Popularized by the song “Walking in LA” by the 1980s American rock band Missing Persons, the idea that nobody walks in Los Angeles because of the population’s dependence on automobiles has become a well-known adage about the city. Yet, this tongue-in-cheek saying illustrates the real social divide between the urban poor—who for a variety of reasons walk and move across the city using public transportation—and the upper classes in LA.
This stark divide comes into view in the 2007 novel Their Dogs Came with Them by Helena María Viramontes. The story takes place in East Los Angeles during the 1960s and ’70s, a time period that encompasses the building of many of the city’s major freeways and the aftermath for the residents who were uprooted and those who remained. The lives of both groups were transformed by shifting sociopolitical conditions. The novel operates at a street-level view, documenting, over a ten-year period, the impact of freeway construction and the targeted effort to raze the long-standing Mexican-American communities that stood in the way of this massive infrastructure project. Rather than further amplifying the dominant view of those who orchestrated the descent of the “earthmovers” in the Eastside or the suburban Angelenos the freeway system was put in place to serve, the novel centers primarily around marginalized characters and places, those that did not reap the benefits of Los Angeles’ car-centric urban planning approach.
Viramontes rejects the bird’s eye view of the city, critiqued by scholars such as Michel de Certeau and María Lugones as a top-down, power-laden perspective deployed by urban planners to create a “readable city.”  Instead, I argue that Viramontes enacts Lugones’ “streetwalker theorizing,” a “pedestrian view—the perspective from inside the midst of people, from inside the layers of relations and institutions and practices” in her work (Lugones 5). Through rendering an intricate web of social relations, Viramontes demonstrates that each voice matters, particularly the “nobodies” who do in fact walk in LA and who have been disregarded in the city’s plans for modernization.
Viramontes instructs readers to read LA against the grain by devoting significant narrative space to scenes of characters walking through the city. According to de Certeau, “pedestrian movements form one of these ‘real systems whose existence in fact makes up the city.’ They are not localized; it is rather they that spatialize” (de Certeau 97). In other words, “[pedestrians’] intertwined paths give their shape to spaces. They weave places together [through their movements]” (de Certeau 97). This production of space is selective by design, as pedestrians are differentiated actors along the axis of oppression, which in turn mediates their ability to interact with their social world—and the many people and places it comprises. De Certeau emphasizes that this is nonetheless an empowered position, “a process of appropriation of the topographical system on the part of the pedestrian,” “a spatial acting-out of the place” and suggests we view “walking as a space of enunciation” (de Certeau 98). Thus, if one follows the movements of marginalized characters within and against extreme oppressive conditions, one can appreciate the ways in which pedestrians act out new resistant possibilities by appropriating space and forging place in their own image.
My analysis will be directed towards two of Viramontes’ characters: Ben, a mentally ill young man of Mexican and white heritage; and Turtle, a homeless, gender-nonconforming  young person. Both characters embody Lugones’ marginalized “streetwalker” subject and de Certeau’s “ordinary practitioners of the city” who “live ‘down below,’ below the thresholds at which visibility begins” (de Certeau 93). There are two major points I will explore in this essay: (1) the ways in which the built environment became defamiliarized, hostile terrain to the residents, particularly the pedestrians of East LA, and (2) the navigational tactics characters utilize to survive their new social reality.
Their Dogs Came with Them opens in the wake of a double displacement. First, by colonization: the epigraph is an excerpt of The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico by Miguel León-Portilla (Viramontes vii). Second, by urban policy: in 1959, just one year before the beginning of the novel’s stated time period, the Arechiga family became the last residents forcibly removed from Chavez Ravine, a largely Mexican-American community formerly located in downtown Los Angeles, a site that was ultimately acquired by the city and cleared to build modern-day Dodger Stadium. The novel’s setting coincides with what historians and urban studies scholars have called the Interstate Era: the period that encompassed the building of the Interstate Highway System and the subsequent freeway revolts. Historian Eric Avila describes the 1959 mobilization against the freeways as a movement by almost exclusively white individuals who were able to use their privilege, money, and political connections to express opposition when highways threatened their neighborhoods and communities (“L.A.'s Invisible Freeway Revolt” 834). The residents of East LA, like many other communities of color across the United States, were unable to successfully fight the freeway through formal political avenues like petitions, court appearances, and protest. Instead, they had to learn to live with and adapt to their changing environment, and they turned to cultural forms such as muralism, graffiti, oral histories, and literature to voice how their daily lives had been transformed by the encroachment of the freeways and the reverberating social, economic, and political consequences for the generations of Angelenos to come.
