Friday, February 29, 2008

Blacks and Latinos: Parallel Histories

New America Media


Blacks and Latinos: Parallel Histories

Pilar Marrero, Award Winner 2006: Black-Brown Relations, La Opinion (Los Angeles, CA), Posted: Nov 02, 2006

Part One of Three

Like many African-Americans in Los Angeles, Larry Aubry immigrated here years ago from another corner of the United States. He came from Louisiana in the South, where poverty and racial segregation hit the hardest in the 1930’s and 40’s.

“We came to look for work. The South was a poor place. All my brothers and sisters, and there were eight of us, came to California,” remembers Aubry. “A lot of Blacks came here to work, and they did everything. One of my brothers was an electrician, and a lot worked on the construction of freeways.”

At that time, Los Angeles was a city with a white Anglo majority and, of course, so was its power structure.

Racial segregation was the norm: special clauses in property sales contracts prohibited non-white people from living in most of the city. They were called covenants and they were originally instituted against Asians, Mexicans, Jews and African-Americans.

That was why there were greater numbers of Blacks – no matter whether they were nurses, barbers or whatever economic condition – in the neighborhoods along Central Avenue, in south Los Angeles, what they call the “East”.

“Discrimination was everywhere; we couldn’t bathe in public swimming pools, and we couldn’t be in certain public places. Huntington Park, Inglewood, were totally white cities. I went to Freemont [high school] when there were only eight of us Blacks and the rest of the students were white,” tells Aubry, who is a journalist and has had a column in the local newspaper, the Los Angeles Sentinel, for more than 20 years.

Los Angeles, though more prosperous than the Southern United States, was not exempt from racism. While Blacks were confined to living in determined areas of the southeast by the informal housing contracts, Mexicans were victims of racial violence at the hands of groups of white Marines in the chaos called the “Zoot Suit Riots”.

“Blacks and Mexicans returned from World War II and realized that nothing had changed. That although we had won the war in Europe and defeated the Nazis, we hadn’t progressed much here,” remembers Aubry. “Then we started demanding more.”

In 1946 the courts declared the restrictive housing contracts illegal and from then on, middle-class African-Americans started moving west towards the area of West Adams. The old neighborhood in the south was left for the poor class.

Even though Blacks and Hispanics shared similar experiences of institutional racism and educational and economic marginalization, the communities did not mix as much as they now. “There wasn’t a strong relationship, but there wasn’t a lot of mixing either, not even in schools.”

So the movements, which awoke both communities and achieved a certain amount of progress in civil rights, were parallel.

For example, while Cesar Chavez was creating the United Farm Workers Union in 1962, African-Americans were boycotting racial segregation in the South. In 1963, they marched on Washington by the thousands, led by Martin Luther King, Jr.

“It’s very important to see that Black history is a unique and special thing. Because it all started with slavery. They brought our ancestors here by force as slaves. They took away their culture and everything they knew. They separated their families. When you take absolutely everything away from someone, the situation is very different,” says Aubry.

“And that’s what happened to my people. I’m not saying it to say that we had it worse, and not to compare with what others have suffered. But that’s a description of what happened,” he says.

Even though it now seems like something new that Mexicans and other Latinos live or coexist in the same neighborhoods as African-Americans, history says that not only is it nothing new, but it has also been the norm since the city’s foundation.

Of the 44 original inhabitants that settled in El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles de Porciúncula [The Town of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels of Porciuncula] in 1781, when the area still was in Spanish hands, 26 were of African origin.

And that is how Mexicans, descendents of Spaniards and Native Americans, founded Los Angeles along with descendents of Africans brought over to the continent as slaves by the Spaniards. At other times in history, Latinos and Blacks in the United States have had parallel and common struggles, even though they have rarely united.

Najee Ali, an African-American activist and one of the young leaders who has insisted most on creating alliances with Latinos, learned not long ago that Cesar Chavez, farm worker leader, was profoundly influenced by the non-violent philosophy of the most important civil rights leader that this country ever had: Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Many people in our communities don’t realize that we share a common history,” comments Ali. “Chavez modeled many of his organizing activities and techniques on the ones that King used.”

There are even parallel organizations that emerged in the 60’s as an expression of radical activism. Among African-Americans, the Black Panthers and among the Mexicans, the Brown Berets.

In 1965, marginalization and tensions with police, who were primarily white and repressive, created an explosion during the famous Watts Riots, which involved hundreds of African-Americans.

The McCone Commission, which later investigated the causes of the riots, concluded that the most profound ones were poverty, inequality, racial discrimination and the approval in 1964 of an electoral initiative that brought back the covenants or restrictive contracts that allowed discrimination against racial groups in housing sales.

On the other hand, the Mexican-American community experienced its own movement. In 1968, students from East Los Angeles, mainly Mexican-Americans, held walkouts, the biggest high school student movement in the history of this country.

Both communities stood up against the lack of education and jobs, and marginalization.

(Tomorrow: Latino growth affects African-Americans)


1781 - At least 26 of the 44 original inhabitants of Los Angeles were of African descent.

1863 - For the first time Blacks are allowed to testify in court against a white person.

1872 - For the first time Asians and Native Americans are allowed to testify in court against whites.

1962 - Cesar Chavez founds the National Farm Workers Association.

1962 - Martin Luther King, Jr. leads the massive march on Washington, D.C.

1963 - Martin Luther King, Jr. wins the Nobel Peace Prize.

1964 - African-American riots in the Los Angeles suburb of Watts.

1968 - Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Hundreds of student youth take to the streets in East Los Angeles asking for improvements in education.

1969 - More than 30,000 Mexican-Americans march against the war in Vietnam and for improved living conditions in the Chicano Moratorium. Police kill journalist Rubén Salazar.



Arnoldo Garcia

National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights

Red Nacional Pro Derechos Inmigrantes y Refugiados

310 8th Street Suite 303

Oakland, CA 94607

Tel (510) 465-1984 ext. 305

Fax (510) 465-1885


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