The decision by Councilman Richard Alatorre not to
seek reelection opens the door for a new generation of Eastside leadership in the 14th
District. All the attention paid to his district and the race to succeed him can only be
good for local politics. Last week, an unprecedented 19 candidates declared their
intention to run. Unions, which have played a pivotal role in augmenting Latino political
power, are gearing up for the campaign. But within this arguably healthy political climate
lies a more distressing story about the sorry state of democracy in Los Angeles,
particularly the Eastside. The resulting loss of civic life can bestow undue influence on
institutions whose self-interests clash with those of the community.
Over the past 25 years, an increasingly transient and foreign-born
population has replaced a more permanent, reliable voting base in the city. The newcomers
have yet to fill the political vacuum left by the departure of the city's white
middle-class voters to the suburbs. Between 1977 and 1997, the city's population grew by
23%, yet there was a phenomenal 61% decline in actual ballots cast in general municipal
By 1990, fully 45% of adult Angelenos were foreign-born. Westlake, just
west of downtown, and Boyle Heights, on the left bank of the Los Angeles River, were the
two most heavily immigrant districts in the city. While Westlake's demographic changes
were an amplified version of what occurred in other parts of Los Angeles--native-born
Anglos being replaced by Latin American immigrants--Boyle Heights, the heart of the 14th
District, experienced its own transformation. Indeed, the metamorphosis of the Eastside
continues to be one of the untold stories of recent L.A. history.
By the 1940s, Mexicans already were becoming the predominant ethnic
group in Boyle Heights. Thirty years later, the area had stabilized and gained renown as
the quintessential Mexican American barrio. The vast majority of Eastside residents were
U.S.-born. Since immigration from Mexico had been relatively low for decades, English was
the language most often heard on the streets. Latino Eastside residents had become less
immigrant than they were ethnic American. Mexican American culture was considered a
subgenre of American pop culture. Souped-up American cars, Cheech and Chong and R&B
oldies passed for Latino culture.
Strong upward mobility has lifted great numbers of these Mexican
American families out of the traditional barrio and into the suburbs of the San Gabriel
Valley and beyond. Just as in South-Central Los Angeles, newcomers associated with the
wave of immigration that began in the mid-1970s have facilitated the outmigration of
former residents by renting out and sometimes even buying their homes. By 1990, fully 76%
of adults in Boyle Heights were foreign-born, and an estimated 50% of them arrived in the
United States only within the previous decade. Between 1980 and 1990, the district not
only became more heavily immigrant, but denser and poorer. As one scholar recently put it,
Boyle Heights has been "transformed into a corridor community whose commercial strips
and traffic arteries are pathways for commuters through and out of the area."
Mexicans tend to follow the traditional immigrant pattern of spatial
mobility, according to USC demographer Dowell Myers. In other words, newcomers tend to
"concentrate in the city, followed by slow departure for the suburbs as the
immigrants work their way up the economic ladder." U.S.-born Latinos, the children
and grandchildren of immigrants, are significantly less likely to live in the city of Los
Angeles than are immigrants. While immigrants have injected energy and renewed commercial
activity into the inner city, they don't always stay long enough to fully stabilize a
neighborhood. One of the great ironies of immigrant upward mobility is the destabilizing
effect it can have on a city. "The departure of the upwardly mobile makes room for
new immigrant arrivals who join the remaining, less successful members of previous
immigrant waves," contends Myers.
One consequence of this pattern is a decline in civic participation.
Local institutions suffer, and there emerges a type of absentee leadership, in which the
most vocal people in a community tend to be middle-class activists and politicos who no
longer reside in the district. Boyle Heights and unincorporated East L.A. are to Los
Angeles what Brooklyn is to New York. They command the affection of many who grew up there
but no longer live there. Both Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights and its rival
Garfield High in East Los Angeles, for example, share a remarkable tradition of former
students returning to teach in the community.
But the activism of former residents does not offset the lack of a
strong, organic political infrastructure. By some accounts, there are three voices in L.A.
politics: homeowners, businesses and unions. In Boyle Heights and the entire 14th
District, which winds its way through Highland Park, El Sereno and Eagle Rock, a lack of
homeowner groups and a largely unorganized business class leave unions to wield
disproportionate political influence. This imbalance of power ensures that elections
remain noncompetitive, top-down affairs. As Fabian Nunez, the political director of the
Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, said last month, "We will not only help elect
council members but we will determine who that candidate will be, not only by our
endorsements but by ensuring that they win those seats."
When Alatorre announced that he would not seek another term, his
aspiring successors quickly sought the all-important endorsement of the County Federation
of Labor. Union support not only delivers financial backing but also an unmatched number
of campaign workers to run a field operation. Yet, when labor's role in anointing
candidates monopolizes everyone's attention, the greater and broader need to widen the
district's voting base and to give its residents a political voice and a larger stake in
democratic decision-making go begging. "It's a shame that people are just going
toward the established sources of brokering votes, like labor," says Manuel Bernal,
the executive director of the East L.A. Community Corp. "It minimizes the role of
anybody who is not related to labor."
At times, unchecked union power can even diminish the role of community.
For example, the Service Employees International Union has championed the candidacy of a
former UCLA biology professor who neither grew up nor lived in the 14th District until
less than a week before the December residency deadline. The SEIU-backed candidacy of
Jorge Mancillas, who moved into the district from West Los Angeles, represents a new
milestone in carpetbagging. Apparently, the union's ideological criteria for endorsement
outweighs candidate legitimacy.
Eastside political consultant Victor Griego, who is splitting labor
endorsements with Mancillas and One Stop Immigration director Juan Jose Gutierrez, says he
would not consider running for the 14th District seat without union support. The good
news, however, is that union clout has not prevented an unprecedented number of underdog
candidates from availing themselves of home-grown networks to garner support.
Thirty-year-old Alvin D. Parra, who ran an insurgent campaign against Alatorre in 1995 and
garnered 42% of the vote, is trying to capitalize on a grass-roots network of supporters.
Charter-reform commissioner Nick Pacheco says he's relying on a "mothers'
network" to help him get out the word. Water district engineer Luis Cetina says he is
asking constituents to get involved by contributing financially to his campaign.
California Medical Center's public-affairs director Sylvia Robledo will try to tapan
unexploited base of women voters. These and a number of other young candidates could help
to energize the district's electoral base and bring new voices into its politics.
More than any political agenda, the 14th District needs more of its
residents to feel a sense of proprietorship over their civic institutions. As the only
viable political infrastructure in the district, unions must think beyond anointing
friendly candidates and begin to help build a stronger civic infrastructure that can truly
engender movements from the bottom up. "There's no way that Boyle Heights can turn
around by solely providing government services," says Manuel Bernal. "The only
way to improve the quality of life is by the community becoming more active in the
Copyright 1999, Los Angeles Times