Se oye en mi ciudad
los Mariachis de mi pueblo
la gente y el cielo.
You can hear in my city
the mariachis of my town
to bring joy to
the people and the sky.
Angelica Mata, a young mariachi musician, wrote these lyrics in honor of the neighborhood in which she was raised. Boyle Heights is a largely Latinx neighborhood just east of Downtown Los Angeles and a historic sanctuary for mariachi musicians. She named the song “Mariachi Plaza,” after the public square where musicians gather to seek work and community. Mariachi Plaza is a symbol of mariachi culture.
“It is a safe haven for mariachi players and is affectionately known as ‘La Cuna de los Mariachis’ [The cradle or birthplace of mariachis] here in Boyle Heights,” Mata says. Her connection is personal. “Mariachi Plaza is very important for my family and I because it provides the community with a space to promote and preserve the art form. I’ve performed here with my family for our community and have watched many great musicians perform on its stage.”
The plaza is also a site of protest, celebration, and commerce. Boyle Heights has become increasingly gentrified, due in part to its vicinity to the center of the city and lower rents relative to more affluent neighborhoods. The fight against gentrification and displacement is palpable here. Community members have received national attention for their fierce tactics in distinguishing the cultural heritage of the community from outsider forces seeking to monetize it.
Before World War II and even into the 1960s, redlining afflicted much of Los Angeles. “Undesirable” groups were denied an opportunity to buy homes or start businesses. But more welcoming Boyle Heights became largely Jewish, Japanese, and Mexican. The community has never been homogenous. It is a community divided by freeways, but one deeply rooted in its history and culture as a place where immigrants not welcome in other parts of Los Angeles could find a home.
In the latter half of the twentieth century, as the region grew and policies changed, the neighborhood continued to change as well, and for the last few decades, it has been largely Latinx.
Sounds of California: Boyle Heights is an initiative organized by the Alliance for California Traditional Arts (ACTA) in collaboration with the Community Power Collective and local residents. It is composing, recording, presenting, and archiving the local soundscape, focusing on precisely these themes of anti-displacement and belonging. “Mariachi Plaza” is one of ten songs commissioned for this project.
Sounds of Community
Sounds of California: Boyle Heights is one iteration of the broader Sounds of California project, established in 2015 when ACTA partnered with the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and the national Latino public radio network Radio Bilingüe to cultivate an archive of what it means to belong in California. Sounds of California is a research and community engagement project exploring music and soundscapes with particular attention to how stories of migration and immigration are embedded and archived within the music, sounds, and social practices of a community. Sounds have been collected over the years through the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C., and through community-centered programs in the California Bay Area communities of Bayview-Hunters Point, Mayfair, and Oakland.
This year, Sounds of California: Boyle Heights focuses on collecting community stories during the COVID-19 pandemic, as the project launched just before shelter-in-place orders took effect across the state. Community residents documented the experiences of street vendors, community organizers, artists, small business owners. They recorded the sounds of local protest that connect to national struggles against displacement and that affirm Black Lives Matter. The sounds they have been collecting represent how a community is protecting itself by drawing from a long lineage of resistance and organizing, as well as upon strong cultural practices. Through these expressions, the community continues to control its own narratives and its future.
All of these sounds, and more, will form part of a publicly accessible website featuring recordings collected from all Sounds of California sites, which will launch next year.
“It affects me a lot economically, as it affects all the neighbors and small businesses here in the area of Boyle Heights. In reality, we have to pay rents...and what one saves up in five or maybe ten years, the effort one makes to have a little saved up—right now in these days, the truth is, it’s being used up. There are plenty of expenses... We’re just surviving.”
New Songs for Boyle Heights
During the pandemic, local artists composed ten original songs for Sounds of California: Boyle Heights. The participating songwriters and musicians each embody strong ties and genuine commitment to the neighborhood. Their songs express resistance to displacement, affirm the multiracial history of Boyle Heights, and recognize the role of arts and culture in both everyday life and organizing for justice.
“Boyle Heights has an incredible history of music and cultural traditions,” marvels Quetzal Flores, project co-manager and Smithsonian Folkways artist. “When thinking about who we wanted to compose the songs, we tried to be as thoughtful as possible and include people from the historic trajectory of Boyle Heights, from different generations.”
Among the songwriters is Nobuko Miyamoto, a Japanese American musician, dancer, and activist with roots in Boyle Heights. Her song “Boyle Heights: A Place of Bridges” describes her childhood experiences there after her family was finally able to return to California in 1946 following forced removal and incarceration during World War II. Living side by side with mostly Mexican families, she remembers it as a place of cultural exchange and belonging.
“Boyle Heights holds precious memories for me as a child,” she says, affirming the crucial role of the neighborhood in her emotional and artistic development. “It was the place we felt free and part of a community after coming out of camp. The dance school I joined at the age of seven started me on my journey toward a career.”
Buddhaheads and Pachucos
Shiny blue Chevys passing by
Garcias and Miyamotos
In Evergreen, side by side
Brown and yellow girls, pochas and sansei
Ballet shoes and pink tights
Dancing swans and butterflies…Oooo…
Another contributor is Raul Pacheco, co-founder, guitarist, and singer of the band Ozomatli. In his song “My Life,” he reflects on growing up in the area and the local car culture tradition of cruising. With its smooth, slow beat, the song itself was composed as accompaniment for a relaxed cruise through the landscape.
Inspired by words of graffiti stars
Floating on sounds in my first car
My life has always been a cruisin’ song
Gliding and riding all night long
On his participation in the project, Raul says: “First and foremost, I am a songwriter. Second, I am culturally rooted in Boyle Heights. I was approached by Quetzal Flores and really appreciated the intention of the project: songwriters connected to Boyle Heights sharing a wide variety of perspective and style. It was an easy and excited ‘yes’!”
At the heart of the Sounds of California: Boyle Heights initiative is the creation of dialogue across many types of difference. The Alliance for California Traditional Arts is dedicated to engaging California’s diverse communities as collaborators. During this especially difficult year, we redouble our efforts and commitment to our mission to shaping a positive future where every culture is respected, sustained, and appreciated. We appreciate that at this particular moment, the collection and amplification of stories about cultural belonging across race, class, and immigration status is ever more relevant to our ability to heal and connect, ever more urgent during our struggles to protect our homes, health, and civil rights.
Between October 23 and November 20, ACTA debuts new songs from this series through an online series called Rola del Día. Each episode features a conversation between two artists discussing their roles as musicians in the cultural landscape of Boyle Heights and how they respond musically to the issues that impact daily life in the neighborhood. To learn more about the project visit actaonline.org/soc.
Betty Marín is a program manager at the Alliance for California Traditional Arts. With Quetzal Flores, she is co-managing and curating the Sounds of California: Boyle Heights initiative, directed by ACTA’s executive director Amy Kitchener.