Looking for Language in Los Angeles
A most magical afterparty.
TO EXPLAIN HOW I fell so quickly in love with Los Angeles, we have to start with Miami.
Over the years, I’ve developed an at-best-complicated, at-worst-tortured relationship with Miami, the city where my family arrived when they first moved to this country. It was the city that two years later I’d arrive in without knowing that it would be the last time I’d travel internationally, even to visit back home, for another 10 years (and counting). In Miami, the sun is hot, the beach refreshing, and ambitions of wealth abundant. Over the past two decades, it has become a haven for Venezuelans escaping chavismo as it once was for Cubans fleeing Fidel Castro. Those who migrated out of choice, rather than necessity, arrived first, suitcases full of cash and Republican dispositions.
In many ways, Miami holds a special place in my heart. I have called it, endearingly, the northernmost point of Latin America. It’s where I can walk into any pharmacy, barber shop, or café and order in Spanish. The señora guesses your accent with frightening accuracy. It’s where reggaetón reigns supreme and salsa slips out of chic restaurant patios, equal parts ambient music and religious beckoning. It’s the first city I visited as a tourist in the United States, and it has also become a place to find community. I can actually buy a decent arepa there: una catira, my favorite, shredded chicken and cheddar cheese. It’s the capital of Art Deco. My God—Ryan Murphy’s “The Assassination of Gianni Versace” is set there. I can get a really good cortadito for $2 at Versailles (pronounced Ver-sah-yes, not Ver-sigh, get it right) and at night amble into Wet Willie’s because when you’re young, you can drink cheap frozen daiquiris into saccharine perdition. Never a dull time.
But there’s another element Miami reminds me of—which could likely be ascribed to other immigrant communities and other cities, too. If I were to write a taxonomy of the Venezuelan diaspora, at least one genus would be reserved to a very specific type that you’ll find in Miami. This immigrant doesn’t consider himself an immigrant. He has the legal status to come and go as he pleases in and out of the United States. He “came over”—like Pilgrims on the Mayflower, it seems—decades ago, so he really knows the ins and outs of this country. He will give you unsolicited advice about the best bank to put your money in (his bank), the best apartment buildings or gated communities (also where he lives, so he can get that referral cash), and, above all, the places and people in town that must be avoided at all costs. His silken pockets are lined with cash. His kids throw temper tantrums. He’s convinced he is better than you and spurns every effort on your part to be different, to be yourself.
There’s a word in French that appropriately illustrates this culture: bousculer. It means to push or shove, but also to hustle. In my mind, I picture someone elbowing their way through a crowd, leaving even their own behind.
It took me a long time to realize that social interactions with these immigrants were always coated by a sheen of machismo: They all wanted to prove their superiority. Inseparable from that pursuit is the need to make you feel smaller. Predators need their prey. Conquerors need to subjugate. And it was profoundly obvious to me that I, a queer person, could not survive in such a culture without silencing a part of myself.
Perhaps you can begin to understand that though I hold a special fondness for Miami, Miami didn’t always feel safe for me as a queer person.
I. Ma’am, I’m Just Looking for an Outlet
I arrived in Los Angeles at 9:45 p.m. local on Tuesday last week, a bit after the East Coast had gone to bed but early enough that I could still have In-N-Out soon as I left the airport. I was half in disbelief that I had made it to the other side of the country. In conversation I’ve been known to note that I had never visited any place west of New Orleans, perhaps to invite recommendations, but perhaps also subconsciously as a way to soothe the feelings of white citizens whose freedom to travel has never been encumbered.
On one such occasion, I made plans to visit friends in Oakland. At around the dates I was due to arrive, they were visiting San Diego, which meant I would have had to travel to San Diego and then get up to the Bay with them somehow. I had heard that flying while undocumented in California was not exactly safe (they could take issue with my passport and start inquiring about its blank state), and a former boss who worked in the immigration space confirmed this for me. Another option was to drive, but Google promptly revealed that there were two immigration checkpoints, in San Clemente and Temecula, on the way back to L.A. I thought myself invincible, but my parents didn’t think it was safe. I sent my friends a text saying that after all, my trip would not be possible. I probably told them I was too poor, so sorry for the late notice.
