As of 2015, an estimated 48.4% of Angelenos were “Hispanic of any race.” The majority of Hispanic and Latino Angelenos are of Mexican heritage but the region is also well known for being home to the largest populations of Salvadorans and Guatemalans outside of their home countries. Often overlooked are the region’s smaller Latino populations, the subject of this series of No Enclave posts written on the occasion of National Hispanic Heritage Month.
Colombian-Americans comprise the largest group of Americans of South American origin living in the US. Colombia is a multi-ethnic nation with large numbers of citizens with Native, African, European (primarily Spanish), and mixed backgrounds. There are also small but substantial populations of Chinese, Japanese, Lebanese, and Syrian Colombians.
With a population of roughly 64,416, California has the fourth largest Colombian-American population — following New York, Florida, and New Jersey. Aside from the presence of a few Colombian restaurants, the Colombian population of Los Angeles is not especially visible. The population is diffuse and there is no Colombian enclave, although there are efforts to designate an area dominated by Salvadorans and Koreans as “Paseo Colombia.”
BRIEF HISTORY OF COLOMBIA
What’s now the nation of Colombia was first settled at least 10,500 years ago by various Native Americans. Due to its location at the southern end of the Isthmus of Panama, Colombia was a crossroads of migration between the Amazon, the Andes, the Caribbean, and Mesoamerica. Native peoples of Colombia include the Calima, Muisca Confederation, Quimbaya Civilization, Tairona Chiefdoms, Tierradentro, Tolima, Zenú, and others.
The Spanish invaded in 1499 and established the Viceroyalty of New Granada. The Republic of Colombia (aka “Gran Colombia”) declared independence from Spain in 1810. In 1830, Gran Colombia was dissolved and replaced by the republics of Ecuador, Venezuela, and New Granada. With the inauguration of the Granadine Confederation (1858) and the United States of Colombia (1863), Colombia experimented with Federalism. The Republic of Colombia was declared in 1886. In 1903, Panama seceded from Colombia.
A century of partisan violence and military dictatorship was countered by the creation of the National Front (Frente Nacional) by Liberal and Conservative parties, who agreed to share power. In the decades which followed, however, new guerrilla movements arose including the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the National Liberation Army (ELN), the Popular Liberation Army (EPL), the Quintín Lame Movement (MAQL), and the 19th of April Movement (M-19). FARC formed in part to counter the anti-Communist efforts of the US in Colombia and initially provided protection of the rural poor from right wing paramilitary groups and government forces. Over time, however, FARC turned increasingly to drug trafficking to support their operations and eventually drug trafficking, not social justice, became their raison d’être. Between 1958 and 2013, an estimated 220,000 Colombians died and many millions were displaced.
COLUMBIA, COCAINE, AND THE COLLECTIVE CONSCIOUSNESS
The drug in question was cocaine (probably the first and only thing most Americans associate with Colombia) and half the world’s 300 ton supply is annually consumed by Americans. For at least 8,000 years, Colombian peoples cultivated coca for their own use and 3,000-year-old mummies have been found to contain coca. Coca was introduced to Europe in the 16th century but it’s popularity only really took off in the mid-19th century. Coca wines like Hall’s Wine, Metcalf’s Coca Wine, Vin Mariani, and Coca-Cola, &c were purported, by their manufacturers, to have health benefits and were popular with Europeans and Americans. At the same time, Italian anthropologist, neurologist, and physiologist Paolo Mantegazza began experimenting with and writing effusively about the pleasurable effects of recreational cocaine use. As with many drugs, in the 20th century, a racially motivated moral panic was whipped up and the drug was effectively outlawed in 1914.
Cocaine’s popularity returned in the 1960s, in large part due to its popularity amongst hippies. A “party drug,” it largely lacked negative stigma of heroin, speed, or even marijuana and it was so popular with 1970s disco set and yuppies of the 1980s that a massive glut caused a drastic reduction in its asking price. As a result, a cheap, smokeable form known as crack was created which could be sold profitably at low prices and provide a high even in small quantities. The first reports in the media of crack use in Los Angeles appeared around 1981. By 1984, talk turned to a crack epidemic. Crack was characterized as dirty, dangerous, and something abused by (poor and mostly minority) “crackheads.”Meanwhile, powder cocaine retained its association with the rich, famous, and mostly white; and the criminal penalties for selling, possessing, and distributing crack were much more severe than those for powder cocaine until the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.
