Immigrant City

Los Angeles takes you as you are

Custom-made Monte Carlo, “Luscious Illusion,” at a lowrider car show. Santa Fe Springs, CA. 2017.

You can enter Los Angeles three ways: from the land, from the sea and from the sky. I have taken the land route from the hills of the north or the deserts to the east and come upon the tangle of highways, gardens and billboards. If you count surfing and the one time I took the ferry to Catalina, I have also arrived from the sea, and landed on the combed beaches that lead to boardwalks of folly and commerce and promenades where unhoused men and women stare out at the far horizon and ask for nothing.

I have also entered LA from the sky. Like so many jet-age migrants, I too have hopped off the plane to smell the food, hear the language and music, glimpse the same salvations and sins of the city I just left behind. I have run toward that familiarity and, at times, I have run away from it. Either way, like all who arrive from Tehran, Pueblo, Shenzhen, Zagreb and Nairobi, LA will take you, wrap you up in its strip mall arms and fill your nose with the perfume of salt, motor oil and every earthly spice.

Depending on how you enter and your state of mind, LA is your gateway or your terminus. From somewhere inside this binary of hello and farewell, land and sea, mountain and desert, brews a mesmerizing location intoxication, such that anyone can be from LA, completely at home and completely in exile, all at the same time.

The first time I arrived in LA, it was by land, from the east. We traveled in a maroon upholstered minivan through the deserts, mesas, canyons and flatlands that connected Denton, Texas to Los Angeles, California. I was eight years old, and Los Angeles revealed itself to me as the candy store of human civilization. Mickey Mouse and Alf the alien smiled down on us from billboards. The highways spread over four, five, six lanes and wound past enormous shopping centers and alleys of spindly tall palm trees. There were restaurants everywhere. Cool kids with no parents skated, scooted and surfed. Neon blinked at me night and day. Dotted throughout the vast city, amusement parks beckoned the child inside every adult to let go, relax, have fun, while the child inside every child was given freedom to inhabit their wildest fears and joys.

LA will take you, wrap you up in its strip mall arms and fill your nose with the perfume of salt, motor oil and every earthly spice.

Most interestingly, there were Iranians everywhere, which was not a thing you could say about our then-hometown, Denton, Texas. It delighted my parents as they found stores full of their favorite ice creams from childhood and cassette tapes of their teen pop music idols, along with sumac powder, books of poetry and doogh, the yogurt drink with salt and bubbles. Woven throughout it all were a million languages, in the mouths of all manner of people, on the signs of grocery stores and tailor shops and banks, the regular, embedded, everyday presence of all kinds of people such that there was, at least to my young sensibilities, no other. At the end of it all—as if that were not enough—was the sea: the warm sea with kind waves and bizarre but harmless whips of kelp I imagined as the hair of some deepwater maiden.

• • •

We moved from Denton, Texas to Los Angeles when I was in fourth grade. Our house was in the northern suburbs of Los Angeles—a place called Sherman Oaks. The first day of school, I wandered around the yard, getting used to the outdoor campus with no inside hallways, no brick buildings and no second story. A girl much taller than me asked if I wanted to play tetherball. I said yes, though I had never seen the game. I watched as she wacked, with great strength and precision, a volleyball tethered to a pole that was cemented into a metal basin. I stood frozen and mute, afraid of getting hit by the ball as it wrapped around the pole and slowly unraveled. The girl found me wanting, flipped her blond hair into her hoodie and walked away. Yet, this refusal did not make me feel foreign to the place. The yard was full of all kinds of kids, girls and boys who looked like me and who didn’t, the ratio just right so that there was no majority.

Los Angeles Fashion District. 2017.

Those first few months in LA, I found myself in grocery stores and public pools and neighborhood parks staring at and listening to the other immigrant children and families speak their mother tongues and move about without fear, confident that this was their place now. They wore clothes that spoke of survival and/or success; if they had sorrow, they didn’t hide it; whatever they left behind followed them to LA, and they kept it about them as needed. In our small Texas suburb, the immigrant children, the second- and third- and fifth-generation Mexican and Central American children kept mostly to themselves and spoke only a quiet English, and their parents did the same. Those years growing up in Texas, the faces of the family like ours did not look up, did not meet my eye, did not shout in their mother tongue to come here, or look at this price, or laugh too loud at some joke no one else understood. We were guests, in Texas, in America, with tenuous invitations. Friend of a friend. But Los Angeles, with its wide basin to catch whoever might pass through, its Hollywood dream factory, 10 months of summer, houses of worship for gods both ancient and just invented, the restaurants with the fusion of Mexican and Chinese, Japanese and Thai, and that consistent western edging of ocean that belonged to no nation, felt to an immigrant family like America was us.

