Since the end of the Second World War (WWII) American cities have experienced a vast expansion of their suburbs. This trend has been especially strong in Southern California due to many factors that are discussed carefully and extensively in Jerry González’ book, In Search of the Mexican Beverly Hills: Latino Suburbanization in Postwar Los Angeles. Up to the end of the war, Mexicans were living in the colonias of California’s past that were on the verge of elimination as large cities were growing toward the periphery. Gonzalez writes, “By 1940 there were more than 200 such communities in metropolitan Los Angeles usually located next to agricultural production areas. These communities performed mainly as racially segregated, working-class suburbs” (pp. 14-15). Among the main causes of the suburbanization process were the lack of housing facilities in the inner cities and rapid population growth due to large waves of migration to California. According to González,
The suburban ideal of a single- family home on a quiet street close to quality schools and free of poverty, crime, and overcrowding was normalized in public policy and popular culture. For everyday Americans who pursued suburban homeownership, becoming suburban signaled particular aspirations as people strove for upward mobility (p. 7).
For Mexican Americans, especially the well-educated and those who came back from WWII, moving to the suburbs was seen as an important step in the integration process into American society.
Due to the negative effects of the Great Depression, the Federal Government implemented programs aimed at promoting home ownership. These included the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) and the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). Both programs had a positive impact in promoting property wealth, but benefitted mainly White Americans. The low salary levels received by Mexican Americans, their limited knowledge of English, the color of their skin, and the low values of their houses were some of the factors linked to the denial of access to Mexican Americans to these Federal programs, which would have allowed them to buy a house in the suburbs. Racial discrimination became rampant when realtors were given instructions not to show houses in the new developments to Mexican Americans and other minorities because White owners were concerned about declining property values if a minority family moved into their neighborhoods. This practice became known as “redlining.”
The growth of new suburban developments over time reached areas where colonias were located, creating tensions between Mexican Americans, real estate developers, and White homeowners. Developers and officials viewed the colonias as public safety concerns due to dense population, high crime rates, and the lack of basic services and police presence. More tensions surged when the government decided to build highways that passed through parts of the colonias and demolished many houses. For years, Mexican Americans struggled to preserve the homes they had built themselves, as well as the communities to which they held a strong sense of attachment.
The developments generated tensions that became highly confrontational and political when those on the far political right who supported housing discrimination were challenged by liberals who promoted open access to the new developments for minorities through federal housing programs. To reduce these tensions, the Federal Government implemented public housing projects to provide low-cost housing to minorities who were displaced from their homes. These projects mainly targeted the Black population, however, with few Mexican Americans participating. Futhermore, these projects did not address the discrimination problem as most were located in areas outside of the suburbs.
Despite rampant segregation, many Mexican American families still pursued their interest to move to the suburbs, where there were better educational opportunities for their children and safe lifestyles where they could develop extended networks that would open job opportunities. By 1950, suburban growth was outpacing growth in central cities by ten-to-one. Manufacturing and industrial jobs emerged across the metropolitan landscape alongside housing tracts, often following established trucking routes and highways. This link among transportation circuits, housing, and jobs proved vital as developers chose locations based on access to industrial development. Access to employment enabled many Mexican Americans to take the first step toward suburban home ownership at a time when such a status was largely limited to Whites. González states:
Mexican Americans saw suburban ownership as a critical link to collective advancement, and they proved relatively successful despite the prevalent discrimination directed to them… The expansion of Mexican communities outside the boundaries of urban barrios into suburban tract developments between 1950 and 1970 was driven by middle-class Mexican Americans who sought justice in housing and through the persistence of former colonia residents who wanted to claim their place in the sun (p. 50).
The increasing numbers of Mexican American children put considerable pressure on the local school districts, straining their budgets and space and forcing new school construction throughout the region.
This book presents the struggles of Mexican American communities in the greater Los Angeles area to achieve better and safer lives for their families through access to new housing developments located in the suburbs during an era of racial segregation. It also describes the efforts of these families and the Chicano community to preserve their cultural identities. Scholars interested in urban development and discrimination in housing markets, Latino leaders who are currently promoting equal access to housing, and students should read this very informative book.