Straight Outta That One Place

I’m old enough to remember when hip-hop first broke through. I’m talking about artists like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Slick Rick, and Run DMC. And what about Kid Frost, arguably the first Latino rapper?

Of course, I definitely remember the first time I heard NWA. Those guys were fucking terrifying.



At the time, I had never been to Los Angeles. Now I live here — something I could not have predicted all those years ago. And yes, I have spent a little time in South Central.

Compton today is not the gangsta mecca that is was back in the day. The city still struggles with poverty and unemployment. But crime — especially homicide — has plummeted in recent years.

And for the place that symbolized African American disillusionment, there is some irony in the fact that Latinos now make up about two-thirds of the city.

Does this mean everything got better when Hispanics moved in? Well, that would be an interesting, even bigoted claim to make.

There are, of course, myriad reasons for Compton’s improvement over the decades, but it is undeniable that Hispanics have changed the city in many ways.

Naturally, culture clashes have occurred. It is human nature, unfortunately, for tribalism to kick in when “outsiders” show up. And that’s true whether it’s blacks moving in white neighborhoods, whites moving into Latino neighborhoods, Hispanics moving into black neighborhoods, and so on in every combination of cultural and ethnic diaspora possible.

But again, does the fact that this particular city is a lot more livable than it was thirty years ago mean that the album Straight Outta Compton is a period piece? Hardly — nor is the movie a look back at a distant past that is inconceivable to us.

Events in Ferguson and around the nation are enough to prove that.

The man himself, Ice Cube, says the only change in race relations is that cell phones now exist so that violent confrontations can be filmed.

Somehow, that doesn’t make us feel all warm and fuzzy.


The Distant Past

We are all descended from losers.

Take me, for instance. My family came from El Salvador, a charter member of the Third-World Nation Hall of Fame that is best known for crippling poverty, psychotic gangs, bloody civil wars, murdered priests, and raped nuns.


I’m also part Italian, which lends itself to stereotypes of Mafia hit men and the original unwashed horde of immigrants. In addition, Italy is currently on its 982nd post-WWII government (not exactly a source of pride).

And I’m a touch Irish as well. So here comes the drunken, brawling Irishman, everybody.

No, I’m not self-loathing. In truth, I’m grateful for my mélange of ancestry. I regularly sing the praises of Latino culture, and it’s not bad having a connection (however distant) to Da Vinci and James Joyce.

However, everyone’s culture has black spots, and our efforts to honor our ancestors should not extend to overt denial and large-scale myopia. But they regularly do.

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Like a Burst Piñata

Say you open a small business. You run it for a few years, do pretty well, and always pay your debts (especially the rent) on time.

Then you arrive at work one morning to find a bulldozer parked in the pile of rubble that used to be your store.

pinata wreckage

You might get the impression that something was slightly amiss.

Well, recently, a piñata store in Austin was demolished, without the storeowners’ knowledge and with their possessions still inside. The storeowners, who are Latino, say that the greedy landlords bulldozed the store because they could get more money from the tech companies that are moving into the area.

The storeowners had a lease through 2017 and had just paid the rent for the upcoming month. When confronted about their reckless destruction of the store, one of the landlords (yes, a rich white guy) used the term “roaches” to describe the storeowners. Remember that the storeowners are Hispanic. Clearly, the term “roaches” was not an accident.

The incident shows how Latino neighborhoods are literally and figuratively being displaced for upscale residents. There have been numerous flare-ups in Austin over gentrification, with many Latino leaders claiming that rich newcomers are driving out long-time residents. And there have been similar disputes in New York, Los Angeles and other cities, often in Hispanic neighborhoods that are changing rapidly.

And here’s where it gets conspiratorial.

A recent study implied that Latino neighborhoods are more likely to be gentrified than African American neighborhoods.

Harvard researchers analyzed patterns across Chicago and found that gentrifying neighborhoods tended to be predominantly Latino or white working class, with fewer African Americans.

The study implied that Latino neighborhoods are more likely to be gentrified in the traditional sense (i.e., young white newcomers moving into the area). And they are also more likely to receive the theoretical benefits of gentrification (e.g., urban renewal and municipal investment). No word, however, on what happens to Hispanic residents when the bulldozers get revved up.

Keep in mind that the same study also implied that there is a tipping point, where the percentage of African Americans in a neighborhood either makes gentrification likely or unlikely.

Basically, too many black people keep the white people away.

