- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 25, 2003

Part II

LOS ANGELES Early dusk in South Central and a black gangbanger is tagging a sun-bleached stucco wall along Slauson Avenue with blue spray paint.
"Murder" is the message of the graffiti vandal's barely legible scrawl.
A mile away, Gustavo Huerta locks the gate to his modest, well-kept bungalow on West 59th Street.
He, wife Linda and their three children are inside.
South Central, once a nationally known black ghetto, is now predominantly Hispanic. In many ways, this insurgence means more of the same: crime all the time.
But in other ways, the new arrivals are angry about the legacy left by the 1992 riots a landscape of decimated storefronts and graffiti-marked gang territory.
The new Hispanic residents want the culture that perpetrated the wreckage gone.
In the mile radius circling Western and Slauson avenues, the Hispanic population jumped 68 percent between 1990 and 2000 as the black population plummeted 21 percent. Similar contrasting shifts, likely understated by the census, hold true throughout this beleaguered area.
The Starbucks at Chesterfield Square is a nice touch, and the Home Depot brought $9-an-hour jobs. But they don't do much to ease the strain of immigration and migration.
Many Hispanics here will tell you that black is no good. They will tell you that thugs scared them and attacked them, singling them out for crime even as many lower-income blacks took flight or, in some cases, died from crack and its attendant lifestyle.
Blacks, many hardworking and long established on this turf, will tell you that the Mexicans came in and took the jobs, pretty much invading the place. And Mexican gangs, they say, are running and ruining some neighborhoods that "regular Joe" blacks once enjoyed.
"They took our homes and our schools," says Morris Griffin, nicknamed "Big Money," a maintenance worker for Los Angeles County who lives in Inglewood, a mostly black extension of South Central.
"Our elderly are being forced to move out because of new schools the city had to build to hold all of their kids," Mr. Griffin, a 52-year-old New Jersey native, says of the Mexicans as he props his feet up on a desk in a cubicle of the Southside building where he works.
Mr. Griffin, 6-foot-6 and a former college basketball player, calls himself a civil rights activist. Except when it comes to the "infiltrators."
He sees the ethnic transformation when he drives to work, past the B&B; Barbecue Connection down the street from Fernando's Lumber No. 3. He knows the smells of chicken adobo and fresh mole sauce. He reads the signs advertising fresh pupusas at the new Salvadoran eateries. He notes the older-model Fords with pastiches of maroon primer.
"We're talking about people who were blamed for taking our jobs," Mr. Griffin says. "It feels like those jobs went straight to them. And they multiply in a big way, all the time."
'Why should we?'
This browning of the nation, in which the Hispanic population soared by 58 percent in the '90s to overtake the non-Hispanic black population, makes some among the nation's longer-established minority a little testy.
"Why should we be in coalition with some group that wants to outnumber us?" asks Shannon Reeves, head of the Oakland, Calif., chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Even so, Mr. Reeves has begun to assemble participants for a conference later this year that aims to encourage peace in this clash of minority cultures.
Rep. Maxine Waters, California Democrat, angered Hispanic activists when she appeared in an ad on behalf of Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn during his contentious, successful race against Antonio Villaraigosa in 2001.
"She made it in general, this endorsement, for all African-Americans. And that was wrong," union leader Miguel Contreras says. "Black officials are going to have to be more sensitive when it comes to Hispanics. Things like that can come back to haunt her."
Across the country, a bill in the Georgia state legislature to formally recognize Hispanics as a minority stalled in 2001 after several black lawmakers initially refused to back it.
State law first enacted in 1984 gave companies an incentive to hire minority subcontractors: a tax break of 10 percent on all payments, up to $100,000, made to those subcontractors. The new measure passed, with the dissenters signing on.
State Rep. Bob Holmes, a member of Georgia's Legislative Black Caucus, was an early objector. He argued that government programs to help minority businesses were remedies for discrimination against racial groups such as blacks and American Indians.
Hispanics are a "language group" with no history of being discriminated against in Georgia, Mr. Holmes argued. He and other black legislators protested that including Hispanics in the definition of minority could "dilute the original intent of such programs."
When the Dallas school board formulated a plan to create a third majority-Hispanic district in an area of Oak Cliff, black residents made enough noise to defeat it. The plan would have eliminated a black seat on the nine-member board.
The Rev. W. Raymond Bryant was among the protesters.
"We just weren't about to let them do that," says Mr. Bryant, who at the time led St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church in a seedy part of Dallas and is now a pastor in Austin, Texas. "They wanted to put more blacks with the Hispanics. Now why would we let them do that?"
Blacks showed up in large numbers at a hearing on the school redistricting plan.
Mr. Bryant, 45, claims no racial animus.
"But blacks like to say, 'I have an Hispanic friend,' just like whites used to say, 'I have a black friend,'" the minister explains, noting the hypocrisy of tokenism. "So it is funny: We are doing something now that we accused whites of doing."
'Tough guy' frown
When the Huertas moved to South Central Los Angeles in 1989 from a better area over by the Ramparts police station, near MacArthur Park, the place was predominantly black.
