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'Aggressive Yet Sublime': A Looter, Nirvana And The Los Angeles Riots

May 1, 2017
Originally published on August 11, 2017 1:20 pm

When you talk about the unrest that broke out in Los Angeles 25 years ago after the Rodney King verdict, one thing people usually remember is the looting.

People went into stores and just walked out with stuff. Some people stole vital things such as food and baby formula because they didn't know how long the riots would last. Others stole booze and cigarettes. Still others dared to carry mattresses and giant TVs home on their backs — and they weren't stopped by anyone.

Gilbert Monterrosa was one of those looters. But, he says he was a reluctant participant.

Monterrosa was 15 at the time — a sophomore at James A. Foshay Junior High, now known as James A. Foshay Learning Center. He lived with his mom and two younger sisters in what was then known as South Central Los Angeles, and he and his mom had immigrated from El Salvador.

Monterrosa says he and his siblings weren't allowed to watch TV after 5 p.m., so when the riots started on April 29, they didn't know anything had happened. They just went to bed like they always did.

It wasn't until the next day when Monterrosa was walking to school and bumped into his friend Luce and her mom that he first realized something was going on. Luce's mom insisted Monterrosa turn around and go back home. She said she would call his mom and explain the whole thing. As they walked back, Luce explained.

"I was completely oblivious as to what was going on," Monterrosa says. "Luce goes, 'You didn't watch did you?' And I go, 'No what happened?' She goes, 'S*** is gonna go down. Last night people were burning cars and flipping them over and things were going on on television. It might happen again today.' And I said, 'What? C'mon man!' "

But when Monterrosa got home and turned on the TV — as thousands of others would do around the country — he saw exactly that. As he watched TV for the next four hours, he saw breaking news video of his neighborhood on fire, and people breaking into stores across town and stealing things.

It wasn't long before two of Monterrosa's friends came over and insisted they go out and steal too. At first, he did not want to go. That was, until a neighbor played on Monterrosa's major weakness.

"It was known across my neighborhood that I was a mama's boy," he says. "That I listened to everything she had to say. And because my dad wasn't around, my stepdad wasn't also around, I had to play the machismo card and show them that I was the man."

So when the neighbor, Eduardo, questioned him, Monterrosa caved.

"Eduardo, I remember, said, 'And this little b**** is going?' and it just burned me up inside," he says. "And I said to him, 'Yeah I'm going!' "

Monterrosa and his friends piled into the car and drove to the nearest Fedco department store on the corner of La Cienega and Rodeo streets. The Fedco no longer stands on this intersection — it has now been replaced by a Target — but back then, Fedco was similar to a Costco. It was a major wholesale warehouse with groceries and all kinds of goods. When Monterrosa and his friends arrived, they discovered items all over the floor.

"It was as if somebody had opened up the doors to Fedco, and they were just giving stuff away," Monterrosa recalls. "People that I knew that were in opposing gangs were helping each other out, and there's stuff everywhere on the floor — clothing, food — everything is just chaos. Absolute chaos."

Monterrosa remembers being pretty nervous, but then he started to think that there was one thing he might really want, something his mom could never afford — a boombox. That's because Monterrosa was really into music.

"LL Cool J, Ice Cube, NWA, a lot of R&B, a lot of hip-hop, that was my life," Monterrosa says. "Because that's all you listen to, growing up in South Central."

So Monterrosa went inside the Fedco, grabbed a boombox and noticed something else among the slew of items on the floor.

"I looked down on the floor, and there was this album cover with a baby swimming, and a dollar bill on a hook," he says. "And I saw that and I said, 'What the f*** is that? What is that, right?"

The album was Nevermind by Nirvana.

Monterossa snuck back home with the album and boombox. He waited for his mom to go to bed, put on headphones, hit play — and heard Nirvana for the first time.

"It was unreal. It was like opening an entire world of music to me," Monterrosa says. "It was sonically aggressive yet sublime at the same time. There were these breaks in the music where everything was just really hard, and then it just came down and built up again. And in my mind's eye I could picture the riots as I was listening to 'Smells Like Teen Spirit.' And it just became the soundtrack of that day."

That CD got Monterrosa into a bunch of other music — things he'd never heard before.

"It led me back to The Clash, and The Clash led me back to The [Rolling] Stones, and The Stones led me back to The Beatles," Monterrosa says, "and then I listened to Bohemian Rhapsody, and then from there I went on to La Traviata."

It was right around this time that Monterrosa's mom decided to move to a new neighborhood — Silver Lake, which is on the east side of LA — and he started going to a new school.

And because he was into grunge — Nirvana, Pearl Jam, flannel shirts — he started hanging out with the other grunge dudes — dudes who were into editing videos and doing graphic design.

