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Commentary

Segregation to Some Serves as a Protective Niche for Others

July 16, 2001|EVELYN G. ALEMAN | Evelyn G. Aleman is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles

For more than 40 years, demographers and policy analysts have studied the effects of segregation in U.S. society as mostly a black and white occurrence. In recent years, however, and as a result of increasing migration from Latin America and Asia, the focus has shifted to the study of segregation in Latino and Asian communities.

A recent article in The Times on the 2000 Census findings noted that Asians and Latinos have become more isolated from other ethnic groups in what is defined as a "new kind of segregation." The analysis held that increasingly these two groups isolate themselves from the mainstream, particularly in the area of residential integration. But can a term like "segregation," which has negative connotations, appropriately define the concentration of these two ethnic groups in cities across the U.S.?

Are Latino communities really segregated if residents, mostly newly arrived immigrants, choose to live in areas that provide existing networks for employment and social services? Is this need for and, perhaps, dependence on the familiar among Latino communities necessarily a negative? Do immigrant Latino communities differ from other waves of immigrants from Europe and elsewhere who settled near established support systems upon arrival in the U.S.?

Clearly, the answer to these questions is no. Economist Thomas Sowell noted in his book "The Economics and Politics of Race" that "localized origins and destinations are one aspect of a larger set of forces at work in the migration process: high information costs, high psychic costs of confronting an entirely new culture and society, and a need for mutual aid, particularly in emergencies."

Indeed, preexisting support systems via churches, community groups and social services are crucial to the well-being of immigrants in their new host country. Take, for example, areas in Los Angeles like Pico-Union, where migration from Central America and Korea has created an interesting mixture of cultures and has established the area as a Little Central America and Koreatown. These ethnic hubs provide a familiar environment for the newly arrived and create opportunity for immigrants seeking upward mobility and a means of subsistence. Low rental rates and booming ethnic clienteles in many of these areas also provide immigrants with a chance to establish businesses while revitalizing old neighborhoods.

The city of San Fernando is a case in point. A series of abandoned buildings have given rise to small mom-and-pop shops catering specifically to its predominantly Mexican population. A visit to the local supermarket is accompanied by a visit to the Gallo Giro, a chain of Mexican restaurants and bakeries. Rows of Mexican fine art and pottery shops have begun to line one of the city's main boulevards. What used to be the Viking Bakery is now La Nueva Viking Bakery Panaderia, and so on. A gardener, mechanic, seamstress, plumber, painter, welder, even a baby-sitter, are all within reach.

Support systems like these create familiarity for the newcomer. This is why there is high-density and, ultimately, what some refer to as segregation. This is not a negative, but a plus. This cultural niche will be supplanted by new immigrant groups as future Latino generations become more integrated into the American way of life.

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