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The Boston Globe

Black Enclaves See Latino Influx Recent Arrivals Vie With Longtime Residents For Voice

By Cindy Rodriguez, Globe Staff

May 4, 2003
Copyright © 2003
Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved. 

LOS ANGELES - Along the gritty streets of Watts, where families curled on mattresses outside their burned-out homes in the wake of the 1965 Watts Riots, renewal is unfolding. Last year, The Bounty Hunters and three other local gangs put down their AK-47s and called a truce. Jordan High School, which had one working bathroom for its 2,500 students, is under renovation.

But the biggest change in Watts can be heard in the voices of children walking home from school. They speak Spanglish, a free mixing of English and Spanish.

Watts - the site of six days of rioting that left the indelible phrase "Burn, Baby, Burn" on the American consciousness - is now majority Latino. Same goes for nearby Compton, home of Snoop Dogg and the birthplace of gangsta rap. And, New York's Harlem, a mecca of black culture, is now 42 percent Latino.

But the influx of Latinos has created friction in these longtime African-American majority enclaves. While many blacks have left neighborhoods like Watts for the suburbs, those who remain wonder why conditions don't improve, and Latinos become a scapegoat. Mexican immigrants in public housing complexes in Watts say black children beat Mexican youths without provocation, a claim blacks reject. Still, the immigrants see a better life here, and every day, it seems, a new family moves in, adding to the tensions.

Caught in the middle are long- time black elected officials such as Representative Maxine Waters, a Democrat, who has to embrace the new group as well as African-Americans who are her core voters. Among political analysts, it is said that once a district becomes more than 60 percent Latino, residents are more likely to elect someone who shares their ethnicity. Already, Latino leaders complain that Waters is not as outspoken as they'd like her to be.

"She has not been out there on leadership issues affecting Latinos, even though one out of every two constituents she has is Latino," said Harry Pachon, president of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, a nonprofit think tank. "Her constituents have had naturalization fees rise from $45 to $300, a 600 percent increase during a time when the Consumer Price Index has gone up 52 percent during the same period, 1989 to 2003.

"It's pricing citizenship out of the reach of Latinos. But I've never heard Maxine Waters protest that."

Waters was concerned enough about the changing demographics of her district that, during the redistricting process, she contacted Michael Berman, the architect who redrew California congressional boundaries. In 2001, at Waters's urging, Berman helped reconfigure the district so that it lost 27,000 Latinos. The district, which had become 54 percent Latino was suddenly 47 percent Latino, about 13 percentage points below the "tipping point" of 60 percent.

"When you have a small population, and particularly when they don't vote, it's easy to ignore them. But when they start to become 25, 30 percent of the population, political survival requires that they [politicians] pay attention," said Larry Gonzalez, the Washington, D.C., office director of the National Association for Latino Elected and Appointed officials, a nonprofit organization.

That might explain why Representative Charles Rangel, a New York Democrat who represents Harlem, urged the US military to end bombing exercises in Vieques, an island near Puerto Rico.

And why Representative Sheila Jackson-Lee, a Houston Democrat, has sponsored dozens of bills that help immigrants.

Throughout the country, African-American neighborhoods are turning majority Latino, 2000 Census results show, as poor immigrants from Latin America settle into the most affordable neighborhoods and Latinos overtake blacks as the largest minority group in America. The Latino explosion created 45 congressional districts that are a third or more Latino. Six are represented by black members of Congress, including Rangel and Juanita Millender- McDonald of Long Beach, Calif., who, like Waters, represents a majority Latino district.

While many minorities remain underrepresented by elected officials, Latino leaders such as Hector Flores, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, often look at the number of black members of Congress as a benchmark. They wonder why, if Latinos are the largest minority group, they have only 24 members in Congress compared with 37 blacks.

They figure that since the Latino population is slightly larger than the black population, they probably should have as many representatives in Congress.

But much of the Latino population is younger, and young adults have lower voter turnout rates. Also, a large segment of the Latino population are not citizens and aren't eligible to vote. The voting rate breaks down this way: 60.4 percent of white adults reported they voted in 2000, compared with 53.5 percent of blacks, and 27.5 percent of Latinos.

Still, many Latinos say they don't want to wait for their share of the pie.

"A lot of the leaders in the Latino community are saying, `It's our turn.' And on the other side, you hear blacks saying, `They're taking our jobs. They're moving in on us,' " said Tim Watkins, 49, an African-American who runs the Watts Labor Community Action Committee, a nonprofit community development corporation. "We've been pitted against each other."

Arturo Ybarra, chief executive of the Watts Century Organization Youth Opportunities Movement, said there would be no need for Latinos to talk about "their turn" if there were more programs and organizations that helped them. His organization is the only one in South Central Los Angeles that caters to Latinos, he says.

"No one is advocating for us," Ybarra said. "That's why we're advocating for ourselves."

Elsewhere, that hasn't been the case. In Boston, there hasn't been much black-Latino tension partly because the Latino population is just 15 percent of the city's population compared with the 25 percent who are black. If anything, the two groups tend to work more closely in Boston, just as they do in New York City. That's because Latinos on the East Coast are mostly from the Caribbean, many sharing African roots with blacks.

Analysts say even if Latinos see themselves as being underrepresented in Congress, they do have a voice in African- American members of Congress.

Those representatives support issues that are important to most Latinos: affordable housing, aid for minority schoolchildren, and affirmative action programs.

Jackson-Lee, the Houston representative whose district's Latino population doubled from 15.3 percent in 1990 to 33.4 percent in 2000, has long supported immigrant rights. As the ranking member of the Immigration Claims Subcommittee, she has sponsored dozens of bills related to helping immigrants, including a 1999 bill she cosponsored that would have granted amnesty to more than 1 million undocumented immigrants. And much of her constituency service includes helping immigrants navigate the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, formerly the INS.

In a similar way, national black and Latino organizations work on behalf of each other. Historically black organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People have made strong efforts to recruit Latino members. The Urban League has taken up the cause of police brutality toward Latino residents.

"Being the largest kid on the block only means we're going to have great challenges, but we believe strongly in working together with African-Americans, Asians, and others," said Flores of the league of Latin American citizens, the oldest Latino civil rights group in the country.

"We're compatible in the things we are seeking: equal opportunities, better education for our children, the right to buy a home, affirmative action, justice."

But the two groups split when it comes to immigration issues, support for bilingual education, and interest in increasing trade with Latin America. African-Americans tend to be neutral when it comes to the North American Free Trade Agreement, which lifted US trade barriers with Mexico and Canada.

Proposition 187, the California ballot question passed in 1994 that sought to cut off non-emergency services to undocumented immigrants, is a prime example of the differing political interests between blacks and Latinos, as the number of blacks who favored the proposition exceeded the number of Latinos.

But another big issue is patronage appointments to county commissions, who influence the hiring and acceptance of bids, and decide how money is spent in city neighborhoods. Many of those positions are still held by blacks, irking Latinos who wonder why they're not as well represented.

"In Watts, you have public institutions, like hospitals, where the clientele is mostly Latino but the administrators are mostly African-American," said Rafael Sonenshein, a political scientist at California State University at Fullerton. "And Latinos start asking why."

Quentin Drew, an African-American who grew up in Watts, calls that thinking "the old-school way."

"Everyone is looking for a reason why we're not rising, and so they look to the person next to them and blame him," said Drew, artistic director of the Watts Village Theater Co. "We have to learn to come together."

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