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A Growing Latino Middle Class: One Family’s Journey From Have-Not To Have

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The first of two stories for the California Dream series explores the growth of the Latino middle class as children and grandchildren of immigrants come of age, and Latino median household incomes rising.

Show transcript

Speaker 1: 00:00 The Latino middle-class in California is growing. The poverty rate is falling for many families. The road to financial stability has included real estate, but it's a path that's becoming harder to follow here in the first of two stories for the California dream collaboration. KPCC is Leslie Burstein. Rojas introduces us to a family that's made it

Speaker 2: 00:24 [inaudible] family loves horses one and Helen Rivera owns several of them on a two acre horse property in Chino, a suburb about 30 miles east of Los Angeles. One pets, a horse named Zein got, Oh your friend of mine brought him from fame. You might say the Rivera's are comfortable. They live in a modern Spanish style three bedroom. They designed themselves. There are stables out back in grounds, lush with purple Jacaranda, a convertible Mercedes sits in the driveway. Before this they had a five bedroom home with stables in La Mirada. Neighbors just assumed that we were driving lords and there was a rumor that came back to us. I was like, wow, that's Helen. She's an administrator with the county health department. One owns a welding repair business. Over the years. They've invested in rental properties and it's paid off nicely. The Riveras are part of a growing demographic, affluent Latinos, the children and grandchildren of immigrants who've worked their way up from blue collar origins to the middle class and beyond or seeing increases in socioeconomic attainment with each generation sense.

Speaker 2: 01:28 Immigration, Jodi, age by year hoe is a sociologist at USC. She says it's a second and third generations come of age. More Latinos have become business owners. More Latinos are graduating from high school and enrolling in college. Absolutely contrast with the myths and the rhetoric that is out there for one Rivera. It began with his parents. They came from Mexico in the 1960s and eventually sent for their kids. They didn't have legal status at first. Both worked in a foundry that made aircraft parts. In 1971 they scraped together a $3,000 down payment and bought a triplex. The family of six crammed into the front house, a small two bedroom and my mom and my dad sleep in one bedroom. Then my sister's lip on the other one. We slept in the living room. The boys and they rented out the other units and that's how the Rivera family began building their multigenerational wealth.

Speaker 2: 02:23 Growing up in east Los Angeles, Helen Rivera struggled to her parents were US citizens, but they hit hard times. When she was a kid, Helen and her dad would go to the central produce market to scrounge for food. As a little girl. It was easier for me to go in under the trucks and pick up the potatoes that fell off the truck, but in time her dad earned better pay, he was able to buy a house. Reaching financial security took both Juan and Helen years and lots of work. Neither had a college degree. Helen worked three jobs at one point, including waiting tables. One was working as a welder when he bought his first

Speaker 3: 03:00 home as a young man. Soon after he was laid off,

Speaker 2: 03:03 so then I went selling oranges on the street, but he kept on making those payments, building equity and capital. Over time. The couple started investing in property. Today they own 26 units. These properties helped their daughter, Monica go to college. She graduated from USC in 2012 with no student loans. I believe that the American dream is to come to a place where you open up new opportunities, not just for yourself but for your family. Today, Monica has a successful career in real estate. Had it not been for the road that was paid by my parents, by all of our families that came before us. I would never have gotten the opportunity to go to college. One and Helen are getting close to retirement age as Helen brewed coffee. The other morning, Monica took mugs out of the cupboard on each mug are the words Rancho Rivera. They also have custom plates with a mascot of sorts that caricature the guy sitting under a cactus. Him guys supposed to represent the drunk so this not like a real favorite thing of mine, but Helen sees something else, a tired worker rusty from working that Gavin fields from working and you know the fields period, but working, working hard, which is what the Rivera say is ultimately the key to their success.

Speaker 1: 04:24 Joining me is KPCC reporter Leslie Bera, Stein Rojas, and Leslie, welcome to the program. Thanks. Now you say that the presence of middle-class or Well-to-do Latinos contrasts with the myths about Latino Americans. What are some of the stereotypes that are fading as the Latino Poverty Rate Falls?

Speaker 3: 04:43 Well, you need to go much further than the rhetoric about immigrants from Latin America becoming, you know, public charges using up government resources, right? Or, or not wanting to assimilate as with other groups of immigrants in the past. There's long been this myth that immigrant families from Latin America who may come here with very little aren't going to evolve and thrive over time, but many do anyway. Just as his whole public charged discussion was taking place earlier this year, the Census Bureau reported the Latino poverty rate in the u s has fallen to its lowest recorded level ever and I thought, okay, you know, this is something worth exploring. We know there's Latino middle class, it's been documented, it's been reported, but we forget some times now. In the end, the economic truth falls somewhere in the middle. You have some real success stories like the Rivera family that I profiled. You have Latino middle class in the state that for many years has been contributing to the economy here in southern California. You have affluent Latinos who've totally reshaped suburbs like Downey and Whittier, but you also have families that struggle every day, especially in this state where the cost of living in housing in particular is so high.

Speaker 1: 05:43 No. Mr. Rivera, who you profiled in this story actually talks about some of the false assumptions people make about him and his wealth.

