Landing on the City of Los Angeles's website, you're met with a virtual tour of Echo Park. An aerial view of the lake at the golden hour sweeps towards the frothy fountain; white swan-shaped paddle boats teeter in anticipation of tourists; and the jagged teeth of Downtown LA's skyline sharpen in the distance. What you don't see are Angelenos. The park is empty, with only traffic gliding gracefully along its edges. This is not Mi Vida Loca's Echo Parque, brimming with sisterhood, sacrifice, and Sad Girl feelings. The LA advertised here is a personless city.
Songs like "Walking in LA" imply social alienation: a city of loners enclosed in their cars, driving from one organic eatery to another. Chris Kraus opened her book Social Practices with the realization that Los Angeles is not, in fact, a city "immune from the forces of global gentrification." But this vision of LA as a pristine, clean slate comes with dangerous consequences. According to UCLA's Center for Neighborhood Knowledge, gentrification rose by 16% in Los Angeles County between 1990 and 2015. In 2013, LA Weekly reported that nearly 13,000 Latinos—representing 8% of the area's population and 17% of LA's overall Latino population—left Hollywood and East Hollywood between 2000-2010 due to redevelopment efforts. Coalition for Economic Survival's Executive Director Larry Gross dubbed the changes an "economic tsunami." The lives and legacies of those who made LA the arts, entertainment, and culinary starburst that it is now risk being erased.
But in the face of this rapid displacement, Latinx artists are wielding Instagram to repopulate this perception of Los Angeles and archive their current and historical presence in the city. Placemaking through fashion, photography, and narrative, their work answers the question of who gets to be "from" LA.
Journalist, photographer, and producer Samanta Helou Hernandez documents stories from the Virgil Village neighborhood of Los Angeles, a historically Central American community where, as she puts it, "the trumpet tree-lined street of Virgil Avenue is its main artery." Catalyzed by her own experience of displacement, Helou Hernandez's Instagram account This Side of Hoover blends portraiture and narrative to chronicle the community's changes. Pairing striking images with powerful captions, she profiles locals, pays homage to fallen cultural institutions (i.e. the beloved East Hollywood panadería Super Pan or the infamous Smog Cutters bar), and raises awareness around the demolition of historical homes. This Side of Hoover functions like a digital scrapbook, with followers commenting enthusiastically on posts about their favorite childhood restaurant, a friend they went to high school with, or a woman who did their hair. Scrolling through, it's clear there's something coming to fruition through these chains: love, solidarity, relation, or a forum for people to connect, reminisce, and grieve; a collective scrapbook binding people with the same experiences, knitting together their collective memories of Virgil even while it's being torn apart. By linking displacement to personal narrative, Helou Hernandez takes the issue of gentrification out of the abstract and starts a dialogue around the politics of placemaking. Through radical remembering, Helou Hernandez reframes, honors, and asserts latinidad in Los Angeles.
While Helou Hernandez grounds the viewer in the geographies of home, artist Amina Cruz captures the kinship of alternative Latinx spaces in Los Angeles. Cruz's photos of Latinx queer punk party Club sCUM showcase the spatial entitlement that music can provide. Cruz's lens is attuned to the attitudes, energy, and emancipatory strategies of Latinx countercultures, and their ability to expand our understanding of Latinx identity. With endorsements from forebearers like Martin Crudo from Los Crudos and Limp Wrist, sCUM's embrace of LA weirdness attracts renowned artists like Rafa Esparza and San Cha while still maintaining a local vibe. Cruz, who has also shot videos for Chicanx punk icon Alice Bag, shoots this dreamscape of avant garde art, fashion, and queer joy in a similar style to artists like Harry Gamboa Jr, Guadalupe Rosales, and Aydinaneth Ortiz. Her sCUM portraits extend community into the digital realm, and present a radical use of social space. Outside of sCUM, Cruz's photographs and Instagram account connect punk scenes across LA, Colombia, and Mexico, implying the shared experiences of migration and social strife that link Latinx creative expression across continents.
Artist and designer Gabriela Ruiz, aka Leather Papi, uses Instagram to synthesize the mysticism, clamor, and hybridization within Los Angeles Latinx communities. Ruiz's page is a place where polarities and time periods blur—Catholicism bleeds into the erotic; classical antiquity is laced with BDSM. Taking art outside of institutional spaces, Ruiz has overseen surreal installations at Grand Park LA and fashion shoots amidst her sunflower-yellow sculptures that crown Elysian Park's hills. Another photo features Ruiz painted blue against a backdrop of miniature Greco-Roman statues. She cracks the Western canon, re-imagining Latinx representation and aesthetic agency through bold fashion, sculpture, and performance art that clutch at a sense of home spanning both California and Mexico. Toggling back and forth from Los Angeles and Mexico City, Ruiz's feed implies an aesthetic portal between these two cultural hubs. For instance, Nostra Fiesta, a mural Ruiz created with Rafa Esparza at The New Jalisco Bar in Downtown LA, pays homage to printmaker Jose Guadalupe Posada's portrayal of a 1901 queer police raid in Mexico City.
Cielo Oscuro, an indigenous non-binary trans femme based in South Central Los Angeles, brings high fashion to parts of LA rarely showcased in magazines. Treating fashion as reality rather than backdrop, Oscuro's unfiltered shots feature childhood bedrooms, overgrown backyards, and LA's wide boulevards, skinny palms looming overhead. This engagement with art and the everyday implies an equalizing effect, taking fashion out of glossy magazines and inserting it into the hands of people and places that Hollywood either exploits or ignores. Theirs is a bold embrace of self-actualization in an industry where Latinx, trans, and Indigenous folks largely do not see themselves represented (for example, only 4.3% of the 2017 Business of Fashion 500 were Latinx). Oscuro's account asserts that fashion doesn't have to be facilitated by 500-watt lightbulbs and full makeup teams; fashion can (and should) be happening in the communities where we live and reflecting who we are.
Helou Hernandez describes her mission as follows: "As Los Angeles rapidly changes and displaces the old for the new, I feel an urgency to record the legacy of people who made this city vibrant in the first place. Their stories shouldn’t be forgotten. That way, we know exactly what we lose in the process of gentrification." And all of these artists, in their own ways, peel back the sterile veneer of LA as an empty city to reveal layers of history, community, and creative innovation. Using Instagram to promote their art, they counteract the crush of gentrification by documenting their own vibrancy and demanding space in the city they put on the map.
Beyond claiming they're from LA, they're saying, we made LA. You're welcome.