Salsa Slight Shows City's Fractured Relations

A Los Angeles resident witnessed an incident at a South Central deli last week. He says it's a microcosm of the tensions that African-Americans and Latinos are facing in Los Angeles.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

Politics is far from the only divide in America today - race is another.

The black/brown divide is something commentator and writer Daniel Hernandez sees everyday.

DANIEL HERNANDEZ: Last week, I was at a Mexican deli in South Central L.A. I was standing behind an African American man picking up his lunch. He was having a hard time convincing the immigrant ladies to give him extra salsa. They told him they didn't have any, but he pointed right at it as it was being prepared. The women chatted in Spanish and decided that no, he could not have some.

The man, dressed in a shirt and tie, turned to me and said, with humiliation simmering in his voice, you're supposed to take care of your customers. He grabbed his food and walked out just as the woman greeted me with a smile and some friendly Spanish. And that's when the guilt set in.

As I ordered, I realized I should have leaned in and said to the lady, Señora, (Speaking in foreign language), give the man the better salsa. I should have been the bridge.

Lately in L.A., every interaction between blacks and Latinos, however minor, is pumped with symbolism. We pat ourselves on the back when the interactions are good and privately fret when they are not. Person to person, we say people get along just fine. But having to say so is itself a sign of trouble.

Recent racial gang violence is making matters worse, but the subtext is nothing new. As Latinos move to the center of power in L.A., our secret fear is that we're getting dangerously close to replacing whites as the new faceless black oppressor. Everyone is hoping this never becomes the case.

People like me, assimilated Mexicans and Central Americans, feel especially responsible to counter this however we can. So we make sure to be polite and warm with African Americans, while not being too dorky or condescending.

These efforts sometimes fail. I see assimilated L.A. Latinos trumpeting their I'm down with black people cred on blogs and social networking sites. I often hear Latino public figures refer to their black counterparts or allies with weirdly minimizing language like my favorite person in the world.

I know where this impulse comes from. Unlike new immigrants, U.S.-born Mexican Americans and Central Americans have shared the same neighborhoods with blacks and Asians for generations. We were taught early on to believe that Martin Luther King, Jr. was just as much a leader for Mexicans as for African Americans.

Meanwhile, people working to make things better in civil rights causes, universities and media have not adapted to the new realities. For many, there are only black issues and Latino issues, and apparently these exist in vacuums. We're too afraid to address our shared struggles, our shared blackness and brownness. We're too afraid to combat racial prejudice among immigrants.

In the middle, people like me have been silent. The killings continue, and the salsa goes unshared in Mexican delis all over the hood.

NORRIS: Commentator Daniel Hernandez writes for L.A. Weekly.

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