A couple of years ago, Latinos in Southern California rolled their eyes when this paper deemed Downey the “Mexican Beverly Hills.” It remains a running gag for my middle-class Latino friends, who use the story as proof that The Times will never truly get us.
SoCal Latinos know that our aspirational town isn’t what some call “Downer Downey”: It’s Whittier.
The city has a higher median income than Downey, for one: $66,891 to $61,839, according to this paper’s Mapping L.A. project, making it the second-most prosperous city in Southern California where Latinos make up a majority of the population. (The first? West Covina.) It's the last stop on the road of success that is Whittier Boulevard, which has seen generations of upwardly mobile Mexican Americans from East Los Angeles move first to Montebello, then Pico Rivera and finally Whittier — unless they foolishly decide to go into Orange County.
The booming downtown — confusingly called Uptown, because it’s in the hilly region of Whittier — hosts high-end Mexican restaurants, hipster barbershops and an upcoming food hall and brewery. Young Latinos who either grew up in the city or moved there because of its cool reputation run many of them.
Why do I mention this? Because Whittier is a case study in how Latinos not only thrive in this country, but also, contrary to the Trumpian conventional wisdom, assimilate.
I don’t mean that as a compliment. Few things are more American than pulling up the ladder behind you. And we’re seeing evidence of that pathology in a hubbub over taco trucks, of all things.
The Whittier City Council is considering an ordinance that would choke them out of Uptown. Supporters claim food trucks take customers away from brick-and-mortar restaurants and are a public nuisance that must be regulated. Among the points proposed in the ordinance to punish loncheras: ban scrolling marquees, keep them 100 yards away from schools or parks during the daytime and 200 feet away from restaurants during their operating hours, and prohibit vendors from restocking on site.
The Southern California Mobile Food Vendors Assn. is already warning Whittier that such regulations will probably lead to a lawsuit, citing a similar move in Monrovia that the group contested successfully on behalf of loncheros.
Out-of-touch gringos aren’t leading Whittier’s anti-taco truck crusade: It’s Latinos.
“The current [laws] don’t protect businesses” from taco trucks, Frank Medina told the Whittier Daily News. He’s president of the Whittier Uptown Assn., a group of area business owners whose executive board is all Latino and includes a restaurateur and a chef.
“We have nothing against food trucks,” added operations manager Olivia Rios. “We love them as long as they’re not parked in front of our restaurants.”
“My heart goes out to that zone of the city,” Mayor Pro Tem Josue Alvarado said of Uptown. “Food trucks can come in and destabilize” all of the businesses.
Whittier Uptown Assn. members are probably bashing taco trucks because they don’t belong to their group — indeed, their recent Tour de Taco advertised no loncheras, which is like holding a surfing event and inviting only paddleboarders.
Also at issue here is the eternal divide between older and newer waves of the same immigrant groups and their descendants.
The old guard Jews of Los Angeles dismissed their socialist brethren who moved into Boyle Heights in the 1920s. Mexican nationals treated Oaxacans as little better than backward Indians when they came in the 1980s, even though they all migrated from the same country. The Persians who left Iran just after the fall of the shah look down on the poorer recent arrivals.
And for more than a century, middle-class Latinos have thrown shade at their working-class, new wave hermanos.
The Whittier merchants might argue economics, but the real motivating factor is the fear of association with unwashed upstarts when the earlier arrivals have worked so hard to fit in. They don’t want the dominant white culture to group them with “them.”
Conservatives should think of Whittier any time they whine that California is becoming Mexico. I wish! Yaktivists like myself, immigrants in the country illegally and gang members might get all the mainstream news coverage on Latinos, but the silent majority moves into the middle class and adopts the same mores as their white peers, making talk of Reconquista laughable. It doesn’t take long for it to happen, either. My cousins are natural Republicans who vote Democrat only because the GOP thinks of our formerly undocumented parents as the enemy.
Repeat after me, everyone: Assimilation among Mexican Americans is destiny.
Here’s another Whittier example: the Dia de los Muertos Art & Music Festival, celebrated every fall in Uptown. It’s a beautiful, family friendly event that’s worth a visit. But my radical university professor pals who live in the city derisively refer to it as Dia de los Lowriders, because what started out as a solemn remembrance of the faithful departed is now a ridiculous competition among young Latinos to see who looks best as a dead Frida Kahlo or mariachi.
“Ethnic” some days, white the rest — that’s America to the core. That’s Uptown Whittier.