“Day to day we all get along,” assures community leader Arturo Ybarra, unintentionally alluding to Rodney King’s famous post-riot plea, “Can we all get along?”
Ybarra, a gentle, dark-complexioned man in his early 60s, is president of the Watts/Century Latino Organization (WCLO), the most visible Latino association in Watts.
He has lived in his neighborhood since 1969 and seen changes that have unnerved the thousands of black residents who have moved out to the calmer suburbs.
If Ybarra can’t help sounding slightly apprehensive it’s because the bitter national quarrel over immigration has struck a discordant note in Latino and African American relations, and he lives in a neighborhood shared, sometimes warily, by both communities.
“There are problems,” Ybarra admits, “but we’re not always at each other’s throats like the general impression.”
Columnists and radio and television commentators have grimly warned of impending conflicts between the two communities, ever since U.S. Census data declared Latinos to be the nation’s new largest minority. Forty million Latinos now make up 14.5 percent of the population. African Americans make up 12.8 percent.
With the fierce debate on immigration being framed as what to do with the 12 million mostly Latino undocumented immigrants and how to control the flow of newcomers, black-brown friction has become an undercurrent in the national debate. Pundits both black and white charge that the huge pro-immigration marches last spring were preempting blacks’ struggle for equality and social justice.
South Los Angeles, formerly known as South Central, has been an obvious locus for news reports that mine current black-brown relations for cautionary themes.
Last July, a triple killing shook a South L.A. neighborhood when two gunmen described as blacks shot three Latinos, including a 10-year-old boy, on a sidewalk.
A month later, four members of a Latino gang in northeast L.A. were convicted of federal hate crimes for a spree of racial assaults and killings, from 1995 to 2001, aimed at pushing blacks out of a predominantly Latino neighborhood. This marked the first conviction of a Latino gang under hate crime laws usually employed against white supremacist groups like the Klu Klux Klan.
These narratives of urban distress, however, often underestimate the voices and experiences of people like Ybarra, who has stayed put in his Watts neighborhood, reconciled with both the frictions and promises that rapid demographic change brings.
There are many like him, African American and Latino community leaders in South L.A. and all over the country, who insist that ethnic harmony is possible.
But are these organizers strong enough to serve as shock absorbers and bridges of communication while group interests bump up against each other?
A look at their experience shows how old-fashioned community organizing can be an antidote to communal conflict in places that have been suddenly altered by immigration, like South Los Angeles. Nationwide, the work and influence of such largely self-designated community stewards will be crucial in bolstering Americans’ ability to get along.
Microcosm of urban America
South Los Angeles, a 22-square-mile district of Los Angeles, is urban America writ small.
What happens here won’t stay here, especially as the country—from coast to coast, from North Carolina to Illinois—is swept by what the Brookings Institution’s study of the 2000 Census calls “an explosion of diversity” through immigration.
South L.A. also occupies a unique place in America’s pantheon of social unrest as the site of the Rodney King riots, or uprising, or unconventional shopping spree, depending on who’s talking.
Once synonymous with the black inner city memorialized by gang-genre movies like Boyz N the Hood and Menace II Society, today, South L.A.’s 383,166 residents are predominantly Latino—62 percent; blacks are 33 percent. This is a startling change from 1980, when blacks were 64 percent of residents. The transition hasn’t been smooth, as Arturo Ybarra tells anyone who asks.
An influx of Mexican and Central American immigrants dislocated by economic globalization or fleeing political violence coincided with the deep recession of the 1970s and ’80s and with corresponding cuts in government social spending.
The end of the Cold War shrank the once-mighty aerospace industry. Heavy manufacturing plants, oil, tire and car parts production moved abroad. South Los Angeles lost an estimated 75,000 jobs between 1970 and 1980 alone.
Along with deindustrialization, the crack epidemic and gang wars of the ’80s and ’90s triggered the exodus of middle-class blacks. Latino immigrants took their place, drawn by low-paying manufacturing jobs in apparel, textiles, food processing and furniture work, or in the burgeoning service sector.
These enterprises replaced the heavy industries that once created the district’s middle class. They are similar to the jobs that are now drawing immigrants to cities and towns in the American Midwest and the South.
Arturo Ybarra and many South L.A. activists have persistently navigated these rough waters, condemned inept or unjust official policies, challenged parochial political agendas and jealousies and created alternatives to the nihilistic culture of the mean streets.
Some of these activists were schooled in the politics of the Civil Rights and Antiwar Movements of the ’60s and ’70s, or have imbibed lessons and values from that past.
The visions they carried over from earlier decades-including the recognition of African Americans’ and Latinos’ shared status as society’s underdogs—have helped preserve oases of interethnic solidarity in neighborhoods that could have been torn apart.
Cynics inside and outside their communities often dismiss them as “politically correct” dreamers for being forever loyal to the grand vision of a strategic Latino-African American unity and for rejecting the inevitability of ethnic balkanization.
Next Part: It’s Not a Zero-Sum Game
Rene P. Ciria-Cruz, a NAM editor, wrote this story as a Racial Justice Fellow of the USC Annenberg’s Institute for Justice and Journalism.