia do just that in musically diverse ways, capturing the life of a community forged by the journeys, dreams and hopes of multi-ethnic groups seeking a place to call home.

The Making of a Multi-Racial Boyle Heights

How and why Boyle Heights became home for a multitude of diverse groups throughout its history is inextricably bound to questions of race, power, and class in the development of the neighborhood in the East Side of Los Angeles. In the twentieth century, racially restrictive covenants throughout Los Angeles would, in effect, draw boundaries of inclusion and exclusion around certain communities. As historian George J. Sanchez details in his book, Boyle Heights: How A Los Angeles Neighborhood Became the Future of American Democracy, “The first racially restrictive covenant filed in Los Angeles would occur in 1902, using the catchall term non-Caucasians to outline who could not purchase property. Within a few years, cities throughout Southern California applied restrictive covenants against Chinese, Japanese, Mexicans, African Americans, and sometimes Armenians, Jews, Italians and other groups seen at the time to be racially undesirable” (32). Crucially, districts adjacent to or connected to industrial zones by rail lines were relatively open to all (33) – among them, Boyle Heights.

Additionally, Boyle Heights’ racial-spatial make-up would be profoundly influenced by the creation in 1933 of the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation. As Richard Rothstein explores in The Color of Law, “The HOLC created color-coded maps of every metropolitan area in the nation, with the safest neighborhoods colored green and the riskiest colored red” (64). In a neighborhood like Boyle Heights, this would, in effect, “codify race and urban locations as risk factors, making it harder for those who were considered ‘nonwhite’ to get loans” (Sanchez 133). The “redlining” of Boyle Heights would have major repercussions for the development of the neighborhood in the decades to follow, particularly with regards to urban renewal policies and freeway construction.

That such a strong multiracial community would emerge from Boyle Heights in the twentieth century is both a consequence of these racialized policies and practices and a testament to the open and inclusive ethos of diverse groups living side by side east of the L.A River.

Mapping Multiracial Histories Through Song

In the aftermath of World War II, as Japanese Americans sought new places to resettle in, young Nobuko Miyamoto and her family would find themselves “like refugees in this country,” seeking a place to land. “We came back later [to California] than a lot of other people,” Miyamoto shares. “Because my father was very wary. He knew there was a lot of hatred.” [4] Their eventual return would include a stay with friends for a time in Los Angeles, before landing in Boyle Heights near Evergreen Avenue and Second Street, a community that young Miyamoto would experience as a “place of colors and flavors,” where “Mom is happy sewing curtains stitching up a home,” as she sings. The image is a captivating one, mirroring the process of stitching back the life of a family displaced by incarceration. It is a pivotal moment in her family’s life that informed her writing of the song. “The difficulty of returning to a place when you’ve been the enemy for several years, to finding a place where you’re not the enemy, where you’re not a stranger. It doesn’t feel temporary. It doesn’t feel like everybody’s looking at you in a bad way, and then the thing of flavors {in Boyle Heights}, that’s something I took with me forever,” Miyamoto reflects.

The feelings of sanctuary and belonging Miyamoto sings about speaks to the interracial bridge-building that was a feature of life in Boyle Heights prior to World War II. This was perhaps most evident in the neighborhood schools. With a student body that reflected the pluralistic groups residing in and around it, Roosevelt High School was deeply impacted when it lost one-third of its student body due to Executive Order 9066. The feelings of loss and indignation this prompted in young people, whose friendships cut across racial and ethnic lines, were profound, leading to a wide range of displays of solidarity.[5] Indeed, as Sanchez notes, “The historiographical depiction seems to assume that most Japanese Americans were highly segregated at the onset of World War II, residentially isolated in communities like Little Tokyo and within organizations and social settings where little communication and interaction occurred with non-Japanese” (128). But, in fact, Boyle Heights reveals a “high degree of interaction at all levels and among all ages of Boyle Heights’ Japanese American residents with others in the community (128).[6]

 It is into this racially mixed neighborhood that Miyamoto and her family would land. At the West Coast School of Music and Dance on Whittier Boulevard, she would find community with the mixture of mostly Mexican and Japanese girls. Her mother, too, would find in Boyle Heights a place to nurture her creativity as a seamstress designing costumes for her daughter, as well as the other young dancers – “pochas and sansei, ballet shoes and pink tights, dreaming ballerinas,” as Miyamoto describes them in song. Reflecting on this formative period in her life, Miyamoto notes, “It’s a definite part of my beginnings, not only as a person, but as a dancer. Because that became a place in community that I danced with others. It was a gift really to have that place, and a sense of community not only for me, but for my mother.”

