Robert Lovato sits down with author Ben Ehrenreich and Alta Live for a digital discussion on their new works on Wednesday, January 27 at 12:30 p.m. Pacific time.REGISTER
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA
Staccato pops of rotor blades on the helicopters above us twisted and tangled my innards. LAPD’s helicopters didn’t seem to bother Leland the way they did me. His surroundings had him too busy to notice either the copters or my gritted teeth. Leland stood silently mesmerized by the panorama of ruin surrounding his lime green Buick LeSabre: blackened cars, burned-out swap meets, fast-food restaurants, and crowded apartment buildings, hollowed out as if Molotoved by revolucionario students back in wartime El Salvador.
We were on the northeast corner of MacArthur Park, the spiritual and criminal center of the Pico Union–Westlake neighborhood of L.A., a densely populated immigrant community that, during the week of April 29 to May 4, 1992—just days before—had become one of the sites of the most destructive riots in U.S. history. After a court acquitted four LAPD officers who had been videotaped beating Rodney King, years of rage over racial inequality and police brutality bubbling below the surface burst onto the streets of L.A.
Wherever he turned, Leland Chen, representative of a big corporation visiting our nonprofit, the Central American Refugee Center (CARECEN), to consider giving us a major donation, stood transfixed, his eyes darting back and forth across the blackened landscape. The slick, impenetrable wall created by his round designer glasses, pinstripe suit, and expensive feathered haircut had been breached by the scale of the destruction all around us, giving way to a vulnerability that tethered him to me. He stayed physically close to me and asked a lot of questions about our surroundings, as if on a deadly safari. I worried that the shock would distract him from considering giving CARECEN seed funding to start a youth program.
Leland looked westward, toward the tall buildings on Wilshire Boulevard, where the moguls, movie stars, and mighty politicians who had once called the art deco neighborhood home had vanished long ago. One block east of us were the CARECEN offices, located on the same palm-lined street where Raymond Chandler turned his Lost Generation disillusionment into noir, hard-boiled detective novels and films about L.A.’s shadow world. Highest among the towers of faded fame and fortune is the historic 12-story Wilshire Royale apartment building with a gigantic U.S. flag on top, billowing above the mile-and-a-half radius of destruction wrought by the red-orange flames of the riots.
“Jesus Christ!” he exclaimed. The smell of burned wood and plastic filled my nostrils as we walked toward the southeast corner of the park. “I didn’t even know there was rioting here. It looks like a war zone.”
No. It doesn’t, Tito, my adolescent, rebellious, crazy side fired back silently, my stomach hardening and teeth clenching as if I was preparing to get punched or kicked. War looks like war. Nothing else.
From the book Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs, and Revolution in the Americas, by Roberto Lovato, copyright © 2020 by Roberto Lovato, reprinted by permission of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.