Written by Niko Delgado
For some of us, Los Angeles was a gift passed down through generations and generations by hard working people of color, both men and women. The Los Angeles we call home was not the glitz and glamor of Hollywood and its superficial tendencies. Instead, it was the hole-in-the-wall food joints, the swap meets, the Dodger and Lakers games, and the radio stations bumping g-funk hits at all hours. This is the L.A. that exposed us to diversity and taught us street-smarts at an early age.
It’s no secret that rampant gentrification has altered Los Angeles over the last 10 years. Some of our neighborhoods are unrecognizable, slowly becoming hipster playgrounds devoid of the cultural identities that make L.A. home. Not surprisingly, the most impacted areas have been low-income neighborhoods, which are almost always communities of color.
As Angelinos, we’re united in our struggle against our changing landscape. We’ve developed our own ways to keep our communities alive, forever ditching the boujie mexican restaurants for our local taco spot, rooting harder for our sports teams in a city increasingly dominated by transplants, and developing a shared language through our experiences. Motivated by frustration, pain, understanding, and love, we fight against division through gentrification or racial tension. Our common battle has brought us closer together than ever before.
A couple of weeks ago, I was lucky enough to sit down with acclaimed author and creative, Walter Thompson – Hernandez, and chat about identity, home, and the future of Los Angeles.
Known for his book titled The Compton Cowboys along with his audio show California Love, Walter grew up in the L.A. we know. After attending Stanford University, he traveled the world while writing for the New York Times. However, my introduction to Walter was through the Prologue episode of California Love in which he reflects on his return home to L.A.
Our conversation explores bi-racial identity, the importance of family, and how growing up in L.A. shaped him. We explore why we still love Los Angeles, despite it being unrecognizable at times. Walters insights make us reflect, keep us grounded in the present, and push us to fight for a better future.
To get things started, tell us a little bit about your upbringing & growing up in Los Angeles.
I was born in Mission Hospital in Huntington Park, off of Florence Boulevard right in front of Tacos Mexico. Mission Hospital is now Smart And Final. My mom was 21 when she had me. It was just me, her, my aunts, uncles, and my cousins in Huntington Park. I grew up there until I was about 7 years old and right after the riots my mom moved us to the west side, Venice. I grew up like most LA kids, loving the Lakers, playing basketball, attached to all types of sports. Around middle school is when I really got into graffiti, started hanging with different crews. I did that for a while, eventually ending up going to five different high schools. I started at Venice, got expelled, went to University High School, got expelled, went to Hamilton, got expelled, ended up doing well at continuation school so they let me back in at Venice. Back then Venice was really cool, it was mostly black and brown folks, cool white folks and Asian homies.
A lot of your work focuses on the subject of being bi-racial. As kids, we’re unaware of the concept of identity, but as we grow older, those of us who are multi-racial feel part of two entirely different worlds. Witnessing tensions between both your people, how’d you handle it as a kid?
It was a trip, because a lot of my Mexican family, some of them were racist towards black folks. So for me, growing up I always knew I had a black father but I was never around black folks especially living in Huntington Park. I’d get different signals and messages from people in my family and community who had issues with black people. It was confusing especially as a child, all the questions we have about identity nobody gives us the answers and there isn’t a book for us to read at that age. There was also a lot of tension growing up in LA. I remember there were race riots in schools and people had to pick sides. That was really tough for me because it’s like what side do I pick? I’m both black and brown and now I have friends fighting one another. It was really confusing man, a lot of us are still tormented by that past and dealing with that trauma – it was a really rough time for a lot of people.
An obvious and familiar issue with society is forcing bi-racial children and adults to identify as either or. At what point in your life did you start recognizing/identifying yourself as someone who is black AND brown?
That was around my late teens, early 20s, when I realized so much about identity. People in the world are always trying to force us to pick a side. We could exist as multitudes, but I think it’s easier for people to put us in boxes. If we’re completely honest, none of us fit in any type of box. We’re so complex and so layered, so for me it took a while to really understand that I could be both black AND brown at the same time.
You recently started your audio show, California Love. There’s no doubt you’re someone who takes pride in where you come from, what does this show mean to you?
