It's a little trick Ruben Treviso likes to play on visiting federal bureaucrats. He takes them on a tour of the predominantly Latino area east of Los Angeles, where he works as a veterans advocate. Along the way, Treviso gives the visiting Washingtonians only the vaguest idea of where they are.
"At the end of the ride, they often say, 'I never knew East Los Angeles was so big,' " says Treviso, vice chairman of the local branch of American GI Forum, a Latino veterans organization. "And I say, 'We haven't been there yet.' "
That graphic lesson in Los Angeles County's shifting demographics, with new Latino communities stretching far into the eastern suburbs, is one that a lot of people who want to reach the Latino community are beginning to learn--including politicians.
Candidates can go to East Los Angeles or Olvera Street to make their ritual pitches for Latino support, Latino political leaders say, but a larger number of voters are in the San Gabriel Valley. "It's one of the best-kept secrets," says Latino political strategist George Pla. "There are a heck of a lot of votes out there."
The new political landscape was highlighted recently by a federal voting rights suit in Los Angeles Federal Court. Charging that Latinos have been systematically excluded from the Board of Supervisors, the plaintiffs--the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Justice Department--have sought to create a predominantly Latino district.
So far, map makers have concentrated on the small cities east of Los Angeles, spread out along the Pomona and San Bernardino freeways, which could be tied to East Los Angeles to make a Latino powerhouse.
The 15-mile swath of the county, together with the southeast communities of Montebello and Pico Rivera, represents "the greatest potential bloc of Latino voting strength in the Southwestern United States," says Richard Martinez, executive director of the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project.
Martinez likes to emphasize the word "potential."
"All the barriers to political office (for Latinos) have had the effect of dampening down the Latino voter turn-out," he says.
Nevertheless, in the past decade or so, Latinos in southern San Gabriel Valley have demonstrated some real political strength.
The area has side-by-side congressional districts represented by Latinos--Rep. Esteban E. Torres (D-La Puente) and Rep. Matthew G. Martinez (D-Monterey Park).
The ranks of elected officials in the region's cities are also sprinkled liberally with Latinos.
"The San Gabriel Valley is really a hidden success story of Latino politicians at the municipal level," says Harry Pachon, head of the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. "This has gone largely unnoticed under the larger currents of what's happening in Los Angeles."
There are newly elected Latino city council members and school board members in communities all across the San Gabriel Valley--including the cities of South Pasadena and Pomona, where Latinos are a minority.
Pachon's organization lists 28 Latino municipal officials and 29 school board members in 15 communities. The area has a total population of more than 700,000. New municipal elections are scheduled for April 10.
The area's Latinos are a diverse group of professionals, retail and factory workers. San Gabriel Valley Latinos live in tile-roofed hillside villas in Hacienda Heights and in cramped bungalows on the flats of South El Monte. Many have moved to the area from Los Angeles.
"Think of it as a set of concentric circles, generating out of East L.A.," says Richard Martinez of the Latino migration to the San Gabriel Valley. "In a sense, it's the way people moved. Children of the old residents of East L.A. began moving out to the suburbs."
These suburbanites are quicker to get involved politically. "They're people who moved out (from the city) to better their lives," Pla says. "They tend to have more education and higher incomes."
Because many are homeowners, the area has become one of hard-edged community concerns, says Pla. "Candidates (campaigning in the San Gabriel Valley) better talk to middle-class voters about crime and jobs and housing--issues of that sort."
Despite the obvious gains, though, many Latinos feel they've been largely left out of the area's politics. "I'm not an expert on the political process," says Yolanda Garza, a chemical engineer from Arcadia and one of the plaintiffs in the voting rights suit. "I just know it's not working. Unless you start with the same base, you can't have the same benefits as everybody else."
The lack of Latino representation on the Board of Supervisors is especially galling, many say.
"Hispanics have been here for more than 200 years," says Henry Barbosa, a Monterey Park attorney who is active in Democratic politics in the region. "Yet, with all of that (historical) strength, there's been no opportunity to participate."