Exploring the Latino Metropolis: A Brief Urban Cultural History of US Latinos


     According to a Los Angeles Times ranking based on information from the 2000 Census and the Los Angeles Department of City Planning, there are 272 neighborhoods in L.A. Of these 272 neighborhoods, 87 have a 50% or higher Latino population. The neighborhood with the highest percentage of Latinos is East Los Angeles, indicated by the purple pin in the map above, where only 3.3% of the population is non-Latino. Other largely Latino neighborhoods, which are also pinned in the above map, include Maywood, Walnut Park, Huntington Park, Boyle Heights, Cudahy, Bell Gardens, Commerce, Vernon, and South Gate, having 96.4%, 95.4%, 95.1%, 94.0%, 93.8%, 93.7%, 93.4% 92.6%, and 92.1% Latino populations, respectively. The neighborhoods of largest Latino populations are primarily confined to the southern region of Los Angeles, and the percentage of Latino population tends to decrease as you move towards northern L.A. Just 40 years before this census was taken, however, none of this was true. Looking at the cases of Huntington Park and South Gate, their percent Latino populations were only 4.5% and 4.0%, respectively, in 1960. By 1980, these percentages had increased to 85.0% in Huntington Park and 46.0% in South Gate. This is due to the emergence of L.A as a “receiving area for Latinos relocating from elsewhere in the metropolitan area, and also, increasingly, for newly arriving first-generation immigrants from Latin America” (Curtis 130). Demonstrating the truth behind this claim, the Los Angeles Times ranking reports that 48.6% of the residents of East Los Angeles, the neighborhood of highest Latino population in Los Angeles, are not native to the United States. Of these foreign-born individuals, 90.7% originate from Mexico and 3.8% from El Salvador.

     As can be seen from James R. Curtis’s typology of barrios, the Los Angeles barrio has evolved significantly over the centuries. Curtis notes four distinct barrio types that have appeared since 1781. The first type of barrio was “plaza-based,” which didn’t extend much further than a mile from the central plaza in any direction. This was due to a number of factors, including “[t]he centripetal pull of the city center, … land-tenure restrictions, economic limitations, and difficult living conditions in the surrounding rural areas” (Curtis 132). The second barrio type, which appeared around 1911 and remained prominent through the mid-1950s, is referred to by Curtis as “urban colonias.” These colonias were able to form due to the emergence of new modes of transport, such as the electric streetcar. Due to the distance between them, each colonia, while similar to other colonias in some aspects, was also able to develop its own distinctive identity. Beginning halfway through the 1950s, the “hierarchical” barrio type emerged. This barrio type was characterized by one large central place, East L.A., which was surrounded by several smaller primary and secondary barrios. Each of these smaller barrios was “directly or indirectly, wittingly or unwittingly, oriented towards and conceptually dependent on the collective Latino symbolism and resources of East L.A” (133). The fourth and final barrio type was described by Curtis as “metropolitan realms,” and it first appeared in the mid-1980s and has remained prominent to this day. This barrio type, as a result of the surge in the Hispanic population, is characterized by several barrio realms that were no longer dependent on one central place. This can be observed today throughout Los Angeles.
     One undeniable characteristic of the Los Angeles barrios is their resilience. Before the 1960s, to look at one example in particular, Southeast Los Angeles (delineated by the gray box around the yellow pins in the above map) was a thriving industrial society. As James R. Curtis, a professor of geography at California State University, argues in “Barrio Space and Place in Southeast Los Angeles,” as a result of the high-wage, unionized jobs, “working-class people could afford to purchase a modest home, raise a family, and pursue their vision of the good life in a small-town setting that offered a healthful, civic-minded mix of commercial, social, and governmental institutions and organizations” (126). This, however, was when the area was populated largely by Anglos. In the late 1960s, as many industrial workers were beginning to be replaced by new machines, the industrial economy began to collapse. Many workers were laid off and forced to leave the area. This opened up space for incoming Latino immigrants, and it is during this time that Los Angeles began to see tremendous increases in the Latino population. Almost immediately after this period of deindustrialization, when it looked like the Los Angeles economy would be doomed, a period of reindustrialization began. While this reindustrialization did not bring Southeast Los Angeles back to the thriving industrial economy that existed before the 1960s, it certainly helped get the economy back on its feet. Beginning with low-wage, nonunion jobs and working to add new facilities and programs for its residents, the area is gradually rebuilding itself (Curtis).
     Westlake (the red pin in the upper left corner of the map at the top of the page) is a Los Angeles barrio that, like Southeast Los Angeles, displays this characteristic. It simultaneously possesses both “elements of deterioration” and “elements of regeneration,” as sociology and political science professors Norma Chinchilla, Nora Hamilton, and James Loucky refer to them. While Westlake is severely afflicted by violence and crime, there are also several efforts being made by both the government and the residents themselves to counteract these “elements of deterioration.” One example of these efforts can be seen in the Church of Our Lady Queen of Angels. This church has become a sanctuary for refugees and a place where day laborers, street vendors, and the homeless can go for help. That is, it is dedicated to providing the residents of Westlake with relief from these particular "elements of deterioration." This is how, in the words of the authors of “Central Americans in Los Angeles: An Immigrant Community in Transition”, “the Westlake area epitomizes the conception of a deteriorating urban area in some respects but contradicts it in others” (74).

Works Cited:

Chinchilla, Norma, Nora Hamilton, and James Loucky. “Central Americans in Los Angeles: An Immigrant Community in Transition.” In the Barrios. Ed. Joan Moore and Raquel Pinderhughes. New York: Russel Sage Foundation, 1993. 51-78. Print.

Curtis, James R. “Barrio Space and Place in Southeast Los Angeles, California.” Hispanic Spaces, Latino Spaces. Ed. Daniel D. Arreola. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004. 125-141. Print.

“Mapping L.A.-Latino.” Los Angeles Times. n.p. n.d. Web. 2 March 2016.

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