There was always lots of brown in the L.A. mural, but until recently it seemed oddly muted, mostly just background. Latinos hadn't come close to possessing the political clout their raw numbers would suggest, largely because so many were too young to vote or were not citizens. Then came 1994, when Proposition 187--a populist backlash against illegal immigration--triggered a backlash of its own. Passed by the voters and then declared unconstitutional by the courts, Prop. 187's legacy is the activism it inspired among Latinos. Protesters marched on the streets, waves of immigrants applied for citizenship, the Democratic Party strengthened its hold. Orange County Republican Robert K. Dornan discovered the new realities two years later when voters in his U.S. House district, which had a burgeoning Latino population, replaced him with Democrat Loretta Sanchez.
The Prop. 187 experience carries a couple of lessons. First, identity politics is in the eye of the beholder. (One man's affirmative action is another's reverse discrimination.) Second, identity politics breeds more identity politics. Play with fire, you might get burned.
Los Angeles' mural today is more crowded, more colorful, more complicated--more interesting than ever before. The brown shades have thickened and gained texture. You'll notice that the strokes of yellow, representing Asians, are more plentiful and bolder, especially in the San Gabriel Valley. And because this political portrait isn't only about race and ethnicity, there's plenty of green for money, some work-shirt blue for organized labor, the gold of Hollywood glitter, the pink of gay power.
Because so many municipal races are nonpartisan and so many state and congressional districts are designed as "safely" Democrat or Republican, ideology takes a back seat to identity in Southern California. While whites and Asians tend to divide roughly equally between Democrat and Republican, blacks and Latinos are predominantly Democrat. Among the Democrats, you'll find the black caucus and the Latino caucus as well as a network of white Jewish politicians that has had striking success in L.A.. The groups function almost as parties within a party.
One of the most interesting chapters in identity politics will be the spring primary for the Assembly seat being vacated by Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, who hopes to become the city's first Latino mayor since the 1800s. In the heavily Latino and Catholic district--stretching from Hollywood east through Silver Lake and into northeast L.A. and Boyle Heights--the two top contenders are openly gay. Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg is trying to duplicate school board member David Tokofsky's feat of being a white Jew who wins election in a district that is more than 70% Latino. AIDS activist Cesar Portillo, Goldberg's leading challenger, passes out campaign brochures that emphasize his Boyle Heights roots and tout him as "Our Own." Portillo says he has been struck by the communities' differing perceptions: "Among Latinos on the Eastside, it's, 'Jackie? Doesn't she live in Hollywood?' In the gay community, it's, 'Cesar? Why is he running against Jackie?' "
In this era of more pluralistic politics, Latinos play a significant role in important debates and most electoral contests. Whites remain powerful, especially on a regional level, because they tend to have the green. But in many locales, contests will come down to Latino versus whomever--black in South Los Angeles, Asian in the west San Gabriel Valley, white in scattered areas. Those who worry about civil unrest look first where L.A. has erupted before--the low-income southside neighborhoods. They have their reasons. Indeed, while identity politics will lift Latino prospects in the coming years, the changes pose an "identity crisis" for African Americans, says Brenda Shockley, president of Community Build, an agency established in the aftermath of the 1992 riots to provide job training.
African American leaders, she suggests, need to reach out more: "As an African American, I'm very interested in helping my people. But being for my people doesn't mean being against somebody else. And that nuance often gets lost." Black politicians understand that the Latino power in South L.A. is literally coming of age.
"It's not brain surgery," says Assemblyman Roderick Wright, who lives in South-Central. In his district, Wright explains, 70% of the residents up to age 15 are Latino, as are about 60% of those between ages 15 and 25. Over age 50, the vast majority are black. "As the older blacks die, they'll be replaced by Latinos. When their numbers increase, they'll take the seat. I'm just a realist. I can't go to Mississippi and get more black people."