California’s Demographic Revolution: If the upward mobility of the impending Hispanic majority doesn’t improve, the state’s economic future is in peril.
February 15, 2012
California is in the middle of a far-reaching demographic shift: Hispanics, who already constitute a majority of the state’s schoolchildren, will be a majority of its workforce and of its population in a few decades. This is an even more momentous development than it seems. Unless Hispanics’ upward mobility improves, the state risks becoming more polarized economically and more reliant on a large government safety net. And as California goes, so goes the nation, whose own Hispanic population shift is just a generation or two behind.
The scale and speed of the Golden State’s ethnic transformation are unprecedented. In the 1960s, Los Angeles was the most Anglo-Saxon of the nation’s ten largest cities; today, Latinos make up nearly half of the county’s residents and one-third of its voting-age population. A full 55 percent of Los Angeles County’s child population has immigrant parents. California’s schools have the nation’s largest concentration of “English learners,” students from homes where a language other than English is regularly spoken. From 2000 to 2010, the state’s Hispanic population grew 28 percent, to reach 37.6 percent of all residents, almost equal to the shrinking white population’s 40 percent. Nearly half of all California births today are Hispanic. The signs of the change are everywhere—from the commercial strips throughout the state catering to Spanish-speaking customers, to the flea markets and illegal vendors in such areas as MacArthur Park in Los Angeles, to the growing reach of the Spanish-language media.
The poor Mexican immigrants who have fueled the transformation—84 percent of the state’s Hispanics have Mexican origins—bring an admirable work ethic and a respect for authority too often lacking in America’s native-born population. Many of their children and grandchildren have started thriving businesses and assumed positions of civic and economic leadership. But a sizable portion of Mexican, as well as Central American, immigrants, however hardworking, lack the social capital to inoculate their children reliably against America’s contagious underclass culture. The resulting dysfunction is holding them back and may hold California back as well.
Three members of the Crazy Little Stoners, a small but violent drug-dealing gang, are hanging out on a ficus-lined residential street in Santa Ana, America’s largest predominantly Spanish-speaking city (located in what was once solidly Republican Orange County). A white truck filled with members of a local graffiti crew slowly pulls up to check out their gang affiliation; since CLS and the taggers are not at war, the truck passes on.
Salvador, 16, Casimiro, 16, and Michael, 15, joined CLS three years ago and promptly racked up serious criminal records, including convictions for armed robbery and burglary that would have sent them to state prison had they not been juveniles. Casimiro, in red love beads and baggy shorts, is a short, self-consciously cocky tough (“I’ve got people doing my homework ’cause I show ’em my fist,” he brags); he faces 20 years if caught again. Salvador, the most articulate of the three, has a nine-and-a-half-year suspended sentence hanging over him. Michael has been kicked out of school for fighting and now attends an alternative school—but not for long, all evidence suggests. “They don’t teach us nothing; I didn’t know how boring it would be,” he says sullenly. Salvador claims that their long suspended prison terms have taught them a lesson and that they’re “done” with the criminal life; now they just want to make steady money with a job, he says.
The family situations of these young gangbangers are typical of California’s lower-class Hispanic population, characterized by high rates of single parenthood, teen pregnancy, and welfare use. Michael’s unmarried mother is on welfare. The mother of Salvador’s 16-year-old girlfriend recently sent her to Washington State to keep her away from him—too late, since she is already pregnant. “If she has the kid, I’ll stop messing around and take care of it,” he says. Salvador’s father was arrested in January for drug possession and deported after serving time in the Orange County jail; he is presently planning his return. Casimiro claims that his parents tolerate his gang activities: “I be going to parks and I be like, I was like kind of nervous in the beginning but I was like, ‘Get used to it,’ but they were cool with it,” he says. Perhaps Casimiro is accurately conveying his family’s attitudes toward his gang-banging; social workers in Santa Ana and Los Angeles tell of multigenerational gang families in which the fathers smoke pot and take meth with their children. Equally likely, however, is that Casimiro’s parents oppose criminality but cannot keep him away from the streets.
If any of these Crazy Little Stoners is going to turn his life around, Salvador seems to have the greatest chance, based on his ability to make steady eye contact and engage with an interlocutor. He “thinks about” going to college, he says, adding, without irony, that he likes studying criminal justice for “what it teaches you about the world.” Some children do, in fact, put aside their gang affiliations after their first encounters with the law; others muddle through their young adult years in a dim, semi-criminal limbo. As I take leave of the group, Casimiro asks casually, “You got a dollar?”—already displaying the entitlement mentality of a Haight-Ashbury or Venice Beach gutter punk (see “The Sidewalks of San Francisco,” Autumn 2010).
A more plausible candidate for bourgeois respectability may be found on a street corner not far from the CLS hangout. Jessica, a plump eleventh-grader in a low-cut black tank top, has just exited from Cesar Chavez High School, a fashionably industrial edifice, during the last week of remedial summer classes. Her family, too, demonstrates the ravages of underclass culture, including “multiple partner fertility”: her 23-year-old brother, 18-year-old sister, and 14-year-old brother have different fathers from her own. Jessica’s father shows up occasionally from Riverside, but she doesn’t know if he works or not. Jessica’s mother, never married, was born in the U.S. but raised in Mexico. She now works as a security guard but has ceded child-rearing to Jessica’s grandmother. Both parents have roots in Santa Ana’s largest and oldest gang, F Troop…