On Race, Class, and a New Millennium: A Conclusion

The 1990s in Downey were fraught with uncertainty. A rapidly changing demographic profile, a national recession, racial tensions, and fluctuating property values preoccupied leaders and residents alike. The incoming middle-class Mexican Americans were no longer seeking to affirm their place in the formerly-restricted suburb, but were rather looking to uphold the middle-class reputation that attracted them to it in the first place.

Part 7 of a 7-part series. Read parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6.

As I discussed last week, the middle-class Mexican Americans took to the assimilated civic identity to do just that—even in the absence of a white demographic majority. The civic identity of the 1990s prioritized the “high-property-values” framework that reflected the home-owning practices and customs of the white demographic majority. The neighbors’ last names changed, but much else remained the same.

A pair of electoral propositions underlined this point. Waves of immigration from Mexico and Central America stoked fear among residents in Downey and metropolitan Los Angeles. This was due, in part, to rapid demographic change. In 1980, only fourteen percent of Downey residents were foreign-born, including naturalized citizens, guest workers, and non-Latino/a/x immigrants. Those numbers changed quickly.

In 1990, twenty-six percent of Downey residents were born outside of the United States; seventeen percent of all residents were not naturalized, meaning they held a visa or were undocumented. Of the foreign-born population, nearly 40 percent immigrated to the United States between 1980 and 1990. Immigration increased throughout the 1990s and by 2000, nearly 1 in every 5 residents was an unnaturalized immigrant.

These immigrants lived different lives from their middle-class co-ethnics. The neighborhoods with the highest concentrations of undocumented immigrants resembled the 1950s Mexican-origin population of Downey, with lower median incomes and more high-density housing. Like Mexican Americans in the barrio, these immigrants lived in Downey and benefited from public resources, but scarcely lived the middle-class lives of their neighbors.

The greatest difference between immigrants in the 1990s and the barrio of the 1950s, though, was that the middle-class neighbors in the 1990s were not white but Mexican American. A common descent from la patria linda did not preclude prejudice and hostility. In fact, some middle-class Mexican Americans worried how the presence of undocumented immigrants might threaten their economic gains.

In addition, immigration occurred at the same time that middle-class Mexican Americans fended off the criticism and racism from the remaining white residents like Kay Williams. Therefore middle-class Mexican Americans very carefully showed themselves to be different from the immigrants. Over the course of the 1990s, undocumented immigrants became civic issues, and civic issues were dealt with by a civic identity.

A surprising number of Mexican Americans in Downey took to the polls to defend their community on two occasions, Prop 187 (1994) and Prop 227 (1998). Proposition 187 sought to make alleged violations of federal immigration law—unauthorized entry or overstaying a visa—sufficient grounds to deny an immigrant the use of most publicly funded resources like non-emergency medical care and public education.

The proposition grew out of anti-immigrant sentiment strewing in California’s conservative hotbed, Orange County. Before Prop 187, no immigration-restriction measure had appeared on California ballots since the 1920 proposition restricting Japanese immigrants from owning property. Public policy polls as late as the early 1990s found that Californians generally viewed immigration as a relatively minor problem in comparison to other public policy concerns. No statewide poll between 1991 and 1993 had more than five percent of respondents identify immigration as the most pressing issue; crime, the economy, and education were the top choices.

Renewed immigration spurred by political instability and ecological disaster coincided with the early 1990s recession. California governor Pete Wilson and the California Republican Party took up the issue. Wilson’s campaign identified the “Save our State” (SOS) initiative as an ideal issue to exploit and manipulate votes for the Republican Party. Wilson and other pro-Prop-187 groups staged a relentless and coordinated assault on immigrants through campaign literature, talk shows, and rousing speeches.

Wilson linked the 1990s recession to undocumented immigration and argued that the proposition would save the state $5 billion in costs from welfare, education, and healthcare for undocumented immigrants. The Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) framed the issue as one of protecting sovereignty and curbing “illegal” immigrants. These narratives of law-and-order turned the immigrants into “illegal” beings marked by their method of entry, irrespective of motivation to leave their home country. Although few voters considered immigration a pressing issue before 1994, Wilson, FAIR, and others propelled awareness of immigrants to the forefront of voters’ minds by Election Day.

In Downey, there were few public supporters of the undocumented immigrants. This political cartoon from the Downey Eagle jokes that some supporters did exist, albeit for less-compassionate reasons. Courtesy of the Downey Historical Society.