With “Boyle Heights: A Place of Bridges,” Miyamoto gifts us a song about new beginnings and hope in the aftermath of World War II, and celebrates the place that, “after being ostracized by the war, gave us just what we needed: a community where we could belong” (32), as she writes in her memoir, Not Yo’ Butterfly: My Long Song of Relocation, Race Love and Revolution.

Like Miyamoto, Gabriel Gonzalez takes us on a sonic journey by highlighting the synergy of people and cultures that have populated Boyle Heights over time. Gonzalez is an artist with a wide-ranging career spanning theater, film, and music. A member of the band Boogaloo Assassins and bandleader of Gabrielito y la Verdad, Gonzalez stresses the historical aspects of Boyle Heights in his song, “7 Mile Stretch (Brooklyn Avenue to Cesar Chavez).” On the historical approach he took, Gonzalez notes: “To me, that was the most important thing. The history of that neighborhood and how it belongs to all of us,” adding that he “threw in a bit of nostalgia in there because I grew up there. It’s my childhood I sing about. I’m paying homage to the people that came before me.”[7] The 7 mile stretch of this central thoroughfare – once known as Brooklyn Avenue and renamed Cesar Chavez Avenue in the 1990’s – holds a vast and rich historical legacy.

With opening lyrics sung in a conversational style – “1930. Take a look around and tell me what you see” – Gonzalez invites us into this time and place with: “taco stands and Yiddish shops running up and down the street,” as well as “a thriving immigrant sanctuary” where “mariachi and klezmer tunes drifted from apartment windows.” With these evocative sounds and smells, the artist transports us to the historic hub of social and commercial life on Brooklyn Avenue[8] teeming with newcomers from Mexico, the American South, eastern Europe, Russia, Japan, Italy – an immigrant-heavy Boyle Heights, as evidenced by 1930 U.S Census data showing that 56% of its residents were foreign-born (Sanchez 40). Gonzalez, for example, references Jewish bakers “baking over their agendas,” – a vital part of Boyle Heights’ labor organizing history as historian Caroline Luce’s essay in the volume, Jews in the Los Angeles Mosaic reveals. These were immigrants “most of them born in Russia and Eastern Europe, with a commitment to Yiddish-based community organizing (36), whose goals were “not only to improve their own wages and conditions but also to remake commercial food culture in the neighborhood” (35).

Midway through the song, we are transported to 1960, and a community dotted with “conjuntos [musical bands] up and down the street and shops selling mops.” It is another turning point for Boyle Heights as the Mexican-origin population becomes the majority for the first time, according to census figures (Sanchez 181). The song then puts us squarely in 2020, when “times are good on some but not everyone,” describing the closure of neighborhood stores, and the precarious existence street vendors in particular face in a community now 96% Latino. Yet as the song’s refrain maintains: “life goes on.” People persevere and though change is imminent – “not all gone, even to this day,” he sings. Traces of deep history throughout the neighborhood remain – among them, Breed Street Shul[9] and the Buddhist Temple on First Street, as the artist points out. Like Gonzalez’s song, they stand as a bulwark against the forces of forgetting and historical erasure.

