Earlier this week, The Los Angeles Times ran a story on Downey that circulated widely on social media. The headline, later changed, was “Latinos Rising Fortunes Are Epitomized in Downey, the ‘Mexican Beverly Hills.’” Downey residents were interviewed to discuss the ways in which the city represents “upward mobility” for Latinos, people like Rick Rodriguez Sr., owner of California’s largest Latino-owned private security firm, Nick Velez, owner of Bastards, Valentin Flores, founder of Downey Art Vibe, and former mayor Mario Guerra. (Apparently, there are no Latinas prospering in Downey and words like “Latino” and “Mexican” are interchangeable.)
As a Latina of Mexican descent who was born and raised in Downey, I felt the familiar sting I always do as a person who has become accustomed to mainstream media cherry picking the stories they want to tell about Latinos and then more often than not, telling those stories poorly.
The Los Angeles Times piece was intended to be an affirmative article about the city, and there was a part of me grateful to see positive representations of Latinos in Downey who were shaping Downey’s future.
What overshadowed that pride was the sinking feeling that this is the way it will always be: We will always be divied up into those who are considered acceptable Latinos and those who are not; those who are worth being embraced by this country, and those who are not. Usually, both are dictated by a person’s willingness to assimilate and trumpet the virtues of the U.S., while slowly leaving both their culture and their willingness to discuss racism behind.
The Times article could have just been a case of a journalist, unfamiliar with the community they’re covering, getting the story wrong. In journalist Cindy Carcamo’s version of Downey, it’s a suburban utopia for Latinos who’ve obtained the American Dream and have been embraced by their community. End of story. I work in media and see journalists mess up all the time, failing to dig deeper and develop nuance, but I couldn’t dismiss the article. It grated on me.
For those of us who live outside of North Downey on the margins of the city, characterizing Downey as “Mexican Beverly Hills” is unfathomable. I live in a neighborhood where a few years ago, a two-year-old girl was shot. In my pocket of the city, it’s not unusual to see kids spend their weekends standing on street corners holding up signs featuring the faces of deceased friends or family members, asking passersby for money so they can cover their loved ones’ funeral expenses. I live where helicopters hover over head most weekends. Most of the the people who populate my neighborhood are the kind of hardworking folks who would commute into Beverly Hills as domestic workers, but they will never live in Beverly Hills or anywhere like it. I will always assert my portion of the city is just as beautiful as North Downey and that my Latino neighbors, who may never own homes or start their own businesses, are just as vital to our community as those who go on to do those things.
The more I thought about the Times article and the implications of it, the more upset I became. I turned to Facebook, asking former and current Downey residents to weigh in and share their thoughts. It was after exchanging messages with educator and writer, Mari Urrutia Gedney, that I was able to better articulate why I believe the article did more harm than help.
Gedney is a current Downey resident who serves on the board of the Downey Arts Coalition, and she knows the city well. Her family moved to Downey from Huntington Park when she was in second grade and to make the cost of that possible, they had a multi-generational home. She was upset by how strongly the Times implied that moving to a city like Downey, deemed in the article to be better than neighboring cities like Bell and South Gate, equals necessary assimilation and a sort of point of pride in being able to pass as something other than Latino. Gedney says in some cases, those things are done as a way for a person to keep themselves safe – and that’s valid, but without addressing the racism in Downey or the internalized racism of those looking to shed their Latino identity, how honest are we being about our city?
Like Gedney, I no longer read theeditorial page of the Patriot. The overt racism of white residents writing letters to the editor, almost always targeting Latinos and spewing vitriol around topics like immigration, became too aggravating and hurtful. Let’s not pretend this racism only exists in the pages of a newspaper.
If you’ll recall, it was Downey residents upset by a new supermarket considering a Spanish name. So much pressure was placed on the owner that he opted out of using Spanish. This is the same city where white residents angrily addressed then-Mayor Guerra for his honest opinion as to why Trader Joe’s continuously refused to open a location in Downey, despite years of courting. “We’re not white enough or rich enough for them,” he said. All hell broke loose because here, it seems, we like to pretend that race isn’t an issue.
But it is.
Downey is the same city where my dad has been called a “wetback” standing in his own front yard. People of color friends of mine have been pulled over by Downey police officers at gunpoint for routine traffic stops. As a contributor to the Patriot, yes, I’ve written about the revitalization of Downtown Downey, which is primarily being spearheaded by young people of color, but I’ve also covered the killing of Michael Nida, the unarmed Latino father of four who was shot multiple times in the back with a submachine gun by Downey Officer Steve Gilley for a robbery Nida did not commit.
It was after a series of stories about Nida that I received a private letter from an elderly Latino man who had spent a bulk of his life in Downey. The letter detailed the multiple instances of racism he’d experienced living in our city. When I called him, asking how I could help, he simply said, “I just wanted you to know this isn’t a new thing here.” These things don’t happen in Beverly Hills, and they certainly don’t happen to white people.
It’s important to remember that numbers don’t always mean power and honestly, power doesn’t always mean power. There are many Downey residents who surely feel that because Barack Obama is president, racism is over. The Black Lives Matter movement tells us otherwise. Because Latinos make up the bulk of the population in Downey and because three of our five council members are Latino, doesn’t mean that “upward mobility” or the American Dream are a possibility – or an aspiration – for all Latinos in the city. And please, let’s stop pretending there is one Latino Experience. Some of us are much more privileged than others, depending on our countries of origin, our family’s number of years in this country, our citizenship status, our skin color, etc.
Gedney, who has appeared on the cover of the Times for her writing and educational work, told me that the most offensive part of the article was how the use of the phrase “Mexican Beverly Hills” makes the rest of Downey's population invisible, not important enough to address or talk about. I can’t help but think that’s how Downey would prefer it. If we talk about the Latinos who haven’t “made it”, we’ll have to talk about some of the reasons why. Downey clearly isn’t ready to have that conversation.