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Normalcy Rules in Antelope Valley Tattooed by Media

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The schizophrenia grabbed me as I stood in the driveway with the two stubble-haired young men, just talking about life as the sun went down on the Antelope Valley.

They looked and dressed something like the youths portrayed in an article last November in the New Yorker magazine, which described an apocalyptic Antelope Valley where skinhead gangs wage race war on minorities.

Minorities like me.

The schizophrenia is based on the tug-of-war between that media vision of the Antelope Valley, a fearful place of pipe bombs and swastika-tattooed thugs, and the real Antelope Valley I have been visiting and enjoying for years, a place where hard-working whites and minorities alike find they can afford a bigger slice of the American Dream pie than they could in the city.

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A place that does not frighten me a bit.

I will even plead guilty to being part of the vast media conspiracy. I’ve written my share of stories about crime, race and evil in the Antelope Valley. So put this column on the other side of the scale.

As we stood in the driveway talking, I could not keep the Nazi youth images out of my mind, making me ill at ease at first.

One of them was a guy named Sunny I had worked with years ago at a boys’ camp in the Sierra Nevada. I remembered him as a tall and slender kid with fair skin and a shaved head who even then wore Army pants and combat boots.

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He also wore a red Navy Seals shirt. We teased him because, despite his goal of one day becoming a part of the elite group, he was afraid to jump into the rivers we came upon during packing trips.

He was friendly and eager to learn Spanish, frequently asking me and other Latino kids for lessons.

But years have passed since we were kids in the woods. I couldn’t help wondering whether Sunny, who looked the part, had turned into one of those louts in the New Yorker article.

The conversation turned to Lancaster life, and gradually, I felt more at ease. These were not Hitler’s children. I heard no tales of hell-raising and white power. Their stories were of long work days and the daily struggles common to most normal working-class young men in Middle America.

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Sunny and his buddy work at construction sites all over Southern California, as far away as Long Beach and Bakersfield. Sunny is a superintendent, as he proudly pointed out.

His friend, shorter and stockier, admitted he still lives at his mother’s home. He has to so he can afford the $700 payments on the $35,000 truck we had gathered around, the truck that brought him popularity with a group of friends he drove to a lake on weekends.

When the subject changed to current events and a recent police chase in Lancaster, they talked about victims’ rights and social responsibility. No cop-hating skinheads here.

“I think police should have more authority,” Sunny said, to my surprise.

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Women and children walked past the two-story house as the stars came out and our conversation continued.

“See this?” Sunny said, pointing to the serene neighborhood. “People don’t understand, but this is why we put up with driving 100 miles to work--things are slower here.”

Indeed, there it was, a pleasant Antelope Valley evening of the kind I remember from 1990, when I began visiting a friend who moved to Palmdale.

Hers was not a middle-class white family running away from minorities. Hers was a hard-working Latino family from a modest corner of the San Fernando Valley simply looking for their American Dream.

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They found it on a quiet street, two lots away from a cul-de-sac, in a two-story house that her father, a longtime pool maintenance worker, bought for less than what he got for selling their old home. He never could have afforded such a palace for his family in Los Angeles.

In fact, many of her new neighbors were Latino and African American families who also found in the desert their own big homes, clean streets and safe parks and schools.

Through the years I enjoyed my trips to what I always thought of as a new city. Everything was new: the theaters, the mall, the houses, the streets.

In this small-town environment, high school football games were played the traditional way--at night under bright lights before cheering home crowds--unlike at most Los Angeles schools.

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My friend’s parents and their neighbors finished raising their older kids in Antelope Valley. Their youngest are now in high school.

Nearly a decade after moving, they still work hard, commuting to Los Angeles all week and happily returning to their comfortable homes each evening.

As I relaxed, it became my turn to be put on the spot. I struggled to explain to Sunny why the media seem to report only negative stories about the Antelope Valley.

To be sure, the stories are true. There really are skinheads and hate crimes and random violence. But they are stories that can be told of virtually any sizable town in America. Somehow, the Antelope Valley, tucked off there on the fringe of the Mojave, becomes an easier place for us in the city to stereotype.

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I’d rather think that, despite its enormous population growth in the last decade, it remains a place where I can sit with Sunny and his friends, open a beer, talk about life and watch the stars come out. Normal guys living normal American lives. That usually doesn’t get said in news stories from the Antelope Valley. So I’m saying it here.


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