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What SOS Means in California
Wilson’s Way: Divide and Win
Orange County is a motherland of conservatism, but the state tourism agency touts it as the most “California-looking of all the Californias, the most like the movies, the most like the stories, the most like the dream.”
It can be particularly undreamlike, however, when you’re broke. I’d been living out of a Datsun for three months when I first visited back in 1980, heading to the ocean. When the road dead-ended, I faced a sight foreign to my Midwestern eyes: a guard booth, a gate, and a long wall. Behind it, the roofs of grand homes perched at the sea’s edge.
My loathing was the absolute kind felt by a 23-year-old factory-worker-turned-jobless-writer who’d been making dinners by boiling onions fallen from farm trucks.
I wondered who lived there. I didn’t know at the time, of course, but one person who’d grown up there was Nicole Brown–she’d just started living with O.J. Simpson.
This year, I faced the same guard booth as I drove inside Dana Point’s Monarch Bay for a dinner cooked by my hosts’ housekeeper. I paused. Jesus. The place still made me nervous, even if I was removed from the days of boiled onions.
Since my first visit, walls have proliferated. Roughly one-third of the 6.1-square-mile coastal city is sealed off behind
17 walled–or, in local parlance, “gate-guarded”–communities. A Latino neighborhood sits right in the city center.
Dana Point is a microcosm of ethnic tension in California, which recently became engulfed in immigrant bashing and the “Save Our State” initiative on the Nov. 8 ballot. SOS is aimed at making life difficult for California’s estimated 2.1 million undocumented immigrants, denying them a host of services and turning teachers into de facto immigration agents. The scapegoating rhetoric is loud and simplistic.
But after two years spent researching the cultural changes behind California’s “Orange Curtain,” I’ve found that nothing is simple.
I talk with Latinos, who think I’m on their side. Then I go to whites, who think I’m on their side. It makes for schizophrenic nights hacking out notes on my computer. Both groups, however, are correct.
What do you do if you’ve worked all your life to buy a dream home, and suddenly the neighborhood becomes more dangerous? Even ardent liberals react when people get killed on their street.
And what do you do if you’re a hardworking, law-abiding immigrant who just wants to make a buck and better your life, but other people want you to get the hell out?
The story in Dana Point is one of basically good people who do not understand each other–a Third World campesino culture in the heart of a yuppie universe.
The road to Orange County is an interstate. If you travel at rush hour, you face the BMW- and Mercedes-studded parking lots known as the Santa Ana and San Diego freeways.
To escape the futility, a stop at the South Coast Plaza Mall, reportedly the world’s most expensive, finds valet parking and a soothing world of Williams-Sonoma, Nordstrom, and Laura Ashley. Sitting at a faux European sidewalk table at Amato’s Espresso Cafe gives you some hint of who holds power. After a 10-minute, decidedly unscientific count of the 94 shoppers who stroll past me, I find 68 are white, 21 Asian, 4 Latino, 1 of unknown ethnicity–and no blacks.
Big malls such as South Coast Plaza are Taj Mahals that define community. People come here, as it has been said, to buy objects they don’t need, with money they don’t have, to impress people they don’t like. One woman I interviewed uses a master bedroom for a closet, each year tossing out the room’s contents and buying an entirely new Nordstrom’s wardrobe by the rackload.
Driving into Dana Point, there are hundreds of pastel houses with red tile roofs marching up the gently sloping hills; the deep blue Pacific reaches to the sunset.
At road’s end, there’s an ocean view from the bar of the Ritz-Carlton, a five-star hotel “positioned majestically atop a 150-foot bluff . . . the crown jewel of the California Riviera,” where the best suite fetches $2,750 per night.
It is so perfectly lovely and calm. Combined with the numbing effect of a $6.47 house scotch, it’s impossible to believe that a cultural war is going on a few blocks away.
Dusk. The breakers are coming in strong, electric white in the final light of day. Die-hard surfers take last rides. Just above the high-water line, an Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe freight train barrels up the coast, entering south Dana Point.
