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Latino Identity in South Los Angeles – Across the Generations

Labor Solidarity Mural
Image from the Roots|Raíces video

Which way is South LA heading? As Latinas/os have become a numerical majority in what was recently an African American neighborhood, do we see tensions, collaborations or segregation? Together with our team at the USC Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration, we spent the last year interviewing one hundred Latina/o residents in the Watts, historic Central Avenue, and Vermont Square neighborhoods for the Roots|Raíces research project. While there is no one monolithic portrait of Latino South LA, we are finding common stories and struggles—and also some key generational differences.

In the 1980s, thousands of Mexican and Central American immigrants began setting down roots in South LA. Some had just crossed the U.S.-Mexico border, fleeing Civil Wars and economic devastation, and others moved here after living in crowded neighborhoods near downtown and MacArthur Park; But they all came looking for the same thing: a better life. These were tough times in South LA. During the 1980s, South LA, was reeling from the aftermath of deindustrialization, with gang wars, a crack epidemic, and impoverished neighborhoods featuring more liquor stores than grocery markets. One of our respondents drew a mixed portrait of neighborhood life when asked to recall what it was like in the late 1980s. “Mira, hay cosas que eran buenas…Look, there were things that were good, and bad things. At that time we were about the only Latinos on the block…Everyone else was Moreno (Black). But the majority of those who lived there were older people, and they were very nice. We never had any problems with any Black neighbors.”

MLK/Virgin Mary Mural: South LA
Photographed for CSII by Walter Thompson-Hernandez

Many of these first generation Latina/o arrivals found a kind of next door neighbor civility (even if relations stayed somewhat superficial) with their older African-American neighbors, but on the streets they often encountered hostility from youth gangs, street crime, over-policing, and a climate of violence and racialized resentment that was very particular to the 80s and early 90s in South LA. Pushed inward also by the language barrier, the work of daily survival, and the street violence, most Latina/o newcomers responded by “shutting in and shutting out,” basically keeping to themselves. As one Mexican man, now a 35 year-long resident of the historic Central Avenue neighborhood reflected on his family’s early days here, “No eramos personas de la calle…We weren’t people of the street. We were people who went to work, the laundry, the market, and to work. Well, we would visit family (elsewhere)…but to go to the parks? You couldn’t. People just didn’t feel safe.” Anti-Black racism brought from Latin American countries and nurtured in the U.S. by our own color line—as well as language barriers—helped foster social distance. As one woman said when asked what was her biggest challenge living in South LA, “El desafio, casi siempre….The challenge, almost always and to this day has been the language. That’s been my challenge. For my kids, no, because they were little and they acquired the language quickly.” In our interviews, we heard this over and over again. Consequently, Latino interactions with African-American neighbors and local civic associations remain limited. As a result, racially segregated niches formed, especially among this older group.  

But our interviews also highlighted another important aspect of South LA racial dynamics: Generations think about race in different ways. While the first generation migrated to South LA with anti-black racist ideologies—which were often hardened in the tough street climate in the 1980s and 1990s—the second generation Latinas/os who were raised in South Los Angeles related starkly different racial experiences with African Americans. While some had faced racially motivated tensions in the schools or the street, a large majority of the second generation expressed an affinity for African Americans that was almost non-existent among their parents’ generation. The Latina/o second generation grew up with Black friends, attended the same schools, played on sports teams together, and followed similar styles and music. These generational differences were due to a series of factors but none were more important than the ability to speak English and communicate with their African American peers and neighbors. Shared school and employment experiences also gave second-generation Latinos the opportunity to engage with African Americans in a way that their parents simply could not.

Roots|Raices: Young Couple Holding Hands on Bridge
Image from the Roots|Raíces video

One of our interviewees expressed her views about the interconnectedness of South LA African American and Latino identities this way: “We grew up together. You know, they fed us collard greens; we fed them beans. You know, we grew up in each other’s homes, and we grew up together. So to us, it’s a similarity. They’re our people. We struggle, we consider them our people.”

What to make of these generational racial differences? When thinking about the future of South LA—particularly the face of leadership—we are left with the almost inescapable reality that the face of future South LA leadership will be a cohort of young leaders who will have grown up in a community that was predominantly Latino but with a strong inclination towards the African-American political and cultural legacy of South LA. These will be leaders who will have been impacted by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta as much as they will have been impacted by Martin Luther King, Jr.

Learn more about the “Roots|Raíces: Latino Engagement, Place Identities, and Shared Futures in South Los Angeles” research by the Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration (CSII) at USC at http://bit.ly/rootsraices.

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