How Santa Ana Became SanTana

How Santa Ana Became SanTana

An Irrelevant Border
by Steven Greenhut

Immigration is like so many other political issues in modern America: The official debate is quashed by political correctness, so the real issues fester under the surface while politicians deal in platitudes.

Currently, Americans trip over themselves saying how wonderful all immigrants are, whether they are here legally or not, and opinionmakers argue about whether to provide amnesty for those who came here illegally or to institute a guest-worker program that will lead to the same result: massive numbers of new, mostly Mexican, immigrants coming into the United States.


Meanwhile, below the surface of official debate, the public talks, in hushed tones, about what they see all around them. The sheer numbers of immigrants that have come here have dramatically changed the face of much of America, especially Southern California. The effects are not entirely bad, but there are many social, political, and cultural problems that have resulted. The city where I work, Santa Ana, epitomizes the dramatic and rapid immigration-driven changes, but such changes have affected the entire county.

That is Orange County, best known these days as the setting of such television shows as The OC and Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County. The fictional world portrayed on those shows certainly exists here. There is still a beach culture, in which wealthy young people behave as they are portrayed on these showsnot necessarily a good thing. Drive past the hip shops on the Pacific Coast Highway in Corona del Mar, or hang out at the bars in downtown Huntington Beach, and you will see it. Anyone who thinks that most of the OC resembles that world, however, is kidding himself.

In 2004, Joel Rubin reported in the Los Angeles Times that Orange County had officially become a majority-minority county where steady growth in Asian and Latino populations has dramatically changed a once-homogeneous landscape (O.C. Whites a Majority No Longer, September 30). That fact, in itself, is not so shocking, given that many new immigrants are middle class and their children are highly assimilated. But that reality of success and assimilationthe only reality that politicians talk aboutis just one part of the picture. The other reality is described by Amin David, a local Latino activist quoted in the Times article: Come to Santa Ana and watch the kids trudge back to their tenement housing. Thats the kind of Orange County we have. It is not the sand dunes you see on TV.

Although I would disagree with the goals of such activistshigher taxes to fund more social programs for the poor immigrants who congregate in Santa Ana, Anaheim, Garden Grove, and other parts of the OCI cannot disagree with Davids description, at least as it applies to the older, central part of the county. As Rubin points out, Orange County was 86-percent non-Latino white in 1970; it is now 49.5-percent non-Latino white. Those numbers will fall even more dramatically, as the Latino population is much younger than the white populationthe median age of Latinos is 25; of whites, 40. It is largely a poor population, fueled by immigration. In neighboring Los Angeles County, the minority population is 70 percentnot the city of Los Angeles, but the entire county, with a population of ten million. In suburban Riverside County, the white population is 48.5 percent, and, in suburban San Bernardino County, it is 40 percentand falling.

Obviously, massive and rapid demographic change is leading to massive and rapid cultural, political, and social change. Santa Ana, with over 330,000 residents (some estimates, taking into account illegal immigrants, put the number above 500,000), is the seat of Orange County, yet it is 86-percent Latino and has the largest Spanish-speaking population of any large city in the country.

The first time I took my family to Tijuana, my kids were terribly disappointed. I thought you said we were going to a different country, my middle daughter told me. I realized that what she was seeing looked no different from what she sees in Santa Ana and other cities in Southern California. After all, downtown Santa Anas business district has been renamed the Fiesta Marketplace, and it resembles the downtown district in any decent-sized Mexican city. Very little English is spoken, and there is the usual array of immigration services, health clinics, variety stores, and cowboy-hat-wearing vendors selling churros.

Some of this is great. I enjoy culturally diverse areas, love Mexican food, and have fun shopping in these places. I know that immigrants have always congregated in different communities and have always had an effect on the new culture. Yet what happens when the influx of immigrants is so great that entire regions are transformed from one culture to another? What happens when there is no halt to the waves of immigrants, no chance for assimilation to take place? Walk beyond the well-kept downtown area into Santa Anas surrounding neighborhoods, and the reality starts to sink in.

