The politics of East Los Angeles have traditionally revolved around two issues: civil rights and saving the neighborhoods from "urban renewal." Neighborhood-saving has not been especially successful. Thousands of homes have been removed for the huge county hospital, county jails and the San Bernardino, Santa Ana, Pomona and Long Beach freeways, but the battle continues, with intense community opposition to a proposed new state prison and a county jail expansion. The battle for civil rights now involves enfranchising voters, and Alatorre is at the forefront. In addition to his efforts for reapportionment, he is a leader in the fight to force the Census Bureau to count non-citizens, which would eventually mean more political power for Latinos.
Alatorre grew up immersed in the neighborhood's conflicts. He spent his childhood with his parents and his sister, Cecelia, in a small, brown stucco house near Michigan Avenue where his mother, Mary Alatorre, a widow, still lives today. Mary was born in a small Arizona mining town and moved to Los Angeles in 1925. Dropping out of high school in the 10th grade, she learned to be a beautician and in 1931 met Joe Alatorre, who'd come to L.A. from El Paso, Tex., while working in his sister's beauty parlor on Brooklyn Avenue. He was a repairman at a stove factory.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday October 24, 1989 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Column 1 Metro Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Jack Fenton--In a story Sunday in the Los Angeles Times Magazine, former state Sen. Jack Fenton was incorrectly described as "the late Jack Fenton." Fenton is alive and well and working as a legislative advocate in Sacramento.
A brief experience doing farm work taught Mary Alatorre the value of education. She remembers the growers: "They just pushed people around. They treated them just like dogs. All these things were embedded in my children. I told them there is nothing you can do but get yourself a good education. That was our whole goal, my husband and I."
They succeeded with Richard. "I figured out real early, manual labor and I had a falling out," says the councilman. "If I wasn't good with my hands, I had to use my head, and my head was pretty good. I was the oddball of the group. I was a student body officer or class officer every semester from junior high school through high school. . . . The girls thought I was God. The guys, they always respected me."
Cultivating that respect was his key to surviving in the neighborhood: He had to fit in with, if not belong to, the gangs, honing a kind of diplomatic skill that has served him well in politics. "It's a very tough area," Alatorre says during a drive along Michigan Avenue, near Eugene Obregon Park. "I always ran around with older guys. When I started junior high school, they were graduating into high school. Those were my friends. And obviously, because of that, I was well protected."
In high school he joined the debate team, and, with his father's encouragement, he took an interest in politics. A vision of his future crystallized when he heard John F. Kennedy give a campaign speech at East L.A. College on a rainy night in 1960. "He seemed to be the first presidential candidate reaching into my community and asking for our help. That represented hope to me," Alatorre says. So he handed out leaflets for Kennedy and also got involved in the campaign of Leopoldo Sanchez, who became one of the first Latinos elected to a judgeship in Los Angeles. Sanchez's victory inspired him: "I felt one day I would love to represent my community," he says.
He was one of a handful of students in his graduating class to go to a four-year college, eventually earning a graduate degree in public administration from USC. He went on to teach sociology at Cal State L.A. and at UC Irvine and night courses in government at the federal prison at Terminal Island.
FROM THE outset, Alatorre's political career moved on two tracks. One was the liberal community politics of the growing Chicano movement, which was beginning to focus on poor education in East L.A. schools. The second was the more partisan politics centered on the Democratic Party and raising money to finance campaigns. Alatorre thrived in both worlds. One day while in court on a collection case for the jewelry store, Alatorre befriended a young attorney who had been elected to the Assembly. Walter Karabian represented another part of the East Los Angeles world, the newer subdivisions around Monterey Park. He was good at raising money from the developers and other businesses in the area and was the majority leader of the Assembly.
Alatorre also hooked up with somebody from the more radical side of East Los Angeles politics--Montez, who was then executive director of the Foundation for Mexican American Studies. When Alatorre came to that office to get information for a college paper, Montez liked him and offered him a job. Alatorre became known as the "the kid who hung around Phil Montez."