The Border and the Line
Race, Literature, and Los Angeles
Dean J. Franco




PICO BOULEVARD IN Los Angeles runs mostly west-east, from Santa Monica near the ocean shore into downtown Los Angeles, a transect which reveals the overlap of communities that constitute greater L.A. Crossing the 10, 405, and 110 freeways, Pico is itself an off-ramp on a journey to and from somewhere else. Pico’s distinct neighborhoods, its segmentation, and its length mean that people don’t typically drive it end to end. Rather, they take it on in parts. Thus a transect of L.A. along Pico is a study in the city’s economic, linguistic, ethnic, sonic, and culinary diversity, as one neighborhood abruptly if unceremoniously gives way to another. Driving along Pico with the windows rolled down, you are bound to hear rap, reggae, cumbia, and Cambodian psyche-rock. And you may see or perhaps even smell signs of Mexican, Central American, and East Asian cooking along the way. Here is how food writer Jonathan Gold puts it:

The street plays host to the unglamorous bits of Los Angeles, the row of one-stops that supply records to local jukeboxes, the kosher-pizza district, the auto-body shops that speckle its length the way giant churches speckle Wilshire. And while Pico may divide neighborhoods more than it creates them—Koreatown from Harvard Heights, Wilshire Center from Midtown, Beverly-Hills-adjacent from not-all-that-Beverly-Hills-adjacent, neighborhoods your cousin Martha lives in from neighborhoods she wouldn’t step into after dark—there isn’t even a Pico-identified gang.1

The cheeky last line about the lack of a gang is in fact an indication of the odd fluidity of Pico, where, for all its discrete segments, there are no neighborhood borders so resolute as to mandate territorial defense.

When I was growing up in the 1970s, Pico Boulevard was the offramp my parents took coming up from Orange County to visit my mother’s parents, who lived in the Pico-Robertson district. My grandparents purchased that home in the 1960s after living all over Los Angeles, from downtown to Boyle Heights and MacArthur Park (my mother’s childhood homes) and finally to Beverlywood. Pico-Robertson is now famously “Jewish L.A.,” but it wasn’t when my grandparents moved there, and it’s doubtful that that distinction would have held any attraction for them. My grandfather was a Sephardic Jew from Turkey and my grandmother a Catholic immigrant from El Salvador, though neither was religious, and my grandfather maintained a fury toward religion that strikes me only now as typical of Jewish atheists. I am told that each was treated as something of a pariah by family after the intermarriage, but the upshot is that I didn’t grow up knowing my relatives, and only discovered that my grandmother’s sisters all lived in greater L.A. when she died and a collection of light-brown-skinned women arrived at her funeral, speaking Spanish and pressing my cheeks with their lips, soft in exactly the way my grandmother’s lips were.

So Pico, the freeway exit, is indelibly linked with a strangeness I only later came to associate with ethnic difference. These women were my ostensible connection to Hispanic Los Angeles, and later in graduate school when I told a faculty mentor I was Sephardic, I learned that Pico-Robertson is home to many Sephardic Jews. Typically, this would be the place in this Introduction to display my authentic, genetic, identitarian credentials, my authority to write this book. But I feel no such authority, and I have no claims to make, other than to say that race and ethnicity are material and experiential phenomena, meted out locally, even if promulgated, stabilized, and circulated through national and global forces. If my family’s identity grants me any authority it is perhaps a claim on curiosity and a commitment to understanding the strange ways in which identities can be two things at once, signs of access and signs of constraint. I always felt like an outsider to L.A., and I suspect my grandparents often did, too. My mother certainly did, though she grew up there—she wasn’t a member of the Jewish community and certainly not of the Hispanic community. This is a book deeply suspicious of claims of authenticity, and I offer up neither my own nor anyone else’s identity as a stand-in for some broader claim about ethnicity. Rather, my chief argument in this book is that social identities such as race and ethnicity are localized, contingent accruals of discrete experience in time and space, and though we necessarily use broad terms such as Hispanic, Jewish, and African American precisely for their diachronic capacity—that is, the way they connect people across time—we nonetheless experience our social identities immediately, in a given moment, at a given time and place. Like Pico Boulevard, our social identities are a series of segments that run into each other inelegantly, and if I may extend the metaphor, we access them like we exit a freeway: all of a sudden immersion in a world of difference that is deeply felt if highly contingent. And like freeways, they are also socially and politically produced, often state-sponsored if also state failures.

