US Hispanics: To Be and Not to Be

Mexican-Americans in southern California (story below) balance assimilation and preserving their cultural heritage

`THEY'LL love it in Pomona."

These words, uttered by William Holden in "Sunset Boulevard," suggest how the 1950s film industry gauged middle-American tastes for their latest cinematic offerings.

Now this city of 140,000, about 60 miles east of Los Angeles, is 51 percent Hispanic according to the 1990 census, and some say the Hispanic population will reach 60 percent this year. In April voting, the town elected its first Hispanic mayor, and four of seven City Council members are also Hispanic.

What is developing in Pomona and dozens of nearby towns is being called the clearest example in the United States of fringe-suburban outposts known as "exurbs" or edge cities. From 1980 to 1990, Riverside County was one of the nation's fastest growing, and its Hispanic population - 80 percent of whom are of Mexican origin - increased 38 percent over the decade.

Experts say this demographic pattern makes the county an illustrative example of how Hispanics are assimilating into American culture, politics, and economy.

"Suburban areas like Riverside are where Hispanics move most naturally into the American mainstream," says Alan Heslop, director of the Rose Institute at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. Assimilation, according to Dr. Heslop, a political demographer, does not mean that Hispanics or other minority groups abandon a sense of cultural identity, but rather that they are free to choose where to live for reasons other than a community's ethnic identity.

"For reasons of support and security, Hispanics have tended to remain far more congregated in rural and urban settings," Heslop says. Under his definition, Pomona's 51-percent Hispanic makeup makes it a city where ethnicity still exerts a powerful influence over choice of residence. But the small towns that ring it - such as Duarte, Glendora, San Dimas, Laverne, Sierra Madre, West Covina, and others - are the kinds of communities where Hispanics are making the jump out of the barrio and into the American

middle class.

IN each of these towns over the past decade, Hispanic populations have grown from very low numbers to concentrations of 5 to 30 percent.

"You see it in the number of Hispanic service corporations, law offices, dentists, businesses, counselors, teachers in high schools," says Rudy Acuna, a professor of Chicano studies at California State College, Northridge. He notes a similar pattern in the San Fernando Valley, where Hispanics are moving beyond such traditional barrios as Pacoima and Arleta to North Hollywood, Sylmar, and Chatsworth.

The access card to bigger, better, and more affluent suburbia, according to new Pomona Mayor Eddie Cortez, is education.

"As they become more educated, Hispanics position themselves to move out of their de facto segregation that has served as a sense of security," he says. "They begin to see that what they want is not necessarily tied to the community that spawned them."

This issue, say ethnographers and Hispanic leaders, is forcing confrontation within the ranks. Should the barrio's most able - those who clear hurdles of language, culture, education - move out of primarily Hispanic areas, or reinvest the fruits of their success in their own neighborhoods?

"Having 51 percent of the population of Pomona is not the issue," says Tomas Arsua, a former city council member who was defeated by Mr. Cortez for mayor in April. "How do you get that 51 percent to move forward is the question."

Mr. Arsua would like to reverse what he calls "brain drain," as successful Hispanic professionals, business people, and scholars leave their familiar neighborhoods for middle-class suburban life.

"The media focus on the 10 percent of us who are new Hispanic political stars or the Harvards and Yalies who are smart enough to become just like every other American," Arsua says. "But the broad trend for Hispanics for the next two decades is that we are becoming the major labor force that will drive the Southwest economy. We need people who will address needs back in the barrios - of education, housing, business opportunity."

Arsua's plan to reverse Hispanic exodus from Pomona is a broad-based, grass-roots restructuring of the community, addressing housing needs, educational curriculum, and business inequities. But the four-year city council member and defeated mayoral candidate says that those supporting his ideas are an "extreme minority."

Much more at the forefront, observers say, is Mayor Cortez. Born in Texas to Mexican migrant workers, Cortez started an auto business with his parents' life savings 20 years ago. One of nine children, Cortez says his father's religious background taught him to detest segregation and to find ways to embrace opportunities.

"Where else but America can a family that grew up picking grapes blossom to produce a mayor, a businessman, a pharmacist, and a teacher?" he asks.

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