Boyle Heights, Los Angeles is a vibrant and historic neighborhood rich in its celebration of Latinx heritage and cultural resilience. If you’re in Los Angeles and looking for an experience that will take you through meaningful historical and cultural spaces, head to this special neighborhood and check out one of the 30+ unique things and cultural hidden gems below.
In honor of Hispanic/Latinx Heritage Month, I have partnered with Vrbo to explore cultural heritage in different parts of the United States. I traveled through New York City, Austin, San Antonio, and Los Angeles! And one of my favorite finds? The special neighborhood of Boyle Heights in LA, for its deep Mexican heritage, revolutionary history, and several cultural spaces which serve the Latinx community.
What Makes Boyle Heights in Los Angeles So Special?
There are many reasons Boyle Heights is special. But a big one for me as a Dominican-American is the community’s special dedication to embracing and preserving Chicano/Mexican art and culture. To many of us Latinos in the USA, Boyle Heights can serve as an emblem of cultural heritage preservation and resilience despite a history of violent oppression and strategic erasure.
As you step foot into the start of Boyle Heights, throughout this neighborhood, you will notice several small coffee shops, book stores, cultural spaces, and pockets of artistic gold sprouting from its nooks and crannies. Famous murals which go back decades, tell stories of the community with a deep history in the revolutionary Chicano Movement.
And music is another major reason that Boyle Heights is special. This neighborhood has remained a musical sanctuary for mariachi musicians since the 1950s. Just walking around Boyle Heights, you’ll see mariachi performers walking around in their traditional attire. And if you want to hear some live mariachi? Start your visit to Boyle Heights at the Mariachi Plaza, and chances are you will hear some amazing talent live.
A Brief History of Boyle Heights
Boyle Heights, California, also has a deep, conflicted past that has grown into a rich celebration of Mexican, Japanese, Jewish, and other cultures. Throughout history, the community of Boyle Heights (comprised of first-generation Americans, immigrants, and other residents) has banded together and resisted decades of redlining and racially restrictive covenants. The neighborhood even survived the building of the East LA Interchange, which is one of the most traffic-congested areas in the entire world. Think: Robert Moses’ Cross Bronx Expressway.
The historic Chicano Moratorium also happened nearby in Boyle Heights, where an important and peaceful protest in 1970 turned deadly when the police killed a Mexican journalist who was reporting on the issues the community wanted to be voiced. This tragedy along with other efforts from the Civil Rights and Chicano Movement eventually led to the advancement of civil rights.
Today, Boyle Heights could be a case study for many of us Latinos around the United States to reflect on the kind of communities we can cultivate when we resist oppression, displacement, and commit ourselves to the preservation of our history and heritage.
Where to Stay When Visiting Boyle Heights
During my visits to Boyle Heights, I stayed in a beautiful Vrbo in downtown Los Angeles. This was just a 10-minute drive (or 15-minute metro train ride away) from the heart of Boyle Heights. If you want to stay even closer to all the action in Boyle Heights, I recommend staying along the following two main streets which offer most of the things to do: 1) East First Street and 2) East Cesar E Chavez Avenue.
Cultural & Fun Things to do in Boyle Heights
If you love culture, art, books, plants, history, and good food, then plan a trip to the special neighborhood of Boyle Heights to experience the heritage for yourself. Below are some amazing things to do and important spaces to support!
Espacio 1839 is so much more a shop. It’s everything we love about a local artisan shop combined with an art gallery and a cultural space for local creatives. When you enter Espacio 1839, you are enjoying and supporting a neighborhood collective of art, books, fashion, music, and more. Every item on display is reflective of the community that supports and fills it.
Indeed, the community fills this store not only in visual art but also in audio, as the location is also a community-based digital radio station. Espacios 1839 is located right next to Mariachi Plaza, so be sure to stop in while you experience other cultural offerings in the square.
Boyle Heights Sunday Market
Every Sunday, Mariachi Plaza is bustling with a community artisan market. Admission is free and the atmosphere is family-friendly. This open-air market has a pleasant feel. As you peruse booths and tables of food, you may be lucky enough to be serenaded by the music of mariachi bands. Here, you will also find homemade food for you and your family to enjoy at the market. And my favorite items to shop for? Hand-made artisan crafts from Mexico and Guatemala! All told, the Boyle Heights Sunday Market is a great way to get a taste of the rich flavors of the neighborhood.
Casa 0101 is a must-visit when visiting Boyle Heights. This theater was launched by Josefina Lopez, the author of the Real Women Have Curves, a play set in East L.A. that tells the coming of age story of five Mexican-American women. Josefina was from this side of Los Angeles, and her goal was to bring live theater here! How touching.