The Border and the Line is about the spatial materialization of racial identity, and it looks to three neighborhoods in Los Angeles for case studies of how to think about what race is and to explore the ethics and politics of interracial engagements. My study and critique of racial formation in and across boundaries is not about racial materialism versus post-racialism, not about race versus ethnicity, nor a celebration of intersectionality (though celebrate it I do). Nor is this book about locality versus globality (and certainly not about the dreaded “glocal”) as a study of the location of cultures. Race exists; it has a material, discursive, and psychical reality. Michael Omi and Howard Winant’s coinage of the term racial formation aptly captures the way race is formed at simultaneously different scales: “At the micro-level, race is a matter of individuality, of the formation of identity. . . . At the macro-level, race is a matter of collectivity, of the formation of social structures.”2 Omi and Winant are primarily interested in state-based collective racialization, though this present book seeks to intertwine the two modes of racial formation because even as race materializes through racist practices, race remains a resource of self-awareness and communal consciousness. Race comprises intersections of identities, certainly, but it also materializes at intersections, as subjects move though space. As Gaye Theresa Johnson among others has observed, across the twentieth century, minority communities in Los Angeles were “scattered” by city planners in order to maintain “the hegemony of business owners and their efforts to maintain LA as an open-shop city.”3 Racial capitalism’s marginalization of minorities materializes racial difference as political powerlessness, yet the cultural production of racial minorities, through music, food, and alternative forms and uses of transportation, constitutes what Johnson calls “spatial entitlement,” or the envisioning of new identities and affiliations among minority populations (1).4 How that works—how race can be simultaneously pernicious and affirming, and how racial boundary crossing can undermine or substantiate racial community—that is the subject of this book.

In The Border and the Line I argue for cross-racial analysis and develop a method for reconciling discursive and materialist accounts of race and ethnicity as the basis of future comparative work. I compare the identities of specific neighborhoods in Los Angeles through an examination of the production of space in East and West L.A.; through conversations with community organizers and religious practitioners; and through analyses of literature by Helena María Viramontes, Paul Beatty, Budd Schulberg, James Baldwin, and the writers of the Watts Writers Workshop (1965–1973).5 Los Angeles is the object for my study of the ethics and politics of the neighbor because its neighborhoods are at once protean and concrete. Since the 1960s, the racial demographics of any given neighborhood have shifted restlessly, with white flight to the Westside and the Valley, the increase of Latinos in South Central, and the growth of the black middle class in central west L.A. At the same time, property and political values in Los Angeles produce and depend on insiders and outsiders, the elite and the abject, sustained by the spatial and material production of race, a process that yields perennial economic inequality among regions of Los Angeles and static life options for the poorest.6

