Sunday, April 16, 2017


A somewhat brief memoir and love letter to the city of Compton
This post is a shorter version of a final paper I turned in for my Civil Right Seminar class this. Over the years I have received so many inquiries about my childhood in Compton. For this reason, I found it appropriate to share this here. 

If I had a dime for every time I've been asked, "Are you r e a l l y from Compton?" I'd be filthy rich. I used to respond to this question by taking my driver's license out of my wallet to verify that in fact, yes, my home zip code is 90220, but I've since discontinued the practice. I always found it very ironic that there's a one digit difference between my zip code and that belonging to Beverly Hills. There's usually a disbelieving skeptical-like follow up question, "But you're probably from the nice part of Compton, right? there's nice parts?" It's as though my existence has shattered what a stranger, someone who has NEVER visited Compton (I might add), had in mind when they think of the birthplace of "gangsta rap." 

It's something like a scene out of Gregory Nava's film Selena. In the scene I'm referencing, Selena and her brother A.B. are understandably ecstatic about the possibility of performing in Mexico—their father, portrayed by Edward James Olmos, is less so.
"Listen, being Mexican-American is tough," he tells his children. "Anglos jump all over you if you don't speak English perfectly. Mexicans jump all over you if you don't speak Spanish perfectly. We've got to be twice as perfect as anybody else...we've gotta prove to the Mexicans how Mexican we are, and we've gotta prove to the Americans how American we are. We gotta be more Mexican than the Mexicans and more American than the Americans both at the same time—It's exhausting! Nobody knows how tough it is to be a Mexican-American!" 
Well, Mr. James-Olmos-turned-Quintanilla, add being from Compton AND being Mormon to the repetoire and you've got yourself something straight-up "impossible."

Is it my more "white sounding" voice that confuses people? My perfect pronunciation? The fact that I'm working on two difficult graduate degrees? To those who have doubts, I say someone once posed a very similar question. "And Nathanael said unto him, Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth? Compton? [Lauren] saith unto him, Come and see." (John 1:46)

I am a second generation Compton-ite. I was raised on the property that my grandfather purchased back in the early 1950s. The home we lived in was built in 1939, and rumor (or rather, legend) has it that a wealthy German man built the home and hid buried treasure on the property. I'm not quite sure about the treasure bit, but there was a cleverly and rather subtly hidden swastika insignia embedded in the tiles of our fireplace.

Probably the most oft asked question I get after I've assured (read: convinced) people that I'm from Compton is, "is it really as dangerous as they say it is?!" My answer for you is complicated. Compton is my normal, and sure, now I realize that I've had a few more questionably dangerous encounters than most, but it is my reality. Compton is home. My freshman year at BYU, Compton was rated the 17th most dangerous city in the United States by CQ Press—during my childhood years it made its way pretty frequently into the top 10 list. And yet, I cherish the growth that took place there. 

That being said, I offer the following as "life in the hood" context.

My father was shot in front of our home just before I was born. He had come home from a soccer game with friends only to encounter two black teenagers demanding he hand over his wallet. When he refused, and instead started resisting, he was shot in his left elbow—to this day he has fragments of bullet embedded in his elbow and is unable to straighten his left arm. 

My grandfather was also shot, but this time at a fast food fish sandwich joint near a do-it-yourself car wash place close to our home. It happened shortly after he had attended a lesson with the LDS missionaries. The police guessed that it had been his business suit and his habit of bringing a briefcase for church visits that had led the teenagers who shot him to believe that he was carrying a great amount of money on him—he had less than $20.

Now, for my own story.