Cesar Castro, of the musical band Cambalache, opens a wide lens into Boyle Heights’ history with his song, “Mi Pueblito en la Ciudad” (“My little town in the City”). With his roots in Veracruz, Mexico, he sings – in Spanish – to the rhythmic sounds of Son Jarocho about seminal moments in this neighborhood’s history. It is a community he has cultivated deep ties with throughout his artistic career, as well as human connections forged through community-based work teaching music lessons to children in the neighborhood schools. As he sings, this is the land of the Tongva, San Gabrielino, and Kizh. It is the site of contestation over land (U.S-Mexico War) and of many immigrant histories. It is the story too, of Irishman Andrew Boyle, who Castro invokes in his song and from which Boyle Heights derives its name. Referencing the historical legacy of the government’s red-line policies (“del gobierno su redline”), Castro tells me he chose “palabras claves,”[10] – key words – to spark curiosity in people. “I wanted to highlight and put forth the theme of the ‘land’ on which Boyle Heights now stands,” he tells me in Spanish, and to highlight how pride of place can be cultivated when people tend to their roots in their “little town in the city.”

Memory, Identity, and the Urban Landscape of Boyle Heights

Travel east on Cesar Chavez Avenue and you arrive at its intersection with Evergreen Ave. It holds clues into Boyle Heights’ history. Turn left on Evergreen and one block down, you encounter a towering structure now covered in scaffolding. In 1946, it functioned as emergency housing for Japanese American returnees following the war. As historian Scott Kurashige notes in The Shifting Grounds of Race, “Several thousand returnees passed through the Evergreen Hostel, the city’s largest such facility” (168). Turn right, instead, on Evergreen and you arrive at Evergreen Cemetery, the resting grounds for diverse groups. Travel south on Evergreen, past the cemetery, and a few blocks away you might hear the thwack of a baseball bat. You’ve arrived at Evergreen Park. It is here that Raul Pacheco takes us with his song, “My Life” (‘Cruisin’ Song’). A musician and member of the band Ozomatli, Pacheco sings of “swinging for clouds at Evergreen,” a memory rooted in his childhood in Boyle Heights. The song in fact, is really a collection of memories that capture the artist’s relationship to this community through the prism of cruising.

It is powerful then, that the song begins with the rush of cars. “I wanted to see if I could make a beat out of the drones of the freeway. Like a drone, repetitive beat…that was the original idea,” Pacheco notes, adding that he enlisted the help of his daughter to record over the Lorena Street bridge overpass, over the 60 freeway, since he wasn’t in Los Angeles at the time. “So she went out there and recorded it on her phone and sent it to me and I picked things. That’s what you hear in the beginning of the song. The background…it’s really the freeway overpass because the freeways there are this deep fabric, they’re a landmark that have a very mixed history that kind of define Boyle Heights…the displacement it created for people, but also the political organizing to prevent the freeways.”[11] Indeed, the opposition to freeway construction in Boyle Heights in the 1950’s drew the support of multiracial groups such as the Jewish Home for the Aged, Brooklyn Avenue Businessmen’s Association, Japanese Methodist Church, Breed Street Synagogue and Eastside Community Center (Sanchez 180), among others. Despite these efforts, freeway construction tore through Boyle Heights.

Breed Street Shul in Boyle Heights. Photo by Celia Viramontes.

As Eric Avila writes in The Folklore of the Freeway, “It is hard to think of any American city as hard hit by highway construction as East Los Angeles in the 1950’s and 1960’s,” (146) further describing Boyle Heights as a “community knitted in freeways” (135). But in the shadow of the freeways, Avila notes, lies a wide range of expressive cultural forms – like art, music, murals, and literature – that he terms “the folklore of the freeway” (4). “My Life’” is Pacheco’s deep artistic expression of movement within this built environment – an aesthetic representation of Chicano identity in motion as he sings about “floating on sounds in my first car,” “gliding and riding all night long.” An oldies song with a modern beat, it is the artist’s joyful expression of pride in “’cruisin’ with that very unique style that is very identifiable to this area,” an expression of “how I walk in the world growing up in that neighborhood and being cultivated by that neighborhood,” as he tells me.

