Before I knew anything about the world and all of the wonders that were available to me outside of the walls of the small, modest apartment I shared with my parents and my brother and sister, I knew Compton.
In those days the world was flat and no one existed beyond Alondra and Compton Boulevards to the north and south, and Wilmington Avenue and Alameda Street to the east and west. That was our world. Our slice of heaven with a little bit of hell mixed in for kicks.
For my parents and the hundreds of Samoan immigrants who came to the United States to put down roots and establish a new life away from their island villages, Park Village, a small low-income apartment community became, for all intents and purposes, their village away from the islands. It became their bastion from Western influences and their refuge from the invading forces of the fast life and the hustle and bustle of the streets.
Just as Italians, Chinese, Russians, Swedes, Haitians, Irish and Puerto Rican immigrants established large communities in places like the Bronx, Chicago, Brooklyn and San Francisco so to did Polynesian immigrants who longed for a life where hard work and determination would eventually yield the American Dream. And just like other ethnic communities, the Polynesian communities experienced their own setbacks as they struggled to find jobs and walk the fine line between staying true to one’s culture and assimilating into a melting pot of cultures in greater Los Angeles, the Bay Area, Orange County and many other communities up and down the great State of California.
My story is similar to other Polynesian youths of my generation. Compton became just a stepping stone and a proving grounds for who I am today. For many of us, Compton was our Plymouth Rock. It was a Genesis of sorts for our families. Though I moved away as a child, my grandparents and several family members stayed and established their own piece of paradise in that unforgiving concrete jungle. My aunt and uncle still live in the same house in Compton where I spent most of my Summers and learned many of life’s lessons.
I go back every now and then to the old neighborhood but its been a long time since my last visit. Why? Good question, no good answers. I fall back to what has become my fundamental response. Who really likes going back after you’ve left the place? Who likes run down buildings, dingy city parks, dark alleys and the constant roar of emergency vehicle sirens on streets inhabited by junkies and the homeless?
But there is a feeling there that lingers and reminds you of what life was like. There was the hardships your parents experienced while trying to raise a young family. The image of your father’s car sitting on cinder blocks after thugs have stolen his tires for the umpteenth time. The fear of gangs and the frustration worn on every face from the futility of never feeling like you’re getting ahead.
There are the long, long days of Summer when my grandparents let me and my brother go outside to play in the warm Southern California sun with a stern warning that we were prohibited from ever going to the front yard for fear that there might be a drive-by; and yet we lived in a relatively calm neighborhood compared to others in the area.
Most people associate Compton with NWA and its notorious trio Easy-E, Dr. Dre and Ice Cube. The city is synonymous with the Crips and the Bloods, an indoor Swap Meet, the Car Wash, night caps and house shoes and Hollywood’s version of what we lived. But no matter what stigma you attach to the place, it was home and we made the best of what we had.
It is those memories; those hardships and heartaches; those days when you had to cling to each other to feel safe and you had each other’s backs because there was no one else to turn to; those are the things that are imprinted on your mind and remind you of what life might have been like if your parents hadn’t made sacrifices for you. It’s why so many us from Compton have moved on but still look back – because a brief look at the past reminds us that no matter how difficult the trials we face today, the future is always bright.