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La Vida Latina


Growing up in a poor barrio neighborhood of San Diego, Liliana Garcia-Rivera shared the American dream of moving to the suburbs—to a nice, modern home with a garage-door opener and garbage disposal. A licensed real-estate broker, she ultimately purchased a shiny new home in a lovely subdivision far from the urban roar, and realized her dream. Or so she thought.

The new house had conveniences she’d never before enjoyed, but once inside the home, she experienced an unexpected longing to return to her Latino roots. “It felt like I was living in isolation,” she said. “I didn’t know anybody. I always felt like a visitor.” And so she sold her pretty new home and moved back to the barrio, back to where she felt she belonged, back to where there was always a cause compelling her to get involved.

“Here, I’m very active in the community,” she says. “Here, I’m home.”

According to her friend Jerry Guzman-Vergara, Garcia-Rivera is a prime example of educated, young Latinos willing to move back into the barrio—a trend among young professionals of other ethnicities, as well—willing to take a chance on neighborhoods once considered off limits.

Meanwhile, Guzman-Vergara encourages the improvement of the Sherman Heights neighborhood where he grew up and now calls “the historic barrio district.” With his family’s help, he is bridging cultures with his Latté Mi Corazón (My Heart Latte) espresso coffee shop, not a typical business in the area.

It’s an example of what Aurelia Flores, founder of the PowerfulLatinas.com Web site, calls the new cosmopolitan San Diego, willing to celebrate all its cultures. Flores, a Stanford graduate and former Fulbright scholar, says this cultural change extends to the country as a whole. Salsa, she notes, now outsells ketchup in the United States.

“It’s okay,” she says, “to keep one’s culture and have multiple cultures and languages.”

One of the oldest cultures in San Diego County is, of course, Latino, brought here by the first explorers from Spain and colonists from Mexico. Latinos are the largest minority in the county. Demographic statistics from the San Diego Association of Governments list nearly a million Latinos, roughly 30 percent of the county’s population.

Former TV news reporter and current San Diego City College instructor Laura Castañeda believes the figures are much higher, because, she says, Latinos—especially if they are in the country illegally—fear census takers and don’t readily admit how many people may live on the property.

There’s really no way to generalize about Latinos. They can be as different from one other as Anglos or Asians or African-Americans. Erase the stereotype of the campesino, with broad sombrero and brightly colored serape, sleeping under a cactus tree. Yes, some Latinos are gardeners and maids. But others are politicos, like longtime La Mesa Mayor Art Madrid and city council members Ben Hueso of San Diego, Rudy Ramirez of Chula Vista, Olga Diaz of Escondido, Rocky Chavez and Esther Sanchez of Oceanside.

They head law-enforcement agencies. Former San Diego police chief David Bejarano was recently named police chief of Chula Vista. They are lawyers, like Flores, or financial advisers, like Roberto Vargas of Morgan Stanley Smith Barney, or San Diego Padres fan-favorite Adrian Gonzalez. They are philanthopists, like the mother-daughter duo of Yolanda Walther-Meade and Yolanda S. Walther-Meade, and entrepreneurs like Ralph Rubio, who founded a successful string of taco shops that spread across five Western states. And they are educators, like former Grossmont College president Ted Martinez and Francisco Rodriguez, the son of immigrant parents, who’s now president of Mira Costa College, with campuses in Oceanside and Encinitas.

In San Diego County, Latinos represent $12.6 billion in annual buying power, according to Enlace, the Spanish-language weekly newspaper developed by The San Diego Union-Tribune after the daily concluded it could no longer ignore such a large segment of the community.

“There’s a new [Latino] purchasing power,” says Yolanda S. Walther-Meade. “It’s quite impressive. It is such a significant segment with disposable income.”

According to their Web sites, the San Diego County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce boasts more than 500 members, and La Raza Lawyers of San Diego numbers more than 300 attorneys.

Latinos are not, however, a homogenous group. Although an estimated 90 percent locally are of Mexican origin, others come from every corner of the Caribbean, as well as Central and South America. Their lifestyles differ, depending on whether they’ve just crossed the Mexico border or their families have been here for generations. Most still want to celebrate what makes them unique—their food and music and events like quinceañeras (a coming-of-age ceremony held on a 15-year-old girl’s birthday) and El Día de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead). And they are happy to share their culture.

“We have something to contribute in every facet of American life,” says Hueso, president of the San Diego City Council.

Among Latinos’ strongest attributes, says Lidia Martinez, regional manager of Hispanic community affairs for Southwest Airlines, is a strong sense of family—taking care of all the generations. And then, she says, when there is no family in the area, tight ties of friendship take their place.