Speaker 3: 05:51 Oh yes. So one day one is there with his crew, right working on the house and he and his wife designed and they were building a few years ago and a neighbor comes up and asks him where the owner is. So he turns around, takes off his hat, then he turns back around to face the guy and says, hi, I'm one. Um, which was pretty funny, but this gets to them. But one that really gets to them as before this, they lived in a bigger house with stables in La Mirada, in a pretty swanky neighborhood. And Helen told me there was this rumor that got back to her that some of the neighbors were gossiping about them and the gossip was that here was this well to do Mexican American couple with your horses and their Mercedes. And the assumption was like, well maybe their drug lords and that really hurt as Helen put it, people just assume that you know, we can't have anything. They we're just supposed to be poor as she was especially taken aback because they each work 50 to 60 hours a week for what they have. What do statistics

Speaker 1: 06:39 tell us about the economic fortunes of Latino households?

Speaker 3: 06:43 Well, the big picture is that census data shows a declining Latino poverty rate and this is combined with a growing median income for Latinos. It's nationwide as well as in California. But while there had been gains like these, they're still a long way to go. In California at the poverty rate among Latinos is still 17% it used to be much higher. It's dropped significantly, but that's still 17% of Latinos in the state below the poverty line. So there really are haves and have nots. And while the median income is going up, it's not enough to get you much in California just this week. In fact, USC put out a new report on that dinos and money specific to California. It shows that the median income for Latino households in the state is about 56,000 right now, which is higher than it used to be, but it's still lower than for most groups. With the exception of African American households. According to this same report, a little under 40% of Latino households in California, about 38% fall into what's considered the middle income bracket, which is better than nothing, but other groups do better. There are more non that you know, whites who fall into the middle income bracket, for example, that's for the wealthy, you know, people earning upwards of 158,000 a year. Well only 7% of the state's Latinos have gotten there so far, which is lower than other groups. There's still a lot of progress to be made, which takes

Speaker 1: 07:52 access to how the Rivera's built their wealth. They invested in real estate and that was the key for them. What other avenues have Latino families taken to will prosper?

Speaker 3: 08:01 Well, you mentioned the Riveras having made their money in real estate, but much of what they invested actually came from one's welding repair business. They'd save up and invest the profits in real estate. Now that part's getting much harder to do these days, but Latino entrepreneurship continues to climb. The U S Hispanic Chamber of Commerce report steady growth among the number of Latino owned businesses and according to USC, close to a quarter of California's businesses are Latino owned. Most tend to be smaller businesses including family businesses, but they're there and while they're still an educational achievement gap, there's been a very big jump in Latino students enrolling in college. The challenge is getting more of them to graduate. Things can get in the way like family financial obligations or the fact that the educational system doesn't necessarily set these students up to succeed, but those who do complete a four year degree earn better than those who don't. But yeah, back to how the Rivera's invested in real estate. That used to be one of the most solid ways immigrant families could build wealth buying property. That's still an avenue in other states where you see much higher rates of Latino home ownership, but data shows that Latinos in California have a lower rate of home ownership than in states like say Texas or Arizona. And it has to do with affordability. So that's one avenue that's becoming much narrower here.

Speaker 1: 09:11 Alyssa, can you give us a preview of your second report? Part two, we're going to be playing it tomorrow. What did you find out about why many Latino families are still in poverty?

Speaker 3: 09:20 So the second story explores the obstacles that Latino families in California face today. The opportunities that families like the Riveras had decades ago. Back when one's parents bought a triplex with a $3,000 down payment, those days are gone. People in California are so rent burden now and not just Latinos, but everyone that the idea of buying is out of reach. They just can't save. And it's not for lack of trying. One woman I met at a food bank in Downey where you'll hear part of the story came from a two income household. She's a US citizen, the second generation child of immigrants, and while neither she nor her husband have college degrees, they both work and yet they can barely cover their rent. Other challenges are unsteady work hours. What experts call income volatility. This disproportionately affects lower wage workers of color, access to banking and credit.

Speaker 3: 10:07 That's a big problem. While this is improving, many Latinos remain unbanked or underbanked, especially the first generation. I mean the FTC says 14% of Latinos were not using banking services in 2017 this keeps people from building credit expert say issues like these must be addressed if we want to see more immigrant families succeed and it's for the second generation. Here's when you may not think of filial duty. Say you're the first one to go to college and get a good job. If your parents or siblings need financial help, you're not going to say no and that eats into your own finances. And of course the big obstacle that we haven't mentioned. Legal status. Who One told me this funny story about how his father crossed the border from Mexico, hiding in a washtub. Literally, neither of his parents had legal status at first, but they were eventually able to legalize. And this makes a huge difference in a family's potential earnings. Now, the population of immigrants without legal status in the u s has dropped significantly in the past decade. But for those who don't have it these days, getting legal status, even getting citizenship lately, it's becoming harder to do so. The second story explores these challenges and whether there's still hope for those who are trying to crack that into the class ceiling.

Speaker 1: 11:14 I've been speaking with KPCC reporter Leslie Berenstein, Rowhouse reporting for the California dream collaboration. And Leslie, thank you very much. Thank you.

Speaker 4: 11:26 [inaudible].

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