Tag Archives: history

Reflections on my very first trip to Italy + What is the point of traveling anywhere anyway?


“Italy is incredible! I love Italy!” This pretty well sums up every conversation I’d ever had about Italy before going there this spring. Americans are inordinately fond of Italy. The food! The culture! The art! The fashion! The Renaissance! Tuscany! We both put it on a European pedestal and then boast about how we’re a quarter Italian.

I’m a bit contrarian so if everyone loves something, I’ll immediately find fault. So naturally in college I chose to study abroad in Cuba rather than Europe. Though I studied history, I focused on American and Latin American history and indeed only managed to take one European history class in my four years.  Then I moved to Mexico, something that puzzled pretty much everyone I met on either side of the border.

I told myself I’d make it over to Europe once I was established and fabulously wealthy and tired of weathering travel in developing countries. It was partially a way to blunt the pain of prohibitive cost and partially a rejection of European cultural hegemony. I’m a native Californian – I reject East Coast cultural hegemony, much less people putting on airs from across the Atlantic.

This May, I went to visit friends who have been living in Pozzuoli, near Naples, Italy. I knew so little about the country, I couldn’t have pointed at Naples on a map (or Rome or Florence or this fabled Tuscany place). And I had no idea what I was expected to see.

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Filed under Travel

A Gringo’s Guide to Mexican-American Murals

Here in East Los Angeles, around every corner there are beautiful murals depicting the history of Mexico and the history of Mexicans here in the United States. While anyone can appreciate their beauty, the California public school curriculum is notably light on Latin American history so the events, people and symbols they reference may not be readily familiar to the casual observer.
The ultimate place to view murals is Chicano Park, located under the I-5 overpass in San Diego.
Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo
The park itself has a rich history and every mural tells a story. After visiting last year, I created this slideshow to give an intro to interpreting the images so everyone can enjoy these murals more deeply. I hope they will pique your curiosity to learn even more about the history of the Americas.

A couple of ways to view:

Go here and click on the photos one by one to see the captions.
Click here to see a slideshow – Click Show Info in the top right-hand corner to see the captions.

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Filed under California history, Los Angeles, Mexico, politics

The unstoppable Orange County

When I moved to LA, I feel like I inadvertantly chose sides in a long-standing feud: Los Angeles vs. Orange County. There is obviously a lot of history going way back, a lot of bad blood and passion. Well, I’m not from here so I don’t get it, the same way people from Texas don’t recognize the HUGE differences between Sonoma and Napa (Napa’s for auto parts – Sonoma’s the best. Even Grey’s Anatomy hunks agree! McDreamy: “Sonoma. Smaller hotels. Fewer tourists.“). So far, these are things I’ve noticed on my brief forays to Orange County.

  • The highway is a lot wider.
  • There is a lot of water-intensive landscaping, even in the industrial parks, but there are basically no orange trees anywhere.
  • The outdoor mall in Irvine can only be accurately described as vast.

Thankfully, there is a book to enlighten us on the charms of this southern land: Orange County: A Personal History.


I found out about the newest book by Gustavo Arellano, the author of the syndicated column, Ask a Mexican, from his recent Zocalo lecture. I’ve taken to downloading the lectures as podcasts and I listen at the gym so that I’m simultaneously getting both buffer AND smarter.
The same way a good teacher can make anything interesting, so can a good writer. Gustavo Arellano is as funny as ever, plus the book has lots of my favorite stuff – history and musings on Mexican/American culture. He’s got a great section on OC religion from The Purpose-Driven Life to the Hour of Power. I’m planning a field trip to the Crystal Cathedral.
Orange County is actually part of my personal history as well. I may have been raised in Northern California, but my half-sister, Dana, grew up in Newport Beach, as did her husband. I recently visited my sister’s old haunts for the first time ever. We walked around Balboa Island and she pointed out places our dad used to go when his family vacationed down south in the summers. It was kind of surreal to be connected to a place I’d never visited.
But as Gustavo points out, we’re ALL connected to Orange County in one way or another, since it’s one of those rare American places with political and cultural influence far beyond its size. He may be the county’s #1 critic, but he’s also it’s #1 cheerleader. Read it, love it, embrace the OC. (Just don’t call it that.)

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Filed under California history, Orange County

The majestic redwoods of downtown Los Angeles

It was hot in downtown LA last Saturday. People moved languidly between the funky buildings along Broadway, squinting in the piercing sunlight. After a three-hour historical tour, my boyfriend, German, and I were definitely ready for a relaxing sit-down lunch. We crossed the street and popped into Clifton’s Cafeteria, a Los Angeles institution for over 74 years and the biggest cafeteria in the entire country.
From the glass doors in front, you walk straight back along the wall to a labyrinthine stainless steel counter at the very back, sliding your tray past dishes of coleslaw and potato salad over to the hot trays filled with chicken swimming in barbecue sauce, towers of mashed potatoes and a puddle of macaroni and cheese.

