Los Angeles 2010: A Latino Subcontinent

A few miles south of San Diego, along the stretch of Interstate 5 approaching the Mexican border, there's a road sign to California's future. CAUTION! it warns, and shows a silhouette of two running adults, a child scurrying along behind. Like deer or cattle elsewhere in the country, people here are a motorist's hazard. Most are illegal immigrants from Mexico, heading for jobs to the north. Because Highway 5 lies between them and their dreams, they dash across six lanes of traffic as if it were a short wade across the Rio Grande.

Farther to the south stands the Fence, a 13-mile barrier of floodlighted steel and concrete. When it went up, two years ago, the Fence was denounced worldwide as a vestige of the old world order. The Berlin wall was gone. Why need America build its own? But those who lived along the border, north or south, knew different. "It isn't meant to stop anyone," said a border guard recently, gesturing toward one short stretch of barrier and the hundred or so youths perched along its top. His job, as he described it, was merely "crowd control."

This mass migration, now so routine as to be signaled by road signs, is a phenomenon that defies change or control. Already it has transformed southern California. One in four Californians is Latino; nearly 4 million Latinos live in Los Angeles County alone. Counting illegals, they make up almost half the population. Two million more live in the neighboring counties of Orange, San Diego, Riverside and San Bernardino. These figures will quickly grow. By the year 2010, southern California will have become a Latino subcontinent-demographically, culturally and economically distinct from the rest of America.

The question is not whether this reconquista-"reconquest"-will take place, but how and with what consequences. Pessimists evoke visions of the 1982 film "Blade Runner": Los Angeles as an American Third World, a sprawling megalopolis of 20 million, horribly polluted and only slightly more prosperous than Tijuana. But others see a different picture: an L.A. that's an even more thriving world city than it is today, invigorated by its diversity.

Sociologists such as David Hayes-Bautista, director of UCLA's Center for the Study of Latino Health, decry the negative stereotypes that decades of illegal immigration have attached to Mexican-Americans. He cites letters to the editor of the Los Angeles Times that are full of references to the immigrant "invasion" and often express the fear that impoverished Mexicans will overrun the welfare rolls, swamp social services and create sprawling barrios of almost Hobbesian squalor-high in criminality, low in health, education and family cohesion. "These are myths," says Hayes-Bautista, "and they are wrong."

For evidence, he offers the results of a sweeping survey of southern California's Latino population released earlier this year by UCLA. "Yes, these immigrants are poor," he says. "Yes, they are undereducated." But according to Hayes-Bautista's study of Los Angeles County's various ethnic groups, Latinos are least likely to claim public assistance. (More than a third of L.A.'s African-Americans, and 12 percent of whites, are on welfare, compared with 6 percent of Latinos.) They exhibit an extraordinary work ethic. (In 94 percent of Latino households, at least one family member-and usually everyone over 18 years of age-works full time, with most in blue-collar jobs. Those who hold a job seldom lose or leave it.) Latino families are twice as likely as Anglo and black ones to comprise a classic married couple with children. (Divorce rates are among the lowest of all ethnic groups'.) As for health, Latinos live an average of four years longer than whites and 11 years longer than blacks. They have the lowest rates of infant mortality, and the lowest incidence of strokes, heart attacks and cancer, as well as alcohol and drug abuse. "When we look at the data," Hayes-Bautista concludes, "we get a very different picture of Latino immigration. Rather than being viewed as a threat, it should be seen as strengthening our economy and social values."

Bill Clinton might have seen that for himself had he strayed several blocks east during a September campaign rally in Watts. He was appearing at an African-American community center rebuilt with government funds after the riots of '68. The immediate vicinity was upscale and modern; the surrounding neighborhoods were downtrodden and, commercially, nearly dead. That abruptly changes as you cross into adjoining Lynwood, a largely Mexican community that, official statistics say, is even poorer than Watts. There, emptiness suddenly gives way to vibrancy. Instead of 1 or 2 shops to a city block, there are 3 or 4 or 10. People crowd the streets. There are mom-and-pop carnicerias, Mexican mercados, branches of Mexico City banks, shops of every description--even motels, lighted with neon flamingos and bursting with immigrants just arrived from the south.

Why does Watts decline as its neighbor rises? The reasons range from destructive welfare policies to the disintegration of traditional families to black flight to the suburbs. Equally important, though, is what L.A. sociologist Joel Kotkin calls "the Latin community of culture and language." Latinos shop at Latino stores, consult Latino doctors, hire Latinos, read L.A.'s 37 Spanish-language newspapers and listen to its 17 Spanish radio and TV stations. "Latinos have thrived," says Kotkin, "because they've kept their capital and community intact."

The measure of prosperity can be glimpsed still farther to the east, in Santa Fe Springs, heart of the overwhelmingly Latino third of the city known as East L.A. Once a working-class barrio like Lynwood, Santa Fe Springs now exudes middle-class affluence. New cars stand outside tidy bungalows; glass-and-steel offices and business parks dot the landscape. "Welcome to the new America," says Victor Valle, a professor at California Polytechnic. Places like Santa Fe Springs, he argues, will lead southern California's demographic transformation, and not merely by weight of numbers. As traditional industries decline-defense, chemicals, heavy manufacturing-a host of small and medium-size firms are growing up to take their place. Many are Latino-owned, others are relocating to East Los Angeles in search of reliable low-cost labor. "Latinos are California's emerging entrepreneurial class," says Valle. "We are engines for growth in the 21st century."

Not everyone thinks the future will be quite so bright. Time is one problem. For most immigrants, the leap from poverty to affluence can be measured in generations rather than decades. And the facts are clear: southern California's new immigrants, however hardworking, are almost uniformly poor and undereducated. The prospect is thus a rapidly rising population coupled with sharp declines in average regional income-with obvious implications for taxes, schools and social infrastructure.

Nor do southern California's ethnic groups easily coexist. As Latinos continue to move into traditionally African-American neighborhoods, racial tensions will rise. David Ayon, at the University of Southern California's California-Mexico Project, anticipates years of what he calls "low-intensity conflict," characterized by gang warfare, fire-bombings and, perhaps, riots similar to those of last spring. Moreover, Latinos will eventually demand-and get-political power in proportion to their numbers. Not only will they likely displace blacks, says Ayon; they will challenge Anglos and traditional elites for representation on everything from school boards and labor unions to the highest municipal offices.

That presumes another accommodation, for the Latino reconquista is less a political or economic phenomenon than a cultural one. Carlos Fuentes, the Mexican author and social historian, writes of the region's transformation in his recent book "The Buried Mirror." Mexico City and Los Angeles are the southern and northern poles of a cultural evolution, a meeting and melding of disparate civilizations. Southern California, he suggests, already beats with a "Hispanic pulse," evident in the arts, popular music, language and cuisine, and the ebb and flow of L.A. life. "We should rejoice in this culture we are creating together," says Fuentes, and no doubt he is right. Besides, the multitudes flocking across Highway 5 leave very little choice.

Debunking Immigration Myths A recent study predicts that Latinos could have a stabilizing effect on southern California. Population in LA. County 38% 11% 41% Traditional households (two parents with children) 43% 14% 16% Low-birth-weight babies 5.3% 13% 5.5% On welfare 12% Males in labor form 80.6% 66.7% 76.2% Life expectancy (in years) 79.4 68.7% 75.1% SOURCES: U.S. CENSUS, UCLA SCHOOL OF MEDICINE