Crossposted on City Journal
Latinos now make up nearly half of Los Angeles County’s residents.
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.
Self-contained and cautious, Jessica says that she has learned from other people’s mistakes just by watching. She takes a jaundiced view of her classmates: “Most students don’t do the work.” (Her own favorite class is earth science.) As for the pregnant girls, “I’m sure that they knew what they were doing.” Since the sixth grade, she has been picking up various wind instruments, including the bass clarinet and the sax, and she plays in the marching band. “It’s something to keep us off the streets ’n’ stuff,” she observes coolly of this last endeavor. Her older siblings don’t provide much inspiration: her brother has been amassing low-level police citations but is otherwise “doing nothing,” she tells me, and her sister barely passed the watered-down California high school exit exam. But as to her future, “it’s on me,” she says. “It’s up to me to do something.”
Jon Pederson works as a pastor in the Willard area of Santa Ana, a formerly middle-class neighborhood of stucco apartment blocks whose balconies now sport bright blue tarps and small satellite dishes. Participation in gangs and drug culture is rising in the second and third generation of Hispanic immigrants, he observes. “It’s a perfect storm. When a family comes from Mexico, both parents need to work to survive; their ability to monitor their child’s life is limited.” Families take in boarders, often kin, who sometimes rape and impregnate the young daughters. “Daddy hunger” in girls raised by single mothers is expressed in promiscuity, Pederson says; the boys, meanwhile, channel their anger into gang life. Nearly 53 percent of all Hispanic births in California are now out of wedlock, and Hispanics have the highest teen birthrate of all ethnic groups. Pederson saw similar patterns as a missionary in Central America: teen pregnancy, single-parent families with six or eight serial fathers, and high poverty rates.
Routine domestic violence is another Third World import, especially from Mexico. More than a quarter of the 911 calls to the Santa Ana Police Department are for domestic violence, reports Kevin Brown, a former Santa Ana cop who now serves on an antigang intervention team. “Children are seeing it at home—they’re living the experience,” he says.
The complicated reality of Hispanic family life in California—often straddling the legitimate and the criminal worlds, displaying both a dogged determination to work and poor decision making that interferes with upward mobility—helps explain why the state’s Hispanic population has made only modest progress up the educational ladder. Most parents want their children to flourish, yet they may not grasp the study habits necessary for academic success or may view an eighth-grade education as sufficient for finding work. Julian Rodriguez, a Santa Ana gang detective, recalls a case several years ago in which two parents had taken their 14-year-old daughter out of school to care for their new baby—a classic display of “Old World values,” he says.
A significant portion of Hispanic children lag cognitively, a problem that led David Figueroa Ortega, the Mexican consul general of Los Angeles, to sound the alarm this past October: “Our children, when they arrive in primary school, sometimes arrive behind in skills. They don’t have sufficient training to keep up with the rest of the group.” Nationally, 42 percent of Latino children entering kindergarten are in the lowest quartile of reading preparedness, compared with 18 percent of white children, reports UCLA education professor Patricia Gándara in her 2009 book The Latino Education Crisis. By eighth grade, 43 percent of whites and 47 percent of Asians nationally are proficient or better in reading, compared with only 19 percent of Latino students.
Many of California’s Hispanic students who have been schooled in the U.S. for all their lives and are orally fluent in English remain classified as English learners in high school because they have made so little academic progress. In the Long Beach Unified School District, for example, nearly nine-tenths of English learners entering high school have been in a U.S. school at least since first grade. The lack of progress isn’t due to bilingual education: Long Beach got rid of its last bilingual program in 1998, and the current ninth-grade English learners have been in English-only classrooms all their lives. Some come from families that immigrated to the U.S. two or three generations ago.
True, Hispanics’ cognitive skills have been improving over the last decade; the percentage of Hispanic eighth-graders deemed proficient in math and reading on the California Standards Tests doubled from 2004 to 2010. But the gap between Hispanics’ performance and that of whites and Asians narrowed only modestly, since white and Asian scores rose as well. Latino students’ rate of B.A. completion from the University of California and California State University is the lowest of all student groups and has slightly declined in recent years, reports the Institute for Higher Education Leadership and Policy at California State University, Sacramento. The state spends vast sums each year trying to get more Hispanics into college and to keep them there—$100 million in 2009, for instance, on the education of full-time community-college students who dropped out after their first year, according to the American Institutes for Research. (Facilitating transfers from community college is a favored strategy for increasing Hispanic enrollment in four-year colleges.)
