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Latino power comes full circle in L.A.

Once there was only Edward Roybal in a position of power. Today, as it did long ago, authority rests in many Latino hands.

April 11, 2010|By Cathleen Decker

The announcement last week that Archbishop Jose Gomez of San Antonio will replace Cardinal Roger Mahony as head of the local Catholic diocese capped an assertion of power on the part of Latinos in Los Angeles that is remarkable in its seeming speed.

For decades, only one Latino held unquestioned public power: Edward R. Roybal, the first Latino to win a seat on the Los Angeles City Council. He spent 13 years there, then moved to Congress to serve 30 years, most of that time as the region's only Latino representative.

Now the power positions held by Latinos in the Los Angeles area are multiple and manifest. Besides the Mexico-born archbishop, who is in line to become the first U.S. prelate of Latino heritage to become a cardinal, there is the mayor. The speaker of the Assembly. The sheriff. A county supervisor. Several members of the City Council, of Congress, of the Legislature, of the Los Angeles school board. The head of the most influential civic entity, organized labor.

"It is coming full circle," said UC Berkeley associate professor Lisa García Bedolla, the author of two books on Latino politics. "That's what Los Angeles looked like before becoming part of the United States."

It is hardly accidental, however. The moves to the top in politics and other endeavors have required equal parts population shifts, hard-fought legal pursuit and political strategizing.

Population numbers are only the most obvious propellant for the ambitions of both the community and its leaders.

In 1960, according to a USC demographic study, fewer than 10% of the people in the Los Angeles County area were Latino. By 2008, according to federal census estimates, almost half were Latino. Roughly the same was true in the city of Los Angeles.

While trailing the population levels -- because of lagging citizenship numbers -- the ranks of Latino voters also swelled over those decades.

But their efforts to win elections were thwarted by political lines drawn to diminish their heft. In the mid-1980s, legal challenges began to chip away at those hurdles. First came a legal assault on the Los Angeles City Council's district boundaries, which led to the creation of what was called at the time a "Latino district."

Next came a federal court fight over the Board of Supervisors. A judge ultimately decided that the board had drawn its lines to intentionally discriminate against Latinos. The judge's ruling led directly to the election, in early 1991, of Gloria Molina to the board.

As inspiring to the community as the two legal moves were, however, they essentially accounted for a single seat each. A more prosaic development, term limits, would ultimately do far more, according to García Bedolla.

Beyond the churning of legislative and council seats was the coincident rise of organized labor as a factor benefiting Latinos and other minority candidates. Miguel Contreras, who took over the county labor federation in 1996, ran it like a powerhouse until his death in 2005. His widow and fellow union leader, Maria Elena Durazo, now heads the labor organization.

"They explicitly included immigrants . . . [which] made the Latino community a political force in progressive politics in a way they hadn't been before," García Bedolla said.

A conspiring assist came, at the same time, from the non-Latino head of the local Catholic Church. Mahony had made a name as a friend of immigrants and Latinos before he arrived in Los Angeles in 1985. As the Latino population of the area swelled, he waded into a host of civic entanglements on their behalf.

He publicly defended janitors during a nasty strike. He came out early and forcefully against Proposition 187, the 1994 measure to strip state services from illegal immigrants. (It passed overwhelmingly but was largely struck down by the courts.)

Kenneth Burt, the author of "The Search for a Civic Voice," a history of California Latino politics, credited Mahony for keeping peace in Los Angeles between groups seeking power and those afraid of losing it.

"He had a tremendous impact in empowering the Latino community and in sending a powerful signal that the rise of Latinos should not be seen as a threat," he said. "Even though he's Irish, he's the first Latino cardinal in spirit."

All told, the taking of power has been stunning in its breadth. A Loyola Marymount University study of the top 100 elected positions in Los Angeles from 1959 to 2009 found that for years, only one man -- Roybal -- made the list. The numbers increased only gradually until 1991, when altered political lines and long-thwarted ambition pushed the percentage of Latino seats to 18%. By last year, 33% were held by Latinos.

More subtle, perhaps, has been the more or less tranquil way that change has been accomplished. Although there have been periods of contention, the flow of power from whites and blacks to Latinos has happened with far less gnashing than might have been expected years ago.

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