The following is excerpted from a conversation between Rafa Esparza and Erin Christovale that took place in June in Elysian Park. Burial and excavation are recurring actions in Esparza’s performances, and earlier this year, he buried various objects, including several casts of corn cobs, a mailbox with a bullet hole through it, an entire recliner with a cactus planted in its seat, and two black folding chairs that he and Christovale sat on, facing a black screen with a 16:9 aspect ratio (the same as an HDTV), which Rafa built and installed on a hilltop near the burial site, for Erin and the occasion of their encounter there. Dug up, they are currently on view as part of Esparza’s adobe platform at the Hammer Museum as part of the biennial exhibition Made in L.A. 2016: a, the, though, only.
Rafa Esparza: When I heard that some of the first settlers of Los Angeles were Black, it made me wonder what the Mexican-American pueblo in the Chavez Ravine must have looked like.1 And I’ve had so many questions and conflicts about how the history of Los Angeles, California—shit, the entire region—is told. I don’t respond well to the statement, “This used to be Mexican land,” you know? Because it was Native land prior to that, so I don’t want to invoke that statement with a sense of pride. That kind of nationalism feels very empty and violent. Sure, this was Mexican territory once, but it was Tongva land before that.
Erin Christovale: That’s when you really start to think of identity as a compartmentalized thing. Think about how “Mestizo” was introduced into Mexico as a way to take away from Indigenous folks and their ancestors’ lands, and to make this blanket statement that everyone is of Spanish and Indigenous blood.
Esparza: LOL, and not acknowledging any African roots within that mixture. That’s why I reject that term. It erases the ethnic diversity of Mexico pre- and post-European contact. It’s a colonial identity. There has never until recently been much public discourse on Blackness in Mexico. […] I was having a debate with someone on Facebook from DF (Mexico City), and they were in the deepest denial of the existence of racism in Mexico. I had posted something in response to the latest racist crap happening in the U.S., and this dude responded with something to the effect of “Oh, that doesn’t happen in Mexico,” and I was just looking at his comment for a sec and thinking, “REALLY????”
I’m excited to go back to Mexico after not having been there for thirteen years. I have so many questions, particularly about Black folks in my own family. There are Black Mexicans in my family. And we don’t talk about it. I’ve never questioned it. I mean, I see all of the different shades of Brown in my family, but it’s just something that we never talk about. And I don’t want to be complicit in that kind of erasure. But you see it playing out in the way we refer to our darker siblings, or aunts, or grandparents: “la Negra,” “Prieta.”
That’s why it was really exciting to me to hear you talk about your own archive and sourcing from your own personal experience and valuing what you dig up. Because no one else is doing that for you. If you are not questioning these histories, it’s not going to become visible. It won’t have the opportunity to become public knowledge. […] And so thinking about who lived in Chavez Ravine—
Christovale: Right. Exactly. Who DID live in the Chavez Ravine, because those are the spaces where there’s this capacity to time travel in a sense. Because there are so many holes that you can insert yourself in. And I feel like they’re such generative spaces, and it makes me think of what kind of mind frame these people were in.
And when you mentioned the history of Los Angeles, it made me think of this screen in front of us, this black screen that is at a perfect 16:9 ratio. It made me think of the cinematic history of Los Angeles and how we are so erased from that. When we are included, the one thing that I can think of is fucking Training Day! It’s a great film, but Detective Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington’s character) is also filled with violence and rage. He is also a trickster, and interestingly enough is the intermediary between The Jungles [Baldwin Village], which is predominantly Black, and Boyle Heights, which is predominantly Brown. It was a reflection of that time around gangs and violence. You can still feel those tensions today.
Esparza: Yeah! Yeah! That felt VERY accurate. I mean that’s why Black and Brown folks connected to it in this very real way. It was REAL.
Christovale: What’s interesting is to watch that film now and to think about what Boyle Heights and The Jungles are going through, which is no longer, or less, about a violence between Blacks and Chicano folks and more about the violence of predominantly White gentrifiers coming into their neighborhoods. And how that kind of breaks up that tension but also brings in a host of new issues.
Esparza: It’s also interesting for me to think about the positions and strategies that are embodied within communities resisting gentrification—which is HIGH KEY the modern day colonialism—in neighborhoods like Boyle Heights.