Vaneza Mari Calderon’s “Siempre En Mi,” places an emphasis on movement as well – in this instance, on the twin activities of walking and memory-building. During the digital program for Rola del Dia, the artist shared her songwriting process, noting that she’d begun by drawing a picture of Boyle Heights, relying on memory. It is telling, though not surprising – given their ubiquitous presence in the neighborhood – that the freeways figured into her drawing process. The artist emphasized all the ways in which “la cultura esta viva” – culture is alive in Boyle Heights. With “Siempre En Mi, (“Always In Me”) she offers a love song in Spanish to this community in a style that departs from a strictly traditional mariachi sound, but contains elements of that genre, as well as elements of bolero, making for an inviting and romantic rhythm. Through the theme of walking or navigating its streets, the song emphasizes the artist’s deep bond with the landscape around her: “the streets sing of your splendor,” Calderon sings. “Siempre en Mi,” also speaks to the artist’s deeply felt emotions in seeing a community in the process of change – a longing laced with love for a neighborhood that has profoundly shaped her.

Memory also anchors Eddika Edule Organista’s “Their Landing,” a Brazilian-Portuguese influenced jazz-folk style song. She too, sings about the built landscape that shaped her emerging identity as a musician and visual artist. The song takes her parents’ migrant journey from Mexico to the United States – through Tijuana, and their eventual landing in Boyle Heights – as a starting point: “From the South they came, with daughter in womb,” the artist sings. Through her unique prism as the daughter of Mexican immigrants, the artist sings of those sights, sounds, and smells that shaped her: “Otomisan on First Street/Breed St. Shul/and the sights of mariachis making a living.” Otomisan, a Japanese restaurant, still stands today. In recognition of its significance to Boyle Heights history and Japanese American settlement, on August 5, 2021, the Cultural Heritage Commission voted unanimously to recommend Historic Cultural Monument designation to the Nishiyama Residence/Otomisan Japanese Restaurant. Eddika Edule relates her strong connection to this neighborhood site: “My memories that I have to Otomisan…I love Japanese food, and I have a link to Japan because I’m a musician and I’ve toured Japan twice and so…I don’t know, I just have this connection with Japan since I was little because of that, because of that restaurant being there. It was always like family to go there for me.”[12]

Otomisan Restaurant, Boyle Heights. Photo by Celia Viramontes.

Like the smell of a neighborhood, its colors, too, are imprinted in the artist’s vivid memories of Boyle Heights – most notably, “the murals that are seen/like the corner of Soto and the street once called Brooklyn,” she sings. With this song, Eddika Edule tells me, she was honored to bring her “parents’ story to light,” adding that “there are histories to be told, within all these people that have lived, that passed through, or that currently live there {Boyle Heights}. I wanted to shed light into what is existing and has existed there.”

Cultivating Connection through Shared Public Space and Bilingual Sounds

Trumpets blare announcing the triumphal sounds of a mariachi song celebrating the iconic sites surrounding Boyle Heights, mostly notably, Mariachi Plaza, a historic locus and gathering place for mariachi musicians. Martin Saavedra, a mariachi artist whose roots in Boyle Heights date back to 1990, when he migrated from Lagos de Moreno, Jalisco in Mexico, composed “Mi Comunidad” (My Community) inspired by the strong connections forged among fellow musicians and the larger Boyle Heights community. Saavedra recalls a time when mariachi musicians gathered in front of a donut shop across the street from the Boyle Hotel at First Street and Boyle Avenue. “Le deciamos ‘La Boyle.’ Alli vivian muchos musicos.”[13] Saavedra tells me. “We [the musicians] called it the Boyle. Many musicians lived there.”[14] Saavedra’s traditional mariachi song pays homage to this vital gathering space and plaza. It pays tribute as well to the “vendedores ambulantes pregonando sin cesar,” (“street vendors hawking their goods and services ceaselessly”), a nod to the working-class segment of this community. “Mi Comunidad” is a love song that names the colorful sites and friendly people encountered on the streets. An artist deeply committed to teaching younger generations of musicians, Saavedra offers free music classes in Mariachi Plaza through OMULA (Organizacion de Mariachis Unidos de Los Angeles).

