Category Archives: Op-eds

Blogs and op-eds prior to 2017

Los Angeles Herald Examiner August 7, 1987

From – Los Angeles Herald Examiner August 7, 1987

Title – “Olvera Street faces wholesale changes”

The fate of Olvera Street, Los Angeles’ oldest, is up for grabs. Earthquake laws, historically preservation, the pimping of Mexican culture and a political power struggle over who will control El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historic Park, all are playing a role.

During the 1880s, Olvera Street was part of a larger Mexican barrio – encompassing today’s Chinatown – called Sonora Town. Although they competed with newcomers to Los Angeles to live there, Mexicans made up a majority of its residents at the turn of the century.

But by the mid-1920s, Sonora Town, now reduced to Olvera Street, was in its last urban cycle. Its residential character was gone, its buildings occupied by commercial enterprises. When light industry moved in, almost everyone expected Olvera to be bulldozed. Enter Mrs. Christine Sterling, who wanted to save the Avilla house, as well as other buildings, and preserve a bit of “Old Mexico.”

With the help of the city elite and convict labor, Olvera Street, as we now know it, opened in the early 1930s. The area was not only meant to be a tourist attraction. It also was intended as a showplace of Los Angeles’ multi-ethnic heritage, a demonstration project on how different races could work and live together in the city. Ironically, that ideal was daily tarnished by government-sanctioned repatriation squads looking for Mexicans, who, during the Great Depression, were blamed for the shortage of jobs. A mural critical of American capitalism – “America Tropical” by David Siquieros, the great Mexican muralist – was whitewashed. Yet Sterling’s Ramonaland, a sort of Mexican Romeo and Juliet fantasyland in which rancheros wear oversized sombreros and their wives wear layered petticoats, survived.

When California established El Pueblo Park in 1953, Olvera’s merchants had great expectations. They were short-lived. As their first priority, state bureaucrats insisted on restoring the street’s buildings. That meant those built by the Italians, Chinese and other ethnics. The dwellings of the poor – the adobes, where Mexicans had lived since 1781 – were the first to be bulldozed.

Today, Olvera Street is more tourist trap than model of inter-racial harmony. But many of its merchants and their families have developed strong ties to the neighborhood – some have lived there for 57 years – where Mexican traditions such as “Las Posadas” and the “Blessing of the Animals” are still celebrated. Indeed, it is their continuing presence that has preserved much of Olvera Street’s traditional image.

But the rise of Chicano nationalism and the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Mexican nationals and Central Americans have significantly transformed the character of El Pueblo. On Sundays, up to 13,000 Latinos attend mass at Our Lady Queen of Angels. The plaza is increasingly used to celebrate Latino holidays, as well as to protest continuing injustices. In short, Olvera Street is not just an enclave of Mexican business families. Over the years it has come to represent a sense of place for the larger Latino community to share its culture.

A merging of forces, financial and political, threatens to change all that. The enactment of strict earthquake standards, many of which fail to take into account the nature of historical buildings, have made bringing Olvera structures up to code extremely expensive. Environmentalists have compounded the problem by demanding laws that limit a building’s restoration to its original shape and use, without insisting on additional money to achieve this purpose. Faced with paying the bills, the Legislature has decided to appropriate only limited funds to upgrade quake safety in the area.

The lawmaker’s reluctance in part stems from a long-simmering squabble over who should pay for the repairs. The city says Sacramento is responsible, since the state owns the park. In turn, Sacramento wants the quake buck passed to the city, which administers El Pueblo. The dispute has led some city politicians, notably the mayor, to pressure Sacramento to transfer park ownership to the city, a goal that many Olvera merchants support. And for good reason.

The directors of El Pueblo Park have been non-Mexican. In setting policy, they never bother to solicits the advice of Mexican-American scholars. Furthermore, the directors have tried to intimidate the Olvera merchants by reminding them that at other state parks, concessions are bid on. The message is clear: Don’t make waves or you’ll have to compete with Taco Bell.