This show means everything to me. Growing up in L.A., most of the stories about the city were told by white dudes who were transplants. Even now I feel a lot of the storytelling about L.A. is usually done by folks who are not from here. It is very rare that somebody from the hood who’s black and brown, who also went to a Stanford, who also was a New York Times writer, has a platform to tell L.A. stories about friends and family. When people hear my voice, they don’t really hear a traditional voice on the radio or a podcast, because I’m not, I’m not a podcaster. I’m just somebody from the hood who worked really hard. Got really lucky. But I feel like now this opportunity, for folks like me to really represent a version of LA that’s removed from the palm trees and Hollywood. That’s not my LA. My life is rooted in the working class people, immigrants, and black and brown communities. And so, I hope that this show helps us understand us better.
Speaking for myself and many others, the show as well as your previous work continue to answer questions we have about identity, gentrification, and the uphill battle we’re in against an unfamiliar Los Angeles. Knowing the impact of your work, what does that mean to you?
It’s important, man. The whole premise of the show is about me coming back to L.A. after being gone for a few years. When we leave home, the thought of home sustains us. We have this idea of our childhood, our friends, our favorite place to eat with our family. That keeps us afloat and it keeps us inspired everywhere in the world. But coming back to L.A. recently, really was kind of heartbreaking. It was really eye opening because gentrification has impacted Venice, Silver Lake, Echo Park, Highland Park in many ways. I was reading about it, but now I’m back living here again. It’s just heartbreaking. A big part of California Love is about preserving both the memory of this community – our friends and our family – but also thinking about the future.
Prior to California Love, you recently released your first book, The Compton Cowboys. As a storyteller, how important is to you to shed light on a story that has gone unnoticed?
I feel like I’ve been chosen to do this type of work, chosen by both the city and a strong force out there. I really believe in that. It’s really important for me to help share these stories and to work with folks in the community. I’m not the expert in any of these stories. If anything, the people who I spent time with and the people who I helped document, they’re the experts of their own stories, not me. So essentially, I’m just a medium between them and the world. I think that’s all I want to do, my platform is to create experiences for people to tell their own stories.
I’m curious to know, at the end of the day, what do you hope people will gain from your body of work?
Every story that I work on has to do with this idea about belonging. Every story asks people and communities about what it means to belong. For me a lot of my stories are rooted here in L.A. but I’m hoping my body of work helps all our people get free. To help black and brown folks see themselves in ways that are honest and real, that aren’t tied to tropes or stereotypes, to work on stories that reflect nuance and layers. At the end of the day that’s all I’m interested in – telling honest stories.
As someone who identifies with both the black and brown community, how are you affected when you see issues that stem from both systemic and structural racism?
Man it really affects me because I’m deeply tapped into both communities. As a black and brown person, I’m always affected by something. Whether it’s immigration or whether it’s police violence, whatever it is there’s no way to look the other way for me, because I can’t. I’ve got people on both sides of my family being affected in different ways and in the same ways. So I feel like the pressure is always on and the stakes are really high because of that.
Building off that, how do we both begin to move forward and build unity?
I think how we unite is by really being honest about our experiences and situations. A lot of the problems that we face aren’t caused by black and brown people, they’re caused by structural racism, unemployment brought on by government policies, lack of education resources in the hood, lack of affordable healthcare, and food deserts. Black and brown people didn’t create these experiences, we were just thrust into them and we have been forced to find ways to survive. So I think the way that we do it is by looking at the root of the issues that we face. The root isn’t each other. The root is white supremacy and structural racism that has been going on for centuries. I think approaching it through that direction is our best bet because really, we have more in common then we know.
I always felt the individuals we looked up to as role models had the ability to take us out of those situations. In some ways they had the answers to our questions. I know Kobe was that figure throughout your life, as you mentioned in your 4th episode. Are there other figures who were equally as important? Who was/is that other figure for you?
I feel like 2pac raised me man, 2pac was like the older brother I never had, the dad I never had, that rebellious friend that I did have, that wild young uncle. 2pac to me was everything. So many of his songs spoke to me in many different ways. Dear Momma helped me understand how hard it was for a single mom to raise a young boy, Keep Your Head Up was a song that was so inspiring. Changes made you really think about structural racism and police violence and the impact it has on the black and brown communities. There’s a 2pac song for everything and there was a 2pac song for every sort of change and experience I had in my life. He was more than a rapper. He was a revolutionary, he was a poet, he was a prophet. At this age, I’m just now really seeing and appreciating him for who he wasn’t. He wasn’t a perfect person, but I feel like his heart was pure and his intentions were pure. He stumbled on along the way but so have we, right? 2pac to me is such a shining example of someone who really loved his people, truly loved his people and I feel like that’s the best model.
For more on Walter, check out the links below:
California Love, LAist Link:
The Compton Cowboys Book Link: