By Tomas Antonio Mier
It sits on a quiet street in Boyle Heights next to a small pharmacy used only by locals. A few students walk past it, dragging their backpacks with them after being dismissed from class at Roosevelt High School, one of the most historic high schools during the walkouts of East Los Angeles.
It is CASA 0101: the makeshift museum and permanent children’s theatre that houses the Boyle Heights Museum, a project led by USC Latino studies professor Dr. George Sanchez and CASA 0101 artistic director Josefina López.
Ten L.A. college students help Sanchez gather ideas, information and items to display at the museum, a partnership between the USC Center for Diversity and Democracy and CASA 0101.
The center closed temporarily to the public on Dec. 3, but a new exhibit will open March 1 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the historic walkouts that made schools like Roosevelt famous.
In March of 1968, hundreds of high school students protested the unequal conditions of schools in Los Angeles Unified School District because they wanted to improve their chances of attending college, Sanchez said.
Student protestors would leave classrooms with signs and fists raised above their heads because they wanted to make sure their voices were heard.
For current Roosevelt students like Erick Chajón, seeing the history of his community at a museum like this one is inspiring and important. But as time goes on, he said, the community of Boyle Heights is not the same as it used to be.
“[The community] has changed,” Chajón said. “I’ve watched the community become more gentrified now.”
Facing gentrification in Boyle Heights
The museum’s mere presence stands as a weapon against Boyle Heights’s enemy: gentrification. Sanchez wants to ensure that no matter who moves in, the history of the neighborhood does not move out.
“This is a city that often ignores its own history, and this is a community that does not want to do so,” Sanchez said. “[The museum] wants to make sure that it helps preserve it and it informs the struggles people are having today.”
This past fall, Sanchez said a couple thousand people visited the museum, which featured “Aquí Estamos y No Nos Vamos,” an exhibit about the repatriation and deportation efforts against Mexican Americans in Los Angeles during the 1930s.
Samantha Sanchez (no relation to George), the web designer for the museum, said this exhibit was chosen first to show the similarities between President Donald Trump’s rhetoric about immigration and the realities that this country has already experienced.
“We made it very purposeful to choose this exhibit first, because of the political climate,” she said. “People have this feeling about L.A. that its very accepting and not racist — and to some degree, but it really does have quite a troubling history.”
The panels in the exhibit showcased news clippings and stories about immigrants who were forcibly removed from the Los Angeles area, including the first ever recorded raid against immigrants in La Placita Olvera, a historic hub of Mexican culture and history in L.A.
“Se activan las deportaciones” read a five-column headline of La Opinion, the Spanish-language newspaper in Los Angeles, which translates to “the deportations are activated” in English.
One of the informational panels, titled “Blaming Mexicans,” delved into the ways that Americans blamed Latinos for the economic issues facing L.A. today. Americans wanted Latinos out and sending Latinos home, many Americans believed, would be the easiest to solve their economic struggles, the panels explained.
Cardboard posters in the shape of immigrant bodies are spread throughout the museum, narrating troubling stories of deportation and detention.
“It isn’t fair that a child suffers so much time in this prison,” one poster read, shaped like a fairy. It recounted the story of a 9-year-old who spoke from the inside of the Berks Family Detention Center. “I ask for your compassion, that someday all of us here will be let out. We want this day. We want this day to be today. I beg you.”
Keeping the museum’s doors open forever
Samantha Sanchez put together an online exhibit for about the museum’s exhibits for people who cannot visit in person. There, virtual visitors can look at all the artwork and informational panels in both Spanish and English. This online effort is part of the museum’s plan to keep the Boyle Heights Museum running for a long time.
But George Sanchez explains that can only be done if it receives more funding to place the museum at a permanent location. Sanchez said the museum has already applied for funding at USC, specifically the Good Neighbors Campaign program which aims to build relations between the University and the L.A. community.
“In an ideal world, once we get the financial support, we’d love to find a location so the museum could be a permanent physical place,” he said.
He said that this type of museum allows professors like him to teach in a different way than he’s used to, which allows for even more learning.
“Faculty usually just reach people either by teaching them directly or publishing,” George Sanchez said. “This is a very different way. A way that’s very direct in reaching a large number of people.”
For high school student Chajón, who has grown up in this neighborhood, he is glad that people like George Sanchez are working to keep the history of the vibrant community alive. He said he is excited for next year’s exhibit.
“It’s an amazing part of history,” he said. “I think that it is setting an example for other students to stand up and walk out for what they believe in.”