The selection of East Los Angeles as a critical site for the building of the freeway system has been attributed by scholars such as Rodolfo Acuña, Eric Avila, and Gilbert Estrada to the political dominance of industry and white suburbia to determine the optimal route that would protect their personal and economic interests. The state Division of Highways officials believed that in the Eastside they found the path of least resistance to expand private transportation. From the planners’ and politicians’ points of view, the area had an abundance of cheap land and a lack of political representation. Moreover, the redevelopment process offered an attractive bonus: the clearance of low-income housing and ethnic communities (Estrada 304). Thus, freeway encroachment became yet another chapter in a long history of dispossession and disrespect toward Mexican-descendant people in the United States.
Figure A: 1958 Master Plan of Freeways and Expressways. A map demonstrating the concentration of freeways in East LA. Image Credit: Gilbert Estrada and Gloria Guerrero, 2005. Used with permission.
Ben’s Worlds of Sense
Ben enters the novel as a young adult with an undisclosed mental illness and a limp. His sister Ana acts as his primary caretaker. He appears in the novel as a frequent visitor to the family ministry and soup kitchen run by Tranquilina, a daughter of Christian missionaries who is undergoing a crisis of faith and trying to make sense of her violent surroundings. Later, in a series of flashbacks, depicting eleven-year-old Ben, the reader learns that he is living with the grief of his mother’s disappearance and that of his classmate, Renata Valenzuela, around the same time. Also, during his childhood, he suffered a tragic accident while crossing the street in front of a cement truck accompanied by a younger boy. The boy ultimately died, and Ben was traumatized by the experience. Notably, about two-thirds of the way into the novel, Ben disappears. His sister Ana and Tranquilina search for him until the final pages of the story, to no avail.
Mirroring his disappearance during the narrative, substantive analyses of Ben are absent from the scholarly literature. He remains the most understudied major character in Their Dogs Came with Them. Jina B. Kim’s 2017 essay, “Cripping East Los Angeles: Enabling Environmental Justice in Helena María Viramontes’s Their Dogs Came with Them,” is one of the sole studies to write about Ben from a disability-informed perspective. Kim argues that the novel “is an account of human enmeshment within and dependency upon systems of social support,” which she terms “infrastructures of care” (503, 518). Further, she advances a reading of disability and disablement in Their Dogs Came with Them as a “‘historical event,’ embedded in processes of neocolonialism, structural racism, and urban displacement” (Kim 515). Ultimately this interpretative endeavor reveals a long history of neglect regarding pedestrians and streetwalkers in the Eastside.
According to de Certeau, oppressed peoples’ tactics must be timely, even opportunistic, to challenge dominant strategies of spatial control (34). In other words, for de Certeau time trumps space as an avenue for resistance by subordinated populations. In contrast, Viramontes’ depiction of spatial politics in Their Dogs Came with Them is not framed in such discrete terms. She forges queer understandings of time and space through the narrative frame of the character of Ben. Drawing from Jack Halberstam’s book, In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives, a queer subject is one who manages to “live outside the logic of capital accumulation” (Halberstam 10). This does not necessarily mean just queer-identified people, “but also those people who live without financial safety nets, without homes, without jobs, outside the organizations of time and space that have been established for the purposes of protecting the rich few from everyone else” (Halberstam 10). While literature and gender studies scholar T. Jackie Cuevas reads “Viramontes’ novel as queer Latin fiction that propels Latin@s into a queer time and place,” her analysis is limited to an examination of the character Turtle (Cuevas 27). Weaving together these theoretical strands, I argue that Ben advances disabled queer readings of space and place, an alternative knowledge practice which lays bare the ableist underpinnings of our shared present.