Landing in LAX, in this way, felt like a small miracle. I felt a small hint of pride showing the TSA officer my TPS—like, whatchu gonna say now, huh? This time, I didn’t have to be the one to come up with an excuse to get out of the trip my law school friends had planned to celebrate taking the bar exam.
The next day I wake up at 7:30 a.m., immediately bitter, as if I had been born and raised in the East Coast. Not like a suburb of New York City, though; more like Trenton, New Jersey. Or Philly. Someplace gritty and cold. I love it. I stew in my arrogance as I flick my phone open and look for coffee shops where I can sit and do some reading and writing. (My friends are still asleep, and I share the living room of our borrowed apartment with one of them, so I politely avoid noise.) I roll my eyes almost fully back into my skull when I see that one nearby coffee shop advertises a “chagaccino” (mushroom latte with cacao, cinnamon, and vanilla) for $7.50. Yep, I’m definitely in L.A. Definitely in West Hollywood.
I still make my way down to the coffee shop, where I order a cold brew, and when I sit down to do work, there are no outlets to plug my computer into. My battery is, of course, at 5%. There’s no wi-fi. There’s vegans sitting with very small dogs outside. Someone goes up to the counter and says they’ll have a “morning wood”—24-hour cold brew, espresso, milk, cinnamon, toasted pecans—and I feel my brain cells dissolving.
II. Thick as Thieves
There is really no love like a person of color showing you around their hometown. One of my friends—Agnes, our host—is from L.A., so we are happy to relinquish control over our days in favor of the packed itinerary she has prepared for us. She picks us up around 11 a.m. and we go to Urth Café, a trendy spot in Beverly Hills. The food is good. I split a prosciutto panini with a friend, and we get a massive napoleon and marble pound cake to share. We later walk around the posh stores, able to afford nothing. One of our friends gets a call from a judge in Ohio letting him know that he was selected for a judicial clerkship beginning next year. This is a huge deal in the legal world, but more than that, it really sets a tone of celebration for the rest of the trip.
We drive along the Pacific Coast Highway, hills to our right, vast, vast ocean to the left. Salt and mystery fill the atmosphere—what lays beyond this endless ocean? What lays beneath? Who could deign to find out? At first, you get to see a beach that appears to stretch almost interminably, but then gives way to big, water-slapped bluffs. After oysters, we make our way to the Getty Villa, a picturesque museum built up in Etruscan architecture. We get there not long before closing time, so its appeal is mostly the pleasant aesthetic. At the other end of the villa, some of us lie down on the cold marble of the peristyle, just thinking, or perhaps not thinking, perhaps just drenching in the silence of this place. The overlook reminds me of just how small I am, we are.
Later, dinner is dim sum. We struggle to conceptualize how we can fit so much food in our bodies, but we do anyway. We sleep like babies.
By the second day I’m starting to warm up to this place. On my morning walks, I begin taking notice of the landscape around me. Our little corner in West Hollywood is but a section of Los Angeles—and an admittedly privileged one—but I bask in the morning quiet. I don’t hear any birdsong, but I also don’t hear the cacophony of traffic and fire sirens. If a car comes by, chances are you can’t even hear that, because many of them are electric. The air is cool and stepping out feels uplifting; the humidity of D.C., by contrast, has a way of weighing you down. The school buildings are Art Deco, and they have auditoriums named after Michael Jackson. You can expect a hello and good morning from passersby.
The first flower I notice is the creeping lantana, with its fuchsia flowers. I didn’t have to look long to find the iconic blue jacarandas, or the bougainvilleas bursting with color. They are almost shocking, how they can remind you of where you are so decisively. There’s also no shortage of succulents—we are kind of in the desert, the climate sunny and dry: I spot green liveforever, fire stick, cacti, century plants, and more. Many houses line either side of their doors with giant bird-of-paradise flowers, majestic and dominant. That such an imposing plant can thrive here and, at the same time, not seem like it’s taking too much space is impressive. There’s room to grow.
After the most amazing sandwich I’ve ever had in my life (California’s take on the Cuban medianoche—same ingredients but on Hawaiian rolls), my friend picks us up to drive us around her old haunts: North Hollywood, the San Fernando Valley, Studio City. She went to high school around this area. We sneak into her high school, except it’s the size of a college campus, so there’s no “sneaking,” really. Kids are practicing for the color guard on one of the quads, their backpacks lined up on a bench to the side waiting for them. They are almost all short and Latinx or Asian, and the instructor, too. Inside, a billboard announces the names of the administrators and vice principals, and it’s a list of names I can pronounce: Suárez, Jiménez, Chávez, Cruz, De La Fuente. I feel like I’m among my people. I’ve a feeling we’re not in Gringolandia anymore.
