Laila Lalami Reflects on Immigrating to Los Angeles

Celebrating the Mexican holiday Day of the Dead in Los Angeles. Gabriel Bouys / AFP-Getty Images

I came to Los Angeles with a suitcase full of books and shoulder pads stuffed with cash. It was 1992, just a few months after the infamous riots, and I was about to start graduate school at the University of Southern California, near the epicenter of the unrest. One of my professors advised me against coming here—I don’t remember exactly what he said, but the substance of his message could be summarized in three words: Drugs! Guns! Violence! I had been warned so often about muggings that I decided to sew some bills inside the shoulder pads of my jacket. I didn’t know a single soul here.

At once the city felt familiar to me. After all, it had already beamed its likeness to my television screen and to the movie theaters of my hometown 6,000 miles away in Morocco. Look, here was the Hollywood sign, white against the green of the Santa Monica Mountains. Here were the skyscrapers downtown, glowing pink and orange under the rays of the setting sun. Here were the blue skies, the palm trees, the freeways, and the vanity license plates.

There was so much that reminded me of Morocco, too: eucalyptus trees with peeling bark, red and purple bougainvillea shrubs spilling over picket fences, and jacaranda trees blooming in the spring. The horseshoe-shaped doorways of Spanish homes reminded me of Tangier, and the hot Santa Ana winds took me back to the siroccos of my childhood. Above all, there was the sun—in the morning it hit the wet asphalt until wisps of steam rose up in the air, and in the afternoon it glazed the waters of the Pacific Ocean.

But back then Los Angeles also felt utterly strange. I was afraid of the six-lane freeways that cut through the city in all directions. I was mystified by the multiplicity of signs that told you what you could do (WALK), what you could not do (DO NOT CROSS), and even what you could not think of doing (DO NOT EVEN THINK OF PARKING HERE). I was befuddled by people who ate at all times of day and in the strangest of places, like elevators. I was shocked that a cone of ice cream was the size of a tagine. As for baseball, it was simply incomprehensible.

Fortunately, after a few months here, I began to notice that everyone, or nearly everyone, was from somewhere else. My professors were from Lebanon and Paraguay and New York. My classmates were from Peru, Boston, and Austria. My neighbors were from Vietnam and Mexico. Los Angeles quickly became the home of people from different places. But it was also the home of many different eras—its films re-created the past, narrated the present, and imagined the future. In Los Angeles, I found, it wasn’t as difficult to be an outsider if everyone else was an outsider.

On any given day, I heard half a dozen languages, spoken in different places and with different accents, by natives and tourists alike. And as befits a borderless city, there wasn’t just one lingua franca here. Spanish and English blended together all day long—you could hear English spoken with a Pakistani or an Iranian accent, and you could hear Spanish with a Guatemalan or a Salvadoran flavor. I knew the city had begun to claim me as one of its own when, like other Angelenos, I learned to speak Spanish. (Ahora hablo español, y no sólo para pedir tacos y cerveza.)

The Northridge earthquake taught me that, just as the city could break apart under the toll of racial injustice, it could come together under the strain of a natural disaster. I remember awaking to the shattering of glasses and plates in the kitchen of my apartment in Koreatown. When the shaking finally subsided, I went outside to find that my neighbors had already sprung to action: one was checking on an elderly resident while another was securing the gas lines. We helped the building manager find his gray cat, and then we sat in the courtyard until dawn, worrying together, hoping together.

Like others, I came to Los Angeles for one reason, but stayed for another. Now the city resonates with the sound of all of the friends I have made over the years, many of them immigrants like me. This is a city of exiles and expats, artists and misfits, all of them in pursuit of their own versions of the golden dream. No place else has this perfect blend of landscape, people, and cultures. And nowhere else will be as strange and as familiar to the newcomer.