By Rodolfo F. Acuña
The 32nd Congressional District race is hard to watch. I have been active in politics for nearly fifty years. Unless you have lived through this period, it is impossible to appreciate how painful the struggle for political representation has been. Edward R. Roybal was not elected to the Los Angeles City Council until 1949 where he served until 1962 when he was elected to Congress. It was not until 1985 that Mexican Americans again won representation in the city council.
All through this period liberal Democratic Party leaders gerrymandered Mexican Americans splitting up communities on the eastside. The left leaning California Democratic Council during the sixties justified keeping Mexicans without representation excusing that it kept progressives such Rep. George Brown, Jr. in office. Brown was not a Mexican, they said, but he was against the Vietnam War. It was an “Anything But Mexican” mindset that a few Mexican Americans bought into.
Slowly this was turned around by the grace of the Voter Rights Act and the Mexican American Legal Defense & Education Fund. It was one office at a time. The reasons were obvious; the basis of equality was political representation. No one can deny that there was a qualitative difference with Richard Alatorre’s election to the city council in 1985. Almost overnight the number of city workers triples which was important in maintaining stable families by providing livable wages and healthcare.
Our justification for working for Mexican American candidates was that through life experiences they knew the needs of the unrepresented Mexican American communities, and that role models were needed for Latino youth confronted with the problems usual to the poor. It was an argument that many of us used to support Barrack Obama over formidable candidates such as Hillary Clinton.
These early victories paved the way for politicos such as the late California Assemblyman Marco Firebaugh who in his short years became a giant in promoting Latino interests in higher education. Marco always listened and understood the necessity for all Mexican origin people having a higher education. It was not their battle it was his.
In recent years, the community has returned or reverted to the 1960 mindset, forgetting the sacrifices of the past when George Brown represented an eastside district, and the disenfranchisement of the Latino mass was justified because he was against the war like there were no Mexicans against the war.
In this decade Latino elected officials conflicted with MALDEF that wanted one or more additional Latino congressional seats. The reason for the bargain was that it would protect the Democratic Party majority. I could understand this if the Latino community lacked effective and progressive leadership that was insensitive to other communities.
But I ask myself, wasn’t this why we as a community pushed to have Mexican American city council persons, county supervisors, and mayors? Is the present representation enough? Is it more deserving and entitled to speak for all Latinos?
Let’s get real, “In a 2005 editorial that appeared in the Los Angeles Times, UC Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau described an atmosphere of “alienation, mistrust, and division” that permeates UC campuses as a result of dwindling numbers of underrepresented minority students.”
Who has been hurt by Proposition 209 (1996)? Not whites and not Asians. This is something that Marco Firebaugh understood.
Watching the 32nd Congressional District race is painful because I know the Mexican American candidate. In my opinion one of the priority issues of the next decade will be immigration. Today there are thousands of undocumented students who have been here since they were toddlers. The few that make it through college do it the old fashion way they earn it. But once they graduate, they cannot find employment because they lack a green card.
I know Gil Cedillo. You would be hard put to name a Latino politico who has worked harder for those without papers. I know that he will not bargain away the interests of these students because he has taken on Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and defended the rights of immigrant and working families.
In the next decade, the community will need a congressional representative who prioritizes the interests of people who cannot vote. In the early 1960s Dr. Ernesto Galarza told me that it was not that labor leaders and politicos did not care about farm workers; the problem was that farm workers ranked low on their priority list. So their interests were never addressed because they were bargained away before they could get to them.
I already mentioned the college level where most blacks and Latinos attend community college; at the state college level they are about 20 percent; more than 50 percent lower than at the community colleges. The funding reflects this caste; the UC’s getting twice as much per student as the state university that in turn get twice as much as the community colleges.
In the forty-five years I have been in higher education there have been few legislators of any color who understood this. Even when there were only fifty students of Mexican decent at San Fernando Valley State College (1960) politicos excused the gap. Gil Cedillo ranks just below Marco Firebaugh in his commitment and his accessibility.
Just like the number of Mexican American elected officials, the gains we have made in higher education came piece by piece one trench at a time.
This isn’t taking anything away from the Asian or Chinese communities. They have made tremendous strides; they today rank higher in numbers than the white student population at the UC’s. But having been born and raised in Los Angeles I know that the great majority of residents of the 32nd are working class Latinos.
I am no politico, just a poor professor earning about half the salary of my elected brethren. But I have been fortunate to have lived through the struggles of yesterday. I know that our elected officials became elected officials because there were poor Mexicans and then Latinos to justify them; just like I have written twenty-one books because there are brown skinned people in need. If the poor weren’t there I would be just another hack reading my notes to spoiled kids drinking my Merlot.
Read Acuña at www.forchicanachicanostudies.wikispedia.com