“When I think of the future of the United States, and the history that matters in this country, I often think of Boyle Heights.” —George J. Sánchez

In this virtual conversation, acclaimed scholar George Sanchez, author of Boyle Heights: How a Los Angeles Neighborhood Became the Future of American Democracy, joined UC Press Executive Editor, Niels Hooper, to discuss what motivated him to write the book and what makes this dynamic, multiracial American neighborhood a place we should all look to as a model for America’s future.

George J. Sánchez is the author of the award-winning book Becoming Mexican American and is Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity and History at the University of Southern California. He is the 2020–2021 President of the Organization for American Historians.

As Sanchez explains, Boyle Heights is a place of personal significance for him, as his birthplace and the neighborhood his parents choose to settle after coming to the U.S. from Mexico. When Sanchez decided to examine the history of Boyle Heights, he found that generations of immigrants from all over the world had also chosen this place, a sign that it was clearly welcoming to newcomers. How did this come to be?

“I think the past year or so has given us a window into how difficult it is, and that it will be, to create the kind of multi racial democracy that we hope the United States can become. . . . The more I researched, the more I wrote about Boyle Heights, I realized that Boyle Heights has been doing this since the early 20th century, when it was clear that it was going to not be one of the elite suburban areas of Los Angeles, but in fact the home for so many different groups. People had to learn how to live together, they had to learn how to go to school together, they had to learn how to work together. . . And they began to in fact protect their neighborhood. They began to take real value in the kind of neighborhood they became and saw themselves, in some ways, as more American than anyone else because they were living a kind of American dream of a multi-racial democracy, long before other parts of the United States were even close to that.”

George Sanchez

In addition to creating a multiracial neighborhood where people did truly live in community with one another, Boyle Heights was also notable for being a largely a working class neighborhood that successfully dealt with external influences of white supremacy and capital, incorporated many undocumented people into the community, and collectively organized to protect members’ interests.

“The power of gentrification is clearly putting Boyle Heights and other urban neighborhoods at risk. It’s not a question of losing something that they once had, but it’s really a question of can we live in urban neighborhoods across social classes, or are our urban areas always going to be dominated by those that have the most capital.

In Boyle Heights, what’s interesting is that at least to the moment it’s had a politics which has kept immigrant and working class people there, even as forces of gentrification have completely refashioned other neighborhoods in central Los Angeles.”

George Sanchez

Whether you are someone curious how to build cross-racial solidarity, protect local communities against the forces of gentrification, encourage collective organizing, or strengthen our democracy, Boyle Heights provides a real model to learn from.

And as Sanchez explains, Boyle Heights might not be so unique after all. Because of the way historians have been trained to study single racial ethnic groups, we have lost sight of other cities and neighborhoods that have similar histories to Boyle Heights.

“I think it’s really important that, for all the uniqueness of Boyle Heights, there are so many cities in this country that have had significant multi-racial communities at different times…I think the difference has been that many of us, including myself, were trained by looking at a single racial ethnic group and trying to trace its history. And by doing that, we actually enable a history which tells the story of urban America as a story of ghettos, a story of bodies that seem to be single ethnics single racial groups . . . And that’s because we didn’t take into account where the interaction between groups was a centerpiece of of the urban environment, as opposed to simply looking at the forces of segregation. That has a profound implications in terms of rewriting much of urban history and even some of rural history in in the United States.”

George Sanchez

The hopeful takeaway is that Boyle Heights and many other communities in the U.S. have already shown us the promise and future of a better America, if only we take the lessons from their experiences.

Read more about George Sanchez’s book, Boyle Heights.