For Los Angeles locals, it can be easy to lose sight of the intrigue that draws thousands of visitors each year to the sprawling, centuries-old metropolis. UCLA professor Eric Avila felt the allure early in life, when he was growing up in the suburbs of San Diego.
“I was an outsider in the ‘undiverse,’ suburban neighborhood that I grew up in, in many ways, so I looked to Los Angeles as a kind of Oz,” said Avila, today an urban cultural historian and an expert in L.A.’s complex past. “It was this edgy, bustling, diverse place that I felt a connection to.”
Avila brought his fascination to fruition in the 1990s as a student at UC Berkeley, where he earned bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in history. Influenced by the school’s then-nascent wave of ethnic studies programs, he focused his dissertation on white flight and cultural identity in Los Angeles, finding a perfect laboratory to bring together his interests in race and ethnicity, architectural history and more. But when he was offered a job teaching Chicano studies at UCLA in 1997, he saw an opportunity to carve out a particularly meaningful space at the largest public university in Los Angeles.
“I’d just completed my Ph.D. in history, rather than in ethnic studies, but I knew I had two major strengths to bring to the table,” said Avila, who holds appointments in UCLA’s departments of history and urban planning as well as the UCLA César E. Chávez Department of Chicana/o and Central American Studies. “One, I come from a working-class, Mexican American family going back five generations in Southern California, with deep roots in the Inland Empire. And two, I study Los Angeles, which was a Mexican city — and, at least demographically, is a Mexican American city today.”
Avila’s perspective offered a unique vantage point for his work exploring the city’s history of political and social activism from the viewpoint of marginalized communities, and how these groups find creative ways to express political aspirations for social justice. His current book project, tentatively titled “On the Verge: Los Angeles Between Watts and Rodney King,” looks at a critical period in which immigration as well as Black, Chicano and LGBTQ political activism radically diversified the city.
His past works have shed light on some of the most famed institutions associated with L.A. — from Disneyland to its notorious freeway system — by illuminating the surprising ways that race and the struggle for equality are linked with these built environments.
“When Dodger Stadium was built, for example, a Mexican American community was evicted from its historic home in the Chavez Ravine. There’s a lot of injustice in that story, and Mexican Americans still remember it today,” Avila said. “But one of the things I find so interesting is that, at the same time, Mexican Americans made the Dodgers their own, particularly through their identification with players of Mexican descent, like Fernando Valenzuela in the 1980s.
“For me, it’s a personal story, because I myself come from a family of Dodgers fans, and I also come from a Mexican American family,” he continued. “So it’s a paradox — and the question is, ‘How do we tell the story in a way that acknowledges these contradictions?’”
As UCLA’s Waldo W. Neikirk professor of undergraduate education innovation, Avila engages undergraduate students with questions like this, including in Fiat Lux seminars as well as Honors Collegium and Cluster Program courses that allow for in-depth study of particular topics. He has forged a strong connection with the university’s growing body of students who are the first in their families to go to college — just as Avila himself was a first-generation student.
“It’s so rewarding to work with students who are determined to succeed without the benefits of having parents who went to college,” said Avila, a past chair of Chicana/o and Central American studies who also completed a term as the inaugural associate dean of equity, diversity and inclusion for the UCLA Division of Social Sciences. “They look within themselves, and they look to their peers, to create community and support networks.”
Beyond the classroom, Avila sees his role in mining the city’s rich history as a way to further UCLA’s overall mission as a public university. He was recently appointed chair of the programming board for the historic Trust Building acquired by UCLA this year in downtown Los Angeles, a position in which he will review proposals for use of the iconic building.
“There is no institution more Los Angeles than UCLA,” Avila said. “It is a global name, just like L.A. is a global city. And I love that my work, as well as the work of several colleagues across campus, serves as a connection point between UCLA and the vast urban area we call Los Angeles.”