LOS ANGELES (AP) — Corn roasting on sidewalk grills. Latin music blasting from shops. Colorful signs touting tongue-twisting names like Atitlán and Quetzaltenango. The central Los Angeles neighborhood could almost be plucked right out of Guatemala City. Long ago a well-heeled area of Los Angeles, the Westlake district surrounding MacArthur Park has in more recent decades become a densely packed enclave of Central American immigrants fleeing brutal civil wars and grinding poverty in their home countries.
Last week, the bustling community turned into a hotbed of unrest after a police officer shot and killed Manuel Jaminez, a 37-year-old Guatemalan day laborer, who allegedly lunged at him with a knife. The shooting last Sunday set off three days of protests by people who felt that the shooting was an unfair and unnecessary use of police force.
The demonstrations surprised officials, who blamed outsiders for stirring up trouble. A visit to the neighborhood of grimy tenements with curlicued cornices and portals that belie a more elegant past discloses a social tapestry fraying from increasingly hardscrabble living and widespread frustration.
“Life is very hard here,” said Ricardo Fernández, a retired Nicaraguan truck driver. “I tell people not to come, it’s not as good as before. But people still come.”
The neighborhood has long been a first stop for new arrivals who have made the risky journey to “el Norte.” More than two-thirds of residents are foreign-born, almost three-quarters are Hispanic, and almost half live in poverty.
Drawn to a neighborhood with flavors of home, about 118,000 residents jam the area’s 2.7 square miles, making it one of the most crowded districts in Los Angeles.
Here, they find comfort foods like tamales, fake Social Security cards and driver’s licenses, and cheap lodging in shared bedrooms and living rooms.
But they often find that it fails to live up to the stories told by friends and relatives who are eager to appear as big shots with their success in the United States.
Jobs are few, rents are high, and unfamiliar laws are stringently enforced. Crime is also high, with much of it related to the neighborhood’s homegrown Mara Salvatrucha or MS-13, a gang formed by Salvadoran immigrants in the 1980s that has become one of the most vicious in the nation.
Particularly vulnerable are campesinos, subsistence farmers from the indigenous communities of rural Mexico and Guatemala who are often far less prepared to cope than other immigrants.
Many have only a few years of formal schooling and may barely be able to read and write. Some speak little Spanish, having grown up in isolated areas where native indigenous languages are mainly spoken.
Mr. Jaminez was a Quiche, one of Guatemala’s largest indigenous groups, and barely spoke Spanish.
“They’re the ones I see coming now,” said Carolina Sosa, a Guatemalan pastor. “They’re not poor, they’re destitute. Before it was the lower middle class fleeing the guerrillas. Now, they’re coming because they don’t have food.”
To eke out a living, many have taken to peddling things like bootleg DVDs and bacon-wrapped sausages, turning the sidewalks into a chaotic flea market on evenings and weekends.
“There are a lot more people in the street selling,” said Andres Morales, a Cuban retiree. “It gets so you can’t walk on the sidewalk, but they have nothing else.”
In Latin American countries, street peddling is a ubiquitous and time-honored way of getting by when jobs are few and government assistance is scarce. Immigrants have a hard time understanding why it is illegal here, and they resent crackdowns by the police, who give out $250 tickets.
“I’m making an honest living, but the police come and ticket us,” said José Venegas, a Mexican ice cream seller who makes $12 to $15 a day. “I have two appointments in court for two tickets. I don’t know what I’m going to do. I don’t have the money to pay the fines. I’m going to go to jail.”
The stress of trying to make ends meet plus social and emotional isolation leads some to seek refuge in alcohol. Mr. Jaminez had been drinking when he allegedly menaced two women and then police officers with a knife.
Residents said public drinking was out of control.
Despite the hardships, most immigrants do not want to go home. Tomas Gómez, Mr. Jaminez’s brother-in-law, said that although day laborer jobs had dried up considerably and Mr. Jaminez pined for his wife and three young sons, he did not want to go back to Guatemala.
Here, at least, there was a chance to make a living, Mr. Gómez said. Back home, “he didn’t have money to eat.”