How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

The Real SGV: "The Changs Next Door to the Diazes"

Todd Johnson/KPCC

Shopping center sign in Monterey Park.

It was the San Gabriel Valley that years ago inspired the term "ethnoburb," in reference to the region's growing Asian American population and character. But there's more to the SGV than meets the eye.

In her new book, "The Changs Next Door to the Diazes," author Wendy Cheng explores a section of the west San Gabriel Valley where Asians and Latinos have long lived side-by-side, forging a unique brand of Southern California identity.

Cheng is a scholar, photographer and writer who co-authored "A People's Guide to Los Angeles." I'll be interviewing her live this Thursday at 7:30 p.m. at KPCC's Crawford Family Forum. For now, here's a taste of what we'll be covering.

LBR: Different people have different ideas of what lies in area code 626. What are some misconceptions about the San Gabriel Valley? And what do you see as the real SGV?

Cheng: If people who don’t live there know anything about the SGV, they usually know it as being a “suburban Chinatown.” Even some Asians who live there will tell you that the SGV is “100 percent” Asian. But actually, while it’s true that the SGV has been an incredibly important site for ethnic Chinese immigration and settlement in the past few decades, while some SGV cities are as much as 60-70% Asian, there are others that are Latino-dominant; still others have significant populations of non-Hispanic whites, and a few have longstanding African American communities.

Overall the most striking demographic pattern in the SGV that distinguishes it from other metropolitan areas is its Asian American and Latino majority. Most of it also has a strong immigrant and working- to middle-class character. Additionally it has a tremendously rich and layered history, from centuries of indigenous Gabrielino/Tongva settlement to Spanish, Mexican, and finally U.S. rule.

LBR: When we think of redlining - housing discrimination against people of color - we think of this occurring in places like South L.A., but not so much the San Gabriel Valley. What covenants led to the SGV's ethnic makeup?

Cheng: If we’re talking about Asian American and Mexican American history in the area, that actually goes back pretty far. Of course the Mexicans were here before American settlers came, and some just stayed in the area. The first person I interviewed for my book, the photographer Laura Aguilar, comes from a family that goes back five generations in the SGV, to before it was even part of the U.S., and she still lives in Rosemead now.

Later on both Mexicans and various Asian groups filled agricultural and other labor niches. But it was always racially and spatially divided. For example, in the 19th century, in the western SGV, if you were not white, you could not live north of Huntington Boulevard unless you were a servant of some kind.

The SGV as we know it today really took off after World War II, during the period of mass suburbanization in the U.S. Most of these new suburbs openly excluded aspiring homeowners who were not white, so their opportunities were quite constrained.

Some of the housing developments in Monterey Park, which was adjacent to East L.A. and also close to Little Tokyo and Chinatown, allowed Mexican Americans and Asian Americans to purchase homes, and word spread quickly among people’s respective communities. Unfortunately some of these same suburbs still excluded African Americans – so you have a region that developed based on being relatively racially tolerant toward some, but at the same time lines were still being drawn that denied equal mobility to others.

The initial Asian American presence established during this time created an opening for the large influx of ethnic Chinese and other Asian immigrants that started to come to the SGV in the 1970s and 1980s. Some of these immigrants, especially the ones from Taiwan and Hong Kong, were different from others who came before them in important ways. They were well-educated professionals and many of them brought a lot of capital with them. They opened businesses and established Chinese American banks that opened up access to home ownership and business loans to ethnic Chinese in the SGV in a big way. These are major resources that other nonwhite groups in the U.S. did not have in the past.

LBR: You write in your book about things like the "Chimexica" flag and other badges of SGV identity.  When you talk about the section of the San Gabriel Valley that you focus on (Alhambra, Monterey Park, Rosemead and San Gabriel) developing a distinct identity, what is that? And is it more about what residents are not versus what they are?

Cheng: For some SGV residents, the sense of a multiracial, majority Asian American and Latino identity is very strong. For an earlier generation of Asian Americans and Latinos (those who moved there during the 1950s-1970s), some of their sense of a common, distinctively nonwhite identity came out of shared experiences of discrimination.

People from later generations who grew up in the area spoke explicitly about feeling like they grew up as “part of the majority” – when technically, their specific racial/ethnic group was not the majority. What they meant was that multiracial, nonwhite majority, which to them often meant an inclusive ethos that was welcoming of difference, comfortable in themselves, and often anti-racist in orientation.

Another person I interviewed talked about it as the place having a distinct personality - that if you were an immigrant, if you were a person of color, you would feel comfortable here; and many of them really valued that.

LBR: Which takes is to diversity. Yes, there is lots of it in the SGV. But how does this diversity play out on a daily basis? How does it play out socially in schools as kids are tracked academically? How does it influence social connections, dating, and other aspects of life? Are the dividing lines perhaps not as blurred as we'd like to think?

Cheng: In general, I found there was a lot of fluidity in people’s relationships within the neighborhoods they grew up in, and in their friendships and quasi-familial relationships. But in schools and other more formal institutions – like the Boy Scouts and official city spaces – sometimes things weren’t so fluid.

The “academic profiling” (as Pomona professor Gilda Ochoa calls it) of Asian American and Latino students is really intense. The expectations a lot of teachers, staff, and other students put on them – specifically, that Asian American students are going to be high achievers and Latino students are not going to do as well – absolutely have negative effects in the school environment, one of the worst of which is classes and extracurricular activities that are markedly different racially and ethnically.

On the other end, many people I interviewed had developed extremely close cross-racial friendships, and cross-racial dating and long-term relationships were pretty common. I think what’s important about those is that growing up in this context, a lot of people develop a lifelong capacity to identify across these presumed boundaries - who “we” are and whom we consider our family and loved ones to be.

I often think of a story one of the people I interviewed told me, about an older white woman in San Gabriel who, after her son married a Taiwanese woman and had a child, would become quite upset when people joked or spoke negatively about Asians. It was no longer some unknown “other” they were talking about, but her daughter-in-law, her grandchild. In a way, her own racial identification changed, if we think of the groups we identify with as those we consider to be familial in some sense.

On all kinds of levels, the kind of mixing that’s happening in the SGV can open up people’s emotional worlds and also reveal how arbitrary and socially constructed ideas of race really are.

LBR: So where is all this leading? What does the status quo today in the SGV bode for the region’s future identity -  and for that of the L.A. area and California as our demographics change?

Cheng: In my opinion, one of the most significant findings that comes out of looking at life in the SGV – at least the portions that have this Asian American and Latino majority – is that the aspiration to whiteness as a marker of upward mobility is no longer there. It’s been detached from suburbanness and middle-class status. In many cases, the people I interviewed were not really interested in living around white people at all.

There has never been only one way of being “American” – but historically in the U.S. Americanness has been inextricably linked with whiteness. The SGV is a place that a multiracial, nonwhite majority – in this case Asian Americans and Latinos – are claiming as their own. Many of them are happy with it as it is, and don’t want to leave. It’s not a stepping stone on a pathway to assimilating into white American life.

I think this is incredibly important to think about at this particular historical moment, when non-Hispanic whites are no longer the majority in California, and the rest of the country is poised to follow suit. The SGV is definitely special, but if you think about it this way, there are SGVs everywhere – so many histories to be uncovered and stories to be told.

LBR: Thank you.

Tickets to tonight's free Forum event can be reserved here.

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