Like Main Street U.S.A. in Disneyland, with its street trolleys and small-town architecture, Plaza Mexico in Lynwood harks back to a simpler past.
Angelenos with roots in Latin America go there for a taste of the old country.
There’s a roofed bandstand in the center, just like in the pueblos back home, and the faux stone facade of a colonial building -- walk through it and you enter a department store.
I went to this fake Latin America -- with its statues of Mexican patriots and wrought-iron benches like the ones in Mexico City parks -- to ask people about the real one, that region of natural and man-made splendors, salt-of-the-earth farmers and factory workers, and also quite a few criminal cartels.
It seemed a good spot for the dialogue I sometimes imagine should take place between the Spanish-speaking immigrants whose stories I often tell, and the small but vocal group of Times readers who have a deep disdain for them and their homelands.
Why don’t you write about corrupt leaders in Mexico and Central America, those readers ask me. They’re the ones responsible for people jumping over the fence to get here.
At Plaza Mexico, I found a lot of agreement with that sentiment and others like it. People are frustrated and angry about the conditions that led them and their countrymen to migrate. And some worry about the misperceptions back home about life in the U.S.
“I think one of the biggest causes of immigration is the poor management of the governments in our countries,” Jonathan Gutierrez, a 25-year-old Orange County construction worker, told me in Spanish. “Everything is swallowed up by corruption, and there’s no help for the neediest people. That’s why people come here.”
Gutierrez is a slight young man with a hipster air who migrated to the U.S. four years ago from the Mexican state of Hidalgo. He came to Plaza Mexico with Cecilia Sumano, a 26-year-old nanny. They smiled at the outdoor mall’s kitschy vision of Mexico and took pictures of themselves in front of one of the statues.
Some of those who write to me want to tell potential immigrants that they should stay in the real Mexico. So does Gutierrez.
“Right now, it’s not worth it,” he said. “Work is scarce. To leave your family behind isn’t worth it if you’re going to be as bad off as you were back home.”
Still, Gutierrez says he doesn’t regret coming to the U.S. “Last year was tough,” he told me, but things have gone OK for him. And if he hadn’t come, he’d still be back in Hidalgo thinking about what he was missing.
It might seem a little inconsistent, even hypocritical, to make the journey to the U.S., be glad you did, but still suggest others back home stay put.
But in my experience, many Latin American immigrants are as ambivalent about their lives in the U.S. as some Americans are about their presence here.
They are grateful to the U.S. for the opportunity to better themselves, but also proud of their roots to the south. They recognize the shortcomings of the countries they’ve left behind, but will defend their homelands against insults.
I told Jesus Javier Garcia, a 55-year-old naturalized U.S. citizen born in Mexico, that some of my readers equate Mexico with drugs and thievery. This made him angry.
“Three weeks ago I was mugged in Long Beach,” he told me. His attackers were three guys pretending to be beggars. They spoke English. He offered them a dollar and they punched him and took his wallet.
Crime in Mexico is, of course, especially scary these days. Garcia, a truck driver, told me he visits his Mexican relatives once a year. He said his old Guadalajara neighborhood “seems almost empty at night. No one goes out.” One of his best friends was recently kidnapped and held for ransom.
Some Americans feel powerless before the many social changes wrought by Latin American immigration. The shoppers I met at Plaza Mexico feel equally at sea in the face of the inequality and violence in their homelands -- and they don’t feel Latin Americans are entirely to blame.
“Here [in the U.S.] is where people use those drugs,” Garcia said of the drug-related crime in Mexico. “If it wasn’t for the people who bought them, there wouldn’t be a problem over there.”
Any DEA agent will tell you the same thing. Cocaine users in L.A. help pay the hit men who kill peasants in Guatemala to clear pathways for illicit jungle landing strips; meth users in rural America pay for the weapons that kill honest mayors and prosecutors in Mexican border towns.
The United States and Latin America are caught up in a really bad, complicated relationship; this isn’t a view reserved for those vehemently against illegal immigration.
At Plaza Mexico, I found people who were just as frustrated with some immigrants as my angriest readers.
“People who don’t obey the laws here cause the immigrant to be seen poorly,” said Nora Estela Campos, a Salvadoran immigrant and naturalized U.S. citizen who operates a vendor’s cart at Plaza Mexico.
She and her husband arrived in the U.S. 33 years ago, fleeing the war in El Salvador. They have three U.S.-born children, including one serving in the Navy.
Last week, two adult nieces living in El Salvador called, asking for help to migrate to the U.S.
“I told them not to come,” Campos said. One is a lawyer, the other an orthodontist. Business is bad for both. “They’re professionals over there, but they’re going to throw away their careers. Here they’re going to work at McDonald’s or washing dishes.”
If they do insist on coming, Campos said, she will help them. Why? Because blood is thicker than water -- in El Salvador, in the U.S., everywhere.
Campos told me if her nieces do come, she’ll give them some basic advice. It’s a lot like the message I hear frequently in e-mails from some of my readers: “If you don’t study, if you don’t learn the language, you’ll never be a part of this country.”
Actually, that’s a translation. What she really said was: “Si una persona no estudia, si no aprende el idioma, nunca será parte de este país.”
Afterward, I thought: It’s funny how the same idea can sound so different in two different languages. In Spanish, it’s friendly advice from one immigrant to another. In English, it can sometimes sound like a threat.