Angelica Mata hails from a family of mariachi musicians and was inspired to create a song that honored this tradition. “Mariachi Plaza” is an homage to the mariachis and the site of the Plaza in Boyle Heights. “How lovely to have been born in my beloved community,” she sings. With its jazz infused melodies at the outset – a choice inspired by Ella Fitzgerald, one of her favorite artists – the song celebrates the annual festival de Santa Cecilia. Held every November, the event gathers mariachi musicians and the larger community in Boyle Heights. Laced with a soulful quality and joyous energy, Mata blends languages (Spanish-English) to create a mariachi piece that is reflective of her bilingual and bicultural identity. Through her teachings at the Mariachi Conservatory, she is helping to cultivate newer generations of mariachi musicians and to preserve a rich musical legacy she has inherited from her family.

Transformative Spaces and Community Building Through Song

La Marisoul’s “Judson Street” is a joyful celebration of music, the arts, and friendship across the different spaces around Los Angeles – most notably, Judson Street. “I love my friends/and I love music/We are the sounds/We are the soul of the city,” she sings. A song about carving spaces, places of belonging within the vast city that is Los Angeles, “Judson St.” takes us to one street that is the epicenter of joy, creativity, and community-building for an artist and her friends.

Born and raised in East Los Angeles, Lysa Flores explores how artistic practices can help cultivate liberating spaces across generations. “Decolonize My/Our Love” is a song about the possibilities of transformation and inter-generational growth. “For me, I’ve always believed the personal is political,” she shares, highlighting the centrality of personal relationships and power dynamics within them. [15] Through a song that interrogates the dynamics of oppression – in its many manifestations – and the need for transformative thought across relationships, Flores delves into what’s at stake intergenerationally. The inclusion of children’s voices in the chorus (including the artist’s daughter and the children of fellow artists/friends) adds a powerful element to this song about carving space that is inclusive and intergenerational. “It was very much a mother and children experience in the way that it was written and recorded,” Flores tells me. The song explores what it means to truly belong (in relationship with oneself and others) and the need to confront fractures within inter-personal relationships and within a given community. “I won’t apologize for taking up space,” Flores sings, with a rock vibe that is at once unapologetic and unequivocal.

Reflecting on her participation in Sounds of California: Boyle Heights, Flores notes, “What I’ve grown to recognize more as an adult is the importance of our ancestry and cherishing it and sharing it. Because it’s so easy to get hidden or to get….you know there’s this part of unfortunately, it’s part of our history, where we’ve become invisible or quickly erased or misrepresented…and to be able to be an artist with the other artists to be able to say, ‘No, you know, this is part of me that you’re not going to erase. And to also have the kids involved {in the song}, ‘you’re not going to erase them either.’ And so I think being able to, again, hold that space in our own communities and really be proud of who we are and our ancestry and our music. I guess that, more than anything, means a lot to me.”

Creativity and Resilience in a Time of Pandemic

Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, the ten commissioned artists employed creative strategies in their songwriting and recording process. Some of the artists, like Cesar Castro, recorded entirely from home, with an assist with the mixing from a friend in Veracruz, Leonardo Amador Zendejas. Eddika Edule Organista recorded at home, as well. Raul Pacheco found himself in Albuquerque New Mexico at the time and recorded the song with artist Camilo Quiñones in his workspace. On the artists’ various recording experiences, Quetzal Flores notes: “Everyone had different processes. I personally got to record with Nobuko, Vaneza, Gabriel, Lysa. At least half of them came into the studio, and they were on one side of the studio, and I was in the control room. It was just like okay, let’s do it. Lysa for ‘Decolonize My/Our Love,’ she brought the kids in, and I was like, okay the kids on that side. I set up the mic and everything and okay, kids…here we go. Just following protocol, making sure people were safe. And still continuing to do what we do.”

