Roots|Raíces: Shared Futures in South Los Angeles

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

Strolling down 103rd, I walk past Jordan High
Where seeds are planted in the soil, where Black babies are born to fly
What lies they told me of this land? I could still hear ‘65
I feel the beat of ’92 every time that I drive by
- Vin Villa

South Los Angeles has always been a place of reinvention. From the European (and later, Japanese) farmers who settled in the expanses between the ports and downtown, to the white workers and families that populated the adjoining industrial (and racially restrictive) suburbs, to the African-American migrants who fled Jim Crow South and crafted a vibrant night life on Central Avenue, South Los Angeles has never been just one thing.

Change has been a constant—and while the national imagination may associate South LA mostly with the 1965 Watts rebellion and the 1992 civil unrest, there are a myriad of stories that complicate and challenge any monolithic rendering of this mega-neighborhood. One of these emerging tales involves the shifting demographics of South LA: once 80 percent Black in 1970, the area is now about two-thirds Latino. But these shifts have frequently received as cursory and simplistic a treatment as the two waves of violent unrest that engulfed the region.

Because just as South LA is not just one thing, it is not just one place or even one time. Indeed, South Los Angeles covers over 50 square miles, included around 800,000 people, and contains 28 separate neighborhoods. Some, like Baldwin Hills and Leimert Park, have strongly retained a majority Black population; others like Central Avenue itself, are now almost entirely Latino.

Percent Non-Hispanic African American, South Los Angeles, 1970
Percent Non-Hispanic African American, South Los Angeles, 1970
Percent Non-Hispanic African American, South Los Angeles, 2010
Percent Non-Hispanic African American, South Los Angeles, 2010
Percent Latino, South Los Angeles, 1970
Percent Latino, South Los Angeles, 1970
Percent Latino, South Los Angeles, 2010
Percent Latino, South Los Angeles, 2010

As for time, the demographic shifts began in earnest in the 1980s as mass immigration caused a spill-over of residents from Pico-Union and East LA—even as many African American families were fleeing the collapse in manufacturing employment and the rise of crack, gangs, over-policing, and mass criminalization. The early images and realities of tensions between Latinos and Blacks have often stuck.

While those issues were real and newsworthy, what has often been missed by the press is the current panorama: Black and Brown families living and working next to each other, community-based organizations working for common causes like education improvement and improved parks, and a second generation of Latinos with roots in South LA—and for whom an embrace of Black culture and Black allies have become more familiar.

Our research team at the USC Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration has spent nearly two years studying the changing Latino identity of South LA. We have been struck by the complexity and nuance; far from a simplistic story of ethnic conflict, we see a tale of daily negotiations, accommodations, and transformations. Our upcoming report explores the new Latino identity in South LA through three prisms: a quantitative data analysis of the demographic and economic realities of the region, an ethnographic study covering over 100 interviews with Latino residents, and a series of interviews with Black, Latino, and other civic leaders working and organizing in South LA.

In our analysis, we have tried to go beyond the simple and superficial, drawing distinctions between those immigrants who arrived in the 1980s and their children who grew up in a Black space—highlighting how pride in place has sometimes overcome division by race. We have tried to capture the drama of demographic change but also go beyond the notion of two cultures colliding and include a full account of new connections between Black and Brown communities. And while we have sought to balance the historic media portrayal, we have also tried to not simply offer a reversed mirror image of the press’ outsized focus on conflict; we acknowledge that there are real issues—particularly given the relative lack of Latinos in positions of political leadership, the sense of loss felt by many Black residents, and the common threat of displacement from pressures of gentrification. 

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But while the new Latino leaders ready to emerge in South LA seek an independent voice, they also recognize that it is an interdependent community: no one will do all unless all do well.  Many groups have taken this message to heart and the efforts to ensure that South LA is not just a tale of ethnic succession but rather a model of new bridge-building. We hope this work can offer lessons for Black-Brown alliances elsewhere, including other historically Black communities, including places like East Oakland and even rural areas of the South.

South LA’s emerging stories are also important for the City as a whole. The 1965 Watts Rebellion and the 1992 civil unrest were pivotal moments not just for South LA but all of LA: They signaled that an old world of racial discrimination and economic disenfranchisement was unstable, and that a new world needed to be born. The Watts Rebellion eventually paved the way for the election of Tom Bradley, the first Black mayor of a largely white city, while the 1992 civil unrest shone a light on police brutality and triggered a wave of social movement organizing to address these challenges.

Once again, the future of Los Angeles may well be forged in South LA. It is the place where the new race relations have been tested and forged, where decades of public disinvestment are now being challenged, and where the City may find its last, best chance to ensure that this century’s roll-out of mass transit does not lead to wide-scale gentrification and displacement. We should be paying careful attention to the nuances and not just the images, to the realities and not just the rhetoric, to the possibilities and not just the problems.

We are hoping this report contributes to that reframing and provides a platform for further discussion. Indeed, our research has already triggered what some may consider an unusual tribute to data collection: an accompanying rap that fully captures the shifts, the transformations, and the resilience of South L.A.  So roll the drum, then hand the mic; it’s Vin Villa rhyming:

Song written and performed by Vin Villa

Latino children speaking jazz, singing the blues, spitting these raps
Overcoming the trap so maybe we can give back
Who’s to tell this ghetto child how she or he identifies
These intersections though, are mine; This neighborhood taught me to thrive
- Vin Villa


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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