News Analysis: Korean-Latino Relations Grow Icy

By Aruna Lee, New America Media
Tuesday March 13, 2007

Steve Cho, a Korean owner of a liquor store in the Pic-Union/Westlake neighborhood of Los Angeles and a member of the U.S. National Guard, likes to listen to Spanish music and is currently learning Spanish. He admits, however, that there is hardly any communication between Koreans and Latinos. Others say the separation runs even deeper. 

In clubs, schools and the workplace Koreans and Latinos are increasingly sharing the same spaces, and yet there is little interaction between them. One public high school teacher here noted that his Korean and Latino students have “learned from their relatives to mutually ignore each other.” 

As the two communities continue to grow, they are becoming more dependent economically on one another. In major cities across the U.S. it is now common to find Korean-owned establishments employing predominantly Latino workers. While this opens opportunities for cultural exchange it also often leads to serious, sometimes violent, misunderstandings. 



“The building I live in is predominantly Korean,” says Cho. In the next building nearly all of the residents are Latino. There are no links between residents of the two buildings, just the occasional glance and a resounding silence.” 

A recent article on Korean-Latino relations, in the Spanish-language daily La Opinion listed some of the similarities between the two communities. Among them is the high population of foreign-born, Korean and Latino alike, many of whom struggle with English. This limits not only their ability to communicate with one another, but also to participate in the political process and integrate into mainstream society, 

Alvaro Ramirez, who was born in Colombia and came to the United States in 1996, told La Opinion he believes Koreans exploit the Latino community through the high prices of goods sold in local stores and the low wages paid to Latino employees. 

According to Korean media in Los Angeles, which has one of the largest Korean and Latino populations in the country, nearly 60 percent of Koreatown’s labor force is Latino. 

Jae Hak Lee, a researcher at Koryo University in Seoul, Korea, says his studies reveal that nearly 65 percent of Latino workers employed by Koreans say they have a negative view of their employers. Two out of three Latino employees say they would prefer to work for non-Koreans, who would have more respect for labor laws. In contrast, 74 percent of Korean business owners say they prefer to hire Latinos. Why the discrepancy? For some, the reason is cultural. 

Many Korean immigrants tend to be entrepreneurs. They come from a society where a six-day work week is the norm; and because they often don’t speak English they use their savings to open small businesses here. The size of the Latino labor force and a burgeoning Korean entrepreneurial sector make it a given that these two communities are going to rely on each other, particularly in cities like New York and Los Angeles. 

Tensions between the two groups have been growing for several years. There has been a recent spike in court cases involving Korean business owners and their Latino employees . According to the New York-based National Mobilization Against Sweatshops, Latino immigrant workers filed a lawsuit against the Food Bazaar, a Korean supermarket chain for $1.5 million in unpaid wages. 

Nine Latino workers claim they received no wages for the duration of their employment as grocery baggers. Forced to live off customer tips that amounted to $100-200 a week, they say they worked an average of 50 hours per week, and were fired without notice. 

“Some Korean employers treat their Latino employees differently than Korean workers,” says Danny Park at the Korean Immigrant Workers Alliance. “They’ve been known to fire workers without any notice.” 

One story that caught the attention of both communities was the killing of a Korean man in late January by his Latino employee after his boss apparently criticized him for not working hard enough. 

The incident raised fears among Koreans, who are concerned over a repeat of the deadly Los Angeles riots of 1992, in which African Americans, angered by perceived racism from Korean storeowners, burned and looted Korean-owned establishments. This time, they say, any riots that break out could be between Koreans and Latinos. 

In 2002 a number of Latino employees were fired by their Korean employers after attempting to form a union. Last year many Latino workers expressed fear of losing their jobs after participating in mass rallies against planned immigration laws. 

Growing tensions have spurred leaders in both communities to call for increased dialogue and promotion of cultural understanding. Charles Kim, executive director of the Korean American Coalition, says the Korean community needs to make more of an effort to understand the Latino community. 

“Koreans need to change the way the see their Latino neighbors,” says Kim. 

Store owner Steve Cho says that while community leaders and activists call for unity and understanding, the divide is clear and not going away in the neighborhoods. 

“Ultimately,” says Cho, “Latinos and Koreans have to get along. We have to learn to respect our mutual cultures and see each other as human beings.” 


Aruna Lee is a writer for New America Media. Elena Shore of New America Media contributed to this article.