Huffpost Latino Voices

Latino Immigration Transforms South Los Angeles

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IMMIGRATION LOS ANGELES
Thousands of people march during a May Day rally in downtown Los Angeles on Wednesday, May 1, 2013. In celebration of May Day, people have gathered across the country to rally for various topics including immigration reform. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes) | AP

South Los Angeles was once a threatening bastion of Black Power in Southern California into which no Latino dared venture alone.

Black-brown tensions there were rare -- because so few Hispanic could be found there to upset the status quo -- until the months after the 1992 riots, sparked by the acquittal of white police officers in the Rodney King beating, when the cleanup and the rebuilding created conflicts over the fight for construction jobs.

"The riots and their aftermath opened people's eyes about the Latino presence in South L.A.," says Pasadena businessman Hector Sotomayor, who spent his early adult life in South Los Angeles. "We were no longer invisible.
Latino immigrants from Mexico and Central America had begun quietly settling in South Los Angeles, and the great immigration boom from those countries in the 1990s spawned what ultimately became a dramatic demographic transformation.

Latino immigration in South Los Angeles
Today, Latinos make up two-thirds of the population in South L.A., which has become a modern-day Ellis Island of the West Coast where Spanish is the unofficial language and Hispanics have changed the culture and pulse of the community.

"This is a huge, pivotal shift, as important as any other population change or migration we've had in the city," says Raphael J. Sonenshein, the executive director at the Pat Brown Institute at Cal State Los Angeles and an expert on racial politics Southern California.

"It affects the African-American community's sense of self as it sees a geographic core that really matters to people erode. It changes the whole sense of the neighborhood."

But that doesn't mean that the African American community has gone away. It remains in smaller numbers but fighting hard to retain its political power, which it has been able to do because so many of the Hispanics in South L.A. are either not citizens or too young to vote.

A recent City Council runoff election between a former black legislator and a Latina community activist created racial strife that eventually was publicly smoothed over by both African American and Hispanic.

The black politician won, but the consensus seems to be that it is only a matter of time before the growing Latino numbers win out.

Understandably, some African Americans have made their own last stand.

"We're being overrun," says anti-immigration activist Ted Hayes of Choose Black America, who has led anti-immigration marches in South L.A.

"The compañeros have taken all the housing. If you don't speak Spanish they turn you down for jobs. Our children are jumped upon in the schools. They are trying to drive us out."

But, for the most part, the two communities are co-existing, even as they pursue different roads to upward mobility.

According to sociologist and city planner Eugene Grigsby, blacks have traditionally worked for big companies, the government or as utility workers and teachers.

Latinos, he says, tend to start small businesses.

"The immigrant approach to economic development (is) you start low, you work 14-15 hours, you don't pay yourself very much, but you accumulate some capital," he said.

"Then you can purchase something, you can bring some family members over, get them involved, and you can accumulate more capital."

A perfect example is Mexican immigrant Vidal Hernandez, who began his business by trying to buy a food truck.

"We didn't have enough capital," he says. "So we started renting a truck. Then we rented a second truck -- more work, but it's even better.

"Finally, we got our dream come true, like, we're buying our truck. So we are kind of like, step by step, that's what we did."

From his food trucks, the Hernandez family specializes in Philly cheese-steaks and Mexican desserts the women make.

Their first truck alone, he says, is worth more than $100,000.

And at Hernandez's food trucks today, you often find as many African Americans as Latinos waiting in line.

"The only race issue left in Los Angeles," says author and urban affairs specialist Joel Kotkin, "is how the Hispanics deal with everybody else."

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