Based out of Highland Park, Ashley Marie Garcia has spent the last four years building the magazine she would have wanted to have read as a child. Brown Girl Travels, Marie Garcia’s self-realized travel publication, presents the stories of women of color that have gone neglected in mainstream publications. Each issue of the magazine offers writings and art submitted by dozens of passionate women, sharing their stories of personal growth and exploration.
But more than a collection of stories, BGT has also served as a starting point for Marie Garcia to engage and give back to the communities she loves. Within the last year alone, she has held both a Back to School event to give away school supplies to children in the Frogtown area, as well as a wildly popular book fair in Highland Park that drew hundreds of people.
I’ve known Ashley personally for a few years now, and her enthusiasm is unmatched, her energy seemingly boundless as she tackles one incredible endeavor after another. In this post, we present our interview with her, where we discuss her work on Brown Girl Travels, memorable travel experiences, growing up in Northeast L.A., and how the educational system often fails brown girls.
Firstly, go ahead and introduce yourself.
Hey y’all, my name is Ashley Marie Garcia, I’m CEO and Editor-in-Chief of Brown Girl Travels!
Tell us what Brown Girl Travels is in your own words.
BGT is a self-funded publication that I created. It is a platform for women of color to share their stories of travel, life, and of adventure. Really, it’s a place for us to preserve, document, and highlight these stories that are not really otherwise highlighted in the mainstream media. So it’s really to create representation.
Can you tell us about your experience growing up in Highland Park and how it shaped you as a person?
So, fun fact: yes, I have lived in Highland Park my entire life, but I actually grew up in the Frogtown area. I went to Allesandro, I went to Irving and John Marshall High, all schools in that area. It’s kinda funny because people think like I’m Miss Highland Park or something but I’m not, I just live here and I’ve been embracing it. But I really grew up in Frogtown. I did not know kids from around here, I only knew the kids on my block here in Highland Park. But it was very different growing up, nobody wanted to come to Highland Park, everybody thought that it was dangerous. There were drive-bys constantly. But it was a very beautiful community nonetheless. Here in the neighborhood, down the block there were barbershops, and people were always outside the barbershops and then the liquor stores, they were family-owned, so they had family hanging outside the liquor store. So I feel like growing up in Highland Park has been interesting for me because I feel like I’m neither here nor there but to watch it since then has been something, it’s been definitely interesting.
Highland Park has this trendy reputation now. But as someone who has a strong connection to the community, what’s been your experience of that change?
It’s been very heartbreaking, it’s been very hard for me to watch. Again, these community spots where people would gather and talk and share space together are no longer there because these places cannot afford the rent to stay. So displacement is very real with the businesses here in the community and with the people living in the neighborhood. Highland Park is a working-class neighborhood with working-class families and these trendy stores opening up on the boulevard are not meant for us, they’re not created with us in mind. We cannot afford the things in there. The candles are like $27 for like a little stick of candle! What? No!
It’s hard to watch these people that do not look like me anymore in the neighborhood. So I think that’s what I’m trying with Brown Girl Travels to create more spaces where community can gather.
What are your favorite places in the neighborhood?
Okay, 100% hands-down we’re going to say Villa’s Tacos. In da building! Not just because the tacos are amazing, their blue corn tortillas, they’re *chef’s kiss*, but also because Victor Villa is someone I went to school with, somebody I grew up with. So to see the community grow, like me and his sister are very good friends, so to watch him grow literally from middle school to now in his adulthood, he has children, he has his business, it’s very very beautiful. We support each other in our businesses, so it’s something very special and sacred. He’s from the neighborhood, his family is from Highland Park as well, so hometown locals doing it up.
Also, one of my favorite places is Mi Vida on York Boulevard, owned by Noelle Reyes. She is an icon in this neighborhood and I think in the small business community for flagship stores. She’s owned her store on the boulevard for I think 14 years, and it’s something that I would look at as a child and you could tell immediately it was something that represented my culture and who I was just from the walls. Just from the painted colorful walls outside driving by. So as a child seeing that, knowing a Latina woman owned that boutique, oh my goodness, it was amazing for me then. And now to see her maintaining it during gentrification and now pivoting to use it as a community space, she has community events there and welcomes people to have events there, is amazing and it’s definitely goals for me.