The rapid redevelopment brought on by the freeway system leads to tragic consequences for the most vulnerable pedestrians who are not accustomed to the rules of the road—children. Ten-year-old Ben and a younger boy he befriended in a department store are hit by a cement truck while they are attempting to cross the street on a green light. Disoriented by the cacophonous sounds of the traffic and his mounting anxiety about not completing the errand his father sent him to do,
[Ben, while holding the hand of his younger companion] began running in the opposite direction to the chaos of the new traffic light that no one obeyed ...The [younger] boy slipped and whimpered ... Calmed by the glossy red to yellow to green traffic lights ... Ben hoisted the child up and leaped off the curb ... their bodies like splitting atoms ... against the ... grille of a speeding cement truck (Viramontes 111).
It is unclear whether Ben or the driver is at fault for the car accident which resulted in Ben’s young companion’s death and had lifelong consequences for Ben's mental and physical health. What this scene does make apparent is that the rapid urban development of the Eastside has been jarring for drivers and pedestrians alike—neither are prepared to obey the new demands of the growth machine. Echoing Estrada’s assertion that, “[a]t a neighborhood level, Eastside residents walking to work, or school must pass under, over, or adjacent to a web of freeways,” the freeways and their aftermath structured everyday life for the residents of East LA (Estrada 306). Through the eyes of a child, we as readers observe that a crosswalk with a stoplight is not enough to mitigate the real danger of crossing in front of multiple lanes of oncoming traffic.
The readers's most sustained access to Ben’s interiority and spatial stories of East LA is through his personal writings. With a critical eye toward social inequities and an intimate understanding of the predicament of the urban underclass, Ben’s writings are comparable to ethnographic fiction, a genre where fact, fiction, and empirical description are combined to reach a greater understanding of social phenomena (Ingridsdotter and Kallenberg 58). Viramontes’ crafting of Ben’s character in this way allows her to explore the role of the imagined, experienced, and observed in meaning-making practices. Utilizing his own knowledge of living in precarity and wanting to evade detection, Ben writes:
The woman who was not old had stumbled onto the church while searching for a safe and warm place to sleep ... The city buildings, once brightly speckled with fashionable, neatly creased people, were now deserted as night fell ... and more people like her squeezed out of the crawl spaces and crevices of the alleys. At sundown, war was declared between the haves who abandoned their office buildings for home, and have-nots who pushed their portable cardboard ... to reclaim a place in the streets denied them during daylight. Dogs emerged ... to challenge the have-nots (Viramontes 124).
“The woman who was not old” is modeled after the nameless, “ubiquitous” “street woman” who “could be anyone’s mother” that Ben encounters while they are both eating at the soup kitchen run by Tranquilina’s family (Viramontes 81, 120). Ben invents an entire backstory for this woman where she is an economic migrant from Mexico seeking to improve her standard of living by working in the United States and sending money back home. She is currently homeless and earns a meager income by recycling discarded materials.
As this imaginative account reveals, spatial hierarchies often have a temporal dimension, under the veil of nightfall: the “haves,” the most privileged classes, are able to retreat comfortably to their private residences, while the “have nots,” homeless people, can come out of the shadows and move more freely throughout the city. Still, there are caveats for those with minoritized identities, as they may face very real dangers, such as gendered violence. The homeless and marginalized must also compete with packs of dogs who “roamed the streets to scavenge, to challenge” them for ownership over public space, scraps of food, and other life-sustaining materials (Viramontes 124). This juxtaposition reveals that the dogs are a symbol for destructive forces in contention with the most stigmatized populations in the Eastside. When it is daytime again, the privileged classes will return to their dominant position in the streets and the marginalized must again operate more covertly away from public view.
Turtle as Streetwalker
Far from idealizing the act of walking as solely an invaluable method of gaining a deeper understanding of the urban experience, Viramontes demonstrates that not all the characters move through space with the same degree of freedom—certain identities grant more safety on the streets than others. Turtle, or Antonia Gamboa, is a gender-nonconforming, homeless, gang-affiliated character who loses what should have been her support network to war, grief, and abandonment. Viramontes depicts her as hungry, tired, and alone as she roams the streets of East LA simply trying to survive. She embodies Lugones’ streetwalker as a marginalized figure who is “at odds with ‘home’” (Lugones 209). Lugones’ understanding of home problematizes its idealized association with safety and belonging. Instead, by conceiving of home as an interconnected and layered construction of the “home-shelter-street-police station/jail/insane asylum-cemetery circle” Lugones reveals that the public and private spheres are experienced as sites of violence by marginalized communities (Lugones 209). Like her namesake, Turtle carries home on her back. Turtle has no physical home to return to by the end of the novel’s timeline. In fact, the violence she encounters in her childhood home—the abuse and neglect of her parents—continues into the other public spaces she inhabits as an adolescent.