Clifton's Cafeteria, Los Angeles

Clifton's Cafeteria, Los Angeles

Snag a slice of coconut cream pie and you emerge from the sterile food service area into someone’s version of a forest wonderland.

Clifton's Cafeteria, Los Angeles

Clifton's Cafeteria, Los Angeles

A waterfall trickles down the middle of the cavernous two-story space and the walls are covered with life-size murals of the redwoods. Fake redwoods stick out from the walls, there are small statues of bears and a mechanical raccoon poking out of a tree stump.
I didn’t see it coming. People had told me the place was like stepping into a 1930’s time-warp, but strangely, no one mentioned that it also endeavored to transport you to the coast of northern California (or Frontier Land in Disneyland). After eating, we wound our way up the stairs and off the second level, you could squeeze into a tiny chapel. Sitting on the narrow bench, you looked into a forest diorama. I pressed the button and a man’s voice intoned a poem about God and nature. Surreal, but strangely soothing to be squeezed into a little space in the middle of the hustle and bustle of the cafeteria. Very zen.

Clifton's Cafeteria, Los Angeles
See the chapel in the right-hand corner.

I suppose it was everything the founders dreamed. We rustled up a detailed brochure that explained a lot. The Clifton family opened their first cafeteria in 1931, smack dab in the middle of the Depression. They weren’t newcomers to the business, having run restaurants in San Francisco, and they drew on another fount of experience – serving in the mission fields of China. “Clifford, one of the five children with them in China, was so moved by the appalling poverty and lack of food that he vowed always to remember the plight of the hungry.”
You could say so. The cafeteria had a policy of never turning away anyone who was hungry and, during one 90-day period, it fed 10,000 people for free. As if that weren’t enough, Clifford went on to found a nonprofit that distributed “Multi-Purpose Food” to people around the globe (I picture something along the lines of a graham cracker block).
All of this is pretty extraordinary, but what I find so remarkable is that the cafeteria still exists, essentially unchanged for at least 50 years. And not just the one I went to downtown, but five locations across the L.A. area that serve 15,000 people a day. Cheesy, surreal, but strangely comforting.

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Filed under Los Angeles, Uncategorized, Weirdness

A walk through L.A.’s old movie palaces

To a certain extent, exploring Los Angeles’ historic Broadway theater district feels like stumbling upon King Tut’s tomb. Some of the most unassuming exteriors give way to sumptuous interiors, caverns adorned with gold baroque carvings punctuated by the leering faces of exotic royalty, the ceiling dripping with glass chandeliers.
Their charms are hidden for the most part. Our docent from the Los Angeles Conservancy pointed out details we never would have caught. One run-down marquee had a couple of shops crowded under it. The owner of the electronics shop kindly let us through the back into his storage room – the former theater stripped of its chairs, but still grand with its vaulted ceiling and touch of decoration.
Interior of old Broadway theater, now an electronics shop storeroom
Some were tragically beyond repair, nothing left but the shell of the building. Others were preserved even as their purpose had changed. Two of the theaters that were in the best shape were now under heavy and radically different uses by their current owners – one as a church, the other a jewelry shop, its floor as packed as the cosmetics section of Macy’s.
Theater isn’t the right word – at the time, these spaces were known as movie palaces, a far more accurate moniker. In the 1930s, this short stretch of Broadway supported a dozen theaters offering a mix of cinema and vaudeville. They could accomodate 17,000 people on a single night. Any world culture and any historic motif was fair game. Los Angeles is the capital of make believe after all, where appearances sometimes matter more than substance. Perhaps as a result, the architectural styles are a mishmash of influences. The Citadel mall – L.A. does Egypt. The vast outdoor mall in Irvine – L.A. does southern Spain. Grauman’s Chinese Theater – L.A. does the “Orient.”
Historians here are perhaps better off celebrating the eclectic influences than trying to get developers to be true to a single style. After all, L.A. is no ancient city so any way you cut it, the architects here are probably copying someone else.
There are too many treasures along Broadway to name, too many good stories so you’ll just have to take the tour for yourself.
It was exciting to see those theaters that are still vibrant, perhaps most notably the Orpheum which now hosts world-class concerts and even American Idol try-outs. The owner kindly let us take a seat in front and a man headed to the stage, plopped down on the bench seat of the organ and proceeded to play us a bit of an epic movie score. It was about as close to time travel as I’ll ever get.

Take a little walk for yourself with my interactive map. I’ll add some more pictures next week.

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Filed under California history, I heart Cali, Los Angeles