Even Mr. Romney is pledging to allow undocumented kids to join the military. It has become all too evident to both left and right that there is nothing to be gained by having 11 million residents who have no place in the economy.
“So many people are just waiting to see what will happen,” says Katia Portillo-Vali, who came from El Salvador as a teenager. Because she came before 1990, when the laws changed, she was one of the lucky ones who got citizenship. And the difference is vivid: She runs an art gallery and a successful translation business that subtitles major TV series such as HBO’s Boardwalk Empire ; she plans to buy a house and attend graduate school.
There is a sense, throughout the Spanish-speaking segment of California, of a huge well of human potential and creativity pent up, waiting for a legal outlet.
“This is the inner city,” says Paul Guidry, leaning over the parapet of his six-storey office building in Crenshaw, the South Central Los Angeles district that was devastated in the 1992 race riots and, over the past 20 years, was repaired but hardly rejuvenated.
The walls of his building, which dominates the landscape, are absolutely encrusted in images of Barack Obama (a rare sight in a state where neither party is spending any ad money).
Twelve years ago, we came to Crenshaw to listen to a nearly voiceless Bill Clinton croak to ecstatic crowds on behalf of Al Gore’s presidential bid. People waited for hours in the noonday glare to hear him speak, and forgave him when he could only whisper.
It was Clintonland then; it’s Obamaland now – neighbourhoods like South L.A. and Harlem improved sharply under both Democratic presidents, as has the economic status of black Americans in general. Still, a big racial gap remains: The average household income in Crenshaw is $37,000, compared with $60,000 for California as a whole. Only 6 per cent of businesses here are owned by African Americans, though they make up almost 80 per cent of the population.
If you ask Dr. Guidry – a doctor, landlord, restaurateur, activist, fundraiser and self-identified honorary “semi-mayor” of Crenshaw – the Republican Party is hardly a friend to the people of the ’hood. He is a general practitioner and weight-loss expert (welcome to L.A.!), and the President’s health-care reforms are close to his heart.
“I find it very sad when the elderly, and pregnant ladies, can’t afford their medicine,” he says. “Civilized people have health care.”
When he strolls across the rooftop putting green and bar and scans the horizon, Dr. Guidry sees a landscape of haves and have-nots: the mansions of the Hollywood Hills in the distance, the No-Limit Bail Bonds much closer by. For him, it’s the country in microcosm – two disparate nations drifting further apart.
When the space shuttle Endeavor was towed down past the building in September, it was the biggest thing this place had seen since the riots, and seemed to portend a more hopeful linking of those extremes.
Dr. Guidry dreams of a Crenshaw stop on the forthcoming L.A. subway extension (it’s not in the plans, though he is lobbying hard), decorated with the towering figures of African-American history: Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X. If it were up to Dr. Guidry, it would be called Obama Station.
This is, so far, a pipe dream, the kind of happy ending that a studio boss would have once tacked onto the end of a rags-to-riches movie. Dr. Guidry has sent his receptionist and all his friends out campaigning for Mr. Obama, but he knows that even in this neck of the woods, the President does not inspire the same fervour he did four years ago.
Still, he has as much confidence in his candidate as he does in his neighbourhood. “We’ll regenerate,” he says. “We’ll come back.”
Hope may not be as big a word as it was in 2008. But in even the poorest corners of this sharply divided state, it’s still what keeps people going.