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Orange County remains a bastion of conservative family values

An influx of immigrants has brought with them the family structures of their homelands, shoring up the county's adherence to tradition, researchers say.

June 23, 2011|By Nicole Santa Cruz and Scott Gold, Los Angeles Times
  • Thalia Urquiza, front, Paola Zatarain, middle, Cecilia Zatarain, back, and Bianca Urquiza play it cool in Santa Ana.
Thalia Urquiza, front, Paola Zatarain, middle, Cecilia Zatarain, back,… (Francine Orr / Los Angeles…)

In a state where the dynamics of marriage, family and home are shifting, Orange County remains a "vestige of tradition," as one sociologist put it.

Analysts, however, say the county's loyalty to convention is not due to a push to maintain its image as a pillar of social conservatism. Instead, they point to the bustling Latino commercial districts in Santa Ana, the Vietnamese American coffee shops in Garden Grove and the halal butchers in Anaheim — to an influx of immigrants who have imported the old-fashioned family structures of their homelands.

Orange County's ethnic enclaves are founded on religious and cultural values that include strong family ties, said Jack Bedell, a sociology professor at Cal State Fullerton.

"It means 'I take in grandma because I want to, not because I have to,' " said Bedell, also president of the Orange County Board of Education.

Orange County, home to 3 million people, has the lowest percentage of single-parent households of any county in Southern California, according to a Times analysis of U.S. Census Bureau figures, as well as the lowest percentage of households occupied by opposite-sex unmarried couples.

It also has one of the lowest percentages of same-sex households and has retained one of the highest percentages in the region of nuclear-family households — those with a married man and woman who are raising children under age 18.

Orange County has not sidestepped entirely the modernization of the California family. Its percentage of nuclear-family households, for instance, while relatively high, fell between 2000 and 2010 from 29.1% of households to 26.1%. Overall, however, the county is a bastion of tradition, relatively speaking.

"Change is happening, just at a slower pace," said Edward Flores, the project manager with the population dynamics research group at USC.

The result is a pervasive sense of tradition in some pockets of the county — which certainly exists in other areas of the region, but exists more in Orange County, proportionally and statistically speaking.

"We're the nuclear family and all of our friends are as well," said Marissa Mayfield, 31, who lives in Seal Beach with her husband, Eric, and their two young children. "We believe in a dad and a mom. He can give stuff to them that I can't and I can give stuff to them that he can't."

She stays home with the kids while he works for an area school district. They cut corners financially, they said, to afford a lifestyle that they savor — neighborhood strolls, church, good schools, convenient trips to the grocery store.

"It's kind of the last small town," Marissa Mayfield said.

On a recent evening on Seal Beach's popular Main Street, Kyoko and Mark Sickler, married for 16 years, sat down at what she called their "tried and true" Mexican restaurant. The family walks there almost weekly, and the staff has known their children, 14-year-old Savannah and 11-year-old Jordan, since they were toddlers.

While munching on chips and salsa, Kyoko Sickler, a 37-year-old math coach, explained that many of their friends in the neighborhood lived in the same house where their parents lived. Divorce is seldom an issue among their friends. "Of the people we know, people getting divorced is really rare," she said.

Sara Flores was born in the Mexican state of Michoacan and grew up in Orange County as an undocumented immigrant. She embodies the notion that the county's immigrant communities are shoring up its sense of tradition.

Flores, now 28, married a high school friend, Ray Flores, in 2002. "He came from the same family values," she said. At the time, she was raising two nieces and a nephew because her sister had been deported. Then her husband's mother moved in. Nobody blinked.

"I did follow … the traditional Mexican way of 'you support your family members,' " she said on a recent evening in her living room, sparsely decorated and furnished.

Flores earned a bachelor's degree at Cal State Fullerton in 2005, then a master's degree in curriculum and instruction at Chapman University in 2009. She recently became a U.S. citizen, and works as a program coordinator at El Sol Science and Arts Academy in Santa Ana — a rewarding job, she said, because she frequently works with impoverished immigrants who remind her of her own path.

She and her husband waited eight years to have a child, to make sure they were ready. Now Flores is pregnant; her daughter Kyana, named after a student in one of her classes, is expected to arrive Sept. 1.

nicole.santacruz@latimes.com

scott.gold@latimes.com

Times staff writers Doug Smith, Ken Schwencke and Sandra Poindexter contributed to this report.

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