The Complicated Future of Latino California

by | July 10, 2015

By Teresa Watanabe, Ruben Vives and Angel Jennings

Yolanda Garcia's grandparents migrated from Mexico and worked multiple jobs _ in farm fields and school cafeterias _ to save money to send all six children to college.

Garcia's father attended Brown University and had five children. In turn, she graduated from the University of California, Santa Cruz, worked as a teacher and now runs a gallery and boutique store in Whittier selling Latin American folklore art and other items.

Along the way, the family moved up the ladder, from South Los Angeles to the upscale Friendly Hills neighborhood of Whittier. They were the first Latinos in their immediate area. Now, there are four other Latino families there.

The Garcias' story represents a common California immigrant dream. But it's far from the reality for all Latinos, who the U.S. Census Bureau now says have surpassed non-Latino whites to become California's largest ethnic group.

The milestone is a reminder of the huge strides Latinos have made, but also of the challenges they still face.

Overall, Latinos have lower incomes, education and job skills than the average white Californian.

The Latino plurality is just a preview of the demographic shifts ahead. Latinos make up half of all Californians younger than 18, numbering 4.7 million compared with 2.4 million whites, according to census data.

This younger generation has a chance to close many of these gaps, with many achieving more than their parents.

A study published last year found that second-generation Mexican Americans in California and Texas had achieved more education, higher earnings, less poverty, more white-collar jobs and greater rates of home ownership than their immigrant parents. Only about 21 percent of Mexican parents had completed high school, for instance, compared with 80 percent of their children by 2005.

"It's extraordinary the progress that Latino youth have made relative to their parents, but they are still lagging behind," said University of Southern California professor Dowell Myers, one of the report's authors. "We need to recognize how important these people are and how urgent their success is for the well-being of everyone."

Marilyn Padilla represents the hope in this next generation.

She is the child of a Honduran immigrant mother who worked as a cocktail waitress and never attended school. Her father was deported before she was born. But Padilla stayed out of trouble growing up in L.A.'s Boyle Heights neighborhood and is now studying linguistics at UC Santa Cruz, with ambitions to become a Spanish teacher.

"We have come a long way, she said. "We are starting to put down the stereotypes about us. Now we are becoming equals, we are doing that for ourselves."

The Latino population surge is leading the way in what demographers call a "grand experiment" in making California the most dynamically diverse state in the nation's history.

That diversity, punctuated by a rapidly growing Asian population, could attract a "creative class" of younger, tech-savvy people able to boost California's leadership in cutting-edge industries, said Roberto Suro of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute at USC.

Already, signs of this emerging class can be seen in diverse, hip neighborhoods like Koreatown, Highland Park and downtown Los Angeles, he said.

"The openness, multicultural lifestyle attracts certain kinds of people," he said. "You could get a virtuous cycle going."

The Latino growth has already begun to reshape the state's politics, schools, economy and neighborhoods.

Latinos do not yet wield the political influence their numbers would suggest, since many do not vote. But the numbers are so large that the community wields clout outside of the ballot box.

In Compton, for instance, Latinos make up two-thirds of the city's population but less than 30 percent of registered voters, according to a lawsuit filed by three Latinas in 2010 alleging that the at-large election system diluted Latino voter power. The city subsequently changed its system, helping Isaac Galvan become the first Latino elected to the council in 2013.

Galvan, one of five children raised by a single mother, said he feels the pressure to speak for all those who cannot. Among other things, he pushed for a Spanish-language City Council agenda and a translator at all city events. He says attendance by Spanish-speaking residents has increased. The growing clout of Latino consumers has also drawn attention, with businesses such as Target Corp. unveiling campaigns to attract them. Nationally, Latino purchasing power has increased from $700 billion in 2000 to $1.3 trillion in 2015, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

Regarding education, the state in 2013 dramatically overhauled its school finance system to give more money to students who are low-income, learning English and in foster care, and voters approved a temporary tax hike to provide schools with an additional $7 billion. The additional funds are expected to help student achievement even more; statewide, Latinos have boosted their high school graduation rates to 76.4 percent in 2014 from 68.1 percent in 2010 and lowered their dropout rates to 14 percent from 20.8 percent during the same time period.

But they still haven't caught up with whites, whose graduation rate was 87.4 percent in 2014.

Latinos have also increased their college-going rates, although admissions to the University of California lagged behind rates for whites and Asians.

Across Los Angeles, Latinos say education and voting are key to their future.

Haydee Reyes, for instance, is part of the "uprising of the second generation," as she calls it _ young Latinos who move fluidly between Latin and American culture. She described her generation as college educated and sometimes politically conscious, but all living out the dreams of their parents.

Reyes' mother emigrated from Santa Ana, El Salvador, to escape a civil war in the 1980s. Her father and older sister followed a few years later. She said the language barrier and cultural differences made it difficult to perform everyday tasks such as asking for directions. But both her mother, a seamstress, and father, a pipe builder, emphasized the value of education. Reyes graduated from California State University, Northridge, and became a social worker.

As the Latino population grows, she said, she sees more Latinos in highly visible positions, which helps dispel negative perceptions of the group. "Slowly but surely the stigma of gang members, immigrants stealing jobs or just working in the fields is going away," said Reyes, 26. "We are now seen as public members in office and in agencies and local government. ... It's a wonderful thing. We are a voice that is being heard finally."

(Times staff writer Javier Panzar contributed to this report.)

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