Hispanic underperformance contributes to California’s dismal educational statistics. Only Mississippi had as large a percentage of its eighth-grade students reading at the “below basic” level on the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP); in eighth-grade math, California came in third, after Alabama and Mississippi, in the percentage of students scoring “below basic.” Only 56 percent of ninth-graders graduate in four years in Los Angeles; statewide, only two-thirds do.
Since the 1980s, California’s economic growth has been powered by skilled labor. Silicon Valley, for example, added jobs at a rate of 3.2 percent for the year beginning in November 2010, despite the continuing economic slump. If current labor-market trends continue, 41 percent of California’s workers will need a B.A. by 2025, according to the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC). But California already has trouble finding skilled employees. Because it can’t produce all the skilled workers that it needs, it imports them: in 2006, for example, 33 percent of all college-educated California workers had been born in other states and 31 percent had been born abroad, PPIC says. Moreover, since 2000, more college graduates have been exiting California than entering. California will need to attract almost 160,000 college-educated workers annually for 20 years in a row to meet the projected demand, PPIC estimates—three times the number who have been arriving from elsewhere since 2000.
Unfortunately, though Hispanics will make up 40 percent of the state’s working-age population by 2020, just 12 percent of them are projected to have bachelor’s degrees by then, up from 10 percent in 2006. Moreover, their fields of academic concentration are not where the most economically fertile growth will probably occur. At California State University in 2008, just 1.7 percent of master’s degree students in computer science were Mexican-American, as were just 3.6 percent of students in engineering master’s programs. The largest percentage of Mexican-American enrollment in M.A. programs was in education—40 percent—despite (or perhaps because of) Mexican-Americans’ low test scores.
The future mismatch between labor supply and demand is likely to raise wages for college-educated workers, while a glut of workers with a high school diploma or less will depress wages on the low end and contribute to an increased demand for government services, especially among the less educated Hispanic population. U.S.-born Hispanic households in California already use welfare programs (such as cash welfare, food stamps, and housing assistance) at twice the rate of U.S.-born non-Hispanic households, according to an analysis of the March 2011 Current Population Survey by the Center for Immigration Studies. Welfare use by immigrants is higher still. In 2008–09, the fraction of households using some form of welfare was 82 percent for households headed by an illegal immigrant and 61 percent for households headed by a legal immigrant.
Higher rates of Hispanic poverty drive this disparity in welfare consumption. Hispanics made up nearly 60 percent of California’s poor in 2010, despite being less than 38 percent of the population. Nearly one-quarter of all Hispanics in California are poor, compared with a little over one-tenth of non-Hispanics. Nationally, the poverty rate of Hispanic adults drops from 25.5 percent in the first generation—the immigrant generation, that is—to 17 percent in the second but rises to 19 percent in the third, according to a Center for Immigration Studies analysis. (The poverty rate for white adults is 9 percent.) That frustrating third-generation economic stall repeats the pattern in high school graduation and college completion rates as well.
Hispanics’ reliance on the government safety net helps explain their ongoing support for the Democratic Party. Indeed, liberal spending policies are a more important consideration for Hispanic voters than ethnic identification or the so-called values issues that they are often said to favor. “What Republicans mean by ‘family values’ and what Hispanics mean are two completely different things,” says John Echeveste, founder of the oldest Latino marketing firm in Southern California and a player in California Latino politics. “We are a very compassionate people; we care about other people and understand that government has a role to play in helping people.” That Democratic allegiance was on display in the 2010 race for lieutenant governor, when Hispanics favored San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom, the epitome of an elite tax-and-spend liberal, over the Hispanic Republican incumbent, Abel Maldonado, despite Newsom’s unilateral legalization of gay marriage in San Francisco in 2004. La Opinión, California’s largest Spanish-language newspaper, cited Newsom’s “good progressive platform” in endorsing him. In the 2010 race for state attorney general, Hispanic voters helped give the victory to liberal San Francisco district attorney Kamala Harris, who was running against Los Angeles district attorney Steve Cooley, a law-and-order moderate—even in Cooley’s own backyard of L.A.
