George J. Sanchez is a professor of American Studies & Ethnicity, and History at the University of Southern California and the author, most recently, of Boyle Heights: How a Los Angeles Neighborhood Became the Future of American Democracy. Before speaking at the Zócalo event “Can Boyle Heights Save America?,” Sanchez called into the green room to talk about his love for Mariachi Plaza, being a college DJ, and L.A.’s multiracial communities.
What's your hidden talent?
I love to dance. I was a DJ in college, and my role was to do dance parties where I could keep everybody—all different kinds of racial, ethnic groups—happy enough to stay. So I think that has always been a hidden talent, and the dancing came from there. I’m very into music, and I think for me, it all begins with ’70s funk.
How did you get into DJing?
I was one of those people who hung out with lots of different kinds of people in college. We had a lot of political coalitions, but people wanted to socialize together. And so, I went to a lot of dance parties, and then realized that various groups would get upset when none of the music that they associated with would be played. [As a DJ, I wanted] people to feel comfortable in music that maybe wasn't their particular genre, but they could feel connected to—some funk, some pop, some R&B, some salsa, some Ranchera—a little bit of everything.
You just finished your term as president of the Organization of American Historians. What’s your best leadership advice coming out of that?
For me, it was about trying to make sure that we could respond effectively to all of the incredible events that were happening during the year—I basically had the whole end of the Trump administration, the election, January 6th, the beginning of the Biden administration under my wing.
One of the things that I know that the members of the organization wanted was, they wanted a responsive organization. So for me responding to these events was a critical thing. From the protests last summer around the murder of George Floyd, all the battles around the election, the January 6 insurrection. I was writing drafts that were sent around to various people in the organization. Trying to make sure we put [these events] into context as historians. And some of that was pretty straightforward. Right at the end of the Trump administration, they attacked the 1619 Project from the New York Times, and produced what they called the 1776 Project, really striking at the heart of the growing, diverse scholarship around the founding documents of the country. That's continued on in state legislatures and battles about what people can teach in public universities, what people can teach in K-12. So that's something very meaningful to historians. It wasn't hard to respond, but responding with the right tone, and with a sense that we have greater obligations—both to the truth and to bringing in a variety of voices—that was really important.
[When it comes to leadership,] it depends on the organization, it depends on the leader. I'm one who likes to engage with as many members in the organization as possible. And so that was really important to me—that part of the response.
You were born in Boyle Heights. What was the first community you remember finding there?
I spent my first five years there, so I'm not sure I remember a ton about it. I do know that for my parents it was absolutely critical that it was a welcoming place for immigrants. It was really the Mexican immigrant community that was coming into Boyle Heights in the late ’50s, early ’60s. It was important for them to see that as a place that they could launch their own lives in the United States. They could really feel comfortable, essentially landing in Los Angeles, in that particular location. My mom worked downtown; my dad worked in a variety of different auto plants. And so it was really important to land in a Mexican immigrant community.
What are some of your favorite communities in Los Angeles today?
I like a lot of communities that are multiracial, and that shouldn't be surprising. But sometimes they're surprisingly multiracial. So, you know, I think of South LA, where USC is located, and kind of the traditional African American community with a huge Latino population that's coming in. That's actually the place my parents moved to after leaving Boyle Heights. I really am intrigued by Koreatown, and the fact that Koreatown for a long time has been majority Latino. I live in Long Beach, and Long Beach is of course a very multiracial community, all kinds of people here. So all of these are communities that in the past, we would always say they're in flux, but what I've learned from my work on Boyle Heights is that while most communities are supposedly in flux, they're multiracial. And we find that to be weird—we think that communities are supposed to be a single ethnic group—but in fact, over time, so many communities have housed and been part of a whole bunch of different groups with different backgrounds trying to make their way through society. So I've taken that to be a very common thing, but also something that is very powerful in thinking through something that's not just in transition from one thing to another, but rather, really home to a lot of different groups—some who have been there quite some time, some have been there who are just recent arrivals.
What is the last thing that you read that made you really think?
I'm in the middle of reading a really interesting dissertation. (I'm on a committee from Columbia University.) And it's by a young scholar [Ivón Padilla-Rodríguez] who's looking at undocumented youth over time. What's really interesting about it is that she's identified that for most of the 20th century, rather than people's legal status being at issue, it was peoples’ residences. So it's really a look at the treatment of migrant labor.
Where is your favorite place to go in Boyle Heights today?
I really love Mariachi Plaza. It’s just one of those places that we don't have enough of in Los Angeles, a public place where people from the community feel comfortable just sitting, talking, spending the day. Around it a bunch of businesses have developed that I think are really interesting—places to eat, places to sit, contemplate life.
It's this place where if you want to engage a group of mariachis for a quinceañera or wedding or something, that's where you would go. Right around it, those mariachis live, so they've established the kind of relationship of place and their own profession, their own talents there. I think of [Mariachi Plaza] as a touchstone for me in Boyle Heights. Right next to it on one side is White Memorial Hospital, where I was born, so I connect to it on a very personal level. Across the street is Casa Fina, a restaurant that Josefina López created to keep local Mexican restaurant there in the plaza. There's places like Espacio 1839, Libros Schmibros… The buildings also have a rich history. A place known as the Mariachi Hotel goes all the way back to the 19th century. So to me it's one of these places that is very meaningful in speaking both to the present and the past, and also to the future of Boyle Heights.