David Carbajal Torres (he/him) was born and raised in Santa Ana, California, where he today organizes with Tenants United Santa Ana (Tú Santa Ana). Talking with the ARD, David shows how rent hikes and gentrification displace immigrant communities. He provides us with correctives to several false narratives: that gentrification improves communities, that opposing gentrifiers is akin to propounding anti-immigrant nativism, and that areas like Orange County are universally affluent and white because of their depiction in mass media. David also discussed community resistance to displacement through organizing, culture, and community ties.
Q: What is Tenants United Santa Ana?
Tenants United Santa Ana is a coalition of community members and organizations. The majority of us are residents who do this work voluntarily. Our main focus for the last three years has been winning rent control in the community. As someone passionate about the people who saw me grow in my community, this work is so important to me.
• Follow and promote Tenants United Santa Ana.
• Make a commitment to support the tenants union closer to you as an organizer, volunteer, or donor.
• If you are a middle-, professional-, or owning-class individual moving into a working-class neighborhood of color, take accountability and fight displacement alongside your neighbors.
Q: What is life like in Santa Ana today?
We think of Orange County as the beaches, the sun, majority white and affluent. But that’s not true for Santa Ana. Eight out of ten people are Latinx. We have a very big immigrant Vietnamese community that’s also being impacted by rent hikes. Our community is feeling the impacts of housing inequality. More than half the people in Santa Ana are renters, and 60% of renters pay more than 30% of their income in rent. And I’ve seen how tenants and housing issues go hand-in-hand with the gentrification that happens in my community.
Q: Why do you oppose more market-rate luxury developments?
The average income of a family here in Santa Ana is like $25,000. Our community is not living in those developments. We don’t need more housing. We need true affordable housing. Santa Ana has developments: they’re not being filled because people cannot afford to live in them.
Q: How has gentrification changed local culture?
Growing up in Santa Ana as a kid, you could walk down the Cinco de Mayo Festival and, get yourself agua de horchata, churros, find all of the cultural connections to México. It felt like you were in Tijuana.
And then the Cinco de Mayo Festival got canceled. Decades of traditions for Latinos here in our community were eliminated simply because gentrifying businesses were like, “We’re not making any money when these festivals are happening.” So they pushed City Council to cancel these festivals.
A lot of the art that’s happening downtown, it’s out-of-state artists. There are so many talented local queer, Latinx, Brown people who could be taking advantage of these opportunities, but gentrifiers bring artists from other states. Our local artists are not being appreciated, and just the very fabric of our community is under attack, who we are and our identity as a community.
Q: What role do police play?
Santa Ana is one of the deadliest police departments in the country, and that goes hand-in-hand with gentrification. If you walk through downtown Santa Ana, there are bright blue posts that light up at night, and with a single touch of a button, you can call the police department if you feel threatened. If a gentrifier feels threatened by a Brown person down the street, all they have to do is push a button, and the police arrive in seconds.
Gentrifiers are the eyes and ears of the police state. They call the cops on us. They consider us a nuisance because of who we are.
Q: Are there pros as well as cons to gentrification? What about the other side?
I don’t think there are two sides. Our community doesn’t need another brewery. We need more community health centers and libraries. Our youth need more arts and recreation programs. Our community needs literally anything but luxury development, everything but police.
Q: What draws immigrant communities to U.S. cities like Santa Ana?
The U.S. is responsible for the destabilization of other countries around the world. It’s why so many people are migrating to the U.S. Santa Ana is overwhelmingly Mexican, but there are lots of people from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras—we know the issues they have in their countries [because of U.S. destabilization]. They’re not coming because they want to but because they’re being forced to migrate to Santa Ana. We’ve lived through the colonial project for 525 years. Gentrification is colonialism. It’s part of a system that wants to see us poor, that doesn’t want to see us thrive.
Q: What does resistance to gentrification look like in art, culture, and everyday life?
When I see people bumping corridos (YouTube) down Flower Street, that, to me, is a way of fighting our oppression. Our existence as residents of Santa Ana is already political. Every day, we meet señoras when we’re canvassing, we start talking about rent control, and then in a few minutes, we’re talking shit on cops. Our community knows. They don’t have the academic language for it, but they know: these are the conditions we’re in, and they’re not right. That they could live in a world where that doesn’t exist. And that’s what keeps us going, knowing that our people know, that our señoras know, and they’re the backbone of our community.
• The whitening of Santa Ana displaces immigrant culture and communities—many of which were already uprooted by U.S. policies.
• Gentrification is connected to state violence. Newer, affluent residents are more likely to call the police on people of color.
• Oppressed communities need accessible housing and community institutions, not breweries and condos targeted at those who will replace them.
*This piece was originally published on 11/3/21. It was updated by The ARD on 7/24/23.