In social justice circles, gentrification is talked about almost exclusively as a socioeconomic and racial issue, but this week’s #WCW Caro Vera believes it’s also a feminist matter, especially for women of color.
The South Central LA Guatemalan mami is an activist and graduate student at UCLA’s Urban and Regional Planning program, with her work centering on anti-gentrification and anti-displacement efforts throughout the Los Angeles area.
When Vera, 25, is not resisting gentrification on the streets or in the classroom, she’s making academia’s white elite uncomfortable with her bold purple lips, loud colors and big hoop earrings, ensuring that the space, made without queer low-income women of color like her in mind, recognizes ‘hood femme scholars are present, growing and not conforming.
Here’s how the West Coast mami, who you might know as gorditaapplebum on Instagram, is helping to crush the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.
You're an organizer, and your work primarily centers on anti-gentrification and anti-displacement efforts in the Los Angeles area. Why did you get involved in this work?
I haven’t done organizing work in a while, but it started because, when I moved back to Los Angeles from the Bay Area in 2013, I was walking through Downtown, and it looked entirely different. Downtown LA was like an extension of South Central. It was that beat up. It was like a Latinx mecca, but when I moved back, food shops and quinceañera shops were replaced with fancy stores and bougie restaurants. I, with a few others, started Resisting Displacement LA. We started this coalition to resist the gentrification, and it worked out for a while, but I think we got lost in the theoretical work behind it, and sort of lost track. Since then, though, there have been other great groups doing similar work, like the L.A. Tenants Union and Defend Boyle Heights.
Hipsters are often considered the main culprits of gentrification, and are a group that you call out frequently. What's interesting to me is that many hipsters, especially the white women, consider themselves feminists. How, by invading space that's not theirs and removing the people and culture of these spaces, are these so-called feminists actually being anti-women?
That’s a powerful question. In most low-income neighborhoods, you’re going to see single mothers (I grew up in a single-mother home). People on the lowest ends of the income spectrum tend to be single moms. They live in low-income neighborhoods because it’s the only thing they can afford, so when white people move in and rents go up and are no longer affordable, it’s inherently anti-women. You’re displacing families and single moms. You’re removing an entire family from their home so you can live there by yourself. And that’s often a missing narrative in this conversation.
Do you think anti-gentrification efforts could be considered feminist work?
Of course! From what I’ve seen, most of the gentrification work in Los Angeles, if not all, is led by women and femmes. Women of color are invisibilized, even in anti-gentrification coalitions, yet we’re the backbone of this labor.
Why do you think Latina readers should care about gentrification?
Gentrification is a Latinx issue, and it’s a feminist issue. Gentrification is a question of livelihood; it’s a question of life or death. Once people lose affordable housing, they’re kicked out and don’t have anywhere to go. They are forced to move far outside of the city, but still have to travel there for work and necessary services. It’s something they should care about because it’s largely impacting them. But, as Latinas, we also have to talk about our role in gentrification. Research shows that once a neighborhood is a certain percentage Latinx, white people feel comfortable to live there. For instance, the part of South Central where I grew up in was Black. As these residents started migrating deeper into South Central, Latinxs began moving in to the point that now my neighborhood is mostly Latinx. Now we have a train and white people are moving in. Although it’s not our fault that white folks move into our neighborhood, we are still power players in this game of gentrification that somehow white people find us more appealing than they do Black people, and it’s our responsibility to challenge this. These are our neighborhoods – we built them – and once we lose them, we can’t get it back; it’s gone.
So you're finishing up your Master’s of Urban and Regional Planning at UCLA (early congrats on that!). As a low-income, first-generation Central American mujer, who didn't always excel in school, how has navigating higher ed been for you?
I did my undergrad in ethnic studies at Berkley, and that was different because there were people of color. When I got to UCLA, I had never been around white people like that, ever. It was a culture shock. My first day of school, I cried. In my urban planning program, much of the issues we’re talking about impact people of color, but they were all white and didn’t get it. They were actually asking questions like, “is gentrification really that bad?” Of course it is. As someone who grew up low-income with the privilege to attend university, my narrative and story is not represented in the classroom but was tokenized there. The institution doesn’t see me as valid. But it’s also been strange to navigate back in the ‘hood. Like, I used to do a lot of migrant justice work and then gentrification work, but now that I’m in grad school, I’m looked at like I’m not down anymore. Because we haven’t had access to this, people have a weird understanding of what the university looks like; they don’t understand what you’re doing.
Academia, as a white institution made for white people, attempts to change people of color by making them believe that who they are, at present, isn't acceptable. How have you been able to maintain your 'hood in a space where that's unwelcome?
I be showing up looking hella extra. I wear crop tops, purple lipstick and doorknockers like, “hey, bitches. I’m here.” At Berkley, the more racism I experienced, the bigger my hoops got. My presence at UCLA has been disrupting people’s ideas of what a grad student looks like. People ask, “does she go here?” As a matter of fact, she does. Yeah, these institutions are made for white people, but they can’t uphold that anymore. We will challenge that on every scale.
I know that you don't like to romanticize your experience in higher ed, however, because it has had a toll on your mental health. What does self-care look like for you?
Taking meds. There was a point where I had a mental breakdown, and I realized if I’m not on something, I’m not going to graduate. I wasn’t going to class. I was just doing my homework. This is not what it should be. But I couldn’t show up because I felt invisible, and white people said the most ridiculous shit all the time. Pills have been important; they’ve helped me go to class these last two semesters. Exercise has also been very helpful. For me, exercise can help alleviate tension that arises from trauma. If you don’t get rid of that tension, it will live in your body and create sickness, so I exercise almost every day. I still have anxiety, but if I don’t exercise, that anxiety will skyrocket.
On your instagram, your slogan for some time was, "a cool bitch with a library card." What does that mean to you?
My friend, Mala, once called me that, and I thought it was hilarious. I have an attitude, and Latinas are raised to not be like that. We are raised to not have opinions, to not voice our needs, and the Mamis, a collective I’m a part of with Mala, violate that. You know we are somewhere. We don’t have to say anything. You just see us and are like, oh shit. That’s the "cool bitch" part. As for the library card, it’s often believed that women can be either brilliant or beautiful. There’s this idea that you can’t be femme and smart. As women, you are not allowed to be both. But I’m saying I can have acrylic nails and books. I’m a hood ass scholar, and I can do that in my girly heels and Fanon book.
How do you see your work as helping to crush the patriarchy?
I think challenging the urban planning world as a woman of color is challenging the cis white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. A lot of my work is advocacy and outreach of bikes in our neighborhoods, because we are dying at disproportionate rates. It’s challenging white male narratives that bikes are just for fun, when, for us, biking is a necessity. It’s politicizing this. I also do this by challenging narratives. As a Central American, as a child of immigrants, I’m pushed to be proper, respectable and silent. I, and many of my homegirls, use our assets, whether it be poetry, essays, journalism or podcasts, to make space for other women to exist in abundance, however they would like. Us being unapologetic shows them they can be as well.