Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

After grumbling about immigrant neighbors, a writer examines her attitude

A suburban neighborhood in Northern California, February 2006
A suburban neighborhood in Northern California, February 2006
Photo by Todd Lappin/Flickr (Creative Commons)

A thought-provoking piece in the Los Angeles Times by columnist Sandy Banks caught my attention earlier today.

It's about how during a recent evening walk with her college-age daughter, Banks overhears a loud conversation through a window in a foreign tongue ("was it Armenian or Persian or maybe Russian?"). Banks catches herself railing against her immigrant neighbors, launching into a tirade "about how they let their children run wild and their dog wander the street, how their grass is too long, their unread newspapers pile up, their trash cans sit at the curb for days."

Then, to her daughter's horror: "I don't agree with the immigration law in Arizona, but I get where those voters are coming from." Banks' attitude seems to surprise her as much as her daughter, so she goes on to examine her evolution:

What happened to the woman who, transplanted from Ohio, reveled in Los Angeles' panoply of languages and cultures; who took night-school classes to learn Spanish and collected friends from Belize and South Africa and Israel and Iran; whose biggest complaint in her early days in the San Fernando Valley was its lack of color?

That was 30 years ago. Both the city and the woman have changed since then — have become more crotchety and less forgiving. These days, I find myself easily irritated and looking for someone to blame.

On our trip to the mall in Northridge that afternoon, my daughter and I seemed to be the only ones at the department store counter asking for shoes in size seven, not siete. Even my daughter — who had searched unsuccessfully for a job all summer — was prompted to wonder if you had to speak Spanish to work at Macy's.

Outside at the farmers' market in the mall's parking lot, I listened to customers banter with growers in Spanish, then hand over a few dollars and walk off with bags bulging with fruit . My transactions were friendly enough, but my bags seemed emptier and my wallet lighter. I got the English-language price, I guess.

Perhaps what struck me most about the piece was the openness of Banks' confession, which wasn't quite what I expected. It provided a peek through suburban curtains into the sort of low-level, everyday intolerance that lives just below the surface in neighborhoods throughout Southern California, where hearing a conversation in a foreign language can prompt grumbling about an immigrant family's children and their unkempt lawn. It also gets at the fear and frustration that is at the core of the current political climate over immigration, as cultural changes taking place around the country make some feel more threatened than others.

Having grown up in a bilingual Latino household and neighborhood, I can identify more readily with Banks' daughter, raised in a polyglot Los Angeles and comfortable with it. But whether one identifies with Banks in this piece or not, it's a very interesting read.

In the end, Banks concludes that perhaps it's best to follow her daughter's example, "brushing up on my Spanish — and learning Korean and Armenian — than trying to hold back change with bad law."