Once Turtle’s brother Luis, her last remaining familial connection, is drafted into the Vietnam War, she is at her most vulnerable. The streets become Turtle’s home—the everyday dwelling place that she holds intimate knowledge of:
After two hours of walking, she arrived in the Eastside late. Turtle tried to avoid both the QA [a hybridized police and immigration enforcement-like entity] and the lengthy line of worn-out people waiting at the quarantine checkpoint. Wooden sawhorses as big as Clydesdales. She took Third Street once again, and walked under a long row of palms bordering the Calvary Cemetery. It was a major boulevard, so Turtle knew to be careful, since Lote M vatos probably? cruised Third Street looking to bust any McBride Boy, so she turned on Eastern (218–219).
As a transient person, “[s]pace becomes concrete” for Turtle “as it becomes crisscrossed by a multiplicity of meanings” (Lugones 222). Turtle “cultivates an ear for multiplicity in interlocution” and is “prepared for listening to new sense, remade, intervened, contested sense by those who are not agents” (Lugones 222). Turtle weaves complex tapestries of place-specific meanings as she walks, and she is able to stay informed about the shifting rules and entities who enforce them, particularly the competing forces of the QA and two rival gangs, Lote and the McBride Boys. Moreover, Turtle also knows how to evade these regulations by taking detours and identifying safe spaces of harbor, less contested territory like the Calvary Cemetery. Turtle’s daily negotiations over locating food and shelter to survive another day produce “trajectories that concretize” and “differentiate space, that defy its abstract production and administration.” (Lugones 222). In other words, Turtle creates a mental map containing her own spatial logics and temporality, a collection of places that when visited under the right conditions could provide her, even if on a limited basis, with safety and life-sustaining materials.
One of the first stops that Turtle makes in the novel is the Val U Mini Mart. This is a site of violence for Turtle, but it has also, at times, served as a dependable source of sustenance. In search of a meal, Turtle reasons, “[t]he Val U Mini Mart would be displaying the fruit bins outside just about now. Turtle considered the double risk of walking down the eight gang-disputed blocks to get to the market and then making a fast food break with some oranges or pears. The immediate moment provided the best opportunity. Would Lote M Boys be out for a jump this early in the morning?” (Viramontes 19). Turtle simultaneously considers multiple factors that are essential to the successful completion of her mission: the optimal time frame and approach she must take to mitigate risk and bodily harm. Turtle also practices “sustained intersubjective attention,” by determining who may be a potential ally or foe in her endeavors (Lugones 222).
The Chinese cemetery is perhaps an unlikely but significant site of refuge and contemplation for Turtle. Located “right below the Interstate ramps,” “the cemetery’s obscurity provided [Turtle] a few hours of temporary shelter” (Viramontes 219). The Chinese cemetery is also the place where Turtle was violently initiated into the McBride gang. Holding both of these geographically embedded signs and memories together while she retreats for some time from the chaos of the street, Turtle meditates on the relationship between the cemetery and her former home: “This was her neighborhood, the one she grew up in, right across the street from where she stood now, and yet this particular cemetery had always remained a mystery. She touched the crematorium and remembered smoke from the chimney blowing ash over their games of stickball” (Viramontes 219). Ironically, as a child Turtle used to look at the cemetery from the outside looking in, from the vantage point of still residing in her family home. Now, as an adolescent she is looking at her fragmented neighborhood, displaced and homeless, from within the cemetery and directly under the new freeway overpass. Turtle is now able to inhabit the cemetery in a different way; what used to be child-like curiosity is now replaced with intimate knowledge about loss and mourning.
