Compton in My Soul
A Life in Pursuit of Racial Equality
Albert M. Camarillo



As the plane approached to land at Los Angeles International Airport, I peered through the small window that offered a bird’s-eye view of most of South LA. I could easily spot Compton, a small suburb sandwiched between four freeways. I was born and raised in this city, and Compton, in so many ways, is in my soul.

That warm September morning in 2001 was a special one for me. I was flying to visit my eldest son, Jeff, whose undergraduate school outreach experiences had inspired him to begin his teaching career at a Compton middle school. He’d invited me to speak to his eighth-grade history class. Excited as I was about the chance to see him in action on my old turf, my thoughts mostly centered on the city’s recent troubles. From the airport, I drove a rental car to Vanguard Learning Center, a public school located on Compton’s westside. I couldn’t help but wonder if Jeff’s experiences working with students and families in Compton might be shaping him in ways that resembled what I’d experienced growing up there.

While exiting the I-110 Harbor Freeway to enter Compton’s city limits, my thoughts quickly shifted to how different our experiences were from his grandfather’s, given how much the city had changed. Nearly a century earlier, my father, as a ten-year-old, had trekked with his uncle 1,800 miles from Michoacán, Mexico, to Compton in search of an absent father said to be working on local farms.

I’d visited Compton on occasion after moving from the area in 1975 to begin a long career on the faculty at Stanford University, yet much of what I’d heard about my hometown came from the media’s headline-grabbing stories. They were typically tragic, blood-and-guts TV news reports, with graphic images. Violence gripped the city. Gang warfare was rife, and it was not only Black-on-Black—the infamous Crips versus Bloods—it was also Latinos against Blacks.

In the late 1980s, Compton had gained the dubious distinction of being the “murder capital” of the nation, and it was still routinely listed in the top ten most dangerous cities in America. The crack cocaine epidemic, which spurred much of the gang violence, had wreaked havoc on so many neighborhoods, families, and individuals. Police brutality and violence against African Americans, though a longstanding issue, had become widely known due to the fame of local rap groups, such as N.W.A., and that violence headlined many films and documentaries. Latino immigrants and their children, on the way to becoming the majority in the city by the 1990s, sometimes found themselves at odds with their Black neighbors. To make matters worse, oversight of Compton’s public schools had descended into a state of disarray by 1990, which had led to bankruptcy and to the district’s schools being taken over by the state, a first in California history. It made me sad—and mad—to learn about the troubles plaguing the city of my youth.

But if you dug deeper, amidst the mayhem of the 1980s and 1990s, stories of the resilience I had seen there as a child emerged from within the growing cultural lore about the city. Compton’s narrative included Venus and Serena Williams learning to play tennis on the city’s courts and the roots of now-famous rap and hip-hop artists, as well as other cultural icons from the city. I knew instinctively, however, that there was much more to Compton than these success and failure narratives. Jeff, among the newest teachers at the middle school, had become my lifeline to reconnecting with the city and its people.

I was excited to meet his students, who called him “Mr. C.” After checking in at the school’s front desk, I made my way to his classroom. The thirty-two students, all African American and Latino/a, immediately checked me out as I opened the door. One quickly jumped up from his desk, pointed a finger my way, and shouted, “Hey, it’s the original Mr. C!” I barely contained my laughter.

Jeff asked me to talk about Compton’s past, about the years when I was the age of his students. They listened attentively to what the city was like long ago—which probably seemed like ancient history because I was about their grandparents’ age. Meanwhile, my memories flashed back to the early 1960s when, not far from Vanguard Learning Center (VLC), I’d sat in another middle school classroom at a time when the westside of Compton had rapidly become mostly African American.

I snapped back to the present when a young man raised his hand, waving it excitedly back and forth. I expected it to be something history related, as were the questions that followed. Instead, he asked: “Did you whup Mr. C’s booty when he was our age?” I couldn’t contain my laughter this time.

Visiting Jeff’s class that September unleashed an avalanche of memories in the days that followed about my long, winding journey from this little city to places I couldn’t have imagined as a young person. Born in Compton’s segregated Mexican American barrio, I had attended grammar schools and middle school on Compton’s westside during a fleeting moment of racial integration that quickly gave way to Black majority neighborhoods. My final years living there had returned me to a segregated setting once again after my family moved from West Compton when I was a fifteen. After the misguided urgings of my eldest sister, my family had moved to a home located on the eastern border of Compton city’s limits, and I’d enrolled at Dominguez High. This was the segregated “White” high school, where I became a student leader during a tumultuous time of tensions over racial integration.

When I left Compton in 1966, it was as a naïve, impressionable eighteen-year-old seeking to navigate an uncharted path as a “minority” student at a major public university. I had no way of understanding at the time how my experiences growing up in this multiracial city had deeply shaped me as a person, and later, as an educator. The values I hold dear about family and community, interracial relations, fairness, and equity were forged in Compton. I also had no way of knowing when I entered UCLA, at a time when Black and Mexican American students made up less than 1 percent of the student body, that being born and raised in Compton would launch me on an educational trajectory in search of racial justice during an era of anti-war and racial identity movements and the dawning of ethnic studies.

This unlikely journey of a “Chicano kid” from Compton took me along an unmarked road through higher education and beyond. The stories I tell are my own personal memories but often reflect experiences of others in the baby boom generation, who also came of age in the second half of the twentieth century. More specifically, my story is part of a narrative about how educational opportunities for “historically underrepresented minorities” reshaped the hopes and dreams of millions of Americans.

I also share personal reflections in the broader context of what I learned during a lifetime of teaching and writing about the history of race and ethnic relations in America. Decades of community-based work in support of marginalized people and serving as an expert witness in many voting rights and affirmative action–related legal cases also broadened my views about problems of inequality. My stories unmask many contradictions in American life in the twentieth century: racial injustice and interracial cooperation, inequality and equal opportunity, racial strife and racial harmony. I write about experiences of family, community, and relationships that cross racial boundaries, set during decades of sweeping demographic changes that transformed Compton and the nation. I write with messages of hope for the future and for a better, more tolerant, inclusive America. I also tell stories of stubborn resistance to social change and devastating legacies of inequality that still haunt our society.

My story is a quintessential American chronicle about the worst and best of who we are as a people and as a nation. It is only one individual’s account, among tens of millions of stories from my generation; but I have learned that understanding history through the eyes of one person can be powerful. My hope is that when my grandchildren and their generation are old enough to read my stories, although they are growing up in a different America, they will have a better sense from my history of how to find their own guiding light.