On Race, Housing, and Confronting History

In the span of 10 years, Downey transformed from a white middle-class suburb into a Mexican American middle-class suburb. Perhaps the more accurate statement to make, though, would be that between 1985 and 1995 the demographic makeup shifted.

Indeed, there was little that made Downey a Mexican American suburb—save for the residents’ surnames. Unlike most contemporary Latino/a/x-majority communities throughout metropolitan Los Angeles, there were no panaderías, tortillerías, or supermercados. English was spoken in public, even between two Spanish-speaking individuals.

The demographic makeup had changed in the 1990s, but the character remained the same. Middle-class Mexican Americans flocked to Downey in the late 1980s and early 1990s to access the reputable school district, responsive police and fire departments, and secure property investments. Indeed, middle-class Mexican Americans moved to Downey for many of the same reasons that white residents did in the 1950s and 1960s. The demographic change would transform Downey from a white middle-class suburb to a city mentioned in 2015 by the Los Angeles Times as the “Mexican Beverly Hills.” It is that history that I will present to the community over the next seven weeks.

(A note on terminology: In these essays, I’ll use Latino/a/x to refer to those descendant of immigrants from Mexico, Caribbean, and Central and South American countries. The o/a/x signals modern sensibilities toward inclusivity without omitting the contemporary usage of o/a in spoken and written Spanish. Latino/a/x is a general term which I use when I cannot specify between destinations of origin. It has a political history that I publicly recognize and personally reckon with; nonetheless, I use it here in its contemporary forms. Otherwise, I use Mexican Americans to refer to American citizens or residents of Mexican ancestry.

I refer to Mexican Americans and immigrants together as Mexican-origin, especially in cases with heterogeneous citizenship statuses. I use Anglo and white interchangeably to refer to populations of white Americans of Anglo-Saxon descent.)

I chose to write these essays for two reasons. For one, I believe in the practice of public history. It is one thing to write community histories for the Ivory Tower with little regard for non-academic audiences. It is altogether another to share the findings with the community in question.

This is made easier by my second reason: the Mexican American suburbanization in Downey presents historical anomalies that upend common conclusions about demographic change in southeast Los Angeles. From the 1920s until the Watts Riots of 1965, nearby suburbs like Compton, Huntington Park, and South Gate were home to white working-and-middle-class residents.

Throughout southeast Los Angeles, white residents ranged from 87 to 99 percent of census tract populations. After the Watts Riots, white families with the financial means left in droves—what we now call “white flight”—changing the demographic and economic landscape of the suburbs they fled. White flight involved more than demographic change, as these families dramatically altered the tax revenues collected by cities.

Deindustrialization in the 1970s then hit southeast Los Angeles especially hard. Cities that relied on manufacturing revenues to fund civic infrastructures found themselves operating on anemic budgets. A subsequent “War on Crime” led to renewed conflicts between police and suspected gang members. Compton, for example, took an especially strong stance and dedicated disproportionate percentages of city budgets toward increased policing, which left streets unmaintained, schools underfunded, and other city functions un-serviced.

In truth, larger structural forces like deindustrialization, the end of the Cold War, a waning military-industrial complex, and tax base restructuring caused much of the changing quality of life in the nearby suburbs. Capital flight accompanied white flight, and by the 1980s, the white-majority working-to-middle-class suburbs of southeast Los Angeles were minority-majority working-poor cities.

Except in Downey. There was no widespread white flight from Downey after the Watts Riots. Demographic change in this city did not happen until a 1988 housing boom made selling homes profitable for the white majority. Second, through demographic transformation, Downey’s Mexican American plurality upheld the middle-class reputation—the built and lived environment, the schools and the homes, the streets and the sidewalks—in ways unlike the surrounding suburbs. It is this last anomaly that I narrate in these essays.

Part of understanding this history, though, requires grappling with uncomfortable topics. For all the victors in this history—as in most histories—there are the displaced, the divided, the discriminated. We often prefer to glide over these uncomfortable topics. Our histories, we think, should be conversations safe for the dinner table. It is far easier to talk of revolutions, presidents, and laws.

Today, fewer are wont to opt for a sanitized history of what may otherwise seem like mundane historical relics; many now want to consider what a statue meant to many groups in post-Civil-War America, not only to some. Two weeks ago, we considered multiple public meanings of Betsy Ross’s flag. I think historical inquiry would be remiss if it didn’t uncover and unravel these difficult topics. By restoring the histories of those who are seldom spoken of—and, therefore, by complicating those who are revered—we can restore dignity to the undignified. We can revive the forgotten. We can give full justice to the historical record.

I did not write this (at times uncomfortable) history out of hate or any agenda, but rather out of love. To recognize the complexity of Downey’s demographic transformation is to move beyond a good-bad reductionist oversimplification. Doing so makes it possible—however uncomfortable—to love the city for all that it is, both its success stories and displacement narratives.

