When young, upwardly mobile Latinos move back to their old neighborhoods, some residents are wary of the changes they bring.
On the corner of Boyle Avenue and 1st street in Boyle Heights sits La Monarca Bakery, a Latino coffee shop and bakery that sells café de olla, pan dulce, and a vegetarian chorizo quiche. A few blocks away, on Cesar Chavez Avenue, sits Guisados, a taco joint that sells an ‘Armando Palmer’ and advertises its selection of tacos as ‘gluten-free.’
These are two of the only places in Boyle Heights where you’re likely to find a white person. And they’re also emblematic for some community members of what’s come to be known as ‘gentefication’: the process of change a Latino neighborhood undergoes when young, upwardly mobile, often college-educated Latinos come back from school or a stint in the suburbs and open up businesses. (It’s also a play on the Spanish word for people, ‘gente’). Often, these businesses have roots in Latino culture, but reflect the more American tastes of their owners, attracting a more diverse crowd than the immigrant-owned shops that surround them.
“Gentefication occurs when upwardly mobile, college-educated Latinos return to their old neighborhood and invest their time, money, and interests in [that neighborhood],” says Steven Almazan, a Boyle Heights resident who returned after graduating from USC and now teaches special education there. “I’ll come out and say I consider myself a gentefier.”
Almazan says that with pride. For him and for some other residents, being a gentefier means being part of a neighborhood revitalization effort that protects the area from invasion by richer (and whiter) outsiders, who they argue are more likely to displace residents. That’s how Guillermo Uribe, owner of the wine bar EastSide Luv, thought about it when he coined the term several years ago. “If gentrification is happening, it might as well be from people who care about the existing culture. In the case of Boyle Heights, it would be best if the gente decide to invest in improvements because they are more likely to preserve its integrity,” he told Los Angeles magazine.
But not everybody sees it that way. For Joel Garcia, the director of Self Help Graphics and Art, a community art space in Boyle Heights, gentefication is a complicated, risky process. He says that, just like gentrification, it can lead to displacement, making it very important that Latino business owners are careful about what they do.
“It’s not as simple as staying in the neighborhood and opening up a store or a bar …,” Garcia says. “You need to listen to the community. A lot of times people come out in a very gung-ho way and they don’t stop to listen to what the community actually wants.”
Garcia doesn’t consider Self-Help Graphics a gentefied space—they’ve been in East L.A. for 40 years and he feels they’re an authentic and original part of the neighborhood. But he does acknowledge that the events Self-Help puts on (like their popular Day of the Dead celebration) attract people from outside of the neighborhood, and that despite all their attempts to be careful and show respect for the community, some residents might find that troubling. “Some folks might see what we’re doing [at Self-Help Graphics] as not the best approach,” he says.
He’s right about that. In early July, the activist organization Defend Boyle Heights disrupted a community meeting about gentrification at Self-Help Graphics, arguing the art space has been too friendly to the new art galleries making their way into the neighborhood. In their criticisms of Self-Help Graphics, the organization makes clear that people who live and work in the neighborhood can be complicit in and responsible for harm, even when they don’t mean to be. Latino-owned businesses are not exempt by virtue of being Latino.
But that all raises the question: how do Latinos invest in their own neighborhoods without catalyzing a wave of demographic change that displaces residents and becomes impossible to stop?
“How do we make room for the evolution of a neighborhood without displacing people? Nobody’s figured it out,” says Barney Santos, the founder of Gentefy, an incubator for Latino-owned businesses in underserved neighborhoods. “First of all, we need the community to be involved in the conversation. We need to bring new businesses into the neighborhood, but at the same time invest in the the legacy businesses that are already here.”
That’s precisely what Gentefy aims to do, says Santos: find Latino entrepreneurs already operating in a neighborhood, and help them make their businesses more successful and popular. They aim to take people out of the informal business sector (selling tacos from their house or from a mobile cart, for example), and give them the resources and capital they need to grow into a business with broad appeal—one with a more modern aesthetic space, an interesting concept or an increased focus on customer service.
For Santos, the idea is that the entrepreneurs and their community reap the greatest benefits from these changes. That, for him, is the definition of gentefication. “You can’t call yourself a gentefier and not be involved with and listen to the community. When you do that you’re basically just a gentrifier with brown skin,” he says.
Almazan feels the same way. For him, places like La Monarca and Guisados aren’t gentefied, even though they have roots in Latino culture. They both have several locations in other neighborhoods, and he also thinks they haven’t done enough to be involved in the community. “I would say other spaces also draw in a mixed crowd from outside the neighborhood, but the difference is that you see a lot more community building. Like Espacio 1839, for example… they’re more than just a business here,” he says. He’s referring to the several events and clubs that Espacio 1839 has started in the neighborhood, including the Boyle Heights Bridge Runners.
Almazan says that a positive future for Boyle Heights, in his mind, involves more gentefiers, as he defines that word. He argues that progress doesn’t always have to a bad thing for low-income Latinos. When he was little, he says, he lived in a house just down the street from a tortilla factory that eventually shut down and became a KIPP Academy charter school. For some, that might have been seen as a sign of negative change. For Almazan, it’s become just the opposite.
“When I was at USC, I found out that this was the best middle school basically in all of L.A., right in the middle of Boyle Heights. And I realized we could have positive change,” he says. That’s part of why he chose to come back and teach special education at another KIPP school in the neighborhood, he explains.
“The benefit of being a gentefier is that you understand the struggle of what it means to live in this neighborhood,” says Almazan. “And you also know we can make things better.”