Costa Mesa Tries to Talk Away Its Ethnic Tensions

Times Staff Writer

In 1968, Costa Mesa officials proposed to deal with tensions between Americans and Mexican immigrants by having the United States buy Baja California. Twenty years later, Costa Mesa still is trying to promote ethnic harmony--but on a more modest scale.

Through a program called the Costa Mesa Living Room Dialogues, residents will be invited to join their neighbors in evening discussions about the immigrant experience. Organizers hope that the discussions between recent arrivals, longtime residents and those in between will help participants appreciate ethnic diversity and realize that almost all Americans are immigrants or descendants of them.

The program, unlike the purchase of Baja, isn’t likely to inspire the ridicule that the Baja idea did, when council members reasoned that the impoverished residents of Baja would benefit from an infusion of U.S. cash.


The Costa Mesa City Council on Monday is expected to approve a resolution designating April 17-24 as Human Relations Week. That week, the dialogues are scheduled to take place. They are sponsored by the Orange County Human Relations Commission, the Newport-Mesa-Irvine Interfaith Council, the Newport-Mesa Unified School District and the Costa Mesa Service Organizations Council.

According to official estimates, “by the year 2000, over 50% of the makeup of Southern California will be minorities,” said Costa Mesa Councilwoman Mary Hornbuckle.

“For some people, that can be very threatening. The whole point of the program is to help people adjust to the change in demographics that are coming and are here right now.”

Tensions between Costa Mesans of different ethnic backgrounds drew attention in 1986, when residents complained about Mexican immigrants who gathered daily in Lions Park in search of work.

The problems between residents and the day laborers led to the formation of a city task force, which determined that residents would benefit from greater cultural awareness.

Following their report, various meetings and events were held, including a multicultural fair in Lions Park last Fall. The Living Room Dialogues, Hornbuckle said, are the latest result of the day worker controversy.


Jean Forbath, a board member of Costa Mesa-based Share Our Selves, a volunteer-run, anti-poverty agency, said the success of 16 previous neighborhood meetings were successful enough to inspire Living Room Dialogues. At one meeting, Forbath said, eight ethnic groups were represented.

“It was really neat. It gave all of us a chance to talk about our own immigrant experience,” Forbath said.

“The whole point is that the city is changing greatly. But we want to encourage a peaceful, helpful type of change and stress that Costa Mesa will continue to be a great place to live.”

George Hammond, president of the Costa Mesa Service Organizations Council, said the program “would accomplish a great deal for our community”--but only if enough residents open their homes for the meetings.

“We still have to do a great deal to get things in shape and make this proposal work,” he said.

All Costa Mesans will be invited to sign up through local schools and public libraries, said Vicki Plevin, the Orange County Human Relations Commission staff member who is overseeing the project.

Each dialogue will consist of about 10 people of various backgrounds who will meet in homes across the city, Plevin said. A volunteer trained by the commission will help run the discussion, and an interpreter will be provided for those who do not speak English, she said.

“I’ve been through this 20 times, and it’s exciting every time,” Plevin said.

The discussions follow a typical pattern, Plevin said.

“First, we get in touch with the fact that we all have someone in our families who has experienced international immigration,” she said. “Then people talk about their own intercultural experiences. After that, we move on to a brainstorming session” intended to produce ideas that will contribute to racial harmony, she said.

Plevin said participants in similar discussions often are surprised to discover that the behavior of recent Mexican and Asian immigrants has resembled that of European immigrants years ago.

Like those from Latin America and Asia, Plevin said, Europeans who arrived in any numbers tended to set up small incarnations of their native lands, where they could speak their language and practice their social customs.

The understanding that new immigrants are repeating a time-honored pattern helps participants see a universal element in their behavior, Plevin said.

Juan Chavez, who has lived in Orange County for 18 years and serves on the Costa Mesa City Human Relations Committee, said that the meetings highlight people’s common experiences.

“Our city is changing, and we have to get to know each other. And we have to understand that we’re all basic immigrants,” he said. “I think it’s a great concept . . . it’s neighbor getting to know neighbor.

“The meetings serve to tell one another what’s bothering us, and to search for solutions before there is any great confrontation.”

The Rev. James A. Nelson, of the Orange Coast Unitarian-Universalist Church in Costa Mesa, said he hoped the program would “encourage all people to realize that we are an immigrant nation.” Except for American Indians, Nelson said, “we all have experience in our own lives or family histories in being an immigrant.”

Nelson, a member of the project’s steering committee, said Costa Mesa is a particularly appropriate community for a program such as this, because “there is a range of economic situations here.”

Socially and economically, as well as geographically, “Costa Mesa really lies between Santa Ana-Irvine-Garden Grove and Newport Beach,” Nelson said.

“It’s a real curious town, which is one of the really exciting things about this place. Costa Mesa has a real opportunity to build a multicultural community where people feel good about the variety of cultural styles and ethnic backgrounds.”

According to 1987 estimates, Costa Mesa had a population of 88,000, 90% of whom were white. Twelve percent were Latino, 1% black and 9% of other backgrounds. The numbers add up to more than 100% because racial and ethnic backgrounds sometimes overlap.

The city’s median household income was $28,451, meaning that half its households earn more than that amount, the other half less.

Council member Hornbuckle said the real issue of the dialogues is fear--fear of change.

“We occasionally hear comments from different people about other races that aren’t very pleasant,” she said.

“(But) we don’t have anything to fear about change (in the city’s ethnic composition),” she said.

“Individual people are not something to be afraid of.”

Hornbuckle reacted with a chuckle when reminded of her city’s earlier plan for dealing with the Mexican population.

“We’re not going to go quite that far again,” she said.

Times staff writer Ray Perez contributed to this story.