Compton, from the Inside

A historian revisits his hometown to look at life beyond the stereotype.

September/October 2009

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Compton, from the Inside

Misha Gravenor

It has been more than 20 years since the rap group N.W.A released Straight Outta Compton. But the album—a sociological milestone in popular culture—made a lasting imprint. Compton remains shorthand for a violent, gang-ridden ghetto.

Stanford professor Albert Camarillo has another perspective on the city, located just south of Los Angeles. He grew up there, and 35 years into his academic career, he's revisiting it as a historian. In a book that's a few years from completion—tentatively titled Going Back to Compton: Reflections of a Native Son on Life in an Infamous American City—he's tracking almost 100 years of family roots as well as the city's evolution. The current Compton, says Camarillo, is beginning to be recognized as a complex and vital place, rather than what by reputation was nothing more than Drive-By, USA.

His hometown, says Camarillo, is a case study of "the most predominant suburban-urban development of the last third of the twentieth century—the emergence of minority-majority cities." Cities and counties in that category, where the percentage of people belonging to minority groups exceeds 50 percent of the population, have become symbols of onrushing change nationally. Looking at Compton through an "autobiographical-historical" lens, Camarillo says, is a logical next step while he also finishes a book on ethnic and racial trends in the United States up to 1960.

For Camarillo, whose father arrived in Compton from Mexico in 1914 at age 12, demographic upheaval has deep personal significance. By the time he was in high school in the mid-1960s, his family had moved to a largely white portion of the city; he became student-body president at Dominguez High. At the time, Latinos had only a small, segregated barrio presence as Compton transformed from a mostly white to mostly African-American population. Today, Latinos are the majority. Camarillo still muses about what school administrators were hoping to achieve by urging him to run for class office during those tense years, when African-American students were being bused to his school. He also vividly remembers his family's reaction when he had an African-American girlfriend. "It did not sit well," he says with a pensive half-smile.

Professor Josh Sides, Whitsett Chair in California History at Cal State-Northridge, says Camarillo's first-person angle on Compton is a cogent approach. "I would argue," asserts Sides, "that all history writing is autobiographical at its core." Sides, author of L.A. City Limits: African American Los Angeles from the Great Depression to the Present, thinks historians select topics where "you're always inherently writing about something that is critical to you or that explains yourself through the research."

Camarillo and some of his students have been gathering oral histories from former and current Compton residents to supplement his own reflections. Some of the history involves faded norms or extinct politics that seem irrelevant today.

"Racial collaboration could not exist then, and it can now," says Camarillo. But as Compton has remained a social polestar—"a burgeoning Latino suburb of immigrant strivers" says Sides—it also has retained a revealing currency. Understanding Compton, says Camarillo, is useful in helping any community that's being buffeted by demographic changes. "Maybe we can help these groups, who find themselves living next door to each other but perhaps ill-equipped to handle it."

Compton also remains a big part of Camarillo's family life. One of his two sons, Jeff, teaches American history to middle schoolers at the Vanguard Learning Center in the Compton Unified School District. His other son, Greg, plays for the NFL's Miami Dolphins and sponsors a fund—Charging Forward for Academic and Athletic Success —that aids student-athletes in Compton.


Historian Al Camarillo's research and writing are among the work Stanford is highlighting in a multimedia campaign on behalf of humanities programs, faculty and students.

The Humanities Outreach Project—aimed at bringing broad public attention to an array of artistic, literary, historical and philosophical work—has become an implicit response to questions about the relative value of the humanities in tough budgetary times. But more fundamentally, it's meant to illustrate the attraction and power of the ideas generated by 15 humanities departments, as well as interdisciplinary programs and research centers.

Corrie Goldman, the humanities outreach officer for the pilot project, coordinates an increasingly tech-savvy media initiative that features "The Human Experience" website, which refers visitors to Stanford experts in subjects ranging from the American West and material culture to erotic literature and psychoanalysis. She pitches the media on traditional print and broadcast coverage while also touting the humanities through Facebook, Twitter, iTunes and YouTube.

Stanford's humanists, says Goldman, are interpreters of the numerous ways in which people experience the world, generating "insights about ourselves, our past and our shared future."

The project, which is a joint venture between the Stanford Humanities Center, the School of Humanities and Sciences, and the Office of Public Affairs, has received major funding from the President's Office.

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