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White, but his heart is Latino

George Cole believes in embracing change. When neighbors left Bell, he chose to stay. Now the councilman is a voice for southeast L.A. County.

January 04, 2007|Hector Becerra | Times Staff Writer

When George Cole moved to southeast Los Angeles County looking for factory work in the early 1970s, the mostly white and working-class area was being transformed by waves of Latino immigration.

Cole applied for an apartment and the landlady bestowed her approval.

"It will be nice to rent to a good white boy," he recalled her saying. "We've been doing a good job of keeping the blacks out, but the Mexicans are like cockroaches. They're hard to keep out."

Soon, he got a job -- $3 an hour at a plastic bag factory. He was the only white worker in a plant full of illegal immigrants. He got the job by tricking the white owner into thinking he spoke fluent Spanish by reciting lines he remembered from high school Spanish. He received 50 cents an hour more than the immigrants on the line.

Back then, Cole only knew enough Spanish to trick a gullible businessman. But from the moment he began working alongside the immigrants, he began to learn -- and never looked back. It would help forge his identity.

Over the next 35 years, his adopted town of Bell -- along with surrounding cities such as Huntington Park, Bell Gardens South Gate and Maywood -- were transformed from mostly white to more than 90% Latino. Most of the manufacturing plants, such as Bethlehem Steel, Firestone Tire and General Motors, disappeared.

Cole remained.

He was elected to the Bell City Council when it was still all-white and now is its only white member.

Cole has emerged as a leader for southeast Los Angeles County. He took a prominent role in making sure overwhelmingly Latino cities served by the Los Angeles Unified School District have a voice in Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's takeover plan, which a judge threw out last month.

"George Cole is a Latino leader," Supervisor Gloria Molina said, "even though he is not Latino."

Consider a community meeting last year where state Sen. Martha Escutia (D-Whittier) introduced her Democratic successor, Ron Calderon.

Calderon spoke in English. Escutia translated. A few people got annoyed.

South Gate Councilman Henry Gonzalez said one woman in the crowd referred to Cole and cracked, "Here's a white man who can speak better than you can!"

Cole, 56, is not embracing another culture as much as trying to fit into the world around him. It was a lesson he learned from his father, a Presbyterian preacher and activist who ministered to Latino farmworkers in Arizona in the late 1950s.

"My father taught me to embrace change," Cole said. "A lot of people were afraid of the changes that were taking place, but I just accepted it."

After working at the bag factory, Cole landed a job at Bethlehem Steel in Vernon, eventually earning $16 an hour.

He became active in the union. Over time, more Latinos joined him on the lines. He traveled to Mexico City for a conference on immigrant workers rights. His Spanish continued to improve.

"He stood out as a big guy, this gabacho speaking Spanish," said Rudy Montalvo, a longtime friend from his union days. "Our people are downright brutal and cruel if they see a pocho [American-born Latino] take Spanish and tear it up," Montalvo said. "But you turn it around, and someone like George starts talking Spanish and they embrace you."

He went to work for the Oldtimers Foundation, a social service organization for retired factory workers now located at a former Elks Lodge in Huntington Park.

Soon, the industrial plants around southeast Los Angeles County were closing down and white flight was beginning.

In 1982, Cole was laid off from Bethlehem Steel. But he still had his job with the Oldtimers.

The next few years amounted to a demographic earthquake in southeast L.A. County as Latino immigrants -- legal and illegal -- flowed in.

When Cole and his wife, Judy, moved to Bell, one of his biggest worries was that his children wouldn't have anyone to play with because "there were hardly any children in the streets. Most of the neighbors were older, white," he said. Soon, his children had more than enough playmates as streets filled with Latino children.

Cole said he was sad to see longtime white neighbors go, but that his family never shared the fear of isolation that drove many of them out. And they came to embrace the new families who replaced them.

Still, the community became poorer. Gang violence increased dramatically. One of the Coles' neighbors was shot in the stomach during a drive-by in nearby Maywood.

One of the Coles' sons, Jason, played on Garfield High School's varsity football team. It was a tradition that the varsity players shaved their heads.

"We told the coach we were not going to allow our kid to shave his head," Judy Cole said. "We didn't want him to be in a situation where he could be construed as a gangbanger."

Her sons rarely complained about being treated differently, even though they were among the only white students at the East Los Angeles school.

The Coles adapted, but transition was more difficult for others in the community.

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