Christovale: Absolutely, I was talking to someone and they made this comment about how when there was this push to remove gangs from these areas. So to think of the gang unit as a sort of protection is also really interesting, too, and that history of how L.A. gang culture, Black L.A. gang culture, came out of the school system in the middle of the ’50s to the ’60s, when organizations like the Black Panthers were dissolving. Black folks were moving into the what were called the suburbs, which is now Inglewood, Watts, and Leimert Park, where there was active tension between the White students and the Black students. The Black students started forming groups to protect themselves and naming these groups after their neighborhoods. And then once you have White folks moving out of those neighborhoods, it’s neighborhood vs. neighborhood. It’s not Black vs. White. It’s Black vs. Black. Then fast forward to the ’80s and during Reagan we get—
Esparza: Crack, guns.
Christovale: Exactly. And it just gets fueled to implement that system. Then it turns into something different, and so it is a complex relationship to consider. But I think there is something to consider about the violence of gangs scaring off people that are thinking about moving into these neighborhoods and that being some type of protection.
Wow, look! [Points north, where the landscape is slowly being covered by a thick lavender fog.]
Esparza: Wow, it’s so beautiful! It’s L.A. quietly, slowly, disappearing.
In the documentary Homeboy, Luis Rodriguez brings up gangs in relationship to the warrior spirit and laments the loss of potential of when early gangs were barely forming. They originally were formed to protect neighborhoods from the racist LAPD, and Rodriguez says that had there been some guidance early on, there could’ve been something real there. What happened in the ’80s took gangs to a different place, shaped them, switching their function to one of complicity with the LAPD. You know, let’s look at corruption in the LAPD, the illegal activities that they have actually been reprimanded for doing—like dealing drugs, working with informers, instigating gang wars. I’ve always been really self-conscious about asking if we can look at gangs and their potential as organizations, as opposed to simply organized crime.
Christovale: Yeah, ’cause either way it’s still organized. But I think what you just said brought me back to Training Day and the intermediary between Black and Latino folks in Los Angeles usually being a third party that embodies enforcement and colonization. And how we look at South Central and its traditionally being a Black space, and East L.A. and Boyle Heights a traditionally Latino, Chicano space. The third party is the one with transportation.
Esparza: With mobility.
Christovale: Yes, mobility.
Esparza: In every sense of the word.
Christovale: Right, and has the agency to bear witness to both cultures. I think that’s what Training Day was really trying to bring out. That the third party may have been a Black man, but he was LAPD. That is such a contrast to the potential of the founders of Los Angeles, like Biddy Mason and Pío Pico, you know?2 And El Pueblo as a melting pot, as a space for trade, for bartering, for exchange and almost providing the framework for a culture here.
Esparza: I was just having this conversation earlier with a friend, and we were talking about how the city is still very segregated, but how public places can serve as sites for exchange, cultural exchange, even if only briefly. At least there we still get to see who our neighbors are. But even in these situations, there are these walls that we’ve sort of inherited, that we’re taught to maintain, that are enforced in many ways. And so it makes these exchanges, it makes these relationships that are born out of our agency and our desire to want to connect incredibly important—and needed for what Biddy and Pío were doing to happen again.
Christovale: Yesss, right!
Esparza: Like we need to cut the middle man out.
- Named after Julian Chavez, the first recorded landowner in Los Angeles, Chavez Ravine in Elysian Park became the home of a Mexican-American community by the early 1900s. The area was torn down in the early 1950s, and Dodger Stadium now occupies the site.
- Biddy Mason (1818 – 91) was a freed slave from Georgia who became a prominent philanthropist, and the first Black female landowner, in Los Angeles and helped established the First African Methodist Episcopal Church of Los Angeles in 1872. Pío Pico (1801 – 94), born of Spanish, African, and Native ancestry, was the last governor of Alto California under Mexican rule.
ERIN CHRISTOVALE is the film programmer of the ongoing project Black Radical Imagination and the curator at Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery.Rafa Esparza
RAFA ESPARZA is native to and lives in Los Angeles, working predominantly through site-specific live performance and installation. He has shown work at a variety of sites, including traditional fine art contexts and community-based platforms, as well as independently organized outdoor public locations. His work has been shown at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (2015); Bowtie Project, Los Angeles, with Clockshop (2015); Armory Center for the Arts, Pasadena, CA (2015); and Vincent Price Art Museum, East Los Angeles (2014). He has performed outside the Twin Towers Correctional Facility, Los Angeles (2015), in Elysian Park (2014), and underneath the viaduct on Fourth and Lorena Streets, in Boyle Heights (2014).