Susan Luzzaro 8:14 a.m., May 23
"Ghetto" is Not an Adjective
“Ghetto” is not an adjective. It is a noun. It’s the place where I live. It’s Barrio Logan to be exact, but that lone fact is insignificant really. There’s no Sherman, or Logan, or Shelltown to those on the outside looking in. It’s all ‘ghetto’ to them. It’s safely kept at a distance-- mostly imagined on pixelated screens or glanced through car windows at high speeds. And it’s okay, as long as we stay in it, except in transit between working kitchens and keeping things clean.
“Ghetto” is not an adjective because it’s a place that does not fit one description. There is a popular assumption that a ghetto is only a crime-ridden, gang-infested, dirty, scary place—no doubt a result of the news and TV bombarding us with such edited imagery. Or maybe you’ve had a negative experience that exemplified the rule, while the positive one proved to be the exception. That’s exactly how stereotypes work. Perhaps partially true, but never the truth.
The truth is that I can sit outside at Chicana Perk Café and have a latte and an intellectual conversation with another local—an exchange that might just surprise a La Jollan. Though within the same hour, I can walk down 25th and see a teenager with a shiny silver gun in his hand in broad daylight—ready to shoot if he has to. Yelling and screaming, sirens and gunshots are not uncommon here. Coincidentally, the city government decided to construct two freeways—the 94 and the 5—that partition this neighborhood from other parts of the city. Emissions from heavy freeway traffic and industrial pollution create heightened environmental hazards. Statistically more of us have asthma than those who live just two miles north. Our schools suffer as well. It seems that disconnected first-year teachers get their credentials here, then move on to “better” and brighter areas-- Tragic in a place where lack of a good education likely means a consecutive life sentence of menial labor. Speaking of life sentences, we have a precarious relationship with the police here too. They are more our enemies than our friends—though they are both. They often appear enemies because we are aggressively treated as guilty before proven innocent; friends on those rare occasions when they actually protect us from dangerous criminal elements.
But that’s enough of the negative stereotype that’s already been beaten and washed into our brain by TV, movies, and video games. That’s enough of the ingrained image that prevents us from sifting through popular propaganda. This media madness has turned the word “ghetto” into an adjective. When I hear a blonde teenie-bopper from the OC utter the word “ghetto” in disdain to describe her damaged or dirty Mercedes, I know that she has never been to one. When I hear my students calling everything from their backpacks to their scuffed shoes “ghetto,” I know that they have also been brainwashed. TV’s trickle-down effect, I suppose. But this kind of linguistic Ghettonomics effects those in Logan much more adversely than it does the O.C. In the O.C. it’s a flippant adjective that happens to be trendy. In the hood it’s an everyday reality. Unfortunately, its popular use creates borders between you and me. Its negativity permeates almost everything we see and hear in this ghetto neighborhood.
However, this is what I see that doesn’t fit the stereotypical description. I see families walking happily together down the street. I see kids playing soccer, expressing dreams with their favorite international teams in mind. I see the foot traffic of young and old, eating ice cream on a hot afternoon. I see strangers greeting each other, smiling and laughing by the trolley stop. I see houses painted vibrant colors that suburban HOA’s would ban in a second. I hear loud music and talking that resonates with passionate love of life. I feel the pulse of the moment. I see beautiful murals and harmless homeless people in Chicano Park. I smell fresh tortillas, carne asada cooking, and the fresh baked goods of Panchita’s. And it all reminds me that the culture here is much deeper than hot dogs and Budweisers; that Mexicans and our indigenous descendants were here long before Fremont’s bear flag was raised, or Jefferson’s declaration was praised; long before a border wall was even conceived. Yes, the roots of this ghetto community were here long before the word “ghetto” came into existence in 16th century Europe. “Ghetto” was originally used to describe the segregated Jewish neighborhood in Venice. As the reader may well know, those of the Jewish faith became pariahs in the midst of a Europe controlled by Christendom. Though victims of persecution and discrimination for centuries, the Jewish ghettos created conditions for increased solidarity, economic and cultural strength. Did we forget the positives, or have we been completely blinded from them?
If not the mainstream media, I hope the kids in this and all so-called ghetto communities learn the roots of their words (i.e. history), and discover that their perceptions are often stereotypes that have little or no basis in real experiences (and that reality TV is nowhere near “real”).
Here is my reality: I am sitting and writing in a ghetto in San Diego. It is one of many ghettos—often separated, misrepresented, or ignored. I am in a favela. I am in a slum. They are almost everywhere and they are many things—but not adjectives. I am not sitting in a “ghetto” chair as I write this. I am sitting in a homemade, hand-painted and personalized wooden chair. It was not bought and will likely not be sold. Most importantly, it is far more comfortable, full of character, and alive than the over-priced plastic chair lining some stale street north of here.
That is not to generalize that all of, say, Mission Hills is stale and pale. It would be a shame to make anybody or any place the victim of one-dimensional paintings or popular stereotypes. It is simply to say that this ghetto—Barrio Logan—can be both a wonderful and horrible place, and everything in between—a multi-dimensional reality which is seldom seen first-hand. And, above all, “ghetto” is not an adjective.