By studying the spatial and material construction of race in Los Angeles, I bring together different accounts of what race is and how it works, and forecast new kinds of cross-racial encounters in literature and in the world around. Especially in the humanities, race is often regarded as the effect of language, invented and sustained by discourse. In this regard, race is a phantasm, something we perpetuate by talking about it, and something we strive to reduce through ostensibly progressive “post-racial” critique.7 This view locates race amid controlling regimes of “biopolitics,” the management of categories of persons as part of the larger project of the state’s control of life and death options for its subjects. This discursive approach to race contrasts the other prevailing approach, which considers race as a material effect: enslavement and colonialism, immigration quotas, Jim Crow laws, redlining practices, quasi-legal domination—all are the material means by which race is inscribed upon the body, and by which the bodies of those racialized constitute a given race.8 Across three substantial chapters, The Border and the Line explores a meeting point between these two modes of thinking about race, the discursive and material, as it stages analyses across racial and ethnic groups. This book is fundamentally comparative, and in the Conclusion, as in the conclusions to my prior two books, I make the case for comparative race studies as an indispensable methodology for understanding just what race is and how it works. Here, however, the individual chapters are not comparative per se. Rather, each is a deep-dive into a neighborhood, a narrative, and a racial formation that surpasses the starting concept—a racial name, or a neighborhood characteristic, say—on the way to understanding how the borders and lines of a given place materialize social identity. Across the three chapters, I demonstrate that borders function in vastly different ways for different people in different locales, at different times. This means I cannot sum up a single analytic or thesis about the spatial materialization of race, and it means that no one chapter captures a fundamental, summary logic of identity. Rather, what should become clear to a reader of this book is that racial formation and racial recognition function asymmetrically for different people depending on the material circumstances of their lives. I have more to say about how to read this differential account further on, but for now I posit that among this book’s chief contributions to understanding racialization is the reader’s encounter with that difference, and that a reader of this book can expect to continually revisit key scenes and critical topoi, with each pass giving a different angle of understanding, on the way to accumulating a multidimensional account of race and space.

To be a little more specific, Los Angeles is a city of contradictions, and race and other forms of identity are themselves self-contradictory modes of categorization, so I have organized this book in such a way as to dwell in and reveal those contradictions. As but one material example, consider the freeway, the topic of so much L.A. writing and an important critical motif. The freeway connects and divides, simultaneously. The Hollywood Freeway (101), for instance forms the western boundary of Boyle Heights and traces the contours of the prewar, color-coded maps which “redlined” that neighborhood as a racial threat. Redlining depressed housing values and economically cut off the area from the rest of Los Angeles, and the freeway functions in the same way. The construction of these freeways, documented in Helena María Viramontes’s writing, ripped apart neighborhoods. Yet these same freeways were the passageways for Budd Schulberg’s commute to Watts, where he established his writing workshop for indigent writers after the 1965 riots. The Hollywood Freeway serves as one of the boundary walls that effectively shape a “courtyard” for Orthodox Jews living within the Los Angeles Community Eruv, the ritually circumscribed communal space of religious belonging. The forms of constraint and access (the eruv achieves both) at work in all three instances requires a deep and extended look into the material, psychological, ethical, and political dimensions of distinct situations of identity formation. In this regard, I do not make extended, head-to-head comparisons of neighborhoods within chapters. Rather, a comparison unfolds through rise or fall of the salience of ethics or politics, metaphor or metonymy, or access or constraint as the dominant mode of boundary formation and border crossing. Chapters continually refer to one another, and key terms, quotations, and analytical moves are posited in one place and picked up in another, with the intended effect of mapping Los Angeles’s contradictory and simultaneous modes of producing racial identities.

This is not a book about Los Angeles per se; no one reading it should expect a comprehensive history or ethnography of the city or the neighborhoods in question. Rather, I reflect on L.A.’s network of boundaries in order to materially and cognitively map the emergence of social identities, and to examine the ethical and political implications of boundary crossing. Doing so will allow a granular view of race and space that otherwise tends to fade when those topics are examined in broader national, hemispheric, and global frameworks. While I do not contest the argument that racialization has a global cast to it—that black-American self-identification drew energy from African decolonization across the twentieth century, or that Chicana/o identity was self-aware of a hemispheric politics of latinidad, say—I nonetheless maintain that racial identity and especially racial identification have a local dimension.9 Indeed, identification, or the experience of being raced, maps on to the famous scenario of hegemonic identification, the “hailing” that Louis Althusser describes as the immediate contact with ideological formation when the hegemon points a finger and says “Hey, you!”10 Notably, in Althusser’s scenario the finger-pointer is proximate, perhaps even familiar: we expect him, we know what corner he stands on, and we are not surprised that passing by him resulted in this sort of calling out, as if he marked some kind of unspoken but recognized boundary and crossing him would have the consequence of social and ideological identification.