Building on literary scholar Dale Pattison’s reading of the racially segregated cemetery as “reinforc[ing] her social and ethnic isolation” in the city, I consider further the implications of the convergence of place and identity for Turtle (Pattison 126). By appropriating the space of the cemetery as a place for both recognizing the lack of safety she experienced at home and mourning the endless war on the social fabric of the barrio, Turtle establishes an attenuated sense of belonging. As a queer subject and outsider even within the collectivities that should have afforded her comfort—friends, family, barrio—through her transitory existence, Turtle speaks to the exclusionary nature of home-communities.
Near the end of the novel, Viramontes depicts Turtle at an impasse to make a statement about the future of minoritized people and tactics of queer world-making in the Eastside, highlighting its indeterminacy:
Of course the years would change it, the history of various renters, a family or two, but except for Turtle’s landmark, the Zumaya house next door. Turtle wonder[ed] who lived there, who cooked guisos and refried beans ... on the stove where the O’Keefe name was scrubbed off. Whatever happened ... to all those nopales Amá had planted? All but one small cactus remained to give Turtle such an aching prick (Viramontes 220–221).
One option is that Turtle will embrace a dynamic understanding of her neighborhood where she can relate her own place-based memories to that of newcomers. However, the instability brought on by being suddenly uprooted from her home, and the thought of unknown others forming their own memories and appropriating space, is haunting for Turtle. Like the cemetery underneath the overpass that Turtle is standing in, freeway development has led to a process of emplacement where her home used to be—this time, meaning is layered instead of concrete. For instance, the poles where Turtle and Luis used to pitch their tent are now used as a drying rack for washable diapers. One of the only remaining signs of Turtle’s old home is the surviving cacti in the backyard; it pains her to see physical evidence of their presence swept away. The unsettling feeling of bracing oneself for inevitable future losses is another imagined ending for Viramontes’ cast of characters.
Viramontes never gives direct answers as to where the rest of the neighbors went, who ultimately moves into Turtle’s former home, or when or if the revolving door of displacement stops. The most sustained form of hope offered in Their Dogs Came with Them is in its critique of spatialized intersectional oppression—the convergence of ethnic, class, gender, and disability-based inequities in a stratified society—by queer pedestrian subjects. While Ben and Turtle’s actions fit Lugones’ “streetwalker” and de Certeau’s “ordinary practitioners of the city” to varying degrees, within Viramontes’ narrative world, readers can observe that even under conditions of extreme oppression, marginalized characters are nonetheless able to act upon their dynamic urban environment.
 Architectural historian Reyner Banham’s polemical text, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, celebrates freeways for the freedom of movement they can afford their users and even as an inescapable, and thus iconic, attribute of Los Angeles (Banham 36). I both depart and build on this analysis by decentering those on the on-ramp and considering those walking down below in the surrounding communities that were affected by freeway expansion .
 While María Lugones’ concept of streetwalker theorizing has been associated with the character of Ermila by literary scholar Paula Moya, I build on these efforts to include Tranqulina, Ben, and Turtle.
 In the novel, she/her pronouns are used the vast majority of the time to refer to Turtle; there are a few instances in the story where characters read her as male. In present-day terms, Turtle may be referred to as non-binary. However, most importantly, Turtle never explicitly claims a gender identity for herself so no particular stance can be definitively asserted in this regard.
Comprising 135 acres of land, The East Los Angeles Interchange is one of the largest single contracts ever awarded by the state Division of Highways. Completed in 1961, the freeway system was initially projected to see 450,000 vehicles per day. This estimate was too modest; by 1980, there were approximately 566,000 vehicles per day. The rate subsequently multiplied over four times, reaching 1.7 million in the early 2000s and creating one of the most traffic congested regions in the country (Estrada 301). This massive infrastructure project stands as a monument to Los Angeles’ infamous approach to urban planning: the prioritization of cars and the privileged classes who owned them over Angelenos with less political and economic power.
 In the Eastside, the Los Angeles Interchange grew “three times as big as first planned,” and “freeway lanes were expanded and widened on East Los Angeles’ portion of the San Bernardino 10 freeway during the 1960s” (Estrada 307).
 The word choice the “new traffic light no one obeyed” (emphasis mine) could refer to drivers and/or pedestrians.
 See, Molotch 309–332.
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