Today, local artists put on wonderful shows and perform here, as well as take classes in acting, writing, dance, and more. Casa 0101 has also moved from its original location- a former bridal shop- to a beautiful, 99-seat live performance theater.
In addition to theatre and classes, Casa 0101 is home to the Jean Deleage Art Gallery, which houses different exhibits like No Somos Animals/We Are Not Animals, or the Yanli Delgado Solo Exhibition.
Eastside Luv for Drinks & Music
If you love a good night out with the community stop by Eastside LUV for drinks and music. They offer thematic karaoke nights where you can come in and sing mariachiOKE, MorriseyOKE, SelenaOKE, and JuangaOKE, which feature the songs of Juan Gabriel. A live DJ and a burlesque show also occur each week. Fun!
Keep in mind that certain nights call for different dress codes at LUV. Sunday through Thursday, casual attire is allowed. Friday and Saturday nights, plan dressy casual to dressy. Excessively baggy pants and shirts are absolutely not allowed here.
Evergreen Memorial Park
For another look into Boyle Heights history, visit Evergreen Memorial Park. Evergreen is the oldest cemetery in Los Angeles County. Many members of the community are buried here, dating back to the 1800s. The most notable fact about Evergreen Memorial Park is that it never banned Black Americans from burial in the cemetery. Furthermore, Armenians, Japanese, and Mexican graves are here, too (though each of these sections remained segregated).
The cemetery offers more insight into the city’s history. When you visit, you will see the Chinese shrine erected in 1888, a memorial for the 442nd Infantry Regimental Combat Unit of Japanese soldiers, and the beautiful Garden of Pines created for Japanese Issei pioneers.
Visit Mariachi Plaza
We’ve mentioned it before, but it’s time to dive in. You really can’t visit Boyle Heights without also visiting Mariachi Plaza. This area is a center for all mariachi musicians in the area. Just stroll through the plaza, and you will probably hear singers, violinists, guitarists, and/or full mariachi bands.
At the heart of the plaza is a bandstand and kiosk, which was donated by Jalisco, Mexico. Artists wear their traditional attire and hope to be hired seven days a week. So, if you are in need of a mariachi band or just want to hear the wonderful music, come listen to your options at Mariachi Plaza.
Street Art Murals
Boyle Heights also has a long tradition of street art in the form of gorgeous and/or thought-provoking murals. This was (and still is) a way that community members expressed their stories. The Boyle Heights murals are also tied to the Chicano Movement (throughout the 1970s). Murals were one of the ways that local artists could use their voices to express their thoughts on community issues and topics.
Walking through Boyle Heights today, you will see murals of Mexican/Chicano ancestors from hundreds of years ago to parents of current young artists. You will also see political statements like a tribute to Che Guevara that reminds us that “We are NOT a minority.” Muro Que Habla, Canta y Grita is another important mural, which features important figures with the Chicano community.
Libros Schmibros Lending Library
Libros Schmibros is not a traditional library. It is also a book store with a unique mission to put books into everyone’s hands. Books are either completely free or sold at an affordable cost. You can browse their shelves on location- which is right next to the Mariachi Plaza Metro Station (or see what they have to offer online).
Libros Schmibros also hosts numerous events aimed at bringing the community together for cultural education. There is a Reading Group on Mexican Philosophy and Culture, as well as a Children’s Storytelling Hour.
Self Help Graphics & Art
For another excellent cultural experience in Boyle Heights, head to Self Help Graphics and Art. This organization began in 1973, right at the heart of the Chicano Power Movement of the Civil Rights Era! Their goal since has been to become the home for local artists and to build international partnerships and collaborations.
Today, Self Help continues hosting numerous workshops and cultural events like Dia de los Muertos and annual art exhibitions. These exhibitions are hosted in Self Help’s own art gallery, located on-site.
El Mercado de Los Ángeles (El Mercadito)
Once a large, multi-ethnic market, El Mercado de Los Ángeles is now widely connected with the Latinx community of Boyle Heights. This three-story indoor shopping center is stocked with amazing cultural offerings, from food to leather vendors, to live mariachi music. This is another location where mariachis work to land an upcoming gig.
While you walk through El Mercadito, you will also notice some cool art and architecture styles throughout. The building has a red-tiled roof, an interior courtyard, and two-story arches. There is also a mosaic tile mural on the first level, added in 1991. This mural depicts a Mayan rain god.
Another book shop located in Boyle Heights, RE-Arte-LA is also an art space and a headquarters for a literary journal, Dryland, which published BIPOC poetry, fiction, non-fiction, and other stories from emerging and established writers from around the globe.
