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In the gangland of Los Angeles

blog by The Canisius Griffin  • 

Last Friday morning, a group of 19 Canisius College students excitedly boarded a plane headed for Los Angeles, California.  Their destination was East Los Angeles, an area of the city that is home to a large Latino population that the students had been learning about in their class, “Introduction to Latinos in the U.S.”

The students were led by Richard Reitsma, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Spanish and Latin American Studies, who felt it was important for his students to see the neighborhoods that the class saw in films they watched, to meet the people that were portrayed in the novels they read and to be immersed in the culture that had been discussed in class.

“We went to get a first-hand experience of Latino culture in America. After reading many books about Chicano culture in Los Angeles, Dr. Reitsma decided that the only way for us to fully understand the culture was to visit the many locations that the numerous books and articles have described,” explained junior Matt Mullin.

This need for first-hand experiences meant a packed itinerary for the students.  Their first stop was a noted cultural center which features the art of local Latino artists.  At the exhibit, students had the unique opportunity of meeting privately with Luis Rodriguez, the author of “Always Running,” one of the core novels from Reitsma’s course.

Sophomore Stephanie Petrie described Rodriguez as an activist in the lives of children and teens that are either in gangs or are trying to avoid being in them.

The meeting with Rodriguez was a highlight for many of the students; a face-to-face meeting with someone who has experienced firsthand the violence of gang life suddenly made the books they had read very real.

The students had a similar experience on the second day of their weekend-long trip, when they went on an LA Gang Tour, which took the students to such notable areas as Compton Ave. and Watts Towers. 

Petrie described this portion of the trip as remarkable, saying, “The Gangland tour was really eye-opening because here is a group of men that because of their gang affiliations would have been enemies; but their common fight towards peace and awareness enables them to get along and even be friends.”

While learning about the violence of Latino gangs in LA was certainly a memorable part of the trip, the students recognize that Latinos have a rich culture that goes far beyond this painful part of their history.

“Of course the Latino experience is not just about gangs, but about success, so another part of the trip was to focus on Latinos making a difference outside of gang culture,” stressed Reitsma.

The Canisius students were paired with Latino students from Loyola Marymount University, a sister Jesuit university, met Latino community leaders and went to the Museum of Latin American Art (MOLAAA), which features a special exhibition on Mexican Modernism and culture in Los Angeles.

MOLAA’s mission statement stresses the importance of cross-cultural dialogue, which is fitting, since the dialogue that the museum strives to promote is integral to the Canisius class.  Students got to experience such a meeting of cultures later that day when they volunteered at a center for the homeless, meeting Mexican immigrants and learning their stories. 

“The day-laborers volunteer dinner was a vital cultural exchange, where many of the students were able to converse with Mexican immigrants in their native Spanish while serving them dinner,” said Mullin.

On the last day of the trip, students were free to explore the city. Some headed off to Malibu, while others went to Hollywood and spotted celebrities like Elijah Wood, Common and the class-wide favorite, Tom Virtue (better known as the dad from Even Stevens).  Exhausted, but happy, the group trooped back to the airport late Sunday night and headed back home to Buffalo. 

But they didn’t leave what they learned behind in sunny California. The value of these first-hand experiences will stay with the students for a long time. 

As Petrie added, “We saw LA from many different perspectives, including the Museum of Latin American Art, the meeting with Luis Rodriguez and the LA Gangland tour, the Latino experience. It was a very hands-on and gratifying experience!”

For more information, feel free to attend a presentation by the class in the Regis Room of the Student Center on December 1 at 2:30 p.m., where the students will go into more detail regarding their experiences from this unique and formative trip.

By Taylor Schupp
The Griffin

TAGGED: canisius college, canisius griffins, dr. reitsma, gangland, latinos, los angeles, taylor schupp

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