One of the paradoxes of Watts is that the community has been transformed from an African-American enclave to a Latino one — yet its problems have remained the same.
The DUI investigation of 22-year-old Marquette Frye on Aug. 11, 1965, drew a crowd of angry onlookers to 116th Street and Avalon Boulevard. They were fed up with police abuse, and that anger sparked an uprising, the 50th anniversary of which we mark this month.
Watts is still a segregated, underserved neighborhood with some of the poorest people — unemployment stands at nearly 13 percent — in L.A. County. More than one in four homes is overcrowded or severely overcrowded, according to the city-run Watts Community Studio project. Household median income, $28,700, is nearly half that of L.A. County, the project says.
It's just that the households are vastly Latino now.
Public housing developments have been invaded by Hispanics. Jordan Downs, the geographic anchor for one of L.A.'s most hard-core black gangs, the Grape Street Crips, went from 28 percent Latino in 1993 to an estimated 70 percent–plus today. Nearly 68 percent of locals speak Spanish.
In 1965, Watts was more than 80 percent African-American. By the time of the 1992 riots, the area was almost evenly split between blacks and Latinos. Black family flight from gang violence in the 1990s and 2000s, paired with dramatic immigration, transformed the neighborhood.
"Watts was the epicenter of the African-American community back then," says UCLA professor Gary Orfield, co-director of the university's Civil Rights Project, who happened to be in Watts on the day the riots started 50 years ago. "A vast change has taken place. The black community dispersed further south and out to the Inland Empire, and it was overwhelmingly outnumbered by immigrants in the process."
Black migration to the Inland Empire — and, as geographers have shown, even migration back to hometowns in Texas and the South — was met with Latino immigration, legal and illegal, from Mexico and Central America.
"Those homes were being filled in by immigrants from Latin America," says political consultant Michael Trujillo, who worked on the campaign of L.A. City Councilman Joe Buscaino, who's white and represents Watts and San Pedro. "You've seen this sea change."
Immigrants have brought with them food trucks, mercados and street vendors, reinvigorating corners decimated by the 1992 riots, which were set off by a jury verdict of not guilty in the trial of LAPD officers accused of brutality against Rodney King.
But the Latino businesses are small and their impact is negligible, experts say. Orfield notes that the socioeconomic malaise of job-poor Watts remains.
"It's really important what the community needs rather than who gets what political seats," he says. "It still needs everything. It needs good schools, more jobs, more safety."
Hard-won African-American leadership has had a decades-long hold on power, and its focus has been those very issues — poverty, employment, housing, health care — that have affected the area for a half-century.
Black politician Mark Ridley-Thomas represents nearly 2 million constituents in the 2nd District of the L.A. County Board of Supervisors, which includes Watts.
"I believe the issues are substantially the same" regardless of race, he says, "from education to housing to transportation to public safety and health care."
Ridley-Thomas is particularly proud of his work helping to open Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital just south of Watts this year. He emphasizes that the facility will open its doors to anyone regardless of immigration status or ability to pay. He says that's a good example of how black leadership tuned in to an issue that brown people care about.
The big question now is this: In a community that's more than two-thirds Latino, why is Hispanic leadership almost nonexistent?
While many immigrant-heavy communities in Southeast L.A. County and in the San Gabriel Valley have seen their political leadership change from white to Latino, Watts' Latinos tend to be more recently arrived, younger and less likely to speak English.
One result has been low voter turnout among those who now make up the majority in Watts.
"When we look at Latino voters, the turnout scenarios have been much less than what's required in order to impact the outcome of elections," Ridley-Thomas says.
And then there's the relative youth of Watts' population. According to the Watts Community Studio, nearly 40 percent of Watts residents are 17 or younger. Countywide, just one in four people is that age. "It's still a very young community," Orfield says.
Geographically, Watts is tiny, just over 2 miles wide, yet it's split between two L.A. City Council seats, which also puts Latinos at a disadvantage by diluting their population into two voting districts. One area is part of Buscaino's 15th District and the other is in the 9th District, a seat held by African-American Curren D. Price Jr.
Political consultant Trujillo, who was on the 2011 L.A. City Redistricting Commission, explains that Watts is the political victim of L.A.'s historic need to have a deepwater harbor many miles to the south. The port communities of San Pedro and Wilmington are connected to L.A. by a narrow umbilical cord known as Harbor Gateway, created so that city fathers who founded L.A. well inland along the Los Angeles River could have a port on the Pacific Ocean in San Pedro.
Watts rose along the outer edge of the contiguous city, where the long, thin "gateway" leading south to the ocean begins. But because far-flung San Pedro doesn't have enough people to make up an entire City Council district, a chunk of Watts got added to District 15, as did the neighborhoods in skinny Harbor Gateway.
What's left over in Watts, Trujillo points out, goes into District 9.
Although Watts' political potency is split, Trujillo says the 9th District is on the verge of going Latino. Curren Price beat his Latina challenger, Ana Cubas, by fewer than 600 votes in 2013.
"You're at the tipping point," Trujillo predicts. "You're able to watch this demographic wave get more potent year by year as this [community] gets older."
Arturo Ybarra, who founded the Watts/Century Latino Organization in 1990, says earlier Latino arrivals to Watts were, frankly, scared to speak up and seek democratic representation. Many, he said, come from countries where they learned to keep their heads down and endure police oppression and political corruption.
"When we started, there was a high level of violence in Watts," he says. "Latinos were very reluctant to demonstrate even their own existence in Watts. The current Latino population still lacks the kind of leadership and resources to engage in civic politics."
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A rise to power for Latinos seems inevitable at this point, and Ybarra says a pipeline of Latino leaders is just starting to develop: "There's a new generation of Latinos born and raised in Watts, and now there are some young professionals who are coming back to push for change."
As the power transition takes place, Trujillo argues, it's important for Latinos to respect the community's rich African-American history. "It's our responsibility to ensure that the history of Watts is handed down, generation to generation," he says.
"We're happy the immigrants are here, but it will give them a greater sense of community if they learn the history."
For more information on CSUN's atlas of L.A.'s demographics: http://www.csun.edu/~hfgeg005/eturner/books.html