5 – No easy answers – ¡Varrio si, industrialists no!

By Adán Almeida

Its no secret that the character of San Diego has changed drastically in the last 10 years, and even the last 5. While there are so many factors for these urban transformations, there is one entity that I wish more people would think more critically about actively resisting. That is the constant influx of military personnel being stationed here and their expanding industrial installations around our low-income communities of color. The defense industry is growing, and it is almost effortless how easily these military contractors are transmuted into our communities, taking up our housing, transforming the economy and polluting the environment above all else. There is more to be done about how the military industry contributes to the city’s biggest social issues like gentrification, poverty and environmental racism. 

Many brown community members and organizers are vocal yet vague about how we can reclaim the varrios — through radical praxis. And otherwise, the pipeline from artist to business owner is too well known [see gente-fication] which surprisingly enough does little to support causes around poverty, policing, disease and displacement. 

Mayor Todd Gloria advocates for equality among us in a color-blind and classist way promoting equality for all our residents without addressing some very clear contradictions. For example, Gloria considers himself a friend of the Barrio Logan community while continuing to applaud the defense industry for whatever it is that they do here. In his own words he suggests that “the military community is intrinsic to the fabric of San Diego”, with an attitude of acceptance and normalization about its industrial encroachment. My question is then how can someone be an advocate for communities like Barrio Logan without addressing the realities of the growing military industry for local residents? Like what the Bay Area experiences in the face of a booming tech industry, the defense industry in San Diego is immune to much-needed regulations and limits of power as well.

The harbors that should belong to our communities in Central San Diego are well occupied and polluted by the defense industry. According to a SDMAC Impact Study; 60% of total US Navy fleets are in San Diego in areas that could have once been cultivated as small brown bayside communities in Barrio Logan and West National City. For generations, distinct neighborhoods in this area, comprised of mostly Latinx and linguistically isolated people, have encountered some of the worst effects of displacement and environmental racism in San Diego. Shipyards are stationed only blocks away from homes and schools, contributing to pollution in the air, water, soil and people’s bodies for decades. Among other things, residents in Barrio Logan experience asthma at twice the rate than the national average, according to the Environmental Health Coalition (EHC). EHC is one organization calling attention to specific instances of health and pollution disparities in low-income communities of color in central San Diego. 

While it would be hard to kick these long implemented naval installations out of our backyards, EHC does well at promoting practical solutions for social equity and public health in the region. Their most recent initiative seeks to minimize and ultimately eliminate diesel truck traffic in the residential neighborhoods of portside Logan. EHC has also been involved in getting residents to speak up on issues of discriminatory housing in the area. As newcomers are constantly making space for themselves in our neighborhoods, EHC has made some ongoing efforts with community members to defend accessible housing for long-standing residents and residents with the most need.

The issue of displacement is happening on many fronts in San Diego, the growing military presence is one, along with its huge industrial imprint. Then there is the subtly growing trend of gente-fication and branding of Chicano culture in our hoods too. Slowly our varrios are turning into shopping districts and cultural attractions in place of self-sustained neighborhoods of color. Barrio Logan is the epitome of this phenomenon, where property is constantly being passed through entrepreneurs to be reconstructed and refurbished for mainstream consumers. Regardless of what Latinx business owners believe about creating representation, they are giving into mass commercialization of Chicano history and Mexican American identity without noticing how they too are participating in class insulation and displacement of the surrounding poor. 

By romanticizing the culture, many outsiders have come closer in proximity to our varrios. Subsequently the new food, beer and clothing shops that pop up each year are not created to serve the needs of the surrounding community in any capacity. Through a critical lens, it’s obvious that there is a need for sites of change in our communities. There are youth and families of color that continue to be visibly impacted and traumatized by poverty, health problems, and street violence in this area; yet their struggles only ever seem to be tokenized and memorialized instead of actively tended to. Without class solidarity, racial solidarity is empty, and this is what a lot of people fail to understand. 

I could suggest many alternatives for investing in the urban public space, like creating free and diverse public health clinics, adult educational spaces, resource centers, and overnight shelters for homeless youth. And in place of all the liquor stores, there is the possibility of funding local community gardens, farmers markets and public food pantries. Less ongoing commercial development is needed to offset the pollution and heavy energy-use happening at the navy bases and shipyard. This includes the need for parks, urban trails and open green spaces for people and wildlife to thrive in. In an ideal situation, this is what our neighborhoods could be transformed into, if enough people believed it was necessary including the local gente themselves. 

Despite all the attention that surrounds the cultural narrative in central San Diego, there is little being done to defend and empower the generations of immigrant and working-class people against industrial and commercial oppression. My discomfort lies with how many of our people continue to be trapped in cycles of poverty and exploitation while waves of military personnel and upper middle-class transplants comfortably call San Diego home.

It is well worth problematizing the military-industrial complex in our urban space and resisting the nationalist fraternity that continues to make space for itself here easily. As for the entrepreneurs who claim to be Brown and down, they should begin by examining their own capitalist tendencies and recognize how their‘progressive’ and culturally inclusive businesses are still complicit in our oppression. 

*Praxis- putting theory into practice, or in this case, creating embodied resistance based on historical narratives and relevant tactics

*Varrio- another word for barrio, slang for vencidario (neighborhood) of predominantly latinx , low-income people in an urban context 

*Gente-fication – gentrification by ‘la gente’ Spanish word for ‘the people’. Upwardly mobile latinx people that commodify their culture and community through business owning. This phenomenon is openly supported by capitalists that seek cultural representation.