Editor’s Note: Andrea Meller is a consulting producer of the CAAM-funded interactive web documentary, K-TOWN ’92, directed by Grace Lee. Here, Meller writes about the complexity and diversity of Latino American experiences during the LA riots/uprisings.
After Trump was elected to the presidency, I felt a sense of responsibility to use my skills as a documentary filmmaker to help raise awareness about social and political issues that I was worried would be ignored and rights that could be subverted. I thought about the documentary filmmakers I knew making strong social justice and politically minded work that I respected and how I might be able to assist them. Grace Lee was at the top of my list. So I reached out to her immediately to see what she was working on and how I could help. When she told me about her K-TOWN ’92 project, I realized how little I actually knew about the Los Angeles riots, having only moved here in 2008. Growing up in New York and being in my early teens, Los Angeles was like a foreign city to me and the 1992 riots/uprising felt very far away.
Not until moving to Los Angeles did I realize how complicated the city was – that nothing is ever what it seems to be on the surface. How a neighborhood called Koreatown could also contain Little Bangladesh as well as all of my favorite Oaxacan restaurants. How what I thought was a predominantly Mexican American Latino population was actually Salvadoran, Honduran, Guatemalan, among many others. And it was not until I started working with Grace on K-TOWN ’92 that I realized just how complicated and nuanced the riots were.
As a Latina filmmaker working on issues of Latino media representation for the past 10 years, I gladly joined the K-TOWN ’92 team to focus on helping make sure that Latino/a voices were represented. Similar to the Asian American community, the Latino community has often been left out of stories of American historical events and are often overlooked players in political and economic decision-making. Knowing that the entire K-TOWN ’92 project was based on the idea of disrupting the mainstream narrative of the riots, I felt confident that we would be the place where diverse voices were included.
I entered the project knowing just the basics about the Rodney King beating and the subsequent uprising, but I quickly learned that the Latino community of Los Angeles was actually an integral part of what happened, acting as both victims and perpetrators. Latinos were the majority of the initial victims of crowd violence, a third of those killed, and half of those arrested. One third to one half of the businesses looted in the city were Latino owned. These numbers were not something I remember seeing in the national news from across the country.
I also found the Latino/a perspectives of the riots to be incredibly varied, though this was less surprising to me. Besides working to generally increase Latino representation in the media, I am also interested in broadening that representation – getting away from this idea of the monolithic Latino community – that we are all one type from one place with the same interests and views. This is another way in which the Asian American and Latino communities overlap. But in regards to 1992, I heard about people who were recent immigrants from war-torn Central American countries who had escaped violence and looting and curfews in their home countries and thought the violence here was going to last indefinitely. I heard from one woman who saw the established neighborhood gangs taking advantage of the chaos and further spreading it. I heard from the curious, the thrill-seekers, and from people who were angry that the authorities had abandoned their neighborhoods. From the funny – one man who filled his entire apartment with looted beer and invited his friends over for months – to the sad – a woman who lost her business and remembers feeling like she was witnessing what hell looked like. The LA riots reflected the divisions of the city as well as the divisions within the Latino community at the time.
Unfortunately, many of the people I spoke to, while willing to share their stories with me, did not want to go on camera and share their stories with a wider audience. Most wanted to move on and not stir the pot. Many were afraid that increased media attention on police brutality and the continued economic and racial injustices of a politically divided country could give rise to something like the 1992 riots again. I wasn’t surprised by this reaction and I also didn’t feel totally comfortable pushing people to publicly dredge up their memories from a painful event 25 years ago. But after all of these conversations and my reading, I believe that sharing these stories – the stories of those overlooked, and ignored – be it in video interviews on the website or in writing it down here, is incredibly important, especially given the climate today. To tell the people’s history, in order to explore the diversity of our city with all of its strengths and weaknesses and not just rely on the mainstream narrative, so that we can look back and continue to learn from it.
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Andrea Meller is a Chilean American, Los Angeles based filmmaker whose work most often focuses on issues of migration and the places where cultures intersect.