In Disneyland’s shadow, a rising new demographic
A brick wall separated Julio Perez’s childhood home from Disneyland, where his father worked in the laundry room.
On that side was the Anaheim that America knew, the quintessential Orange County suburb where expanses of orange groves gave way to rows of 1950s tract homes and a signature theme park.
On his side was the neighborhood where Perez, 30, spent his 1980s childhood: a dense, vibrant, heavily Latino island where parks filled with soccer players and families grilled carne asada. Today, his side of the wall has become the new face of Anaheim.
Anaheim’s Latino population has more than tripled since 1980 and now stands at 186,000, making Orange County’s second-largest city the latest to become majority Latino -- at 54.5% -- according to new census estimates.
But unlike Southern California’s impoverished gateways for Latino immigration -- such as Los Angeles’ Pico-Union neighborhood or Santa Ana, one of the nation’s most heavily Latino large cities, whose proportion of foreign-born residents has been ranked second only to Miami’s -- Anaheim is pointed toward a future as a middle-class Latino community like Whittier and Downey, demographers say.
Some, like Perez, point to the emergence of a new social order, one in which a full spectrum of Latinos can find a place, from the recent immigrant to the newly minted middle-class family.
“So maybe there’s been an exodus of middle-class people from other backgrounds,” said Perez, a political director for a union. “But now there’s larger diversity for Latinos . . . there’s more access socially.”
The population shift puts Anaheim, a city of 342,000, ahead of Los Angeles and Riverside in percentage of Latino residents.
Anaheim today is a sprawling community that stretches from the upscale neighborhoods of Anaheim Hills on the east side to the cramped apartments and aging 1950s-era houses on the west. It’s a place where the manicured resort district and bustling sports arenas are for tourists and the bustling flea markets and Sunday afternoon lucha libre wrestling matches are increasingly for the locals.
Jesus Cortez, 28, a Cal State Fullerton student and landscaper who has lived in west Anaheim since he was 9, recalled the neighborhood’s transition as white families moved out and Latinos settled in, buying up even the nicest houses.
“It tended to be half and half, then it became the majority,” he said. “Now you see more carnicerias, more taquerias.”
Councilwoman Lorri Galloway attributes her reelection last fall to campaigning among Latinos in central and western Anaheim, a community she said typically has been ignored while mostly white politicians courted loyal voters in the upper-class neighborhoods in the city’s east side. That won’t be the case much longer, she suggests.
Anaheim’s transition from a mostly white suburb to a majority Latino city parallels the dramatic changes Southern California cities have experienced as immigration surged and communities diversified.
Now, as immigration slows, demographers envision places like Anaheim emerging as stable settling grounds for Latinos rather than depots for immigrants.
In Anaheim, fewer than half of Latinos are now foreign-born. Though housing figures are not broken down by ethnicity, about half the residents own their own homes and the median annual income is a healthy $58,000.
“It’s the dream of having a single-family house and a white picket fence and a dog,” said Harry Pachon, president of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute at USC.
An increase in home ownership probably was one factor propelling the rise of Latinos in Anaheim. During the housing boom earlier this decade, upwardly mobile Latinos bought homes in record numbers, freeing up space for more recent immigrants in apartments.
“Now it’s a heterogenous mix,” said Louis DeSipio, a professor of political science and Chicano/Latino studies at UC Irvine.
“It’s two things: Latinos moving in and non-Latinos moving out.”
Leading the way for change was the lure of jobs in manufacturing, service and technology, which gave the city the second-highest job growth in Orange County over the last 15 years, just behind Irvine, according to a report by the Orange County Business Council.
Unlike Santa Ana, Maywood or Huntington Park, which have all-Latino city councils, the new majority in Anaheim has made few political gains.
“We don’t have the juice up there in the City Council,” said Amin David, leader of Los Amigos, an Orange County Latino advocacy group that meets in Anaheim once a week for breakfast. “We don’t even have an entree. For anything to happen, of course, it takes three votes, and we don’t get much progress.”
David said it may be time for Latino representation to be boosted by carving the city into council districts. Currently, all five council seats are elected at large.
Latinos have not always felt entirely at home in Anaheim, which was founded as a colony of German farmers in 1857 and has a history of racial tension. In the 1920s, four Ku Klux Klan members were elected to the City Council and briefly took control of the government, earning the city an uncomfortable nickname: “Klanaheim.” Decades later, in 1978, strife between the Latino community and police erupted in a riot at Little People’s Park, where charges of police brutality led to reforms in the Anaheim Police Department.
You’d never know that now looking at the Anaheim Marketplace, a spacious indoor swap meet where droves of mostly Spanish-speaking families browse hundreds of stalls, shopping for jewelry, clothing and pets, and show up in force for beauty pageants, quinceaneras, weddings and carnivals.
For many of them, Anaheim is feeling more like home. A place to move up, open a business and buy a first home.
But even for entrepreneurs like Jose Luis Quintana, 41, who moved here from Guerrero, Mexico, 20 years ago and owns a gift shop in a stall named “Joseph’s Place,” progress is measured.
Anaheim today, he reflected, is a more comfortable place than decades ago, when he worked painting cars and was one of the few Mexicans in his apartment building. But there are growing pains.
“It’s a suburb that’s developing into a city,” he said, sitting behind the counter, listening to a radio. “We’re a bigger population now. We’re more crowded and there’s less space.”