Gustavo Huerta says his kids Steven, now 23, Frank, 18, and Marlene, 16 were robbed by locals. Gunfire at night was an unsettling lullaby.
"I wore a frown all the time when I would walk around here because I had to look like a tough guy," Steven Huerta says, recalling himself at age 10.
The family sits in the living room of their small home. Cozy and modestly decorated, the two-story, four-bedroom house essentially is a fortress.
The peach and lemon trees in the front yard are part of the local landscape. So is the 5-foot-high wrought-iron fence with a gate that is always locked. And so is the bullet-chipped red brick of the Huerta home.
"I was grilling out here one day," says Mr. Huerta, a small, weathered man of 49 who has worked with his hands all of his life. "Some car drove down the street shooting, and I just stood here with my spatula."
Even after living in the United States for 30 years, his English is a bit fractured. But he gamely plows ahead, with some humility. Now he realizes what he is trying to say.
"Two years ago, nobody could walk around here and be safe; it was half blacks. But then the Spanish people moved in. Now it is safe."
Over 10 years, much of the black population died or left, sometimes headed for prison.
"We had a family living two doors down from us, they all sold drugs," Mr. Huerta says. "When police would arrest the son or the father, the mother and the sisters would sell."
Three of those neighbors died of street symptoms: drug deals gone sour, gang wars, bad health from all the dope.
"That was good for the neighborhood," Mr. Huerta says.
Three years after he took on the $600 monthly mortgage, the neighborhood was ravaged by the riots of 1992.
Mr. Huerta got tired of it real quick. Like on the days when his children came home from Manual Arts High School and told him that there weren't enough books for each student, or that black and Hispanic gangsters were beating up the unaffiliated Hispanic kids.
But "the whole place got better," he says, when black neighbors started moving out of South Central. "We didn't have to be afraid as much."
Gustavo Huerta and thousands of other Hispanics almost all Mexicans moved here because the housing was cheap and the work plentiful. They could get jobs at the plants in nearby Watts or in the tire shops or Mexican eateries. And they could walk or take the bus and be home by sundown, when the trouble started every day.
But the new arrivals also carried a crime wave of their own in the form of Mexican street gangs, which still run rampant. The mix of black and Hispanic gangs, each violently guarding territory, continues to make South Central a war zone.
"We have people here who won't even come to work unless they know I am here and carrying a gun," says Miguel, who manages a steel manufacturing company in Watts.
He doesn't want his last name used "because I've already had people try to hurt me for speaking out against the neighborhood."
Hard lessons
The Hispanic migration to the South coincided with a black return, and racial scuffles are not unusual.
In Memphis, Tenn., black-on-brown crime rose dramatically. The city scrambled to find a way to quell conflict. Municipal leaders looked at the 2000 census figures 2.97 percent Hispanic and thought: Why does it seem like there are so many more?
Because Hispanics were grossly undercounted, says Dilka Roman, former head of the local chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens.
She says the city of 650,000 is almost 25 percent Hispanic.
The city's solution was Marco Yzaguirre, a 35-year-old Peruvian, a towering, barrel-chested man with a shaved head and a simple MO: respect.
"I was appointed Hispanic outreach sector of the Memphis Police Department two years ago," Officer Yzaguirre says, walking through a neighborhood in Hickory Hill that is home to the majority of the city's Hispanics. "We have started to teach them to use the banks instead of carrying their money. And we have taught them that it is OK to call the police."
Officer Yzaguirre has a favorite story about how the newcomers began to fight back when the local black criminal element overwhelmed them.
"The Latin Kings the street gang came to town when a bunch of Mexicans started getting hit robberies and murders," he explains.
Some Mexican guys, drinking beer in a parked car, were confronted by three masked black men with guns drawn.
"The guys in the car scattered, and the black guys started firing on them, but one of the guys in the car, from the Latin Kings, drew his weapon," Officer Yzaguirre recalls. "And he shot one of the black guys right there."
The officer points to the center of his forehead.
"This guy was dropped dead, still holding his gun when we got there."
Investigators concluded it was self-defense. One witness to the attempted robbery was a black man who lived nearby. The shooter fled to Mexico.
A matter of respect
"It's really tough to convince Latinos that blacks aren't all bad," Officer Yzaguirre says. "They will talk to [white officers] or me, but they won't even talk to a black officer."
The history of the Deep South doesn't mean a thing to David Cortez. He knows little of the civil rights movement that took place so many years ago in Memphis, where he now lives.
Cortez is 22. He wasn't even alive when Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968.
But the Mexican construction worker, a convicted felon, knows one thing: He won't let blacks at Eastview Apartments mess with him, as they have with his Hispanic neighbors.
"I'll respect them if they respect me, but they should know not to mess with me," says Cortez, 130 pounds of cocky charisma.
Cortez got out of county jail a year ago; he did a year for shooting and wounding a black man. It was the street way of dealing with a spate of black-on-Hispanic crime, which later leveled off. But when Cortez moved here two years ago, there were as many as six homicides a month.
"It seemed as though we were shipping bodies to Mexico every week," Officer Yzaguirre says.