Why are Latino neighborhoods more attractive to white gentrifiers? Well, there is no hard data on that, and it’s unlikely that a future study will include the question, “Why are you ok moving in next to brown people, but not black people?” Although the answers would be illuminating, to say the least.

The researchers said that in addition to their statistical proof, there is anecdotal evidence that Latino neighborhoods are viewed as more desirable to gentrifiers than African American areas.

For example, the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn — often pointed to as the prime example of gentrification — previously had a large Latino population. That’s not the case anymore, as the cliché of the young hipster inevitably features a white guy (usually with some bizarre nineteenth-century facial hair, but that’s another story).

In response to this dark side of gentrification, some Latino community leaders in Los Angeles launched the “gente-fication” movement (“gente” is Spanish for “people,” but you already knew that).

The idea is that upscale Latinos will stay — or in some cases, move into — Latino neighborhoods and revitalize the area themselves rather than rely on newcomers. The trend has slowly caught on in other cities, such as New York, Houston and Phoenix.

Although results are difficult to quantify, the LA neighborhood of Boyle Heights may be in the midst of a Latino renaissance, due in part to the gente-fication movement. And community activists are attempting to duplicate the neighborhood’s success in other Los Angeles areas.

But the movement has drawn fire for what some claim is an exclusionary, or even racist attitude. After all, if you’re saying that you want a specific racial or ethnic group to move in — whether it’s white, black, Latino, or other — things quickly get uncomfortable.

Where all this will lead is a mystery. Perhaps gentrification will wipe us all out. Or maybe we’ll achieve some kind of balance where newcomers enrich neighborhoods while long-time residents maintain the area’s culture.

In any case, hopefully no more piñata stores will get bulldozed.

Anybody Remember “Cocoon”?

My abuela is past 90 and shows no signs of ill health. I wonder if she will visit me in the retirement home, because I will end up in one of those places long before she does.

I mention this because more Americans are entering “the sandwich generation,” where they raise their kids while taking care of their aging parents. It’s a common scenario, and the premise for at least a couple of failed sitcoms.

Indeed, in post-recession America, multiple generations under one roof is not uncommon. And for Latinos, economic necessity and strong familial bonds increase the odds that individuals will one day have to take care of their parents. But that scenario doesn’t seem to faze us.

In fact, more than 90% of Hispanics say providing assistance to elderly loved ones will be a positive experience, a higher number than the general population. And while more than half of all caregivers to the elderly report being stressed about the situation, only one-third of Latinos who care for an older person say that it has caused stress.

Yes, as I’ve written before, putting one’s aging parents in a retirement home is unthinkable for many Hispanics. Latino culture is strongly focused on the family, and it is often assumed that elderly parents will eventually go live with their adult children. As one Latina writer puts it, “We open our doors and bring [elderly parents] home, we care for them, and we do not set them aside like a piece of old furniture.”



Of course, that’s a little harsh on all you non-Latinos who plan to stuff mom and dad in one of those old folks’ homes at some point. But it is — how can I put this? — pretty much damn true.

Now, there is a dark side to this. Perhaps because Latinos often presume that elderly parents will eventually go live with their adult children, just 10% of Latinos report that they have done much planning for their long-term care.

So when madre or padre does move in, stresses such as overcrowding and conflicting needs can pile up. Still, we seem to be handling it well so far.

As for my abuela, thus far she has not had to move in with any of her kids (or more likely, her grandkids). She lives by herself, where she cooks, watches TV, and reminisces about the past.

But I bet she’s also plotting how to spend the inheritances she will get, considering she will outlive all of us.



All You Need Is… Wait, You Need More Than That

In the realm of simplistic nonsense, few ideas are more insidious than the claim that you don’t need money if you just, well, love each other a whole lot.


This sentiment has lived on despite the well-documented fact that the number-one cause of marital tension is money. It also ignores the overwhelming financial stresses that clobber poor people every day.

And as for how poverty affects children, well, the data is just too depressing to mention.

And now a study has verified what we all suspected, which is that a family’s income level is a better indicator of the overall well-being of children than other factors. The research “cuts against the grain of oft-stated public opinions on traditional family composition,” which is a nice way of saying that being married doesn’t matter much when it comes to raising kids. Having bucks is vastly more important.

For example, the study found that just 9% of children from the lowest income bracket go on to earn college diplomas. But 77% of children raised in the top quarter of income eventually graduate college.

Take a look again at those numbers. They basically say that if you come from a poor family, you almost certainly won’t go past high school. But if your parents are somewhat well-to-do, you have a great shot at snagging at least a BA.

