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Santa Ana's Own Take on Diversity

The city is three-fourths Latino, the vast majority of Mexican descent, and many of those from Michoacan. Other Latinos can feel left out.

October 05, 2006|Jennifer Delson | Times Staff Writer

In a city where Latinos make up 76% of the population, what does diversity mean?

The answer: Depends on whom you ask.

Officials at Santa Ana City Hall are promoting economic diversity in the city's downtown, where most businesses cater to Mexican immigrants.

At the Mexican consulate, the emphasis is on increasing cultural diversity among the city's Mexican immigrants. With about 27% of those immigrants from the state of Michoacan, consular officials have been encouraging those from other Mexican states to highlight their culture at public celebrations in Santa Ana.

And finally, Latino immigrants who aren't from Mexico talk about the city's lack of diversity among its Spanish-speaking population. So many residents are from Mexico that those from other Latin American countries often need to explain, with some frustration, that they are not from Mexico.

In Santa Ana, diversity does not carry the same meaning it does in most of America. The city is already well-represented by "minorities" who make up the majority of the population. Latinos hold four of the seven seats on the City Council.

More than half of city employees are Latinos, and any city employee who has contact with the public is required to speak at least two languages. Spanish is spoken in many Santa Ana businesses as well.

City officials and developers have turned diversity into the new buzzword while working on plans to improve 100 blocks, mostly around downtown. Currently, downtown businesses, including about 15 bridal shops and 20 travel agencies, are oriented to Mexican immigrant families.

The city's redevelopment agency has bought dozens of homes along Santa Ana Boulevard and hired an architectural firm to design a plan that would attract more upscale private enterprise to the area.

At numerous meetings, city residents and the architects brainstormed about how to bring in retailers such as Old Navy, which might attract customers who don't typically shop downtown. This largely untapped market includes workers in nearby county offices and courts.

Jay Trevino, executive director of the city's Planning and Building Agency, said the city's push for diversity downtown wasn't about ethnicity but economics.

"We want diversity in terms of goods and services," Trevino said. "We want to make sure it's a downtown for all people. It's about consumers asking themselves, 'Is there a reason for me to go there? Is there a place for me to eat? To buy things I want to buy?' "

City officials have been careful to emphasize that the plan doesn't seek to eliminate existing business, just broaden the mix.

Yet some say diversification means gentrification.

"The city uses that word, 'diversity,' all the time," said Elsa Gomez, a downtown tax preparer. "When they say it, it means they want to change what's here, and that means relocating people."

In recent years, hundreds of lofts have been built and drawn more affluent residents downtown.

Some merchants wonder whether there will be enough new non-Latino customers to support new stores and restaurants.

Frank Palmer, another tax preparer, said creating districts like San Diego's Gaslamp Quarter had worked in many places, "but there's a lot of doubts whether it can work here."

The Mexican consulate sees increasing diversity but of a different flavor.

Consul Luis Miguel Ortiz Haro has encouraged the formation of groups from parts of Mexico other than Michoacan to promote cultural awareness, friendship and remittances, or sending money back home. After hurricane damage in the state of Sinaloa last month, a Southland event last weekend raised money for victims.

Also last week, at a fair in Centennial Park, it wasn't Michoacanos running the show but residents from the tiny southwestern coastal state of Nayarit.

There are about 20,000 natives of the state in Santa Ana, and the event attracted the Nayarit's governor to Santa Ana on Saturday.

"This festival was so different. It was like Nayarit was here," said Dely Delegado, founder of the Nayarit Assn. in the USA. "We saw our people and our governor. They even had dancers doing the estampa, and you can't find that in another [Mexican] state."

Consul Ortiz said the Nayarit festival "shows that groups from states other than Michoacan are feeling increasingly comfortable here. We have welcomed them with open arms."

Still, many from other Latin American countries feel like outsiders.

Alex Suarez, who recently emigrated from Cuba, is struggling to explain Cuban cuisine to customers of his new catering service.

"People tend to think if it's Latino, it must be Mexican, particularly around here, where everyone is Mexican," Suarez said. "It's their surprise to find there are no jalapenos."

Three years ago, Norah Briceno opened a Venezuelan restaurant, Mil Jugos, in downtown Santa Ana. At the eatery, whose name translates to "a thousand juices," she serves a variety of drinks, plus arepas, thick corn flour patties. It's a dish not known to most Mexicans.

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