The massive redevelopment occurring across the street at the old Terminal Annex and the Union Station also has upped the economic and political ante. It is an open secret that developers would like to assume management of Olvera Street and parcel out the concessions to the highest bidders.

Only two years ago, the City Council unanimously approved preconditions for Olvera Street development. Among other things, they promised to protect the merchants and preserve the integrity of the district. But political winds shift quickly.

The council’s recent redistricting put Olvera Street squarely in City Councilman Richard Alatorre’s district. Some of the merchants worry that Alatorre’s ties to East L.A. redevelopment corporations might compel him to put developer profit motives at the head of the line, should the councilman ever be in a position to move and shake.

Other Olvera merchants also are leery of plans being pushed by Tom Bradley’s office, which wants the park put under the control of the Parks and Recreations Committee. Specifically, the businessmen fear they might be forced to compete in bidding wars for the street’s concessions which would be prohibitively expensive for most of them.

Another option would be for either the merchants or a directorship controlled by them to buy the park. The idea led them to commission a study on how this could be achieved. They realize that the needed changes must safeguard the Latino community’s deepening stake in the park while not unduly jeopardizing Olvera Street as a tourist attraction. Toward this end, Latino run shops and Latino employees seem indispensable. It would also serve as a reminder that Mexicans (of Indian, black and Spanish blood) originally built and lived on the street.

But will poor Latinos still be allowed to attend mass at Our Lady Queen of Angels or sit in the plaza? Will activists be able to hold political rallies in the kiosco in defense of La Raza? Or will they, like Siquieros mural, be whitewashed, lest they interfere with Ramonaland’s image?

Los Angeles Times (December 25, 1989)

From – Los Angeles Times (December 25, 1989)

Title – “A Uniquely Needy Flock Mustn’t Lose Its Padre

When Roger M. Mahony became archbishop of Los Angeles, there were high hopes that the archdiocese would turn its attention to Los Angeles’ burgeoning Latino population. The scheduled reassignment of a popular Latino priest, Father Luis Olivares, threatens to return us to the days of Cardinals James Francis McIntyre and Timothy Manning.

It was 20 years ago this Christmas Eve, at St. Basil’s on Wilshire Boulevard, that Chicano activists protested what they considered Cardinal McIntyre’s neglect of their growing community. A confrontation ensued and a dozen demonstrators were arrested.

At the time, significant changes were occurring in the Roman Catholic Church. Unhappy about their church’s lack of social commitment, encouraged by the reforms of Pope John XXIII and the spread of liberation theology in Latin America, and inspired by the heroics of black Protestant ministers in the civil rights movement, Latino priest and nuns pressed for an expansion of their ministry to poor Latinos. Many of these priests and nuns worked in the Los Angeles archdiocese, then one of the most reactionary in the country.

In San Antonio, by contrast, Archbishop Robert Lucey and Francis Furey had for 40 years built an environment to empower Mexican-Americans. Outspoken critics of racism and advocates of trade unionism, they paved the way for the appointment of Patrick Flores as San Antonio’s first Mexican-American archbishop and helped Mexican-Americans gain control of city government in the late 1970s.

This is the tradition of church activism that Olivares brought to Los Angeles and that still imbues his ministry. He was an early supporter of Cesar Chavez and the farm workers. As pastor at Our Lady of Soledad in unincorporated East Los Angeles, he helped organize the United Neighborhood Organization, a grassroots group seeking to expand Latino influence.

In 1981, Olivares became pastor of Our Lady Queen of the Angels, the city’s oldest Catholic Church. Once a symbol of Spanish colonial domination, La Placita, as it is known, became a refuge for poor Mexicans who were unwelcome in English-speaking parishes like St. Vibiana and St. Vincent.

Olivares arrived at the church when waves of Mexican and Central American pilgrims, in a modern-day Christmas tale, were seeking sanctuary in this 20th century Belen. Mindful of La Placita’s historical significance and of the importance of giving people hope, Olivares opened the church’s doors to the refugees. His message was clear: How can you show love for a God that you cannot see if you show no love for your fellow man?

