President Barack Obama’s recent executive action regarding immigration offers protection for millions of undocumented immigrants and peace of mind for their extended families, and 90 percent of Latino voters have said that they “support” or “strongly support” his effort. If his action is enforced and the number of deportations declines, perhaps Latinos in cities from San Antonio to L.A. can feel more secure and freer to focus on building supportive and equitable communities.
But while immigration reform plays out at the federal level, there’s another challenge facing city-dwelling Latinos: gentrification. In Los Angeles — where the population is 48.2 percent Hispanic, according to the most recent U.S. Census — gentrification in Latino neighborhoods has made some residents feel less welcome. Neighborhoods like Highland Park, Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles have had strong Mexican and Mexican-American ties for generations, making rising rents and alienation from new chic, high-priced businesses that much more frustrating.
On November 8th, a group called the North East L.A. Alliance (NELA Alliance) held a public art performance titled “Procesion de Testimonios: Evicting Displacement,” which sought to bring attention to changes in Highland Park. The procession began along the most visibly gentrifying corridor, York Boulevard, and the group served mock eviction notices to businesses the group didn’t feel were “culturally inviting, affordable and displaced long-time businesses,” according to organizer Melissa Uribe.
She and NELA Alliance’s Miguel Ramos were recent guests on radio show Puentes y Fuentes, a program that “opens the airwaves to critical dialogue surrounding urban development, neighborhood change and displacement in communities of color throughout L.A.”
On the show, Uribe expressed her frustration with Highland Park businesses that “weren’t there when we were growing up, but [now] we’re seen as the foreign ones.” Direct displacement of renters and businesses is a tangible marker of the disruptive effect of gentrification, but NELA Alliance’s protest highlighted the emotional effect and the estrangement that residents feel when stores and businesses owned by “outsiders” — often wealthy and/or white — move in.
“Each place that we placed our eviction notices,” says Uribe, “We had a member of the North East L.A. Alliance tell their own testimonio, really creating a safe space for us to be able to feel comfortable and say how we feel about these businesses in our communities.”
Alongside some of the racial tensions, class issues within the Latino community are also creating friction in gentrifying Latino neighborhoods. The term gente-fication describes when wealthier Latinos open upscale businesses in urban Latino neighborhoods. Fox News Latino published an article earlier this year tracing the trend in Los Angeles and New York.
Filmmaker Andrew J. Padilla, whose work includes El Barrio Tours, pushed back on the Fox News Latino article with a blog post, saying:
Forget all of the economic displacement gentrification causes. Some Latinos are still around so it’s ok. Latinos are doing it so it’s ok. It’s still becoming more expensive for existing residents to live and shop in their own communities, isn’t it? … I know plenty of small business owners hustling hard as hell to do keep their small business going, like Michelle at the East Harlem Cafe, Aurora at La Casa Azul Bookstore, Jorge at Justos Botánica, Orlando at Camaradas El Barrio, and the list goes on. But most small business in East Harlem are not thriving because of gentrification, they’re holding on by a thread because of it.
An early appearance of the term gente-fication makes an appearance in the 1997 magical realist border novel Tropic of Orange. Rather than referring to an outsider making a neighborhood more fashionable or expensive, it refers to the fantasies of one of the characters, Buzzworm, to uplift the entire community as a whole:
Buzzworm had a plan. Called it gentrification. Not the sort brings in poor artists. Sort where people living there become their own gentry. Self-gentrification by a self-made set of standards and respectability. Do-it-yourself gentrification. Latinos had this word, gente. Something translated like us. Like folks. That sort of gente-fication. Restore the neighborhood. Clean up the streets. Take care of the people. Trim and water the palm tress. Some laughed at Buzzworm’s plan. Called his plan This Old Hood. They could laugh, but he was still trying to go to heaven.
After NELA Alliance’s procession along York Boulevard, the group moved to the backstreets and apartment complexes of Highland Park to hand out flyers about tenants’ rights and upcoming meetings to the immigrant, working-class and poorer communities there. Another action, a candlelight vigil, is planned for December 13th.
The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Alexis Stephens was Next City’s 2014-2015 equitable cities fellow. She’s written about housing, pop culture, global music subcultures, and more for publications like Shelterforce, Rolling Stone, SPIN, and MTV Iggy. She has a B.A. in urban studies from Barnard College and an M.S. in historic preservation from the University of Pennsylvania.