This history differs from most others about demographic change and displacement. The principal displacers and displaced are Mexican Americans. The middle-class Mexican Americans who formed the core of Downey’s (admittedly diverse) community in the 1990s, and therefore today, deserve credit for their navigation of economic uncertainties in the face of demographic flux. That the city today remains the “Oasis,” as I remember hearing it called, owes to the home-owning customs and practices of Downey’s middle-class Mexican Americans.

Downey’s Mexican Americans, however, were not always exceptionally wealthy. In the 1950s, the city’s Mexican American population was as working-class as their counterparts throughout metropolitan Los Angeles by nearly every economic measure. Nearly 300 adult Mexican-origin residents lived in Downey homes. All but ten of the working Mexican-origin residents—men and women—worked in low-skill or semi-skilled blue-collar jobs. Twenty were listed in the City Directory as “laborer,” likely in the unspecified role of a handyman. Eleven were truck drivers, nine worked in factories, six on farms, and another six were given the pejorative term “scavenger,” a label for someone who collected and recycled scrap metals. Twenty-two males were listed as unemployed, and most females stayed at home.

Only ten Mexican Americans worked in low-white-collar jobs: four were labeled clerks and five were salespeople. One was a veterinary surgeon. Low levels of postsecondary educational achievement limited the upward economic mobility for Mexican Americans in Downey.

The economic makeup of Downey’s Mexican Americans in 1950 affected their housing situations. The 297 working Mexican Americans and their families crowded into 126 unique addresses, only 18 of which were located outside a barrio bounded by Firestone Boulevard to the north, Imperial Highway to the south, Lakewood Boulevard to the East, and Downey Avenue to the west. About 122 Mexican-origin families in 1950 owned their homes, 4 rented from a white homeowner, and the other 171 families lived with the home-owning families.

The map below shows the density of families in central Downey streets and neighborhoods. In short, most Mexican Americans were residentially segregated into a barrio in central Downey.

Mexican American population in Downey (in 1950), overlaid on a map from the same year. Note the concentration of markers in south and central Downey. Map image courtesy of the Downey Historical Society.

Mexican American population in Downey (in 1950), overlaid on a map from the same year. Note the concentration of markers in south and central Downey. Map image courtesy of the Downey Historical Society.

This discrimination was made possible by the real estate appraisal system of the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC). To incentivize homeownership during the Great Depression, the Roosevelt Administration enacted federal programs to offer and insure home mortgages. HOLC and the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) were the two principal bodies for facilitating homeownership in the 1930s and 1940s. HOLC used a four-tiered color code to denote investment risk for federal mortgages: green for the best, purple for good, yellow for fair, and red for risky (which was almost always reserved for areas where ethnic minorities lived).

In 1939, HOLC appraised neighborhoods in Downey. A central-north neighborhood received a yellow grade because of the small presence of Japanese and Mexican field workers, who were “a detrimental influence.” Elsewhere in Downey, developers used race-restrictive covenants to protect the neighborhoods from similar “undesirable” elements. This meant that home deeds in certain tracts, such as the Orange Estates, specifically prohibited homeowners from reselling their properties to Mexican American or Black homeowners regardless of economic background.

Real estate advertisement for Orange Estates neighborhood of Downey. Found in 1930 issues of Downey LiveWire. Courtesy of the Downey Historical Society.

Real estate advertisement for Orange Estates neighborhood of Downey. Found in 1930 issues of Downey LiveWire. Courtesy of the Downey Historical Society.

In 1948, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Shelley v. Kraemer that race-restrictive covenants were legally unenforceable—not illegal. Realtors in Downey and across the United States adapted: in place of the explicit racial discrimination, deeds came to prohibit resale that would threaten the integrity and property values of the neighborhood. Property values, though, were determined in large part by the insurance maps created by HOLC and private companies who imitated the practice. This system of residential segregation created “red-lining.”

Red-lining and race-restrictive covenants help explain the small number of Mexican-origin families that lived outside the barrio. Some lighter-complected Mexican Americans probably passed as “Spanish,” as one historian suggested happened elsewhere. But for Mexican Americans without light-skin privilege, it was generally hard to break into select neighborhoods of the self-advertised “White Spot of Southeast Los Angeles” (see above). The barrio was, like the segregated neighborhoods throughout metropolitan Los Angeles, a racialized space. Mexican Americans expressed their Mexican identities freely, but it was an area the city neglected. Roads remained unpaved well into the 1950s and 1960s, incomes remained lower in the barrio than elsewhere in Downey, and the Mexican Americans living there had a reputation among Downey whites for being rowdy and criminally-inclined.