In this way, I posit that the neighborhood is the geography of racial identification and racial experience. Similarly, María Josefina Saldaña-Portillo argues that “racial geography is a technology of power, and when used as an analytic and theory of spatial production, it indexes the series of techniques used to produce space in racial terms.”11 Saldaña-Portillo’s scope is hemispheric and historical, while mine is local and experiential, situated in and figured by the geography of the neighborhood. The word neighborhood bears its own gravity, pulling in a series of orbiting virtues we wish to assign to the concept. Neighborhoods are where people care for each other, where petty politics give way to more enduring relations of trust. Neighborhoods are also the sites of privilege, defense, and paranoia, and not only those that are exclusive or gated. As Paul Beatty makes clear in The Sellout, poor people of color defend their territory with pride of place as much as wealthy residents of Beverly Hills do.12 Though I will unpack this point in later chapters, here I posit that the neighborhood is a crossroads of ethics and politics, of individual identity and corporate identification.

The “neighbor” is variously a theological, theoretical, and political construct (in Augustine, Levinas, and Arendt, respectively, to name but three resources).13 The neighbor is an especially rich figure that can be mobilized to advance an ethics we associate with reading literature—love, recognition, care—into a politics typically associated with activism—responsibility, reparation, and remedy. The neighbor has received substantial theoretical attention in the past decade, but most writing on the neighbor remains philosophical, and rarely if ever addresses real neighbors in real neighborhoods.14 If the theological or theoretical neighbor is the potential figure for recognition and love, real neighborhoods are more politically tricky, often locations of both inclusion and exclusion, love and fear. In this way, across three chapters I demonstrate that the neighbor is representative of both the divide in approaches to thinking about race and the potential reconciliation of those approaches. Wishing to sustain both the conceptual and material accounts of the neighbor, I pin my analysis on a particular place, Los Angeles, and particular neighborhoods in Los Angeles that are at once racially sequestered and sites of productive instances of interracial crossings. Literature allows us to understand how borders and barriers malfunction, and my cross-racial readings substantiate the efficacy of comparative criticism in ethnic American literature.


A fairly straightforward account of Los Angeles history would begin by observing that Los Angeles was not always such a segregated city. Indeed, upon its founding at the end of the eighteenth century, its population was composed of Mexicans, including indigenous Californians and African-ancestry settlers and landowners. The city remained sleepy through the mid-1800s, though vastly expanded in the latter half of that century with the general westward population migration, drawn by the federal promise of free land and the facilitation of land usurpation from Mexican owners following the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848. That migration was accelerated by the completion of railroad lines at the end of the nineteenth century, and then the purchase of large land tracts by industrialist developers in the early twentieth century. That Pico Boulevard is named after the two-term governor of Alta California before U.S. annexation in 1848 makes an interesting kind of sense. Pío Pico’s personal history is embedded in the early history of Southern California.15 As a landowner, rancher, and developer in the late nineteenth century, Pico battled with the changing legal realities of U.S. annexation, and his losing fight to keep his land was typical of many Californios, who lost property to settler-squatters. Pico was born in poverty in San Diego in 1801, at the end of the Spanish reign over Mexico; acquired vast amounts of land over the course of his early life, through land grants and speculation; became the last governor of California under Mexican rule in 1845; and died in poverty in a new California in 1894.16

In the two decades after Pico’s death, Los Angeles was transformed by the westward migration of settlers, merchants, miners, and land speculators. The influx of Mexicans, Japanese, Chinese, and Jewish laborers in the early twentieth century disturbed white utopian dreams, with white people marshalling overt and institutional white supremacist tactics. Klan activity increased, and white city patriarchs colluded to sequester minorities in undesirable tracts of land.17 Indeed, L.A.’s famously expansive area facilitated the development of a series of new white enclaves on the city’s west and north sides across the twentieth century, while redlining real estate practices and subsequent infrastructure construction effectively sequestered minority-dominant populations in the industrial east and south sections of the city.

