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A city grows in East L.A.?

Residents of the area, long known for its activism and culture, think incorporation could end neglect and solve some local problems.

February 04, 2007|Jim Newton | Times Staff Writer

Drawing upon a rich history of activism and a nagging sense of neglect, residents and leaders of East Los Angeles have launched a campaign for incorporation, a move that would create a new city in a historic center of Mexican American culture.

The drive for East L.A. cityhood has grown from nascent to palpable in recent months, and advocates believe their goal, which many have nurtured for a generation, at last could be within reach.

Over the last few months, cityhood has been the subject of spirited community meetings -- more than 300 people turned out for one session late last year -- and increasingly active political talks. Just last week, leaders of the effort met with county officials to analyze the tax consequences of incorporation. Petitions could begin to circulate this spring, and it's possible that voters could consider the question later this year.

If they are successful, East L.A. would become a city of roughly 140,000 people, one of the 10 largest in Los Angeles County and one of the most overwhelmingly Mexican American cities in the United States. More important for many of those who believe in cityhood, its success would validate East L.A.'s long-standing place in the neighborhood culture of Los Angeles rather than continue its existence as a scrap of unincorporated land left behind as cities around it took shape.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday February 07, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 51 words Type of Material: Correction
East Los Angeles: An article in Sunday's California section about a drive for cityhood in East Los Angeles misspelled the name of the 1960s musical group Thee Midniters as Thee Midnighters. In addition, the article stated that journalist Ruben Salazar was killed 27 years ago. He was killed 37 years ago.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday February 11, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 51 words Type of Material: Correction
East Los Angeles: An article in the Feb. 4 California section about a drive for cityhood in East Los Angeles misspelled the name of the 1960s musical group Thee Midniters as Thee Midnighters. The article also said journalist Ruben Salazar was killed 27 years ago. He was killed 37 years ago.

State Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), a leading proponent of the idea, says she has been struck by the intensity of the emotional response to it.

"This has engaged the community," Romero said last week. "The demographics are there. The history is there. The reason is there."

For many in East L.A., the promise of cityhood is long overdue. Indeed, for such a small slice of Greater Los Angeles -- the community covers less than 10 square miles bordered by Boyle Heights and Monterey Park, Commerce and Montebello -- East L.A. has made a sizable name for itself.

It is a thriving source of cultural life, a community as identifiable and coherent as the many others that make up modern Los Angeles: Hollywood or Bel-Air, say, or Van Nuys, Watts, Boyle Heights, Leimert Park or Mount Washington.

Given its demographics, East L.A. is politically significant as a laboratory for the growing electoral clout of Latinos, particularly Mexican Americans.

As such, its halls and public spaces are mandatory stops for aspiring politicians eager to demonstrate their support among Latinos. Last fall, Democrat Phil Angelides, whose gubernatorial campaign by then already was sputtering, attended an East L.A. Chamber of Commerce luncheon and tried vainly to elicit enthusiasm for his cause from a plainly skeptical audience.

Culturally, it has a different cachet. It has produced muralists and musicians, writers and chroniclers of Mexican American life for generations. One enduring contributor has been the band Los Lobos, whose members come from East L.A. and whose original name was "Los Lobos del Este Los Angeles."

Louie Perez, a founding member of Los Lobos, vividly recalls growing up on the edge of East L.A. -- the smell of his mother's coffee blending with the scents from the tortilleria next door in the morning, the sounds of radio personality Elenita Salinas rousing him from bed. At night, he and his sister and friends would hear the backyard parties with mariachi bands as they made their way to the parking lot of the Johnson Market, where Thee Midnighters would be mobbed by young fans.

In those days, he said, "East L.A. was our entire universe.... Leaving it was like leaving the edge of the Earth."

As he grew older, Perez was immersed in the ferment that overtook his neighborhood. One afternoon in August 1970 he was riding his blue Stingray bicycle near Whittier Boulevard when he spotted smoke. A peaceful demonstration had escalated into a clash with L.A. County sheriff's deputies, and riots tore through East L.A. that day.

A few blocks away, a man shooed Perez from the Silver Dollar cantina, warning him that a man was dead inside. That man, journalist Ruben Salazar, had been killed by a deputy; 27 years later, Salazar remains a political martyr in East L.A.

Los Lobos formed in 1973, and the band's absorption of Mexican music into its American idiom immediately placed it in the cultural and political turbulence of the community. As the band developed, its members captured and amplified East L.A. culture, supplying a soundtrack to Chicano activism not unlike what Jimi Hendrix gave the Black Panthers. Through the years, Los Lobos has helped to extend that East L.A. culture around the world.

"I'll be looking for my old neighborhood my whole life," Perez said last week. "It was an incredible place to grow up."

*

Among the hallmark moments of East L.A. activism were the student walkouts of 1968, and many who live in the area today participated. Indeed, one young protester was none other than Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who cites that episode as a formative one in his young life.

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