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Historic East Los Angeles: A Catalyst for Social Movements & Community Empowerment Open Access

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In 1939, a Home Owner’s Loan Corporation assessment of East Los Angeles repugnantly proclaimed the neighborhood “a ‘melting pot’…honeycombed with diverse and subversive racial elements.” These neighborhoods defined as “subversive” by the dominant white-owned institutions of the 1930s have not only been shelters for the city’s racial, ethnic, and religious minorities, but have helped shape some of the most enduring multicultural communities and powerful social movements of the twentieth century. My research explores how marginalized communities in East Los Angeles throughout their history have created movements for social change and empowerment. Specifically, my research asks “What factors enabled East L.A. to become one of the most powerful incubators of social movements in American history?” By examining primary source documents including photographs, personal narratives and maps as well as secondary source historical materials, my findings identify the historical factors in East L.A. that led to the formation of powerful social movements for liberation and equality that changed the American social landscape. My research consists of three case studies that highlight marginalized ethnic communities in East L.A., the first of which examines how East L.A.’s Jewish community in the early 20th century became a national center for resisting anti-Semitism. Local Jewish inhabitants in turn formed coalitions with their Japanese-American and Chicanx neighbors to resist popular and institutionalized racism. The second case study addresses Japanese-American East Angelenos and their resistance to discrimination in access to health care, as well as their collective response to the devastating effects of Japanese Internment during World War II. This legacy of community empowerment continued as the American Chicanx rights movement grew out of the activist organizations of East L.A. in the 1960s and 1970s, as outlined in my third case study. My findings conclude that the unique history of East Los Angeles provides insights into the social conditions that produce liberation movements powerful enough to bring about social change on a national and international scale. The history of East L.A. suggests that the urban factors producing powerful social movements are: 1) neighborhood density, 2) a concentration of marginalized racial/ethnic groups with common experiences of institutional racism, 3) strong neighborhood institutions (i.e. businesses, religious institutions, community-based self-help organizations), 4) multiethnic/multiracial cooperation, and 5) space for artistic and cultural expression. Understanding how these conditions lead to effective social movements sheds light on how marginalized communities can transform the urban spaces that they occupy into sites of empowerment.

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