During his eight years at La Placita, Olivares has become the symbol of the Christ who kicked the Pharisees out of the temple rather than the Jesus who ate at their table. An adamant critic of U.S. involvement in El Salvador, he declared his church a sanctuary in 1985. He forged strong links with labor and community organizations, reinforcing their commitment to peace with justice. He has been threatened by Salvadoran death quads based in Los Angeles.

It thus shouldn’t be difficult to understand why the transfer of Olivares to Fort Worth, Tex., if allowed to go forward without an appeal, would be interpreted by Latinos as a weakening of the church’s commitment to the cause of social justice. For many of us, it would also mean a loss of faith. When a child, I often prayed “Please help me God!”, and I knew He would. As I grew older, doubt crept into my prayers. “Please God, help me if you can!” evolved into “Please God, if you’re there!” Olivares made me and many others at least listen again, for there was never any doubt that Olivares was there and would help if he could.

Finally, his departure in July would come at a critical time in La Placita history. Plans are under way to redevelop the area, including the conversion of the plaza into a tourist haven. Many fear the Queen of Angels will become part of the “Old Town” landscape.

Yet Olivares need not have to leave. His order’s decision to transfer him can be appealed.

Archbishop Mahony’s most severe critics concede that he is an improvement on his predecessors. His past differences with Olivares may stem from a clash of different traditions. Even so, the archbishop displayed considerable courage in personally taking medical aid to El Salvador. We hope he will summon similar courage and request that the Claretian order allow Olivares to continue giving posada (lodging) to the modern-day pilgrims coming to Los Angeles.

Los Angeles Herald Examiner (April 7, 1989)

From – Los Angeles Herald Examiner (April 7, 1989)

Title – “Once again, Latinos won’t get their seat”

Created when the city was forced to redraw its political lines in 1986, the 7th Council District looked to be L.A.’s third Latino seat. Councilman Ernani Bernardi, deprived of his Van Nuys base, appeared vulnerable this election. And many Latinos expected the Democratic Party to live up to its rhetoric of promoting Latino empowerment.

Instead, the party, along with the media, have acted as if the district were still the fabled white bedroom community of the past. Fact is the 7th District is now predominately Latino.

Even 10 years ago, it was roughly 40 percent Latino. The 1980 census counted more than a million people living in the San Fernando Valley. 19 percent of whom were Latino. In the East Valley, where the 7th District is situated, Pacoima/Arleta was already 60 percent Latino, Sun Valley, 34 percent, Sylmar, 28 percent and North Hollywood, 25 percent.

More recent data and projections, however, suggest that the 7th is currently 55 percent to 60 percent Latino. The Latino population in the San Fernando Valley may well be 300,000, making it one of the largest concentrations of Latinos in the U.S.

It’s no surprise that the media’s demographic slight has colored their determination of a frontrunner in the Councilmanic race. Consider the case of Lyle Hall, 49.

A former president of the firefighters union and now a fire captain, he’s lived in the Panorama City area for the past couple of years. In endorsing him, the County Federation of Labor seemed to go out of its way to insult the Latina candidate. The interview committee was composed of five males – four whites (two firefighters) and one black. On the basis of this endorsement alone, Hall, an unknown to the 7th’s Latino majority, became the frontrunner in most news accounts.

By contrast, Irene Tovar, 50, raised in Pacoima, graduated from San Fernando High School and California State University, Northridge, received the endorsement of the L.A. County Democratic Party Central Committee. But according to sources inside the Tovar campaign, the endorsement has been worthless. Without donations from the County Federation of Labor, the party will not even mail out a slate card.

The tragedy is that Tovar is more than qualified to represent the district. During the past 25 years, she has held high-level jobs in both city and state government. She is past president of the statewide Hispanic Caucus to the Democratic Party and was the highest-ranking Latina in Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration.

More important, Irene Tovar has served the Northeast Valley all her adult life. As a student, she walked the barrios on weekends to persuade parents to send their children to preschool to learn English and get a head-start. Before she became a public servant, she was a founder of the Latin American Civic Association. In the mid-1960s, the association brought the federally funded head-start program to the San Fernando Valley. Since then, 20,000 children of all colors have been served by the program.