The pandemic upended original plans for the debut of songs. “The plan was to do that at Mariachi Plaza and have a concert where these artists come up, and we would unveil two artists a week, and they would play like a concert in the plaza or do them all together, so we were planning this whole other thing. And we didn’t get to do it. So it was a big challenge to do it on Zoom,” Quetzal Flores says. In pivoting to a digital program, Rola del Dia pursued a truly creative approach which included video presentations edited by artist Carla Zarate S. that accompanied each song. ACTA also partnered with Antena Los Angeles, a collective dedicated to language justice and working with individuals and groups to develop bilingual and multilingual spaces.

 Persevering In the Midst of Persistent Inequities

“Tenian miedo,” Martin Saavedra tells me. “They were afraid.” He is referring to his fellow mariachi musicians as the pandemic raged in early 2020. Indeed, the mariachi community of Boyle Heights faced not only the uncertainty and vulnerability posed by the pandemic, but the resulting economic hardships that threatened their livelihoods and ability to sustain their families. Street vendors, too, faced dire circumstances. In Boyle Heights, whose population remains three-quarters renters (Sanchez 260), the challenges have been particularly acute. Yet many of the challenges faced by the most vulnerable working-class segment of the community certainly preceded the pandemic. The latter has exacerbated the long-standing inequities around access to healthcare, food justice and affordable housing.

Anti-eviction protest collected by Eva Garcia featuring son jarocho performances by (from left to right) La Marisoul, Martha Gonzalez, Quetzal Flores, Juan Perez, and Evan Greer. (Courtesy of Eva Garcia/ACTA)

“What I’m seeing is a very desperate situation,” Quetzal Flores tells me. “I’m seeing the worst-case scenario of what happens when you center profit over everything. I’m seeing a lot of people who are vulnerable, who haven’t worked because of the pandemic and who can’t pay rent and now have tens of thousands of dollars in debt. But I’m also seeing people fighting back. I’m also seeing people organize. I’m also seeing people support each other. I can’t tell you how many times someone came down with Covid-19 and people with very little means running to their aid and leaving food at their door.” It is these expressions of solidarity that Sounds of California: Boyle Heights has sought to capture as well, through its new fieldwork from a community documentation team. In 2020, community residents interviewed street vendors and documented a fundraiser for mariachis held at Mariachi Plaza to assist its musicians. They have also documented anti-eviction protests held in Downtown Los Angeles, as well as food distribution gatherings in Boyle Heights. These community engagement efforts, centered on the themes of anti-displacement and belonging, constitute a vital piece of Sounds of California: Boyle Heights. Amy Kitchener speaks to these multilayered components: “The Rola del Dia commissions are one important piece of our 2020-2021 Sounds of California: Boyle Heights program, which also includes 10 new songs composed with community members in collective songwriting sessions, new fieldwork from a community documentation team, a day long festival slated for October 2021, as well as the launch of a new Sounds of California archive website.”

Margarita Gonzalez (L) interviews Olivia Marroquin, owner of Oly’s Beauty Salon in Boyle Heights. (Courtesy of Margarita Gonzalez/ACTA)

Songs that Bridge in Boyle Heights

“Maps of cities usually include streets, freeways, neighborhoods, parks, and other landmarks. But what if the city – like Los Angeles in the dreams of essayist Josh Kun – is made of songs?” (181). This is the question posed in the editor’s introductory passage to Kun’s essay, “Los Angeles is Singing,” in Latitudes: An Angeleno’s Atlas. Sounds of California, Boyle Heights begins to answer that question, as it opens a window into one particular neighborhood’s soundscape, revealing layers of history, experiences, and memories. An exploration of the Boyle Heights that once was, is, and could become.

Near the end of “Boyle Heights, A Place of Bridges,” Miyamoto sings:

            Boyle Heights is a place of memories

            A melody that lingers in your brain

            You can leave it

            But it won’t leave you.

            Something in you remains

What follows these lyrics is the Japanese melody of Sakura, the cherry blossom. It is a deeply moving musical moment, a weaving of bilingual sounds “that is part of the melody that is Boyle Heights,” Miyamoto tells me.

What is that “something in you that remains” about Boyle Heights, I ask her.

