Latino Aspirations on Rise in Compton : Demographics: Latinos stream into the area. Some say the black-run city is hostile to their needs.


Compton, which likes to call itself the largest “black-run” city west of the Mississippi, is as synonymous locally with black people as rap music and soul food.

Black History Month--February--is a community-wide celebration. Children go to schools named after black heroes--the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., George Washington Carver, Marian Anderson and Ronald E. McNair, the astronaut who died in the Challenger disaster.

It might not be long, however, before somebody suggests naming a school after Benito Juarez or Cesar Chavez because black Compton is changing colors.

For a decade, Latinos have been quietly streaming into every neighborhood in the city, replacing middle-class blacks who gave up on Compton--its violent crime, its drug trafficking, its economic failures--and moved on in search of safer streets and better schools.


Latino children are now the majority in the Compton Unified School District--50.93% compared to 33% just five years ago.

City-wide, the percentage of the population that is black is dropping--from an all-time high of 73% in the 1980 census to an estimated 66% this year.

During the same period, the Latino population has jumped from 21% to at least 30%, making this community of about 100,000 in southeast Los Angeles County probably the most nonwhite city in the Southland.

It is, nonetheless, a community with racial conflicts, a troubling example of how Latino aspirations and black resentment can collide.

Blacks control every public and quasi-public institution in Compton--the schools, City Hall, the Compton Chamber of Commerce, the Democratic Party machine--and show no sign they intend to share their power.

City and school officials have refused to come up with affirmative action plans for Latino hiring, a continuing source of tension between the two groups.

“Here we are, a truly minority community,” said bakery owner Pedro Pallan, “and the blacks are not giving us an affirmative action committee in either the city (government) or the school district. There cannot be equal employment opportunity without an affirmative action committee.”

In the Compton Unified School District, for example, more than 73% of the teachers are black; less than 4% are Latino.

A council-ordered study last year found that only 9.7% of city jobs were held by Latinos, compared to 78% held by blacks. Latinos have been pressing for more Spanish-speaking employees in both places.

“The thing was that here we have a bona fide occupational qualification,” said Martin D. Chavez, a lifelong Compton resident who served on the city’s Latino advisory committee. “We have a city where 30% to 40% during this census may turn out to be Hispanic.”

Latinos believe that affirmative action policies should benefit them as well as anyone else. Some blacks disagree. Affirmative action, says school trustee John Steward, is reparation to black Americans for slavery and for being torn from their African homeland.

“It is not based on going back and forth across the border 10 or 15 times a year,” he said, aiming a barb at the city’s mushrooming immigrant population.

Latino parents complain that black teachers are culturally insensitive to Latino children.

“They see all Latinos as dropouts and gang bangers,” said Margarita Cornejo, who has five children in the Compton schools. “It’s the way they project us,” she said.

Blacks, meanwhile, complain about having to spend an increasing share of the school budget on bilingual education.

“I have no respect for the language issue. This is America,” Steward said. “Because a person does not speak English is not a reason to provide exceptional resources at public expense.”

There are more then 8,000 youngsters in the Compton school system who speak little, if any, English and only 46 teachers with bilingual credentials, though the situation is not unique to Compton. Bilingual teachers are in short supply across the state, educators say.

In Compton, Latino parents complain that their children are often taught by Spanish-speaking classroom aides instead of full-fledged teachers.

When blacks and Latinos in Compton are asked to talk about one another and what divides them, old memories surface in the conversations like stray leaves in a bitter cup of tea.

Maxcy D. Filer, a city councilman and veteran civil rights leader, said he was president of the Compton NAACP when blacks could not get jobs with the city’s major employers.

“I have walked many picket lines in Compton,” Filer said. “I have yet to have one Latino walk the picket line with me, not one. . . . They crossed it many times. . . . They called me some names even the whites didn’t call me.”

Martin D. Chavez, who attended the city’s black-run school system, recalled a time when he was chosen to give Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Chavez said the speech was ultimately reassigned to a black student after complaints had come from black students and teachers who said a Latino should not give a speech by Lincoln because that president is a hero to blacks, not Latinos.

“There’s a group out there that’s black, "(that) has a belief that there’s blacks and everybody else,” said Chavez, an affirmative action analyst for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. ". . . And, regardless of what your race is, you’re not doing anything for them, so you’re an enemy of theirs.”

Blacks waged a bitter battle to get a foothold in Compton, where property deeds once forbade the sale of homes to anyone “not of the Caucasian race.”

They began migrating from South Los Angeles to 127th Street on Compton’s northern edge in the early 1950s and spent the next 15 years spreading southward across the city--block by block. It was called block busting--having white liberals buy houses from whites for resale to black families.

“We only lived up to Rosecrans (Avenue) at that time,” Filer said, explaining how the thoroughfare on the north side of the city formed an east-west boundary line over which blacks were not supposed to cross to buy homes. The barrier was broken, he says, in the late 1950s, when blacks supported by white liberals moved a black family named Pickens south of Rosecrans.

“We moved Mr. Pickens (onto) School Street. I think it was the 300 or 400 block and they put a water hose in his mailbox, ruined his floors. Then, we had to sit and guard it at night while he slept.”

If Latinos are not represented in Compton’s corridors of power, Filer contends, they have themselves to blame.

“When I moved to Compton,” he said, falling back on a line he uses often, "(Latinos) were running faster than the whites were running.”

If Latinos had stayed in the city, he said, they would be sharing power now. “But they decided to leave” he said, “and then all at once an influx of them came back, and now they’re saying, ‘give me,’ and I think it’s something you have to work for.”

Blacks gained control of the city when the white majority fled the riots that erupted a mile away in Watts in 1965. The first few years of black power may have been heady ones, but they soured as white America turned away from black concerns and hope turned to despair in black neighborhoods.

Ten years ago, according to census data, the annual per capita income in Compton was just half that of Los Angeles County. Today, according to census estimates, Compton’s per capita income--an estimated $7,800 annually--is still at half.

Chavez says part of the problem between blacks and Latinos is that blacks do not recognize that Latinos also have a history of struggle.

“They fail to remember that in Texas and New Mexico there were civil rights movements that were predominantly led by Hispanics,” Chavez said. And the farm worker movement in Northern California, he said, was led by Latinos. “They fought for basic working rights (for) unskilled labor and unskilled labor means minorities.”

In Compton, Chavez said: “We have a chance to really pull ourselves together and show how struggling groups can struggle together and not with each other.”