Also, my favorite panadería down the street, Delicias Bakery, it’s next to the Bank of America, they’re so good, family-owned, been there since like, ’92 or ’91, I think. There’s a lot of amazing places that are still here in the neighborhood that still need our support, they’re my favorite spaces.
What does travel mean to you?
I think going into Brown Girl Travels at the very beginning, I thought travel was something that looked very grand and very wondrous. I thought it was something that I needed to go and leave L.A. to find this adventure that I’m yearning for. But when I got to these places I realized that adventure is right there at my back door, in my back yard. I’ve explored L.A. my whole life, it’s something I’ve been doing way since before BGT and all this stuff, it’s just something I do and I like.
But during the pandemic, when people wanted to go and travel, I offered this concept or notion of backyard traveling, where we should really be exploring our neighborhoods. Like, I went to Central Library today to meet a friend for a meeting, and she’s been living in California her whole life, like 20 minutes away, and she’s never been to the library. She’s never seen it before. It’s a beautiful, beautiful building, it’s one of the few historic buildings in Downtown that we have. Tourists were there! Tourists that have flown in from across the country were there, how come us that live down the street don’t see things like this? So that was the whole concept, that travel is more than just boarding planes and crossing state lines, it’s really about this sense of adventure and finding it wherever you can.
How did the pandemic change your experience of travel?
I think that’s why backyard traveling was a big thing, because I’m 100% scared to travel. Even now, even these years later, all these things are still happening, all these shifts are still happening in our society. I’m scared to travel, because I don’t want to get my father sick, and it’s something I deal with; it’s like an inner turmoil because I’m a magazine editor for a travel magazine and I’m scared to travel right now. So it’s kind of like imposter syndrome (laughs), but it’s something I’m working on and again, that’s where backyard traveling really comes into play. I wanted more than my house, so last year I took the Amtrak to Santa Barbara. Santa Barbara is one of my favorite places to daycation, and I think that it was really good for me to get out of my comfort zone, out of areas that I know so that I can explore something different while being close to home. So I very much encourage whatever travel you’re ready for, you do.
What are some of your most memorable travel experiences?
Oh my god, okay, story time! So I went to Portland, New York, and Chicago on separate occasions. But each of the times I went, I never told my parents that I was going alone. I went entirely alone. So I went to New York, and it was the first time that I had been on a plane. I was staying with a friend that I hadn’t seen since first grade. And I was like 22 or 23. So I hadn’t seen him since first grade, he offered that I could stay with him. So I get to New York, I’m on the plane, I’m crying, cause I was like “Oh my goodness, I’ve never wanted to be in my mother’s womb more than I do right now,” I wanted to crawl right back in. I was so terrified, “I’ve gone too far,” and there’s no turning back. So I get to New York super early in the morning cause I had caught the red-eye there, and he had told me he lived in Astoria, but that’s as much information as we had said and he had given me his phone number. So I didn’t want to call him super early, I’ll make my way to Astoria and I’ll call him when it’s time. So I start, I take the train there, I get there, I do a little bit of exploring. I’m tired, I just want to go somewhere, I’m scared, and I start calling him, and he doesn’t answer. And so I’m like, “Oh my god.” So I find this little corner bagel shop and I’m just hiding out there, it’s across the street from a library, I’m hiding out, and I’m looking up plane tickets home. Cancel the trip, I’m going home, I can’t, I could go home and be okay. And I’m calling him, he’s not answering, I’m freaking out, I’m like, “this was not meant to be, oh my god,” he wasn’t answering for nothing. “I’m so stupid to come out here and trust him.”
He finally calls me back. He’s like, “I’m so so sorry, I went out last night and got blackout drunk. I was passed out. I’m so so sorry, where are you? Where are you?” And I’m crying like, “I’m right here at this corner store! I’m here!” And he’s like, “Oh my god, you’re like a block away!” He’s still on the phone with me, came running out of his house, and literally I was a block away from his house the whole time. The whole hour and a half that I was melting down at this little place, he was a block—not even a whole block, just a small half-block away. And it was a very defining moment cause it was like, “I’m going to be okay, the universe has me.” I had no idea where to go but somehow I made my way to within a block of him. That’s wild. It was a very significant time for me.
So when did you get the idea for Brown Girl Travels?