Tovar also played a leading role in organizing Legal Aid, campaigning for fair housing and better race relations and establishing the equity programs at San Fernando Valley State College, now Cal State Northridge.

Why, then, have the labor and media establishments been so intent on slighting Tovar’s candidacy? Why have they ignored a homegrown Latina candidate, one who is especially equipped to handle the district’s problems? Why haven’t they owned up to the fact that there is more vacant land in the 7th than any other district and that this represents an obstacle to Latino empowerment?

Anyone who’s seen the Hansen Dam area, for example, can tell you why developers are drooling over it. They can also tell you how Hansen Dam, in contrast to the Sepulveda Basin, has been allowed to deteriorate. The lake hasn’t been restocked in years, and is drying up. Yet, this recreational area is important to those who live in the district.

True, the 77-year-old Bernardi is not considered pro-development, though he does accept developer money. Hall, however, was endorsed by the San Fernando Valley Realtor Association, which, along with the County Federation, is pro-developer. Problem is that either candidate, once in office, will probably be pressured to develop Hansen Dam and other areas in the district. In the end, development creates a reliable political constituency, and Latinos aren’t a part of it.

Truth be told, the affluent in the San Fernando Valley mock Latinos. The Valley’s leaders are among those who own and rule Los Angeles. Eight of 15 City Council members have Valley offices – and not one of them is a known advocate for Latino interests.

The 7th District is the “Other San Fernando Valley,” where lower- and middle-class Latinos, whites and blacks live in modest but well-kept neighborhoods. Some of the more affluent live in the foothills. In the lowlands, multiple-dwelling complexes are home to the foreign-born. Two to three families living in a single unit is the rule there.

Bernardi inherited the problems of the 7th when the city was remapped. But his career preoccupation has been cutting the budget, and many of the programs cut were aimed at solving the problems of the 7th.

Although most Latino officeholders have endorsed Tovar, they have done little else. Notably missing from her supporters are Rep. Edward R. Roybal and Council members Gloria Molina and Richard Alatorre. This is all the more disappointing because Valley Latinos, deprived of their own representative, have always looked to them to defend their interests.

One explanation is that should Bernardi win this time around and retire in 1993, a Latino would be in a better position to succeed him. Coupled with strong Latinos running in the 1st and 9th districts, the 7th would help get Latinos to the polls at a time when a Latino – Alatorre being a likely candidate – will possibly be running for mayor.

Should this scenario develop, it would be potentially divisive. Latino candidates loyal to the two East Side camps would trigger a fight within the Valley Latino community, ending all hope of a homegrown candidate such as Tovar from emerging in the 7th District. The Northeast Valley deserves better.

Los Angeles Herald Examiner (November 26, 1986)

From – Los Angeles Herald Examiner (November 26, 1986)

Title – “None dare call it racism”

The word “racism,” one of the most damning words in American politics, is seldom heard in public these days. Anyone bold enough to use it risks being labeled a “radical kook,” or worse. Consequently, many Americans seem to believe that the nation has moved “beyond racism,” that its institutions and individuals do not intentionally practice, even in subtle ways, discrimination against blacks and Latinos. New laws and endless litigation have created, at least in principle, a color-blind society.

The irony, of course, is that deleting the word racist from our active political vocabulary has made it that much more difficult for blacks and Latinos to square reality with principle. For no other word conveys such a decisive moral censure. “Prejudicial,” the most commonly used substitute, clearly lacks a similar force. In such a climate, racists are less reluctant to take the offensive and racial minorities must now prove that racism exists.

This is in marked contrast to the 1960s, when the charge of “racism,” admittedly abused at times, forced society to confront the fact that some American institutions and public policies consciously discriminated against minorities. The charge of racism galvanized Americans to take notice. It added a moral dimension to problems that compelled action.

In the ‘80s, the revival of patriotism in some quarters has taken the form of “We are all Americans and we are all the same.” Critics of government policy are sometimes called unpatriotic. Social scientists reinforce the mindset by creating euphemisms for “racism” like the “isolation of minorities.” Such an abstract concept reinforces the belief that American society is no longer tainted by traces of racism.