In Downey, there were few public supporters of the undocumented immigrants. This political cartoon from the Downey Eagle jokes that some supporters did exist, albeit for less-compassionate reasons. Courtesy of the Downey Historical Society.

In Downey, these arguments found ardent proponents in Mexican Americans who did and did not identify with their Mexican heritage. Some Mexican Americans aligned with the whites who saw their economic positions injured by Mexican immigrants. But the middle-class Mexican Americans and the undocumented immigrants worked different jobs; there was little, if any, competition between the two groups. Some Mexican Americans also supported Proposition 187 with a discourse of legality. Some maintained that because they or (in most cases) their ancestors immigrated legally, the new immigrants should have, too.

Citizenship for immigrant families generally came from one of two programs. Second and third generation Mexican Americans could have been born to parents or grandparents who worked in the United States through labor agreements like the Bracero Program (1942-1964). Though not a means for citizenship—and often a vehicle for overstaying a work visa—the Bracero Program offered the first pathway for Mexican workers to establish roots in the United States; birthright then created the first-or-second-generation Mexican Americans who embraced the language of citizenship. The other program was the Immigration Reform and Control Act (1986). The Reagan Administration’s law granted a pathway to citizenship for immigrants—even those who crossed the border without inspection—if they entered before 1982 and remained in the United States continuously for at least one year.

Citizenship provided residents relief from deportation fears, access to federal university aid, and other forms of economic and social capital that they then parlayed into middle-class incomes. Some immigrants made the leap to the middle-class without citizenship, but they were few and far in between. In any case, this discourse suggested a division between residents and noncitizens about the “proper” ways to secure economic prosperity. Thus Mexican Americans’ arguments for Prop 187 reflected a perceived separation of economic rights from civil rights.

The campaigns in favor of Prop 187 drowned out the opposition in Downey. On October 16, 1994, Latinos/as/xs in Los Angeles staged an anti-187 protest march that united immigrants and descendants of Mexicans and Central Americans. Over 100,000 marched in the streets of Los Angeles, the largest political rally organized by Angeleno Latinos/as/xs to date.

The response was, by comparison, muted in Downey, where students from Warren High School staged a smaller walkout. Forty-nine students walked out of class and down Downey Avenue; upon returning to campus, some students were suspended by the principal. Some families may have privately lamented the vilification of their co-ethnics, but the walkout was the most significant pushback in the community.

This could be for reasons similar to the Spanish-language theater incident. Mexican Americans carefully cultivated and maintained their civic identity. In this case, opposition to Proposition 187 could have amounted to ethnic solidarity at the literal expense of the civic community—and few were comfortable making that expense.

The results at the ballot were no less assertive in favor of Prop 187. In a time when Latinos/as/xs hovered around 42 percent of the Downey’s total population, wholly 13,740 (66 percent) votes submitted in Downey were in favor of Prop 187. (By comparison, Prop 187 passed at the state level with 58 percent of the vote.) This meant that, at the very least, one-third of Downey’s Latinos/as/xs voted for the SOS initiative, exceeding both the state and county averages among Latinos/as/xs.

Less than one week after the initiative passed, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Stuart Pollak struck down crucial components that were unconstitutional. DUSD superintendent Edward Sussman affirmed that the district would obey the mandate and await further instruction from the state. A few years later, though, another initiative would have quicker effects on DUSD.

Proposition 227 addressed concerns over pedagogical practices for students classified as having Limited English Proficiency (LEP). Before 1998, the Downey Unified School District taught LEP students in bilingual courses, which contemporary pedagogical practices viewed as best to teach immigrant students. DUSD demographics made LEP programs especially crucial.

As early as 1994, DUSD ranked in the top eight percent of California public school districts in total number of LEP students. Despite strong anti-immigrant sentiment in the voting public, as shown by the passage of Prop 187, many in the community supported bilingual education before 1998. In fact, the DUSD board members and teachers crafted innovative bilingual education curricula and the district had a sufficient LEP infrastructure.

Wendy Lopour, director of curriculum and instruction development, lobbied United States Congressman Steve Horn to secure federal money to boost bilingual education in 1993. In early 1994, the United States Department of Education awarded DUSD $480,000 to improve bilingual education for more than 700 students at the middle-school level, a group which encompassed seventeen primary language groups. But debates over public resources dampened the community’s support for bilingual education.

