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Grandfather of Latino Politics Faults New Leaders

July 27, 1999|ANTONIO OLIVO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

By then, he had trained under Chicago community organizer Saul Alinsky. Using new skills, Roybal forged the city's first biracial coalition, linking Mexican Americans and Jews. The two groups shared common goals--greater equity and an end to racism.

Raising money at Eastside dances and picnics, Roybal ran a campaign that downplayed his ethnicity. Promises of Mexican American empowerment, he said, would alienate non-Latino voters. As a practical matter, the district was only one-third Latino.

The strategy worked. Roybal won with a two-thirds majority. Christensen's campaign fliers included caricatures of Roybal in folkloric dress, plucking a guitar.

Coalition building has been a dynamic in Latino politics ever since, said Fernando Guerra, director of Loyola Marymount University's Center for the Study of Los Angeles.

The lesson learned, Guerra said, is "you don't have to be in a majority Latino district to win."

At his first City Council meeting, Roybal recalled being introduced by a colleague as "our new Mexican-speaking councilman, representing the Mexican people in his district."

Roybal put away a prepared speech, and lectured the council on California's Mexican roots.

The impromptu history lesson, he said, started him off on the wrong foot. But Roybal soon broadened his political base by taking an interest in projects in other council members' districts--and, when appropriate, giving his backing.

Politics, he said, is learning "if you're fair to them, they'll have a difficult time being unfair to you." That is how he won improvements to sewers, streets and parks in his district.

Roybal had his share of losses. Despite his opposition, the council majority displaced thousands of families--mostly Latino and black--through the redevelopment of Bunker Hill, new freeways and the construction of Dodger Stadium in Chavez Ravine.

Undeterred, he found friends outside City Hall. He joined political organizations--including the Los Angeles County Democratic Central Committee and El Club Civico Americano.

Roybal used those groups during the 1950s to launch voter registration drives and as platforms against police brutality under Los Angeles Police Chief William Parker.

His criticism of the police brought anonymous threats. His phones were tapped, he said, and undercover officers followed him. He said he would lie awake convinced officers would abduct his children--Lucille, Lillian and Edward.

Roybal warned them to never get into a squad car, "even if the guy said I'd been taken to the hospital and that he would take them to my bedside."

During the years-long fight, Parker publicly compared Mexican Americans to "the wild tribes of Mexico."

Roybal took such treatment in stride. He kept calm when supporters say he was robbed of a seat on the Board of Supervisors in 1958.

Roybal had entered into a tight supervisorial race against City Councilman Ernest Debs. After the first recount, Roybal held a small lead. During the second recount, however, 12,000 pro-Debs votes mysteriously appeared in the county registrar's office.

The election sparked a wave of Latino outrage, recalled former Los Angeles Deputy Mayor Grace Montanez Davis, who managed the 1958 campaign.

But Roybal was mostly silent, saying he had more to lose by complaining too loudly while working within a mostly white establishment.

"It's not the first time we had a thief come into our neighborhood to steal something," Roybal said.

Roybal instead helped register thousands of Latino voters, coining the phrase "sleeping giant," referring to Latino political potential.

He and Henry Lopez--a Los Angeles attorney--became frustrated with the state Democratic Party so they founded the Mexican American Political Action Committee in 1959 to boost Latino candidates.

Through the next two decades, the committee provided a platform for candidates statewide.

In 1962, after state reapportionment created the 30th Congressional District around Boyle Heights, the activist group helped Roybal win a seat in the House of Representatives, becoming the first Mexican American congressman from California.

In Washington, Roybal and a handful of other Latino representatives from Texas and New Mexico formed the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials and the congressional Hispanic Caucus.

"Where are we going to hold our meetings, in a phone booth?" Texas Democrat Henry B. Gonzalez joked at the time.

Today, the Hispanic Caucus--chaired by Roybal-Allard--has 17 members. The National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials has hundreds of members countrywide and trains thousands more in community organizing.

A member of the House Appropriations Committee, Roybal steered millions of federal dollars to bilingual education, health care and programs for the elderly.

Early Supporter of AIDS Research

During the 1960s, he spoke in support of the nation's burgeoning civil rights movement, and later joined student rallies.

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