Beneath the palm trees that line Huntington Drive, named for the railroad magnate who founded this Southern California city, hang signs to honor families who have helped sponsor the centennial celebration here this year. There are names like Dryden, Crowley and Telleen, families that have lived here for generations. However, there are newer names as well: Sun, Koo and Shi.
A generation ago, whites made up roughly two-thirds of the population in this rarefied Los Angeles suburb, where most of the homes are worth well over US$1 million. However, Asians now make up over half of the population in San Marino, which has long attracted some of the region’s wealthiest families and was once home to the western headquarters of the John Birch Society.
The transformation illustrates a drastic shift in California’s immigration trends over the last decade, one that can easily be seen all over the area: More than twice as many immigrants to the nation’s most populous state now come from Asia than from Latin America.
And the change here is just one example of the ways immigration is remaking the US, with the political, economic and cultural ramifications playing out in a variety of ways. The number of Latinos has more than doubled in many southern states, including Alabama, Georgia and North Carolina, creating new tensions. Asian populations are booming in New Jersey and Latino immigrants are reviving small towns in the midwest.
Much of the current immigration debate in the US Congress has focused on Hispanics, and California has for decades been viewed as the focal point of that migration. However, in cities in the San Gabriel Valley — as well as in Orange County and in Silicon Valley in Northern California — Asian immigrants have become a dominant cultural force in places that were once largely white or Hispanic.
“We are really looking at a different era here,” said Hans Johnson, a demographer at the Public Policy Institute of California who has studied census data. “There are astounding changes in working-class towns and old, established, wealthy cities. It is not confined to one place.”
Asians have become a majority in more than half a dozen cities in the San Gabriel Valley in the last decade, creating a region of Asian-dominated suburbs that stretches for nearly 50km east of Los Angeles. In the shopping centers, Chinese-language characters are on nearly every storefront, visible from the freeways that cut through the area.
Monterey Park, a middle-class city that began attracting Asian immigrants more than a generation ago, is still widely seen as the area’s center and retail hub. However, as Asians have continued to arrive in Southern California, they have moved into some of the most exclusive cities in Los Angeles County, making up more than 60 percent of the population in San Gabriel and Walnut, along the county’s eastern edge.
Many of the immigrants come here from China and Taiwan, where they were part of a highly educated and affluent population. They have eagerly bought property in places like San Marino, where the median income is nearly double that of Beverly Hills and is home to one of the highest-performing school districts in the state. The local library now offers story time in Mandarin.
However, the wealth is not uniform, and there are pockets of poverty in several of the area’s working-class suburbs, particularly in Vietnamese and Filipino communities.