IN FALL 1965, Ruth Smith and her husband boarded a train in Houston, Texas, and made the journey west to search for better housing and employment. They arrived in Los Angeles in the aftermath of the Watts uprising and settled into a community devastated by days of unrest. Shortly after their arrival, Ruth’s husband found work in the rubber-tire industry, where he labored for many years until the plant’s closure in 1980; he later became a janitor, an occupation he held until his death in 1989.1 His job in the tire industry provided an income to purchase a home in South Central Los Angeles.2 Ruth and her husband became proud owners of a modest home and chose the residential location because, as Ruth said, “I loved this street because there was a Baptist church at the corner.”3 Ruth spent her time and energy helping at the Baptist church, and throughout the years became publicly visible and accountable to her South Central neighbors and friends.
At the turn of the nineteenth century and into the mid-twentieth century, thousands of African American migrants boarded buses and headed west to leave the racial violence of the South in search of opportunity and survival in Los Angeles. Unlike the U.S. South, Los Angeles offered employment; political representation; and the ability to establish cultural, economic, and social centers. The promise of a better life in Los Angeles for Black migrants had its limits, as exclusionary policies in housing and leisure increasingly segregated them into South Central. Black migrants transformed exclusion and segregation into spaces of investment and unity, and in doing so, developed a vibrant African American community4—a community that Ruth would grow to call home. The opportunities born out of segregation served to render South Central Los Angeles as space, place, and community marked as African American.
Eventually, however, South Central’s racial character as largely African American would collide with the increased settlement of Mexican immigrants in the United States. Dolores Rosas’s migration is one of myriad stories of undocumented immigrants settling in South Central. In fall 1978, Dolores boarded a bus in San Martin de Hidalgo, Jalisco, Mexico, to a train station in Guadalajara, Jalisco. With her infant child in tow, like countless Mexican immigrants before her, she crossed the Mexican countryside by rail before arriving in Mexicali. Dolores relied on a coyote (smuggler) to bring them into the United States, with her final destination being Los Angeles. Arriving in Los Angeles, she and her daughter reunited with her husband, Francisco Rosas. He had immigrated to Los Angeles before her to find an apartment and a job and set up a home for Dolores and their young daughter.5 Dolores’s new home was in the heart of Los Angeles’s African American community—South Central Los Angeles.
Dolores was shocked to learn that her new neighborhood was predominantly composed of African American children, women, and men. Francisco had failed to mention that they were going to settle in a racially diverse community. Dolores recalls, “He told me, don’t worry, there’s all kinds of people. Everything will be all right.”6 He had secured an apartment on 50th Street and Main Street, a block away from where fellow Mexican rural hometown friends had settled. However, their immediate neighbors were mostly African Americans. At first, Dolores believed they would live in South Central only temporarily, but as the years passed South Central became more and more their world, their center, their home. Dolores and Francisco Rosas are my parents, and my upbringing centered on learning more about South Central’s history with heart. They instilled in me the need to know our neighborhood’s relational interracial history as a meaningful step toward discerning their personal investment in raising me in South Central with humanity and optimism for the future of this community. Such intellectual inheritance inspired my commitment to investigating and writing this history.
Map 1: African American and Latina/o Majorities in Los Angeles County, 1960
SOURCE: Data and cartography by Phil Ethington, 2018.
This personal connection to South Central and its history compelled me to consider how Ruth and Dolores navigated their way in South Central. Their movement, like that of other migrants and immigrants, was born out of necessity and the promise of improved prospects. They quickly learned, though, that they would settle into a community where they would experience the transformations of deindustrialization, joblessness, reindustrialization in the garment and service sectors, a drug epidemic and violence, and police aggression and surveillance.7 In this changing political, social, and economic climate, thousands of Mexican immigrants settled throughout South Central’s city streets.
By the mid-twentieth century, African American settlement had taken hold and became most prominent in South Central Los Angeles (Map 1). With the onset of the 1970s, the Latina/o population of South Central was approximately fifty thousand, or roughly 10 percent of South Central’s total population. The Latina/o population had doubled to about 20 percent of the total South Central population by 1980 (Map 2).8
South Central was marked as an African American community because African Americans constituted 80 percent of the population, and businesses and social services catered to African American needs. Also, political representatives were almost exclusively African American, and in popular culture and the general public’s mind, South Central was African American. Dolores’s settlement was part of the wave of immigration that would change South Central in unforeseen ways, as by 1990, South Central was over 40 percent Latina/o, and by 2000 it was 64 percent Latina/o (Map 3).9 This multiracial landscape was years in the making. Restaurants now serve both soul food and Mexican food, business signs are written in both English and Spanish, and murals showcasing both African American and Chicana/o pride are illustrative of how this community has changed.
The migration by both African Americans and Latina/os to South Central spanned different decades, but their long-term settlement within South Central illustrates that opportunities beyond the neighborhood were not easily gained or achieved. Tracing the impact of these demographic shifts in the mid-to-late part of the twentieth century demonstrates how Latina/o immigrant residents invested themselves in transforming the city’s strong historical African American character into one that acknowledges a long history of African American struggle but also is increasingly defined by its interracial relations between African American and Latina/o immigrants.
