Lost in Translation: Growing Latino Population is Changing South L.A. Job Market

Recently, on one of my daily dogs walks, I ran into my childhood friend Ginny. She lives a few blocks away from me at the top of a hill in a house that has a panaromic view of the ocean; on a clear day you can see all the way to Palos Verdes. Her block and about ten adjacent others are why the neighborhood is called Century Heights. One resident half-jokingly, half-proudly calls it the Beverly Hills of Inglewood. I don't know that I'd go that far -- nobody's making millions or anything close to it -- but Century Heights does have a kind of elevated-ness that goes beyond geography, a permanent sense of high aspirations in its winding streets and luxurious quiet. I walk up there often.

Like a lot of people, Ginny is looking for work. She recently completed a doctorate in education and in the last few months has applied for specialized positions in several school districts. On the morning I saw her I asked her how the search was going. Not great -- she hasn't landed anything yet -- but she was relatively upbeat. It's hard not to believe that a PhD won't yield something eventually, despite all the horror stories we've all read about very educated people these days winding up making money at Trader Joe's or playing online poker. Ginny mentioned that one interview with the Inglewood district went very well. "They told me I was the most qualified candidate by far," she said, a little wistfully.

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I couldn't resist asking why she didn't get the job. If you're not going to be hired, employers will generally let you down easy with compliments -- you were great, you interviewed very well -- but to be told you were the best candidate by far and then shown the door is puzzling. Why even tell someone that if it isn't true?

Ginny was told she didn't get the job she doesn't speak Spanish. It's one of those qualifications that wasn't required, but preferred. The preference wasn't unreasonable, seeing as Inglewood schools, like the rest of the city, is more and more Latino and Spanish-speaking. But still. I looked at Ginny not quite knowing what to say. "It sucks," she said. She said it not angrily, but as a statement of fact. It did indeed suck.

Not the most sophisticated way to describe what had happened, or what hadn't happened, but the verb fit. It captured not just the letdown of not getting a job, it captured the whole very complicated realm of feelings blacks have long had about the expanding Latino demographic and what it has meant and continues to mean for them. I've heard the consternation for years about how black youth in South Central often can't get work at fast food or service sector neighborhood jobs because they don't speak Spanish. But I hadn't thought a lot about the black professional class, and I thought even less about my friend with a postgraduate degree living in Century Heights, the very definition of a local success story -- actually a success story in any black community. She didn't get a position in public education because it increasingly needs something she cannot do and likely never will: speak Spanish.

What an ironic idea -- blacks never quite assimilated into white society, and now they find themselves unable to do the same in a Latino society that in some parts of town have overtaken theirs, and is still growing. This is a statement of fact, not an accusation or an expression of xenophobia. It just is. It doesn't mean that all black people view Latinos as invaders, and that Latinos are actively pushing blacks out. It doesn't mean there is no commonality. But because we all fear being cast in a negative light, we don't talk about the gray areas like the language preference and other realities that demand attention but that have been relegated to the shadows. History has shown that blacks living in shadow and in silence is never a good thing. We have the most to lose.

Walking home, I worried about the future of Century Heights, and not just Ginny's block or all the other blocks, but everything the place represents. It happens to be overwhelmingly black. The odds are that at some point, that will no longer be true.

About the Author

Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in L.A., with an eye toward the city's African American community, appear weekly on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.
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I think one of the challenges for us in the black LA community is to have faith in the black LA community. We need an entrepreneur class. I know it's a scary concept, but it's been about 50 years since the Civil Rights movement and we were hired for about 15 years. I guess between 1975 and 1990. That's 15 years in the US history where we've been able to get a job. We need to hire each other. We need to support each others' endeavors, because people are going to continue to find reasons to not work with us, because of this that and the other. I'm so done with asking for things. Not saying anything disparaging about people who do, but I'm done. I'm creating my own vehicle and I will drive over racism, sexism and classism with it.

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I think one of the challenges for us in the black LA community is to have faith in the black LA community. We need an entrepreneur class. I know it's a scary concept, but it's been about 50 years since the Civil Rights movement and we were hired for about 15 years. I guess between 1975 and 1990. That's 15 years in the US history where we've been able to get a job. We need to hire each other. We need to support each others' endeavors, because people are going to continue to find reasons to not work with us, because of this that and the other. I'm so done with asking for things. Not saying anything disparaging about people who do, but I'm done. I'm creating my own vehicle and I will drive over racism, sexism and classism with it.