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Pioneer in Latino Politics in Los Angeles

EDWARD R. ROYBAL | 1916-2005

October 26, 2005|George Ramos | Special to The Times

Edward R. Roybal, who championed the rights of the underprivileged and the elderly during 30 years in the House of Representatives and was the mentor to scores of Latino lawmakers in Los Angeles, died Monday. He was 89.

Roybal, who had a pioneering role in the city's politics, died of respiratory failure complicated by pneumonia at Huntington Hospital in Pasadena, according to an announcement from the office of his daughter, Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-East Los Angeles).

He began his political career in 1949 as the first Latino to sit on the Los Angeles City Council since 1881. After Roybal departed for Congress in 1962, it would be 23 years before another Latino held a seat on the City Council.

"Congressman Roybal was someone who reminded us every single day that change rests in our own hands," Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina said Tuesday. "This was a leader in our community who understood the responsibility and duty to empower."

"A champion for civil rights and social justice like him does not come around every day," Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said in a statement. "He wanted nothing less than what all Americans strive for -- a good job, safe neighborhoods, quality schools and a place to call home."

"He was there when others in Washington turned their backs on seniors, the disadvantaged and the poor," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said Tuesday.

In 1993, Roybal told The Times that at his first City Council meeting, he was introduced as "our new Mexican councilman who also speaks Mexican."

"My mission was immediately obvious," he said later. "I'm not Mexican. I am a Mexican American. And I don't speak a word of Mexican. I speak Spanish."

It became his role, he said, to educate his fellow public officials about Latinos and to pay special attention to what he felt were the long-neglected needs of his largely Latino constituencies.

One way he did this was to harshly criticize the Los Angeles Police Department for its treatment of minorities, and he had his own story to underscore his position.

On his first date with his future wife, Lucille, in the early 1940s, a white officer came up behind the young couple -- they were sharing chili beans and crackers at a stand at 4th and Soto streets in Boyle Heights -- and went through Roybal's pockets.

The officer then dumped the couple's dinner on the sidewalk, the former congressman told The Times.

"That kind of stuff was happening all the time," he said.

Roybal also was an outspoken opponent of the city land swap that gave the Los Angeles Dodgers prime real estate for a new ballpark in Chavez Ravine, which was largely populated by Latinos, in exchange for Wrigley Field, a minor league baseball stadium at 42nd Place and Avalon Boulevard. Roybal-Allard later recalled that her father received many angry calls at home from supporters of the deal.

"One man said my father was un-American because he was against baseball and the Dodgers," said Roybal-Allard. "I was a young girl at the time, and I tried to convince the man that my dad was right. I wasn't able to."

Roybal, the first Latino politician from the Eastside to gain wide recognition, was considered an up-and-coming Democrat. Although he lost a bid in 1954 to become California's lieutenant governor, four years later he came close to defeating Ernest Debs for a seat on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. Roybal initially held a 390-vote lead on election night and, when a 12,000-vote error was discovered, there were four recounts. He eventually lost to Debs amid suspicions that the election had been taken from him because he was Latino.

In 1962, he successfully ran for Congress in the 25th District, which stretched from Hollywood through the downtown area to East Los Angeles and Boyle Heights. In Congress, he championed the rights of illegal immigrants, including opposing the landmark 1986 amnesty law, which led to the legalization of more than 1.5 million Latinos. He favored a more generous plan that would have legalized even more Latinos.

He also was instrumental in getting Congress to approve funds to provide medical, welfare and educational services to eligible immigrants.

Harry Pachon, who was Roybal's chief of staff in Washington, D.C., from 1977 to 1981, said his former boss didn't worry about the consequences of his votes.

"He voted his conscience, even when people made fun of him," Pachon said.

Never a headline grabber, Roybal used his position as a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee in the 1960s and '70s to secure congressional funding for key programs. In 1967, he introduced and won approval for the first federal bilingual education law, which established English classes for migrant children and others.

The law began to change the practice in California and elsewhere of funneling non-English speakers into remedial classes.

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