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The New Ellis Islands

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LOS ANGELES: Los Angeles has always been a city of transplants, but now it has become a city of immigrants. You can see them at the border check-point, Mexicans and Guatemalans and Salvadorans, streaming north. And you can see them at Los Angeles's airport, jumbo jets filled with Filipinos, Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese, and Koreans, carrying a few personal possessions and a lifetime of dreams. Over the past decade, Los Angeles has become "the new Ellis Island." Last year alone over 76,000 hopeful newcomers entered through the city, as well as some 25,000 who came legally across the Mexican border. The number who came across illegally is, well, anybody's guess.

One reason for L.S.'s popularity is its availability of entry-level manufacturing jobs -- more dollars are generated by manufacturing there, in fact, than in any other city in the country, including New York. The newly arrived are also participating in the city's start-up boom. Between 1978 and 1983 some 35,000 new small companies opened their doors in the Los Angeles area. That's 11% more than the number of new businesses started over the same period in New York.

Walking around Los Angeles, you can get a sense of what New York must have been like a century ago. Visit a meeting of the Mexican-American Grocers Association, for example, now 860 members strong, up from only 260 four years ago. Or walk through the streets of Koreatown, home to almost 40% of the 7,000 Korean-owned businesses in Los Angeles County. Or drive out to Monterey Park, the once declining suburb that now boasts upscale shopping malls that cater to the city's Chinese bourgeoisie.

The economic consequences of all this immigration are not lost on the city's financial establishment. First Interstate Bank of California, for example, long a bastion of the Anglo power elite, opened its first branch in Koreatown six year ago. "It's not social responsibility -- this is a great base of future business for us," explains John Popovich, director of public affairs. "Five or six years ago we were adjusting to no growth. But immigration has changed everything. New arrivals here are astounded by the opportunities; they look at the opportunities here with fresh eyes. To ignore that emerging ethnic market, whether consumer or entrepreneurial, is to fly in the face of data and the future of this town. Anyone who ignores it does so at his own peril."

But capturing the immigrant's business is not as easy as simply opening a branch, admits John Chan Lee, First Interstate's Koreatown manager. With half a dozen Korean-owned or -dominated banks now doing business in the community, competition is vigorous. "The Koreans here are very aggressive-type people," Lee says.

MIAMI: The dishes on the menu in the chic restaurants of the Miami neighborhood of Coral Gables are Cuban. Billboards are in Spanish. Listening to the conversations in the yacht basins of Biscayne Bay, it would be easy to feel that you had landed in an implausibly rich version of a South American capital city.

In a sense, you have. What began as a sleepy resort town on the edge of The Everglades has been transformed over the past two decades into what Jaime Roldos Aguilera, the late president of Ecuador, called "the capital of Latin America." The banking capital, certainly. The drug capital, unfortunately. But also the place to which Latin Americans, rich and poor, want to immigrate.

Largely because of the influx, Florida's economy is exploding. Service and tourism are the mainstays, but manufacturing is making a determined push, with employment up about 70% in the past 20 years. Jobs, population, per capita income, business start-ups -- by all these indicators, the state's growth is outpacing the nation. And Miami is at the center of it.

Some of the credit for starting this capitalist success story should go to the hemisphere's leading communist, Fidel Castro. Since he took power in 1959, an estimated 800,000 Cubans have settled in Dade County, transforming the city and paving the way for refugees from Haiti and Nicaragua. Between 1960 and 1980, the average income of a refugee family of four rose 900%, from an estimated $2,229 to $22,356. And from Little Havana on the city's west side, they have spread out to the suburbs, and into City Hall, where Mayor Xavier Suarez presides and where the majority of the city commission is as comfortable debating in Spanish as English.

As a group, Miami's Hispanics claim the highest per capita income of Hispanics anywhere in the country. Their newspaper, Diaro Las Americas, is the second largest in the city, and they control 40% of the city's banks. As business executives, they run more of the nation's largest Hispanic-owned businesses (Bacardi, Recarey Enterprises) than any other Hispanic community in the country -- including New York's which is twice the size.

By most accounts, the saga of Miami's transformation into the city of the twenty-first century is just beginning, as 50,000 Haitian refugees are absorbed into the city's economy. "In 10 years, you'll see people eating Haitian food over in Coral Gables," predicts Tony Villamil, a Cuban refugee who is now a senior vice-president and chief economist at Southeast Bank. "These who risk their lives in boats are your more entrepreneurial, driven type of people. They are making their impact felt, just like the Cubans did."

Last updated: Jul 1, 1986




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