One contemporary resident said of the Mexican American barrio boys: “You would see them at the restaurants or at the Coke place. Everybody knew who they were. But you never did see a gang of them, just a few at a time.”

Of course, the “rough” neighborhoods also lagged in economic measures and housing quality. But this area was a bastion of Mexican culture, with weekly quinceañeras, a preponderance of Spanglish, and vibrant fiestas. Bob Thompson recalled fond memories of going to his friends’ houses in the barrio and picking up Spanglish words while eating home-cooked Mexican food. Despite the lack of economic capital and resources, the central Downey barrio was rich in Mexican culture.

The first generations of Mexican Americans in Downey were, on the whole, low-wage workers, undereducated, and lived in segregated neighborhoods; this was representative of most other Mexican Americans in Californian urban centers. Through education, entrepreneurship, or a combination of both, Mexican Americans in Downey and throughout southeast Los Angeles would climb the socioeconomic ladder and eventually plan their own moves to the very neighborhoods their predecessors found off-limits.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the same “property values” framework that informed residential segregation would guide the community through demographic transformation. Indeed, suburban racism was not informed by a fear of melanin on its own, but rather by nonverbal information communicated through the physical appearance of Blacks and Mexican Americans. Suburban racists supported exclusion and segregation because they feared that a Mexican (or Black, or Asian, or any minority) neighbor would comport themselves in accordance to the intergenerational stereotypes and ideas about those groups. Race-restrictive covenants operated on the assumption that a Mexican American neighbor would bring gangs and drugs to the neighborhood, or would change their motor oil on the front lawn, or would otherwise sully the customs and practices that kept neighborhood property values high.

The use of racial ideology explains why white residents could profess to not be racist, so long as their neighbors mowed their lawns, were family-oriented and the like. Suburban racism, exemplified by segregation and race-restrictive covenants, allowed white residents to minimize what they felt were the risks of living near a group of people with different politics, home-owning practices, religious beliefs, language preferences, or interests. With little sustained inter-group interaction—which would have been the norm and not the exception in race-restricted suburban communities—white homeowners scarcely challenged these generalizations and passed them down as knowledge.

But this ideology assumed that minority groups necessarily held different political opinions, home-owning practices, religious beliefs, language preferences, or interests. The middle-class Mexican Americans of Downey challenged these assumptions. It is how they first became Downeyites and how they later upheld the middle-class reputation.

Over the next six issues, I will unfold the complicated narrative of Downey’s demographic change. I present a narrative to suggest that at each stage of transformation, Downey’s middle-class Mexican Americans prioritized their civic identity—their belonging in the Downey community—over their ethnic identities. In next week’s installment, I will examine the permanence of the white demographic majority in Downey long after the Watts Riots before discussing the role of Spanish-speaking realtors in moving the first middle-class Mexican Americans into the formerly restricted neighborhoods.

Those pioneering Mexican Americans secured their place in Downey—and the suburban privileges that came with it—by portraying an assimilated civic identity; the third installment of this series will focus on one key aspect of the civic identity, English speaking in public. This is not to suggest that Mexican Americans simply dropped all expressions of their Mexican heritage; the fourth essay will discuss what I call “metropolitan Mexicanness,” which helped many residents pursue the practices and customs important to their heritage without undermining their assimilated civic identity in Downey. Despite Mexican American efforts to emphasize their “Americanness,” the sheer rapidity of demographic change frightened some of the remaining white residents into overestimating the cultural differences between themselves and their new neighbors. The early 1990s witnessed race-based tensions, which I focus on in the fifth installment.

In the sixth essay, I detail the homeowning practices and customs of the new Mexican American plurality in the 1990s to suggest that despite the change in demographics, homeowning in Downey mostly remained the same. Residents’ surnames changed, but property values remained high. The series concludes with the darker side of this story when anti-immigrant sentiment found fertile soil among the “property-values”-minded residents—Mexican American or otherwise.

Of course, I do not purport this interpretation to be authoritative. By sharing my ideas with this readership, I feel that I may return this community history to its rightful owners. But I anticipate pushback, especially from those who lived and acted in the times I can only interpret through the archives. I welcome this vulnerability. Should the spirit touch you, I implore you to share your own document-based interpretations. (Memory, while precious, is malleable and subjective.)

I invite you to take this opportunity to visit the Downey Historical Society, where I conducted the bulk of my research. You may choose to (respectfully, I hope) voice your feedback in the op-eds or to my email address. Above all, I hope that my appreciation for your readership—and the community at large—shines through.

G. Aron Ramirez was born and raised in Downey. He graduated from Downey High School in 2015 then from Stanford University in June 2019. He begins his Ph.D. in History at Yale University in August 2019, and can be reached at aron dot ramirez at yale dot edu.

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