But notice how my thumbnail sketch of the city is written in such a way as to naturalize racial difference. Let me put it another, even more straightforward way: from the late nineteenth century to the present, people seeking competitive advantage in Los Angeles secured status through the materialization of race: burning crosses, donning white robes, and, crucially, constructing boundaries through law and building practices that clarified and ramified racial difference. Japanese and Chinese immigrant laborers, African American migrants, and Jewish merchants newly arrived or even long established (especially in the case of Jews) were materially distinguished as racially distinct by these very practices, and whiteness and racial otherness were mutually composed by the city’s expansion and restrictions across the early to mid-twentieth century. This is not to say that people didn’t already have racial identities, but that those identities became materially significant through a set of practices. Those practices were both figurative, as minorities were recast as racial menace, and material, as white patriarchs channeled city resources to select neighborhoods and shunted resources away from others. Though white people used overt, violent racism as a tool, whiteness had no particular history to conserve in Los Angeles, and so white supremacy became manifest not as a tradition but as a tactic—a mechanism for evading the racial history of the rest of the country, even as white people in L.A. benefitted from the increasing social and cartographical immobility of people of color during the twentieth century.

The concentration of minorities in segregated neighborhoods in the eastern and southern districts of the city, combined with the growth of port-related labor during World War II, as well as manufacturing, domestic labor, and the growth of garment work, meant that minorities who were restricted from buying property outside of redlined districts nonetheless had regular contact with the rest of the city. This is illustrated in Chester Himes’s 1945 novel If He Hollers, Let Him Go, in which the African American protagonist who lives in San Pedro regularly drives all over Los Angeles, showing up to meet a girlfriend on the mostly white Westside, driving downtown, cruising the Eastside, all the while earning the enmity of locals and the police while responding in kind with his own contempt for the unwritten laws of racial containment.18 That novel ends with the protagonist locked up over false rape charges, and he is only able to escape imprisonment when he agrees to serve in the military, an ultimate form of containment. Himes’s novel illustrates what I will analyze further on, the way boundaries circumscribe and identify people, even and perhaps precisely as they fail to contain them.

Los Angeles’s strategies for producing and managing race are not exceptional, but the city’s population shifts and flows are indeed unique. No other city in the United States has such a quicksilver character, seems so ahistorical, and is yet so segregated. The Border and the Line explains this simultaneous containment and flow, and analyzes the cooperation of lines of division and fluid borders. I am examining literature, film, and, let us say in the vein of Elizabeth Povinelli, “alternative social projects”—that is, ways of living that are unsanctioned and even oppositional to liberalism—in order to explore at some length the mechanisms by which containment and flow occur, and to reflect on and perhaps theorize with the experiences that pertain to living amid those mechanisms.19 To be clear, then, this is not a sociological account of the racial formation of Jews, African Americans, and Chicanos of Los Angeles, nor is it an attempt to generalize about those groups or groupings of literature at large. I am not trying to say what African American literature set in Los Angeles is “really about,” nor am I trying to say something about inter-ethnic Jewishness that would tell us about Jews in general. This is not a book about “in general,” in general. Instead, it is about how social-group identification forms in relation to boundaries, where racial assignment is shot through with divisive lines, and about how crossing borders involves a remapping of identity analogous to the remapping of space.20

While I am at it, I am not suggesting that certain material features of the neighborhoods of Los Angeles can be metaphorized into a general ethics of neighborliness. Indeed, to the contrary, this is a book written against or at least as an alternative to exemplariness. This is not a manifesto for locality, but it is a demonstration of how the local and immediate configure and stabilize (just before they are destabilized) prevailing notions of race and ethnicity. If anything, I am writing to make the case that race and ethnicity, indeed “race” and “ethnicity,” are themselves metaphorical agencies which often block understanding of the more dynamic flux and flow that determines social life. That flux and flow is traceable globally, hemispherically, and transnationally, though with our broadest accounts we must install generalized concepts of groups in order to represent the traffic of people and culture. Examining a very local scene in a fairly bracketed time and place obviates the need to generalize, and gives us a look into what lies beneath those generalities in the first place.


