Los Angeles is not Latin America.
Such a statement should be as uncontroversial as a western hemisphere map. But in L.A., conventional wisdom runs the other way.
Lewis D’Vorkin, the Los Angeles Times editor, recently promoted L.A. as “the northern capital of Latin America.” Organizers of L.A.’s bid for the Olympics used a similar formulation.
Los Angeles would have much to gain from deeper ties to a region that has seen gains in democracy and in its middle class over the past two generations, but building those ties would take sustained work.
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And in its Pacific Standard Time series, the Getty Foundation supported 70-plus exhibitions – from Santa Barbara to San Diego – under the title: “LA/LA” – for Latin America and Los Angeles. L.A., the Getty said in its publicity, is “a Latin American city of long duration.”
The impulse to pump up L.A. is understandable, but, c’mon, it’s not even the capital of California. Los Angeles isn’t a part of Latin America – or of anyplace else.
Yes, L.A. has a Spanish colonial and Mexican past. Yes, half of Angelenos either are Latin American immigrants or their descendants.
But Los Angeles, for almost its entirely history, has been a walled-off and peculiar place – “an island on the land,” as the 19th century novelist Helen Hunt Jackson put it. When L.A. has bothered to define itself, it has done so in opposition to the world – and to Latin America in particular.
When whites built Los Angeles as a “city of the future” they “whitewashed,” in the term used by the historian William Deverell, its Mexican history and Mexican-American people. That whitewashing left a permanent separation. In “The Labyrinth of Solitude,” the Mexican author Octavio Paz described L.A. as having a “vaguely Mexican atmosphere” that felt distant, like it was “floating” in the air.
“I say ‘floats’ because it never mixes or unites with the other world, the North American world based on precision and efficiency,” Paz wrote, adding: “It floats, never quite existing, never quite vanishing.”
It still floats. Today’s L.A. prides itself on its diversity, but its culture is still ruled by predominantly white Hollywood. The center city and Westside – the most familiar parts of L.A. worldwide – are far whiter than the U.S. as a whole.
While L.A is not a Latin American city, it is a profoundly Latino one. But as immigration diminishes, its Latinos are becoming less Latin American. Today, 60 percent of L.A. County’s Latinos are native-born.
Population trends work against Latinization. One of the biggest stories in Los Angeles this century has been the rapid decline in the number of children, including Latino children. Another big story is the increase in the city’s number of whites – by nearly 40,000 between 2010 and 2014 – outpacing the rise in the number of Latinos.
Since the 1990s recession, Latin American immigration has dramatically declined, and the regional economy has tilted away from Latin America. International trade here is dominated by East Asia. Mexico is the third-largest trading partner of the United States, but ranks 10th as an L.A. trading partner, behind Germany.
In this context, there is something misleading, even cynical about the “L.A. is Latin America” messages of L.A.’s elites. Many Southern California institutions celebrate prominent Latin Americans while ignoring L.A.’s own Latinos. Take the motion picture academy, which has given Oscars to film directors from Mexico – Alfonso Cuarón, Alejandro González Iñárritu, and, perhaps soon, Guillermo del Toro – while doing little for Latino filmmakers.
Still, it would be wiser to embrace the “Latin America–Los Angeles” narrative as aspirational. After all, Los Angeles would have much to gain from deeper ties to a region that has seen gains in democracy and in its middle class over the past two generations.
But building those ties would take sustained work, including creating more spaces for preservation and learning of the Spanish language. More broadly, making L.A. a Latin American city would require creating the same freedom of movement the European Union enjoys, so that Latin Americans could visit, study and live here with ease.
But, first, L.A. would have to obliterate the walls that have long surrounded it.
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.