An uncomfortable visit to Mariachi Plaza

mariachi-plaza-hotel-view.jpgCicLAvia crowd at First and Boyle, with downtown LA in the distance. LA Observed.

Erica Garza is a writer from Los Angeles. Her essays have been published by Salon, Substance, HelloGiggles and The Manifest-Station. She is also a staff writer and travel curator at Luna Luna Mag. Read more at

I grew up in the LA suburb of Montebello, just eight miles from Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights, but I'll admit that I never knew about the place until late last year. When I shared my discovery with my dad, who was born in Mexico, but has lived and worked on the east side since the 1970s, he laughed at me.

"Where do you think I've been picking up mariachis for our parties?"


A little over a mile from downtown LA, at the crossroads of East First Street, Boyle and Pleasant Avenues, the plaza is named for the musicians who have convened there since the 1930s, all dressed up in their charro suits and waiting to be hired to play in restaurants, events or at family parties like my grandparents' 60th wedding anniversary, my mom's 50th birthday, Mother's Day, Father's Day — you get the idea.

The mariachis still gather at the plaza, that much hasn't changed, but the area has also become increasingly popular for its offering of eclectic dining and nightlife like Eastside Luv and Un Solo Sol, its bustling farmer's market, live theater at nearby Casa 0101, community festivals and unbeatable views of downtown.

The boom is likely a result of its accessibility--a Metro Gold Line station opened in 2009--and locals seem to have mixed feelings about it. Just Google "gentrification Mariachi Plaza" and you'll read article after article, and Yelp review after Yelp review, on the perils of popularity for a place as culturally rich and economically delicate as the mostly immigrant-populated area surrounding the plaza. The anxiety that arrives when skinny jean-wearing, Hitler youth hair-styled white people start coming in droves to an area of non-white people is very real. Consider Brooklyn's Williamsburg--locals had the same reaction and look what happened anyway. Rent there is even more expensive than Manhattan in some cases. Nobody ever thought that day would come.

What I'm saying is that I get it. I understand what's at stake and I empathize with those who are worried. But what I'm also saying is that I just found out about Mariachi Plaza and I love it so much that I want to eat there all the time and shop there all time and sometimes walk around or sometimes just sit there and take it all in. And though I'm a little scared to admit it, I've even scrolled through the Craigslist vacancy ads because I could see myself living there too. While I'm at it, I may as well admit that I also lived in Williamsburg for two years. And that even though I'm Mexican, I don't speak Spanish. I married a white man. I practice yoga. I like skinny jeans. So judge me. Label me. Blame me for being part of what's happening in Boyle Heights.

Sound dramatic? Maybe. But recently I went to Mariachi Plaza for the umpteenth time in the past year and my experience there makes me wary of going back. It was a simple trip, my husband wanted to buy some t-shirts. Another hot thing about the area is its collection of arty retailers, including one I'll leave unnamed, which sells books from the likes of bell hooks, Paulo Coehlo and Junot Diaz alongside silkscreened Selena and Boyle Heights-themed t-shirts.

My husband, who is from Australia, picked up a shirt of Emiliano Zapata holding a boombox and tried it on. We thought it was funny for two reasons. 1: Emiliano Zapata is usually depicted with a gun in his hands, so the boombox was an amusing replacement. Two: The contrast of Emiliano's grave stare, dark features and role in Mexico's revolution with my husband's goofy smile, blondish hair and zero connection to the revolution was just as amusing to us. He decided to buy the shirt.

Two men were at the cash register, eyeing us in a way that made me feel uncomfortable, but for reasons I couldn't quite grasp. I tried to shake it off, knowing that most instances of discomfort have more to do with my paranoia than external judgment. Overthinking is a character defect of mine I've spent years trying to dismantle. I wondered if this was that.
"Where are you guys from?" asked one of the guys, as we approached them to pay. He was wearing a hat and had just been talking to the other guy about youth involvement in Mexican drug cartels.

"I'm from Australia and she's from Montebello," my husband answered. Then he proudly added, "I'm just an import, but I've been subbing at Oscar de la Hoya High School nearby. I'm in this area a lot."

They nodded.

My husband's the chatty type. I'm not. But I really liked the store and wanted to say so.

"Do you guys own the shop?" I asked.

"I do," said the one pushing buttons on the cash register.

"It's very cool. I really like your books," I said.

They nodded again, silently.

Then I said something that offended them. Sometimes the ignorant do this unintentionally. Sometimes they do it intentionally. I don't like to think of myself as ignorant and I was not intentionally trying to offend them, but somehow, hidden in the small, inconspicuous crevices of small talk, where truth, even deep talk, hold their ground, something that must have looked and sounded very close to ignorance poked its ugly head out and they were clearly unimpressed.

