Latinos in L.A. see potential amid blight Leaders say unity is key to future

May 18, 1993|By John Rivera | John Rivera,Staff Writer

LOS ANGELES -- Freshman City Councilman Mike Hernandez is tooling around in his Chevy Blazer through the streets of his district, the desperately poor but bustling Central American Pico-Union neighborhood.

These streets, just west of downtown, still bear the scars of some of the worst of last year's rioting over the not-guilty verdicts in the first Rodney King beating trial. The busy streets are full of salsa music, the smell of warm tortillas and foot traffic -- an oddity in this auto-fixated city. There are also gaping holes in the scene: vacant lots where businesses torched in the riot once stood.

But Mr. Hernandez is excited. Where some see chaos and urban blight, he sees potential.

"You get off a freeway offramp and you see an American with a sign saying he's homeless, and you see an immigrant trying to sell you an orange. And we can't lose that energy," he says of the dynamic Latino community.

Then, rounding a corner, he sees the very contrast he's just described.

"This is what I'm talking about!" he almost shouts, pointing to a Latino woman holding bags of oranges and peanuts aloft. "We can't lose that energy."

Like a sleeping giant, this community had been largely ignored until the worst of last year's rioting erupted in Latino immigrant neighborhoods. It has raised the question of whether the city will deal with the new Latino problems as an opportunity rather than a crisis.

"I think the comment of Los Angeles being the Ellis Island in the back end of the 20th century is absolutely true," says Richard Martinez, executive director of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project.

But the influx of Central American immigrants is a double-edged sword, says Kevin Starr, professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Southern California. The newcomers do not seem to be as eager to assimilate as the Mexican immigrants of the 1920s, who he says have become thoroughly American.

"What we have here is not immigration, per se, but the formation of an enclave, a readjustment of the border, which is as threatening to the million Mexican-Americans in Los Angeles as it is to the Anglo residents," Dr. Starr says.

"They're both part of the solution and part of the problem," he says. "Their hard work, their desire in some way to have a better life in the United States, is part of the solution. They're part of the problem if they become an enclave our social institutions can't get to."

Dozens of major cities across the country, including Baltimore, face similar questions as Central Americans move into the area in search of work, though none are likely to face the magnitude of immigration the nation's second largest city will absorb, being so close to the border.

The choices made here will provide lessons for the nation. If captured and harnessed, the energy and spirit Mr. Hernandez is so excited about could mean the revitalization of a city bruised and battered by racial tensions.

Failure, activists warn, could transform these immigrants into an underclass, filled with an anger and desperation that was only glimpsed at during last April's uprising.

Latino role in riots

Though black-white racial tension was at the core of the Rodney King trial, the subsequent riots involved the Central American immigrant community here in a role larger than was ever reported. The areas with the worst rioting -- South-Central, Pico-Union and Koreatown -- are predominantly Latino.

South-Central, which was once the center of Los Angeles' black community well into the 1980s, is now a barrio with a Latino majority. The population of Koreatown, the center of Korean commerce west of downtown, is actually half Latino. The area just southeast of Koreatown, Pico-Union, is almost completely Latino.

"You can go miles without seeing anything but Latinos," says Roberto Lovato, a U.S.-born Salvadoran who is executive director of the Central American Refugee Center.

The Latino role in the riots was documented in a study prepared by Manuel Pastor Jr., an economics professor at Occidental College in Northeast Los Angeles. He found that half of those arrested during the uprising were Latino, as were nearly a third of those who died. Nearly 40 percent of the businesses destroyed were owned by Latinos.

The neighborhoods where the most looting occurred are among the poorest in the city, with population densities exceeding Manhattan's. Dr. Pastor notes that demographic studies show the immigrant Latinos are working poor; their poverty is not caused by joblessness, but by low wages and unstable jobs.

The rioting and looting done by Latinos, therefore, had nothing to do with the verdict in the Rodney King beating trial, Dr. Pastor says.

It had everything to do with poor people -- culturally and socially isolated -- who saw an opportunity and took it.

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