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A Tale of Two Communities: Asians and Latinos and The Future L.A.

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Business signage in Los Angeles' Koreatown represent the rising prominence of both Asians and Latinos in Southern California. | Photo: Elson Trinidad

Take a look at the future of Los Angeles, and what will you see? Less smog? A subway that reaches the sea? Flying cars? A professional football team at long last?

All of the above are still uncertain things. But what is certain will be our demographics: Los Angeles County's population will be predominately Latino and Asian. With the Latino population in California projected to surpass the white population sometime in 2014, and Asians now eclipsing Latinos as the largest immigrating group overall into the United States, our region will likewise follow suit.

What should we make out of all of this? Will there be racial tensions? Will there be socio-political power struggles?

To this day, although both Asians and Latinos have been making inroads into American society, from Jeremy Lin on the basketball court to Susana Martinez and Julian Castro in the political arena, American mainstream media still defaults to describing the nation's racial relations as solely a black-white dichotomy, with Asians and Latinos still remaining in the periphery.

This week, KPCC public radio hosted a live moderated public forum event that covered the topic of political participation and representation of Asians and Latinos in Southern California. A panel representing academia, media, and political organizations delved into demographics, voter turnout, political parties courting the "immigrant vote," generational attitudes toward voting and cited examples of current and recent local political races. A great deal of information was shared on the political attitudes of both communities (and even sub-groups within those communities), but they only covered the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Though it was clear that Latinos are on track to be the majority group in California politics, with Asians as the smaller, but growing, demographic minority -- notably one with many unique characteristics.

Predictably, the mainstream American media -- if they ever get past the classic black-white dichotomy -- would be prone to replacing that with an Asian-Latino one, or applying the same zero-sum mentality and rules of engagement to set up the racial tensions of the future.

But it doesn't necessarily have to be that way. To borrow a quote from the 2002 movie, "Better Luck Tomorrow," -- a landmark film in Asian American cinema -- "People like you and me, we don't have to play by the rules, we can make our own."

Perhaps it's important to point out the commonalities and ties between Asians and Latinos before any apparent tensions escalate. Both groups, on the most basic level, have similar immigrant narratives. And then there are those who serve as links between the Asian and Latino communities -- from native Spanish-speaking Latinos of Asian descent, to students of either demographic, particularly in the DREAM Act movement, advocating for immigration reform, to people with historical and personal ties to the other group, such as Japanese Americans who grew up in L.A.'s Boyle Heights district. After all, the United Farmworkers Union only became "united" in name and purpose when Mexican and Filipino agricultural laborers banded together.

As a second-generation Asian American who strongly identifies with that community, but also has a surname of Spanish origin and, on occasion, ambiguously Latino looks, I could identify, or be identified, as either Asian or Latino by virtue of heritage or perception. As for the future of Asian-Latino relations, I look to an L.A. Dodgers baseball cap as a metaphor: A team logo that features an interlocked "L" and "A," and a team known for its famed "L"atino and "A"sian players, playing toward a mutual goal.

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