When I was in fifth grade I was one day playing outside in the little walkway between the apartments my grandparents rented out and the home where they lived. I was playing with children from the apartment below, we had a club of sorts where I pretended to be a teacher and would give out fake homework assignments. We were in the middle of some pretend activity when I heard a crashing noise that I for some unknown reason believed to be a cat. There was a back part to the apartments that had a metal clothesline where tenants could hang their wet clothes to dry; it was from this area that the noise originated. 
[Another Easter Sunday, albeit an earlier one than the picture from before. This picture shows the area I was attempting to describe where my friends and I would play. Notice also, the bars on our windows]

I was absolutely convinced that there was some cat that needed my help, so I ran around the corner to the clothesline area. Halfway to my destination, I was met face to face with a man, an older man with curly black hair who grabbed me by the shoulders and said in Spanish, "¿Puedo esconderme en tu casa?!" Can I hide in your house? My mind was unable to process what was happening. Where was the cat? Who was this man? Why  did he want to hide in my house? Wait. Stranger danger—that was a thing. I should be scared. Actually, this was scary. I opened my mouth, but no words came out. I had suddenly forgotten how to speak, and my body was going into some form of shock. All of this happened so quickly, and yet felt like an agonizing eternity. I don't know if the man said anything more to me, but I was saved by my father who opened our apartment door and yelled, "LAUREN! GET INSIDE." The man proceeded to try his luck with my father in finding refuge in our apartment. My father explained that it just wasn't going to be possible, and as police sirens got louder and louder then man took off running. We later learned that the man had had a gun, and had thrown it on the roof of our apartment. The fire department later had to come and retrieve it.

These are my "war stories," my dangerous highlights if you will. There was also many a summer day spent helping my father paint over a series of "TF"s that had been tagged on the brick columns surrounding our home and the apartment garages, a sign that the Tortilla Flats (yes, that's a real gang) had graced our street with their presence.

[you can see the brick columns I was talking about and the evidence of my father's attempts to scrub graffiti from them]

I started with war stories somewhat for dramatic effect, but also because it's the part of my upbringing people are most interested in hearing about. However, there are so many happy memories and genuinely good things I love about Compton. Compton is hallowed ground. Some of my favorite memories include coming home from church every Sunday and being greeted with loud waves of tambourines, drums, and microphone enhanced praises streaming in from the black Baptist church across the street; visiting the Compton library on the weekly and being on a first name basis with the librarians; running on the track at Compton College; and don't get me started on the BOMB chili cheese fries from Louis Burgers.

I can't imagine my life without Compton, CA, and I can't in good conscience leave behind the ghetto. I never want to end up as this success story, someone who "left the hood" without doing something for the community that gave her so much. I don't want to be an individual who occasionally throws a few thousand dollars at a city hoping something good will come of her tax-deductible contribution. My city does not define me, but it did shape me. But, it's because I love my hometown that a have such a soft spot for the ghettos of America. I feel a strong affinity for the sense of community found there. I can't turn my back on the ghetto, there's too strong of a sense of duty, and I feel deeply that my heartstrings and destiny are invariably linked to urban communities around the country. I feel at home in the ghetto.

I think Heavenly Father recognizes this. In fact, I'm pretty convinced he designed my life this way. Huntington Park, East Los, Long Beach, Boyle Heights, South Central, Harlem, East Houston each of these areas have brought about periods of great growth in my life. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said,
"Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to don't have to know Einstein's theory of relativity to only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant."
 The people I've met in the abovementioned places are the embodiment of that quote.

Last year, the Grammy awards put together a short film celebrating Compton as a way to honor rapper Kendrick Lamar's achievements. The film features a number of Black Compton residents rapping lines from Lamar's beloved anthem, "Alright" in front of notable Compton landmarks. There's the Dr. King monument, the Obama mural painted on the side of city hall, Centennial high school, and of course—Louis burgers (I mentioned their famed chili cheese fries earlier). I cried the first time I saw the film, it was a beautiful tribute to a beautiful city and recognized Compton as a home of greatness.

Compton is a city in transition; the majority of residents are now Latino. There are parks being built, old landmarks being beautified, and there's an infectious spirit in the air. It's a city with flair and character. Case in point: if you ever visit the city there is a high probability you will see people riding horses on the asphalt roads. I have high hopes for the future of "the Hub city." To be sure, Compton has its struggles—every city does, but I hope that "success stories" like mine will become more of the norm rather that outlying oddities. To answer the question I posed earlier, good things do come out of Compton—in fact, great things come "Straight Outta Compton." 


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