Meiko Inaba didn’t have to go far to learn she wasn’t welcome.
When Inaba and her husband, Mitsuru “Mits” Inaba, moved to their east Riverside home in 1969, “we opened up the garage, and on the water heater someone had written ‘Japs go home,’” Meiko Inaba, now an 84-year-old widow, said. “And on the front sidewalk, it said ‘Remember Pearl Harbor.’”
Back then, the Inabas, who lived in World War II internment camps along with thousands of Japanese Americans, didn’t have many neighbors who looked like them.
That’s not the case today. Asian Americans have been the Inland Empire’s fastest-growing major ethnic group over the past decade, recently surpassing African Americans to become the region’s third-largest ethnicity after Whites and Hispanics, according to the 2020 census.
The growing ranks of Inland Asians has implications for churches, social services and politics.
Two of San Bernardino County’s five House of Representatives lawmakers — Reps. Young Kim, R-La Habra: and Judy Chu, D-Pasadena: are Asian American. In 2020, Eastvale City Council Member Jocelyn Yow became the youngest woman of color to hold the post of mayor in California. And Japanese-American Rep. Mark Takano, D-Riverside, has been Riverside’s congress member since 2013.
Immigration, a high birth rate and cheaper housing are factors driving the Asian population surge, said Karthick Ramakrishnan, a professor of public policy at UC Riverside and director of UCR’s Center for Social Innovation. While immigration from Mexico has fallen off the past 20 years, Asian immigration, especially from China, India and the Philippines, has remained high, Ramakrishnan said.
“The Inland Empire is an attractive destination in terms of having more affordable housing,” he said. “You also have certain employers, including hospitals and health systems, that attract people in professions like nursing, where you’ve seen Filipinos, for example, with high levels of representation.”
Looking at the Inland Asian population, “Filipinos were by far the largest group,” Ramakrishnan added. “This is a different pattern than you see in LA County, where Chinese Americans are by far the largest group.”
Kim, a Korean American whose district includes Chino Hills and parts of Orange County, noted that California’s Asian population grew even as increasing numbers of Californians moved to other states.
She sees a link between where Asian Americans live in California and how long they’ve been in the U.S.
“For example, newly arrived immigrants tend to stay in the LA area,” Kim said. “The Chinese community, the Filipino community, the Korean community … They usually stay in the LA area because of Koreatown, because of Chinatown, because of the large Filipino community over there.”
After building a stable life and succeeding in business, “they find as they grow their family, they want to be in a community with great schools, with a great environment,” the congress member added. “So they kind of start moving down towards the south Orange County area (and) San Bernardino County area.”
The Asian influx led the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Bernardino to set up an Office of Asian Pacific Ministry in 2000. Bishops have acknowledged Asian-Pacific Catholics as “the fastest-growing among the different ethnic groups in our diocese,” diocesan spokesperson John Andrews said.
The diocese has 52 priests from Asian Pacific countries, mostly Vietnam and the Philippines, which is about 19% of the active priests in San Bernardino and Riverside counties.
Several churches minister entirely to Asian communities in the area, including St. Andrew Kim in Riverside and Shrine of the Presentation in Corona. Also, Catholic Masses in Chinese, Vietnamese, Tagalog, Korean, Indonesian and other Asian languages have been added to parishes across the diocese, Andrews said.
Census data show how and where the Inland Asian population grew:
- Asians now make up 341,000 — 7.4% — of the 4.6 million people in Riverside and San Bernardino counties. Latinos account for 2.37 million people, or 52%. The White population is 1.35 million, 29%. And the Black population stands at 320,000, or 7%.
- The two Inland counties grew by about 9% between 2010 and 2020, but the Asian population grew by 36%. By contrast, the Hispanic population grew by 19%, the Black population increased 6% and the White population shrank 12%.
- Riverside County’s Black and Asian populations were very close in size through about 2016, but then the Asian population started pulling farther ahead, according to non-census-year estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.
- In San Bernardino County, the Black-Asian gap narrowed after 2010. But the 2020 census marked the first time the county’s Asian population moved ahead.
- Riverside and San Bernardino counties added 83,000 Asian residents between 2010 and 2020, with more than half of that growth in Chino, Chino Hills, Rancho Cucamonga, Eastvale and Ontario. Those cities are near long-standing and robust Asian communities in LA and Orange counties. Chino’s Asian population more than doubled since 2010, jumping from about 7,900 to over 17,200.
- Among Inland cities, Calimesa had the largest percentage increase of Asians, going up 195% from 33 to 275. Some unincorporated Inland areas such as Highgrove, Anza, Vista Santa Rosa and Winchester also had increases that, while small in number, were very large percentage-wise.
What’s happening in the Inland area reflects a statewide trend. California’s Asian population grew 25% between 2010 and 2020 while its Latino population grew 11%. Asians were the fastest-growing major racial or ethnic group in 34 of California’s 58 counties.
The state’s White and Black populations fell 8% and 2%, respectively.
Carol Park, a researcher at the Young Oak Kim Center for Korean American Studies at UC Riverside, put together a continuing digital exhibit on the history and growth of Asian Americans in the Inland Empire.
Asian Americans have been in the Inland Empire since the late 1800s, Park said. An influx came in part after the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, which lifted bans to the U.S. from Asian and European countries, and the many changes in immigration laws since then.
“Scholars are always focused on the major metropolitans like LA (and) New York,” Park said. “We are not their backyard. We have a long, rich history that includes the citrus industry, the first Koreatown in the U.S. (in Riverside).”
She also noted that, in 1914, Korean-American laborers were run out of the Hemet Valley by an angry White mob who mistook them for Japanese.
Ramakrishnan said Inland nonprofit groups need more funding to serve the Asian-American community.
“It’s important to have nonprofits that can cater to their needs because a lot of times people have specific language assistance needs,” he said. “(You need) cultural competence in the delivery of care, whether it be mental health services or other health and social services.”
As for the Inaba family, racist words didn’t scare them.
Meiko Inaba still lives in the home she moved into in 1969, now with one granddaughter. Her husband’s family ran a Jurupa Valley farm for decades.
The oldest neighbor on her block, she has seen family generations grow and the neighborhood change, including the growth of nearby UC Riverside.
Having been long involved in Riverside’s Asian-American community through the family business, and as a longtime board member of the Japanese American Citizens League’s Riverside chapter, Inaba said she feels protected by her community, her family’s strong roots and history in Riverside.
She raised her two children there, and they didn’t experience overt racism as she did on that first day. Though she’s glad to see more Asians moving to the Inland Empire, Inaba wishes there were even more.
“I think we’re still kind of invisible,” Inaba said. “We’ve tended to be exclusive to our own history. We need to band together, be more Asian American. I think that might be happening as more Asians get into the arts, in politics, and become more visible that way.”