Actually, during the past 15 years, as the arrival of undocumented workers from Mexico has accelerated, racism towards Latinos has increased. This growing antipathy toward Latinos is in the large part the result of statistics released by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The agency’s formula for estimating the numbers of “illegal aliens” who elude capture crossing into the United States – for every one who is caught, three to four make it – has contributed to the impression that we are losing control of our borders. Last year, for example, the INS reported that 1.7 million undocumented workers were arrested. Multiplying that figure by a factor of 3 or 4, per INS’ “got away” ratio, does indeed suggest a deluge. But clearly there is no way to verify these estimates. The figures, nonetheless, are dutifully reported in the media without any critical evaluation. Given this misleading scenario of Mexicans streaming across our borders, racism toward all brown-skinned people can, and does, flourish.

Regional INS director Harold Ezell has set the tone of the new racism in his attacks on the undocumented workers. When the INS “sweeps” factories looking for “illegal aliens,” it is not uncommon for its agent to detain anyone who might be of Mexican heritage and ask he or she to prove American citizenship. Ezell also has condoned the formation of paramilitary groups whose self-proclaimed duty is to carry out INS policy. They patrol the border unimpeded and justify their vigilantism in terms of stopping the “communists” and/or the drug traffickers at the border. Yet none dare call their mission racist.

The loss in legitimacy of the word “racism” as a meaningful form of protest also has loosened moral restraints on politicians who would exploit the anti-foreigner hysteria. Take Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich. In his unsuccessful bid for the Republican Party’s nomination for the U.S. Senate, he played on public fears that we are being deluged with “illegal aliens.” His aid even went so far as to say that the problem was so bad that he wished he had a Smith & Wesson.

In the ‘60s, such talk would have led to charges that Antonovich and his aid were dangerously close to, if not over, the racist line. Today, no one in the media, from editorial writers to commentators, called Antonovich’s remarks racist.

The overwhelming passage of Proposition 63, the English-only initiative, underscores this trend. If anyone still doubts the real intentions of some of the measure’s supporters, he need look no farther than Sacramento, where work is under way on a number of bills to implement Prop. 63’s provision to “preserve and enhance” English. Assemblyman Frank hill, a supporter of the measure, said this week he seeks to change “the fundamental focus on bilingual education in California away from native language instruction.” At whose expense?

Gov. George Deukmejian is a good example of a politician whose policies, though not overtly racist, have the effect of “isolating Latinos.” At least four examples come to mind. One, he has weakened the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board by stacking it in favor of growers. Needless to say, their primary concerns do not include improving the living conditions of farm workers, the majority of whom are poor Latinos. Two, in pressing the downtown Los Angeles prison, he has callously disregarded the potentially harmful effects a new jail would have to the East L.A. community. Three, during the administration, Deukmejian has done everything in his power to reduce the community-college budget, with the fact that they are fast becoming mere technology schools. This has been a serious blow to Latinos, whose attendance in community-colleges is disproportionately high. And in September, the governor vetoed funding for bilingual education, stating that he wanted a review of the cost-effectiveness of the program (which would take years and in effect kill bilingual education). Unfortunately, the governor has not been as conscious with respect to the downtown prison site: He has refused to study its effectiveness or its environmental impact.

During the 1960s, it would not have been controversial to argue that some of the policies of Deukmejian and Antonovich and Ezell foster racist ends by unfairly discriminating against Latino interests. In today’s political climate, that charge is likened to the raving of a Lyndon LaRouche. Hence, nobody is listening which means that the struggle for equality which is ultimately dependent on the underdog being given his chance to share his case, is that much harder.

Los Angeles Herald Examiner (January 23, 1987)

From – Los Angeles Herald Examiner (January 23, 1987)

Title – L.A. Latinos need a new Ed Roybal

The recent turn of events in the controversy over the proposed downtown prison makes “leadership ability” the most pressing political qualification in the special election for the First Councilmanic District. For it is clear from Gov. George Deukmejian’s first State of the State address of his second term that his concept of justice begins and ends with “just-us” white Republicans. He will not curb his obsession to dump another prison on the East Side Latinos, even though Crown Coach, the company whose property was the cornerstone of the prison proposal, has sold out to private developers. “In the name of fairness,” the governor said, the fight must not be abandoned.

