A Toast to Santa Ana

Large yet intimate. Chaotic yet comfortable. The city of Santa Ana does not mold to the Southern Californian stereotype. It is not overrun with bronze-skinned surfers or hippies with stoner-mobiles covered in peace signs and quotes about love. Rather, it is stretched between two extremes of culture and social status. On one hand, la ciudad de Santa Ana struggles to combat gang violence. The shrill shriek of gunshots tearing through the air is a common sound. Houses with cardboard windows whose roof tiles dangle precariously dominate every neighborhood on this side of the city. A dented 1998 Toyota Corolla leans tiredly against the curb, its windows shattered by a thief in the neighborhood.

Against this despondent background, however, there is an artist’s palette of cultures, languages, and identities. As I walk down First Street, the clicks and rolls of people’s tongues reveal a hodgepodge of unfamiliar language: Hmong, Khmer, Spanish, Vietnamese, slightly fractured English, and the occasional slip of Polish or Romanian. As I turn the corner to Newhope Street, I can taste the richness of the tortas ahogadas, tamales de pollo, and carnitas tacos steaming from wrinkly, pale corn husks and crinkly sheets of aluminum foil inside the vendors’ carts. My taste buds tingle as I hear the sizzle of savory meats on the grill and catch the aroma of ground spices as they are layered on in just the right amounts. The tight-knit community of Santa Ana has recently seen small businesses topple and steady waves of immigrants add flavor and perspective to a place that had historically been a bastion of conservatism.

Just in the past ten years, the Ronald Reagan building, the American Barbershop, and the RAGS International News Stand—all enduring symbols of “Old Santa Ana”—have become wedged in between the up-and-comers of “New Santa Ana”: The Alta Baja Market, Portola Coffee, and the Artists Village for contemporary art, to mention just a few. The names of these businesses reflect a dynamic demographic and large changes that are squeezing buildings into every inch of available space—changes that are clustering different ethnic groups together in hopes of seeing them coexist peacefully. It’s a radical development not unique to la ciudad de Santa Ana. Rather, it’s a development that’s gaining steam across our nation today.

If you trace your finger just a few miles north on a Santa Ana road map, you will find yourself transported from la ciudad to the “Foothill bubble.” The cracks in the asphalt disappear. Freshly repainted roads lead to the Hills, where the wealthy urban professionals of Orange County ultimately settle. Some dream of living in the Hills someday, where Friday afternoons look like a round of golf at the Tustin Ranch Golf Course or a tennis match at the Tustin Hills Racquet Club, followed by a round of champagne. It seems like a flawless existence. But what those outside this bubble of affluence don’t always see is that these perfect homes with waxy palm trees and tennis courts overlooking the city can be on the verge of collapse. Inside, people are looking for a way out of this lifestyle, where maintaining an air of class and grace is a stifling requirement.

I belong to neither of these communities, yet I understand them both. I grew up in the place everyone forgets exists in Santa Ana, a place stuck between the city’s two more recognizable faces. The houses in this small area are cookie-cutter, plucked from the Dunphys’ neighborhood in Modern Family. White picket fences, family station wagons, and sycamore trees invite newcomers from across the city into our comfortable section of town. It is here, in the middle grounds, where I can examine the whole city and see its veins running through concrete, cars, and California palm trees in all directions. Here, I see the diverse perspectives that coalesce to shape Santa Ana’s unique culture.

Now, shipped to the opposite coast, with its erratic weather and its people who think all Southern Californians live in Los Angeles, I’ll close my eyes after a lackluster lecture and imagine the smells and sights that first taught me open-mindedness. As someone who attended high school on the wealthier side of Santa Ana, I navigated the storm of loneliness with many of my friends from the Hills. They taught me that privilege can be damaging and debilitating, and that sometimes what they want most is just to be able to breathe. From my friends on the other side of Santa Ana, I learned that happiness can lie in some of the smaller things in life, like sitting together with family around the dinner table on Friday night and letting a warm meal dissipate the dullness of the day’s events.

At times, though, I haven’t been able to straddle these two greatly different worlds. It is on these occasions that I felt liberated by the tiny suburban bubble around which I’ve ridden my scooter and jogged thousands of times. There is Chris across the street, a tad to the left, and his wife. Jaime is directly across from me, amiably waving as he steps into his 1992 Lexus LS. I bet he chuckles to himself every time he sees me, having witnessed me run into a curb on my first time driving. To the right of him, Linda waves “hello,” and I briskly walk to my car to avoid hearing her rant about the cars that were parked “unrightfully” along her side of the street.

I make the two-block trek to Linwood street, where the jacaranda trees will captivate me with their unparalleled elegance. I’ll watch for hours as their silky lavender blossoms fall victim to the pressures of gravity and waltz gracefully to the ground. If I’m lucky, a breeze will pluck a row of jacaranda blossoms off their branch and toss them into the air so that I’m caught in a purple flurry as they cascade downwards. If I walk just a few blocks over, I’ll find myself at 17th Street, always inundated with cars of all makes and models. These cars pass by the Tacos Sinaloa just directly ahead, which I often forget is there. I remember it as Busy Bee, a low-quality Chinese food take-out place with grimy floors that begged for a deep clean. Incredibly, even in this small slice of Santa Ana that identifies with neither of the more distinct sides of the city, one can find pockets of the ideal of change.

I left Santa Ana for college when the jacaranda trees were in full bloom. I left when the summer days peaked and sunlight persisted until around 7 PM. On my last car ride in my beloved silver Toyota, affectionately named Martha, I said goodbye to my city. I acknowledged its features that have withstood time as well as the sweeping transformations that have seen new groups of people gradually integrated into the Santa Ana community.

I know that when I return, I may be surprised to see what changes have taken place. But I also know that change is inevitable, and it is often for the best.

Because in a sense, Santa Ana serves as a microcosmic goal for the United States; it has what the U.S. lacks: empathy. Santa Ana not only accepts the waves of immigrants from countries ranging from Ecuador to Cambodia, but it embraces them. They are the colorful strands woven into a hundred year-old quilt that warmly wraps around all who have called la ciudad de Santa Ana their home at one point in time. People and places are constantly hustling, moving, and shifting, but they are all fueled by the warmth of the Santa Ana melting pot. In a nation jarringly torn up and in pain, this city represents a pillar of unity, a model for mending America’s split seams.


Serena enjoys binge-eating Moose Tracks ice cream, obsessing over Jane Austen on sunny SoCal beaches, and talking like a valley girl. No yeah, you’re like totally free to chill and like have a good convo with her at serena.ly@yale.edu at any time.

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