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Upwardly Mobile Latinos Shift Their Political Views

Times Staff Writers

In once heavily black Pacoima, bakeries are now panaderias, the Church of God is Iglesia de Dios and discount furniture is advertised as muebles descuentos.

In Sylmar, which has been a white, middle-class community, Latino families, lured by relatively low housing prices, are moving up, buying homes as fast as they come on the market.

Welcome to Los Angeles’ fastest-growing Latino community--a section of the suburban northeast San Fernando Valley where analysts are observing with interest the changing political behavior of upwardly mobile Latinos as they move from poverty into more affluent neighborhoods.

Latino mobility is occurring in the San Gabriel Valley, Orange County and other places. But, the northeast San Fernando Valley is different. Big social change is happening in an area small enough to be studied closely by political scientists and political campaign managers: Poor and middle-class neighborhoods are side by side; families are moving from the impoverished surroundings to more affluent areas nearby in increasing numbers; the area has the city’s fastest growing Latino population.

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As a result, the northeast Valley is a political laboratory of the voting behavior of upwardly mobile Latinos, according to political scientists interviewed by The Times and political organizers who have moved into the area to try for Latino victories in coming elections.

While the conclusions are tentative because upward mobility among Latinos is a fairly recent phenomenon, a Times study by Caltech political science Prof. Bruce E. Cain indicates that as Latinos move up economically, they become more politically conservative. Cain found, for example, that those who move into more affluent neighborhoods are more likely than other Latinos to change their registration from Democratic to Republican.

Cain examined census data and voter records in the northeast Valley, using the 7th Los Angeles City Council District as his area of study, where he estimated the 1986 Latino population to be 152,272, or 59% of all who live there. Of Latinos who moved to more affluent neighborhoods within the area and switched parties when they did so, 57% joined the Republicans. In contrast, of those in the study area who moved from one poor neighborhood to another, only 38% switched to the Republican Party. The majority of those making a lateral move remained Democrats.

“Chicanos vote according to their pocketbook.” said Rudy Acuna, a professor of Chicano studies at California State University, Northridge.

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He said Cain’s findings are in line with a study by the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project after the 1984 presidential election that showed “something like 82% of the Latinos earning under $10,000 voted for (Democrat Walter) Mondale. Above 70% of those making over $50,000 voted for (Republican President) Reagan.”

“I think we would be super persons if there was no movement on our part towards voting self-interest,” Acuna said. “Mexican people are just like Jews and every other group.”

“What we’re looking at is people whose social mobility process . . . is in fact creating a more conservative trend in that population,” said UCLA professor Leo Estrada, a leading expert on Latino demographic trends.

“Latinos have suburbanized extensively over the last decade,” said Estrada. “That suburbanization process has historically been what people have called moving up and moving out, and with it, it’s a wonderful time to make changes in your life, and get a better car, nicer house, and kids in better schools. And Republican affiliation somehow seems to be interrelated with all those kinds of things.”

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What researchers have not determined, Estrada said, is how much these party changes are being made out of conviction and “how much of it is (Latinos) just trying to fit in” with their new surroundings.

As these social and political changes take place at the neighborhood level in the northeast Valley, political analysts are predicting that it will not be long before politicians will come along who reflect the same values. What this could mean for Los Angeles is more Latino representation on the City Council, but not necessarily representation that is in lock-step with the Latino council members who are there now.

The results might emerge in the next few years.

In 1989, the northeast Valley will elect a Los Angeles council member in the 7th District, and if incumbent Ernani Bernardi retires, the growing Latino population in the area is likely to elect the Valley’s first Latino council member. The winner, political experts speculate, may be more conservative than the two urban Latinos now on the council, Richard Alatorre and Gloria Molina.

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With the municipal election less than 1 1/2 years away, the area is becoming a target for intense political organization. “We see it as a growth area, and an area that needs more attention than it has gotten in the past,” said Richard Martinez, field secretary of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, which has registered more than a million Latino voters in the Southwest in recent years.

Interviews with residents of the area support the findings of Cain and other experts who have noted the political changes.

Al Avila, the college-educated son of Mexican immigrants, said that after he moved from a low-income neighborhood in Pacoima to a middle-income area in Sylmar, his political leanings moved “more to the center.”

“There was a time when I wouldn’t have even thought twice about not supporting a Democrat,” he said. “But now, I look at how issues affect my pocketbook. . . . You’re more fearful of losing what you’ve got, what you’ve been able to build.”

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“Most of us have gotten a little more pragmatic, more conservative,” said Jess Margarito, a Latino councilman from San Fernando, a small city in the northeast Valley. “This is not East L.A. You have a higher rate of home ownership, and that makes a difference.”

Not All Agree on Change

Jesse Avila, a Latino who grew up in a Van Nuys barrio and is looking for a home to buy in affluent Studio City, said that as Latinos become more established, “they tend to vote like anybody else, that is, to protect their neighborhood, and they get very conservative.”

But not everyone agreed that Latinos change stripes as they move up the economic ladder.

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Irene Tovar, former chairwoman of the Hispanic Caucus of the state Democratic Party and a longtime Valley resident, said she is skeptical of Cain’s findings. She said she has not seen any shift in party registration among upwardly mobile Latinos. She said that when she called on middle-class Latinos in Sylmar on behalf of Democratic U.S. Sen. Alan Cranston last year, “they were all Democrats.”

