From Parrots to Black Cowboys, Walter Thompson-Hernández is Telling the Stories That Matter

Gabe Zaldivar

Los Angeles is beaches, eclectic food and sunshine kissed boulevards. But it’s also not. It’s a crime to whittle any city down to its most superficial assets and forget the good stuff that makes it pulse with vitality, it’s heart.

Walter Thompson-Hernández is a reporter dedicated to telling stories. He’s done just that over several years for such publications as the New York Times, NPR, Fusion, the BBC and the Guardian.

With the support of LAist Studios, Thompson-Hernández recently published his newest storytelling venture, a podcast series appropriately titled “California Love.”

Inspired by the 1995 2Pac song by the same name, he explains in the show's prologue episode that Pac and Dr. Dre’s lyrics and deliciously addictive beat were revelatory for a young kid.

“Dre’s voice eventually listed cities and landmarks throughout the state; it made the song feel not just flashy and cool but also informative,” Thompson-Hernández said in the show’s opening salvo. “It felt like a social studies class that I always wanted but never had.”

The 32-year-old is holding class in this love letter to the city. A town in which he was raised, cutting his teeth on avenues that aren’t always represented in mainstream media or in the pages published on this here Internet.

There’s a kinship of telling stories that are grossly underrepresented that drew me to the podcast.

One of the more engrossing episodes thus far is that of the Compton Cowboys. Familiar to so many out there but unfortunately foreign to far more, they recently joined the chorus of protests that took place in the wake of George Floyd's death. 

The group remains a beacon of calm and healing for a community that is often without either, a beloved contingent of horse-riding African-Americans who hail from a part of Los Angeles more renowned for hip-hop shoutouts than bucolic ranch living.

Charles Harris and Randy Hook
Charles Harris and Randy HookPhoto Credit: Compton Cowboys

Thompson-Hernández covered the community back in 2018 for the N.Y. Times and again in his book “The Compton Cowboys: The New Generation of Cowboys in America's Urban Heartland,” for which he won the Whiting Creative Non-Fiction Award in 2019.

The Cowboys ride again, making an appearance in the Aug. 6 episode of the podcast. It’s a refreshingly deep dive into a group and a location that remains an important source of peace.

“The ranch isn’t just a ranch,” Thompson-Hernández explains in the episode. “Beneath all the jokes and the shit-talking, there’s something more profound taking place that can maybe help Compton heal from some of its wounds.”

It’s a refreshing but harrowing narrative into a group that has found their slice of heaven but also struggles to maintain its longevity. 

Ranch owner and Cowboy leader Randy Hook doesn’t hold back as he expresses the stress and dismay at keeping the ranch and the cowboys riding into the next generation, a generation that is already hooked.

One of the parting shots is from a boy named Keenan who says with bursting energy, “When you’re on top of the horse, it’s like the world just chills out for a minute. It’s like you’re in control of something.”

Walter Thompson-Hernández
Photo Credit: LAist Studios

Stories matter. From book to movie to podcast, the human experience deepens when you walk a mile in another’s boots. Empathy is in short supply these days, and Thompson-Hernández has us going back to the well.

The sports world will certainly love the episode dedicated to Kobe Bryant and the impact he had on a budding writer.

My favorite in the series has to be “Parrots: A Parable.” Los Angeles is a city made up of natives and transplants. So many of the latter came to the City of Angeles of their own accord, seeking vitality in a bustling city.

But some, like the ubiquitous and often chatty parrot, came here without much of a say. 

Thompson-Hernández stretches his pen in a story that not only explains how L.A. came to house this prolific bird but also addresses humanity's ability to cage our own kind, something that is especially salient in 2020 with an administration that has separated migrant children from their parents.

The show makes the connection seamlessly and without a heavy hand, delivered with a moving story you will carry with you long after the episode’s conclusion.

“California Love” resonates and educates. And like a great song from the 90s, you can’t get it out of your head.

“California Love” is available from LAist Studios and can be heard wherever you stream your podcasts. 

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