The disparity between crack and powder cocaine was also reflected and reinforced by Hollywood fantasies of the era. Even when cautionary about drugs, neon noirs like American Gigolo (1980), Body Double (1984), To Live and Die in L.A. (1985), Less Than Zero (1987), and The Boost (1988) depicted powder cocaine as the choice of rich, powerful, and white Angelenos (and Beverly Hills residents). Crack, on the other hand, appeared in “hood” films like Colors (1988), Boyz n the Hood (1991), South Central (1992), Menace II Society (1993), and Training Day (2001).
The West Coast gangsta rap of Toddy Tee, N.W.A., Compton’s Most Wanted, et al seemed to confirm the inextricability of crack with poverty and street gangs. Meanwhile, powder cocaine played a huge part in the proliferation (if not lyrical subject matter) of local glam metal acts like Poison, Ratt, and Motley Crue — and the Sunset Strip scene in West Hollywood. Meanwhile, the US government spent trillions of dollars to eradicate cocaine production in Colombia, which succeeded in spreading cultivation to neighboring Bolivia, Brazil, and Peru and additionally helped fuel decades of corruption, death, and destruction.
In Hollywood films, Colombian characters were were nearly always involved in narco-trafficking, but most Colombians, like all immigrants, came for mundane reasons. Most early Colombian immigrants came for academic pursuits. Since the early 20th century, many Colombian immigrants have long favored New York City, specifically the Jackson Heights neighborhood of Queens. During “La Violencia“ (the Civil War of 1948-1958), Colombian migrants were increasingly motivated by existential concerns. In the 1980s, Colombians increasingly made their home in and around Florida’s metropolis. In the 1990s, as violence between the government and FARC intensified, Colombian immigrants began favoring California as a destination. Many of this most recent wave were undocumented, making their numbers harder to estimate, but it’s believed to be in the neighborhood of 75,000, making Colombians the largest group of undocumented South Americans living in the US.
The most obvious sign of Colombians’ presence in Los Angeles is the existence of Colombian restaurants. Although I lived for a time in Florida, I never there experienced Colombian cuisine as my father and his second wife’s tastes were stultifyingly dull — the height of every soul-starving meal was an iceberg lettuce salad with instant Italian dressing. My first exposure to Colombian food only came years later, when I popped into Burbank’s no-longer-extant Cafe Colombia.
Colombian cuisine is influenced by the country’s Caribbean location and reflects the influences of its indigenous peoples and techniques blended with those introduced by African, Arab, Spanish, North American, and Asian immigrants. Distinct regional variations include the cuisines of the Amazon, Bogotá and the Andes, Cali, the Caribbean coast, the Caribbean islands, Los Llanos, Medellín, Tolima, and Valledupar.
By 2500 BCE, maize spread from North America throughout most of the hemisphere. Other ingredients indigenous to the Americas include arazá, blackberry, cape gooseberry, cassava, dragon fruit, fish, granadilla, guava, naranjilla, papaya, passion fruit, pineapple guava, potatoes, and soursop. The Spanish introduced many of the widely eaten animals including chickens, cows, goats, and pigs.
Modern dishes and culinary items representative of Colombian cuisine include aborrajados, ajiaco, almojábanas, arepas, arroz con coco, arroz de lisa, bandeja paisa, carimañolas, costeño cheese, empanadas, kibbeh, lechona tolimense, mamona, pan de queso, pandebono, papas chorreadas, papas criollas al horno, patacones, sancocho, tamales, and torta de choclo. Popular beverages include aguapanela, avena colombiana, champús, cholado, various fruit juices, hot chocolate, lulada, sugarcane juice, and coffee. Today only Brazil and Vietnam cultivate more coffee than Colombia.
