Demographic Change: Race-based tensions rock Downey

Life for the first middle-class Mexican Americans in Downey was shaped by their place as the demographic minority. To avoid race-based tensions, they took to an assimilated civic identity that emphasized “Americanness” in public.

Part 5 of a 7-part series. Read parts 1, 2, 3 and 4.

The previous two installments in this series have shown just how middle-class Mexican Americans did so: first through “Americanness” in business, language, and politics; then by metropolitan Mexicanness in private and public spaces. The assimilated civic identity had, in times of stable demographics, sufficed to prevent race-based tensions. But the rapidity of demographic change that started in 1988 disrupted this equilibrium.

In this week’s installment, I will narrate some of the more uncomfortable episodes in this series. Before I do so, I wish to reiterate the utility of thinking through and talking about difficult periods in history. I discuss these events to recognize their existence, not to place blame on any one group. To be silent about these events may be easier, but silence is a form of historical amnesia. Furthermore, talking about racial tensions in the early 1990s enables us to fully appreciate the community-building made by the end of the millennium.

These episodes were neither anomalous nor unique to Downey. Rather, this period of tension in the early 1990s fits into a broader context of racial unease in the United States, punctuated by two sensational Los Angeles trials.

In 1991, two California Highway Patrol (CHP) officers tried to pull Rodney King over for reckless driving. Fearing a violation of his parole, King attempted to evade CHP. He was eventually stopped by several Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officers, who then brutalized him during his arrest. Footage captured by a passerby captivated newscast audiences, and when a trial jury acquitted the four officers, rioters took to the streets.

Three years later, the “Trial of the Century” again brought race to the forefront of Angeleno consciousness when lawyers for O.J. Simpson argued that the LAPD framed Simpson, a Black man, for murder. The televised trial became a popular spectacle, and Simpson’s legal team argued in front of the American public that the same man who said “I’m not Black, I’m O.J.” was discriminated against because of his skin color. It was from this milieu that the corresponding episodes in Downey grew out of.

Ironically, this story begins with a newspaper series on Latinos/as/xs in Downey not unlike my own. In 1985, the Southeast News, by then the remaining local newspaper, ceased production due to a lack of funds. For nearly a decade, Downey residents could only access local news through a subsection of the Los Angeles Times.

However, in 1993, a newspaper printing group started the Downey Eagle to resume local coverage. The Eagle’s first editor, John Adams, boldly introduced a column on Mexican Americans in the first issue of the nascent paper. Adams’s coverage was neutral and even supportive of the Mexican Americans, calling them “a welcomed addition” who would “benefit or at least maintain the city.”

In many ways, Adams’s commentary merely continued the white residents’ tolerance of Mexican Americans who matched their civic practices. In others, though, the column was newly progressive. Articles like “Some [economic] gains, and more on the way,” “Latino Growth: Downey a city facing changes,” and “Number of elected Latinos increase in US, Downey,” presented Mexican Americans as social equals to their white counterparts. Adams stressed that “Downey is a middle-class community…and most of the people who come here are business people who can afford to live here.” Adams noted the similar interests, such as that “Latinos move to Downey because of the good schools, safe streets, and superior law enforcement—the same reason most Anglos reside here.” The city had its own newspaper for the first time in a decade—albeit one where the editor highlighted a source of unease for the white community.

But the 1990s were different times than the 1980s. For one, racial tension permeated throughout metropolitan Los Angeles, as I mentioned above. The white community was equally uneasy for another reason. After the 1988 latent white flight, the remaining whites were generally poorer than their middle-class co-ethnics who left. In 1990, whites in Downey earned less than whites throughout Los Angeles and Orange Counties by $2,200 and $3,500, respectively; by 2000, the gap widened to $9,000 compared to whites in both counties.

While some whites sold their homes and left, working-class whites stayed in Downey by necessity. Some white residents felt left behind in their communities—not as demographic holdouts, but rather as forgotten remnants of an earlier time in Downey. They were especially perceptive of demographic change and felt trapped. So they turned to the newspapers to voice their concern for the community.

