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How A Vintage Photo Taken In MacArthur Park Reminds Us Of Immigrant Journeys

A woman and her daughter, both in dresses and coats, walk along a city street in Los Angeles. The image is in black and white.
Central Americans, West 7th Street.
(Steven Gold
/
Shades of L.A. Collection/Los Angeles Public Library)
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It started with a photograph.

A few months ago, KPCC’s live events team reached out to see if I’d like to moderate a session for the Evoke LA series, a collaboration with ALOUD and the Los Angeles Public Library.

The idea intrigued me right away: A conversation based on a 1986 black-and-white photograph from the library’s archives, simply titled “Central Americans, W. 7th Street.”

Taken by photographer Steven Gold, the photo depicts a woman and a little girl, presumably a mother and daughter, walking down the street in the MacArthur Park neighborhood near Alvarado Street. The little girl carries a shopping bag and follows a step behind. They are unsmiling, their expressions conveying what comes across as a sense of purpose.

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Its title and context reveal nothing about who they are. Still, the image conveys volumes.

By 1986, many Central Americans fleeing civil war and political violence had made their way to L.A., taking refuge here. Immigrants from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras were rebuilding their lives, raising families, and slowly remaking the city.

MacArthur Park, a neighborhood that’s long been shaped by immigrants, became a welcoming hub for many of them — including, perhaps, the woman and little girl in the photo.

The photo made me think of so many things, like where the two might have come from, what they might have survived before they left, what they might have encountered on the way. And while we don’t know for sure that they are mother and daughter, it brought to mind that special relationship that exists between immigrant mothers and the daughters — and sons — they raise.

It also made me think of the many generations of immigrant mothers and daughters who've walked that same MacArthur Park sidewalk over the years, myself and my mother included.

In this Evoke LA special, we get to hear from two daughters of immigrant mothers, both from Honduras, who grew up in L.A. One is indie pop artist Lorely Rodriguez, known as Empress Of; the other is Suyapa Portillo Villeda, associate professor of Chicana/o Latina/o transnational studies at Pitzer College. Together with my co-host and the series curator, USC professor and cultural historian Josh Kun, we explore the many memories and feelings this special photo evokes.

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