Republican political consultants routinely argue that California’s Hispanics were driven from their natural Republican home by a 1994 voter initiative—backed by then-governor Pete Wilson, a Republican—denying most government benefits to illegal aliens. But it would be almost impossible today to find a Hispanic immigrant who has even heard of Proposition 187. Jim Tolle, pastor of one of the largest Hispanic churches in Southern California, La Iglesia En El Camino, says that his congregation knows nothing about Prop. 187. The fact is that Hispanic skepticism toward the Republican Party derives as much from its perceived economic biases as from Republicans’ opposition to illegal immigration and amnesty. A March 2011 poll by Moore Information asked California’s Latino voters why they had an unfavorable view of the Republican Party. The two top reasons were that the party favored only the rich and that Republicans were selfish and out for themselves; Republican positions on immigration law were cited less often.
Hispanics’ low rates of naturalization and civic participation have depressed their political influence below their population numbers. Nearly 40 percent of Latino adults are ineligible to vote, according to Lisa Garcia Bedolla, an education professor at UC Berkeley. But Hispanics’ representation in the state legislature has been growing even faster than their population numbers, and a string of recent speakers in the state assembly have been Hispanic. The Latino Caucus has already made its mark on higher education, putting constant pressure on the University of California to admit more Hispanic students or face draconian budget cuts. “If campuses don’t capitulate, you’ll get killed. The Latino Caucus will march with torches,” says John Moores, a former chairman of the UC Board of Regents. Moores resigned the chairmanship “in disgust,” he says, at his inability to restore color-blind admissions to the system.
Such a push for meritocratic admissions shouldn’t even be necessary, given the 1996 voter initiative banning racial preferences in state government, including the university systems. The UC and CSU systems, however, quickly devised stratagems for evading Proposition 209—and even those schemes haven’t gone far enough for the Latino Caucus. “Minority students are not getting an equal shake in our state, and as an elected official I’m going to do everything in my power to change that,” declared caucus member Ed Hernandez in September 2011, as his pet project, a bill to give campuses the official go-ahead to restore open racial preferences in admissions, once again landed on the governor’s desk. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger had vetoed the bill in the past, and Governor Jerry Brown, to his credit, did so again in October, citing its patent unconstitutionality. Hernandez and the caucus can console themselves with the fact that UC’s “holistic” and “comprehensive” admissions gambits are accomplishing sub rosa much of what the bill aimed to make official.
The caucus did score a major legislative victory last year. The University of California, California State University, and the community-college system already grant in-state tuition to illegal aliens. (Back in 2003, when then–UC regent Ward Connerly asked university officials why illegal aliens should get a $12,000 annual tuition break when, say, a citizen from Washington State did not, they answered: Our budget will be cut if we don’t go along.) This past October, however, Brown signed a bill going even further and granting illegal aliens taxpayer-funded tuition assistance and fee waivers. The so-called California Dream Act was not a popular bill, except among Latinos: 55 percent of voters opposed the law, and only 30 percent of whites supported it, but 79 percent of Latinos approved of it. In one generation, observes CSU San Jose political scientist Larry Gerston, California has gone from outlawing affirmative action and banning nonessential government services to illegal aliens to granting them free tuition subsidies, a change that “speaks to the growing pressure of Latinos on the legislative process.”
Even as Hispanics are gathering clout in Sacramento, the immigrant populations of some small, almost entirely Latino, cities in the Los Angeles basin have been politically passive toward local governance. As a result, the city councils and managers of Bell, Maywood, La Puente, and other localities, unchecked by their residents, have engaged in rampant self-dealing, virtually bankrupting those cities’ governments.
Such extreme civic miscarriages will diminish as Latinos become further integrated into American society. And there may be advantages to an increasingly Latino-populated state legislature, which may prove less prone to job-killing regulation than one led by white liberals.
But the cost of government services for the Hispanic poor is not likely to abate soon—a serious problem for a state suffering budget woes. The most expensive of those services is education, which is increasingly dominated by enormous programs to try to close the achievement gap; Santa Ana’s Willard Intermediate School, for example, where Pastor Pederson once taught, is on the receiving end of a $35 million state transformation grant. As for health-care spending, Los Angeles has become the HMO to the world, says County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, who recommends establishing medical centers south of the Mexican border to remove the health-care incentive for illegal immigration. Crime perpetrated by Latinos burdens communities and taxpayers as well. Though the Hispanic crime rate is generally less than half the black crime rate, it is still several times the rate of crime among whites. Four out of ten state prisoners were Hispanic in 2008.
