Boyle Heights is a predominantly-Latino neighborhood just east of downtown Los Angeles. It also has a fascinating history as a multi-ethnic community since the 1920s. For decades it was home to Jewish, Russian, Japanese American, African American and Latino American working-class families; a unique and generally harmonious co-existence of races, cultures, ethnicities and nationalities all within a few square miles.

In fall 2002/spring 2003, it was the subject of an excellent historical exhibit entitled “Boyle Heights, The Power of Place”, at the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) in Little Tokyo, not far from Boyle Heights itself.

Last fall I was contracted by Nobuko Miyamoto’s multicultural performing arts organization “Great Leap” to co-facilitate a storytelling workshop for past and present residents of Boyle Heights. The workshop was co-sponsored by JANM in conjunction with their exhibit and would culminate in a series of performances in the actual museum exhibit in late January 2003. Nobuko and I would co-lead the workshops and co-direct the performances.

From October to December, we had a total of about two dozen folks attend our weekly workshops, held at JANM. The majority were not artists, performers or writers, just people with a strong connection to this special neighborhood. Consequently many of them came simply to share their stories and hear others’ stories, and had little-to-no interest in being part of a performative event. This was a constant struggle for Nobuko and I. Each night I would present various writing and memory-jogging exercises while Nobuko would lead physical/dance-related activities. Many people attended 2-3 times, then would leave. For some the activities were just too strange and uncomfortable, but for others they served well to spark memories of the richness of their lives in Boyle Heights. There was a core group of about six who attended regularly. They were predominantly female, middle-aged with a couple young adults; Latino, Asian and one Jewish woman.

We invented some fun new activities just for the occasion. Here’s one of my favorites: I laid out a giant (15’ x 25’) map of Boyle Heights on the floor using colored crepe paper to mark the many freeways which cut through the neighborhood (a hot topic in itself), and some of the major streets. Then I painted large cardboard signs for various well-known neighborhood landmarks (“Hollenbeck Park”, “Roosevelt High”, “Evergreen Cemetary”, Brooklyn Avenue”, etc.). These were placed in appropriate spots on the giant map. Then I made another set of smaller placards with various extreme emotional qualities – “triumph”, “grief”, “joy”, “outrage”, “embarrassment”, “terror”, “peace”, etc. These were propped against a nearby wall. People were asked to wander around on the giant map, pondering the various locations and the various types of emotional qualities until they remembered a particular kind of experience that happened at a particular location. Then they picked up the corresponding emotional placard and stood on the spot on the map where it happened, and spontaneously told the story. This was both fun for people and effective at bringing up specific stories.

Recognizing the limits of representation in our group, towards the middle of December we recruited a few additional folks to join us for the performances. All former or current Boyle Heights residents, these included Maceo Hernandez, the world’s first professional Chicano taiko drummer; Ruben Guevara, musician/poet/performer who once toured with Frank Zappa; Tomas Delgado, third generation owner of the landmark Candelas Guitar Shop; and Stella Matsuda, modern dancer formerly of Gloria Newman Dance Company. These people joined us very late in the project yet were able to blend in well with the established group and were easily accepted. I had been concerned about this but found that the common link to Boyle Heights could make strangers feel quickly connected to each other. Both Nobuko and I were repeatedly struck by the amazing amount of love all these people had for Boyle Heights. It had a place in their hearts that was forever set in gratitude, care and appreciation.

January started off with an intense three week process during which Nobuko and I met with each participant three times to help them select, shape, and refine their 6-7 minute stories. People were making changes right up until two days before the show, so we elected to give them the option to read instead of “perform” their stories. This was a good decision, based on the idea that a strong reading is better than a confused performance. Both Nobuko and I also created pieces for the show. Hers was about Boyle Heights being the birthplace of her dance training, mine was about it being the setting for my first baseball team experience.

The final performances were initially expected to have a maximum audience of 60 people, crammed into the exhibit space itself. We fashioned a make-shift “stage” area with wings and a backstage.

We did four shows for middle and high schools during the week, plus eight shows over two weekends, plus one weeknight show. At times we had so many wanting to see the show we had to turn people away. For the final weekend performances we added an extra show and still had over 100 audience members squeezed into the exhibit space!

In the end it was a tremendously successful project all the way around. The Museum was delighted. They had never had such a powerful response to an exhibit before, with such diverse groups of people coming to see it. People from Boyle Heights saw their community honored in a very artistic, public and human way. The workshop participants who “stuck it out” to the end felt satisfied, empowered and validated for their courage and honesty. And I heard so many wonderful stories about Boyle Heights, now I feel like it’s my home too.

Santa Monica, CA