I begin to understand why Agnes and I are thick as thieves, knowing where she comes from.
Later that night, we go back to her mom’s apartment in Koreatown at sunset. The apartment is not big, and that’s good. It feels like home. Although her balcony is also small, it leads out to the best view of Los Angeles I saw in my time there. It makes your knees want to buckle. We are all stunned at how gorgeous the city looks, how the silhouetted palm trees remind us of the Lorax, how everything is enough. The Santa Monica Mountains glimmer in the distance as if the stars have fallen from the sky.
I snap out of this trance and it’s time to go. We made our way to a pojangmacha, where the food was hot, the peach soju went down like Lipton tea, and the Korean boys were so cute. One of our friends’ childhood friends meets us for dinner. She is getting proposed to a couple days later but does not know it at this point, and all of us revel in knowing this secret. Afterwards, we make our way to a bar called Lock and Key, where everyone, and I mean everyone, is hot. I’m like a West Coast 4. I am humiliated out of $40 to skip the line, but the vibes inside are immaculate. We stumble out of the bar and go get tacos, of course. Later, we’ll rent scooters and zip back to K-Town, merrymaking like teenagers.
III. Did Didion Ever Have El Flamin’ Tacos?
In her book Miami, Joan Didion pays particular attention to the sound of Spanish in that tropical capital:
“The sound of spoken Spanish was common in Miami, but it was also common in Los Angeles, and Houston, and even in the cities of the northeast. What was unusual about Spanish in Miami was not that it was so often spoken, but that it was so often heard: in, say, Los Angeles, Spanish remained a language only barely registered by the Anglo population, part of the ambient noise, the language spoken by the people who worked in the car wash and came to trim the trees and cleared the tables in restaurants. In Miami Spanish was spoken by the people who ate in the restaurants, the people who owned the cars and the trees … Exiles who felt isolated or declassed by language in New York or Los Angeles thrived in Miami.”
For a few weeks before my trip to L.A., I had been questioning my relationship to Spanish, my mother tongue. My boyfriend asked at a Mexican food stand here in D.C. how come I didn’t speak Spanish to the people behind the counter, when they obviously spoke Spanish to customers before me. I told him that I just didn’t want to assume that that was the language that they spoke, in a bit of an unkind tone. His question triggered something in me that I’d spend a couple of my next therapy sessions unpacking.
For immigrants, the process of leaving one’s country results in a bit of a psychological severance. There are loud echoes of this in W.E.B. Du Bois’ well-known concept of “double consciousness”:
“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness— … two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
My departure from Venezuela was sudden—one day I was going to school there, and the next I was not. In the quiet confusion that remained, questions lingered in the minds of friends and family as they wondered why I hadn’t come back home. My mother and sister made clear that I had done a very bad thing, and that each day I chose to stay in the United States past my welcome wounded them further. Partly for this reason, teenage me found in him a desperate need to kill this past self, to erase him from the map. I could begin a new life if I unburdened myself from my past one. At fourteen.
Little by little, that also meant subconsciously eschewing my language. I refused to speak in Spanish to other Hispanic kids in school and later in college, unless we were really good friends. My siblings and I exclusively spoke English with each other at home. My boyfriend has asked me to speak more in Spanish with him, because we both want to be able to converse in it fluently, but my mouth simply refuses to.
As I unpacked some of these feelings with my therapist, I told her that I didn’t want to come off as being ashamed of my heritage. Let’s be honest, it’s likely that I was—but I never wanted to be. I was always outwardly proud of being an immigrant, of being brown, of my birthplace. But it’s clear that during all those years of being cast as an illegal, something within me had cleaved. I had torn myself asunder, convinced myself I could be something more than my trauma. Trauma clings to you, though. Like nail to flesh.
Now I don’t know what Didion was exactly talking about in Miami, because while it is true that you can be a successful capitalist in Miami without knowing Spanish, speaking Spanish doesn’t automatically make you feel less “isolated” or “declassed” there. That’s only true, I think, if you’re rich. I’m not that. What a number of Latinos have imported to Miami, it seems to me, is classism.
