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LOS ANGELES

A Choice of Two Destinies

Will it be Miami or San Antonio?

March 11, 2001|David E. Hayes-Bautista and Robert M. Stein | David E. Hayes-Bautista is professor of medicine and director of the Center for the Study of Latino Health & Culture at UCLA. Robert M. Stein is associate director of the center

The next mayor of Los Angeles will preside over an unprecedented demographic change: Latinos will become the majority population in the city. The larger question is: What does the future hold for a city that is half Latino?

Will Los Angeles, with its Latino majority, remain a vibrant, productive and magical force that lights the country's imagination? Or will the Latino majority become a dead weight, dragging the region down into mediocrity, dysfunction, poverty and racial antagonism?

There are two U.S. cities that offer radically contrasting models for what L.A.'s demographic shift can mean to the region: Miami and San Antonio. The population of each is more than 50% Latino. But the role of Latinos in each's civic life is quite different, and for different reasons.

In Miami, Latinos are part and parcel of the city's larger civic life. Latino entrepreneurship has turned Miami into a bustling center of international trade, self-declared gateway to the economies of Latin America and self-appointed music center of Latino USA. Latino politicians run the city and county; Latinos are involved in the fine arts, academia, journalism and broadcasting. In short, wherever one turns, there are Latinos involved in propelling the city forward.

San Antonio, by contrast, is a city with a majority Latino population that is barely visible in civic life. Only once in the past century has it elected a Latino mayor. Latinos are not movers and shakers in the fine arts, academia or business. While Texas has profited more than California from the North American Free Trade Agreement, very little of that wealth flows through Latino businesses. Yes, there are successful Latino professionals, but they are the exception.

What did Miami do that San Antonio didn't?

Miami welcomed Latino contributions and invested in them. San Antonio shunned them.

In its history, Los Angeles bears a remarkable resemblance to San Antonio. Both cities were founded by Latinos centuries ago, as part of Mexico's northern fringe. Both were acquired by military conquest, and, in both, the newly arrived Anglo society took pains to ensure that Latinos "knew their place." The transition was more virulent in San Antonio, where the Texas Rangers were specifically charged to ride herd on "the Meskins."

The Latino populations in San Antonio and Los Angeles were, at best, tolerated; at worst, they were shunted aside through legal and social segregation. The longer Latinos were subjected to these restrictions, the more they internalized them, becoming psychologically accommodated to second-class citizenship. In San Antonio, the Latino community did not develop to its full potential. Yes, Latinos give the city its tourist-attracting exotic flavor, but at night, they are expected to return to their barrios. Latinos, after nearly 300 years of history, are on the margins of civic life of the city they founded.

For nearly two centuries, Latino Los Angeles marched in step with Latino San Antonio. But in the 1970s, the cities' histories suddenly diverged. Unlike San Antonio, Los Angeles received large numbers of immigrants from Mexico and Central America, until, by the early 1990s, nearly one of every two Latinos was an immigrant. Meanwhile in San Antonio, fewer than one of seven Latinos was an immigrant. In just 20 years, the Latino populations of the two cities become quite distinct: L.A.'s Latinos were mostly immigrants, while San Antonio's were Mexican Americans.

During this time, Miami also received an influx of Latino immigrants. Its story is instructive for Los Angeles.

Cuban immigrants were warmly welcomed in Miami. They were desired friends and stalwart opponents of communism during the height of the Cold War. More important, a huge investment was made in their potential. The Cuban Refugee Program provided more than $1.2 billion of direct financial assistance to recently arrived immigrants, the equivalent, in 2000 dollars, of $63,000 for each household. Public programs provided more assistance. At one point, 74% of all Cuban immigrants received governmental assistance.

Health services were tailored to their needs. Small-business loans were made available. Florida modified its licensing laws to make it easier for immigrant physicians and professionals to continue their practices in the United States. The University of Miami provided training and recertification for thousands of Cuban lawyers, accountants, engineers, teachers, architects and other professionals. When Dade County built its rapid transit system, 53% of the minority contracts went to Latino firms.

These programs were seen as investments, not welfare. By investing in new immigrants, went the argument, the city's business base--its tax base, too--would grow. And this is what has happened. With Latin American movie stars and recording artists flocking to the golden miles of South Shore, Miami has declared itself the Latin American Hollywood.

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