A case of low-class Mexican signalling at the SWPL cafe.

Earlier, at the cafe.

A real cafe. Not a chain, mind you. In Monterey Park, a Los Angeles suburb populated largely by Chinese.

At this cafe, they take their coffee seriously. They are craftsmen, which frankly can’t be said of many of the employees and stores making up the nexus of coffee-doling chains scattered throughout this commercial Western sprawl we call the “service industry.” This is a cafe where you order a cortado with nary a raised or furrowed eyebrow from the barista.

As with all such establishments practicing the serious art of coffee, the clientele tends toward that certain “upper crust” of customer that leans toward the SWPL side of the aisle. This cafe is owned and frequented by well-educated and upper-class Chinese people, and it’s not infrequent that young Chinese women who visit are accompanied by Anglo and Jewish gentlemen.

The concept of “SWPL” is obviously constructed around the social phenomena predominant among White people, but in Los Angeles (and I’m sure other major cities as well), it can also apply to Asians who have taken the SWPL torch and have striven boldly toward the racial finish line. The customers of this cafe are that class of educated, SWPL folks, White and Asian alike, with the occasional brown interloper like myself, but frankly, I tend to assume many SWPL affectations, so I don’t particularly stand out in my manner or dress.

Now just west of this suburb is East Los Angeles. And specifically, the neighborhood just west of here contains a series of low income housing strips and one large housing project. Most of the residents there, just west of the Chinese exurb, are Mexican-Americans. I specifically note “Mexican-American” for most of them are 1st or 2nd generation Mexicans who lack the charms and humility of native Mexicans while simultaneously lacking the manners and civilized bearing of White and Asian Americans. It’s as if, hampered by the lack of a geographical base with which to house their legacy and roots, they have transformed into a hybridized, trashy brand of American that benefits no one and drains the quality of life for the rest.

The proximity of both sociocultural spheres matters not for the worlds rarely intersect. The Mexicans stay on their “side” of the tracks while the Chinese do the same. Each respective niche only contains that which dilettantes of that side consume and enjoy. There is little cross-contamination going on here!

Earlier, I suspect I witnessed a rare moment of this cross contamination when a Mexican couple strolled into the cafe for whatever reason. Maybe they felt that fleeting urge to shun Starbucks for exotic Joe-lands unknown. But in they walked. The fellow, short-cropped hair, looking so Mejicano, wearing a basketball tank-top jersey, denim shorts and white sneakers. The woman wore very tight shorts and a slender blouse. She was not totally unpleasing to the eye despite her advanced years. The temperature is supposed to soar into the 100s for the next few days, so shorts and t-shirts are not unheard of, but the style of clothes they wore were not SWPL-smart. As my son joked later, they could have just as easily gone to 7-11 for their coffee fix and would have blended in better. They were tatted up as well, egregiously so, way more than the typical restrained-ink display an SWPL might wear on the top of a foot or side of the shoulder. The cross contamination was obvious for anyone who paid attention, and of course, I was. My social radar is always on and I note every little sound and image.

Around this time, a youngish Chinese woman, not bad-looking, in loose, smart shorts, walked in with an Anglo, maybe Jewish, guy who was about a decade older than she. They sat to our left and began chatting after they ordered their coffee. They were talking about school, degrees, the stuff of our society’s finer citizenry. Just then, the ghetto couple was paying for their coffee at the cash counter, to our immediate right. I overheard the Chinese girl say to the man, quietly, but not quietly enough, “See those two people to our left…they are not dressed right.” The guy didn’t say much and she reiterated, “You know which ones I’m talking about, right?” she could have been talking about my son and I, but being that we were wearing innocuous t-shirts (and we were seated), I knew what she was talking “about.”

She was thinly insinuating that class-based racial signalling that we all know exists without having to utter it. Maybe in a less public situation, she would have told her companion what she saw, but in less ambiguous terms.