This shop hosts film screenings, book readings, workshops, and other events. They even have writer’s workshops, held on Saturdays and Wednesdays for all different kinds of writers. These workshops give new and practiced writers a chance to work with Viva Padilla, the Editor in Chief of Dryland.
Want to get a taste for the works of local Boyle Heights Writers? Another great place to look is Other Books, located on East Cesar Chavez Avenue. This shop features new books as well as used books. Some of the books are antiques from several decades ago, so you have to be careful turning pages. For instance, I got this 50-year-old book on the Chicano homeland concept of Aztlan.
Other Books also has an extensive collection of works that cover:
- Mexican and Mexican-American cultural influences (check out Gods of Jade & Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s books),
- Native American heritage (Like Woman Who Glows in the Dark by Elena Avila with Joy Parker),
- US-intervention throughout Latin America (Try the book Open Veins of Latin America by Eduardo Galeano), and
- Chicano History (Look into An African American & Latinx History of the United States by Paul Ortiz and Chicano Movement for Beginners by Maceo Montoya).
Books come in all reading levels, from children’s books to teen novels, to poetry to heavy adult fiction.
Based out of Boyle Heights, Latinx with Plants aims to build a community of new and experienced plant parents through the use of ancestral plant knowledge with a focus on standing up to the environmental racism that brown and Black communities face on a daily basis.
Through their platform, they have indeed built a growing group of people who love their plants. Especially during the 2020 Covid-19 lockdown when plants became a source of comfort for many in the community. Now, you can order plants from Latinx with Plants, as well as pots and other merchandise.
East L.A. Library – Chicano Resource Center
The East L.A. Library is home to an extensive collection of books that fills over 26,000 square feet of space. Part of this library houses the Chicano Resource Center. This center was established in 1976, and was started in order to provide information to the community about Mexican history and culture. This was epic during a time where our heritage was intentionally and outright being erased! The center’s collection also includes multiple kinds of media, like books, journals, online databases, videos, CDs, and more.
Most notably, it houses periodicals from the Chicano Movement, like La Raza, Con Safos, and Aztlan. These authentic artifacts give an unaltered view of the movement, from the lens of those who lived it. Browse these, as well as subject notebooks with articles covering the Movement, as well as pamphlets on over 750 important political topics that directly affect the Boyle Heights community.
Ruben Salazar Park (East LA)
Named after an important civil rights activist who was killed by the police during the National Chicano Moratorium March in 1970, Ruben Salazar Park now serves as a place for community members to enjoy time outdoors and indoors. It also serves as a community hub for senior citizens and is enjoyed by adults and children alike. Stop by the park to pay homage to this journalist who was a hero and a martyr in the Chicano/Civil Rights Movement.
There are many community programs to take advantage of here, many of which come free of cost. For instance, after-school programs are available for children ages six to twelve, and children’s Aztec dances are taught three days a week. There are tennis and basketball courts, baseball fields, and other fitness areas throughout this expansive park, as well as many Boyle Heights murals.
As local photographer, Cruzito notes: “Ruben Salazar Park is technically in East LA, not Boyle Heights. There’s a street called Indiana St. which serves as the border between East LA (technically LA County) and Boyle Heights (technically LA City).”
AS for the mural at the Ruben Salazar Park (pictured above), it is called “The Wall that Speaks, Sings and Shouts.” And it was painted in 2001 by artist Paul Botello.
Mariachi Festival (November)
If you are lucky enough to visit Boyle Heights in November, you may be able to experience the annual Mariachi Festival. Tied with the Saint Cecilia Celebration, the Festival draws over three thousand musicians alone. Of course, this event is held at Mariachi Plaza, in honor of it being the first mariachi plaza of its kind in the United States. It begins with a procession in the name of the patron saint with a large crowd following the group of mariachis.
What is the difference between the Mariachi Festival and any other day at Mariachi Plaza? Any other day of the year, mariachis are there to get hired. On this Festival day, they band together to celebrate the music as one.
When visiting Mariachi Plaza or taking the historical walking tour, you won’t be able to miss the Boyle Hotel. The Boyle Hotel is nicknamed the Mariachi Hotel for its location to Mariachi Plaza, as well as the mariachi bands that stayed there.
Now, the historical building is a 51-unit affordable housing apartment building and is connected with another new 20-unit apartment building nearby. Still, the Hotel is a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument and houses a Mariachi Cultural Center and three rehearsal rooms for these musicians.
The Boyle Heights Museum
When searching for a complete history of Boyle Heights, you will want to consider a stop at the Boyle Heights Museum. The museum hosts a collection of important Boyle Heights-focused exhibitions, like A Taste of Boyle Heights: Perseverance in the Neighborhood, which celebrates the community’s relationship with cultural foods.