While Garcia-Rivera and Guzman-Vergara chat in front of the Sherman Heights Community Center, southeast of downtown San Diego, happily sharing stories of their barrio activism, hugely successful entrepreneur Rubio is just as satisfied living in La Jolla. Although both his parents were born in Mexico, “I’ve never really thought of myself as a Latino businessman,” Rubio says. Instead, he relates to the promises offered by his own native country.

“America, in general, is very much the land of opportunity—regardless of skin color,” says Rubio, who has grown his business in little more than a quarter-century from a single store selling fish tacos in Pacific Beach to the chain of some 200 restaurants bearing his name.

Madrid, a New Mexico native who has lived in San Diego since 1953 and has served on the La Mesa City Council for 30 years—and the past decade as mayor—has witnessed a world of change. “It’s remarkably better” for Latinos than it was a half-century ago, he says.

Before that, there was the graphic prejudice that precipitated the “Lemon Grove Incident,” documented in a film shown on public television. In 1931, Lemon Grove Grammar School principal Jerome T. Green, on orders from the board of trustees, barred the school door to children of Mexican heritage, attempting to force them instead into a barn-like “Americanization school.”

The Mexican parents fought back and won in court. However, that segregationist fate still applied to children in Solana Beach and Oceanside, who also were sent to Americanization schools. Oceanside’s school, in fact, was designed by famed architect Irving Gill and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Pete Magaña, now 81, was a student there in the 1930s and recalls that fearful Spanish-speaking children “used to get spanked a lot.” Magaña, a World War II veteran, also remembers when returning servicemen of His­panic heritage didn’t receive the same heroes’ welcome their Anglo counterparts got. The American GI Forum was founded to plead their case.

Fifty years later, Magaña is president of the American GI Forum in Oceanside, the only one left in the county, although there once were chapters in San Diego, Chula Vista, Escondido, Vista and the San Dieguito area.

“I see a big change,” Magaña says. “Jobs were hard to get because we were Hispanic, and now I see the first generation going to college”—something his parents never remotely considered.

Of course, not all the incidents of prejudice are in the past. Twice in recent years, Escondido has tried to enact ordinances that would effectively segregate and discourage Hispanic immigrants (legal and illegal)—one by regulating rentals, the other aimed at the number of cars parked on the city’s streets. And on more than one occasion, the anti–illegal immigration group the Minutemen have targeted migrant camps.

Yet most Latinos seem to agree things are far better today.

“It seems Latinos in this county do a really good job of blending both [cultures],” says Alex Montoya, director of Latino affairs for the San Diego Padres, a Colombian by birth.

“We are better off than 20 years ago,” says Chula Vista Councilman Ramirez, who runs his own manufacturing business. “There is greater tolerance and acceptance of diverse points of view and cultures.” Still, he says, “that is not to say we have arrived. We have made progress, yes, but we also have a long way to go.”

Even someone as young as Serena Cuevas, 24, who heads four teams of internationally competitive salsa dancers, has seen change in her lifetime—from her days as a student at Carlsbad High School to her selection as a perfect image for Gatorade on national television. In high school, she says, cliques separated people into “white” and “Mexican” and put her in the latter category, though she is just one-quarter Latina (Puerto Rican on her father’s side) mixed with Italian, also from her father, and Middle Eastern from her mother.

Still, to most, her surname marks her as Latina. “I definitely do identify with the Latino community,” Cuevas says. Of some An­glos, however, she says, “All they’ve heard of is burrito and quesadilla.”

As with other ethnic groups, Latinos come from privilege, and they come from poverty. Chula Vista Councilman Ramirez says there’s been a recent influx in the upscale southeastern neighborhoods of his city: affluent, educated immigrants from Tijuana escaping that area’s soaring drug-related crime rate.
Paola Hernandez of Azteca América television, the daughter of parents who were professionals, grew up on both sides of the border, attending Chula Vista parochial schools and private Tijuana academies. The Walther-Meades also fit that demographic. “There’s a way to integrate ourselves while maintaining the uniqueness of [different] cultures,” Yolanda S. Walther-Meade says, thus creating “a far richer tapestry—something that’s more international, broader.”

San Diego’s Latinos have made many enduring contributions to the arts as best-selling authors, iconic stars of the silver and small screens, top recording artists and entertainment executives. A former San Diego County Fairest of the Fair (1958), Raquel Tejada, daughter of a Bolivian aeronautics engineer and a graduate of La Jolla High School, gained fame in movies and on television as Raquel Welch (using the surname of her first husband). Mario Lopez, whose TV credits include the sitcom Saved by the Bell and the popular Dancing with the Stars, is a San Diego native and a 1992 graduate of Chula Vista High School.

