(I’d like to share with you one of the stories I wrote as part of a journalism fellowship organized and sponsored by LA, Inc., the Los Angeles tourism and visitors’ convention bureau, in 2006. I’m pretty sure a good number of people in the United States who follow this blog live in the Southern California region, where LA is. LA also happens to be one of the first places Filipinos visit when touring the United States for the first time. This piece isn’t your typical travel story, but a more in-dept analysis of how LA, a so-called “White Spot” in America just before World War II, has evolved and continues to evolve into one of the world’s most diverse, multi-racial cities where Spanish and a hundred other languages are spoken alongside English by various ethnic groups.
(Personally, it was a very happy and proud moment for me as I shared the experience with some of the best journalists from all over the world. It was a competitive fellowship, and my group and I would go down in the program’s history as the first batch of journalists chosen to participate in it. Heck, I feel like an international star like Lea Salonga, as I exchange views with colleagues, while I absorb information that our hosts had in store for us during those six days. Modesty aside, I don’t think you have to live in LA and be a Filipino-American to appreciate this story, which was originally titled “To Live and Prosper in LA,” and came out Dec. 10, 2006 in the Philippine Daily Inquirer. All pictures were taken by yours truly except for those where I had to pose in them (siempre naman!). 😀 Enjoy! –AYV)
LOS ANGELES MAY HAVE grown exponentially both in land area and population through the decades, but the core of the city’s history remains relatively intact to this day.
Situated in a quiet corner of downtown, a stone’s throw away from city hall, El Pueblo de Los Angeles has been a silent witness to LA’s changing fortunes, which began sometime in 1777. As Spain’s influence in Mexico began to wane, it searched for new territories in the north.
Eleven families of mixed ancestries from the distant town of Alamos in Sonora (now part of Mexico) were recruited by the Spanish colonial government to settle in a newly established pueblo in Alta California (present-day Southern California) named after the Nuestra Señora la Reina de Los Angeles de Porciuncula.
Interestingly, the Pinoy presence in LA dates back to its earliest years when a man of Filipino descent named Antonio Miranda Rodriguez and his family almost made it as one of LA’s original settlers.
When Miranda and the other pobladores were halfway through the journey, he decided to stay behind with his daughter who had become ill with smallpox. That was the last LA’s history heard of Miranda, but not of Filipinos, who continue to migrate to the city today in droves.
Indeed, one can’t even begin to attempt to tell snippets of the “LA Story” without backtracking a little bit. If anything, such a complex history is surprising for a place that wasn’t even a municipal city until 1850.
LA is one huge melting pot today (perhaps, even more diverse than New York City), but as recently as the 1940s the city was dubbed as America’s “white spot” for its overwhelmingly Caucasian population, the result mainly of decades of internal migration.
Disillusioned by patronage politics, nepotism, regionalism and corruption (sounds vaguely familiar?) that held sway in older, more established cities in the East Coast and the Midwest, succeeding generations of Americans—what would later be called White Anglo-Saxon Protestants—wanting a fresh start promptly relocated to LA during the turn of the last century.
“America, to a large extent, was built upon such a system,” said Dr. Fernando Guerra, director for the Study of Los Angeles at the Loyola Marymount University. “Much as we like to complain today about other countries doing that, we built our [older] cities using the old, corrupt political system.”
Many Americans, who turned their backs from such practices, decided to build a whole new system when they moved to LA. It marked the start of the “progressive era,” a model later followed by much newer western cities like Las Vegas, San Diego and Phoenix (more on this system and its present-day ramifications on LA next time).
“It was very much about how do you professionally administer a municipality,” said Guerra. “How do you professionally administer politics? How do you take out the politics from politics?”
LA’s population continued to swell soon after the war, when GIs returning from combat duties in the Pacific passed through Southern California on their way home to various points in the United States. Many were fascinated by the city and its mild, sunny climate that they decided to pack their bags and move to LA with their families.
Such a development paved the way for the rise of a number of manufacturing industries (which relocated overseas years later as labor costs in the US became too costly), particularly in aerospace. Since there were lots of jobs to be had, one didn’t have to be a degree holder back then to earn a decent living in LA.
This period of prosperity, which raised the ranks of the “wealthiest” middle class in US history, was to continue unimpeded up to the late 1960s. Since owning homes was within everybody’s reach, LA’s current nagging problem of homelessness was virtually unheard of back then.
Small wonder, said Guerra, that many foreigners to this day still viewed the Southern Californian lifestyle as the epitome of the American dream. Well, to a certain degree it was 30 years ago.
“We see it happening today in China and in certain cities in the Middle East,” he added. “So much wealth is created that within a period of five to 10 years you see economically vibrant cities where everybody is employed.”
A similar development happened in LA, where a great deal of American political power and economic might came from, in the 1950s. But unlike certain cities today, LA prepared itself for its coming-out party by building the necessary infrastructure like airports, seaports and freeways long before the boom took place.
Meanwhile, the ensuing decades saw a demographic shift as the number of minorities, particularly Latinos, rose. From 17 percent in 1980, Angelenos of Latino decent now make up 55 percent of the city’s population. Spanish translations of English signs and directions say it all.
It was only a matter of time before Latinos successfully flexed their muscles at the polls, and this they finally did last year when the city elected its first Latino mayor in 130 years in the person of
In a reversal of roles, Caucasians have technically become one among many minorities, albeit still a formidable one, comprising 30 percent of the population. Thanks to Hollywood, the stereotype of the blond, blue-eyed Californian lives on.
One bold if inspired attempt to debunk such myths and set the record straight is encapsulated in the documentary “Los Angeles Now” by award-winning filmmaker Phillip Rodriguez.
In keeping with Angelenos’ love affair with their cars, the film whizzes by like a drive-by tour of LA’s dynamic and constantly changing cityscape and complexion, which has increasingly become more brown than white.
For all the city’s purported diversity, a good number of Angelenos are the first to admit at how clueless they are about certain parts of LA and their inhabitants.
Due to the city’s sheer size, various groups of Angelenos, within the comforts of their respective cars, manage to keep to themselves without bothering to look at what’s happening to other people “over the hedge.”
LA County, which is home to 88 cities (including LA), has a population of 10 million and counting. Its land area alone is equivalent to the combined size of such major US cities as—hold your breath—Pittsburgh, Boston, Minneapolis, Saint Louis, Milwaukee, Cleveland and San
Among the hundreds of mind-numbing scenes Rodriguez captures on screen, a particular image stands out: a yellow sign warning motorists to watch out for people crossing the freeway!
In lieu of a galloping deer’s silhouette, the sign features the outline of a man, woman and child—presumably illegals—as they dash toward a new life (or sudden death?) of supposed prosperity in America.
After almost 230 years since the first immigrant families settled in the once-barren hills of Southern California, descendants of those left behind in Mexico (and the Philippines) are still taking their chances on a Los Angeles now far different from what it once was.