LOS ANGELES -- Freshman City Councilman Mike Hernandez is tooling around in his Chevy Blazer through the streets of his district, the desperately poor but bustling Central American Pico-Union neighborhood.
These streets, just west of downtown, still bear the scars of some of the worst of last year's rioting over the not-guilty verdicts in the first Rodney King beating trial. The busy streets are full of salsa music, the smell of warm tortillas and foot traffic -- an oddity in this auto-fixated city. There are also gaping holes in the scene: vacant lots where businesses torched in the riot once stood.
But Mr. Hernandez is excited. Where some see chaos and urban blight, he sees potential.
"You get off a freeway offramp and you see an American with a sign saying he's homeless, and you see an immigrant trying to sell you an orange. And we can't lose that energy," he says of the dynamic Latino community.
Then, rounding a corner, he sees the very contrast he's just described.
"This is what I'm talking about!" he almost shouts, pointing to a Latino woman holding bags of oranges and peanuts aloft. "We can't lose that energy."
Like a sleeping giant, this community had been largely ignored until the worst of last year's rioting erupted in Latino immigrant neighborhoods. It has raised the question of whether the city will deal with the new Latino problems as an opportunity rather than a crisis.
"I think the comment of Los Angeles being the Ellis Island in the back end of the 20th century is absolutely true," says Richard Martinez, executive director of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project.
But the influx of Central American immigrants is a double-edged sword, says Kevin Starr, professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Southern California. The newcomers do not seem to be as eager to assimilate as the Mexican immigrants of the 1920s, who he says have become thoroughly American.
"What we have here is not immigration, per se, but the formation of an enclave, a readjustment of the border, which is as threatening to the million Mexican-Americans in Los Angeles as it is to the Anglo residents," Dr. Starr says.
"They're both part of the solution and part of the problem," he says. "Their hard work, their desire in some way to have a better life in the United States, is part of the solution. They're part of the problem if they become an enclave our social institutions can't get to."
Dozens of major cities across the country, including Baltimore, face similar questions as Central Americans move into the area in search of work, though none are likely to face the magnitude of immigration the nation's second largest city will absorb, being so close to the border.
The choices made here will provide lessons for the nation. If captured and harnessed, the energy and spirit Mr. Hernandez is so excited about could mean the revitalization of a city bruised and battered by racial tensions.
Failure, activists warn, could transform these immigrants into an underclass, filled with an anger and desperation that was only glimpsed at during last April's uprising.
Latino role in riots
Though black-white racial tension was at the core of the Rodney King trial, the subsequent riots involved the Central American immigrant community here in a role larger than was ever reported. The areas with the worst rioting -- South-Central, Pico-Union and Koreatown -- are predominantly Latino.
South-Central, which was once the center of Los Angeles' black community well into the 1980s, is now a barrio with a Latino majority. The population of Koreatown, the center of Korean commerce west of downtown, is actually half Latino. The area just southeast of Koreatown, Pico-Union, is almost completely Latino.
"You can go miles without seeing anything but Latinos," says Roberto Lovato, a U.S.-born Salvadoran who is executive director of the Central American Refugee Center.
The Latino role in the riots was documented in a study prepared by Manuel Pastor Jr., an economics professor at Occidental College in Northeast Los Angeles. He found that half of those arrested during the uprising were Latino, as were nearly a third of those who died. Nearly 40 percent of the businesses destroyed were owned by Latinos.
The neighborhoods where the most looting occurred are among the poorest in the city, with population densities exceeding Manhattan's. Dr. Pastor notes that demographic studies show the immigrant Latinos are working poor; their poverty is not caused by joblessness, but by low wages and unstable jobs.
The rioting and looting done by Latinos, therefore, had nothing to do with the verdict in the Rodney King beating trial, Dr. Pastor says.
It had everything to do with poor people -- culturally and socially isolated -- who saw an opportunity and took it.
"Think of someone who is a day laborer, who doesn't make any money but has a kid," says Oscar Andrade, executive director of El Rescate, a social services agency serving the Central American community. "He sees a bag of Pampers there. That's $10 less that he can spend for rent or food."
Hope still alive
These immigrants' hopes lay in the fact that, although poor, they are working poor. They haven't given up on the American dream.
Studies show that more than 80 percent of Latino males participate in the work force -- evidenced by the ubiquitous vendors on the streets of the Latino community. It is a productive activity -- though illegal, because it is unlicensed -- that makes the neighborhoods resemble a Latin American mercado, or marketplace.
