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News Article: (LA Times) New generation of L.A.-area Latino leaders aren't as friendly toward 'amigo stores'

Cities like Baldwin Park are turning away from ethnic-oriented retail projects in favor of mainstream businesses. Starbucks is welcome.
By Hector Becerra
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
May 28, 2008

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It was as if the developers were talking about tacos, and the Latino politicians were talking about apple pie.

Baldwin Park Mayor Manuel Lozano and other city officials listened as the developers said they had studied the demographics of the city and could bring in a retailer known for offering credit to undocumented immigrants and a shopping center with a "Latino feel."

To Lozano, it was another case of developers typecasting his suburb, which is about 15 miles east of downtown Los Angeles. He didn't want to see more of what he calls "amigo stores."

The meeting ended like a bad date, with handshakes and excessive courtesy. But afterward, Lozano made it clear he was not happy.

"We want what Middle America has as well," said the second-generation Mexican American, recounting the meeting. "We like to go to nice places like Claim Jumpers, Chili's and Applebee's. . . . We don't want the fly-by-night business, the 'amigo store,' which they use to attract Latinos like myself."

Call it "immigrant" store fatigue. It's happening in cities that are overwhelmingly Latino, with Latino political leaders and with large immigrant communities.

For decades, these cities attracted working-class and immigrant-centric retailers: check-cashing businesses, Latino supermarkets, discount gift stores, bridal shops and Mexican western wear stores. Some are independent, and some are chains such as La Curacao, an appliance and electronics retailer that offers credit accounts to immigrants who lack the documentation for conventional credit cards.

Until relatively recently, cities like Baldwin Park, South Gate and Santa Ana had few options beyond "Latino" retailers. But this year, Baldwin Park -- a city of 70,000 in the San Gabriel Valley -- enacted a moratorium on new payday loan and check cashing stores. The city is now partners with Bisno Development Co. on an "urban village" of mixed-income housing, theaters and mainstream restaurants such as Claim Jumper, Applebee's and Chili's.

To make it happen, the city is considering a plan that could require the use of eminent domain power to clear a 125-acre area.

That would result in the loss of more than 80 homes and more than 100 small businesses.

The huge project has prompted charges that the City Council, composed of Mexican Americans, is ashamed of its culture.

"I'm proud of my roots," said Rosalva Alvarez, as she stood in her beauty store on Maine Avenue, which is in the redevelopment area. "I was born in Mexico and raised in this country. I agree we need some change. But what they want to bring here is totally unrealistic. Applebee is good, but a Kabuki? And also a Trader Joe's? Come on, I don't even go to Trader Joe's."

Some opponents say that one councilwoman had told critics to "go back to [Tijuana]."

"I don't know where they got that," said Councilwoman Marlen Garcia. "What I said was 'We're striving to insure Baldwin Park doesn't look like Tijuana.' "

As he wiped down the counter of his Via-Mar Family Restaurant, Mexican immigrant Audon Diaz, 36, wonders if one day he might be pushed out too. It took him eight years just to get established, often having to repair the busted street lamps in the parking lot himself.

"It's like they want Baldwin Park in the style of Capistrano or like Hacienda Heights," Diaz said. "The restaurant industry is pretty hard to make it in. Eight years, and I'm barely hanging on. It's like the city wants to make it hard for you."

But Mayor Lozano is undaunted.

As he rode through the streets of his city, past the rows of low-slung mini malls with signs in a mix of English and Spanish, Lozano complained that downtown Baldwin Park had too many discount gift stores, too many beauty salons, too many Mexican restaurants and way too many pawnshops.

Lozano and his allies believe that mainstream retailers now fit better with Baldwin Park, where many of the residents are second-, third- and even fourth-generation Latinos with little interest in stores aimed at immigrants.

Now that the city has choices, he said, it should send a clear message to "amigo store" promoters, like those who introduce themselves with business cards decorated with the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

"They're pitching their 'Latino' type agenda," Lozano said.

