Los Angeles: the World in a City

October 30, 2014

Los Angeles, United States

By Lucy Nicholson      

Show biz, sunshine, surfing and traffic are some of the first images that come to mind when people picture Los Angeles.

When I think of what defines the place after living here 17 years, I think of immigrants.

Mexican mariachis. Chinese foot massage parlors. Persian saffron ice cream. Korean karaoke bars. Salvadoran pupuserias.

Mariachi musician Moises Rivera, 60, waits for a gig in the Boyle Heights area of Los Angeles

The city is rich patchwork of ethnic enclaves, clusters of immigrant businesses, colorful murals, and places of worship. It is home to people from 140 countries, speaking 224 languages.

A man wheels a shopping cart past a mural in the Echo Park area of Los Angeles

The pull of Los Angeles is immense. It has the largest groups of Japanese, Taiwanese, Koreans, Filipinos, Armenians, Thais, and Mexicans outside their respective countries.

I set out to photograph the landscape of immigrant communities distinct from the LA of Hollywood myth.

More than one in three of Los Angeles’ residents was born outside the United States. In putting down roots in a city known for its transience, many attempt to keep alive country traditions and habits.

People wearing kimonos shop in a Japanese supermarket in the Little Tokyo area of Los Angeles

But maintaining old ways can be difficult in a city where assimilation is also prized. That conflict sometimes spawns interesting cultural mixes.

Megan Moshar, 26, who is of Persian, German and Filipino descent, marries George Safar, 27, whose parents are from Syria in Saint Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral in the Byzantine-Latino quarter of Los Angeles

I went to Saint Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral in the Byzantine-Latino area to see if I could photograph a Greek wedding.

Father Allan Boyd, an Orthodox priest of Scottish/Irish descent, who grew up in Texas as an evangelical Christian, introduced me to a young couple.

Megan Moshar, 26, who is of Persian. German and Filipino descent, dances with her husband George Safar, 27, whose parents are from Syria, at their wedding reception in Pasadena

Megan Moshar, whose father emigrated from Iran 37 years ago, and whose mother is Filipino-German, was marrying George Safar, whose parents are from Syria. The wedding service was in English and Arabic. They stepped out of the cathedral into an area that is largely Mexican and Salvadoran.

City signs mark the ethnic quarters within Los Angeles. Little Tokyo and Chinatown have attracted Japanese and Chinese diasporas since the nineteenth century. Others, like Little Bangladesh, are newer; part of the city’s endless reinvention.

Los Angeles area street signs mark the boundaries of ethnic neighborhoods in Los Angeles, Long Beach and San Pedro

I had trouble locating Little Lithuania, so I knocked on the door of a home next to a Lithuanian church.

“We haven’t put it up yet,” said Joseph Pupius, 79, after greeting me. He disappeared and returned a moment later proudly holding the sign, which had been propped against his living room wall. He had emigrated from Lithuania 65 years ago, and this was his little piece of LA.

LA Times columnist Hector Tobar wrote about how his parents emigrated from Guatemala, but when he went back to his Hollywood childhood neighborhood he found part of it labeled Little Armenia and another overlapping part Thai Town.

Some Peruvians are currently making a bid for another corner of Hollywood to be named “Peru Village.” They hope to emulate Koreatown’s success in drawing business investment, a goal the adjacent El Salvadoran community is still striving for.

Carlos Jainga, 71, and his wife Estrella Jainga, 68, attend a Filipino farewell party in Torrance

In a small park, just south of Los Angeles, Carlos Jainga, 71, and his wife Estrella, 68, invited me to gather with friends who were giving a sendoff on a week night to a grandmother returning to the Phillipines the next day.

The Jaingas had just become U.S. citizens after moving to the U.S. in 2005, trailing their eldest son, who came 20 years ago as a nurse.

The picnic area was filled with the sounds of laughter and chatter in different Filipino dialects. Carlos beamed as he introduced his grandchildren. Estrella offered delicious food and insisted on packing me a plate to take home to my husband.

Mimi Pineda, 15, whose parents are from El Salvador, rides to church in a limousine with friend Christian Flores, 17, during her quinceanera in Santa Clarita

On a Saturday morning, I headed to the San Fernando Valley for a rite of passage celebrated by women all over Southern California.

Luis Pineda and his wife Irma were making last-minute preparations for his daughter Mimi’s quinceanera, celebrated when Latino girls turn 15. Families spend as much as they do on weddings for the lavish fesitivities.

Pineda, 45, who immigrated from El Salvador in 1990, has worked as a technician for a bottled water company for over 20 years. He supports a family of three daughters as well as his parents back in El Salvador.

“My daughter is my princess,” he said. He proudly led her onto the dance floor at the 250-guest reception in a banquet hall after a smaller family ceremony in a Roman Catholic church.

 I asked him if he thought it was possible to become American in one generation. He said he hopes to become a U.S. citizen. “I feel American; my family is here,” he said.

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