Adams’s series drew criticism from both Mexican American and Anglo residents. One Mexican American woman, for example, expressed distaste for being labeled Latina, preferring instead to be referred to as American. Specifically, “she said she was not thought of as a Latina by the Anglo community, and didn’t want to be.” The woman, who chose to remain anonymous, called the column useless and feared that it would divide the community in two camps based on white or Mexican heritage.

In the same article, she referred to other Latinos/as/xs by the derogatory term “beaners.” Her contempt for the series stemmed from a primacy of the civic—and not ethnic—identity. In being a new steward of the community, she chose to associate herself with terms that suggested her similarities to white neighbors—and avoid the stereotypes associated with “Mexican” neighbors.

OJ Simpson supporters in 1995.

OJ Simpson supporters in 1995.

Some white residents, though, made those exact associations and overestimated the differences between themselves and the middle-class Mexican Americans. Some especially prolific writers took to the op-eds to voice their displeasure with the series (and demographic change in general). Kay Williams was one such writer.

Williams was a retiree who lived in Downey since before its incorporation. By the time Williams began writing in 1994, whites had fallen under fifty percent of the city’s population for the first time in its history. Williams’s first op-ed spewed racial invective and called attention to the un-assimilability of Mexican Americans. Williams associated Mexican Americans—regardless of economic background—with gangs, graffiti, lower school standards, and an imperiled quality of life. Williams maintained that there was no hope for cultural reconciliation or assimilation by the Mexican Americans as “[w]e Anglos are raised, and live by certain standards of life, and certain values of life—and the Latinos do not, and thus the difference, and the conflict!”

Williams’s first op-ed then argued for residential self-segregation, mused if the local shopping mall was a part of Mexico, and pondered a ban on the Spanish language. Just as “lions live with lions, tigers with tigers, birds with birds, elephants with elephants. Shouldn’t Anglos at least have the option to live with other Anglos if they wish?”

The op-ed flattened and caricatured Mexican Americans, mostly by ignoring class background, differing levels of social capital, generations removed from immigration, and other factors that informed Mexican Americans self-identities. To Williams, a Mexican American could not and did not want to assimilate to American culture. This was the exact racial stereotype that the assimilationist middle-class Mexican Americans challenged in earlier years by cultivating their civic identity.

Williams held extreme views, but others agreed with the basic premises of the argument. Many whites exaggerated the un-assimilability of Mexican Americans, especially with references to publicly spoken Spanish. One writer opined: “I just want to say ‘kudos’ to Kay Williams’ letter to the editor of last week. She [sic] spoke out and said what a majority of Americans feel.”

Another resident moderated Williams’s claims, but agreed with the dangers that a Mexican American community could pose to property values. She gave the example of Huntington Park, which underwent white flight soon after the Watts Riots. This writer reasoned that “Huntington Park was once the white upper middle-class community…and we all know what happened there when Latinos moved in. Many people now residing in Downey fled that city and remember what took place. Do you blame them for being concerned?”

Williams’s supporters fed into stereotypes of Mexican American neighbors, despite the civic identity middle-class Mexican Americans portrayed. Whereas similarities in civic profiles created community cohesion in the 1980s, white residents in the early 1990s perceived fundamental differences between themselves and their new neighbors. Few were as extreme as Williams, but many believed in the differences.

A handful of white residents moderated the anti-Mexican rhetoric. Peter Lago wrote to the Eagle to suggest the similarities between the middle-class whites and Mexican Americans in economic makeup, home-owning practices, and especially Judeo-Christian ethics. Lago’s Christian ethos emphasized that if members of the white community professed themselves to be Children of God, they would be remiss to “espouse the philosophy of bigots” and not “reconcile their actions and thoughts with the tenets of Christianity or Judaism or any other good-faith religion purporting to follow a good and righteous God.”

Lago also criticized the proponents of white flight, questioning how anyone could claim to love their community but promptly abandon it. In a sense, Lago more closely resembled the middle-class white community who lived in Downey before demographic change where, so long as their neighbors resembled them as members of the civic community, ethnic differences were marginal concerns. Through all the responses to Adams’s editorial, white voices like Lago were few and far between.