• • •

Seventeen years before our arrival as a family, my father arrived by sky, by himself, in Los Angeles. As the myth goes, he had only his uncle’s phone number in Palos Verdes, 70 cents in his pocket and a handful of words of English: Hello, good-bye, nice to meet you—and all the joy in the world. As he tells it, LA—with her sparkling ocean and soft sands, smiling women and fast cars—said, in the ways only a city can: welcome. Charged by the energy of the films he watched in Kermanshah’s only cinema, he extracted himself from the nest of family and the coming knot of revolution to make his way to Los Angeles where, according to the city’s cinematic bible, all character arcs were possible. More so than in those established East Coast cities of old money and pilgrims, LA seemed open to all who had enough swagger to make it work. Heroines, villains, damsels and vice were not the only images blasted from the beam of projectors the world over; change—the great energetic force that encourages a life beyond your inherited station, a notion so dangerous it is banned in so many countries—flowed onto the screen again and again so that when my father landed, he was all but certain his 70 cents would not stay 70 cents forever. The English language would fill his head and mouth, and the smiling girls would do more than smile at him.

Many times, I have imagined my father’s arrival in Los Angeles and how stunned he must have been to find a city he imagined full of Farrah Fawcetts and Paul Newmans, to be full, instead, of others like him: recent arrivals from politically fraught countries escaping to the relative peace, the relative good fortune offered by this expansive city. If he wanted to eat Persian food, Westwood was waiting. If he wanted to go to a picnic to celebrate the Nowruz holiday, blankets would already be set out with tea and honey candies at Exposition Park Rose Garden near USC. Change the street names, and the same options were available for recent arrivals from Vietnam, Korea, Armenia, Honduras, El Salvador. As was the ever-present option to change their name to something more American, practice English with no accent and forge themselves in an Anglo fashion, the same way actors took on a role, every day, all around the city—harder of course, but not impossible. In Los Angeles, all outcomes—from hyper existence to complete disappearance—were possible, even encouraged.

Before the revolution, my father went back to Iran, which is where I was born and where we planned to live as a family. In the immediate aftermath of the revolution, we tried to return to the US, finally arriving when I was five. Great relief was followed by great excitement, and then disappointment as we came to understand that regardless of how much English my mother learned, or how well she picked up driving, or how much American football my father watched or how thrilled I might have been for Halloween or Valentine’s Day, we were always, by merit of our names, our accents, our selves, going to stand on the fringe of what was considered American.

I have imagined my father’s arrival in Los Angeles and how stunned he must have been to find a city he imagined full of Farrah Fawcetts and Paul Newmans, to be full, instead, of others like him

As more of our family immigrated, those who went to Los Angeles first never seem to complain of outsider status. They landed, opened restaurants, had parties in public parks and sang along at concerts of their favorite exiled musicians. Tehrangeles was their home and, on our trips by land and then by sky, I saw the easy love they felt for the city—the way the city, by its storefronts, restaurants and public spaces, and city officials with familiar last names, loved them back. America, California, Los Angeles, had become a bit more like them, like us. By the time we settled in LA, I felt and saw it too. Entire stretches of storefront windows were etched in Mandarin, Korean, Farsi, Thai. The smells that came out of the kitchens belonged to ancient kitchens, and the spices and roots were grown in bathtubs, gallon jugs, coffee cans. The city molded to our superstitions, our sacred behaviors, and when a bus hit a Salvadoran boy on the corner of Mariposa, the sidewalk took all the flowers and candles and statues of the Virgin Mary that the hands of the devout laid down. There were parks where we felt good, at ease, where we could take our walks, hold our auspicious-day festivities, enjoy a cigarette alone on a bench under the dabbled light of a plane tree and mistake the moment for another, just like it in Tehran, Mumbai, Jakarta, Guadalajara. And with each day came with a greater possibility of looking out at a world, once foreign to us, and hoping that, with luck, the group of us—alien, immigrant, temporary resident—could fashion a new nation in our own image, and we made sure to match eyes with the others, unlike us in language or looks, and recognize that though it might have felt otherwise, we were not alone. On sunny days, sometimes that was enough.