“I think that sense of community, of being in a community of color that’s mixed, that made me feel comfortable,” she says. “That remains with me.” Earlier in our interview, she has shared that, “For me, it feels like a place that I have roots. It’s not the only place I have roots. But it’s a place I definitely have roots.” As our conversation comes to a close, Miyamoto adds, “So many people once they leave a place, they don’t carry with them, you know…it’s like that root gets cut. I don’t think that’s good for us. I think we need a sense of memory. We need a sense of history. We need a sense of connection. And that’s what I feel about Boyle Heights.”

It is a sentiment echoed by all the participating artists in Sounds of California Boyle Heights, Rola del Dia: how place imprints itself on our individual and collective memories.

“I hope it {song} remains a tie…something that binds us together,” Miyamoto shares. “Because the Japanese people owe a lot to that community. Really, we do.”

Such is the power of place. Such is the power of connection and belonging forged at the crossroads of cultures, languages, and people’s histories in a place called Boyle Heights.



Alliance for California Traditional Arts. Sounds of California: Boyle Heights Project website. Accessed March 23, 2021.

Avila, Eric. The Folklore of the Freeway: Race and Revolt in the Modernist City. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014.

Bernstein, Ken. Preserving Los Angeles: How Historic Places Can Transform America’s Cities. Photographs by Stephen Shafer. Los Angeles, CA: Angel City Press, 2021.

Japanese American National Museum. Los Angeles’ Boyle Heights, Images of America Series. Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing, 2005.

Kun, Josh. “Los Angeles is Singing” in Latitudes: An Angeleno’s Atlas. Edited by Patricia Wakida. Berkeley: Heyday, 2015.

Kurashige, Scott. The Shifting Grounds of Race: Black and Japanese Americans in the Making of Multiethnic Los Angeles. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008.

Kurland, Catherine L., and Enrique R. LaMadrid. Hotel Mariachi: Urban Space and Cultural Heritage in Los Angeles. Photographs by Miguel A. Gandert. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2013.

Luce, Caroline. “Reexamining Los Angeles’ ‘Lower Eastside’: Jewish Bakers Union Local 453 and Yiddish Food Culture in 1920’s Boyle Heights” in Jews in the Los Angeles Mosaic. Edited by Karen S. Wilson. Los Angeles: Autry National Center of the American West in Association with University of California Press, 2013.

Miyamoto, Nobuko. Not Yo’ Butterfly: My Long Song of Relocation, Race, Love, and Revolution. Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2021.

Rothstein, Richard. The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. New York: W.W Norton/Liverright Publishing Corporation, 2017.

Sanchez, George J. Boyle Heights: How a Los Angeles Neighborhood Became the Future of American Democracy. Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2021.


East LA Interchange. Directed by Betsy Kalin. United States: Bluewater Media Productions, 2015. DVD documentary film.

Jewish Histories in MultiEthnic Boyle Heights. A Digital Exhibit. UCLA Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies. In partnership with UCLA Library & Special Collections, USC and other community archives. Accessed September 13, 2021.

Meet Me at Brooklyn and Soto. Directed by Ellie Kahn. United States: Jewish Historical Society of Southern California; Huell Howser Productions, 1996. VHS documentary film.

*For their assistance at different stages in the development of this article, the author wishes to thank: Quetzal Flores, Betty Marín, Jennifer Jameson, and Amy Kitchener. A heartfelt thank-you to the artists who generously shared their songwriting process, memories, and life-histories in connection to Boyle Heights. A special thank-you to Eddie Wong for the opportunity to write this piece.

Author’s Bio:  Celia Viramontes was born and raised in East Los Angeles, California and attended schools in Boyle Heights, which nurtured her bilingual, bicultural background as the daughter of Mexican immigrants. She earned her Bachelor of Arts Degree in English and Comparative Literary Studies from Occidental College and holds a graduate degree in Ethnic Studies from the University of California, Berkeley. She has published research in the areas of language policy, bilingual education, and immigrant civic engagement in California, and her poems on growing up bilingual appear in the anthology, The Coiled Serpent: Poet Arising from the Cultural Quakes and Shifts of Los Angeles. A writer and researcher based in Los Angeles, she is a lover of libraries.

