A January 2013 Los Angeles Times article1 headline reads: “USC rolls out the unwelcome mat.” One of the most prestigious universities on the West Coast was going to block access to its campus with pedestrian gates—for the first time in its 132-year history. To outsiders, perhaps this seemed like another local story, a blip in the sustained chaos of Los Angeles’ televised high-speed chases, apocalyptic brush fires and shootings. But to Angelenos, it felt much more visceral and personal. It signaled something we lost about the city—a divide personified. And I found myself, somehow, standing on both sides.
As a kid, I noticed how my neighborhood unfurled in patches of uneven sidewalk, tufts of grass decorated with empty chip bags and broken bottles.
The two dogs next door barked low, staccato notes all day behind their chain link fence, splaying out on the concrete after they got too tired. The neighbor on the other side of us liked to blast his music; he sat out on his porch and waved as you walked inside. Cars idled and drove by slowly with menace, or sped past, the deep rumble of their engines setting off car alarms. Beauty with a dash of chaos: the skyline framed by palm trees lined neatly along the blocks, their fronds sometimes floating down to the sidewalk. A man’s baritone voice called “watermelon, watermelon,” from his truck. Our outdoor cat liked to curl up in my dad’s lap on the porch as my dad looked out at the neighborhood, smoke wafting from his cigarette. We used our backyard for huge family gatherings: weddings, carne asadas, graduation parties. I threw the tennis ball around for my dog, Lucky, and read outside so the sunshine could hit my face. We walked to the one mom-and-pop grocery store nearby. The surrounding blocks offered strip malls with fried chicken and Chinese food, liquor stores next to fast cash places. All these, the sum of my neighborhood’s parts.
There’s a photo saved in my phone. Through the bars over my mom’s bedroom window, you can see a parked car and a police vehicle pulled up close to it, blocking our driveway. There’s one officer behind each open car door, gazing out intently at a scene nearby. I don’t remember what they were looking at. But there they are: the police, looking as if they are about to roll into our driveway for a visit.
The night of the incident, it all felt so familiar. The feeling of needing, suddenly, to stitch everything together from the scraps of information coming in.
We often got email alerts about crimes that happened near campus, and even in my last semester at USC, I rarely felt surprised to see them anymore. But this email looked different.
There had been a shooting on campus. There was no information about the shooter or the number of victims. I read the email from home, where I was living during my last year. I only took in the necessary information I needed, refreshing my inbox in hopes of another update. I texted my best friend to check in; she was safe. My friends at the school newspaper were frantically trying to piece together a story. Another alert went out to students and staff via email: the campus was on lockdown.
Growing up in South Central LA, I saw the University of Southern California as a sign of success and a path to a career. It’s the West Coast’s equivalent of an Ivy League school. In 2019, the university hit its lowest acceptance rate ever at 11% marking it as extremely competitive. Around 66,000 students applied.
A few of my classmates worked at the school paper, where I was once an editor. They were just a few floors above the area where the shooting happened. An editor there told me that they had just sent their pages to the printer when they heard a loud noise that sounded almost like a firework. I recognized that feeling—the close listening to decipher if the noise nearby belongs to something innocuous or something more dangerous. As they stood on the balcony, they saw people running. During the next hour, they tried to get information from school security—to see if the shooter was active.
One of the editors said his dad called to ask what happened. Another editor grabbed his camera and walked from his apartment nearby to campus. Campus security wouldn’t let him in; it was the only time he could remember ever being told he couldn’t enter. He took a few photos from a distance and headed back. None of the editors were injured but hearing their stories felt familiar, like when you talk to people in my neighborhood who have also skirted danger.
The shooting happened on Halloween, at an on-campus party that also included nonstudent guests. An outside promoter had spread the word about the event throughout the city, making it a larger gathering. An argument started outside of the party, and shots were fired. In the end, four people were injured. None of the involved parties attended the university.
Security was heightened around campus; in early November, the university’s president put into effect a policy stating that no one would be able to enter campus, on foot or in a car, between the hours of 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. without the right identification. This also meant that anyone entering campus after these hours had to be registered by a student before they could come in.
