A Divide in Boyle Heights: Can Latinxs Gentrify Another Latinx Community?

Written by Jessica Flores
Edited by Hazel Anne Agustin


On June 15, about an hour and a half into its grand opening, a new coffee shop on Cesar Chavez Boulevard located in Boyle Heights was protested by a small group believing Weird Wave Coffee is a start of yet another phase of gentrification within the community. As a predominantly Latinx neighborhood, its long-time residents are fighting to keep their culture, including all of its people, the reigning majority. Since then, protesters have continued to show up every Saturday - an attempt in keeping their concerns and woes loud and clear.

I willingly inserted myself into their narrative - a risky but necessary move into understanding both sides. There, I spoke to Mario Chavarria, Jackson Defa and John Schwarz. The three met while living in the same apartment complex and chose to advance their friendship into more than just small talk. After multiple conversations, they found a common interest in coffee that soon evolved into Weird Wave Coffee Brewers. “Why don’t we start a coffee shop together?” Chavarria asked the two others. Before making the move to Boyle Heights, they researched different areas throughout Los Angeles making sure to pick the best location that fit their budget.

Five months before they opened, they spoke to local business owners and community members to learn more about the neighborhood. “[We] spoke to people on the block, and everyone was nice and welcoming,” Defa said.

Defa and Schwarz are both white, Chavarria being the only Latinx. But this hasn’t stopped people from protesting outside the shop. The protests go beyond race matters. It’s about protecting the residents who have made this quaint area home for decades.

Peach Wolf, Boyle Heights resident and Weird Wave customer, and her friend walked into Weird Wave Coffee that June morning and was called all sorts of names, one being ‘asco’ which translates to disgusting in Spanish. Others, as LA Times reported, were called ‘coconuts’ referring to being brown on the outside and white in the inside. “They tried to say it wasn’t a race thing, but many signs said ‘white coffee’ and ‘AmeriKKKano to go,’” she said.

Marisol Sanchez, also a Boyle Heights resident, says that the protests were “a response and frustration of how certain businesses are being prioritized.” There are many businesses within the community, such as street vendors, who don’t get the same opportunity to open a store and that’s what frustrates the community. “All of a sudden you see outsiders come in, and that’s great that [one of the business owners] is Latino, but Boyle Heights hasn’t been valued enough.”

When Chavarria went outside to speak to protesters, he met Leonardo Vilchis. Vilchis is the co-founder of Union de Vecinos and according to their website, “a resident of Boyle Heights and has worked in the community since 1987.” Vilchis, alongside Elizabeth Blaney, also co-founder of Union de Vecinos, were the leaders of the protests.

Their conversation, according to both Chavarria and Vilchis, went as follows:

“What’s the problem? What have I, as a Latino, done wrong to deserve your hate?” Chavarria asked.

“This operation is what causes displacement. It’s not about you being Latino, it’s about how this business is changing the face of the community,” Vilchis responded.

After discussing their arguments, one thing they shared in common was that they both came to the United States in 1980. Vilchis came from Mexico and Chavarria came from El Salvador. “You and I probably crossed the border together…what went wrong?” Chavarria said. “I thought that was the whole point of Latinos coming up North, to improve and better [ourselves] and take a chance.”

However, Vilchis says that Chavarria “believes in this American dream of creating a business but doesn’t believe in the American right of people exercising their freedom of speech.”

“When you call the police after everything going on in the Latino community, you clearly have no interest in having a conversation with us,” Vilchis said. Defa said he called the police because “anytime anyone in my coffee shop threatens my customers or makes them feel unsafe, I’m going to call the police.”

Protesters have been portrayed as “angry” but Sanchez said that she can see how “coming across as very strong” can be seen that way from a person of color. However, that still doesn’t retract from their argument that their community members don’t have the resources to have their own business.

So, what does this protest represent within the Latinx community? Should Boyle Heights support a Latinx-owned business despite also having two co-owners that are white? What can community members expect now from Weird Wave Coffee?

Before opening, Weird Wave began a relationship with Homeboy Industries by purchasing their pastries and bread from the Homeboy Bakery daily. Homeboy Industries had no comment when I reached out. Weird Wave also created a program to help local youth learn the mechanics of a business and how to become a pro at making quality coffee. Luis, 17, was the first to be part of this program and was hired shortly after. He can only work four hours because of his age and school priorities.

While protesters strongly believe this could be a start to an increase of rent, other community members disagree. Wolf said she understands gentrification because she grew up in the community and has seen it happen in many neighborhoods in Los Angeles but she knew this coffee shop didn’t represent that. “Before the art on the walls, it was really simple. It wasn’t industrialized,” she said, “[They’re] literally behind the counter doing things themselves.”

As a granddaughter of a Latinx business owner, she doesn’t agree with how protesters are handling the situation. “I’m in the middle of it all because I understand and respect their passion and what they are fighting for,” she says. Nonetheless, Wolf doesn’t find it surprising because in the Latinx community “you learn there is racism within our community.”

But for Vilchis, it’s not so much about race than it is about the aftermath of a new coffee shop on Cesar Chavez Blvd, a strong and ever-present landmark of what Boyle Heights represents. “You can be brown or white with good intentions, but the issue and reality is that the people who are suffering and will suffer the most are locals because they’re being erased.”