Boyle Heights Youth: Continuing the Legacy of the Neighborhood is also a great exhibition, which features pictures from the Las Fotos Project. This project is a 12-week program that takes students through a photography course, and then features their work at the museum.
Hollenbeck Skate Plaza
Traveling with a skater? Want to connect with the residents of Boyle Heights over sports? Head to Hollenbeck Skate Plaza. The park supports skateboards, rollerblades, BMX bikes, and scooters. You will be able to try your wheels of choice on many different obstacles, like the Flat Rail, halfpipe, fun box, and pyramid.
Many people wonder, “Is Boyle Heights safe?” With parks like Hollenbeck, the neighborhood works to encourage safe activities for youth. They do this by holding programs like Girls Only Skate Time, Skate Clubs, and Skate Competitions.
LA Luchador at Hardware Studio
Hardware Studio is a private media production studio and workspace. It has been used for live broadcasts, as well as other productions and community events.
One of the most notable aspects of a visit to Hardware Studio is La Luchador. La Luchador is one of the most interesting Boyle Heights murals. It depicts a Lucha Libre mask, turned into an octopus creature with rays of light reminiscent of a painting of La Virgen. The mural was completed by street artist @GERMS_S.
Boyle Heights Cultural History Tour
Perhaps the best way to experience the history of Boyle Heights, book a Boyle Heights Cultural History Tour. The Los Angeles Eastside History Museum and Cultural Center hosts numerous history tours, including a walking tour of the founding history of the neighborhood.
During this tour, you will begin at Mariachi Plaza, and continue to ten other important sites. Your knowledgeable guide (Shmuel Gonzales) will talk you through each, noting how it was important to the growth of the community. Some of the locations include The Hotel Mariachi, The Gless House, The Jewish Wayfarers Home, and the Max Factor House. Following the tour, your guide encourages you to hang around for local Mexican food and to continue the discussion on the future of Boyle Heights.
Where to Eat & Drink in Boyle Heights
Milpa Grille + Cafe Cafe + Macheen
This spot is more than a restaurant. It is a community space where three different Mexican small businesses (Milpa Grill, Cafe Cafe, and Macheen) have come together in a co-op style to serve the community through coffee and tasty food. They even have a community fridge where those in need are able to grab food for free.
For these reasons and more, Milpa Grille was one of our favorite places to visit in Boyle Heights. Don’t miss out on the natural fruit agua frescas like the hibiscus-raspberry. For food, the menu here is based on the Mesoamerican ancestor’s traditional diet and features the three core ingredients of corn, squash, and beans.
La Mascota Bakery
For some pastries and traditional Mexican drinks like horchata and hot chocolate, stop by La Mascota Bakery. In addition to traditional Mexican pan dulce, cakes, and flans, they also serve tamales and tortas. This bakery has been feeding the Boyle Heights community for over sixty-five years, so you know the food here will not only be tasty but also the product of decades of hard work. I loved the Mexican hot chocolate which was mixed with cinnamon. Yum!
El 7 Mares (for Mexican Seafood)
If you are looking to try traditional Mexican seafood, you need to head to El 7 Mares. Its menu features everything from fresh shrimp cocktails to seafood platters, with lobster tail, carne asada, chicken fajitas, tilapia, shrimp, scallops, and octopus. I didn’t get to stop here due to time, but it looked so good and I really wanted to! The reviews also say that El 7 Mares is dedicated to warm hospitality, so your experience should be fun as well as tasty.
Weird Wave Coffee Roasters
Another very cool cafe to grab a fresh cup of coffee in Boyle Heights is Weird Wave Coffee Brewers. Here you can grab some affordable beverages, smoothies, teas, and kombuchas. Fresh sandwiches are made to order here, perfect for lunch, with unique additions like spicy jelly available. They also sell delicious pastries, like banana bread, or delicious toast with ricotta and spinach.
Indie Brewing Company
After a day of touring and trying new traditional foods, you may be searching for the best brew in Boyle Heights. For this, go to Indie Brewing Company. Their tasting room has indoor and outdoor seating. Sample a delicious Michelada here, or try Angelenos, a Mexican-style lager. Other cultures are celebrated here too, with offerings like Ebisu, a Japanese Rice Lager, made with jasmine rice. End the experience with a taste of For Life, a Chocolate Vanilla Twist Pastry Stout with 12.5% ABV.
We hope you’ve enjoyed our recap of this very special L.A. neighborhood. We loved our time here and can’t wait to go back again! Have you been to Boyle Heights, yet?