In January 2013, the campus started erecting its new pedestrian gates—what seemed to me like clear markers that the campus wanted to separate itself from the surrounding community. This happened right as I got ready to become a part of the proudly-branded Trojan alumni family. I was meant to go out into the world and share the wisdom I learned in this academic bubble. I was supposed to send out job applications with the note, “PS I’m a fellow Trojan. Fight on!” But what I was fighting against was an inner conflict—a deep shame when people said things like “it’s such a beautiful university, but what a terrible area.”
Growing up, I came to find the sound of sirens in the distance as familiar as the jingle of the ice cream truck. While I later learned that many people grew up in worse neighborhoods than myself—people who lost loved ones to street violence or feared for their safety even in the daylight—those formative experiences nevertheless stayed with me. I often walked quickly in public, my shoulders tense and my ears perked up. If I noticed someone walking slowly behind me, I slowed my pace too so I could be behind them and not in front of them. In college, I got gutsy and started blasting music in my earphones, what I hoped communicated aggression, an unwillingness to feel intimidated. My neighborhood made me afraid and fearless, all at once.
Our neighborhood was used to the sound of the ghetto birds. They sometimes flocked to other parts of the city, as helicopter sounds filled almost any busy neighborhood, but they almost always made their nest near us. Our neighborhood felt like it was always under surveillance, the sound of the blades always there to interrupt long silences.
One evening, a man knocked loudly on the kitchen window above our sink. We opened it, the screen and bars the only barriers between him and us. “Someone’s trying to kill me,” he said urgently. “Someone’s trying to kill me.” The words came through clearly and starkly; I can’t remember my exact age but I know I was probably in middle school, and I felt much younger suddenly.
Not knowing what to do, I hid under the kitchen table. I held on to one of its wooden legs, my knees crossed and my head bent down. The adults seemed to walk around in frantic circles, one of my family members calling the police while the others debated what to do.
“Please don’t leave me alone. I don’t want to be alone!” I said to my brother-in-law, the closest adult. He crouched down low and joined me under the table, his body still peeking out from under it.
Some time later, the police showed up. The man had made his way to the front yard and it all got resolved somehow. The police cruiser stood right outside our front lawn, its light casting a glow onto our windows.
Danger lurked and haunted our spaces. We tried to coexist with it. As a kid, I remember a neighbor showing my mom the holes in her wall—remnants of a drive-by that didn’t directly involve her but had left its mark behind anyway.
In other neighborhoods, maybe calling the police would feel like an automatic relief. Maybe you could pick up the phone without hesitation. Often, we didn’t want to call the cops for fear that someone would find out that we had called, and that they would come to find us and retaliate. Also, I learned that the police often showed up entirely too late—or if they did show up, there was the risk of police brutality, of even more violence.
I understood, then, that our little block existed in a vacuum. Only the palm trees saw everything unfold.
Everyone had an opinion about the university’s decision. The gates would soon divide the campus, both within its student body and its faculty. And it would become a point of contention for many Angelenos, especially alumni and, more importantly, those that lived in the neighborhood.
The reporters captured the dilemma university officials were facing: the need to ensure their students’ safety while still coming across as a legitimate part of the community.
One USC alumnus went so far as to say that the gate was making a statement it couldn’t undo. Hector Sanchez told Los Angeles Times reporters Angel Jennings and Rosanna Xia:
“Slowly but surely, USC is creating this divide of us versus them.”
But in my situation it felt like an “us versus us” conflict. Sanchez shares a similar background to my own, having grown up near the university and finally reaching his dream of going to the school as an adult. As someone who attended the university but also grew up in the area, I felt like my identity got split right down the middle the year the gate came up. If I disagreed with the new gate and the visiting restrictions, I would be defending “us”—the kids that got to walk through the campus at a young age, with dreams of academic success and a better future. The kids that could one day be walking on campus as students, creating a more diverse student body.
If I agreed with the new gate, I would be defending a different kind of “us.” I would be siding with the other “us”—the students who remained in the bubble of the campus, now marked by a gate. The students who got to say: while we happen to share the same neighborhood, “we” are still separate from you.