Poor Hispanics don’t pay in taxes what they cost in state expenditures. And with rising Latino political power, California’s welfare policies will probably become even more redistributionist, predicts CSU San Jose’s Gerston—at least if Latinos remain poor, their drop-out rates don’t improve, and they don’t feel they can climb the economic ladder. A 1996 study for Pepperdine University found that Latinos in Southern California achieved middle-class status by pooling wages from three or more workers in a single household, rather than through an “education-based meritocratic formula—as is more common with Asians and Jews.” While such a collective work ethic is praiseworthy, it is limited as a strategy for further upward mobility.
Of course, California’s budget problems have plenty of causes unrelated to its growing Hispanic population. One, a 1999 law that contributed to the current pension crisis for public employees by granting them retroactive pension increases of up to 50 percent, was pushed through by the teachers’ and state prison guards’ unions, which aren’t dominated by Hispanics. Nevertheless, the imminent Hispanic majority will surely put additional fiscal pressure on the state.
Certain policies may help avoid a future of growing income inequality and social decline. One is to stop the emigration of California’s best talent. The state should meet the demand for college-educated workers by making itself attractive to the highly educated, not by trying to dragoon all students into college. California cannot hope to retain the entrepreneurs it still has and to attract others unless it radically revamps its business climate and lowers its taxes (a course made more difficult, though, by the demands on government social services imposed by the growing Hispanic population). Congress could help California stay globally competitive by letting foreign-born Ph.D. students in science and technology automatically obtain green cards to work in the U.S. after completing their degrees.
California should also create a robust vocational-education system. The fashionable prejudice against vocational education will end up bankrupting the school and college systems by forcing students into academically oriented classrooms that hold no interest for them and for which they are not qualified. Further, the blue-collar skilled trades are desperate for workers and pay much better than many a service-sector job (see “Wanted: Blue-Collar Workers,” Autumn 2011). Only 55 percent of Hispanic male students graduated from California high schools in 2007, reports the California Dropout Research Project; many of the dropouts would undoubtedly have welcomed the opportunity to learn a trade. At the same time, California must stop decimating what remains of its manufacturing sector with business-killing regulations (see “The Long Stall,” Autumn 2011).
And Washington should institute an immigration pause for low-skilled immigrants. In 1970, the average Southern California Latino spoke only English and had assimilated to Anglo culture, according to the Pepperdine study. Since then, even though California’s Hispanic population has expanded outside its traditional enclaves and spread across the state and nation, the acculturation process has slowed. In 1988, when accountant and entrepreneur Martha de la Torre began El Clasificado, a free Spanish classified-advertising newspaper, she assumed that the demand for Spanish-language publications would last only a few decades; instead, the market for El Clasificado has grown far beyond its original base in Los Angeles, even as similar English-language publications have gone bankrupt. “I’m surprised by how people in some communities try not to change,” she observes. Teachers, service employees, police officers, and ordinary private-sector workers report that many California residents now expect to be addressed in Spanish.
The reason for this assimilation reversal is our de facto open-borders policy, argues Michael Saragosa, a public-relations consultant who oversaw Latino outreach for Meg Whitman’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign. “We need to allow people who are already here to grow into the American Dream over generations,” he says. “That can’t happen when they have a steady flow of people behind them.” Illegal immigration, which did not drop in California during the recession, should be reduced, and legal immigration should be reoriented toward high-skilled immigrants rather than the family members of existing immigrants.
Pastor Tolle says that he feels “both hope and consternation” when he contemplates his congregation, the majority of whom are illegal immigrants. Though the grounds for concern are obvious, there are numerous reasons for hope as well. The most striking thing about the teens I spoke to in Santa Ana—even those with criminal records—was that they were nice kids, despite Casimiro’s thuggish braggadocio and Michael’s sullen disengagement. The students filing out of Cesar Chavez High School toward the bus stop were orderly; there was little chance that they would start walking on the tops of parked cars, as sometimes happens in Philadelphia or Brooklyn. Though it is taboo to say so, the greatest advantage possessed by the Mexican-American poor and middle class is that they are not burdened with the anger and resentments that afflict parts of black society.