Map 2: African American and Latina/o Majorities in Los Angeles County, 1980
SOURCE: Data and cartography by Phil Ethington, 2018.
South Central Is Home illustrates that interracial interactions are muted, tense, and collaborative. Interactions between African Americans and Latina/os do not happen in a vacuum; structural changes such as deindustrialization, racial discrimination, increased law and immigration enforcement, and the decline in the welfare state shape these interactions. To demonstrate the weight of these structural realities, I examine how neighborly interactions, patronage of an African American–owned bank, and War on Poverty programs such as Head Start and community health clinics expose the daily elements of community activism, the dynamic nature of interracial relations, and the sense of belonging that made South Central home for African Americans and Latina/os. These interactions, relationships, and sites represent the ways in which Mexican immigrant South Central residents quickly learned that, like their African American neighbors, they faced a similar racialization by living in South Central together. Over time, such realization inspired a relational community identity between South Central residents that energized them to understand that they experienced and shared a vulnerability which required their individual and community investment in struggles against injustice, underrepresentation, and discrimination.
By World War II, South Central had become popularly known as the “heart of Black Southern California,” and as such was seen as strictly a Black neighborhood.10 This perception of South Central as Black was in large part attributable to the public depictions of its African American residents, but also to the ways in which African Americans constructed a Black identity tied to geography in the midst of bleak economic, political, and social realities.11 The experiences of Mexican immigrant South Central residents are mostly those of individuals who migrated to the United States after 1965 and took residence in a predominantly African American community. To fully understand how this generation of Mexican immigrants became residents in this community entails uncovering how they had to quickly learn their new racial landscape and understand South Central’s enduring Black character.
Race real estate covenants, bank lending practices, realtor behavior, and U.S. government support of white homeowner suburbanization facilitated the racial segregation of residential communities throughout the United States. George Lipsitz argues that the barring of African Americans from white neighborhoods has intricately bound race and geography. In the absence of easy access and mobility to suburban communities, the “battles for resources, rights, and recognition not only have ‘taken place’ but also have required that Black communities literally ‘take places,’” and these spaces have come to be a part of our nation.12 The taking of places has had an impact on how we understand the lived history of racialized space. Racial identity formation is the product of social movements that are simultaneously place-based and race-based, and in the case of South Central Black migrants led to the early efforts of placemaking community formation.
Map 3: African American and Latina/o Majorities in Los Angeles County, 1960
SOURCE: Data and cartography by Phil Ethington, 2018.
As Lipsitz expertly argues, the struggle for justice is much more than a fight for inclusion in spaces previously denied. The pooling of resources, exchange of services, and appropriation of private and public spaces for new purposes “have been vital to the survival of Black people and Black communities, but they also offer a model of democratic citizenship to everyone.”13 As a result of the restrictions placed on where and how communities of color could live, the African American community turned “segregation into congregation.” Gaye Johnson’s framework of spatial entitlement, describing spatial arrangements as everyday experiences in which communities of color utilize and claim space in the most dehumanizing of situations, demonstrates the importance of congregation for working-class communities of color.14 Marginalized communities create “new collectivities based not just upon eviction and exclusion from physical places, but also on new and imaginative uses of technology, creativity, and space.”15
Economic businesses such as banks, social spaces such as jazz clubs, and political representation bolstered the racialized image of South Central as a Black space and community. By the 1960s and 1970s, the intensification of decades’ worth of disenfranchisement and racism had hampered the entrepreneurial spirit of early twentieth-century Black migrants. Black residents increasingly were unable to own the neighborhoods materially, and they developed innovative ways of augmenting the use and value of the spaces they inhabited for the sake of securing political representation and mobilization.16 Ultimately, the relational community formation that emerged in the latter part of the twentieth century operated within the context of South Central’s racialization.
1. Ruth Smith (a pseudonym), oral history conducted by the author, Los Angeles, November 21, 2008.
2. I use the full name “South Central Los Angeles” to describe the community, despite its name change to “South Los Angeles” in 2003. I use this older term because the majority of residents have expressed that the name change did nothing to change their daily lives, as well as because they continue to use “South Central” when discussing their community.
3. Smith, oral history.
4. Josh Sides, L.A. City Limits: African American Los Angeles from the Great Depression to the Present (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).
5. Dolores Rosas, oral history conducted by the author, Los Angeles, September 23, 2009.
7. Sides, L.A. City Limits.
8. David Fabienke, “Beyond the Racial Divide: Perceptions of Minority Residents on Coalition Building in South Los Angeles,” Tomas Rivera Policy Brief (June 2007), 2.
10. Sides, L.A. City Limits; Douglas Flamming, Bound for Freedom: Black Los Angeles in Jim Crow America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005); Darnell Hunt and Ana-Christina Ramon, eds., Black Los Angeles: American Dreams and Racial Realities (New York: New York University Press, 2010).
11. João H. Costa Vargas, Catching Hell in the City of Angeles: Life and Meanings of Blackness in South Central Los Angeles (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006).
12. George Lipsitz, How Racism Takes Place (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2011), 52.
13. Ibid., 56.
14. Gaye Theresa Johnson, Spaces of Conflict, Sounds of Solidarity: Music, Race, and Spatial Entitlement in Los Angeles (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), PDF e-book.
16. Lipsitz, How Racism Takes Place, 52.