The shooting took place outside of a Black Student Assembly Halloween party and it didn’t escape me that a lot of the “concerns” about safety came down to racism. As Daily Trojan reporter Jordyn Holman2 pointed out, commenters on the site made their prejudices clear, with one “Parent and alum” writing: “Students, employees and parents still deserve to know why the Black Student Organization was allowed to partner with a promoter who basically turned our beautiful campus center into some sort of ghetto nightclub. And what guidelines for student groups need to change so that this never happens again?”3 It didn’t escape me that the Black community would have to fight to be seen in ways I couldn’t even begin to fathom. Holman writes that Black students often felt compelled to wear their USC sweatshirts and other apparel to make clear they were part of the university. Some saw that “beautiful campus,” as ruined by the neighborhood around it, or perhaps by the Black students and people of color attending.
I know now what it really means to grow up in South Central Los Angeles. Or at least, what that looks like to other people. As a twenty-something college graduate no longer living in my childhood home, things look different. One Sunday evening, I took an Uber from my apartment in Glendale and the driver chatted with the other passenger in the car. The passenger was visiting from out of town, for a sports event. The driver talked to him about the team and about his experience driving, adding, “Yeah, I didn’t think I would end up driving around here though.” I got out of the car, fuming.
A different afternoon, another Uber driver seemed to tense up as we got closer to the house. We hit traffic and he took a few side streets through residential areas where everyone seemed to be mostly indoors for the day. “This is not a nice area,” he said suddenly. I faltered, my voice getting more high-pitched as I replied, “No, it’s a nice area.” He scoffed. “Look at the bars over the windows. If this was a nice area why would they be there?”
When I told my mom about this exchange she responded, “Well you told him right? That you live here?” I didn’t. And I regretted it.
Another driver peeling out from the neighborhood, grateful to never come back. Unaware of the families and the history and the struggle here.
Growing up in South Central LA means walking through the door of your home, angry that anyone would dare insult it, even while you know you need to order your next Uber before it gets too dark.
Shortly before the gate incident, on April 11, 2012, USC graduate students Ming Qu and Ying Wu were shot to death. Around 1 a.m., a man with a gun went to the car where they sat—in front of Wu’s residence. It was only a few blocks away from campus. They were international students: both twenty-three years old, from China.
When my mom talked to me about the news, she mentioned how much her heart broke for the parents of the students. She couldn’t imagine sending her kids to a university in another country, hoping for them to chart towards a bright future but not knowing they were instead settling into a dangerous neighborhood. I argued that crime happened all over the city. But I knew that couldn’t possibly comfort any parent mourning their child, or any parent fearing for their safety after hearing the news.
USC is exemplary not only in its academic mythos but also its community outreach. During my time there, I volunteered as part of a student-led group that combined after-school tutoring with dance. We would head off campus to a nearby school to tutor kids with their homework. As a reward for doing their work, we would teach them dance moves. We choreographed an entire routine, which we performed alongside them in the biggest auditorium on the USC campus.
For the first time, I was the outsider. The girl coming from a completely different world, one in which I took for granted the resources and mentorship available to me.
As someone with very limited patience, I often got frustrated at the kids when they refused to pay attention. I can’t say I was the best tutor. But I did cheer for them. I can’t say I remember everything we talked about, but I I found them hilarious and smart. On the night of the performance, I watched them file into the backstage area of the auditorium, a pang of tenderness hitting me unexpectedly.
What would those kids think now that a gate separated them from the USC campus? How would they feel as teenagers, when they rode their bikes nearby?
As a kid, I remember marveling at the fact that I could just waltz onto campus any time I pleased. I told my mom: it seemed weird, didn’t it? Just letting anyone in? Didn’t they need to check our bags? The campus felt closer to what I imagined Hogwarts might look like, all brick buildings and wide, open spaces and greenery. A sense of history seemed to hide within the walls, whispers of accomplishments and awards and academics before me. Even as a young person without a clue about what she would study, I knew I wanted to end up there.
But there’s another reason it felt strange to visit the campus without a care: so often I navigated the world as a young Latina with the assumption that I wouldn’t necessarily be welcomed everywhere I went. Or that I would have to prove I earned my spot. A high school classmate, upon hearing I wanted to apply to Stanford, said “you’ll get in, you’re Hispanic.”