[1] Songs can be accessed at:

[2] Miyamoto’s newest album, 120,000 stories, part of the Smithsonian Folkways’ Asian Pacific America Series contains new songs and recordings from across her career, capturing her use of the arts to create social change.

[3] Quetzal Flores, Interview by Celia Viramontes, March 23, 2021.

[4] Nobuko Miyamoto, Interview by Celia Viramontes, April 5, 2021. All subsequent quotes derive from interview, unless otherwise noted.

[5] This is explored in the documentary, East L.A Interchange and in Japanese American National Museum’s Los Angeles’ Boyle Heights, Images of America Series (Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia Publishing, 2005). The latter consists of images and text drawn from the contents of an exhibition at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles titled Boyle Heights: The Power of Place that was on display from September 8, 2002 through February 23, 2003.

[6] Citing demographic data from the 1930 census tract representing the area of Boyle Heights near Evergreen Cemetery, Sanchez notes that “of the 253 individuals in the 1930 sample living there, 32% were white, 29% Mexican, 26% Japanese, and 10% listed as ‘Negro’” (53).

[7] Gabriel Gonzalez, Interview by Celia Viramontes, April 29, 2021.

[8] Meet Me at Brooklyn and Soto, a documentary film, captures life in Boyle Heights during the early 20th century.

[9] Breed Street Shul is a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument. In 2021, state of California awarded a grant to complete restoration and reuse of the historic building.

[10] Cesar Castro, Interview by Celia Viramontes, April 16, 2021.

[11] Raul Pacheco, Interview by Celia Viramontes, April 30, 2021.

[12] Eddika Edule Organista, Interview by Celia Viramontes, April 23, 2021.

[13] Martin Saavedra, Interview by Celia Viramontes, April 23, 2021.

[14] The history of the Cummings Block/Boyle Hotel is explored in Hotel Mariachi: Urban Space and Cultural Heritage in Los Angeles (2013). For more on its Historic-Cultural Monument designation, see Preserving Los Angeles: How Historic Places Can Transform America’s Cities (2021).

[15] Lysa Flores, Interview by Celia Viramontes. May 3, 2021.

Cover Photo:

Mariachi Plaza, Boyle Heights. Photo by Celia Viramontes.

Addendum: Special Concert on Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021

From Cal Humanities Press Release: This community festival will be the final in-person celebration for Sounds of California: Boyle Heights at Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights. It will include live performances of most of the original compositions by local artists on Boyle Heights culture and history along with 5 of the collectively written songs written with different community groups ranging on issues from land, food, patriarchy, and capitalism through different genres. Participants will be able to enjoy food from local street vendors and share a story in a sound booth. We will also invite some community members and leaders to share their testimony on the stage. We will have an altar that people can add to commemorate people lost to COVID along with honoring mariachis, as we will be in Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights.

Free and open to everyone. Masks will be required and vaccinations preferred. We are also looking to partner with the city to offer vaccinations.

Mariachi Plaza is ADA accessible and there is free and paid parking on the streets surrounding the Plaza.

Saturday, October 16 from 1-4 pm
Mariachi Plaza
1831 E 1st St, Los Angeles, CA 90033

Schedule of Artists:

Angelica Mata, Eddika Organista, Gabriel Gonzalez, La Marisoul, Lysa Flores, Martha Gonzalez, Martin Saavedra, Nobuko Miyamoto, Raul Pacheco, Vaneza Mari Calderón.



  1. Nicole Lillingston on October 16, 2021 at 9:54 am

    Hi my name is Nicole Lillingston and I sing in a mariachi. I would love to be able to participate in one of these events if possible. Please contact me at (818)573-3321 or (747)336-0407. My Instagram is _nicolelillingston_ thank you!

    • Eddie Wong on October 16, 2021 at 4:28 pm

      thanks for reading the article. The organization that sponsored the concert today is the Alliance of California Traditional Arts. Contact them for future events.

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