Scripps Professor Remaps Notions of Race in LA Suburbs

One of the largest cities in the world, Los Angeles is seeped in a rich linguistic, economic, cultural, and ethnic diversity which sprawls throughout the city into L.A. county’s lesser-known suburbs.

On Tuesday, March 28, at Scripps College’s Hampton Room, author, photographer, and assistant professor Wendy Cheng shared her research on historical and current experiences of residents in the white-minority suburban communities of the San Gabriel Valley. Using maps, photos, and written testimonies, Cheng presented her understanding of a place often overshadowed or ignored.

Cheng’s recent book “The Changs Next Door to the Diazes: Remapping Race in Suburban California” challenges the popular notion that American suburbs are predominantly populated by white, middle class families. The stories that Cheng shared from her book on Tuesday described the historical relationship between Asian American and Latinx communities that comprise the ethnic majority in the San Gabriel Valley (SGV) region, a cluster of cosmopolitan suburbs east of Los Angeles.

“What we can learn about residents of the SGV,” Cheng said in her lecture, “is that some suburbs and peripheries are exactly where we should be looking for a new and vital expressions of culture and belonging.”

Cheng provided several examples of SGV cultural expression in art, literature, music, and design that is rooted in local concerns and inspiration.

South El Monte Arts Posse (SEMAP), for example, is an artist collective “dedicated to engaging with the South El Monte and El Monte community through the arts,” according to their mission statement. Their work includes site-specific public art and literature, both fiction and nonfiction, about lived experiences in the area. The collective aims to decentralize the resources and attention paid to cultural producers in L.A. by establishing networks of similar work being done outside the city.

“Through this work they [SEMAP] are populating what are treated as blank or in between spaces on the map with a multifaceted polycultural history and present that is attendant to power dynamics, race, and class,” Cheng said.

Another local artist inspired by his upbringing in the SGV, Michael Jaime-Becerra, depicts resonant landscapes and narratives of the mundane characters and recognizable places of his community in his novels.

“The work of literary and cultural producers and action are important because they reflect the cosmopolitanism of everyday experiences in suburban working class and predominantly people of color spaces,” said Cheng. “They’re not creating something that didn’t exist. They’re amplifying the interests and worldviews of people in places that are typically erased or ignored.”

Yasmin Roberts SC ‘19 introduced Cheng on Tuesday as part of the Scripps Humanities Institute Junior Fellowship. After reading “The Changs Next Door to the Díazes,” Roberts was interested in learning more about the SGV community and the idea of multiracial, multicultural identities.

In an interview, she reflected on the relationship between her experiences as a student in Claremont and the communities Cheng discussed.

“The residents of the SGV challenge the suburban idea of majority white middle-class families and this is hard to find in other small suburbs such as Claremont, excluding the inland empire, Chino, etc,” Roberts said. “Overall, it is hard to compare the multiracial/multiethnic area of the SGV to Claremont and the 5Cs. Although I am a student in Claremont, I don’t really identify with the San Gabriel Valley Cheng was discussing based on the fact that I am originally from the diverse city of San Francisco rather than a suburb.”

Being a student of the Claremont Colleges, it is easy to remain within a bubble that often separates academic spaces from the broader local contexts in which they function. Cheng’s presented research reminded the audience of some of the dynamic histories existing just beyond these ivory towers.

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