Some Latino/a/x residents responded to Williams with equal vitriol. One Cuban American wrote to second Williams’s distaste for bilingual education, but then wrote that Williams was misguided in blaming Latinos/as/xs for a “societal degradation of values.” A Mexican American woman went further and reciprocated Williams’s race-based vitriol by claiming that “I have seen many white trash in my 23 years in this country…People like Kay Williams are a disgrace to this community. Ms. [sic] Williams, if you are so unhappy in Downey, move to Iowa, I’ll be happy to buy you a one-way ticket out of here!” Comments like these, whether in print or in person, suggested that the race-based divisions of Los Angeles existed in Downey at the time of demographic change.

Tension especially thrived in the high schools, where students self-segregated their social circles by ethnicity. Agitated students ignited a race riot at Downey High School in June 1993 when an unidentified student threw a banana peel at a group of Black students and yelled a pregnant racial epithet. Black and white students hurled food at each other before the melee turned violent. Downey High administrators called in the Downey Police, who dispatched officers to quell the fracas. Upon seeing the first Downey Police officers, some students began to throw food and soda cans at the officers and their patrol cars. By the end of the day, one student was arrested and eight others were suspended.

In the classroom, one teacher, Dolores Neria, witnessed several instances of offhand racist remarks by white students. Once, while supervising the in-class suspension students, Neria noticed a white student reading Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. She asked if he was reading the book for a European history class, to which the student responded that the book was his “Bible.” She asked him to explain what he meant, but he became irritated and responded, “you know, you’re trying to talk to me here, and all I think you’re good for is picking strawberries,” despite her being of Spanish, not Mexican, ancestry (as the stereotype goes).

Another teacher, Bernie Glasser, recalled multiple students who ascribed to white supremacy. Glasser, who coached the junior varsity baseball team, noticed that the white students in a 1990s team picture aligned their bats to resemble a “W,” one symbol of the White Power movement. Another student showed Glasser, who is Jewish, a picture of himself as a young child dressed in the robe and hood of the Ku Klux Klan, which his parents were members of.

In 1994, two white males at Downey High claimed to belong to the Klan and planned to bring guns to campus and kill the Mexican American and Black students. Investigators found “White Power” slogans written throughout their textbooks. These and other racial divisions rocked the city in the early 1990s. Whereas previous residents emphasized class interests and similarities, contemporary conditions in metropolitan Los Angeles pushed questions of race to the forefront of public consciousness.

Community groups realized that peace lay in commonalities, not differences. A group of residents formed the Advocated for Multicultural Harmony (AMCH) in 1993 to promote pan-ethnic solidarity through civic interests. Most similarities emphasized home-owning practices and membership in the American home-owning middle class.

AMCH began with an open meeting in August 1994 and invited residents to write down their concerns about the community and offer solutions. The two most common obstacles that residents identified were prejudice and stereotypes. But the experiment also revealed overwhelming commonalities: both whites and Mexican Americans prioritized issues like cleanliness, property values, discipline, respect for the elders, education, and neighborliness, to name a few. Essentially, AMCH invited all groups to articulate their class interests, prioritized in the name of civic community-building. AMCH sponsored programming to unite residents of different ethnic backgrounds and promote these shared values. Cleanups, house paintings, and other activities hosted by AMCH began to re-emphasize collective civic interests.

While Kay Williams called for whites to leave (and others countered with “go back to Iowa”), AMCH advocated for class-based multiculturalism in Downey. To that end, AMCH also promoted the stories of Mexican Americans who shared the same civic identity as white residents. AMCH profiled Connie Sziebl, a local politician who was born in Mexico, grew up in Downey, and worked for Republican Congressman Steve Horn. Sziebl spoke English, promoted assimilation, and spoke of civic interests. Her work for Horn, beloved by the white and Latino/a/x communities alike, also endeared her to Downey residents.

The central message of AMCH was that homeownership bridged ethnic differences between middle-class whites and Mexican Americans in Downey, and worked to bridge the perceived cultural gap between the two groups during the early years of the 1990s. AMCH sought to unite the community by promoting a civic identity based on safe streets, strong public schools, and high property values.

These became the pillars of the civic identity espoused by incoming middle-class Mexican Americans to protect their quality of life. Demographic change coincided with novel challenges throughout the 1990s, and the civic identity offered solutions. Race-based tension was one problem; fluctuating property values were another. How Mexican Americans responded to that will be the subject of my next installment.

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

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