Brown and Blue: A Mexican American Police Family Tries To Reconcile 'Who We Once Were, Who We Now Are, And Who We Want To Be'

Catalina Lara holding her oldest daughter, 2, standing next to her husband in front of his LAPD patrol car in 1999. (Courtesy Catalina Lara)

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By Dr. Catalina Lara

It was the fifth day of the George Floyd demonstrations in L.A. last month, and I was feeling the weight of the complicated position my family has in our city.

A few days earlier, I'd been listening to the radio in my kitchen when I first heard it: The audio recording of Mr. Floyd, pleading for breath. It shook me with a visceral reaction as I was trying to navigate one more day in our pandemic reality. He called out "Mama."

When I heard that, I couldn't move. I had never heard anyone plead for life and die, his dignity stripped, his life gone in just under eight minutes at the hands of a white police officer.

Catalina pictured with her family after her brothers' First Communion ceremony. Her dad's work truck is pictured in the background. (Courtesy Catalina Lara)

Fast-forward to a few days later and I'm home, thinking, as the city is teetering on edge after five days of protest.

I flash back to an April day 28 years ago, the first day of the riots of 1992, the day the four police officers who beat Rodney King were acquitted. As a student at Cal State Dominguez Hills back then, I had driven from Carson down the 91 Freeway trying to get safely to my grandparent's house. In rush-hour traffic I watched the burning of L.A. from the winding freeways that connected Carson to El Monte.

And now, almost to the date, here I was watching L.A. react, rise up — again — with the same cries for justice resonating in the streets of the city.

But now, in my house, the perspective is complicated. You see, we are a police family. A Mexican American police family. My husband is a 26-year veteran of the LAPD. How we got here is a long story, and it begins with where and how we grew up — as the children of Mexican immigrants, as the ones who were once stereotyped ourselves.

I can tell you this: The tensions of an oppressive system are palpable in my home as each member of my small family tries to process anger, frustration, fear in real time. Here is our back story.

VENICE

In the late '80s and into the '90s my family lived in the Oakwood part of Venice. No one wanted to live there back then.

At the same time, my husband lived in Culver City, down the street from the public housing complex — the projects. Most preferred not to live in his neighborhood, either.

Catalina on graduation day from Cal State Dominguez Hills, posing with her brothers and their friends during the early 1990s when the neighborhood was in the midst of the crack epidemic and gang violence. (Courtesy Catalina Lara)

Every evening, our dads would come home from their gardening routes, tired, sweaty, dirty. They would then make sure their lawnmowers, blowers, rakes, tools were all secured somewhere deep in our homes, because we lived in an area where these things were forever being stolen by members of the three local rival gangs or the countless addicts (many of whom we knew), victims of the proliferation of crack in the neighborhood.

Every night, my brothers would go out with their friends, like all teenage boys do. Every night my mom, dad and I would go about our own tasks with an air of worry hovering over us until the boys would pull up to our driveway. We would hear their voices and they would walk in, then shut the door behind them. We would breathe a sigh of relief that at least for us, that day had come to a good end. Everyone home, safe.

There wasn't a day that went by that the gunshots, police sirens or helicopter sounds didn't hover in the background as we lay in our beds.

When my husband and I started dating, he would drop me off at night, his parents and mine in the same worrying mode as he made his way home. I would wait for the phone call, "I am home, don't worry." I would relay the message to my parents, and we would go on to our nightly routines, with the sirens, the helicopter lights, the gunshots, the screeching tires on pavement in the background.

To live in this is not a deep fear, it is a constant, underlying pressure on your chest. To listen to the gunshots coming from a fleeting car, hoping it's no one you know, then feel guilty because it is someone else's family that will get that knock on the door or see the body in their front yard.

To listen to the police on their loudspeakers, telling the passengers in a car somewhere outside to "put your hands where we can see them" and hope it's not your brother, your boyfriend, your cousin and that he doesn't make a sudden move.

For at that time, these were the circumstances of our reality, the gang and drug warfare, the nightly shootings and overdoses, all of it rampant in a three to five-mile radius in which my home was at the epicenter.

Beyond that, we dealt with the constant presence of law enforcement.


MORE FROM OUR RACE IN LA SERIES


If you were a Black or Brown young male, you had constant interaction with the police. They were forever on edge, and our boys fit "the profile." Most of the officers, back then, did not look like us. They had not lived in our communities, didn't understand, didn't want to understand.

Some of us wanted to leave and not look back, the pain was too much, the effects on our families too great. Some wanted to stay, insisting "they aren't going to chase me out of here."

Others looked for ways to make things better. It was in this way that many of the young Latinos around us chose law enforcement, some even after going to college.

This is what my husband did. Instead of wanting to leave and not look back, as I would have done back then, he chose to join the Los Angeles Police Department. Why, you might ask, after seeing his own people profiled, targeted or ignored by police?