The governor’s unwavering confidence that he will still get his new prison exposes a crisis in the political leadership among Latinos. It also shows that Latinos should be wary of (***I believe the article is missing a word here although nothing is cut off***) depending on the support of liberal Democrats, though some of them helped block the prison last year, in their struggle against Deukmejian. The temptation to mend political fences in Sacramento and move on to other issues is just too strong. This state of affairs shouldn’t be all that surprising since most political leaders today stand for little, if anything.

What makes Latino leadership so crucial now is that Latinos are passing through the worst of times: Demographers predict that they will replace blacks as the most depressed minority in the United States by the 1990s. Already, the majority of the next two generations of Mexican-Americans living in Los Angeles have been condemned to a life of poverty. Someone should have already sounded the clarion in response to Deukmejian’s sense of “fairness.”

The political plight of Latinos is further aggravated by local politicians and the media whose grasp of the history of the East Side is shaky at best. In the postwar era, developers steadily encroached upon Mexican-American communities in and adjacent to the Civic Center, threatening to wipe them out. The downtown elite oversaw and participated in the destruction of the area’s transit system, thereby increasing the necessity for freeways. Federal policy and money made their construction possible. Suburbia flowered, and whites abandoned the inner city to minorities and the poor.

Five freeways crisscross the East Side. Thousands – 10,000 in Boyle Heights alone – were uprooted to clear the way. One freeway divides Hollenbeck Park, one of the state’s most beautiful, in half because planners wanted to avoid demolishing a brewery. Simultaneously, plans were made to redevelop most of the East Side. The planners did not, however, address such needs as public housing for the poor. Indeed, the “ethic” of the time sanctioned the practice of taking land away from Latino and other landowners to sell to private developers at well below market prices.

Bunker Hill and Chavez Ravine stand as testimonials to the concept of fairness that Republicans and Democratic politicians regularly support. In the case of Bunker Hill, occupants were forced to sell their homes without any guarantee of – or the means to buy – comparable housing elsewhere. In Chavez Ravine, sheriff deputies forcibly removed families to give Walter O’Malley and his Dodgers the 300 acres the city promised to lure the team from Brooklyn.

The media rationalized this plunder by portraying the Latino community as economically blighted, crime-ridden and gang-infested. Such a view had made it politically easy – environmental impact reports were not required, for example – to locate waste disposal sites, prisons and public facilities in the area. And implementing those mandates often involved police brutality.

The only elected Latino official in the city was Edward R. Roybal, who served on the Los Angeles City Council from 1949-1962. His active support of progressive civil rights causes quickly earned him the wrath of the downtown elite when he opposed a loyalty oath for city employees during the McCarthy hysteria. Throughout his tenure, Roybal led the Mexican-American community in condemning police brutality, the downtown elite and the forced removal of urban families. In the case of Chavez Ravine, he focused public attention on the uprooting of families there.

But Roybal’s finest hour came in January 1960, when the late Los Angeles Police Chief William H. Parker testified before the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. In his testimony, the chief asserted that since Mexicans were genetically prone toward crime, his department’s aggressive tactics were justified: “Some of these people (Mexicans) were here before we were, but some are not far removed from the wild tribes of the district of the inner mountains of Mexico.”

Roybal attended and led numerous rallies demanding Parker’s removal and/or his apology. But council members lined up behind Parker, accusing Roybal of being disruptive. All the local newspaper editorialized that Roybal was fomenting racial discord. (For the record, Parker never apologized.)

Today, there are three East Side Latinos in the California Assembly, one in the state Senate, another on the City Council and a dozen or so judges. Combined, they have not even approached the leadership standard set by Roybal. Generally, they have played it safe. Nowhere is this more evident than in their close relationships with Roybal’s old nemesis – the developers.