The train, as usual, is laden with Mexicans making profound but anonymous journeys. When the train slides behind Price Club, some disappear into the bamboo growing along Capistrano Creek. Others hop on, continuing the journey north.
Dana Point is on the main migration route. For years, Mexicans had no reason to remain here. Dana Point, 60 miles from both San Diego and Los Angeles, was a funky unmonied hangout for surfers, who lived in apartments situated amid the houses of Lantern Village, the heart of town.
Then in the 1960s, a harbor was built, which destroyed the best surfing and attracted yachters. In the 1980s, the Ritz-Carlton went up, then the Dana Point Resort. Houses sprouted like star thistles after spring rain, many purchased by whites fleeing Los Angeles.
Development brought hundreds of low-wage jobs. The new hotels became the city’s largest employers, with 1,100 workers. The restaurants that flourished with tourism also needed help, as did the new home owners, who hired people to mow lawns, clean homes, baby-sit.
Whites and blacks didn’t exactly scramble for the work–in Southern California, low wage means Latinos, both documented and undocumented. Paid little more than $4 an hour, they had just one place to live–the Lantern Village apartments that had once been home to surfers.
Two, and even three, families shared a unit. Graffiti and old cars appeared. In the evening, Latino men gathered on corners, talking and drinking.
This was in sharp contrast to the town many white residents had come to when they bought their quarter- and half-million-dollar homes.
Crime, centered on Latino gangs, is these home owners’ biggest fear.
Dana Point is considered neutral by the two largest gangs–the nearby 130-member San Juan Boys and the 146-member San Clemente Varrio Chicos. But some crime, including shootings and drug dealing, has spilled over. The cops estimate that between 30 percent and 40 percent of the city’s major crime happens in Lantern Village, where some 2,252 Latinos live.
Law enforcement officials have no ethnic breakdown on arrests–at least none publicly available. “We won’t touch that,” says one officer. Some crime is certainly being committed by whites, but poverty can cause crime, and a lot of Latinos are poor. The well-off have done nothing to incorporate the Latinos, many of whom are illegal, into the community; they created jobs and left the workers to fend for themselves.
Dana Point mirrors both Europe and the United States: All three are based on the essential truth that capital demands a supply of cheap labor. Capital imports it, either literally or figuratively, then doesn’t deal with the consequences.
In the 1993 fiscal year, the city’s hotels took in $36.5 million–80 percent from the Ritz-Carlton and Dana Point Resort. The bed taxes netted $3.65 million, roughly one-third of the city’s budget. Officials estimate that if restaurant sales taxes and other spin-off businesses are included, the hotels generate nearly half of all city revenues.
This money buys services that keep Lantern Village from looking like the Los Angeles barrio. The city contracts with the sheriff’s department to patrol the streets; it has three code enforcement officers, unheard-of for a city its size; and it runs an aggressive program that almost instantly removes graffiti.
The big hotels that fuel this economy hire the immigrants, but not the undocumented; their workers are legal. “From the viewpoint of the law, they have every right to be working here,” says Cheri O. Abbott, spokeswoman for the Dana Point Resort, which employs about 100 Latinos, mostly from Lantern Village.
In the previous 15 months, just two whites applied for dishwashing and room-cleaning jobs, Abbott adds. But she is obviously uncomfortable. She almost forgets to mention that the hotel sponsors free English classes.
You can’t blame her for being nervous, given the political climate. After all, this is America: The forbidden subjects are race, and class when not preceded by the word “middle.” In interviews around the state, I’ve found that people closest to power exhibit this fear the most.
This was true when I asked to ride with the sheriff’s patrol. I wanted to confirm reports that Latinos are randomly stopped as they come home from work; I also wanted to see the crime level firsthand. I thought everything was set, but the day before I was to join the patrol, the chief assigned to Dana Point, Lt. Paul Dennis Ratchford, asked to see me. The ride-along was off, he said.
Ratchford replied with a question: What do you want?
Simply to see what happens, I said.
