Nancy Meza is at a Mexican restaurant in Boyle Heights, a Lenten special of sautéed cactus and tortitas de camarón (fritters made from ground shrimp) before her. “This right here?” she says, pointing at her meal. “This feels like Boyle Heights. See why we fight so hard? Imagine a hipster place trying to make this?
“You take the gentry down to Guisados,” she adds with a loud laugh, using her nickname for gentrifiers and referring to a mainstream taquería in the neighborhood, “and keep them there!”
Meza volunteers for Defend Boyle Heights, a collective that has received national attention for its vociferous anti-gentrification stance. Members have rallied outside coffee shops, protested pop-up operas in the park and launched online flame wars against realtors, non-profits and businesses they perceive as gentry, all with a simple message: Get out.
Not everyone is a fan of their tactics—Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez called one of their actions “ridiculous.” But they’ve worked. Out-of-town artists and bookstore owners have moved away, tired of their wrath. They’ve sparked a heated conversation among longtime residents about what’s appropriate and what isn’t to ensure the historic neighborhood maintains its character. And last fall, anti-gentrification activists in Chicago and the Bronx invited Meza to teach them the Defend Boyle Heights playbook.
“She walked into those cities,” says Leonardo Vilchis, director at Unión de Vecinos, a Defend Boyle Heights member, “and built solidarity for Boyle Heights while continuing to expand the movement against gentrification in the U.S.”
Meza is unapologetic in her approach against what she calls the “lame-ass sameness” of gentrification. Her story shows how even the tamest of individuals can become among the most committed of activists.
“The end goal of gentrification is not community development,” says the 30-year old, who throws down stats about per capita income and developer subsidies as fast as she does jokes, and uses both equally. “If it works, then I can’t live here. The doña [elder lady] can’t live here. It never leads to ‘improvement’ for us.”
A self-described “hood nerd” and “skater punk” growing up, Meza served as student body president at Stevenson Middle School. She continued the goody-two shoes route at Garfield High and joined student government, which she “hated. All we were doing was planning school dances.”
Two brothers had already dropped out of high school and struggled to find jobs. “I didn’t want that to happen to my younger brothers,” Meza said, so she interned at InnerCity Struggle, an Eastside nonprofit that teaches high school students about civic activism. Meza took that training to East Los Angeles College and the University of California, Los Angeles to join the Obama-era movement around the DREAM Act, which sought to get undocumented students like herself protection from deportation.
But it was a job at the UCLA Downtown Labor Center in MacArthur Park that turned her energy toward gentrification.
“I’d take the 720 line [a bus that goes from East L.A. to Santa Monica] and started to see downtown change,” says Meza, whose family lived at the historic Morrison Hotel for a spell when it was run down. “I’d see another building renovated. Another place closed.”
She felt “frustration and anger” and got a job with the East LA Community Corporation (ELACC) as a communications associate to try and address development in her neighborhood. But Meza quickly soured on the job after finding she had to defend herself against friends who told her gentrification was coming to Boyle Heights, and her employer was part of the problem.
“A lot of the mainstream businesses and owners care about respectability politics,” she now says. “But respectability has always halted resistance.”
That was just two years ago. Since then, Meza has helped Defend Boyle Heights sharpen its message through a strategy heavy on satire, which she learned from “the hood, where everyone clowns on each other.” She records videos as her alter ego, La Quirky Nancy, in which she dons a bad blond wig and acts like an out-of-towner Columbusing Boyle Heights—discovering something that isn’t new.
“We constantly have to explain why we’re angry,” Meza says about the short films, which consistently garner thousands of online views. “So let’s show folks how we see them through our eyes. When you see a gringa discovering mango con chiles, you know that’s gentrification.”
She taught that message at anti-gentrification workshops last October in Chicago and New York. Back home, residents from South Los Angeles to Orange County to even the Inland Empire have asked Defend Boyle Heights for similar training.
Meza scoffs at critics who say Defend Boyle Heights stands against progress in the barrio. “I’m not saying I don’t want change,” she says. “I’ve been fighting for change in my hood since I was a kid. I’m defending everything we’ve fought for.”
She gets ready to leave and rolls up her light sweater. “East Los” is tattooed on her right forearm; “Home” on her right wrist. On her bicep is the iconic Whittier Boulevard arch.
“Gotta rep it,” she says with another loud laugh, “before they take it.”
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