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In South Central se habla Espanol: Latinization of L.A


There is a major demographic change in progress in Southern California. Los Angeles County will have a Latino majority by the end of the 20th century, and the majority will extend to the entire state of California early in the 21st century. Personal adaptations that are taking place are discussed.

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Ya estamos listos? Are we ready?” yells Patricia Hernandez to the twenty elderly black students who’ve shown up for Friday morning’s class. Twice a week since 1983, Fremont High’s Community Adult School has offered Spanish classes at the Estelle Van Meter Multi-Purpose Center at the corner of Avalon Boulevard and East 76th Street in South Central Los Angeles. To get today’s class rolling, Hernandez asks George Thomas, a retired nursing assistant, to step up to the chalkboard and write out last week’s homework. The students had been asked to fill in the blanks of a passage on Hillary and Bill Clinton in the kitchen using the verbs to peel, to stir and to serve.

Like Thomas, most of the students here are natives of the rural South who settled in Los Angeles around World War II. They have all survived many dramatic changes in American life. Now, at ages 60 to 80, they are in the vanguard of Angelenos preparing for this city’s future. “You wouldn’t believe how many elderly blacks are learning Spanish at the center to tell their Mexican neighbors to get their chickens off their lawn,” chortles Estelle Van Meter, the center’s founder. They are also learning the language to respond to invitations to baptisms, to befriend their neighbors or simply to know what’s going on. Enrollment in the class has increased through the years. Harold Elloie, a second-year student, knew he had to learn Spanish when the depot master at a Greyhound bus station didn’t bother to make his boarding announcement in English. With an openness that would startle many Californians, he simply decided he wanted to keep up with the times.


The ethnic and racial diversity that was hailed as a boon in the optimistic 1980s now inspires fear and confusion in the hearts and minds of many Southern Californians. Whatever else it may be, the current anti-immigrant climate is in part a deluded attempt to reverse the profound demographic change the region is undergoing. Like it or not, America’s most populous state will have a Latino majority within the first quarter of the next century. L.A. County will have one by the end of this decade. Yet while projections may be unequivocal, it is by no means clear how tomorrow’s Californians will organize themselves within a social matrix whose center is shifting from Anglo to Latino. The most powerful clues to the state’s cultural future are to be found not in current efforts to resist the inevitable but in local communities that have already begun to grapple with a rapidly changing present.

Think about these people’s capacity to roll with the punches,” says Hernandez, who has been teaching the class for all of its eleven years. “My students are reaching out to their new neighbors and instead of saying ‘You have to speak English,’ they’re saying, ‘I’m going to meet you halfway.’ This is really about the hispanicization of South Central L.A.” It wasn’t until the 1992 riots that anyone realized that Latinos made up the majority of what was once the heart of African-American Los Angeles. The vast majority of Latinos in South Central are part of the wave of immigration into California that started in the 1970s and reached a crescendo in the 1980s. Turmoil in Central America brought an increase in Salvadorans and Guatemalans to Los Angeles over the past decade, but Mexicans still account for three of four immigrants here. Contrary to many post-riot reports, South Central is not a major receiving area for the newest immigrants. A 1993 study of the riot-torn areas concluded that a “remarkably high percentage” of South Central Latinos have been residents of this country for more than ten years.

Available and low-cost housing is what initially brought Latino immigrants to the eastern corridor of South Central. As more and more African-Americans moved out–particularly young couples with children who went mainly to higher-income suburbs west and southeast of South Central–they found their places taken by even greater numbers of Latinos. The housing market became demand-driven, and, according to a study by the U.C.L.A. Business Forecasting Project, property values increased substantially in the Latinizing neighborhoods of South Central during the recessionary years of 1990-92. Even after the riots, the area remained one of the best-performing home real estate markets in Los Angeles County. In the 1980s, the Latino population nearly quadrupled and the process of ethnic neighborhood succession–from African-American to Latino–moved westward. Although some people have argued that the influx of Latinos is a source of unfair competition for African-Americans, it is clear that immigrants have facilitated many upwardly mobile blacks’ departure from the area by buying or renting their former homes. It seems only just that African-Americans can at last benefit from the cycle of immigration that has allowed countless other ethnic groups to advance in society as a new group assumes their former position.

Professor James Johnson, former director of the Center for Urban Poverty at U.C.L.A., has referred to African-Americans who remain in South Central as a “residual population.” Unemployment is chronically high, and in 1990, 43 percent of working-age black males had been out of work and not seeking employment for at least one year. Seniors also make up a high percentage of African-Americans in the area. This contributes to the already low rate of black households in South Central that consist of mother-father-child family formations. Most of the African-American residents of the neighborhood surrounding the Van Meter Center–the quiet, well-kept blocks of stucco homes between Avalon and Central on the east and west and Florence and Manchester on the north and south–are senior citizens who did not have the resources or the desire to leave the area. By contrast, most of the area’s Latinos are young families with children. According to the 1990 census, Latino immigrants in South Central are more likely to form traditional family households than any other group in Los Angeles County. In addition, Latino males in the area are among the county’s most active participants in the labor force. The generational difference between the groups makes the future of this neighborhood apparent. In the meantime, residents have begun to settle into their neighborhood’s changing landscape.

“In Chicago, you always knew whose neighborhood it was. Maybe not everybody in it was Polish or Italian or black, but you knew it was one group’s neighborhood. Here it’s not anybody’s,” says Alcid de Mary, who moved west with his wife, Ana, in 1979 to take advantage of the warmer climate. Sixteen years ago, when the de Marys bought their house on East 74th Street, all the residents were black. Today, over half are Latino. Seven years ago, the neighborhood elementary school was three-quarters African-American. Today more than 65 percent of the students are Latino.