Wrong answer. Ratchford smiled more coolly than any Southern cop I’ve ever interviewed; he said this could inflame either the pro- or anti-immigrants. And, he said, “there’s the aL’ word”–liberal. I wasn’t going to see them do anything unless I was really pro-police. He offered a bone: Send clips of my past police reporting and a letter, and he might reconsider.
Orange County typifies California as the society of the future. Across the state, whites form communities surrounded by immigrants, deserts, and mountains. (In the East, minority communities are commonly ringed in by whites.) There are several dozen of these white “islands” scattered south of San Francisco.
The County of Orange, as it’s known, has one major island: The south is new and very white, often more than 90 percent; the north is brown, in places more than 75 percent minority.
Not all white people live behind walls. Bill Shepherd bought his house on a hill in Lantern Village–he desired the quaintness of the old part of town.
The view from the windows of his living room, with its sunken Jacuzzi, passes for a postcard endorsement of Southern California coastal living: The crashing Pacific curves south past brown hills. On the clearest of days, he can see the faint outline of the Islas De Los Coronados off the coast of Mexico, 80 miles distant.
In 1988, Shepherd watched as the Dana Point Resort was built. He was concerned that it would block his ocean view.
His view was unaffected. But there were other changes going on in the village below he didn’t see. Because he was often traveling on business in the late 1980s, he was out of touch.
In 1990, he talked with some neighbors, who were alarmed. Crime was suddenly an issue. In one 10-day period, there were two rapes and one shooting in his neighborhood.
Some neighbors moved out. But Shepherd chose to fight. He successfully ran for president of the Lantern Village Association in early 1993. By nature a problem solver–his consulting firm shows executives how to run their businesses better–he organized an association meeting to come up with a list of concerns to present to Dana Point’s city council.
The group’s number-one suggestion: Have the city crack down on absentee apartment owners. The second: Ask the city to hire its own INS agent and push state and federal officials to enforce existing immigration laws.
“We have a clash of cultures,” says Shepherd. “The conflict here? The whites are being taken over by a culture that is not assimilating. The dominant culture does not want graffiti everywhere. It does not want large groups of guys congregating outside drinking beer. It does not want vendors going door-to-door. It does not want laundry hanging out windows. These were not part of our community five years ago.”
Shepherd says the Europeans who came here created a culture based on shared values. “We have an established culture, established values, established guidelines. Now we’ve got an influx of individuals coming here with very, very different lifestyles, culture, values. We aren’t a melting pot anymore.”
Shepherd says the issue isn’t racism. “I don’t mind that we have Mexicans here.” He adds that he’d like to see more ethnic groups in Dana Point, which has few blacks or Asians. He says everyone who comes, however, should respect the neighborhood’s appearance and each other.
“We can work together. People are reasonable. But they need to be assimilated and educated.”
Shepherd is an unlikely person to get caught in the middle of cultural conflict. When he returned from military duty in Southeast Asia in 1970, he worked as the director of a community center in north Orange County. His job was to empower the poor.
Some of the poor succeeded, but they would be replaced by new people. He burned out. “I was so naive. It was never ending.”
From those organizing days, he learned that when the physical environment improved–the city got rid of eyesores–the residents did better. They had less desire to leave, and the upwardly mobile residents became role models.
“Before, I felt compelled to provide programs that would work towards self-enabling and training. I’m now concentrating on the physical state of the community. I was trying to impact what was going on inside. Now I’m working on the outside.”
In late 1993, Shepherd decided to run for the Dana Point City Council. A dozen people filed to run for three vacant seats. Shepherd ran a tough law-and-order campaign. His view was that the entire city had to care about crime in Lantern Village.
When Shepherd began campaigning, he carried his message to the people in Monarch Beach, one of the gated communities.
“I told them, ‘Your walls will not protect you. They will be climbed over and overtaken with graffiti.’ That’s not a threat, just what’s going to happen.”
On March 23, 1994, the Marina Market–the first Mexican grocery in Dana Point–opened at the base of Shepherd’s street.