• • •

These days, it is common for authors to declare their where-I-am-from like a pedigree. For the refugee, then the child of transit, the where-I-am-from is broad and thin, includes a handful of cities that never let me claim a “fromness”—Denton, Texas; Warsaw, Poland; Portland, Oregon; Madison, Wisconsin; Danbury, Connecticut—and yet, LA didn’t seem to mind that I claimed her. We would say, yeah, I am from LA, by which we did not mean the strange city center, a deserted canyonland of capitalism and its twin, intense poverty; not in the tourist centers of Hollywood or Sunset Boulevard; not the university museum complex of the Getty or the symphony hall, or UCLA; but in the vast suburbs of the OC and the IE and Pasadena and Long Beach, where my friends would take me to meet their families and friends, suburbs that were recreations of other places, successful ones, relatively free of war, sometimes poor but rarely destitute, thrumming with community, the right food and spices, the right TV shows and songs. And it was warm, which dropped the shoulders of many who might have tensed up had they relocated to Buffalo or Minneapolis. This is how home feels on good days, warm and easy, a place we, the skater girls, Persian grandmothers, Ecuadorian soccer players and Vietnamese restaurateurs, can claim as ours.

The Castillo Family. Compton, CA. 2020.

I live in Oakland now, and I pass through LA like one passes through the house of a favorite aunt. The streets are understood by my internal GPS. I know where the food is good, which beach for which season, where I want to shop for Tibetan incense and which Korean spa I should go to when I want to remove all the dead skin from my body and sweat without hearing any English spoken. I also know which cemeteries my relatives are buried in and what the Farsi on their headstones says. It is the consummate home city. Home even when my address is elsewhere. Home because it is forever changing to welcome the new arrivals—the Afghans, Filipinos, Eritreans—and ready to shapeshift and reflect, ready to say: relax.

• • •

On some alarmist maps, the great earthquake separates California from the rest of the North American continent and places the bent state floating out in the Pacific Ocean. While some might anticipate this separation with joy—the state is too progressive, too unwieldy, Los Angeles has too many immigrants—there are others who are interested in Los Angeles as a signal of the America of the future.

If we understand the city as a shared consciousness that bleeds out into the physical realm of skyscrapers and fire hydrants, slums and park benches, as an emblem of the inner world, then Los Angeles is an ecumenopolis. A word taken from the Greek, ecumenopolis captures the reality behind the shared fantasies. Ecumene, for “known” or “inhabited.” Polis for “world” or “civilization.” This word, centered around incomplete understandings, captures completely the ways in which I belong to Los Angeles, the ways in which anyone can. Of all that is known in this world, and now even in space, there is a version—a presence of it—in Los Angeles. Every recipe, every outfit, every ceremony, every god and every demon, every rite of passage, every story and every language living and dead and not yet invented, belongs here and, therefore, so do I. All the world is welcome to stand in this urban space of come and go, here and there, yesterday and tomorrow.

My father, now retired, could live anywhere. For the third time in his life, he chooses to live in Southern California. On our trips to LA, we go not to catch sight of the America that drew him all those years ago, of surfers and Steve McQueen racing cars down the streets, or of the soul music of Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles, or the fraught promise of equality as offered in the Declaration of Independence held up by the golden statue of a “lawgiver” at the front of the LA county courthouse, the coiled parchment held up to his cheek and a galleon sailing between his legs as if to say, come everyone, to a fair land. No, we go directly, by land, to the famous Persian ice cream shop Mashti Malone’s. There is a line out the door. In that line, you will hear Russian, Mandarin and Arabic, and when my father and I walk in, the owner’s son doesn’t even have to look at us before he says Befaymin, welcome, and just like that, we are at home—and far from home—in this little strip mall storefront that invites everyone in to have something sweet.


Laleh Khadivi

Laleh Khadivi is a novelist, director and cinematographer and the author of the Kurdish Trilogy and A Good Country. She has been awarded a Pushcart Prize, Whiting Award and NEA grant, among others. Her writing can be found in the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, VQR and other publications. 

Julie Grace Immink

Julie Grace Immink is a photographer and writer based in Milwaukee, WI. Her working-class upbringing has inspired her documentary work to focus on the socio-economic landscape of subcultures and communities. You can also find her kayaking the wilds of the Midwest or talking to strangers (the stranger the better). Julie is an alumnus of the photojournalism Eddie Adams XXXIV workshop. She has also participated in other workshops including working alongside Mary Ellen Mark.  She studied traditional photography techniques at the Art Institute of Philadelphia.

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