The researchers believe that richer parents — whether they are married, divorced, or single — can afford to provide their kids with certain advantages, like the best pre-schools, trips abroad, and extracurricular activities.

Hispanic parents often do not have the financial ability to offer their children such resources. So while our strong familial bonds help kids develop into responsible adults, it is no match for the dollars that rich people can spend on their offspring, who will almost inevitably do better in life.

Of course, a rugged individualist is bound to say, “Tell those lazy Latinos to work harder and get out of poverty.”

And this brings us back to simplistic nonsense.

You see, another study says that roughly two-thirds of low-income Latino children have at least one foreign-born parent. This isn’t surprising, as recent immigrants are often poor. But what’s interesting is that low-income Hispanic children are also more likely to have at least one employed parent, compared to other low-income children. This means Latino immigrant parents are more likely to fall into the category of the working poor.

So Hispanics, especially immigrants, are already working harder than many poor people. And yet they are still broke.

The study points out that poverty hits Latinos disproportionally. In addition, poverty often plays out differently in Hispanic households, in that the influence of extended family and community is stronger, which can be an asset.

However, it can also be a hindrance, in that low-income Latino homes often have different structures than the general population. For example, low-income Hispanics may have to set aside money for elderly parents or for remittances back home, which can cut into funds for childcare.

The study also found that among Latino children with a foreign-born parent, just 36% live with parents who are married. But of course, that doesn’t matter much, does it?


Buckle Up, Gente

To the lengthy list of the many challenges that face Hispanics — economic stagnation, educational struggles, health problems, discrimination, cultural disrespect, and so on — add a simple one: car crashes

car crash

Because of language barriers, long-held traditions and other factors, Latinos are less likely than other ethnic groups to wear seatbelts. As a result, young Hispanics are about twice as likely to die in a traffic crash as their white counterparts, and car accidents are the leading cause of death in America for Latinos between the ages of 5 and 34.

How fucked up is that?

Well, to address this crisis, the National Latino Children’s Institute has launched a new campaign to increase seatbelt and car-seat use among Hispanics. The multimedia campaign will provide crucial information about safe driving and riding practices, and it offers resources that can be customized for the diverse Latino population.

You have to love the program’s tagline, which is “Hagalo por su familia, ¡abróchese el cinturón!” (“Do it for your family, buckle up”).

That’s right. Hispanics might not think of buckling up to save their own lives, but you throw familial responsibility in there, and you have resonance. The tagline basically says, “Do you want to disappoint your mother by getting killed in a car crash? Huh, do you?”

I think we all know the answer to that one.


Such a Princess

I hesitate to mention this, but I know way too much about Sofia the First.

You see, we have a two-year-old boy, and while we limit his TV time, he still catches the occasional Doc McStuffins or Jake and the Neverland Pirates. And Sofia is on right after Jake, so we’ve caught bits and pieces of the show (just enough to drive me mildly insane).

Now, it turns out that Sofia is going to be the launching pad for Disney’s first Latina princess, Elena of Avalor, who is inspired by “diverse Latin cultures and folklore,” according to the good people at Disney. She will receive her own TV show next year.


Of course, the issue of diversity is a touchy one in Hollywood. Just ask Sean Penn about Hispanic representation in the film world… well, on second thought, don’t ask him anything.

In any case, Elena’s arrival shows that Hollywood is sensitive to its reputation as indifferent to ethnic minorities, and that the entertainment industry is trying to improve the representation of Hispanics in pop culture.

But everybody’s a critic. And those critics are saying it’s too little, too late.

First, there is the issue that Elena is going to originate as a sidekick, and worse, there are no plans for her to have her own movie, despite the fact that many Disney princesses of various ethnicities and races have received their own feature films. Hey, Mulan got a pair of movies over a decade ago, and Asians are even less represented in film than Hispanics. So, yeah — what gives?

The second irritation is that Elena’s exact nationality is being kept vague. By not being specific about her homeland, critics argue, Disney is failing to explore the diversity within Hispanic culture, and instead using one brown-eyed princess as an interchangeable stand-in for all Latinas.

This is where I can be of assistance. I can tell you that saying Elena is from Cuba or Bolivia or Puerto Rico would be more bizarre than anything. That’s because the setting for Sofia is a magical dreamland where unicorns run wild, and little kids take classes on how to cast spells, and cutesy-pie dragons burst into song for no reason. Yeah, it’s that annoying.

But while most of the characters speak in a whiny faux British accent, it’s not specifically European. It’s otherworldly. So if this princess from, say, Mexico, just shows up, the effect will be a little jarring.