The scene was festive–balloons, Mexican music, the store filled with spices, tortillas. Amid the crowd of Spanish speakers came one white man, later another; their eyes held anxiety.
At the previous night’s council meeting, a white muttered about the market, “Everything’s turning Mexican.”
The market’s owner, Vince Grillo, a Spanish-speaking Italian who immigrated in the 1950s, said that’s reality.
“They’re here,” Grillo said of the Latin immigrants. “The Anglos are all moving out. You see, it’s too late. I don’t blame them for feeling the way they do. When [Mexicans] move into an area, property values go down. They fix their cars on the lawn; they think it’s Mexico. The Mexican people are set in their ways.
“The city didn’t want a Latino market here. I told the inspector it’s not our fault they’re here. You built the apartments that made them move here. We just opened the market to take advantage of it.”
For the most part, the Latinos are virtually invisible in the city’s government, rarely showing up at council meetings or uttering a public word. Most are peasants who are quite “innocent,” said Christian Pederson, a Peruvian immigrant who used to repair autos and now runs a storefront ministry for immigrants.
Although the campesinos initially come to earn money and then go home, Pederson said they get Americanized. “They just want to work, work, work. This is superficial. The kids are going without love. The lifestyle here is faster. Here you need a car. Over there, you take the bus. Here you go 100 miles per hour. There you go 40 kilometers per hour, which is a lot slower.”
For the guys getting off the train behind Price Club, things are not easy. “It’s very difficult to find work. They move a lot. I talk with somebody, and I don’t see them after two weeks. They have this type of machismo. They are too proud to ask for help.”
Some kids turn to gangs for attention. They cause a lot of crime–Pederson repaired many cars that had been broken into.
The majority of immigrants, however, are law-abiding. Many are busy working, like the young waitress who scurried to serve hors d’oeuvres at a fund-raiser for Bill Shepherd’s council race before last June’s election. The yachts of the Dana Point Harbor rocked gently in a rising tide outside the restaurant window; a nearby table held a bowl of red, white, and blue tortilla chips.
Alma Valladares, 23, was the only non-white waitress serving the several dozen supporters. (The restaurant’s kitchen was filled mostly with undocumented Mexican men.) She often works double shifts to support herself through college. Valladares came from Mexico with her mother when she was 6.
In a later interview, Valladares said the issue in Dana Point isn’t really one of open racism, but of whites not understanding her culture. “They don’t care if you’re human or not. The only thing they want is [the area] to look nice. Even though it looks nice on the outside, when you get into the places, it’s not that nice.”
Valladares can’t figure out why Americans seem so unwilling to understand cultures. She wishes she could take some of the local whites to Mexico, or even into the Latino community of Lantern Village. “They would see something totally different, their whole life would be changed, because they don’t know what’s going on. People don’t ask to be poor.
“The reason [the rich] go gated is because they feel safe. To me, they’re afraid to learn. They’re afraid to realize the truth. The truth that we are all human and we all have to stick together. You can’t have just for you only, because you’ll be stuck with you and you only at the end.”
If illegal immigrants are somehow driven out of California, Valladares feels many businesses will fail.
“I know ours will. These guys work so hard for nothing. If you get them out of here, you have no business–you have nobody cleaning your house, nobody doing anything for you.”
Valladares is documented–she qualifies for U.S. citizenship under the 1986 federal amnesty. But she’s not sure she’ll stay. She’s considering moving from Lantern Village back to Mexico.
The guard at Monarch Bay asked for my name.
He carefully checked a list, then handed me a bright red pass. The gate lifted. I was inside a walled neighborhood.
I was disappointed. The homes were large, the yards perfect, but it was like Anywhere Suburban USA. The only thing unusual: The streets were completely devoid of cars or people. I went to the home of Eileen and Robert Krause. I’d gotten to know Eileen, a former city councilwoman, by sitting through meetings; she’d decided not to seek re-election and was now out of office.
The housekeeper answered. On the wall, a picture inscribed to the Krauses showed Ronald Reagan giving a toast.
