THE BLOG
12/24/2014 08:18 am ET Updated Feb 22, 2015

All They Want for Christmas is Home -- A Holiday Gentrification Story

On the eighth day of Christmas, Patty Lara's landlord gave to her, one big rent hike.

"How can I pay my bills, how can I buy food? I work only to pay my rent and that's it. What I can do?" Lara asked, despondent. "I've lived in this area 34 years. I never lived in different area. This is my community. I tell my son, I don't want to move to different area [where] I don't know the neighbors, nothing."

The pharmacy cashier lives in a two bedroom apartment with her son in Highland Park, a town in Northeast Los Angeles. Her landlord is demanding that in January she pay an additional $300 a month. That brings her total rent to $1700 -- which is basically her entire paycheck. Four other families in her building have already moved out because they couldn't pay the higher rent. Lara is scared.

She is on the front lines of a controversial phenomenon taking place in many heavily populated urban areas across the country -- gentrification. This Christmas, many are worried about just keeping the roof over their heads.

Highland Park, once a predominantly working class Latino neighborhood, has seen an influx of new residents with higher incomes, as well as new businesses catering to the so-called "hipsters." Lately there has been a wave of evictions from local apartment building owners wishing to lease out rental units for higher prices.

The collision between the new and old residents are creating uncomfortable fissures in the community, where 60 percent of residents are renters.

"Some of the most vulnerable people in the community, they happen also to be the people who built the community, or the backbone, the muscle of the community," according to Arturo Romo, an activist with the North East Los Angeles Alliance. "For people who are displaced by gentrification it's not urban renewal, but just being pushed out of your home."

With no financial recourse and political power, Lara and other residents did the only thing they could to make their voices heard: They gathered on a chilly Saturday night at York and Figueroa, a major thoroughfare through town, and did their own version of "Las Posadas."

Las Posadas -- which means "lodgings" in Spanish, is a centuries old Christmas tradition in Mexico, Guatemala and parts of the Southwest United States. Families commemorate and reenact the arduous biblical journey of Mary and Joseph on Christmas Eve as they sought shelter at different inns in Bethlehem. Leaders of the candlelit procession -- usually children costumed as angels, shepherds, Mary and Joseph -- march to several homes asking for shelter. They are "turned away" repeatedly by people posing as innkeepers, until they finally are offered shelter.

The tradition has special resonance for those who are worried about where they will be able to find shelter in the coming year.

The Highland Park Las Posadas procession of about 100 people marched down busy streets past hole in the wall burrito joints, tattoo parlors, old Mexican men playing dominoes on the sidewalks, as well as gleaming new vintage record stores and fancy restaurants, silently holding candles, evoking curious looks from onlookers. The group stopped in front of two buildings where owners recently evicted residents. People gathered to hear the "testimonios" of those who are facing rent hikes or were recently forced to move elsewhere. Speaking via megaphone, Lara and others talked about their frustration, anguish and ultimately about the love they had for their community, and the desire to stay where they've grown roots.

"I think it's important to know that the people being affected need to have a voice in the future of their communities," Romo said, "So the people who are affected most by any change in the community have to have a place at the table... because ultimately they're the ones who built the community."

All they want this Christmas, is to stay in their homes.