In L.A., by contrast, hearing Spanish makes me feel safe. I go up to the El Flamin’ truck, drunk, and actually feel confident to order my tacos in Spanish. I throw in some pleasantries to be polite before ordering uno de asada, uno de al pastor, uno de chorizo. They don’t have Mexican food in Venezuela, but this nevertheless feels like I’m reacquainting with a past self I thought I could kill. When they call my number in English, I say it back in Spanish with a question mark at the end, and the taquero says “simón.” He’s not saying my name—simón is just a slang-y way of saying sí—and yet it feels like he is.
It feels like winning the lottery—the one with money. Didion couldn’t know this feeling.
IV. Coda: Abundance
The days pour into each other. Whether at a club or at the beach, at a thrift shop or at an upscale vintage store, there’s people of color everywhere. Paradise. One morning we go to Marina Del Rey and it’s my first time paddle-boarding. The shoreline is wide and the water remains shallow for a while. My friend Henry swears he sees a stingray. No one else believes him. I think it’s possible but I don’t say this. As we make our way into deeper water, gently pushed out of the marina by the wind, we see a massive grayish creature come out of the water. It’s a seal! He treats the place like he owns it, clambering atop the deck of a boat to drink in the sun. We are drinking in the sun, too, and the seal truly could not care less about us. A few moments later, we see two or three more, also laying on boats, unbothered. The marina is quiet for a while, the silence pierced only by the seals’ intermittent barks. Each time, we laugh and say “same.”
I’ve never been a beach type, even when I lived in Florida. I loved the beach as a kid, but for reasons beyond the scope of this essay—ahem, body dysmorphia—I grew up to despise it. Being around people without their clothes on made me uncomfortable, judged. After the paddle-boarding, we stop by Venice Beach. Our friend Kerry buys these sunglasses, and we tell her she looks not just good, but villainous. We amble up the boardwalk, then veer off into the sand, feet sinking and sinking. After swimming in cold Nantucket waters, I was really interested in how the West Coast would compare. This water was cold, but not too cold. The waves broke early, but the surf was so strong that the water develops a way of taunting you: It crests, crashes early, but then sweeps the shore all the way to the top of your toes before receding. Other times, it just drowns your ankles. You never know which one you’ll get.
I think again of how little I am. My friend remarks, kind of off-hand, how it always amazes her that these are the same waters that her family in Korea can touch. I understand that the immigrant’s severance is no severance at all, but just another twisted trick that borders, and the systems that maintain them, pull on us. They make us think the water cannot be sailed. In truth, we are closer than we appear.
Standing at the Pacific, I am filled with wonderment. I really don’t mean to romanticize Los Angeles as flawless—like many other cities, it has a bleak history of racism and police brutality, and a present battle against unhoused people and immigrant street vendors—but it made several points. Ignore the girlboss/influencer/content creator class, and this can be a place of abundance. A lemonade at a café is not just Minute Maid; you can get pomegranate syrup in it. A Mexican father blasts Vicente Fernández at the beach, unrepentant. On my last day there, I wear a neck scarf and exist as my full queer self and no one bats an eye.
Traveling brings me profound sadness. It is charged with the trauma of immigration and the pain of being made illegal. I hate how much people use it to appear more worldly, as if you can unlock knowledge with a plane ticket. And sometime during this trip, I felt the pang of the numerous friend vacations I’ve been excluded from for being undocumented, because they just had to go to Ibiza.
But here, I feel awake. Unlike in Miami, I’m at ease.
If you enjoyed this post, let me know in the comments. This is only my second piece of travel writing, and I’m trying to see how it goes.
And this playlist is a cross-section of what we listened to in L.A.—hope the vibes come alive for you, too.
Thank you for being here. Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support Alienhood.
“It feels like winning the lottery—the one with money. Didion couldn’t know this feeling.” Brilliant.
Love this piece! Hit a chord on being unable to travel (of course nothing like you, but during COVID visa renewal has been a pain so I haven’t seen my family for 4+ years & can never travel internationally when friends decide to go on a cruise on a whim). Hit a chord on immigration, touching the same sea but with the imposed borders honing on us. Love it ❤️