At the corner of Seventh and Alvarado streets, just north of Pico-Union, Latino vendors anchor the corners -- one hawks cigarettes and gum, one sells fresh shrimp, another sells ice cream from a white cart.
Still another, Jose Jimenez, who came to Los Angeles three years ago from San Miguel, El Salvador, sells mangoes from a cardboard box.
On a good day, Mr. Jimenez, 39, says he makes about $20. Some days he makes less than $10.
"It's pretty tough," he says. "That's life. That's how we exist. But it's not so bad, because we're used to working hard in our country."
'Haves' and 'have nots'
One effect of the riot was to highlight the division between the "haves" and the "have nots" in the city's Latino community.
Until a little more than 10 years ago, the city's Latino community was primarily Mexican-American and lived in the barrios of East Los Angeles. Los Angeles Times columnist George Ramos, an East L.A. native, calls them the "haves" of the Latino community: "They are the established families of Mexican descent who have been here for several generations."
But the last decade has brought an explosion of immigrants from Central America, escaping war and political instability in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua. These are the "have nots": they are poorer, less educated, they speak less English and they work in the lower-tier service industry jobs.
The last census counted 3.3 million Latinos in Los Angeles County, slightly below the Anglo population of 3.6 million and well above the city's 900,000 blacks and 900,000 Asians.
Of the Latinos, 453,048 were Central American. In census tracts that were identified as being predominantly Latino, 62 percent of the adults were immigrants.
This new influx of immigrants has pushed the Latino community beyond the boundaries of East L.A.
In what were once all-black or all-white areas, says Mr. Lovato of the Central American Refugee Center, it's now "like being in Latin America. That's a real powerful feeling."
Indeed, the untapped power of this community was a rude awakening for Latino political leaders during the riots when they discovered they had few connections with the immigrant communities.
On the second day of the riots, the political leaders held a news conference at which they congratulated the residents of East Los Angeles for remaining calm. That was interpreted by the immigrant community as a slap and an attempt by the Mexican-American establishment to distance itself from them.
"Latino representatives were out of touch with the community they claimed to represent. Very few had actually taken up issues related to the immigrant, or non-citizen, population," says Gloria Romero, an associate professor of psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and chairwoman of the Hispanic Advisory Council of the Los Angeles Police Commission.
had "We realized the immigrant community was like our parents or our grandparents," says Mr. Martinez of the Southwest Voter Registration Project and a longtime political activist in the Mexican-American community.
"And we can't be toward them the way Americans were toward our grandparents."
Walking past the empty lots along Pico Boulevard, Mr. Andrade of El Rescate notes that the change in sentiment has yet to yield bricks and mortar.
"Nothing's changed," he says. "My God, it's been a year. How long do we have to wait?"
Potent political force
There is a good reason for the Mexican-American community to reach out to its newcomer cousins: The combination could create a potent political force out of a minority that has been politically underrepresented and shut out of power in gerrymandered or at-large districts.
Through court victories, many of those districts have been redrawn and Latino political power is beginning to be felt: 10 years ago, Latinos were not represented on the Los Angeles City Council; they now have two seats.
The immigrants could help advance that process. But without citizenship they don't have a vote. But many will not be invisible for long.
Salvadorans in particular, says Mr. Lovato, are "a political people, a people who have organized for social change the likes of which you have never seen in this country."
That influence could come to bear soon. As many as 100,000 immigrants who took advantage of the 1985 Immigration and Naturalization Service amnesty and received resident alien status will be eligible to apply for citizenship in November.
Mr. Martinez, a veteran political organizer, sees big possibilities for a Latino voting bloc in California, New Mexico and Texas. It could be a deciding factor in determining a third of the electoral college votes.
"So we can elect the president with only 10 percent of the population of the country," he says. "We're the baddest things on the block and nobody knows it."
For some, the glimpse of Latino unrest, the prospect of Latino power and the visual impact of the sheer numbers of Latinos have led to a backlash. To Latino leaders, this reaction is not only counterproductive, but is a denial of reality.
Underscoring that point, David Hayes-Bautista, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, argues that Latinos have several characteristics that make them "a stabilizing force in a city of rapid changes."
In a study released last month, he found that despite poor education and poverty, Latinos have a high number of two-parent families; they have the highest labor-force participation rate of any group; they are surprisingly healthy, with few low birth-weight babies, low infant mortality and long life expectancy; and they show a high rate of home ownership.
"We have to understand that the Latino community is the solution, not the problem," says Mr. Hernandez.