Jose Cruz, head of the Literacy Council of San Diego, is just one of the thousands of Mexican-Americans in California who exemplify the grounds for hope. His father, born in Mexico but raised in the U.S., was a chef; his mother, born in Texas but raised in Mexico, pressed shirts. “My parents were steady workers; they didn’t make a big deal of it,” he says. “They taught me and my siblings: Go to work every day. Do what you are told. And never question your boss, a police officer, or a teacher.” If California’s Hispanics can better avoid single parenthood and school failure, that reverence for work and authority could become one of the state’s biggest assets.
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It doesn’t get any more assimilated than this: for his daughter’s third birthday party this year, Alex Guerrero, who lives in a wealthy equestrian suburb of Los Angeles, rented a miniature horse dressed as a pink unicorn to entertain his daughter’s young guests. Guerrero is part of a highly successful, upwardly mobile cohort of California Latinos who manipulate symbols for a living, manage other employees, and start businesses. An informal survey suggests that the children of South Americans and Cubans are overrepresented among them.
Guerrero’s parents emigrated in 1966 from Colombia. His father, who had worked as a railroad porter in Colombia, changed sheets at Los Angeles’s Beverly Wilshire hotel, while his mother, who had run a hair salon out of her garage in Colombia, worked as a seamstress. “Our parents instilled in us that we had to go to college,” he says. Guerrero graduated from USC with a business degree and worked in Latin American marketing for a record company before joining a friend’s construction firm as an executive vice president in charge of finance.
Jose Villa, who has a Harvard B.A. in economics and a Wharton M.B.A., owns a multicultural advertising agency, Sensis. His father had been a salesman for Colgate Palmolive in Cuba before fleeing the country in the 1960s; in Los Angeles, his father worked in a factory alongside mostly Mexican immigrants, but eventually moved into life insurance and then real estate. Many of Villa’s classmates in the San Fernando Valley who spoke Spanish at home didn’t necessarily get the same relentless message of upward mobility from their parents that he received. “With Cubans, there’s a lot of emphasis on education and moving ahead—you have to be a doctor or an engineer or you’re an embarrassment to the family.” (Despite the trendy multiculti focus of his business, Villa is building a website with some Hispanic colleagues to honor the libertarian Guatemalan economist Manuel Ayau. Another libertarian economist, Robert Barro, was Villa’s most important influence at Harvard, he says.)
Martha de la Torre, an accounting major at Loyola Marymount University, worked for Arthur Young on a portfolio of businesses targeting the Hispanic market before starting her newspaper, El Clasificado, in 1988. One-third of de la Torre’s Hispanic colleagues at Arthur Young were Ecuadorian-Americans like herself. “My parents were determined that their children would go to college,” she says. “We had to write the alphabet by age 5.”
To be sure, there are plenty of highly successful Mexican-American businessmen, but they appear—based, again, on a nonscientific sample—to belong disproportionately to an older generation, whose parents were more likely to have emigrated legally than today’s Mexican arrivals. Likewise, South Americans, Cubans, and Spaniards generally had to buy a plane ticket and obtain a visa to enter the U.S., and thus brought more social capital with them. “If you emigrate from a really poor community,” speculates Guerrero, “maybe a roof over your head is enough.”
The entrepreneurial spirit is not particularly strong among California’s Mexican farm laborers, according to George Lugo, a grower in Temecula who flamboyantly hawks his cantaloupes and watermelons at the Irvine Farmers Market. “There’s not many workers moving into ownership positions, not at all,” Lugo says (an observation corroborated by the low number of Mexican owners at Southern California farmers’ markets).
“If you talk to people who farm anywhere in California, they’ll tell you that their workers don’t have much aspirations of upward mobility. They like what they do, and when we have a good strawberry crop, you’ve never seen a bigger smile on someone’s face that says: ‘This is mine.’ But they don’t want to be owners and have the responsibility of dealing with government overseers and time management. My guys say to me: ‘Go do some paperwork;’ they know what to do on the farm and they do it.”
The reluctance to be enmired in California’s huge regulatory apparatus is more than understandable. But those farmworkers are not always preparing their children for more promising work. Lugo organizes study sessions for the children of his workers: “I try to foster in them that they have to get good at something other than farming.” Lugo calls some of the children in his tutoring group his “sparkplugs” because of their curiosity about the world and their eagerness to discover something that he doesn’t know. But he says that if he weren’t overseeing their schooling, they wouldn’t get the same message about education.
Research for her article was supported by the Arthur N. Rupe Foundation.