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The enduring cultural life east of the 'Eastside'

November 17, 2002|REED JOHNSON

Josefina Lopez doesn't fit the cliche of an L.A. bohemian. She prefers knee-length print dresses to grungy T-shirts and ripped jeans. She keeps her hair long and loose, not tight and spiky. And you won't find her striking poses on Saturday nights at the Dresden Room or in an Echo Park garage-rock band.

But make no mistake, what the author of the low-budget hit film "Real Women Have Curves" and other Latino artists are up to these days in the Eastside neighborhood of Boyle Heights comes as close to the bohemian spirit as anything happening in overexposed Echo Park and Silver Lake.

Earlier this year, the 33-year-old Lopez, a Boyle Heights native who has lived in New York City, Chicago and San Francisco, renewed her ties to her old neighborhood. Like the opinionated, Rubenesque, semiautobiographical heroine of "Real Women," she had to leave home to find it. Although she and her husband still rent in Silver Lake, they're hoping to buy a home in Boyle Heights and are already immersed in its cultural life.

Since January, Lopez has operated Casa 0101 Theater Art Space on 1st Street at Cummings Avenue, a couple of blocks east of Mariachi Plaza. A former bridal shop, Casa now functions as a focal point for a new generation of Latino artists.

A few months ago, 500 people packed the house for "Caja Negra [Black Box]," an exhibition of 17 local photographers. This weekend, Casa 0101 is hosting the sketch-comedy group Chicano Secret Service.

Boyle Heights already has a unique ethnic and cultural heritage, affectionately detailed in the current exhibition "Boyle Heights: The Power of Place" at the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo. Between world wars, it was a dynamic enclave, a hodgepodge of Mexicans, Japanese and Eastern European Jews. In the '50s and '60s, its Jewish lefties helped inspire a new generation of Chicano activists and artists.

Later, it was ripped apart by half a dozen freeways and rising crime and unemployment. Historically viewed by the rest of the city with suspicion, if not outright hostility, Boyle Heights has always gone its own way.

Could the neighborhood, which is the setting for "Real Women Have Curves" and several other feature films now in development, be ready for a new act? And if it is, will the cultural tourism likely to follow help or harm the area?

"I think Boyle Heights will be the mecca," Lopez said a few days ago in her mile-a-minute cadence as we sat at the Plaza Cafe, an amiable, low-key coffeehouse. "I just want more places like this to come to Boyle Heights so we can have a strip, so people, instead of going to Universal CityWalk, they can come and spend their money here."

Plaza Cafe's owner, Virginia Naranjo, is another Boyle Heights native who recently reconnected with her roots after years of living elsewhere. "I'm having different kinds of art coming, and I'm going to be having poetry readings too coming in," she says. "They don't know anything like that over here. They didn't know what a latte is, they didn't know a cappuccino."

Of course, a few cups of gourmet java doth not an arts colony make. But Boyle Heights has a far more valuable asset. "Outside of Hollywood, I think it probably has the most interesting stories in the city to tell," says James Rojas, a regional planner for the MTA who grew up in the neighborhood. "It's like the Big Apple to Latinos."

To many Westside Angelenos, Boyle Heights might as well be on the other side of the world as on the other side of the Los Angeles River. New census data show that L.A. is increasingly two cities, culturally if not politically: one inhabited by English speakers, the other perceptible mainly to those who speak Spanish or are bilingual.

Lately, this paper's writers have variously anointed Echo Park as the "last bohemia," lamented Silver Lake's transition into an Eastside Brentwood, complete with valet parking, and suggested that a new bourgeois-bohemian hybrid is emerging in once-sleepy Atwater Village. East L.A.? It barely seems to register on the radar.

Thomas Benitez, director of Self-Help Graphics & Art, says that the local habit of overlooking Boyle Heights is nothing new. In the 1850s, when businessman-founder Andrew Boyle "came upon the bluffs and looked east, he said, 'There's nothing here.' There was tundra, there was fauna and there were Mexicans. So I guess that didn't count," Benitez says, laughing.

That same cultural myopia endures today, he thinks, in the way that Echo Park and Silver Lake have usurped the "Eastside" designation from Latino strongholds such as Boyle Heights, Lincoln Park and East L.A.

"I think it's wonderful that artists in Silver Lake and Echo Park are getting the attention. I just wish that we were," he says. "That old cranky Chicano part of me comes out." In Boyle Heights, Benitez adds, "art and culture is understood to be a part of daily life," but you won't find it in loft spaces. You'll find it in the vibrant murals, the strolling mariachis, the anonymous shrines.

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