He wanted for people like our parents to have Spanish-speaking, Mexican American, L.A.-born-and-raised officers in the community. He wanted to change things. So he joined, and we stayed.

Being born to immigrant Mexican parents in the U.S., my husband and I carry the history of being outsiders. I saw how my parents were viewed for their poorly spoken English. I saw how my brothers were sized up by the color of their skin, the clothes they wore.

Catalina's parents, brothers, nieces, nephews, husband and daughters at her parents' recent 50th anniversary celebration. (Courtesy Catalina Lara)

When my husband and I met, we were both in college — the first generation in our families to do so, he a business major, me political science. (We met, in fact, through our parents — our fathers came from adjoining small towns in Zacatecas, our moms from the same area in Jalisco.) Both of us sought to be fully accepted by a city, and a country, that saw us as being on the periphery.

Joining law enforcement, much like joining the military did for others, offered my husband a straight line into validation. Into belonging, and being able to provide for our new family.

Since then we've very purposefully remained in Los Angeles. We made our choice to commit to serving our city, he in law enforcement, me in education.

We chose to raise our two girls here, and to expose them to all of the city. We venture from Reseda to Pacific Palisades, Hollywood, South L.A., Pico-Union, Boyle Heights, Harbor Gateway, and beyond, because this is our city, all of it.

BROWN AND BLUE

Which brings us back to this moment that we're living in.

It's too much to process in the midst of upheaval with the physical and emotional exhaustion that right now is living in our home.

Sgt. Lara giving a tour of an LAPD station, answering lots of questions from one inquisitive little boy. (Courtesy Catalina Lara)

On the fifth day of the protests, I found myself trying to give my husband the space to recharge in between non-stop, 12-hour-plus shifts, trying to give our youngest daughter assurance that her dad will be okay physically and emotionally, trying to tell our adult daughter that now is not the time to blame her dad for a system that is broken.

We try as best we can to navigate the uncomfortable conversations that inevitably come up, like the other night, when our youngest daughter, now 17, had a socially-distanced visit with two friends who began talking about how bad police officers are. She wasn't sure what to do or say: Should she feel guilty? Should she defend her dad, who her friends all know, but don't necessarily think of as a police officer? She brought the stress home with her, and it led to a heavy family conversation that had the four of us up debating until almost midnight.

Just another day in the Lara home, as we try to reconcile who we once were, who we now are, and who we want to be, each one of us.

Meanwhile, my youngest daughter and I sit at home each night, waiting for my husband to come back from work.

Now, once again, I wait with that constant pressure on my chest.

I wait until I hear the truck pull into the driveway, the keys rattle on our doorstep and his boot steps on the living room floor. For this time, it isn't that he's a young Mexican American male, in danger of being targeted or fitting a profile. Now it's because he wears a uniform and that is all that outsiders see.

Catalina's parents and her in-laws: All four immigrated to L.A. in the 1960s from Jalisco and Zacatecas, dining together at a family carne asada gathering. (Courtesy Catalina Lara)

There was a singe of shame for being Brown that we used to feel when I was growing up, now there's a trickle of shame creeping up for being blue. And I don't know what to do about it.

When my husband became a police officer and I became an educator, both of us entered systems with histories of exclusion and inequities, hoping that instead of becoming part of these systems we could create changes from within, not with sweeping statements or actions, but with each individual interaction.

I have asked my husband where he gets satisfaction or motivation in the work he does.

He tells me it makes him glad to see the faces of young Latino officers at roll call, faces that weren't there when he joined. And he points to the calls when his knowledge of the myriad cultural nuances in this city come into play. To know that the people he interacts with feel not only seen, heard, but understood. People like our parents.

Idealism isn't easy when the realities push you to cynicism. Idealism is difficult when at times like this, I am thinking not so much with my brain instead coming from a place in my past, experiencing feelings I thought I could leave behind when I moved out of Venice.

All I do know is that now it's not my mom sitting in the next room feeling the same worry, it's my 17-year-old who can't go to sleep until she hears her dad enter, put his bag down and sigh, saying "I'm home," indicating we no longer have to worry. Until tomorrow.

For me, it's a familiar feeling. For my daughter, she now knows what I felt when I was her age, waiting for my brothers to walk in the door safe for another day.

To be Brown and Blue, that's our L.A. story.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Catalina Lara is an L.A. native. She was raised by her parents and extended family of grandparents, aunts and uncles. Catalina is a proud graduate of Cal State Dominguez Hills and the University of Southern California, earning her doctorate in education in 2015. She has over 20 years in the field of education, teaching Spanish and French, working with student-athletes and students with learning disabilities before transitioning to the world of sports as education coordinator in player development for the L.A. Dodgers. She and her husband have been married for 26 years and have two daughters.