By mid-1994, anti-immigrant populism weakened bilingual education efforts in DUSD. The changes in nomenclature and coverage were telling. In early 1994, the Eagle reported on students with “limited English proficiency,” the technical but otherwise neutral term. By June 1994, those students had become “English deficient,” a pejorative term that connoted something lacking or incomplete.

From April 1 to November 1 of 1994, 674 new students entered the district; 83 percent of those new students had limited English proficiency, most of whom were Spanish-speaking children of recent immigrants. In the face of a “soaring” population of “deficient students,” the newspaper reported, DUSD began “fighting a desperate battle to maintain a tradition of academic excellence.” The newspaper warned of schools “sapped by [the] language gap,” a “weight, as every teacher knows,” threatened DUSD’s academic excellence. Thus opposition to LEP students and bilingual education really represented a defense of the DUSD—and, by extension, of the quality of life. Pedagogical orthodoxy lost favor as the Mexican Americans prioritized English-speaking.

In fact, LEP students did not hinder educational achievement. At Downey High and Warren High, where LEP students made up 21 and 22 percent of the students, respectively, standardized test scores improved over the school years in 1992 and 1993. By 1995, dropouts fell from 2.3 to 1.3 percent—irrespective of total population growth. (This also matched a statewide trend in dropout reduction due to alternative educational paths like the General Education Development program, but the change nonetheless shows that LEP students did not harm the reputation and efficacy of DUSD instruction.)

DUSD maintained high levels of achievement despite having so many LEP students, so much so, that the Los Angeles Times recognized the district for sending high numbers of LEP students to the California State University and the University of California. And not every teacher felt the “sapping weight” of LEP students: Dolores Neria, one of only two Spanish-speaking teachers at Downey High in 1994, taught the first English Learner course. Though most teachers sent Neria their “rough” students—the Spanish-speaking students, primarily—she had no problems with them.

But again, campaigns for Prop 227 mobilized voters in Downey and throughout the state. Proponents advertised Prop 227 as improving education for LEP students. Political ads portrayed bilingual education as preventing immigrants from learning English and limiting their academic achievement. One ad by the publisher of the Downey Eagle posited that Spanish-language media was the only source of support for bilingual education so that its consumers would not learn English and keep the network ratings high. In an anti-immigrant and pro-assimilation atmosphere, these ads were muted and neutral. Anti-227 groups only weakly opposed the proposition.

President Bill Clinton remained noncommittal on the measure before officially opposing it only one month before the election. Even ads on Spanish-language television offered no defense of bilingual education programs like that in DUSD. Leaders from the district, including the superintendent, officially opposed Proposition 227 on the grounds that it “denied local governing bodies any option on how to best serve the linguistic and academic needs of their English language learners.” But patience for English learners ran thin among voters.

Downey residents used their vote to protect the school district. In 1998, Latinos/as/xs surpassed fifty percent of Downey’s population (and Mexican Americans made up close to forty percent of all residents), but 61 percent of voters in Downey cast a ballot in favor of Prop 227. The vote for Prop 227 suggested a pro-American, pro-assimilation stance on Mexican and Central American immigrants in Downey. The vote required immigrants, even very recent ones, to learn English with little room for error. Educational studies have since then suggested that language immersion improves acquisition, but proponents in Downey framed their support in other terms. An article in the Eagle called Prop 227 a “noble cause” to “break immigrant children out of a poverty mold by giving them the language to compete in the job market.”

But others voted for Prop 227 to protect their community. As many events and habits in Downey’s history shows, including those which I’ve described in this series, the middle-class Mexican Americans invariably spoke English in public. Indeed, it formed a core component of the civic identity before and after the demographic change. But Prop 227 found an especially receptive audience in Downey’s Mexican Americans. They had a new set of economic interests as middle-class homeowners that they were anxious to protect. LEP students not only violated the civic identity with their limited English abilities, but were a ““sapping weight” that threatened the quality of education—a resource that separated Downey from the other southeast Los Angeles suburbs. They saw their votes for Prop 187 and Prop 227 as votes to protect their community in the face of dramatic changes.

There was, to a certain extent, little surprising about these final episodes. The votes (and, in the case of Prop 187, silence) were natural expressions of the civic identity. In the 1990s, the civic identity governed how middle-class residents carried themselves in the absence of the white demographic majority. More importantly, it was how middle-class Mexican Americans believed they could steward their community through demographic change.