"These guys were like, friends with the jocks, the cheerleaders, the burnouts, the cholos," Monterrosa says. "I talked to everybody because I was part of that group of guys that listened to alternative music."

Monterrosa says if he hadn't changed his music and his clothes, at the same time he changed his neighborhood, he probably would have ended up getting in trouble, like his other friends back in the old neighborhood.

"If I would've stayed in South Central, I know for a fact that I would either be dead or in jail," he says. "My ego wouldn't have allowed me to be a punk. Just like I was taught to go into the LA riots by Eduardo, these guys were able to push my buttons, and if you have that much machismo, growing inside of you, and you come from a broken home, where you have to be the man, I probably would've been part of this group of guys that would have ended up getting arrested or getting killed by another gang of people."

It wasn't all easy in the new school. Monterrosa eventually dropped out.

But then he got his GED, and now he works in IT for a security company that allows you to monitor your home through your smart phone. He's married and has a little boy. His mom is retired, and he and his sisters take care of her.

Twenty five years ago, Monterrossa stole some stuff during the LA riots. He did a bad thing that day, but in a way, it turned out to be a good thing.

Driving around LA, he says he still thinks about how that album changed his life. He still has the CD.

"I still listen to that album," he says. "And instead of seeing a Fedco on La Cienega and Rodeo, I see a Target there now. And I'm listening to this, and I go, 'Man, this is where I heard you for the first time.' It's like a really bad relationship, yet a really good relationship, that you can't forget about."

NPR's Anjuli Sastry produced and Melissa Gray edited All Things Considered's series of reports on the 25th anniversary of the Los Angeles riots.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

When you talk about the unrest that broke out here in LA 25 years ago after the Rodney King verdict, one thing people usually remember is the looting.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I don't know what's in here.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: An Elgin gold watch.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: You're driving around with a police scanner, just checking out where things are?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: We're not necessarily trying to steal because I'm going to tell you the truth - I done looted. I'm looting. I'm not going to lie. I done took a lot.

MCEVERS: People went into grocery stores, liquor stores, clothing stores, electronics stores and just walked out with stuff. A few years ago, I met a guy who told me that he had been a looter back then. His name is Gilbert Monterrosa. And back in 1992, he was in junior high. He was living in South Central with his two sisters and his mom, who had emigrated from El Salvador. And he says what happened during the LA riots kind of changed his life. Here's what he was like at the time.

GILBERT MONTERROSA: It was known across my neighborhood that I was a mama's boy, that I listened to everything she had to say. And because my dad wasn't around and my stepdad wasn't also around, I had to play the machismo card and show them that I was the man.

MCEVERS: Gilbert's mom worked long days at a garment factory.

MONTERROSA: She woke up every day at 4:30 in the morning, got our lunches ready, dropped off my siblings next door. And I had to wait until about 7 or so to go to school. I would walk myself to school.

MCEVERS: That's what happened the morning of April 30. The riots had actually started the night before, but because Gilbert's mom didn't let the kids watch TV at night they had no idea. So Gilbert starts walking to school, finds out school's been canceled. He goes back home and turns on the TV.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: KTLA Channel 5 Los Angeles.

MCEVERS: And sees his neighborhood on fire and a lot of people looting.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Part of your screen you'll see there's people carrying away boxes.

MONTERROSA: I swear I sat there watching that 13-inch black and white television for about maybe four hours.

MCEVERS: Then a couple of Gilbert's friends from school come over and try to convince him to go looting, too. They go to Gilbert's neighbor's house to ask if they can use his pickup truck. And at first Gilbert does not want to go looting. But then the neighbor, Eduardo, says something that changes his mind.

MONTERROSA: Eduardo, I remember, said, and this little [expletive] is going? It just burned me up inside. And I said to him, yeah, I'm going.

MCEVERS: So they get in the truck and head to the FedCo. It's kind of like the Costco at the time. And it is pretty insane.

MONTERROSA: It was as if somebody had opened up the doors to FedCo and they were just giving stuff away. People that I knew that were in opposing gangs were helping each other out. And there's stuff everywhere on the floor - clothing, food. Everything is just chaos, absolute chaos.

MCEVERS: Gilbert's friends go inside. They tell him to guard the truck. Gilbert is still pretty nervous. But then he starts thinking maybe there is one thing he might actually want to steal, I mean, something his mom could never afford - a boom box because Gilbert is really into music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AROUND THE WAY GIRL")

LL COOL J: (Rapping) I want a girl with extensions in her hair, bamboo earrings, at least two pairs.

MONTERROSA: LL Cool J, Ice Cube, N.W.A., a lot of R&B, a lot of hip-hop. That was my life because that's all you listened to growing up in South Central.

