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CENSUS 2000

O.C. Youth Give Future a New Face

Census shows next generation is even more diverse. Democrats may benefit.

March 31, 2001|PHIL WILLON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Beneath the surface of Orange County's rapid transformation from a white, conservative enclave to a colorful stew of races and ethnicities is a generation of children even more diverse than their parents--promising even greater change to the county's political, economic and cultural landscape.

U.S. Census figures show that whites account for 40% of residents 17 years old and younger in the county, although 51% of the overall county's population is white. Latinos make up 46% of the county's children, and are the majority in that age group in Anaheim, Costa Mesa, La Habra, Santa Ana and Tustin.

"When a lot of people think of Orange County, they think of an Anglo middle class. But Orange County is diverse--and it's going to get a lot more diverse," said John Palacio, a Latino activist and member of the Santa Ana Unified School Board. "It shows the importance of being inclusive in respect to education and economic opportunities for immigrants and persons of color."

In Santa Ana, the county's largest city with 338,000 residents, children account for up to 40% of residents in some census tracts, figures show. School officials attribute the explosion of youth to the area's abundance of young, childbearing adults.

"We probably have more students in portables than we do in permanent buildings," said John W. Bennett, the district's deputy superintendent of operations. "We anticipate we will probably continue to grow, [but] probably not at the pace that we have, though."

Overall, children account for 27% of the county population. At least 12% of those 17 and younger are Asian, a figure almost matching the overall percentage of Asians in the county, the census shows. Not surprisingly, the areas with the fewest children are in the Leisure World retirement community in Laguna Woods--where 99.9% of the residents were adults.

Although census figures on children are not a reliable indicator of future population growth--since residents moving into and out of the county are not included--they at least offer some glimpse of changes to come.

U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez, who in 1996 became the first Latino elected to Congress from Orange County, said the diversity among the county's young will become one of the area's greatest assets, producing a new multicultural generation better prepared to succeed in the ever-changing world.

"I'm very heartened by the fact that in schools in Orange County, we've had a lot of conflict resolution being taught to our youngsters," said Sanchez (D-Garden Grove). "I'm actually more optimistic about our future. They'll profit by working together, especially now in a global economy."

The census figures released this week also gave Sanchez optimism for the long-term future of her Democratic Party, which for decades has been the maligned stepchild in a county dominated by Republicans.

Along with a small exodus of whites, central Orange County has seen an explosion in its Latino and Asian populations. In Anaheim, Latinos account for 43% to 46% of the population, outnumbering whites by more than 20,000 residents. In Tustin, the number of Latinos increased 112% since 1990--while the number of whites decreased nearly 6%. In Garden Grove, the Latino population jumped 51%, and the Asian population 81%, while the number of whites dropped 31%.

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All of that translates into potential political riches for the Democrats, said political scientist Mark P. Petracca of UC Irvine. With Latinos traditionally voting Democratic, Petracca expects the Democrats to unseat state Assemblyman Ken Maddox (R-Garden Grove). Once the Democratic-led state Legislature redraws political boundaries in the state, a process done every 10 years using the new census figures, Petracca said the Democrats could possibly pick up some additional Assembly and Senate seats in the central county.

"Unfortunately for the Republicans, having deeply alienated Hispanic voters, what could have been an opportunity for continued dominance by Republicans in this county has been turned into an opportunity for Democrats to make some significant gains," he said.

Still, Petracca warned that it would be foolish for any party to view any ethnic group in a monolithic way--especially the Asian community migrating into the suburbs.

"Those voters are up for grabs," Petracca said. "It's possible that those voters will have stronger class identifications than . . . identifications of ethnicity."

That point was underscored Friday afternoon at the state Democratic Party's annual convention in Anaheim, when party chairman Art Torres went out of his way to court the county's Asian voters in his opening remarks.

"Here in Orange County, we've seen tremendous growth in terms of Asian Americans, particularly around Irvine. These communities are going to have a voice at the table," Torres said.

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