"This place is really blowing up, isn't it?" I uttered, not knowing enough about Mariachi Plaza's history, its popularity, or even how long this particular store had been selling t-shirts and books in the community.

The men looked at each other, confusedly, then back at me.

"What do you mean by that?" the owner retorted.

My husband took his credit card out and handed it over.

"I mean, it seems really popular, Mariachi Plaza," I continued, choosing my words carefully since they were both staring at me with blank faces. "All the cafes, the shops..."

The guy with the hat shook his head. "I don't know what you're talking about. This place has always been popular to us."

The owner swiped my husband's card and handed it back. "Yeah, this is our home. It's always been this way."

I smiled, a small peace offering for having not known enough before making a stupid assumption. "Oh, I just thought because of the Metro Station..."

The guy with the hat shrugged. "I don't know. I guess other people are noticing it now." Then he turned away, done with me. I swallowed the rest of my small talk, my husband signed the credit card slip, and we exited the store. No thank yous exchanged, no goodbyes given, just an awkward retreat back to the sidewalk, to the car, to the freeway where we belonged.

"That was weird, huh?" my husband said when we were back on the road and driving.
I was relieved I hadn't imagined it. "Yeah, did I say something wrong?"

He shrugged. "Not sure."

We drove to the Apple Store in Glendale from there for some repairs, ate lunch, then saw Christopher Nolan's epic "Interstellar." We came home late, and I surprised myself when I crept into bed, because even after waiting over an hour at the Apple Store and going on a three-hour, mind-blowing journey through space with Matthew McConaughey, I was still perplexed by what had happened at Mariachi Plaza. The exchange had been no more than a few minutes, but something in it wouldn't let me be.

I brought out my laptop and penned a harsh Yelp review, mentioning how rude the guys had been and how uncomfortable I'd felt. I wondered if they'd thought I was just another dumb hipster. I wanted to warn others in hopes that the owner would read it and thus be kinder. In hopes that he'd be more appreciative of customers like me. But when I posted it and showed my husband, he shook his head. "It's too much effort," he said. "And the truth is, it's all assumption. They were rude, yes, but we don't really know why. We likely never will."

He was right. I deleted the review.

But here I am, a day later, still trying to figure it out. On the one hand, I'm upset with the guys and what I perceived as their condescending, superior tone. Which may or may not have been intended. They claimed Mariachi Plaza has "always" been this way, but it was 2009 when the Metro station opened. It was 2012 when their store opened. (Un Solo Sol opened in 2010, Eastside Luv in 2006, and though not technically in Mariachi Plaza, but a short walk away, Casa 0101 opened in 2011.) [Editor's note: Casa 0101 has been in Boyle Heights since 2000 and opened its second theater in the community in 2011.]

On the other hand, I'm upset with myself because I was one of those kids and young adults who thought everywhere else was superior to home. And maybe I would have known about Mariachi Plaza, and what it had offered in the past, if I'd been more curious about my own backyard. In truth, Mariachi Plaza is not my home. It doesn't matter that my mom grew up in Boyle Heights and so did my grandma and my great grandma. I didn't, so it's not mine. Fine.

But I grew up eight miles away. It takes less than 15 minutes to drive there, and all those visits to Grandma's house, all those memories, not one of them includes the plaza. Maybe I'm being too hard on myself. One of my family members could've taken me there. Yet, even when I was old enough to want to explore local culture, I'd beg my parents and later drive myself to the overpriced vintage shops on Melrose, the theaters of Pasadena, the beachside cafes of Venice--anywhere West or North and away from my own history, what I considered to be too familiar, but not familiar enough in retrospect. I'd forsaken the preciousness of home in pursuing the elusiveness of elsewhere. I'd pumped dollars into other neighborhoods and encouraged others to do the same every time I made what I thought was a harmless recommendation about this cool spot in Hollywood they just had to visit. And isn't this how businesses stop thriving? How communities start declining?

Like my husband said after reading my Yelp review, I'll never know what was going on in the heads of those two guys in the shop. Even if I asked them, I may still never know. What I do know is that it would be a shame if a Starbucks opened up on the corner of First and Boyle where the old Boyle Hotel reminds us of the Plaza's past. It would be a shame to see long-standing homes and residents get replaced with luxury condominiums and a younger, higher wage-earning crowd of transplants from everywhere else. The plaza, and the rest of Boyle Heights, is in the middle of one of those fragile moments in time, and while it's important to distinguish the us from them, when it comes to local business owners and corporate bigwigs, it's even more important to realize when this distinguishing mentality becomes alienation of avid supporters and fans.

I'm glad I didn't leave the bad review, though my rambling mess of confusion and hurt feelings may not have deterred future customers anyway. Mariachi Plaza, and the shops and restaurants that live there, are strong enough to withstand a few bad reviews, and I have faith they'll continue to entice locals, and non-locals alike, whether they are from 50 miles away, or maybe just eight.

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