Another San Diego native, Gregory Nava, had the enviable chore of working with actress Jennifer Lopez, directing her in both Selena and Bordertown, but also has won many accolades for his Academy Award nominee, El Norte. Comedian Paul Rodriguez spent time in both National City and Chula Vista as he was growing up. Best-selling novelist Victor Villaseñor, a Carlsbad native and Oceanside resident, wrote the screenplay for the movie The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, starring Edward James Olmos. Paul Espinosa, former executive producer at KPBS, is best known for his documentaries, but he also produced the feature-length movie and the earth did not swallow him.

Latino performers, from the mainstream Puerto Rican José Feliciano to the Mexican singing sensation Paulina Rubio, have been scheduled for recent visits to local stages, and the San Diego County Fair selects Latino acts for its grandstand every year and finds them to be among the best-attended. Using the stage name El Vez, Robert Lopez—“The Mexican Elvis”—performs on both sides of the border, and there are plenty of norteño bands to satisfy primarily Latino audiences. The Show Palace in Oceanside specializes in booking Latino groups.

For traditionalists, there are mariachi and estudiantil (student) groups through­out the county. Local singers and dancers performed for almost six hours September 15 at Oceanside’s celebration of Fiestas Patrias, Mexican Independence Day. Every year, California State University San Marcos sponsors an annual Oaxacán festival (named for the state in southern Mexico) with a tongue-twisting name, Guelaguetza.

Broadcasting, in general, gets a bad rap from many Latinos. Castañeda and former TV news reporter Carlos Delgado say they see no more Hispanic faces on television now than they did a decade ago. Castañeda has tried to correct what she regards as a paucity of Latino news on TV with her own show, Stories de la Frontera (Stories of the Border), a cross-border compendium of features.

The gaping hole in mainstream English-language television has been filled, at least in part, by Univision, broadcast channel 17. “Oh yeah, big time—big, big time,” Univision reporter Carlos Gonzalez says of the need for more Spanish-language television in San Diego County. Before 1990, Gonzalez says, all the radio and TV broadcasting came from Tijuana. Heard and seen here, for sure, but not about here.

Although not a Latino, Ethan van Thillo also saw an urgent need, and so he founded the Media Arts Center of San Diego, screening the annual Latino Film Festival for the past 16 years and offering Cine en Tu Idioma (Movies in Your Language) once a month at UltraStar Cine­mas in the Hazard Shopping Center. The Mexican film Casi Divas (Almost Divas) attracted 2,000 filmgoers during its one-week run in August. That’s exceptionally good for a Spanish-language movie, he says—and it shows “There is a market.” Media Arts also screens Spanish-language films for free on occasional Wednesdays in the Otay Ranch Town Center.

Although many Latinos say they look around and see a better life for themselves and peers, that perception isn’t universal. City Councilman Chavez from Oceanside, a retired Marine colonel who as a youth spent his summers working in the fields, does not share the general optimism. Citing unemployment rates, Chavez says Latinos usually are still the first to be laid off, and he thinks their families are faring worse than in the past.

While not mirroring Chavez’ pessimism, Sherman Heights activist Garcia-Rivera does believe jobs, education and affordable housing are major needs in the Latino community. “Our kids are still not graduating,” she says.

But lawyer Flores says dropout figures are deceiving. If, as has been done with other ethnicities, you subtract first-generation immigrants from the total, Hispanic students actually have a better record of staying in school than other groups, she says.

San Diego Councilman Hueso believes improvements are being made in schools as well, noting that every campus in his heavily Latino district has been rebuilt in recent years. Latinos also need role models, says Hueso, the first Latino president of the city council.

Hueso and most of his family have never left the Logan Heights barrio where he grew up. “This is who we are,” he said. “This is where I’m from.” 


The Sports Culture Among Latinos

While our county’s soccer fields burst at the seams with leagues for kids and adults—many of which are exclusively Latino—plenty of Latin-Americans also regard Sundays as sacred during Chargers season. The team’s appeal extends throughout Southern California and well into Baja California.

The Padres’ popularity, meanwhile, convinced the front office to appoint a director of Latino relations, Alex Montoya. For many Latinos, Padres All-Star first baseman and Chula Vista native Adrian Gonzalez is not only a major role model but the embodiment of their desire and ability to straddle two cultures. Adrian and his older brother, Padres infielder Edgar, play major-league ball in their hometown, yet for years they’ve played winter ball in Mexico.

“It’s a different atmosphere,” Adrian says of Mexican baseball. “Different fans. The way people get up and dance between innings, the scoreboard, the way they promote the game…it’s actually a bit more enjoyable.”