But the city has a different feel in the twenty-first century. Though less than ten years after the events I described in this series, the Downey of my childhood was very much a Mexican American suburb. I grew up hearing Spanish in Downey as often as I did in Bell. “Race-neutral” entrepreneurship and metropolitan Mexicanness are no longer the norms; Vallarta Supermarkets, Tacos Gavilan, and countless family-owned panaderías are all staples of my childhood. Even the sizable Cuban minority partook in the expansion of ethnic-themed entrepreneurship when Porto’s opened its bakery that, architecturally and socially, anchored the revitalization of Downtown Downey after the Great Recession of 2008.

In line with the larger community-wide acceptance of demographic change, many downtown Downey businesses cater to Latino/a/x consumers, are owned by Latinos/as/xs, or both. Through it all, Downey has remained an affluent “move-up” community.

But, as in other parts of the United States, affluence has not benefited all residents evenly. North Downey neighborhoods conjure the familiar tropes of “Mexican Beverly Hills” with their large lot sizes and fantastic homes, but the southern neighborhoods of Downey have higher concentrations of rental housing, lower median incomes, and higher rates of first-generation immigrants. Whereas the median income in one north Downey neighborhood was $103,500 in 2010, in a south Downey neighborhood it was $40,427. Rising property values in Downey benefit homeowners, but in areas like south Downey, where rental housing is common, the booming development spells no profit, only displacement. The proximity to cities like Paramount and South Gate still prompts the same suspicion that residents identified during the Neighborhood Preservation Program meetings that I discussed in an earlier issue. Police officers patrol the area on higher alert than in, say, north Downey.

On October 22, 2011, Downey police officers shot and killed 31-year-old Michael Nida. Nida, while his wife pumped gas at a south Downey gas station, jaywalked across a main street to purchase cigarettes when officers stopped him on the grounds that he “looked like a gang member.” He attempted to flee and, despite being unarmed, was shot in the back four times. That is to say, residents, police officers, and city councilmembers still might not think of south Downey as an obvious “Mexican Beverly Hills.”

The greatest pushback to the Los Angeles Times article on the “Mexican Beverly Hills” came from a south-Downey-born-and-raised writer, Tina Vasquez, who noted the wealth and privilege inequalities between north and south Downey. It is my hope that this series has encouraged residents to consider this too.

I have written and ordered the stories of this series to logically and clearly make a difficult point: as uncomfortable as it may be, we benefit from and perpetuate a legacy of racial ideology. Downey homeowning, as in middle-class suburbs across the United States, was defined by practices that meant to minimize integration. This began with the underwriting of the Homeowners Loan Corporation and subsequent race-restrictive covenants before shifting to “property-values”-restrictive covenants. We ended with a set of home-owning norms, customs, and practices meant to maximize property values that, in many ways, reified the stereotypes that first defined “good” and “bad” home-owning along racial lines. But racial ideology shifted its shape without losing its grip.

The difference in Downey—indeed, the principal anomaly that I sought to clarify—is that the same practices transferred to a new, previously restricted homeownership in middle-class Mexican Americans. This was not always intentional or malicious. At first, middle-class Mexican Americans continued these practices to blend into white-majority neighborhoods, avoid race-based tensions, and secure access to a higher quality of life. But after demographic change reached Downey and Mexican Americans became the plurality, these home-owning practices were continued to preserve the “good” home-owning practices, norms, and customs—all to maximize investments, to protect their spot in the American middle class, and to safeguard newfound economic gains. The middle-class Mexican Americans stewarded the community through questions of undocumented immigration, fluctuating property values, and other perceived threats in surprising ways.

Ethnic minorities, then as now, suffered from low access to economic and social capital like that of Downey’s middle-class Mexican Americans. In the process of acquiring and defending that capital, though, they unwittingly perpetuated the very ideas about race that first restricted them, the ideas of “good” and “bad” home-owning practices that stemmed from HOLC practices. For the middle-class Mexican Americans, race and class were no longer one and the same. They were Mexican Americans—with the full diversity of that term that I have shown in this series—but they were also independently members of the American middle class.

On the one hand, this may appear to be the end of race in the United States. But on the other hand, the way we think about property values in this community, as everywhere in the country, still bears the mark of racist ideology. As much as it may be uncomfortable to think, race is still a part of the fabric with which we think about our homes today. To some, race may not be dead, and to others it lives. But above all, the history of demographic change in Downey shows how in the modern United States, the nexus of race and class has changed.

We must keep thinking about—as I titled this series—race, housing, and confronting history.

Features, NewsAron Ramirez