In 1984, Ana de Mary, a spirited 78-year-old, began studying Spanish at the Van Meter Center. For years she has practiced with her friend and neighbor Marina Ortiz, a native of Michoacan, Mexico. “Marina!” de Mary yells through a screen door. “Come over here!” Marina, who embraces Ana as she reaches the door, treats her elderly black neighbor like a favorite aunt. “Como estas, today?” says Ana. “Maybe todo bien,” Marina responds. For the next half-hour, they gossip on the living-room sofa in Spanglish.


In addition to its programs for elderly blacks, the Van Meter Center offers classes to help Latino immigrants negotiate their new world. Citizenship and English-as-a-second-language classes are held several times a week for Latino residents. Twenty-five-year-old Jose Alcazar, a Mexican immigrant who spent his adolescent and early adult years in South Central, says that efforts of black-run institutions like the center to reach out equally to both groups have served to stabilize relations between African-Americans and Latinos in recent years. His own experience parallels that of the community at large. Alcazar remembers when he first drove into South Central on a hot summer afternoon in 1983, his entire family loaded into a white Chevy Impala with a green top. “I had never seen so many black people. They were walking outside. Some people were barbecuing. I remember the smell, the white smoke.” At first he felt unwelcome in what was still a largely black area. He was beaten up several times at school because he was Latino. “Nobody likes to see another group becoming the majority,” he says. Even after the attacks stopped, Alcazar continued to view blacks with distrust. His resentment abated only after black teachers at Fremont Community Adult School, where he completed his high school education, encouraged and mentored him. “I changed my views, because it was African-Americans who were helping me,” he says. Today, although he is not yet a citizen–he applied for amnesty in 1987–Alcazar teaches citizenship classes at the Van Meter Center. His own mother and father have attended his class.

Wrapped in a faded caftan and a ratty peach sweater, Estelle Van Mether spoke about her neighborhood as she rifled through piles of papers. The clutter of the living room in her one-story white stucco house on East 81st Street, a few blocks from the center, gave testimony to both her longtime residency and her activism. On the mantel, above the glass ornaments and embroidered pillows strewn among the room’s tables and chairs, sat an official proclamation from Mayor Tom Bradley and the City of Los Angeles honoring her dedication to her community. Under the television lay a copy of the autobiography of former police chief Daryl Gates, a friend of hers. Van Meter is referred to by some as the godmother of Black South Central. If not respected, she is at the very least feared. Born on a farm in Woodville, Mississippi, in 1907, she came to Los Angeles in 1926 and worked thirty years as a real estate broker. Eleven years ago she founded the Van Meter Center, a nonprofit organization. She is by all accounts a fearless and effective advocate for her evolving neighborhood.

Van Meter reflects upon her new neighbors to the west, the extended family that owns four adjacent houses across the street, and the poor Latinos who come to the center on the days dry goods are handed out. As one would expect from an 87-year-old woman, her laced impressions of her younger neighbors repeatedly remind her of her own life, of the African-American community when South Central Los Angeles still tendered the hope of a promised land. “They take care of their children like we used to do in Mississippi. My neighbor takes care of everybody’s kids,” she said. “When we used to have people coming from the South, we would help in the way we could. They’d come in crowds like the Mexican folks do. In the South they had an awful lot of kids. We would get them a job. And then we’d get a place for them to stay.” Van Meter feels that the erosion of Southern black culture in the past two generations and the collapse of community caused by the flight of the middle class have been the main curses of South Central. “If they had money or had good jobs, they ran like the white folks did. The educated blacks sort of betrayed us. Those who had an opportunity to go to college, they needed to lift as they climbed. And they didn’t do that. Now you can see all the Mexicans that have these good houses. We older blacks just want to stay in the Southern values. I think we should give the young people our values. That’s what I like about the Mexicans. That priest or mother or whoever has given them their morals. That’s all anybody wants.”

To the right of the entrance to the Son-Shine Missionary Baptist Church on Nadeau Street, a half-mile from the center, hangs a small wooden shingle that reads Iglesia Gentil de Cristo. Son-Shine pastor Leroy Shephard, who converted his old grocery store into a house of worship when he became a minister not long ago, shares his facilities with a Mexican preacher in return for any handiwork that needs to be done on the premises. Reverend Shephard, who by day works as a referral specialist at the Van Meter Center, expounds on the pitfalls of cultural assimilation as a small group of Pentecostals holds its Spanish-language services in the next room. He, like Van Meter, waxes nostalgic about the days when customs and beliefs kept individuals and groups together, even under extreme adversity. His words serve as a warning to L.A.’s newest immigrants. “I can see the Latinos going through the same thing we did. What they have now is the tradition they bring with them. They come together, live together, work together. They share.” Desegregation and the social advances made since the 1960s have allowed many African-Americans to leave the ghetto, but there has been a price and it is usually paid by those who don’t get out, says Shephard. On Sundays he tells his flock that it is not too late to reclaim the cultural buttresses that would empower them. “We migrated from the South and traveled all over and went far. We left not only our homeland. We left our culture. We left our heritage. And by the time we crossed over the mountain, the storm came. So now we’ve come to realize that if we’re going to make it, we must make it being who we are.”

We have to go back to what works,” Reverend Shephard insists. He hopes that Latino immigrants don’t ever have to look back to see what they lost. Yet with the opportunities he and the Van Meter Center give their new neighbors to maintain the customs and language that give their lives meaning–even as they become American citizens–that lesson may never have to be learned.

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