Demographic Change: Keeping Downey the “White Spot” Post-Watts

Last week I wrote about the legal and extralegal means that segregated most Mexican Americans into a central Downey barrio.

Part 2 of a 7-part series. Read part 1.

I made the point that throughout the mid-twentieth century, Mexican Americans were as undereducated, blue-collar, and working-class as their counterparts throughout southeast Los Angeles. That, combined with the race-restrictive covenants, should alone have excluded Mexican Americans by both race and class from selective middle-class suburban neighborhoods.

But while nearby suburbs transformed into minority-majority suburbs following the Watts Riots of 1965, one simple factor froze Downey’s demographic profile: a cold real estate market. This week, I will show that there was little turnover, in large part, because the white homeowners in 1965 scarcely felt the effects of demographic change in the same way as did their counterparts in Compton, Bell Gardens, and South Gate.

I’ll end this essay by discussing how Spanish-speaking realtors began to thaw the frozen markets and sold homes to the first middle-class Mexican Americans.

The southeast Los Angeles of midcentury differed drastically from the southeast Los Angeles of today. Cities like South Gate, Downey, and Pico Rivera all have similar origins as farming communities. The post-World-War-II period inaugurated rapid suburban expansion in metropolitan Los Angeles as veterans returned home and migrants moved in from the eastern states.

Armed with preferable home loans from the Federal Housing Administration and the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act (known as the GI Bill), veterans and citizens were able to purchase homes in newly built suburban tracts. Many of these tracts were developed with race-restrictive covenants built in, as last week’s essay showed. This, among other reasons, meant that in 1960, most census tracts in southeast Los Angeles had between 90 and 98 percent white populations.

The map below visualizes the contemporary demographic makeup.

Division between “non-Puerto Rican surname” and “Puerto Rican surname,” which were the census categories used in 1960 to differentiate between what we would today think of as non-Latino/a/x and Latino/a/x. In this map, green signals a white demographic majority, with darker green meaning a larger majority.)  Note that East Los Angeles had the largest contemporary Mexican American population in metropolitan Los Angeles, but that Mexican Americans scarcely made up the majority in any other census tract. Black communities made up less than two percent of nearly every tract to the west of Alameda Street, and are therefore not represented in this map.  Map created on Social Explorer using census data.

Division between “non-Puerto Rican surname” and “Puerto Rican surname,” which were the census categories used in 1960 to differentiate between what we would today think of as non-Latino/a/x and Latino/a/x. In this map, green signals a white demographic majority, with darker green meaning a larger majority.)

Note that East Los Angeles had the largest contemporary Mexican American population in metropolitan Los Angeles, but that Mexican Americans scarcely made up the majority in any other census tract. Black communities made up less than two percent of nearly every tract to the west of Alameda Street, and are therefore not represented in this map.

Map created on Social Explorer using census data.


Though racially similar, the suburbs of southeast Los Angeles differed by class. White households in most southeast Los Angeles census tracts outside of Downey had a median income between $5,000 and $5,999 (in 1960 USD).

In Downey, white households had a median income of between $9,000 and $9,999 (in 1960 USD). Most southeast Los Angeles suburbs were like South Gate: blue-collar, white, working-class suburbs. August 1965 marked the end of that demographic era.

On August 11, 1965, Los Angeles police offers stopped Marquette Frye, who was Black, for reckless driving. The traffic stop turned confrontational when Frye’s mother came out from her nearby home and scolded her son. The commotion attracted the attention of passersby, and violence ensued when the police officers became violent with Frye.

The Black community of Los Angeles, long subjected to residential segregation, limited economic opportunities informed by racial ideologies of Black intelligence and motivation, and interpersonal discrimination, took to the streets. Six days of rioting, looting, and police-citizen confrontations ensued in south and south-central Los Angeles.

This stoked fears among homeowners in southeast Los Angeles. In Compton, residents formed a quasi-paramilitary blockade on Alameda Street to prevent looters and rioters from entering. In South Gate, armed residents watched from their roofs as smoke billowed nearby, waiting for chaos to creep closer to them. These community blockades largely prevented the commotion from seeping into the southeastern suburbs.

But in Downey, white residents felt the riots differently. Homeowners prepared their firearms, but otherwise only needed to remain vigilant. A group of white teenagers, sensing the gravity of the situation, formed vigilante squads and drove through neighborhoods with their parents’ firearms. This turned into recreational mischief as no threat materialized.

Two carloads of teenagers were brought into the police station late on the night of August 15 and had their weapons confiscated. The only vandalism was to a sign in downtown Downey that urged passersby to support the local police department. Though Watts sustained serious damage to life and property, Downey residents were peppered only by groundless rumors of looting.


The extent of damage sustained in Downey during the Watts Riots. Courtesy of the Downey Historical Society.

The extent of damage sustained in Downey during the Watts Riots. Courtesy of the Downey Historical Society.