Colombian cuisine seems to have had a hard time in Los Angeles. In just the past few years, not only did Cafe Colombia close, but also Avocado Colombian Cuisine, El Carriel, Chibcha, Colombian Cuisine At Mitze’s Kountry Kitchen, and Mi Latin Kitchen. Still in operation (at the time of writing) are Colombian Delicatessen (Lawndale), Escala (Koreatown), La Fonda Antioquena (Hollywood Studio District), La Fonda Paisa and El Molinito (both Pico Rivera), La Maria (North Hollywood), Meson Criollo Grill Restaurant (Van Nuys), El Paisa (Long Beach), and Sabor Colombiano (Westlake). Elsewhere in Southern California there’s Antojitos Colombianos (San Diego) and El Porton Colombiano Restaurant (Huntington Beach).
Members of the Latino Economic Empowerment Round Table (LEERT) are advocating for the establishment of “Paseo Colombia” around Westlake’s Sabor Latino — even though few if any Colombians live in the neighborhood. In 2014, community leader (and I believe, cosmetic surgeon) Augusto Rojas told Los Angeles Times reporter Esmeralda Bermudez “…there is no place we can say, ‘This is Colombia,’ so we had to create an area out of nothing.” Although official designation of enclaves usually follows the decades of colloquial recognition, LEERT seems to be adopting an “if you build it they will come” approach, also reflected in their efforts to designate seemingly random parts of the city “Peru Village” and “Little Venezuela.”
Although not usually indicative of Colombians’ presence, cumbia is an indicator of Colombia’s musical influence on and popularity in Los Angeles. Cumbia first developed as a courtship dance amongst the Afro-Caribbean communities of Colombia and Panama. By the 1940s, cumbia and related costeña musical forms like porro and vallenato were popular throughout Colombia. By the 1950s it had spread to Mexico, where it influenced the development of chuntaro, marimbera, norteño, sonidera, tropical, and more recently, trival.
My introduction to cumbia was through Mexican act Carmen Rivero y su conjunto‘s 1965 CBS release, Cumbia, The Latest Craze in Latin Dancing, which positioned cumbia as successor to mambo, merengue, and other Latino dance genres briefly popular with Anglos — and something to which the listener could dance both the Twist and the Frug, the liner notes assured. I don’t remember ever dancing to cumbia — Twist, Frug, or otherwise — until several years ago, when a charitable young woman took it upon herself to teach me on the improvised dance floor of a bar. A couple years later, a few of us crashed a birthday party having been lured to the strangers’ backyard of by the aggressive, intriguing sound of the trival spun by the DJ. Although popular in Los Angeles, the only local cumbia act of which I’m familiar is Very Be Careful, formed in 1998 and including Colombian-Angelenos Ricardo and Arturo Guzman on accordion and bass, respectively.
Prior to researching Colombian-Los Angeles, I knew next to nothing about “shapewear.” Apparently, the foundation garments now popular with many women, drag queens, and Andy Millman were originally developed in Colombia for the use of recovering plastic surgery patients for the purpose of reducing postoperative swelling and hopefully ensuring that skin tightens in the desired shape. The US leads the world in plastic surgery procedures, so naturally postoperative shapewear made its way to the here, where it occasionally acknowledges to its Colombian roots as in the case of Panorama City‘s Moda Colombiana and Santa Clarita‘s Colombian Curves.
There have been a few Colombian-Americans who make or have made their homes in Los Angeles, including actors Alyssa Diaz, Andrew Keegan, Hector Luis Bustamante, Makenzie Vega, Odette Annable, Sofia Vergara, Stephanie Beatriz, Wilmer Valderrama, and Yancey Arias; filmmaker Andrés Useche; television judge Cristina Perez; footballers Carlos Llamosa and Juan Agudelo (both formerly of now-defunct Chivas USA); composer Kike Santander; drummer Robo (of Black Flag); singer Sofia Carson; and singer-songwriter Yasmin Deliz.
COLOMBIAN FESTIVALS & ORGANIZATIONS
Colombia celebrates its independence on 20 July and every year since 2005, El Festival Colombiano has taken place in Pico Rivera. The offices of the Colombian Consulate General in Los Angeles are located, like so many, on Wilshire Boulevard, in Beverly Hills.
Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam.
Brightwell has written for Angel Walk LA, Amoeblog, Boom: A Journal of California, diaCRITICS, Hidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art Museum, Form Follows Function, Los Angeles County Store, the book Sidewalking, Skid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery.
Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, LAist, Eastsider LA, Boing Boing, Los Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College.
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