Anthony Bejarano, a Baldwin Park councilman and graduate of Georgetown University law school, is a fourth-generation Mexican American who says he speaks "very little Spanish."

He said that the proliferation of what the mayor calls "amigo stores" forces him to go to other cities to shop.

"I love to go to traditional Mexican restaurants. I shop at Vallarta [supermarket], but I can't get everything I need," he said. "At the end of the day, it's all Mexican restaurants here. When we want Italian, when we want sushi, where do we go? If I want a pair of Kenneth Coles, I have to go to Arcadia."

Cities like Baldwin Park and Santa Ana used to struggle to get national retailers. Some residents tried letter-writing campaigns to lure Starbucks and others.

The response by many retailers was often "This is not our customer," said Luis Valenzuela, executive vice president for NAI Capital, a commercial real estate brokerage firm. "The difference now is that corporate America has realized there's tremendous buying power in these communities."

Valenzuela, who worked on Lynwood's popular Plaza Mexico, cites the El Paseo shopping center in South Gate as a turning point.

The sprawling center opened about a decade ago near the 710 Freeway.

The Edwards theater there was the first to be opened in a city that was not only majority Latino but also largely Spanish-speaking, he said.

And after the Starbucks opened in South Gate, it became one of the chain's leading seller of Frappuccinos, Valenzuela said.

"You had some mainstream stores who really took a risk, for the first time really going into a predominantly Spanish-speaking area," Valenzuela said.

"After that, you really saw Ross, Marshall, Applebee's, Chili's and a lot of those businesses in Latino areas," he said.

Although the South Gate shopping center, which does include a La Curacao and other ethnic businesses, is considered a success story by many, change has at times been rocky in Santa Ana.

There, the all-Latino City Council has sought to transform downtown.

They contend that there is an over-concentration of immigrant-focused Mexican western wear, discount gift, notary public and especially bridal stores along historic 4th Street.

As he stood amid Stetson hats and colorful leather boots made of ostrich and stingray at his Mexican western wear store, Ray Rangel, 78, said it seemed as if City Hall was trying to winnow away 4th Street's immigrant customer base with downtown plans that included higher-end housing.

"I'll tell you one thing about the City Council," he said. "Before, when the council was more mixed, we could get along with them. Now that they're all Hispanics, we have more trouble getting things. They want the upscale, something more Anglo."

Santa Ana Councilwoman Michele Martinez said a lack of cultural pride was not the issue; it's just that not all Latinos are immigrants.

"I have nothing against 50 quinceañera shops, but I don't shop there. Many of my friends don't shop there," said Martinez, a fourth-generation Mexican American. "Parents and grandparents may shop there, but young kids are not going to shop there, unless they're immigrants."

The debate has resulted in some testy exchanges.

Sam Romero, 73, owner of St. Teresa's Catholic Gift Shop on 4th Street, said he once cracked to a local paper that one local politician "broke every glass and mirror in the house so he wouldn't have to see a Mexican."

On a recent day, Carol Castillo, 31, an immigrant from Mexico, stood in her family-owned Marlen's Bridal Shop.

She said she was aware that the bridal shops, which also sell dresses for quinceañera coming-of-age celebrations, were used as an example by City Hall.

Three other bridal shops are directly across the street, and there's one next door.

"It's a fact, they want us out of here," Castillo said. "There's a lot of chatter going on. The people pushing this, most of them are Latinos, unfortunately."

Martinez said the city was not looking to push anyone out. She said a compromise could be reached to keep 4th Street a "Latino district" while developing around it.

Like Santa Ana, Baldwin Park is divided between immigrants and the U.S.-born.

Councilwoman Marlen Garcia, said she was tired of pining for the Islands, Chevy's and Jamba Juices of neighboring West Covina.

She still remembers the doomed pitch by the developers who wanted to bring in immigrant-focused stores.

"As soon as they said 'La Curacao,' I said, 'That's it,' " Garcia said. "We're not against our culture, nothing like that. But we want something that speaks to every culture."

hector.becerra@latimes.com

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