A Latino AIDS Memorial Stands, but Gentrification Displaces the Community

Emilio Flores

East Los Angeles is a special neighborhood not only because it has been a safe haven for migrants to the U.S. for many decades: A memorial in Lincoln Park, East LA, also honors those we lost to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the '80s and early '90s. It is one of the few (maybe the only) monuments in the U.S. specifically dedicated to Latinx community members, most of them queer, whose lives were abruptly taken away from us. But that honoring was long fought for. Now, the neighborhood that I knew as a child is changing, and the memorial is beginning to represent not just those lost to HIV but increasingly those lost to gentrification.

Lincoln Park was one of the first parks created in Los Angeles, beginning in the late 1800s. John S. Griffin, a surgeon who left New Mexico to start a life in California, supported the project of building a park in East Los Angeles. Los Angeles is vast in size, and each community represented under the umbrella word "LA" has a different story to tell. For example, East LA -- or "NELA" (Northeast LA), a term now commonly used on Snapchat by the hipster-yuppies who have settled in the area -- has history from long before these millennials began their professional careers in metropolitan Los Angeles.

In the early 20th century, East Los Angeles became a place of transition for migrants coming from places such as Mexico and Russia. Families settled just east of the Los Angeles River, heading to work in factories and stores on the other side of what is now Downtown Los Angeles. With the onset of World War II, Mexicans migrated to East Los Angeles to work in factories making machinery for the burgeoning war industries.

Shortly after the war, Latinos became the majority population of East Los Angeles -- although to be fair, many Chicanos had already resided in the area. But not until Central Americans from El Salvador and Guatemala started migrating to the U.S. in the late '80s to avoid civil wars in their home countries did my family decided to make its way to Lincoln Heights: That's why I remember the park. My dad would drive past it on Valley Boulevard as we made our way into Chinatown to get food and explore the city on weekends.

I arrived in this community at this time, as a kid, during the worst years of the HIV/AIDS crisis. I wasn't aware of what HIV was or what it would come to mean in my own life. But there was a controversy brewing over the building of a memorial.

Related: Early Latinx AIDS Activism Holds Lessons for Today

Latino AIDS Memorial
Emilio Flores

Latinx HIV/AIDS Memorial Project

The Wall -- Las Memorias Project faced hostility from people who had not wanted a monument to honor the Latinx LGBTQIA community since one was first proposed in 1993. According to an article published by Kaiser Family Foundation, "several groups opposed construction of the monument, saying that it [would] attract gay men 'who will hold hands in public[.]'" Others criticized the monument as "pagan" because it is in the shape of the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl. A community group, the Coalition to Save Lincoln Park, even went as far as petitioning to stop construction of the monument by publishing negative propaganda.

Not until 2004 was the monument built. A board of community members decided on Lincoln Park because of the rich Latino heritage of the community and the park's proximity to the local AIDS treatment center at Los Angeles County General, and thus the intersectionality of Latinx identity and the HIV/AIDS crisis affecting many queer men at the time.

"The community of East Los Angeles is unlike any other in the county, rich in culture and tradition that spans generations and ethnicities, says Andres Magaña, the director of community engagement for The Wall Las Memorias Monument. It is that unique characteristic that makes it particularly exciting to work with the community."

Every year since it was built, The Wall -- Las Memorias Project remembers those we have lost to HIV/AIDS in East LA on World AIDS Day, Dec. 1. Community members gather and witness a candlelit ceremony showcasing the names of those we lost, which are inscribed on the Las Memorias AIDS Monument. This ongoing tradition has brought the community -- many of whom are survivors of the epidemic, as well as new generations of people who honor the space -- closer together.

"From its inception, the Las Memorias AIDS Monument has symbolized human loss and has been an inspiration of hope," says Magaña. "It has been a catalyst for social change that transcends generations, which is why we believe it has remained a relevant landmark for community members." After the friction of creating this magnificent monument, the community finally embraced its brothers and sisters unconditionally.

Unfortunately, due to the current housing crisis in East Los Angeles, people are being displaced, leaving the memorial increasingly without the community it was built to commemorate.

Latino AIDS Memorial
Emilio Flores

Loss of Community Through Gentrification

A few months ago, I drove around Northeast Los Angeles, or "NELA" as they call it these days, reminiscing about saving the world as a child with my heroes at the comic bookstore on the corner of York Blvd. That bookstore introduced me to heroes who unconditionally gave their lives to help others. The X-Men taught me that people may hate us for being different -- a metaphor many queer people can relate to -- but, however taxing this may be for us, it's our duty to educate in order to counter stigma.

That comic book store opened my eyes to something bigger than me. But, to my dismay, not only was it now gone, an outcome of urban planning erasure, but the new block was something out of a magazine commercial depicting a panorama of generic consumerist fetishes. Overnight, Highland Park and other towns in Northeast LA have uncannily begun to resemble the already gentrified and homogenous Silver Lake neighborhood. I began to see new faces I had never seen there growing up. I no longer heard the bells ring from los paleteros, nor did I see the ladies at the corner of York Blvd. selling tamales and champurrado with the sun setting in the background.

The streets now have graffiti art with phrases such as "Protect Yo Heart" and other semantics unfamiliar to the space that I once called home. I felt a longing in my heart -- melancholia -- as if I was suddenly in mourning. I was mourning my childhood memories. Where were the people who steadfastly fought for the monument in Lincoln Park? Where were the people who tirelessly fought the virus by proclaiming their right to remember that their lovers, family, and friends were here once?

The Latino community in East Los Angeles is facing a crisis. Last year, Latinx homelessness rose 63%. Migrants are losing their homes as landlords use scare tactics, such as threatening to call U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), to kick people out; this way they can hike up rental prices for millennials moving to the city. Rent is skyrocketing while, countywide, median Latinx household income is about $47K. Los Angeles ranks fourth in the nation among cities with the most renters, and the majority of those being pushed out of South LA and East LA are migrant folks and people of color. Nationally, Latinx gay and bisexual men's, as well as transgender women's, HIV rates continue to rise.

The facts don't lie; we need more representation to advocate for these families. These issues are urgent, especially as we welcome the 2028 Olympics to Los Angeles. What will this event mean for renters? Are we going to make sure people are secure in their homes or will rents hike up? Folks take for granted that cities are renter hubs while more rural areas are where homeowners live. Considering cities' limited space and millennials moving to urban areas such as Los Angeles for work, it's fair to say that working class people are being overlooked. Only through collective action can we move forward as a community to make sure families are not displaced as Los Angeles under goes these demographic changes.

Organizations, such as The Wall -- Las Memorias and Eviction Defense Network, a non-profit protecting the rights of renters in Los Angeles, have dedicated their time to preserving the history and people of East LA, as well as the honor of those we have lost to the HIV epidemic. Now more than ever, organizations such as these are needed to preserve history and advocate for folks who are being evicted and displaced -- a core task of Eviction Defense Network's mission statement. The Lincoln Park/East Los Angeles area has a history worth fighting for.