In another Los Angeles Times article from 2004 (The Hard LifeSanta Ana Style, by Michael Anton and Jennifer Mena, September 5), we read that

Santa Ana topped a list ranking urban hardship among the nations largest cities. By weighing a variety of social and economic indicators, researchers at the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government concluded that Santa Anawhere most people have a roof over their head and manufacturing jobs have been addedwas the nations toughest place to survive. . . . [T]he quality of life in Santa Ana is shaped by a huge number of Latin American immigrants who work multiple jobs, sleep on couches and struggle with the high housing costs and a lack of education.

Unlike many parts of Los Angeles, most of Santa Ana is relatively tidy. Yet, as Heather MacDonald wrote in her 2004 City Journal article The Immigrant Gang Plague,

[A] seemingly innocuous block in Santa Ana can host five to eight households dedicated to gangbanging or drug sales. A front yard may be relatively trash-free; inside the house, [it is] a different matter entirely, says Santa Ana cop Kevin Ruiz. Ive been to three houses just this week where they made a mountain of trash in the backyard or changed their babys diaper by throwing it over the couch. Fifty-year-old men are still dressing like chollos (Chicano gangsters), Ruiz says, and fathers are ordering barbers to shave their young sons bald in good gang tradition.

Even the citys ostensibly Mexican name has changed to accommodate the newcomers. The new, approved term is the Spanish contraction SanTana. The schools in Santa Anadespite the citys Education First motto plastered on local water towersare among the worst in the state, as teachers struggle with a population that does not speak much English. The school system has improved a bit since 2003, however, when voters from across the city recalled school-board member Nativo (his given name is Larry) Lopez, a Latino activist, who used his power to promote a Spanish First agenda. Still, no middle-class person (of any ethnicity) in his right mind would send his kids to these schools.

The demographic changes have led to unusual political battles. On June 20, 2006, the Los Angeles Times reported on an ongoing neighborhood disagreement between a 51-year-old white man named Tim Rush and his Latino neighbors (Neighborhood Grouch or Savior? It All Depends, by Jennifer Delson). Over the course of two years, he called code enforcement 300 times to complain about abandoned cars, illegal additions, garage conversions and music being played too loudly. His neighbors call him a racist for trying to clean up the neighborhood.

In this case, I side mostly with his neighbors. Certainly, some of the complaints Mr. Rush has made are legitimate ones, but neighborhoods take on the character of those who live there. It is unjust to use government to force, say, a working-class neighborhood to look and function as a neighborhood of wealthy professionals. Nonetheless, this dispute illustrates the dramatic changes that are taking place, neighborhood by neighborhood, throughout the greater-Los Angeles area. This is one of the few regions where there are increased pressures on infrastructure (roads, water lines, sewers) in built-out areas, as new immigrants double up and triple up in old tract houses. The result is a backlash, as old middle-class residents get angry at the changes that are taking place around them.

Many of the local political disputes these days are caused, at root, by immigration. Santa Anas city council debates where Mexican vending trucks are to be allowed to park. Latino activists protest proposals by one of the countys municipalities and the county sheriff to check the immigration status of those arrested for serious crimes. Emergency rooms and trauma centers throughout the region are closing under the financial strain of serving a population that does not pay for medical services. Schools pass new bond initiatives to keep up with the costs of services for the growing population, most of whom are the children of immigrants, legal or otherwise. Residents bicker over daywork centers and other places where illegal immigrants congregate to solicit construction work. Republican strongholds are becoming Democratic strongholds.

The situation has replicated Third World development patterns. Wealthy people congregate along the beach areas depicted in the TV shows or move to the further reaches of the region and live in gated communities. Older areas become barrios. And, while the county remains mostly nice and middle class, a recent report shows that fewer than two percent of the homes sold in the LA/OC area are affordable by families with median incomes. A once-middle-class region is now becoming a county of rich and poor.

It is understandable when a poor man who cannot find decent work crosses the border in order to feed his family. But it borders on madness when a societyespecially an advanced welfare statewillingly imports another countrys poverty on such a large scale without counting the costs of such a transformation.

You cannot see that reality on The OC, but its hard to miss in SanTana.

Steven Greenhut is senior editorial writer and columnist for the Orange County Register in Santa Ana, California. This article first appeared in the November 2006 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.