Immigrants In The Valley

SEPARATED FROM THE REST OF LOS ANGELES BY mountains, the San Fernando Valley defined itseft for decades as a place apart. With jobs in acrespace and manufacturing, comfortable homes and swimming pools, it was the archetypal suburb for southern California: homogeneous, prosperous and chiefly white. It gave the world the shopping mall and the Valley Girl. But the Valley looks different today. Immigrants, mostly Asian and Latino, now comprise almost a third of its population, and with them come polyglot shopping districts and SE RENTA signs on apartment buildings. Some residents welcome the Valley's increasingly cosmopolitan feel. But others, unsettled by a tepid economy and by the rapid influx of immigrants, are fighting against the changes. The Valley is now making a name for itself with clashes over immigration as strident as any in California.

Glenn Spencer, a Sherman Oaks grandfather, expresses his distress by hanging a California flag upside down on a wall inside his hillside home. Three years ago he launched a local citizens group to fight California's illegal alien "invasion." Proposition 187 passed, but Spencer is not appeased. Now he has a new target: after the L.A. school board approved a lawsuit helping to block Prop 187, he launched a recall election against its president. Many Valley residents share Spencer's anger, if not his zeal. Whereas 52 percent of voters in the rest of L.A. rejected Prop. 187, Valley districts approved it by an overwhelming 62 percent.

Today's Valley Girl is as likely to be Latina or Asian as white. Minority groups that made up 48 percent of the Valley in 1990 will form a majority some time early in the next century. The Valley is home to L.A.'s largest Thai temple, and Korean churches dot the landscape. There are enclaves of Israelis, Russians and Iranians. "The many colors of the Valley are now those of the whole state," says California historian Kevin Starr. The population of Latinos, both immigrants and native-born, nearly doubled in the 1980s to form roughly a third of the Valley's 1.3 million people. Many are middle-class homeowners, and some Valley neighborhoods are among the most integrated in the city.

But in other ways the Valley is clearly dividing along racial and economic lines. Whites, older and wealthier, are concentrated in the west Valley. Some rich hillside communities, such as Sherman Oaks, Encino and Tarzana, remain 85 percent Anglo. Latinos have fanned westward along the Valley floor from Pacoima to Van Nuys, Reseda and Canoga Park. But many of the new immigrants are poor, and they've brought with them crowding and new welfare burdens. The shifts became clear after the North-ridge earthquake, as parks in the west Valley turned into tent cities for thousands of immigrants displaced from quake-shattered apartments. Residents once regretted that the ubiquitous freeways separated neighborhoods, says Gerald Silver, an Encino activist. "Now people are glad those barriers are there."

The polarization angers many Latinos, the vast majority of whom are legal residents. From Woodland Hills to North Hollywood, Latino students and activists waved Mexican flags at anti-Prop 187 rallies, an expression of pride and alienation that many whites mistook for defiance of American values. At Cal-State Northridge, the Valley's principal public university, Prop 187 split on largely ethnic lines. "There was anger on the part of Latino students, and a lot of the white students were just as excited, but on the other side," says education student Jose Salas. Latinos fear that whites equate Hispanic heritage with illegal status. "Deep down inside, we felt it was a slap in the face to Latinos," says Joe Ortiz, a North Hollywood businessman and third-generation immigrant.

Others are quick to point out the hypocrisy that characterizes many in the anti-illegal crowd. Longtime residents resent the rising tax burden some immigrants impose, but they like to take advantage of cheap labor. The illegals and other poorer immigrants come to the Valley precisely because there are jobs--as dishwashers, laborers, gardeners, maids and nannies. "Who employs them?" asks construction company president Richard Felix with some bitterness. "The people that vote against them." It's a symbiotic relationship that is played out daily on street corners from one end of the Valley to the other. On Parthenia Street in Northridge, a gray-haired Anglo woman brakes her white Dodge van in front of an eager knot of Latino men. Windows closed, she holds up two fingers, another quiet vote to prelong the Valley's discontents.

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By the year 2000, Latinos will become the largest ethnic group in L.A. County.