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L.A. needs a healthy Latino middle class

The success of the region's largest ethnic group is the key to the future for everyone.

January 04, 2010|Hector Tobar

The middle is what holds Los Angeles together.

Not too rich, not too poor. Right in the middle of the curve -- a place that doesn't inspire much passion.

But without the middle class, what is Los Angeles?

Imagine a metropolis where all the homes have either iron bars on the windows or walls and guards to keep away the riffraff. A city of castes. Gated communities and gangland, with nothing in between.

In other words, a Third World city.

With our economy in the dumps and public services and the education system in crisis, it's easier to imagine Los Angeles becoming such a place.

I started thinking about the middle class after three reports came across the transom about Latinos, that very loosely defined ethnic group whose members make up a plurality of both Los Angeles County and Greater Los Angeles.

Two of the reports contain troubling information.

The Pew Hispanic Center's "Between Two Worlds" finds Latino youths are having children at an earlier age than those in other ethnic groups and dropping out of high school at nearly triple the rate of non-Latino whites.

The UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center's "The State of Latino Los Angeles" finds a correlation between ethnicity and the gap between rich and poor. The researchers created an "equality index" that measures educational attainment, income, civic participation and other indicators of social well-being.

"A hierarchy of inequality exists," the UCLA report concludes, "with Asians and whites at the top and Latinos and blacks at the bottom."

With this year's census likely to show a Latino majority in both the city and county of Los Angeles, it's obvious that our collective future is linked to the social health of that group of people. And if you think of Latinos only in the dysfunctional terms described in so many media reports, then a Third World L.A. seems like an inevitability.

But of course that's not the full picture.

Which brings me to the third report, a USC study released last month about Southern California's "Mexican-origin middle class."

You might not think about L.A.'s Latino middle class much. But USC sociologist Jody Agius Vallejo has eschewed more exotic topics to investigate its middling peculiarities.

Agius Vallejo's research looks at the "pathways to success" that allow even people of humble immigrant origins to reach middle-class status. Her work rebuts the widespread perception that Mexican immigrants and their offspring are following what she calls a "trajectory of downward mobility into a permanent underclass."

Such stereotypes dominated much of the sociological literature she was exposed to in graduate school. "Their ideas were pessimistic and didn't match what I knew from my own experience," which includes growing up in an Orange County family with both white and Latino members, she said. "The Mexican American people I knew always had paths to social mobility."

In fact, Southern California has had a robust and growing Latino middle class for several decades.

Back in the 1970s and '80s, the middle class was where a Mexican American family arrived after generations of farm, factory and service work, thanks to union jobs and the GI Bill. Cities like Montebello and La Puente were its epicenter. For many Latinos then, ascension to the middle class involved cultural erasures -- Spanish carried a certain stigma, so parents didn't speak it to their kids.

Today the Mexican-origin middle class looks entirely different.

It's not the GI Bill that's helped to lift up this new generation of social climbers but rather the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, Agius Vallejo said. Signed by Ronald Reagan, it gave legions of families a toehold on the American dream.

Now the middle class is where immigrants and their children arrive after launching a successful business or getting a college degree. The Latino middle class has many epicenters, including the San Fernando Valley, Downey and Santa Ana. English may still be the language of achievement, but speaking Spanish also carries a certain cachet.

"The middle class today doesn't think of their racial backgrounds as an impediment to their social mobility," Agius Vallejo said.

She began her research in the upwardly mobile communities of Orange County. One of her research subjects was a young man who had grown up poor near Disneyland. His mother cleaned houses in Santa Ana for a living, but he went to college and eventually bought a home in Floral Park, a northern Santa Ana neighborhood of expansive front lawns and tree-lined streets.

Buying that home in Floral Park closed a circle for him. "He had helped his mother clean that house when he was a little boy, and now he owned it," Agius Vallejo said.

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