MCEVERS: They were pretty good. Like, that was a good time for music, you know?

MONTERROSA: The early '90s were great.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AROUND THE WAY GIRL")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) I need that around the way girl.

MCEVERS: So Gilbert goes inside the FedCo and grabs a boom box. And remember, there's stuff all over the floor.

MONTERROSA: I looked down on the floor and there was this album cover with a baby swimming and a dollar bill on a hook. And I saw that and I said, what the [expletive] is that? What is that, right?

MCEVERS: And what it was was "Nevermind" by Nirvana. Gilbert picks it up. And he gets back home before his mom does, and he sneaks the boom box and the CD in the house. He waits for her to go to bed, puts on headphones, hits play...

(SOUNDBITE OF NIRVANA SONG, "SMELLS LIKE TEEN SPIRIT")

MCEVERS: ...and hears Nirvana for the first time.

(SOUNDBITE OF NIRVANA SONG, "SMELLS LIKE TEEN SPIRIT")

MONTERROSA: And it was unreal. It was like opening an entire world of music to me. It was sonically aggressive yet sublime at the same time. There was these, like, breaks in the music where everything was just really hard and then it just came down and built up again. And in my mind's eye I could picture the riots as I was listening to "Smells Like Teen Spirit." And it just became the soundtrack of that day.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SMELLS LIKE TEEN SPIRIT")

NIRVANA: (Singing) With the lights out, it's less dangerous. Here we are now, entertain us. I feel stupid...

MCEVERS: That CD made Gilbert start thinking differently about stuff. Getting into Nirvana got him into a bunch of other music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE GUNS OF BRIXTON")

THE CLASH: (Singing) When they kick at your front door, how you going to come?

MONTERROSA: It led me back to The Clash, and The Clash led me back to The Stones.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIMME SHELTER")

THE ROLLING STONES: (Singing) Oh, gimme (ph).

MONTERROSA: And The Stones led me back to The Beatles.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HELTER SKELTER")

THE BEATLES: (Singing) Helter skelter.

MONTERROSA: And then I listened to "Bohemian Rhapsody."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY")

QUEEN: (Singing) He's just a poor boy from a poor family, spare him his life from this monstrosity.

MONTERROSA: And then from there I went on to "La Traviata."

(SOUNDBITE OF NATIONAL PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF GIUSEPPE VERDI'S "LA TRAVIATA ACT 1 - LIBIAMO NE'LIETI CALICI")

MCEVERS: It was right around this time that Gilbert's mom decided to move to a new neighborhood and Gilbert went to a new school. And because he was into grunge - Nirvana, Pearl Jam, flannel shirts - he started hanging out with the other grunge dude, dudes who were into editing videos and doing graphic design.

MONTERROSA: These guys were, like, friends with the jocks, the cheerleaders, the burnouts, the cholos. I talked to everybody because I was part of that group of guys that listened to alternative music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COME AS YOU ARE")

NIRVANA: (Singing) Come as you are, as you were, as I want you to be.

MCEVERS: Gilbert says if he hadn't changed his music and his clothes at the same time he changed his neighborhood, he probably would have ended up getting in trouble like his other friends back in the old neighborhood.

MONTERROSA: If I would have stayed in South Central I know for a fact that I would either be dead or in jail because my ego wouldn't have allowed me to be a punk. Just like I was taught to go into the LA riots by Eduardo, these guys were able to push my buttons. And if you have that much machismo growing inside of you and you come from a broken home where you have to be the man, I probably would have been part of this group of guys that would have ended up getting arrested or killed by another gang of people.

MCEVERS: It wasn't all easy in the new school. Gilbert eventually dropped out. But then he got his GED. Now he works in IT for a security company that allows you to monitor your home through your smartphone. He's got a wife and a little boy. His mom's retired, and he and his sisters take care of her. Twenty-five years ago, Gilbert Monterrosa stole some stuff during the LA riots. He did a bad thing that day. But in this way it turned out to be a good thing. Driving around LA, he says he still thinks about how one album changed his life.

That's so crazy. Do you - you don't still, like, have that - I mean, nobody saves CDs.

MONTERROSA: I have that CD. I still listen to that album. And instead of seeing a FedCo (laughter) on La Cienaga and Rodeo, I see a Target there now, (laughter) you know? And I'm listening to this and I go, man, that's where I heard you for the first time. It's like a really bad relationship yet a really good relationship you can't forget about.

MCEVERS: That Target does not smell like teen spirit.

MONTERROSA: No, it does not.

(LAUGHTER)

MONTERROSA: That's good.

(SOUNDBITE OF NIRVANA SONG, "COME AS YOU ARE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.