The downtown prison is thus important in the First Councilmanic District race because it underscores the desperate need for a new Roybal. The community cannot afford to elect another representative who stands for little or who merely defends the monied interests. For Latinos, the choice is between Los Angeles Board of Education member Larry Gonzalez and Assembly woman Gloria Molina. The question that should be uppermost in the voter’s minds is which one can revive and carry on the Roybal tradition.

The Los Angeles Herald Examiner (May 15, 1987)

From – The Los Angeles Herald Examiner (May 15, 1987)

itle – “Put Cinco de Mayo on the wagon”

Twenty years ago, Cinco de Mayo was an event largely unknown outside the schools and parks of the Mexican-American community. It is now a part of the culture of the Southwest. This month, both barrio and yuppie bars advertised Cinco de Mayo “Happy Hours,” and margaritas and beer flowed freely. In good old American fashion, the celebration has been packaged and marketed to the public. And therein lies a problem.

Latinos visiting Mexico during Cinco de Mayo week are shocked to discover that Mexicans hardly note the day. After all, Cinco de Mayo commemorates just one victory – though brilliantly orchestrated by Texas-born Gen. Ignacio Zaragosa – over the French. The battle itself had little effect on the course of Mexican history. Its importance is largely symbolic.

Mexicans in the United States have celebrated Cinco de Mayo since the late 19th century, when Mexican patriotic associations, mutual-aid societies and other organizations sponsored the festivities. More often than not the speakers came from the ranks of the local Mexican elite. A strong strain of nationalism dominated the proceedings. The virtues of Mexican culture were extolled.

After World War I, the focus of the celebrations gradually changed. With the growth of Mexican-American middle-class organizations, composed largely of second-generation Mexicans, assimilation into American society became a dominant theme at Cinco de Mayo events. Scholarships were awarded; beauty contests held. By World War II, this cycle was almost complete. The American flag was often seen flying alongside Mexico’s.

In the 1960s, a nationwide revival of Chicano nationalism again changed the emphasis at Cinco de Mayo celebrations. Chicano activists and their struggle for civil rights were praised. Cesar Chavez and his farm workers became heroes. In response to the demands of Chicano students, universities and colleges picked up the speaking tabs of such activists as Corky Gonzales and Jose Angel Gutierrez.

Shortly after the end of the Vietnam War, social activism declined, and, as a result, Cinco de Mayo again changed its colors. Enter the beer companies. Recognizing that Latinos comprised the biggest beer-drinking market in California, they developed a plan to expand their sales even more. According to Jim Hernandez, director of the California Hispanic Commission on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse, the brewers adopted what is now known as the “Budweiser strategy”: Make alcohol a staple of Latino social life.

“Historical” calendars, which depicted Mexican-American yuppies as the new Chicanos, were published and widely distributed by the brewers. Beer ads in the form of plaques, signs and placemats turned up in Mexican restaurants and bars. Fund-raising organizations received free beer; Latino conferences were underwritten by breweries. Menudo without beer became unthinkable.

The situation reached a new low two years ago when leading Mexican-American national organizations – the National Council of La Raza, the American G.I. Forum and later the League of United Latin American Citizens – signed an agreement with the Coors Brewing Company. In return for calling off a national boycott, Coors promised to give more than $350 million to Latino organizations and to the community. Coors suddenly had become a good corporate citizen.

But there was no guarantee that Latinos would ever see a cent of the pledged money. That Latinos would consume large quantities of Coors was a certainty. Critics of the agreement devised a new motto for the Chicano movement: “Drink a Coors for La Raza!”

Even more insidious than the Coors pact is the mindset of the middle-class organizations that signed on the dotted line. The leaders of La Raza, for example, no longer live next door to the poor who pick up the tab. By agreeing to take Coors’ word at face value, they unconsciously undermined the very values and institutions they pledged to preserve.

Alcoholism is a major problem in the Latino community. Pathetically outdated studies show that it is a greater health hazard there than in either the black or white communities. It destroys families, despoils the culture. The arrest rate for drunkenness is disproportionately high among Mexican-Americans. It is a myth that Mexicans are not drunks but just good drinkers.

