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Latinx Youths’ Racial Meaning Making in a Post-Chocolate City

Introduction by: Lisa Pamela Lopez-Escobar, Sophia Rodriguez, and Gisell Ramirez, University of Maryland, College Park 


Guest Blogger: Julio Ángel Alicea, PhD, Rutgers University-Camden


February 29, 2024


In this week's blog, Dr. Julio Ángel Alicea explores the experiences of Latinx youth in South Central Los Angeles, a historically Black neighborhood now undergoing rapid Latinization. The demographic shift raises intriguing questions about race, place, and youth perspectives. Dr. Alicea’s four-year ethnography at a local high school reveals a spectrum of responses, from romanticized notions of racial solidarity to realist-optimistic stances and biased-pessimistic perspectives, impacting the evolving dynamics between Latinx and Black communities. Through diverse narratives from youth,  Dr. Alicea offers crucial insights for educators and policymakers, emphasizing the need for nuanced approaches to foster genuine solidarity among youth in ever-changing urban landscapes.


We welcome additional comments and reflections, please email us at: srodrig4@umd.edu or through the Immigrant Ed Next website. 


By Julio Ángel Alicea, PhD


What is it like to be a Latinx youth living in an historically Black neighborhood undergoing Latinization? How do Latinx youth understand Black-Latinx solidarity under such circumstances? Do all Latinx youth feel the same way about race relations or adopt the same racial politics?  These are some of the important sociological questions I explore in my research on race, place, and youth.


Latinx youth are a population on the rise. Census data reveals that the number of children under 18 years of age that were of Latinx descent increased from 23.1% in 2010 to 25.7% in 2020. Over the same period of time, the overall Latinx population increased by 26%, with one of the main drivers being not immigration, but domestic births. As this population has grown over time, so has their footprint across the United States. 


In my work, I examine the experiences of youth living and learning in South Central Los Angeles, a community that has gone from being a major center of Black cultural production on the West Coast to a Latinx barrio now facing gentrification, or what resembles what sociologist Brandi Summers calls a “post-Chocolate City” in her book, Black in Place. . 


The Latinization of South Central 


Whereas in 1970 when South Central was 80% Black, today it is more than two-thirds Latinx. To say this has had a large impact on schools and youth communities would be an understatement. Sociologists Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo and Manuel Pastor found, in their book South Central Dreams, that South Central saw its Black youth population decrease by two-thirds while its Latinx youth population increased by 170% between the years of 1980 and 2016. 


In my four-year ethnography at a South Central high school, I interviewed over 90 respondents, including students, teachers, staff, parents, and community partners. One community partner who led programming aimed at serving Black and Latinx students spoke to this reality and lamented, “…if you want to find a predominantly Black high school in South LA, you ain't going to find it.” 


On Black-Latinx Solidarities and Tensions


A primary theme with my Latinx youth participants was how they experienced South Central as a multiracial community. In these conversations, I tended to encounter one of three stances: (1) the romanticized stance of friction-less racial solidarity, (2) the realist-optimistic stance of racial solidarity layered with experiences of tension and awareness of anti-Black bias, and (3) the biased-pessimistic stance of racial antagonism tinged with anti-Black bias.


Romanticized Stance


Veronica, a Latina born and raised in South Central by parents from Mexico and El Salvador, offers an excellent example of the romanticized stance. When discussing race relations in South Central, she told me, “[Black folks are] our brothers and sisters. We're literally the same. We come from poor places. We have so much in common…” Scholars writing about South Central have referred to this understanding as a “brand of Black-Brown politics framed around place identity.” While recognizing that political organizing can and has been accomplished with this stance in mind, I also worry about the ways in which it flattens differences between folks considered “Black” and “Brown” and leads to imperfect policy thinking and implementation. 


Realist-Optimistic Stance


Alex, the son of Salvadoran immigrants, had moved to South Central from Los Angeles’s Koreatown. He spoke about personal experiences of racial tension. In particular, he told me stories of  when he experienced anti-Latinx violence. On one occasion, a group of Black male youth “[threw] stuff at [him],” “[said] hateful things,” and “spit on [his] friend’s face.” Despite the painful memories he retained from these moments, he remained steadfast in his opposition to anti-Black views. He told me he knew “how [other people have] had experiences like I’ve had and how that could have made them have a negative connotation towards African Americans.” Alex’s realist-optimistic stance was grounded in his experience and did not romanticize Black-Latinx solidarities, but instead recognized multiple layers of nuance. 


Biased-Pessimistic Stance


TB, another born-and-raised South Central resident, is the son of two Salvadoran immigrants. He best exemplifies the biased-pessimistic stance. He was adept at social analysis, observing during a walking interview the many visible changes that impending gentrification was bringing to his Latinx neighborhood. He even offered an explicit racial analysis that sought to compare so-called Black and Brown communities with White ones:


“I feel like that’s the difference between colored communities and White communities, because Whites, they all feel equal to each other. So, they don’t have a sense of competition. But here, it’s like, get the job first, and get your family first. And if the other guy’s not doing good, that’s not your problem.”


Importantly, TB notes that economic constraints inhibited a more united front between Black and Latinx residents of South Central. At the same time, TB also voiced anti-Black ideas that prevented his pessimistic analysis from a more critical bent. Discussing the three racially segregated learning academies of his high school, he told me, “[Business School], that's all African American, a couple like ghetto Latinos that don't want to be Latino. They want to be gang members and things like that. [...] [E]verybody makes fun of it, that’s the low of the low.” This anti-Black perspective revealed a deep-seated anti-Black bias that obstructs more radical multiracial politics from taking hold as anthropologist Savannah Shange details in her book, Progressive Dystopia


Lessons for Educators and Policy Makers


Latinx youth living in the same community and attending the same progressive public school developed very different understandings of what racial solidarity could be. Surely, the origins of these differences are numerous (e.g., different lived experiences, different racial politics embedded in local networks, etc.), but that doesn’t change the reality that schools can and should be places where students deepen their understanding of important social topics like race and community. 


When schools make these connections more explicit in their curriculum (what I have called “teaching in the hood about the hood”), there is greater potential for students to move beyond individual experience and bias towards avoiding assumptions of monolithic experiences between Black and Latinx students as well as within the pan-ethnic and multiracial group of Latinx youth.


As a former public school teacher and trained policy analyst, I also see tremendous value in elevating and centering youth perspectives in social policy writ large. As I have argued in my article, “Placing Youth in the Spatial Turn,” youth are not simply passive residents of their communities. No, they help make their communities by exerting their agency in realms as diverse as economics, governance, and the arts. Further, they accrue complex knowledge about social topics from their everyday lived experience that could be of incalculable value to the policymaking process. By elevating their voices in the policy realm, we can work with Latinx youth towards a world more deserving of their passions and contributions. 



Suggested Citation: Alicea, J. (2024, February 29). Latinx Youths’ Racial Meaning Making in a Post-Chocolate City. Immigrant Ed Next.


Copyright © 2024: Sophia Rodriguez, Immigrant Ed Next,-All Rights Reserved

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