When Rick Rodriguez Sr. moved into a three-bedroom home in Downey in the mid-1980s, he recalled a neighbor interrupting his yardwork with a question: “You’re not going to be one of those guys that parks in the frontyard and lets chickens run around in the frontyard, are you?”
Rodriguez, 54, one of a few Latinos in what was then a mostly white suburb, replied: “No, sir. I’ll make sure to keep the chickens away from the frontyard.”
After founding the state’s largest Latino-owned private security firm, Rodriguez eventually sold his home and bought multiple properties around the city. These days he often sees the former neighbor playing a round at Rio Hondo Golf Club. Rodriguez always waves a greeting — from his new backyard, bordering the 7th hole.
Rodriguez, whose grandparents crossed into the U.S. illegally from Mexico, is part of a wave of second- and third-generation Latinos who have transformed Downey and numerous other suburbs, including Whittier, Pico Rivera, Van Nuys and Anaheim, over the last two decades.
Those middle-class Latino communities are proof of the rising fortunes of Latinos, now the largest ethnic group in California, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures released in June.
Latinos’ incomes still lag behind those of whites, but they are rising quickly as immigrants move out of densely populated urban areas into the suburbs. And demographers expect Latino buying power and education levels to keep increasing in the years ahead.
From 2012 to 2013, the median income for Latinos rose 3.5% to $40,963, the Census Bureau said. It was the first annual increase since 2000.
Downey — a southeast Los Angeles County suburb that gave birth to space shuttles (and “Weird Al” Yankovic) — is nearly 75% Latino. And despite white flight that followed the decline of the aerospace industry, its economy is booming, with new shopping centers and businesses. The median annual household income is just above $55,000 — roughly the county average but significantly higher than surrounding Latino-majority cities. One in five households earn at least $100,000.
Jody Agius Vallejo, an associate professor of sociology at USC, calls Downey the epitome of Latino upward mobility: The city that residents of working-class towns aspire to move to because of its schools and relatively low crime.
But if the influx of Latinos changed the city, Downey — or rather what it represented — changed many of them. Some residents said that when they moved in, they started leaving old ways behind.
It’s the classic American story of moving up — and proving it.
“People believe that once they kind of made it, and living in Downey is a symbol of making it,” Vallejo said, “that they should behave in a certain way to demonstrate or signal their class status.”
She said the often overheated national debate over illegal immigration — including Donald Trump’s recent controversial remarks — obscures the fact that many Latinos are middle class and have been in the U.S. several generations, something “exemplified in Downey.”
“The majority of Latinos in L.A., California and the U.S. are native-born American citizens,” Vallejo said. “Middle-class Latinos are a vibrant and critically important segment of Los Angeles and California.”
Gilbert Alarcon, who bought a printing shop 10 years ago in downtown Downey, said the city was known as the “Mexican Beverly Hills.”
“When you think of Downey, you think of a step above. You work your way in here,” said Alarcon, 49. “We moved up the ladder, from Bell to South Gate and Downey. We never looked back.”
When he moved to the northern part of Downey 25 years ago, Alarcon said he felt out of place. There was no graffiti, no homeless people, no brassy ranchera music blaring late into the night.
“It was a different country,” he said. “I felt proud to move into the city.”
The weekend after he moved in, Alarcon decided it was time to wash his car. He knew better than to park it on the front lawn — like he used to — but figured washing it in the driveway was fine.
He turned on the hose — then stopped. He scanned the street. He second-guessed himself.
No other residents were washing their cars, and he worried that neighbors would think, “There goes the neighborhood now that the Latinos have moved in.”
So, holding the hose mid-reflection, he decided to water the lawn instead — and took his Nissan to the carwash.
“You’re in a new city and in a new place,” Alarcon said. “You have to step it up a notch so you can set the foundation for the Latino family that comes after you. If you follow your old customs, nothing will change. You’ll just bring the old neighborhood with you.”
But before he knew it, he said, he wasn’t avoiding old customs to avoid disapproval from white neighbors, but from other Latinos who might frown at the “old ways.” Later, he would become that Latino.
Three years ago, Nick Velez opened Bastards American Canteen in downtown Downey (in honor of his Marine battalion in Iraq, nicknamed “the Magnificent Bastards”) — and became part of a wave of Latino entrepreneurs in the area. Latinos own 45% of businesses in the city, according to the 2007 census data.
Velez, 28, said Latinos who moved into Downey seemed to eventually become more involved in their community, attending council meetings and downtown festivals. Three of the city’s five council members are Latino.
“You don’t really see this as much with the community out in East L.A.,” said Velez, who lived on L.A.'s Eastside before moving with his family to Downey in his early teens.
Downtown started to wither with the decline of aerospace and the departure of many white families in the 1990s. But even as upwardly mobile Latinos moved in, downtown was slow to adapt, said Valentin Flores, founder of Downey Art Vibe, an art gallery and creative space that provides art education for youth.
“Now you have this young, mostly Latino population … a lot of young business owners are beginning to redefine Downey Avenue,” said Flores, 32.
Though many of the businesses — from chain restaurants to mom-and-pop stores — have tailored themselves to the majority Latino market, they are mindful that many customers are not Latino or from the immigrant generation, said Flores, who was born in Argentina and moved to Downey in 1990.
“That is something about Latinos in Downey; they are very assimilated Latinos. Second-, third-, fourth-generation. It’s not a population that is screaming that we are something else,” he said.
Mario Guerra, a former mayor of Downey and Cuban immigrant who moved to the city in the 1970s, said a major shift came when Porto’s, a famous L.A. bakery started by Cuban immigrants, opened a location in the city. Its pastries, potato balls and creamy café con leche can draw up to 6,000 patrons to the city on a Saturday, Guerra said.
“We had to reinvent ourselves,” Guerra said. “We’ve embraced the change. It’s been a big opportunity.”