Leticia Vasquez calls hers a “typical immigrant story.” Her parents, poor strivers from Mexico, raised five splendidly thriving children—one of whom, Leticia, 34, is now mayor of Lynwood, Calif., the small town where she grew up. It is a heartwarming tale that readily brings to mind a host of clichés about the American dream. But the story does not end with wine, roses and applause. Instead it segues into the troubled terrain of race, corruption and polarization.
Of late, Vasquez has been pilloried by fellow Mexican-Americans for being—in her estimation, at least—too sympathetic to black constituents.
Welcome to the topsy-turvy world of ethnic politics in the 21st century, when blacks and Latinos, once presumed to be natural allies, increasingly find themselves competing for power and where promotion of racial harmony is as likely to evoke anger as admiration. Lynwood is a case study in the power of prejudice, the pitfalls of ethnic conflict and, perhaps, ultimately, the potential for interethnic cooperation. It may also foreshadow America’s future—one that will increasingly see blacks and Latinos fighting, sometimes together and sometimes each other, to overcome a history of marginalization.
Lynwood’s ethnic tensions stem, in part, from the town’s rapid ethnic transformation. In the 1970s, blacks began to arrive in significant numbers in the small, largely white, bedroom community of Los Angeles. In 1983, Lynwood elected its first black council member, Robert Henning, who was joined two years later by Evelyn Wells—a black female, who promptly nominated Henning to be mayor. The council (which names the mayor) went along. Blacks quickly came to dominate the political power structure. Meanwhile, Latinos were growing in number. Rea, the first Latino council member, was elected in 1989. In 1997, Latinos (who now comprise 82 percent of the city’s 72,000 residents) gained control of the five-member council. Vasquez, who was not then active in politics, remembers “people knocking on the door saying we needed to get rid of black city-council members.”
As Latinos increasingly become the ethnic majority in once proudly black venues (including Compton, a hip-hop capital, and Watts, formerly L.A.’s black mecca), and as headlines tout them as America’s hot, and largest, minority group, many blacks share Smith’s fear of being “shut out.” Earl Ofari Hutchinson, an L.A.-based writer and activist, recalls the bitter reaction he got for writing a series of articles sympathetic to Latino immigrants: “I have never received so much hate mail from blacks. It touched a nerve among black folks, a raw nerve.”