It was after all this traveling had happened. I really just wanted to write all these stories down for my niece, who was five at the time. I wanted to write them down so she would have them when she was older and have something to look at and go, “Hey, my auntie did it and I can do it too.” Because growing up, I never felt that travel was for me. I didn’t think it was meant for me, I didn’t see girls that looked like me traveling in the movies or on TV shows. Nobody talked about these stories. And so I never imagined myself traveling and I didn’t want her growing up like that. So I started to write these stories down just for her. And then I wanted to include historic tidbits on women of color who have traveled in the past, so she could have more to be inspired by. And there were not many. There were some, don’t get me wrong, but there was not many and it was very disheartening. And I knew there was a problem here. Because it’s not that brown girls are not traveling, it’s that brown girl travels are not being documented, saved, and represented in the mainstream media. So that was it, that was the tipping point. I decided this was going to be bigger than me, I put out a call for submission, 24 women of color submitted a story or a poem or a drawing and that was the first issue and it’s just never stopped since.
Do you read a lot of travel publications? And if so, are there any particular influences you drew from for Brown Girl Travels?
I read a lot of Essence Magazine, and as a magazine it’s black women-owned, it’s been around forever, for so long, they have festivals now. They’re a really huge inspiration to me. Also, I read a lot of travel things, but a lot of it is literally on Libby, if someone is listening to this and needs that resource, it’s an L.A. Library resource and it’s the same thing as a library card where you can check things out and check them back in and they have audio books and regular books and magazines. So one of the things that I do a lot is look through these magazines, and there’s even archives so you can look at so many of them. And I’ll screenshot them; most of the time I’m on my iPad so it’s big enough and nice enough. And it’s really more so an inspiration not for traveling, I think, but for editing. When it comes down to editing and how these stories are being told and how I want my stories to be told. I really love to do that type of research.
So what does your process of making an issue of Brown Girl Travels look like?
Oh my god, it’s chaotic. Essentially, I’ll put out a call for submissions and invite the community to submit pitches, their articles, poems, drawings, whatever have you. Sometimes the magazine is themed, so I ask for things around this theme, like Women in Business Traveling or Business Travel vs. Travel for Pleasure, things like that. From there, it takes a few weeks to get this content going. Once I have it all, I kind of lock myself up at a coffee shop or something and I just tunnel vision my way through it. And I literally lay out and edit the entire magazine, from jump to the end, and it’s a lot, it’s a lot. But it’s a lot of fun too, and I really enjoy seeing people looking at their article that they sent me in a pdf form that’s laid out as a word document and all of a sudden it’s an article in a magazine and they’re like, “Woah! How did you do that?” and I’m like, “Magic, honey.”
After the pdf is done and ready to go into print, I send it in to mixam.com, they are my printers, and they’re amazing. I think they’re flagshipped in Europe or Britain, so when you call their people to talk on the phone, they all have an accent. I think there’s a very small group of them because I’ve literally called multiple times and talked to the same people multiple times. And one of them, his name is Simon, I swear he’s Alfred from Batman, I swear! Simon has literally talked me through inDesign problems, because if you have an issue with printing, they’ll tell you. Like, oh, your bleed is not extending to where it needs to be at, or this is not working, it’s not going to print right, and they’ll walk you through the steps of fixing it. Customer service is top tier. So yeah, that’s pretty much it. And then they print out in about 2-3 weeks, get it to me, it’s about 4 weeks, a month tops, waiting period from when they get it to me. And that’s a magazine!
Looking at things like your recent inDesign workshop, you’ve managed Brown Girl Travels not just as a publication, but also as an educational tool. So how do you approach that role?
I feel like everything in my life is very full circle. When I was attending John Marshall High, I took a class called “World of Education,” and Steve Zimmer, who was once a LAUSD school board member, he was teaching the class. He didn’t teach any other classes, just this one class, just this one period. And it was an interesting class, but he would hand-pick the students himself even, that he felt needed help or guidance or belonged in this class. And he taught us, before we were supposed to be taught, about lesson plans, about the stages of growing for children, the different modes of education and styles of learning and stuff like that. It was very advanced stuff at the time and it was amazing that he taught it to us.