I told you I knew too much about this damn show.

Regardless, Elena is a step in the right direction. And even if I hated the idea of a Latina princess, it wouldn’t matter, because I’m going to see her, one way or another.

Yes, at this point, I’m just looking forward to the day when my son is finally old enough for Phineas and Ferb.

It’s About Branding

There I was, ready to enjoy some enchiladas suizas and a generous helping of tequila, when I saw them.

But first, let me be clear about the Mexican restaurant in which I was dining. Years ago, I saw Brad Pitt in the place. He wasn’t around on this night, so I don’t want to implicate him. The point is that this is a popular LA site that teeters on the edge of authenticity (good food in a simple setting) and hipster irony (the kid of place where Brad Pitt walks in to show off his bona fides).

So I shouldn’t have been too surprised to see a large table of yuppies (tangent: do yuppies still exist?) hooting and hollering nearby. It was a birthday party apparently, and they had their own wait staff.

Now, the waiters and waitresses for our area were dressed casually, in jeans and polo shirts. The wait staff for the private party, however, was dressed, well, more colorfully.

The waitresses had frilly dresses and Carmen Miranda-style headpieces, and the waiters were decked out in campesino attire, complete with huge sombreros.



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Nice Try

So for two years in a row, the top individual prize in the entertainment pantheon — the Oscar for best director — has gone to a Latino.


That’s great. And Mexican auteur Alejandro González Iñárritu took time in his speech to give a shout out to immigrants, which was classy.

But of course, much of González Iñárritu’s triumph was overshadowed by a truly tone-deaf chiste from that master of humor, Sean Penn (as an aside, is there any artist who is more respected but less liked than this guy?).

Now, González Iñárritu has pointed out that Penn’s comment was an inside joke between friends. We’ll give him the benefit of the doubt, then, and say that Penn isn’t a straight-up racist.

But perhaps inside jokes aren’t a very good idea when millions of people across the planet are watching. And maybe tossing racial jabs isn’t very bright when you’re representing an organization that is hypersensitive about its horrible record on diversity.

All Penn’s joke did was make every white liberal in the audience uncomfortable, confirm the bias that many ethnic minorities believe lurks within the system, and “underscore the problem the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences has been trying desperately to disprove.” Namely, that the Academy has a racial issue.

The stunning lack of diversity in the entertainment industry is a well-known facet of American culture, and I’ve written about it more than once.

And it is not, as many right-wingers seem to think, just blacks and Latinos clamoring for jobs they haven’t earned. It’s about equal access and opportunity. One could argue this is all that any fight over civil rights is, at its core.

But when it comes to the entertainment industry, specifically, it is about something more. As González Iñárritu has proved, different perspectives lead to new ideas and new stories. It is essential for any art form that, to remain relevant, it continue to grow.

And to be blunt, there are only so many more movies that we can take about an upper-class white family gathering together for a funeral/wedding, or a white guy’s attempt to bond with his elderly and uncommunicative dad, or the adventures of white prep-school kids coming of age.

We want something else.


The Even Greater Outdoors

Few demographics are more environmentally conscious than Latinos. I mean, we are more likely to lead green lifestyles, buy green products and support efforts to fight climate change. And on a personal note, let me remind you that I was once a Boy Scout, and I can still start a fire without using matches… probably.

Anyway, the point is that we really love nature. So maybe it’s not a big surprise that Latinos are also taking the lead in creating new national landmarks and preserving natural spaces.

When President Obama declared part of the San Gabriel Mountains in Southern California to be a national monument, it was with the hearty support of Latinos. Polls showed that almost 90% of local Hispanics supported the San Gabriel Mountains designation. You can’t get 90% of Hispanics to agree that salsa is better than ketchup. But when it comes to nature, we’re overwhelming in our agreement.


Yes, there are even organizations like Latinos Outdoors, Green Latinos, and HECHO (Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting and the Outdoors), and they have worked for the protection of areas like the San Gabriel Mountains and the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument in New Mexico.

So why do Hispanics show all the love for mountains and streams and lakes and trees and such? Well, one theory is that our legendary focus on family drives our desire to maintain the environment for future generations. Another is that because we tend to be recent immigrants, or the offspring of recent immigrants, we have more of a connection to the pristine environs of Latin America.

That certainly makes sense. But I also think it’s because we’re less likely to be right-wing industrial polluters who only care about the bottom line and think climate change is a left-wing conspiracy.

But maybe that’s just me.


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