When the smoke settled, the unrest began. White families with the means to do so packed their bags and initiated the dramatic short-distance migration that remade southeast Los Angeles: white flight. Except for the white residents of Downey, who did not feel demographic pressures in the same way as their counterparts nearby.

The limited effects of the Watts Riots are but one reason for this difference. Of great significance, white residents retained extensive control over their community. Downey had its own municipal school district, police department, fire department, and city council. Most public functions were controlled either by residents or by politicians who shared residents’ sensibilities.

The municipal school district, for example, successfully resisted school integration by busing after the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954). In 1978 when surrounding cities, including suburbs with schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District, began announcing desegregation plans, Downey Unified Superintendent Manuel Gallegos came out against metropolitan busing proposals. An assistant superintendent then authored a study finding that the school district did not meet California and federal thresholds for school segregation. (This was based on a technicality where most DUSD schools hovered slightly below the state and federal markers on minority-enrollment imbalance. DUSD, being an independent body, could draw its own boundaries—a gerrymandering of sorts—to evenly distribute minority enrollment and stay below the governmental imbalance floors.)

Local fire and police departments were also a source of security and pride for residents. City planners calculated that local fire and police departments offered more responsiveness at lower costs. This differed from the popular “Lakewood Plan” of incorporation, where cities contracted county sheriff and fire services to keep municipal taxes low. The responsive police department enforced safety in times of peace and turmoil. During the Watts Riots, for example, the police hotline answered every call it received from fearful residents. The police chief also deployed extra officers to Downey’s southwestern border without sacrificing the security of other neighborhoods because of its local jurisdiction. The responsiveness of fire, police, and school services undergirded contemporary preferences for “local control.”

By contrast, white residents of Compton left en masse because of the perceived loss of local control. Having an integrated school district, a growing number of middle-class Black neighbors, and the violence in Watts convinced white homeowners that they were losing control of their community. Blockbusting exacerbated these concerns, as opportunistic realtors flipped houses quickly and warned the remaining white residents that their property values would drop precipitously if they did not sell their homes soon. In South Gate, white homeowners shared many of the same experiences with an integrated school district and increasing number of minority neighbors. The working-class families of South Gate had less resources to move out quickly, but those who could afford to move did so. In both cities, white homeowners took their businesses with them, vacating many of the retail storefronts that formed the backbone of municipal tax bases.

By 1980, only 15 years after Watts, the demographics of southeast Los Angeles had changed. White residents made up only 33, 22, and 38 percent of Bell Gardens, Pico Rivera, and South Gate, respectively, in 1980. Compton experienced the most dramatic change, where whites had gone from nearly 85 percent in 1960 to 3 percent of residents in 1980. Most of these families moved to suburban Orange County or Simi Valley, which offered the same suburban lifestyle as southeast Los Angeles without the incoming Black and Mexican American neighbors.


Division between “Persons of Spanish Origin” and “White, not of Spanish Origin,” which were the census categories used in 1980 to differentiate between what we would today think of as Latino/a/x and non-Latino/a/x, respectively. Like the last map, green signals a white demographic majority, with darker green meaning a larger majority. Note the spread of blue in most southeast Los Angeles suburbs. Map created using Social Explorer using census data.

Division between “Persons of Spanish Origin” and “White, not of Spanish Origin,” which were the census categories used in 1980 to differentiate between what we would today think of as Latino/a/x and non-Latino/a/x, respectively. Like the last map, green signals a white demographic majority, with darker green meaning a larger majority. Note the spread of blue in most southeast Los Angeles suburbs. Map created using Social Explorer using census data.

Between 1965 and 1970, though, Downey neighborhoods had among the highest percentages in southeast Los Angeles of houses with no homeowner turnover. By the 1970s, race restrictive covenants no longer restricted Mexican American (or Black) homebuyers. Rather, there was little turnover because of a cold sellers’ market in Downey. This was, in part, due to the age of Downey homeowners: only six to twelve percent of most neighborhood residents in Downey were over sixty-five, meaning that few were in retirement age. In the midst of paying their mortgages with few retirements in sight, most homeowners were there to stay. By 1980, whites still made up 78 percent of residents in 1980.

Despite little turnover, middle-class Mexican Americans desired Downey homes. For families, perceptions of less crime and better schools made Downey an ideal place to raise children. Even for those without children, moving to Downey made financial sense. Downey homes were capital that would remain stable and, over time, appreciate in value. Living in Downey would also create the opportunity for entrepreneurs to bring in their businesses and sell to middle-class consumers. Essentially, if race-based differences could be avoided, Downey held the same allure for middle-class Mexican Americans as it did for the white residents. An assimilated civic identity opened the gates to suburban life in Downey, and realtors held the keys.

A handful of Spanish-speaking realtors first made Downey homes available to some middle-class Mexican Americans in the late 1970s. Of great importance, these transactions weeded out homebuyers unable to match the civic identity of their white neighbors. All realtors in Downey abided by guidelines from the Greater Downey Board of Realtors. The Code of Ethics stipulated that realtors were “not to be instrumental in introducing any undesirable [emphasis mine] elements into the neighborhood.”

