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A call for unity, not segregation

Earlier this year, I attended one of those sedate conferences writers get invited to every so often. I talked for an hour or so very politely about books, until the audience rose up in rebellion and told me to stop.

I’d been invited by USC to be on a panel discussing the topic of blacks and Latinos in Los Angeles literature. But the mostly student audience didn’t want a writerly chat. They wanted to talk about the reality of a divided, angry city.

“There’s certain parts of Watts and Compton where blacks can’t go,” a young black man told us, rising up from his seat to describe Latino gang members’ slurs and threats.

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A high school teacher rose to his feet, too, to talk about his Latino students’ ignorance of African American history and the intolerance he often hears from the Spanish-speaking immigrants around him.

It hurts me deeply to hear of these things. I suppose, like a lot of people, I’ve been in a sort of denial about what’s happening in my hometown.

Earlier this month, a few idiots with spray paint, and hate in their hearts, ran an African American family out of a predominantly Latino neighborhood in Duarte. It was the latest in a series of incidents in which suspected Latino gang members have committed crimes against black people.

These acts of intolerance are obviously the work of a tiny minority of delinquents. And yet they feed a larger malaise among African Americans. A lot of black people feel they’re being crowded out and disrespected by the growing plurality of Latinos around them.

I know that mostly our two peoples are working, living in peace and even starting families together. And yet the seeds of a deeper intolerance lie all around us, ready to sprout.

More often than we care to admit, our people segregate themselves from blacks in schools and churches.

And how many of us Latinos have been at family gatherings and heard some obnoxious old uncle drop a racist remark? Generally speaking, do we have the courage to stand up and tell the guy to shut up? No. We’re Latinos, and we don’t like to make an “escandalo” if we can avoid it.

Still, it is those who publicly and privately speak ill of African Americans whom I address today, because the “escandalo” can’t be put off any longer.

Listen up, raza. We’re walking in the footsteps of giants. Black people have bled and been beaten in the name of equality, and without their sacrifice, we’d be 30 years behind where we are today.

The long African American struggle for civil rights has blossomed into an oak tree of justice whose large canopy protects all of us, no matter our color. And these days there are more of us Latinos huddled under its branches, seeking shelter from discrimination, than any other group.

Let’s start with the basic fact of our citizenship. Like thousands of others Angelenos, I am the son of immigrants. I thus owe my citizenship to Dred Scott, a slave who sued for his freedom in 1857, and to people like Frederick Douglass, who took up his cause.

Scott provoked the Supreme Court into one of the most shameful rulings in American history. Scott vs. Sandford declared that no one of African descent could be a U.S. citizen.

After the Civil War, the black struggle to erase Scott vs. Sandford from American jurisprudence led to the passage of the 14th Amendment, which grants citizenship to those born in the United States. But these days, the children of Mexicans and Central Americans are its chief beneficiary.

Scott and Douglass lived a long time ago, it’s true. But they’re not the only people who helped pave the way for us.

If you’re Latino and have had the pleasure of voting for someone with a Spanish surname, if you live in an integrated neighborhood, you have the dead and battered of 1960s Birmingham and Selma, Ala., to thank for it. Their martyrs are our martyrs too, because their sacrifice made the civil and voting rights we now enjoy possible.

Every Latino civil rights leader knows this. It’s why Cesar Chavez treasured the telegram he received from Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, just a month before King was killed.

“As brothers in the fight for equality, I extend the hand of fellowship and goodwill . . . to you and your members,” King wrote. “Our separate struggles are really one -- a struggle for freedom, for dignity and for humanity.”

There’s history and then there’s present-day reality. There, too, our debts are clear.

Many of the new Latino neighborhoods in Los Angeles and surrounding cities have been established in historically black communities.

There was no organized black resistance to the “browning” of South-Central Los Angeles or Compton. Yes there were isolated crimes against Latino people in those places, but the more common, everyday truth was that African Americans accepted the arrival of strangers into their neighborhoods.

I saw this firsthand in 1992, when I lived in South-Central on assignment, with my Times colleague Charisse Jones to profile a community in transition from black to brown. We met African Americans who had learned a few words of Spanish and who remembered how whites tried to keep them out of the neighborhood in the 1950s.

“I was once in the same boat they are,” a 70-year-old black resident said of his Latino neighbors. “I don’t mistreat them because I didn’t want to be mistreated.”

I benefited from African American hospitality even before I was born. Which brings me to what may be the real reason I’ve written this column.

If anyone out there knows a black man named Booker Wade who lived in Hollywood in the early 1960s, let me know. He was a neighbor of my mother and father, newly arrived Guatemalan immigrants.

They spoke a language he didn’t understand, but when my mother went into labor, he drove her to the hospital.

I’ve never met Mr. Wade, who was my godfather. But I owe him about a thousand thank-yous.

And maybe in a way all of us in Latino L.A. have black godparents we need to make the effort to acknowledge.

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hector.tobar@latimes.com


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