Media portrayals cloud the images that outsiders have of South Los Angeles: images that are oftentimes oppositional to the real lived experiences of its residents. And of course, given the diversity and geographic size of South LA, there is no singular experience in this mega-neighborhood.
In the forthcoming report Roots|Raíces, our research team at the USC Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration explores the evolution of Latino identity in South LA. While much of our report presents knowledge from residents and community leaders, we also find it useful to provide historical and demographic scaffolding to ground it.
Our research stems from a central data point: In 1970, about 80 percent of the population in South LA was African-American, but by 2010, the demographic had radically changed and South LA was 64 percent Latino. The demographic shift in South LA partly reflects countywide trends: an influx of Latino immigrants came to the region from Mexico and Central America during the 1980s and 1990s, feeling pushed out from their sending countries due to economic and social changes—including the civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala, and the expansion of neoliberal policies such as NAFTA. But these shifts were more pronounced in South LA as traditional points of entry like Westlake and Boyle Heights became oversaturated, and expanded immigrant networks led to chain migration to the neighborhood.
Decades earlier, the boom of manufacturing jobs in Los Angeles brought a large Black population into the neighborhood and established a healthy Black middle class, but nearly 150,000 Black residents left South LA over the 1980s and 1990s, as deindustrialization, disinvestment, rising crime, and over-policing pushed residents away. Despite the dispersal of Black residents, South LA still serves as an important political and economic anchoring space for the region’s Black population: Nearly 30 percent of LA County’s African-American population lives in South LA. And while Latinos now make up the majority of the population, the county’s Latino community is not nearly as concentrated in South LA—only 11 percent of the county’s Latino population live in the neighborhood.
Nonetheless, Latinos in South LA are putting down significant roots—buying homes and building families in the neighborhood. Latino homeownership rates rose from 22 percent in 1980 to 33 percent in 2009–2013, and more than half of these Latino homeowners have been in their homes for at least 10 years. And Latinos are establishing families in their homes: More than three-quarters of Latino households are multigenerational. And while the majority of Latino adults in South LA are immigrants, the majority of Latino youth are second generation, further underscoring that Latinos are building their families in the neighborhood.
However, Latinos in South LA are not rooting by other measures—particularly measures associated with civic participation. Naturalization rates for immigrants in South LA have trailed: In 2013, 26 percent of Latino immigrants in the area were naturalized citizens compared to 35 percent of Latino immigrants in Los Angeles County—a disparity that has widened over time. This disparity exists partially due to a higher share of undocumented immigrants—46 percent of South LA’s Latino immigrants are undocumented compared to 39 percent countywide. Barriers to naturalization impede the Latino community’s ability to participate politically–particularly in electoral processes.
Latinos make up 59 percent of the neighborhood’s voting age population—those ages 18 and older—and 41 percent of those eligible to vote by virtue of not just age but US citizenship. However, in South LA, only 35 percent of those who registered for the 2014 general election were Latino, and only 28 percent of South LA voters in that election were Latino. So while 64 percent of South LA’s population is Latino, just over a quarter of South LA voters were Latino. Of course there are many ways to be civically engaged beyond electoral means, but broadening voting capacity across the Latino community in South LA is a means to building residents’ political voice.
While there is a definite need for an independent Latino voice in South LA, Latinos and African Americans have to contend with many common issues—including poverty, economic inequalities, underperforming schools, environmental inequality, and over-policing—oftentimes more than their counterparts countywide. But coming together means acknowledging that universal goals such as improving family income necessitates recognizing different strategies. For example, Latinos are more likely to experience working poverty, while African Americans often contend more forcefully with unemployment.
Ultimately, South LA residents have much to gain by both recognizing difference and working together. As we move forward and think about the role the Latino community will play in helping to guide South LA’s future, there are three things to consider. First, what does the community’s diversity mean for bolstering an independent—but still interdependent—Latino voice? Second, how do we lift up both the differences and commonalities between Black and Latino communities to build bridges and create a movement for social change? And finally, how can movement building for social justice be grounded in place and race, and held up as a model for other communities?