In practice, this language was the remnant of the FHA conflation of minority neighbors with low property values (which I discussed in last week’s essay). After the 1948 Supreme Court decision in Shelley v. Kraemer, which ruled the race-restrictive covenants unenforceable, realtors responded and turned race-restrictive language into property-values-protective language. This meant that the first Spanish-speaking realtors juggled two competing interests: their personal interests in selling to Mexican American families, and their professional interests in accessing the lucrative commercial and residential properties in Downey. To negotiate between the two interests, relators became the gatekeepers of Downey neighborhoods. When showing homes outside of the central barrio, then, the Spanish-speaking realtors preferred nuclear families that matched the home-owning customs and practices of the white majority. These are the roots of the assimilated civic identity that has shaped Downey’s demographic change. The restricted pool of homebuyers needed to reflect the restricted pool of available homes.

The first real estate firm to advertise Spanish-speaking realtors was the Triangle Real Estate Company, a local franchise of Century 21. Triangle was the first company I saw that advertised their Spanish-speaking realtors in 1978 local advertisements that said “se habla español.” This did not indicate that Triangle sold home to recent immigrants with limited English proficiency; this would have risked their realtors’ access to Downey listings. Triangle listed some homes in the barrio, but most were in former-race-restricted areas, even in the ritzy northeastern neighborhoods. For every “great economy starter,” Triangle listed a “beautiful Spanish stucco.”

Instead, Triangle advertised “se habla español” to signal respectful transactions for qualified middle-class Mexican Americans. In fact, few realtors spoke Spanish at all with their Spanish-speaking customers. One longtime resident recalled how her mother-in-law, who was Cuban and not Mexican American, proclaimed herself to be the first Spanish-speaking realtor to sell homes in Downey in the 1970s. (Her claim to being the first could be false, but is irrelevant to her function as a transformative agent in this history.) Spanish was not the transactional language. Rather, the realtor’s Spanish-speaking communicated that if Mexican Americans wanted to be taken seriously as customers, and here I quote from the interview I conducted:

[t]hey had someone to talk to and trust, and build a relationship with…[I]f you were primarily Spanish-speaking or just, you know, having a connection, a familia, you know, you feel “this person is, I can trust this person, and they understand me. Literally, they understand me, and I understand them. All this paper work they’re making me sign, they’re explaining it to me and the process of buying a home.”

Spanish-speaking realtors found a niche. By 1980, four real estate firms (three of which belonged to Century 21) advertised “se habla español.” For example, Ed Estrella bought his own home in Downey in the early 1980s from a Spanish-speaking realtor named Mrs. Barajas. Rito Calderón, a Mexican immigrant who owned liquor stores in other southeastern cities, also purchased his north Downey home from a Mexican American realtor in 1983.

For an interested Mexican American homebuyer, buying from a Mexican American (or other Latino/a/x) realtor offered some comfort and familiarity. This endowed upon Spanish-speaking realtors a gatekeeper-type role. To comply with the Code of Ethics, Spanish-speaking realtors needed to avoid introducing “undesirable” elements. To do so required the Spanish-speaking realtor to restrict the listings in middle-class neighborhoods to middle-class Mexican Americans who could match the civic identity of their Anglo neighbors. The realtor also explicated the homebuyer’s fit with the community. Their understanding of the neighborhood allowed them to communicate to the prospective homebuyer what the expectations were of an incoming resident. In practice, this translated to realtors ensuring that the prospective homebuyers would display conformity with the home-owning norms and practices of the Anglo neighbors. This step of the transaction ensured that middle-class Mexican Americans understood and complied with the behavioral norms and matched the civic identity of their neighbors.

This demonstrated how suburban racism depended on stereotypes about ethnic minorities. Stereotypical Mexican American neighbors would, in the racist imagination, comport with the homeowning customs and practices that were associated with, say, East Los Angeles. They would, the logic went, change their motor oil on their lawns, or house three families under one roof, or transplant gang activity and drug dealing to new suburban neighborhoods. For white residents in nearby Compton, South Gate, and other suburbs, fear of these stereotypes compelled families to pack up and move to Orange County.

But in Downey, white residents kept impressive levels of local control; this helped create a figurative buffer between themselves and the pressures of demographic change in the nearby suburbs. Unlike blockbusters in Compton and elsewhere, Spanish-speaking realtors in Downey did not play into the racial ideology of a stereotypical Mexican American neighbor. These stereotypes informed the notion of the very “undesirable elements” that Downey realtors were obliged to “not be instrumental in introducing.”

But by placing middle-class Mexican American families in neighborhoods where their homeowning practices defied those stereotypes, Spanish-speaking realtors avoided punishment or pushback by the Board of Realtors, and, to a large part, the white neighbors themselves. It was these realtors who opened the doors for Mexican Americans to selective suburban neighborhoods—as long as they matched a specific type of “Americanized” profile. I will describe that in next week’s essay.

G. Aron Ramirez can be contacted at aron dot ramirez at yale dot edu.

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