So I feel like coming full circle now, it took me a year to learn inDesign. It took me a full year and there’s no reason that it should take anybody that long. And if I have the capacity now at this point to be able to share that knowledge, there’s no reason to gatekeep it. I was a little nervous to transition, I had thrown out the idea and it sounded great, but I was like, “I’m not an educator, I don’t know how to teach anybody anything!” I could talk, and that’s fine, but I have to actually have a lesson plan and really teach them what’s going on. I had to pull all of that out from the memory banks and really put that into play. But I think it was not hard, because a lot of my community events that I do are always geared towards education, learning community resources, so I really felt like it was in the line of what I already do to give back to the community.
I like the idea of not gatekeeping the knowledge, because I think the instinct a lot of people have is, “I have this knowledge, I can’t let it go because then I’ll have competition!” In the professional fields, that’s very much the instinct.
Yeah, it is. And we’ve worked together in the past, we know the type of really professional environments where people are seriously gatekeeping stuff and it’s creating a big gap between people. And the communities that get to have these things or know these things and the communities that don’t. I think that for so long, the communities I have come from and the culture that I come from in America, it’s been hard for us to grow and really establish ourselves because we’re literally doing everything from ground-up. We have none of the background, some of us are first generation, everything is us learning. And we should be banding together and growing together. And in that way, we are a force. I think that’s something that a lot of us are coming into our power, knowing that we’re truly a force.
You’ve also used Brown Girl Travels as a platform for community engagement, particularly with the in-person events like the Back to School event, the book fair, and now you’re working on a block party. So when did you realize you could expand into that role and how did you go about creating those events?
I think what it was going into the first event was that I had all this community that is backing Brown Girl Travels via Instagram, you know, via cyber community support. But I wanted to bring these people back into the communities that I’ve grown up in and give back resources in whatever way I can. I wanted to get people together and give back. So the first one was really easy because again, these are neighborhoods I grew up in, I grew up in Frogtown and that’s why the first event was in Elysian Valley. It was actually held at the First Impressions Studio, and the owner of the studio used to work at the elementary school that I went to, when I went! So it was very amazing to be able to come to her and have my event there. And again to highlight the small businesses, I got to offer space to my friends who had businesses and some of them had a pop-up for their very first time and they felt comfortable because, you know, we all know each other, we’re all just in community with each other. And I don’t make myself or the BGT entity feel any separate or higher or anything, we’re literally building together. I think that’s a big thing for BGT, it’s 100% community-built. You know, someone donated over 300 backpacks. I wouldn’t be able to give out these backpacks if someone in the community didn’t donate them to me. And so they donated this, people donated money so we could buy stuff, people donated crayons and paper and rulers and all these things and we were able to stock these backpacks up and give them out for free. People even donated brand new water containers to drink out of, hand sanitizers, so it was really good to give back in that way.
I think I wanted to give back in that way more so because education is very important to me. Again, growing up, I went to John Marshall High. And I went to school when they still had tracks. And literally A-Track was the magnet track, you know, it was the better track. But you were in that track only based on where you lived. And they literally broke it up by, these are the richer communities. These are the communities that people have money in. And my track was literally, 100% no joke, referred to as the “At-Risk Track.” I remember asking Zimmer, my mentor at the time, what am I at risk of, dying?? He was like, “you’re at risk of gang affiliation and drug abuse,” and I was like, “Get the fuck out of here!” I laughed so hard, I’m laughing now! Like, gang violence? Gang what? Why would they determine me to be that? Have I ever shown aggression? And he was like, no, it’s based on where you live. And I was like, “that’s messed up.” That’s really messed up, and so the classes that were available to me in high school for my elective were workshop and ceramics. But you know what A-Track had? A-Track had a psychology elective. You know, it was a really… (exhales) whew, the anger. Whew, the anger! Cause I tried to take that class, they said I could, and then they said oh, it’s full, A-Track has priority. Literally, these kids had priority to a higher education than we did.
And so I think that’s really big for the events that I throw, because I want to even the playing field. I want to give these books out for free, I want to give out all these backpacks for free, I want to give what I can so we can grow together. There should be no gatekeeping in education and in the resources to be educated.
What do you hope the younger generations who attend these events take away at the end of the day? Like, what kind of experiences or lessons do you hope they learn from attending your book fair or the block party?
That they can do it too. That they can 100% do it too. I literally had nothing, I just had the idea and I just put it out there. And I put it out there because I saw a need for it. I saw that these things weren’t there for us. Representation in media wasn’t there for us, I made a magazine. I wanted free access to books for my community, I threw a book fair.
