'The New Los Angeles': Immigrant Labor Benefits

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A new PBS series tracks how immigrant labor has transformed Los Angeles. Will the same hold true for the rest of the country? Karen Grigsby Bates reports on how the immigrant experience in California may be a bellwether for the nation.


Behind much of the immigration debate is anxiety, fear that a growing immigrant population could fundamentally change the country for the worse. Tonight's episode of the PBS series California and the American Dream looks at how recent immigrants have affected California and what that could mean for the rest of the country. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates has this report.


California has always drawn newcomers. Even its nickname, the Golden State, suggests a shimmering utopia that offers a fresh start or a better life. At the very beginning of the PBS documentary The New Los Angeles, mayoral candidate Antonio Villaraigosa reminds a crowd of supporters why Los Angeles has become a 21st century Ellis Island.

Mayor ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA (Los Angeles): Make no mistake about it. We come from every corner of the United States. Here. We come from every corner of the Earth. Here. We come here with our hopes and dreams, believing that if we work hard and play by the rules that our family will have a better life.

BATES: In The New Los Angeles, filmmaker Lynn Goldfarb examines how recent immigrants to Los Angeles are a potent part of the city's overall transformation from second tier to world class. Goldfarb thinks it's important that American's understand that Los Angeles' experience has implications beyond the state's borders. Immigrants may come here first, but California's often a portal to other parts of the country.

Ms. LYNN GOLDFARB (Filmmaker): When you say how can this affect Montana or Idaho or wherever, what happens in California is going to affect the rest of the nation. How we integrate immigrants into society is going to be a model or a warning.

BATES: America has come to depend upon many of these immigrants, legal and illegal, to staff many of its industries, especially in the service sector. Lynn Goldfarb believes these workers have revived the labor movement in Los Angeles. Today's LA union members typically are Hispanic janitors, hotel workers and other service industry employees. Ethnically they're different from the Anglo airline mechanics and factory workers of the 40s, 50s, and 60s who left town when those industries did. But both of these groups were in search of the same thing: a comfortable life and a decent wage.

Goldfarb's film highlights the late Miguel Contreras and his wife, Maria Elena Durazzo, both who are responsible for unionizing immigrant workers here. Both worked to make immigrants political stakeholders, regardless of their citizenship. Miguel Contreras.

Mr. MIGUEL CONTRERAS: You don't have to be citizens to help get out the vote. What matters is that they care about this country.

BATES: As Goldfarb's film shows, a multi-ethnic coalition elected the city's first Latino mayor in over 130 years. It's proved to be an easy transition for the new Los Angeles. Not everything else will be. But Goldfarb hopes that Americans will see her film on LA and become less anxious about change.

Ms. GOLDFARB: One of the very rewarding things, you know, to me is also showing the film to people that, you know, are white that may not necessarily think about these issues before, and they'll say, you know, you helped me understand the city in a different way; instead of feeling threatened by some of this, I can see that it does provide a way to look at the city differently and to see how we can all live and work together.

BATES: Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News, Los Angeles.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: The latest episode of California and the American Dream airs tonight on PBS.

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