Irene Kim

South Central Los Angeles — Compton, Watts and other districts — are the magical lands referenced in the rap songs you listen to in the comfort and safety of your Yale dorm. The frequency of rap references to South Central almost makes you forget that this is a real place in California. It may even make you think this part of LA is a fountain of success. But South Central is more of a pot boiled with the frustrations of residents who have been neglected too long. It’s a dangerous place, where one mistake could have fatal consequences. It’s my home and, believe it or not, I’m proud to be raised there. When someone at Yale asks me where I am from, I respond and they look at me shocked and, frankly, sometimes even scared. But that’s my home.

Unfortunately, South Central is also home to the Piru (Blood) gang who refer to their territory in Compton as “Bompton.” Unlike the memes that add a “B” to random phrases, the Pirus are no laughing matter. The reason for this abstinence from the letter “C” is their extreme hate for their rivals, the Compton Crips — as well as the Crip gangs in general — who use the “C” to assert their control over certain areas. These two gangs have fought for many years for control over the city, resulting in the uncountable deaths of gang affiliates and innocents alike. Walking out of your home, you have to make sure that your clothes’ colors don’t stand out. Even now at Yale, I find myself subconsciously changing outfits if I wear too much blue or red.

Not only are communities gang-controlled, the gangs themselves are controlled by drugs. Crack, cocaine and weed are among the most prominent drugs on the streets. But they aren’t only on the streets. They are in homes, trains, buses and schools. In my middle school, students hid their drugs in their backpacks or lockers and then at lunch would go to the bathroom stalls to get “doped.” I remember seeing an elementary school friend in the bathroom with a crack pipe. Later, when middle school began, they got high almost every day.

But South Central’s drug and crime epidemic is the result of poverty, not the moral failures of individuals. For years, South Central LA has been marginalized. Schools are underfunded, neighborhoods are filthy, food deserts are prevalent and police-citizen relations are strained. Projects, or Section 8 housing, are common. Near my house, there are at least three major projects in which parents — or a single parent — attempt to raise their children, despite being surrounded by narcotics, guns and violence. The reality is that no matter how much they try to raise their kids “correctly,” there aren’t many prospects for youth in these conditions. Kids often grow up to find crime is a means of survival, not a choice.

To many, the continuous stress of the “hood life” leads to self-medication with drugs and excessive alcohol. These substances can offer a temporary escape from poverty, the murders of friends or family and other tribulations. Even those who don’t engage in these activities are fighting a continuous war in the city. They have to balance helping pay bills at home, performing well in a school that is anything but a school and avoiding the allure of the gangs around them. But other times, trouble can come disguised as blue and red lights and a badge.

Police harassment and brutality is embedded in the history of Watts and Compton. In a community primarily made up of black and Latinx residents, racial profiling is no surprise. In 1965, the Watts Riots broke out when a black man was brutally beaten by a police officer who pulled him over for suspected drunk driving. About 30 years later, the South Central Riots would explode after Rodney King, a black man, was videotaped being beaten by multiple Los Angeles Police Department officers. All of the officers were acquitted of any criminal charges. The sentiments of South Central residents towards the LAPD were summarized best by the Compton-native hip-hop group N.W.A, who rebelliously proclaimed, “Fuck the police!”

Despite all the trials put forth on South Central youth, some of us manage to not be consumed by our environment and go onto pursue our dreams. Most notably, South Central LA has produced some prolific rap artists, such as Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar, Brockhampton, Jay Rock, Schoolboy Q, Vince Staples and YG. These cultural icons went through many of the same struggles that are still present in South Central LA, but they found refuge in music and writing. Now many of these artists are returning and giving back to schools and city projects.

However, beyond artists, role models are scarce in these communities. Some youth may look up to their favorite rapper, but what about the rest? There is no other person of similar influence from this area that can show how hard work and staying out of trouble lead to a better life. Youth in South Central have very few mentors who can keep them on a straight path and advise them through tumultuous problems.

As a middle school student, I had this very problem. I had no real role model who could point me in the right direction. I had to make my way through South Central on my own. I was the epitome of what Kendrick Lamar described as a “good kid” in a “mad city.” Much like Lamar, I found a passion for writing in high school and used that as a tool to propel myself forward. This love for writing also sparked my interest in politics, and I became determined to enact real change in the community that raised me.

Meanwhile, I had to watch as some old friends engaged in gangs, drugs and other crimes. I heard of people my age being shot and dying, never able to live their life freely; they remained shackled by institutionalized racism, poverty and marginalization. Toward the end of my senior year, a good friend of mine was mourning the death of one of his longtime friends. Death, it seemed, was how you graduated the streets. That was one graduation in which I was not willing to partake.

Life in South Central LA is not easy, but that does not mean every person from there has to fall victim to the streets in which they were raised. The city is slowly making progress in lowering crime rates while improving graduation rates. The city remains a vibrant cultural neighborhood of Latinx and black residents, but now with a renewed hope of real opportunities and peace.

That hope is a big reason I am here now, writing about a world that may be foreign to most of you — the side of LA you may have never thought about, the LA that is not shown in Hollywood blockbusters. Not the LA of Harvard Westlake or Westridge private high schools, but the LA of constant struggle, the LA that made me incredibly more self-aware and self-driven and gave me knowledge that can’t be found in any textbook or Yale course. That is South Central and that is the home I will always carry with me, regardless of where I go.

Carlos Rodriguez Cortez carlos.rodriguezcortez@yale.edu