COMPTON — This city's first settler was a Latino--Don Jose Dominguez, who in 1794 received a land grant from the Spanish king. But after a century of cityhood and rapid Latino population growth during the last decade, Compton has yet to elect a Latino City Council member.
It is a record that Latino leaders say they want to change starting this year as they rally around the candidacy of Martin D. Chavez, 29, a third-generation Compton resident who is running in Council District 3 against incumbent Robert L. Adams and six other candidates.
"We have a good, viable candidate and he is very qualified," said Pedro Pallan, president of the Latino Chamber of Commerce and owner of the San Antonio Bakery on Rosecrans Avenue.
Chavez, an affirmative action and equal opportunity employment analyst for the Los Angeles City Department of Water and Power, graduated from Cal State Dominguez Hill and also earned a master's degree there.
Latino Community Unhappy
Chavez's candidacy, though, is about more than competency and electing the first Latino council member. It is the most vocal message to date from the Latino community that it is unhappy with the black leadership that has dominated public affairs in Compton for about 20 years.
"I think they believe that they are the advocates of civil rights," Chavez said of Compton's political leaders, "but in reality they are the keepers of their civil rights, not the civil rights of the minority community."
Compton's political leaders, Chavez said, are trying to ignore the rapid growth of the Latino community and denying it an equal share of city services. Latinos, he said, are being treated "like an invisible minority and nobody pays attention to them."
Compton politicians, according to Chavez and his backers, have not given Latinos enough public sector jobs, have ignored cries for more bilingual personnel in City Hall and the schools, and have failed to deliver needed improvements such as road repair and street lighting to the north side of the city, where much of the poorest Latino population is concentrated.
City Manager James Goins acknowledged that the city has failed to hire as many Latinos or bilingual personnel as it should have. But he said Compton is trying to rectify that.
"We definitely are concerned about it," he said, "because it's important to our future that we be an integrated city."
Chavez said his main goal in running for office is to help the Latino and black communities avoid what he says will be an inevitable confrontation if black leaders do not begin sharing power with Latinos and heeding their demands for better services.
'City Under Microscope'
"This city is under a microscope right now," Chavez said. "It's small enough for people to study to get an idea of how black and brown people are going to get along."
Latino leaders, though, are growing impatient and increasingly divided over how best to get the attention of decision-makers in the school district and in City Hall. Although they declined to speak publicly about it, Latino leaders privately acknowledge that some among their ranks advocate a more confrontational stance, such as filing discrimination lawsuits against the school district and the city.
Other leaders favor a lower profile, urging that Latinos continue working through city and school administrative channels and make greater use of the ballot. Chavez places himself in the second category.
"The real issue is voice. (Latinos) have no voice in the city," he said. "The city representatives don't represent them."
Getting elected, though, is not going to be easy. Chavez and his backers acknowledge that in Compton, Latino power at the polls is weak. Latinos account for a third of the city's approximately 94,000 residents but only about 5% of the voters. Out of the city's 40,000 registered voters, only 1,800 are Latino, Chavez estimates.
Councilman Adams said he believes many Latino residents are not voters because they are in this country illegally. That is one explanation, agreed Gregorio Sanchez, a Latino activist and member of Our Lady of Victory Catholic Church, a center of Latino life in Compton. But there are other explanations, too, Sanchez says.
The non-voters "may be legal people who have never voted in their lives and they are scared," he said. "We have a lot of people here who have never become citizens and therefore their children (who are citizens) have never had the experience through their parents of the importance of the vote."
Even if they increase their voter participation, Latinos still face the problem of convincing some Compton political leaders that they should share their power.
"You got to remember Latinos were here before we were," said Councilman Maxcy D. Filer, who is black. "They were running faster than whites (fleeing the city) when I moved to Compton (in 1952). Now they just come back and say 'Give it to me.' "