The students at USC looked so different than the people in my neighborhood—even though my block was only a fifteen-minute drive away. I marveled at the young white students shopping at Superior alongside me and my family. I remembered other spaces I’d walked into previously: I had long gotten used to being overlooked while someone else would immediately be asked if they needed help at a retail store. I noticed when security guards lingered near me; I expected someone on the USC campus to stop me, to ask what I was doing there. But that never happened. I realized I could maybe find my place on this campus, one that welcomed people from the community to its public programs and lectures.
The ability to walk through that campus and fall in love with its buildings, the chance to make it my dream school and eventually attend it, would change the course of my life. My family attended football games before I even got in, cheering on the team. I once even owned a pair of gold and cardinal cheerleader pom-poms, the better to make noise with. Looking up at the dark brick buildings of the campus, seeing the students whiz by on their gleaming beach cruiser bicycles, I marveled at the history and promise of this place.
The gate, then, felt so strange and dominating. Sure, it stays open during the day. But it’s there: a looming reminder that there is a separation between the outside world and the university, no matter how close the two might be. No matter the outreach programs and the attempts to give back.
I returned, many times, after graduating in 2013. I spoke about books and my career in private events for students and the yearly Festival of Books. There, I saw the neighborhood congregated and wondered if I just overreacted to the news years ago.
But, still, my identity felt fragmented, especially as more changes occurred. As a student, I often used my last few dollars to buy potato wedges, fried chicken and tortillas at Superior at the USC Village. I recognized the grocery store I knew from my childhood—the rows of colorful pan dulce, the chaos of the meat counter.
My dad often took me to the Baskin Robbins at the Village. As a kid, I would ask him: “me puedes visitar?” A grammatically incorrect plea from a little girl wanting to ask “me puedes invitar?” The scoop of ice cream brought me happiness but more important was the thrill of getting in the car with my dad and spending time with him.
In college, those memories came rushing back now that I could cross the street to the Village. I got my hair cut there by a woman who liked to chat with me about her boyfriend and family while I nodded and asked questions, enraptured by her charisma. I took a film photography class and took some of my film to be developed at a small shop in the Village, too. When I brought my camera one day, the owner said “Oh, you have one photo left.” He snapped a picture of me in the store; my hair is bright red, matching my red-and-white polka dot tank top. I’ve got a pair of white, heart-shaped sunglasses folded into the front of the shirt, dark blue jeans, and a woven purse from Guatemala. I stare at the camera without smiling, looking tired and impatient. The glass cases and shelves behind me show the shops owner’s tools and camera trinkets—his livelihood, his store.
Superior was eventually replaced by Trader Joe’s. The gleaming hunks of meat behind a butcher counter and the panaderia traded for people in Hawaiian-style shirts and chalkboard drawings. The Baskin Robbins is gone. Now USC students can shop at places like Abercrombie & Fitch, a retailer that touts “effortless, American style” and sells denim shorts for $60. Of course, I was glad that the Trader Joe’s and Target afforded people in the neighborhood more options for groceries and goods, but the new space felt, in some ways, like a betrayal. It took me years to visit the new shopping complex. It was like a memory tinged with grief that I didn’t want to revisit, a fading portrait that I closed my eyes against every time I walked by.
I still struggle with the conflict of being the girl from the neighborhood but also the girl that quickly settled into the privilege of campus life. I couldn’t put a gate between the two parts of my identity.
1Angel Jennings and Rosanna Xia, “USC rolls out the unwelcome mat,” Los Angeles Times, January 15, 2013, https://www.latimes.com/local/la-xpm-2013-jan-15-la-me-usc-safety-20130116-story.html.
2Jordyn Holman, “African-American students evaluate their place at USC.” Daily Trojan. October 20, 2013. https://dailytrojan.com/2013/10/20/african-american-students-evaluate-their-place-at-usc/.
3Daily Trojan Staff, “LAPD detains two in campus shooting,” Daily Trojan, November 1, 2012. https://dailytrojan.com/2012/11/01/lapd-detains-two-in-campus-shooting/
Cover Art by Jack Freedman