Dinner was delightful. We talked about Bill Shepherd, who had lost the election by 137 votes. Eileen was sorry he had lost. Crime had been an issue, but it was overshadowed by controversy over the last undeveloped chunk of Dana Point coastline.
I worked through my questions. The most important: Why do you live behind walls?
Eileen said they had wanted to be near the beach, and the house just happened to be behind a gate–but it turned out to be nice, because they don’t have noisy traffic or solicitors. Robert differed. “I look at it from a safety standpoint. I think there’s much less risk.”
That was it. The conversation went elsewhere. We took an after-dinner walk near the ocean. Eileen told me that she is on the county’s gang task force, looking for solutions other than just being tough on crime. I said that she sounded less like a Republican and more like a liberal.
No, she answered, “That’s pure business. You invest, and you end up with some good results. You spend $20,000 a year for prison, or $4,000 a year for schooling for a kid.”
If the wall dwellers had horns and claws, it would be easier. I left and went to the Ritz. As the scotch went down, it gnawed at me that I hadn’t questioned the Krauses more about living behind walls.
I wondered: Aren’t the Krauses still part of the problem? Nationwide, we’re seeing the birth of a de facto oligarchy–as many as 4 million people live in walled communities, according to Edward J. Blakely, dean of urban planning at the University of Southern California. The isolation of walled communities will only increase as generations of children grow up in them and accept their reality.
Walls are a result, not a cause, of society’s problems–at least for now. But I’ve been to Third World countries and have seen how the rich have lived behind walls for generations. Removed from reality, they can’t see why wars start against them.
If the SOS ballot initiative passes, it will cause illegal immigrants to suffer a bit more, but they won’t suddenly pack their bags and leave. The homes and businesses of Dana Point, after all, will still need their lawns mowed and their dishes cleaned.
Maybe the answer to polarization lies in the areas where common interests are shared, such as at work. The Krauses told me that their small air-pollution control company employs people from all ethnic backgrounds–black, Chinese, Filipino, Iranian, Latino, Vietnamese, white. They said there’s no ethnic tension, and their company is productive.
Speaking of California, Eileen asked, “Where else in the whole world can you go where you have so many different kinds of people?” She noted that most of the time, people get along.
Days earlier, a sociologist at UCLA had told me the same thing. He’d had a revelation while walking through a park–the sight of a multiracial group of men playing baseball made him think about studying impromptu acts of multicultural harmony.
If California’s ethnicities were suddenly thrust into, say, Boston–where what kind of white you are matters–there might be an L.A.-style riot every week. California is utopian by comparison.
Journalists–like politicians and academics–look at extremes. On subjects like race and multiculturalism, a centrifugal force flings the debate to the outermost edges. Sometimes it never returns to the center. These extremes push public policy, wrestling us along for strange rides like the SOS initiative. Tribalism and fear of others have fueled a lot of misery in the history of the world.
Yet the United States is supposed to be different. As the nation grows more diverse, the center needs to hold. Even though racism still exists, it isn’t the 1960s anymore. The left will lose if it keeps fighting the old in-your-face battles; the right shouldn’t keep driving race as a wedge issue. The situation is too fragile for these tactics.
It’s time for radical interethnic centrism, not radical ethnocentrism. The trick is how to invigorate the center. People like Bill Shepherd, Eileen and Robert Krause, Alma Valladares, and Christian Pederson have more similarities than differences.
Communication, of course, is the key. Bill Shepherd now realizes he missed an opportunity to open the channels this past summer. Late one night he went by an alley and noticed two Latino men crouched by a wall–he figured he had caught them spraying graffiti.
But then he discovered the men wielded paint rollers. They were covering graffiti, at night so the culprits couldn’t see them. “We don’t want this shit in our neighborhood,” one of them told Shepherd.
After Shepherd arrived home, he regretted not having invited them to a meeting of the Lantern Village Association. He realized that they want the same thing he does.
This is the third article in a series on ethnic tension in California by Dale Maharidge. His continuing project for Mother Jones will be published by Times Books in 1996. Maharidge teaches journalism at Stanford University.