How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

As multi-American as apple pie and tamales


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Photo by Joe Goldberg/Flickr (Creative Commons)



Welcome to Multi-American, a new Southern California Public Radio blog covering immigration, immigrant communities, and the distinct cultural influences across generations that make Southern California a region like no other. Our goal is to explore Southern California’s evolving identity as a place where the cultural landscape is constantly being shaped and reshaped by immigrants, their children and grandchildren, with each new generation contributing its own brand of American identity to the mix. We’ll report on the immigration debate, and on the policies and politics that affect Southern California residents as they play out in their communities, but also something broader: on immigration as a topic that defines our regional identity. What New York was to the 19th century, Southern California is to the 21st. This is the landscape we’ll be exploring.

I’ll be your tour guide.

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Leslie Berestein Rojas

I’m a 1.5-generation Angeleno who arrived in town as a child with my family from Cuba and grew up in Huntington Park. I’m just back after six years of covering immigration on the U.S.-Mexico border. For readers who follow immigration issues, the first two names of my byline may sound familiar, but not the third, Rojas, so let me explain. Since early in my career, I’ve debated whether to use my maternal surname as part of my byline. Colleagues have long encouraged it, if only to avoid the confusion that stems from being a native Spanish speaker with a surname like Berestein, a holdover from 19th-century European Jewish migration to Latin America.

I gave much thought to it over the years, but stayed on the fence. On one side, had I been raised in Latin America, I’d be using both surnames, as is customary. But in the U.S., I saw changing my byline as a concession to overly simple perceptions of ethnic identity. Why, I thought, should my name be Speedy Gonzales in order to clue the rest of the world in to my ethnicity? Are there not Mexicanos with French surnames, Argentinos with Italian ones? Latinos are of all colors and stripes, I would argue, with different racial and ethnic backgrounds, accents, food, political leanings, religious affiliations - and surnames. We don't fit neatly into a box.

Time has mellowed my attitude. After spending a good chunk of my career explaining my background, I’ll admit that I’ve grown a bit tired of explaining. And as I launch into a new way of reporting on immigration, with identity as much a part of the story as anything else, it's satisfying to finally take that leap and identify myself professionally as what I am: a multi-ethnic Latina, whose particular mix includes ancestors who traveled to Latin America from Central Europe and China (yes, that too), an Angeleno who is as American as apple pie and tamales, falafel and sushi. In other words, as a multi-American, just like the rest of us.

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