Clearing up misconceptions about Boyle Heights, and turning it into an ‘artistic mecca’

By Christian Bordal and Amy Ta

Josefina López and USC professor George Sanchez sit down for a conversation at Casa Fina Restaurant and Cantina. Photo by Christian Bordal.

Josefina López started the restaurant Casa Fina in Boyle Heights. But she’s better known for starting the theater just down the street, Casa 0101, and for writing the play “Real Women Have Curves,” which later became a movie. López grew up in Boyle Heights and sat down with USC professor George Sanchez over the weekend.  

KCRW: What do you want people to know about Boyle Heights?

Josefina López: “Some people call it the left bank. Usually gentrifiers. I call it the Ellis Island of the West. That's what I'd like people to know, that this is the place where all these immigrants came, created things, even invented things. … There's so much creativity and resiliency and also agency, as far as people having social causes and fighting for them and really being passionate about causes. 

… I want people to get that amazing things are happening in Boyle Heights, not just drive-bys because that's all this neighborhood used to be known for. … This is a place where so many amazing movements started.”

What are some of the misconceptions people have about Boyle Heights?

“The biggest one was always that we're East LA. And in a sense, we are east of Los Angeles. … Everyone thinks they're on the East Side, like Silver Lake and Echo Park on the East Side. … You're not on the East Side. Maybe for you, because that's as far east as you'll go. But that's not the East Side, get it straight. The East Side kind of starts where the LA River starts, like on this side, on the east of it. 

… I had a different experience of Boyle Heights, I had one about a family, community, fiesta, celebration. But I think when I would meet people who are not from this community, who are not Latino, they'd be like, ‘Oh, if they knew where Boyle Heights was, it’s because their drug dealer lived here.’ And I remember just thinking how sad that that's your only connection to Boyle Heights. Well, it says a lot about you, not about our community, right? So that's another misconception. 

… Now as we've transformed the identity of Boyle Heights, now it's kind of the cheap rent place, or the only place that people can afford because all the other neighborhoods are too expensive. Echo Park and Silver Lake are way out of people's price [range]. So it's kind of like the last hope of all of homeownership for people who aren't from this community and aren't afraid to come to this community.”

Tell us about your theater, Casa 0101, and how it fits into this community.

“I started my theater [because] no one would produce my plays in Los Angeles. I had a very successful run of my play in other cities. And yet Los Angeles, [there] was so much racism that I got fed up and I started producing my own plays. And I was so successful producing Latino plays with … Latina protagonists, that I said, ‘I need my own theater.’ And sure enough, it's been so successful, because I decided to start teaching playwriting and screenwriting to people in my community so that they could tell their stories. 

So the stories we put on stage are stories that really connect with the community. … If it was up to me, I would take over like the whole block that we're in and a couple of parking lots too because we need parking here. It's a big problem in Boyle Heights.

And so for me, I'm so happy that as the metro came, and more gentrification started, especially where the metro stops are, that at least we have a community that has a voice. … Enough people feel like they can speak up and that we have a right to this community, that we're not just paying rent, that really this community belongs to us. Because a lot of artists especially, we have cultural currency. ... We made this neighborhood cool. Therefore, artists should be able to afford to live in their community.”

What do you think is next for Boyle Heights? How’s it going to change? 

“My hope is that as a result of people understanding how essential we are to the rest of Los Angeles — because a lot of the essential workers lived in and unfortunately got contaminated with COVID — that people understand the value of our community. We also understand our own value. 

So my hope is that this becomes an artistic mecca because it already is kind of like the Chicano activism mecca. My dream would be that we have a theater row, so that people have the opportunity to perform and try things. And also, for us to do more murals. I really think this is the time to get more messages out about who we are. 

Because my fear has always been that, you know, I love IKEA, but I feel like when people come into this neighborhood, you can tell they're gentrifying because they don't have a lot of creativity. They basically say, 

‘Oh, how can I turn my house to look like IKEA?’ And we're like, ‘No, no, like, be more colorful, more creative, like blend into the neighborhood.’ … Be with the community and see what's already here and be a part of the celebration.”

Credits

Guest:

  • Josefina López - Founder of the Casa 0101 Theater and Casa Fina Restaurant and Cantina