Fun fact, I’m inspired by Walt Disney. I’m a huge avid Disney fan. And he’s just brilliant, because he wanted a place for families to go and spend time with their kids and also be entertained. He sat at Griffith Park on a bench and was like, you know, there should be a place where families can go. Literally on a bench in Griffith Park, it’s at Disneyland, that same bench. And bam, he made it happen. Something out of nothing, and he made it happen. So I think if you want something, you can create it. And I feel like my book fair, especially, was a really big feat, over 1,000 books were given away, hundreds of people came through the doors throughout the day, and it was all community. There was mariachis, there was music, there was love, there was vibrancy where there wasn’t before. So if anything, if you want it, go out there and make it happen and it will.
You’ve written a few articles for Brown Girl Travels about using transit to visit places around Los Angeles. Do you have a memorable experience riding transit that you want to share?
I’ve been riding the bus my whole life. My whole life, you know. To and fro, Hollywood, the beach, I’ve done all these things. But the most memorable experience was realizing that the Metro, the Amtrak, the trains, could take me out of L.A. more further than I ever believed. And still bring me back in the same day! That’s going to Santa Barbara. But when I went to Portland, woo, the 30 hour train ride to Portland was something else. I mean, I took the 30 hour train ride back as well. I met people that I still talk to. And these people are going on adventures, like it’s so interesting to be on the train with people and see them and hear their stories and a lot of them were like, “I just left a relationship that was abusive and I’m coming to find myself,” or “I just graduated and I want to go see this for the first time.” This one dude was going to see his biological mom for the first time ever. I made friends and there was a connection and literally we stood up all night drinking and talking in the lounge area of the Amtrak. Definitely, train rides are amazing and it’s like a different life experience to sit there and just be in the in-between. You know? You’re moving, you’re on your way somewhere, but you’re still in the in-between. And you get to really sit with things differently and I highly encourage it to anybody.
What role has transit played in your life?
Oh my god, I’m MTA Queen, I used to say! I don’t drive, so for the most part my boyfriend, he has a car, and he takes me a lot of places now. Shout out to my boyfriend. But I’m very used to going on the bus and getting everywhere. When I was young, like I said earlier, in high school, we used to take the bus, the 720, all the way to Santa Monica. And it was very empowering to us because none of us had the means to get there but it never stopped us. We deserve to go to the beach too, and I think back on how silly we were, we would have all this stuff for the beach coming from Frogtown, just walking to the bus, hot, sweating, everything, but nothing stopped us. So I feel like every experience I’ve had with the MTA has been very empowering and knowing that if I want to go somewhere, I can find a bus that’s going to get me there.
So if someone really wanted to support you, what should they do?
Oh my god, please follow the page, like, comment, all that stuff. Keep the algorithm going. Stay tuned for the next magazine. If you want to be published, I’m always taking new pitches, new ideas, new submissions, just email me, firstname.lastname@example.org, and I would love to work with you.
Lastly, if you had family visiting L.A. for the first time, where would you take them?
I don’t want to sound basic, but The Last Bookstore in Downtown is one of my favorite bookstores. It has definitely been taken over; back in the day, when I used to go, the bookmarks used to be cardboard. All the books upstairs used to be $1, you know. Times have changed. But The Last Bookstore is one of my favorite places.
Definitely I always take people to Chinatown to eat at, I think it’s called Wong’s Wok, but it’s open until 3 in the morning, and they have amazing buns with meat inside, oh my goodness. So I take them there and I also take them to Elysian Park, because Elysian Park is like home to me. To the big park that’s overlooking Dodger Stadium and they’re always wowed. I feel like they’re like, “Where are you taking us?” and they’re always like, “To a park? Huh?” And then we get there and they’re like, (inhales contently). They always want me to take a picture of them.
Yeah, I feel like that’s something that people never know about L.A. is the views, the hills.
Yes! The views, the hills! My boyfriend’s family came to visit and I kept telling them about how we used to go smoke on one of the views and his cousin’s girlfriend was like, “I want to go! I want to go!” They woke me up at like 4 in the morning and went, “Let’s go!” They loved it, and L.A. is very magical and we have so many gems hidden throughout L.A. that you wouldn’t think about. And it’s just really great that y’all, shout out to y’all for highlighting those spots that a lot of people would otherwise not know about! So shout out you guys!