1. Jonathan Gold, “The Year I Ate Pico Boulevard,” LA Weekly, September 23, 1998,

2. Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the United States, from the 1960s to the 1980s. 2nd ed. (New York: Routledge, 1992), 65–66.

3. Gaye Theresa Johnson, Spaces of Conflict, Sounds of Solidarity: Music, Race, and Spatial Entitlement in Los Angeles (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), 15.

4. Ibid., 1.

5. See Helena María Viramontes, Their Dogs Came with Them (New York: Atria Books, 2007); Paul Beatty, The Sellout (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015); Budd Schulberg, ed., From the Ashes: The Voices of Watts (New York: Meridian, 1969).

6. This is Mark Wild’s analysis in his monograph Street Meeting: Multiethnic Neighborhoods in Early Twentieth-Century Los Angeles (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005).

7. See Walter Benn Michaels, Our America: Nativism, Modernism, and Pluralism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995); Paul Gilroy, Against Race: Imagining Political Culture Beyond the Color Line (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000); Mark Lilla, The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics (New York: HarperCollins, 2017).

8. See Lisa Lowe, Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996); Johnella Butler, Color-Line to Borderlands: The Matrix of American Ethnic Studies (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001); Arturo J. Aldama, Disrupting Savagism: Intersecting Chicana/o, Mexican Immigrant, and Native American Struggles for Self-Representation (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001).

9. On African American literature’s hemispheric dimension, see Judith Madera, Black Atlas: Geography and Flow in Nineteenth Century African American Literature (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015). On hemispheric Latina/o writing, see Paula M. L. Moya and Ramón Saldívar, “Fictions of the Trans-American Imaginary,” Modern Fiction Studies 49, no. 1 (2003): 1–18,

10. Louis Althusser, “Ideology and the Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes Toward an Investigation),” in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays (New York: Verso, 1970), 11.

11. María Josefina Saldaña-Portillo. Indian Given: Racial Geographies Across Mexico and the United States. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016), 17.

12. Beatty, The Sellout.

13. See Hannah Arendt, Love and Saint Augustine, ed. Joanna Vecchiarelli Scott and Judith Chelius Stark (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998); Emmanuel Levinas, “Peace and Proximity,” in Basic Philosophical Writings, ed. Adriaan T. Peperzak, Simon Critchley, and Robert Bernasconi (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996), 161–170.

14. Slavoj Žižek, Eric L. Santner, and Kenneth Reinhard, The Neighbor: Three Inquires in Political Theology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).

15. See Carlos Manuel Salomon, Pío Pico: The Last Governor of Mexican California (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2010).

16. Ibid.

17. See Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (New York: Verso, 2006).

18. Chester Himes, If He Hollers, Let Him Go (New York: DeCapo, 2002).

19. Elizabeth Povinelli, Economies of Abandonment: Social Belonging and Endurance in Late Liberalism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), 134.

20. I am aware that my book leaves out many racial groups important to the story of Los Angeles, including Asian Americans. The stories of Chinese- and Japanese-descent residents of Los Angeles are indispensable for understanding racial formation in the city, and Korean Americans were very much at the center of the complex racial imaginary throughout the late twentieth century. The absence of those stories here is not the result of unintentional neglect but simply respect for the importance of field expertise. I am not an expert in those histories, nor do I have expertise on the multiple dimensions of Asian American racialization. For an excellent recent book on Southern California and Asian racialization, see Karen Tongson, Relocations: Queer Suburban Imaginaries (New York: New York University Press, 2011).