The Gonzalez brothers also play for Mexico’s national team in the World Baseball Classic. “Being bilingual and being able to be a part of both sides of the border is pretty special,” says Adrian. “It just gives you more leverage to have the right kind of impact, especially with the kids.”

This has not been lost on his team’s Latino marketing head. “It seems like Latinos in this county do a really good job of blending the sports they grew up with, like boxing and soccer—it’s a passion thing, growing up—and integrating them with community sports like the Padres and Chargers,” says Montoya. “There is no such thing as Latino sports [fans]. They are bicultural.”

      —Adam Elder


Lunch Is Served

For more than two decades, movers and shakers of the majority community and local Hispanic leaders have met on Latino turf in Logan Heights for regular luncheons called The Spirit of the Barrio. Five times a year, they dine on a simple menu of hand-made tamales, rice and beans, served at picnic tables, with speakers or programs that bridge the culture gap.

“It’s just one of those events that I think cuts across the strata,” says Fran Butler-Cohen, executive director of the Family Health Centers of San Di­ego, a nonprofit providing services at two dozen locations in the county, including the Logan Heights site of the barrio ­lunches. The centers benefit from the meal’s proceeds.

Butler-Cohen expects “the heads of schools, the heads of business and banking, politicos—everybody” to be among the 1,200 guests to feast on tamales at the next luncheon, held on November 20.


Hispanics in San Diego County

City        Percentage of Hispanics
Region                                  30%
Carlsbad                              14%
Chula Vista                          50%
Coronado                            13%
Del Mar                                4%
El Cajon                              26%
Encinitas                              18%
Escondido                           45%
Imperial Beach                    46%
La Mesa                               17%
Lemon Grove                       34%
National City                       61%
Oceanside                           34%
Poway                                13%
San Diego                           28%
San Marcos                        38%
Santee                                13%
Solana Beach                      18%
Vista                                   43%
Unincorporated area           24%

Source: San Diego Association of Governments, 2008 estimates


Sarita Fuentes

Like many other cultural role models, Monarch School CEO and principal Sarita Fuentes feels a personal responsibility to her people—especially when it comes to the welfare and success of Latino youth. More simply, she sees it as her duty—as repayment of a debt. Because this school principal—a shining example of hard-earned success—was a high school dropout.

One of five children of a divorced mother from Mexico, Fuentes got pregnant and then married—a common sequence of events, she concedes, in the Latino community. She did this after dropping out of high school, as did four of her five siblings.

“My mom only had a sixth-grade education from Mexico. She did the best she could with what she had,” Fuentes says. “Here we were in high school but not doing well, telling her, ‘My teachers don’t know what they’re talking about, so why don’t you let me stay home and help?’ She felt like I was the educated one and allowed me to call the shots, so we all dropped out of school. I married and became a mom at a very young age.”

Now, she says, “I tell young girls, if you’re not in school you’ll end up pregnant or married, because we see that pattern repeat itself over and over.”

As a secretary at Sweetwater Junior High School with only a GED, responsible for her son and daughter, Fuentes swore she’d never be a teacher after witnessing the torrent of abuse they received daily. But for four years, the school’s principal instilled a belief in Fuentes that she could be a great principal. All that stood in her way was a teaching credential.

“She believed I had potential,” Fuentes says. “I didn’t want to be in a situation like my mom’s where I couldn’t provide for my children. I felt education was going to be a ticket for a better life for my kids, and I dreamed of becoming like my mentor.”

On graduation from Point Loma Nazarene University with a master’s degree (following a bachelor’s at San Diego State and an associate’s degree from Southwestern College), Fuentes found her first teaching position at Gompers in 1989. The result?

“I fell in love with teaching,” Fuentes says. “I learned you could really touch the lives of students. Having been an at-risk student who dropped out, when I see [similar] students, I see the potential in them. We can put barriers in front of the student or open doors. My goal is to open doors, as someone did for me.”

Fuentes, who was appointed principal and CEO of Monarch School in 2004, is acutely aware of her duty to today’s youth. “We [Latinos] face incredible challenges,” she says. “Those who graduate college are a very small percentage. Being a Latina who has been given the opportunity to pursue higher education and experience success, I’m very proud of my heritage, but more importantly, proud to be that role model, because I know what a huge struggle it is to overcome obstacles and challenges along the way.
“In our culture,” she says, “sometimes the expectation is to graduate from high school. But we really need to educate parents to think big for their children. It’s not about high school. It needs to be beyond that, in order to function in this new global world.”

Sarita earned the KPBS Everyday Heroes award in September. But she’s first to admit her debt is still not paid in full. “As my mentor gave back to me, I need to repay that and give back to the community,” she says. “This comes with the turf.”

Adam Elder

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