“Mexican people still identify themselves as working class, even if they’re professionals,” she said. “Mexicans are traditional in their culture. Though they are well off, they remember their parents telling them how hard life was.”

Trend Sweeping Southland

The dramatic Latino growth in the Valley is part of a trend sweeping Southern California as it enters the 21st Century. The Southern California Assn. of Governments has forecast that Latinos will constitute almost 40% of the combined population of its member counties--Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, Imperial and Ventura--by the year 2010, contrasted to 24% in 1980. Anglos will constitute 41% of the population in 2010, compared to 61% in 1980.

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“I think the patterns of migration have changed very drastically,” said Councilman Alatorre. “Usually, when you thought of Hispanics, you only thought of them in East Los Angeles. Well, obviously Hispanics are all over the city of Los Angeles.”

Sometime in the 1990s, according to UCLA’s Estrada, there will be as many Latinos in the northeast Valley as there are now in and around East Los Angeles, for decades the city’s largest Latino community.

There have long been small barrios in the Valley, as portrayed by the movie “La Bamba,” the story of 1950s rock star Richie Valens, who grew up in a Latino neighborhood in Pacoima. The area’s Latino roots go back to the Spanish discovery of the San Fernando Valley by Gaspar de Portola in 1769. Mexican immigrants began arriving in the 1920s to tend the once plentiful orange groves and olive orchards.

Burgeoning Population

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As the sprawling city gobbled up agricultural land in the 1950s and ‘60s, Valley Latinos turned more and more to jobs created by the new industrial and commercial growth. Since the late 1970s, as affordable housing became available along with an expanding job market, the Latino population has swelled in the northeast Valley proportionately faster than any other ethnic group.

Today, the northeast Valley’s estimated Latino population of well over 250,000 lives in distinctly separate communities.

Pacoima is the poorest, largest and most densely populated. Once the center of the Valley’s black community, the area has become a receiving point for new immigrants from Central America and Mexico.

Outside the old Pacoima barrio, Latino growth has extended to once largely white middle-class neighborhoods, as in Sylmar. Here, a “new barrio” has emerged, made up of “the beginnings of an emergent middle class” of upwardly mobile second- and third-generation Latinos, said Jorge Garcia, a professor of Chicano studies at California State University, Northridge.

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“Hispanics who grew up and went to school in Pacoima and became professionals move out into adjoining communities like Sylmar,” said Al Avila.

Avila said that many upwardly mobile Latinos, like himself, moved to Sylmar so they can live in nicer neighborhoods but still be close to their families.

Guadalupe Perez Ramos echoed that sentiment. Except for one sister who “moved away” to a southeast Los Angeles County suburb, all seven of her brothers and sisters decided to live close to their parent’s Pacoima home, moving to the neighboring communities of Sylmar and Arleta.

“It boils down to culture,” she said. “For Hispanics it is important for families to stay together. Every Sunday after church the family--which now has 45 members--meets at their parents’ Pacoima home.

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The Latino growth has created an opportunity for Latinos to increase their political representation.

But, said political experts, because the middle-class Latinos are moving into a conservative environment, long dominated by conservative whites, a Latino electoral winner would have to be conservative.

Latino Voting Power

In the meantime, efforts are under way to increase Latino voting power in the Valley. Voter registration drives are planned by the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project. An effort also is being made to organize in the Valley a sister organization to the powerful United Neighborhoods Organization on the Eastside and the South Central Organizing Committee.

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Slowly but surely, political observers predict, Latinos will add to their voting clout, as immigrants seek amnesty under the new federal immigration law, as increased numbers of American-born children of Latino immigrants reach voting age, as voter registration drives are held, and as Latinos become more politically organized.

One sign of the emerging political awareness was last year’s election of the first Latino majority to the San Fernando City Council.

For 18 years, there were no Latinos on the City Council, despite the city’s Latino majority population. Then in 1984, Jess Margarito won election. Two years later, he was joined by two other Latinos. That, Alatorre said, “opened the eyes of Hispanics as to what they can do politically.”

Assisting with research for this article were Caltech graduate student Arthur Lupia and The Times marketing research department.

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CHANGE IN LATINO POPULATION

These are population changes forecast by the Southern California Assn. of Governments for the combined population of Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, Imperial and Ventura counties. Black bars represent the Latino proportion of population, hatched bars Anglos.

LATINO POPULATION IN DISTRICT 7

Percent Percent of Community 1980 1986 Increase Total Pop. Pacoima 31,344 50,350 61 83 Sun Valley* 21,127 31,409 49 67 Sylmar 14,890 27,434 84 48 Mission Hills* 3,581 5,024 40 50 Lake View Terrace 2,918 6,719 130 41 Arleta 2,621 3,424 31 42

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* Figures are for parts of these communities in District 7.

DEMOGRAPHICS OF THE REGION

L.A. Valley Dist. 7 Median Age 30.7 31.4 27.2 Education Some High School 31% 22% 39 High School 28% 32% 34% Some College 21% 24% 18% College 20% 22% 9% Employment Professional 14% 15% 8% Executives, Managers 12% 15% 8% Tech., Sales 33% 35% 30% Crafts, Repair 11% 12% 16% Laborers 17% 13% 24% Income, Homes Income $15,819 $21,363 $19,527 Home Value $96,072 $103,930 $77,980 Renters 60% 44% 37% Party Registration Democrats 63% 52% 60% Republicans 28% 39% 31% Other 9% 9% 9%

Sources: 1980 Census and Caltech political science Prof. Bruce Cain.

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