Break-through-the-door, home-invasion robberies were not unusual. People got seriously hurt, usually Hispanics, newcomers to Memphis seeking good pay for construction work and the company of others who speak their language.
"They also have jobs that we used to have, and they do it for less money," says Will, a black man, standing in front of his apartment building in Eastview.
Will looks across the parking lot at a half-dozen Hispanics who are tinkering with a rusty blue Toyota pickup. He makes this pronouncement not so much in defense of the crimes, but more to think it through himself.
"I mean, they work for so little, and we have to wonder why they do that. If you are working a job for $8 an hour and they come along and will do it for $5, that's a pretty easy choice."
Cortez, who works construction in nearby Mississippi these days, says he has news for his black neighbors.
"Just give us three or four years," he says, "and we'll take over. There will be more of us."
A lack of trust
Eastview is one of a growing number of lower-class complexes on the Southeast side, where Memphis' two primary minorities live together but separately.
For many Hispanics, that means hitting the parking lot, drinking Budweiser and smoking Marlboro Reds, working on someone's car and shooting the breeze.
Always the talking, the incessant Spanish staccato, about home, about friends, about soccer, about work.
And in turns, they glance nervously at small gatherings of blacks around doorways, under stairways, in the same parking lot. Ask a group of Hispanics whether they hang out with black neighbors and the nervous glances turn to nervous laughter.
"No, no," says Dennis Hernandez, 30, who arrived in Memphis from Honduras five years ago.
Mr. Hernandez knows of the intimidation and crimes perpetrated on the burgeoning Hispanic community.
"We can't trust them," he says.
Slight glance at three blacks, two of them holding leashed dogs.
"It's just too hard after all of that."
"We are not prejudiced, but it seems that they commit all of these crimes," adds another man, a construction worker wearing dusty jeans, a T-shirt and boots and clutching a 22-ounce Bud. "We know there are good ones, just as there are good Mexicans and bad Mexicans."
Many blacks, meanwhile, don't understand the tidal wave of immigration that is transforming their city.
"I lived here seven years ago and there were none," says Candice, a young black woman who is hanging out at the back of her apartment building. "Now they are everywhere."
Suspicious minds
The girlfriends eating lunch together at Carolina Turkeys in Mount Olive, N.C., are at odds over their brown-skinned co-workers, who sit within earshot under the lunchroom's incandescent lights.
Lovie Fikes looks like someone's kindly grandmother, but she isn't ready to embrace all these newcomers. They don't speak much English, she says, and they aren't even nice.
Miss Fikes has lived her 59 years as the largest minority in the South, and she isn't comfortable accommodating this rival group.
And besides: "They're mean, some of those ladies. I work with them. We try, I guess. But they could go back, and it would be all right with me."
Hazel Chester, sitting across the table, has another complaint.
"They don't pay taxes, I know that," she says.
But Danielle Hastin, almost 40 years younger than Miss Fikes, went to high school with Hispanic teens and concedes "they were cool."
"Some of them hung out with us," she says. "Nobody really minded them, and some of us were friends."
The three black women are in the minority among the 2,400 employees of Carolina Turkeys, one of the largest producers of turkey meat in the world. Hispanic workers outnumber black workers almost 3-to-1.
The 16-year-old company sits on 2,000 rural acres in the deep green Southern outback. Unions disparage the business for its $7-an-hour wage and 109-unit trailer park set aside for employees.
Saladin Muhammad, chairman of Black Workers for Justice and lead organizer of United Electrical Workers Local 150, mounted an unsuccessful campaign a couple of years ago to unionize Carolina Turkeys. He called for solidarity between black and Hispanic workers.
But most employees didn't want anything to do with that.
"Why do we want to endanger our work, which some of us broke the law to get?" one Hispanic asks.
Racism redux
Mr. Muhammad contends that many employers play on the competition. Hispanics are willing to work for a lower wage and make up for it in overtime; blacks, longtime union advocates, in many cases hold the union line.
The result?
"The same kind of racism that exists between black and white workers now exists between black and brown," Mr. Muhammad says.
The black-brown alliances forged most easily are born of politics and struggle, liberal laws and civil rights agitation.
On a national level, the NAACP, the Urban League and other black-led civic organizations for years have extended invitations to Hispanics. The response has been less than enthusiastic, as Hispanic activists formed their own coalitions, such as La Raza and the League of United Latin American Citizens.
Pablo Pena got his job at Carolina Turkeys the old-fashioned way: He walked up to the employment office, filled out an application, found a place to live in the trailer park.
And here Mr. Pena is, ready for another day in the liquid-freeze department on the turkey line, where tens of thousands of headless birds move along in an immaculate, 40-degree processing warehouse.
"I come here to work, to save money for college," Mr. Pena says. "I need $7,000 for college in Chiapas. I think I can get it in two years, and then go back."
A black co-worker, Wayne Kornegay, wasn't happy to see Mr. Pena.
When he first noticed the influx of Hispanics in his native Mount Olive, Mr. Kornegay asked: "Why are they here?"
For money, he was told. His response was point-blank.
"Don't they have money where they come from?"

Part III: Suspicious Minds

Part I: Welcome to the neighborhood

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