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THE PLIGHT OF 7 CROWDED CITIES : Immigrants See Dreams Turn Sour in 7 Crowded, Poor Communities

October 01, 1989|JAMES M. GOMEZ | Times Staff Writer

For years, Elsa Saravia fantasized about her future in a distant land called America, about 2,500 miles from the poverty of her village in the Honduran jungle.

But almost a decade after following her son to the United States, the 58-year-old, part-time housekeeper's dream home has turned out to be a cramped, two-bedroom apartment that she shares with 11 family members in the predominantly Latino section of Bell in Southeast Los Angeles County.

Living in the middle of Bell, a community that is among the poorest and most overcrowded in the county as a result of a decade of unprecedented Latino immigration, Saravia tells a familiar story.

"I always dreamed of coming to America, but not to live like this," she lamented as she sat at the rickety Formica-topped table in her small kitchen. "My son said that life was better here." But, Saravia said, the apartment on Flora Avenue has a leaking roof, rotting floorboards, a broken toilet and rats.

In fact, she said, her hand-to-mouth existence in Bell is not much different from her life in Central America.

Saravia's is the story of tens of thousands of Latino immigrants, many of them undocumented, who have followed their dreams to seven contiguous Southeast cities: Maywood, Cudahy, Bell, Bell Gardens, Huntington Park, South Gate and Lynwood.

The seven Southeast cities together total 22.5 square miles, the size of Pasadena. But they have a combined population equal to that of a 65-square-mile area encompassing Pasadena, Glendale, La Canada Flintridge and San Marino.

In fact, Maywood, with four times more people per square mile than either Beverly Hills or the city of Los Angeles, may well be the most densely populated city in the state, said Terry C. Bills of the county population research section.

Once quiet suburban cities that were known by such nicknames as Billygoat Acres for the Anglo farmers that originally flocked here from Midwest and Southern farmlands, these cities are now bustling centers of Latino life.

Spanish is spoken in most classrooms, stores and homes, and Spanish music is heard on the streets. One of the more popular supermarkets in the area is the Tianguis, a Mexican-oriented food store, where the cashiers say "Muchas Gracias" instead of "Have a Nice Day," one immigrant explained.

Spanish language billboards abound. They urge newcomers to try products, usually alcohol and tobacco, and to use a variety of social and legal services.

But the dreams that helped mold these cities into Latino centers have in many ways become nightmares, both for the immigrants who have flooded this suburban area and for longtime Anglo residents, who have seen their communities undergo drastic changes.

"There's a tremendous dynamic at work there," said David Lopez-Lee, a Chicano studies professor at USC who has conducted surveys that show more than 50% of residents in the area speak little or no English.

"The area has become sort of a mecca" for immigrants looking for financial security or a haven from the ravages of civil war in their homelands, he said. "Of course, it has created a whole host of problems."

For example:

* The limited housing in these cities has forced Latino immigrants to share living quarters. It is not unusual for two or three families to live together to make ends meet, officials said.

* The public schools are among the most crowded in the county, school officials said. Consequently, hundreds of pupils are bused out of neighborhood schools.

* Aging and overburdened sewer and water systems along with narrow roadways built in the 1930s are forcing city officials to think about ambitious construction programs.

* Law enforcement officials say there is an increase in gang-related crime as a result of the increased population. About 40 small Latino gangs have been formed in the past three years, police said. Cities are looking for ways to add police officers, despite tight budgets.

* Social service workers are scrambling for additional funding to meet the demands of immigrants. Welfare rolls have increased and food lines are longer than they have ever been.

The wave of immigrants has changed the character of the cities and altered the nature of housing demands in what were once rural bedroom communities.

Maywood is the most densely populated city in the county, with 21,993 people per square mile, according to estimates of the Los Angeles County Department of Regional Planning. The other cities follow close behind, said Bills, research analyst for the department's population research section. In fact, the seven cities and Hawaiian Gardens rank among the county's 15 most densely populated cities, he said.

Specifics Expected in 1990

Exact population figures, however, will not be available until the 1990 census. City and county officials know there are changes taking place in the communities, and they expect the census to show a large increase in the number of immigrants. The estimates are based on changes in school populations and patterns of housing occupancy.

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