“You can't find this mix anywhere on the planet / Canto's the language, ‘lil’ Viet and Spanish,” rap YouTube hip-hop duo the Fung Brothers about the San Gabriel Valley in their song "Garvey, Valley, Main, Huntington," adding, “But almost everyone speaks Mandarin / ‘Cuz’ all the mainland Chinese are moving in.”
This “mix” fascinates author and photographer Wendy Cheng. The assistant professor of Asian American Pacific Studies at Arizona State University shared her research on the multicultural make-up of the San Gabriel Valley at a Jan. 30 forum at Southern California Public Radio and discussed her book, “The Changs Next Door to the Diazes: Remapping Race in Southern California.”
After two to three generations of Asians and Latinos living side by side, “There is an identity that is starting to come out of that place,” Cheng said.
Cheng dates the emergence of this new identity to the 1950s. Mexican and Asian immigrants moved to the west San Gabriel Valley because of its proximity to commercial and cultural centers including East Los Angeles, Little Tokyo, and Chinatown. Affordable housing costs also gave new immigrants an opportunity to purchase a home and establish themselves in their own ethnic communities.
The Latino and Asian population soon outnumbered whites in the San Gabriel Valley, and now make up 44 percent and 28 percent of the region’s population respectively, according to 2010 Census data.
“I think something that's really important that's happening in the SGV is that you have a majority non-white multiracial space that's being created that has some kind of stability that a lot of majority of the non-white spaces did not provide,” Cheng said. “You have people that have a little more resources. A lot of them are homeowners. They are able to have a certain level of stability in their lives that traditionally, people of color who lived in urban core areas did not have.”
Because of their close proximity to each other, Latino and Asian communities began to participate in intercultural dialogue in the San Gabriel Valley, Cheng said. The groups identified with each other's struggles as immigrants coming into a new country, and shared common values such as caring for extended family.
However, differences between the two cultures started to manifest in various areas, specifically in school. After studying public schools in the Alhambra Unified School District, Cheng discovered that starting in junior high and high school, students racially classified each other based on stereotypes perpetuated by adults.
“They stop having those same kinds of friendships. And a lot of the racial stereotypes and meanings they have encountered came to them through administrators, teachers, and staff," Cheng said. "Specifically treating Asian Americans as model minority students that are expected to do well and Latino students who are expected not to do as well."
Cheng points out this disparity through her examination of classes in Alhambra’s high schools. Asian students make up 90 percent of Advanced Placement and honors classes, according to her research, while more of their Latino peers are enrolled in remedial classes. A reason for the discrepancy — and a result — is that Latino students are conditioned to think they are not smart or good enough to perform well academically or go to college, Cheng said.
“It has huge consequences,” Cheng said. “A lot of these Latino students are being steered away from college. And so this has huge effects on their life opportunities and opportunities of future generations.”
Former Alhambra High School student Anthony Perez attested to this discrepancy between Asian and Latino academic performance, sometimes called the achievement gap, in a 2010 Alhambra Source story asking why so few Latino students take leadership positions in school. Perez, who was the only Latino student involved in student council, spoke with other students and administrators and cited peer pressure and a lack of parental participation and teacher support as some of the reasons why Latino students are not as involved in school activities as their Asian peers.
While systemic changes take years to change, Cheng said that one of the ways society can help break the cycle of stereotypes is to spread more awareness and form personal relationships with people of different backgrounds.
“I think what happens is that especially because of these realm of friendships, people start to identify across racial lines in ways they wouldn't otherwise and to feel familial connections to people that they might not otherwise,” Cheng said.
In her book, Cheng tells the story of an elderly white woman from San Gabriel who became an advocate for the Asian community when her son married a Taiwanese woman.
“She had an experience where in one of the meetings, there were no Asian Americans present and people were speaking about Asian Americans in a very negative way,” Cheng said at the KPCC forum. “And afterwards, she came up to a Mexican American guy, and she told him, 'I don't understand why they have to talk about American Asians that way.”
Cheng sees a movement among younger San Gabriel Valley residents to proudly wear “badges of multiculturalism,” or evidence of a rich, mixed culture in the San Gabriel Valley. Among these younger generations are the Fung Brothers, who have deemed the San Gabriel Valley the “626” and create viral music videos about the region's food and residents. Clothing designers Paul Chan and Adrian Mejia of SGVforLife make badges of multiculturalism their specialty. The San Gabriel Valley residents incorporate icons of the region into their designs, like Sriracha hot sauce, chopsticks, and local freeway signs.
Cheng cannot predict the future of the San Gabriel Valley, but she said it is up to the residents to claim the region for themselves. “I think it is a time where the identity of these places are up for grabs,” she said.