To be sure, it would be difficult to tell Latinos not to drink free beer. It would be equally difficult to persuade under-funded grassroots organizations that it is not in their interest to accept help from the beer companies. They need the money to continue their work in the barrio. But the price is too high.

On the weekend before this month’s Cinco de Mayo festivities, Latinos could drive out to Lincoln Park and listen to Tierra, El Chicano and War, as well as other popular performers. They could forget about their personal problems, forget that Cinco de Mayo coincided with the start of the flawed Simpson-Rodino amnesty program. They only had to listen to a drop-in politico tell them how great it was. And there was no charge.

Occasionally, there was the faint cry of “Viva el Cinco de Mayo” and “Viva la Raza!” More often, it was Miller time. Next year, the Latino organizations and politicians who sponsor and participate in Cinco de Mayo events should look harder for other sources of funding. That would be a real victory to celebrate.

Los Angeles Herald Examiner (July 5, 1987)

From – Los Angeles Herald Examiner (July 5, 1987)

Title – “The limits of working in the system”

Many Latinos were recently surprised to learn of Dr. Julian Nava’s emotional appearance before the Los Angeles Unified School Board of Education on the question of who should have been chosen to run the district. In particular, he was angry at the board’s selection of an outsider, Dr. Leonard Britton, superintendent of the Dade County system in Miami, over Latino candidate William Anton, deputy superintendent of the L.A. district. When I spoke to him the other day in his home, he was still upset.

Regrettably, Nava’s display of anger and his public criticism of “the system” went unreported in the press, for it marked a significant departure for the onetime school-board member. His reputation as a soft-spoken negotiator and peacemaker has been built on the view that the issue is never one of whether the system is good or bad but of “learning how to make it work for us.” He new seems to be questioning that approach.

Nava, currently a professor at Cal State Northridge, was first elected to the school board in 1967. A year later, 10,000 Chicano students walked out of five East Side high schools in protest of, among other things, the lack of Mexican-American teachers, counselors and administrators and the 50 percent dropout rate among Mexican-American students. Although Nava sympathized with many of the students’ grievances, he refused to be pressured into leading an assault on the system.

At the time, according to Nava, the district employed three principals of Mexican extraction and “making it that far was more a matter of connections than brains.” A thousandth of a point on the written exam often separated candidates, so oral exams and performance evaluations, clearly more subjective measures, counted heavily in the selection process.

Through negotiation, Nava changed the rules. He persuaded the district to exhaust its pervious candidate list when filling an opening before compiling a new one. That way, Nava said, “No. 25 could get a job.” As a result, he broke up the all-white old boys network. In 1979, his last year on the board, 105 Latino administrators were working for the district. In Nava’s eyes, the appointment of Anton would have vindicated his “work-within-the-system” philosophy and benefited the district as well.

“How could reasonable men and women not comprehend the importance of a Latino appointment [for school superintendent] at this juncture?” an exasperated Nava asked me. After all, within 10 years, two-thirds of the system’s students will be Latino (currently they represent 56 percent). By the turn of the century, a majority of Los Angeles may be Latino. Nava’s own answers to his question are reflective of a man who is unusually irritated with the system he has fought to preserve as the starting point for all discussion.

First, his faith in the constructive power of coalitions of blacks, Jews and liberal Democrats has been shaken in recent years by the failure of these groups to support Latinos or Latino issues aggressively. As he asserted in his presentation to the board: “Among Latinos, we find the clear impression that a majority of the board want to deny the position of superintendent to a qualified Latino for fear that the growing number of Latinos would be translated into power that might upset some established political interests.”

History supports Nava’s impression. The powers that be in Los Angeles, whatever their political philosophy, are largely indifferent to the needs of Latinos. For instance, no non-Latino city leader has forcefully come forth (Mayor Tom Bradley has been conspicuously silent) to help Latinos fight Gov. George Deukmejian’s proposed East Side prison. Neither is City Hall officially concerned about the disappearing industry on the East Side, which means thousands of lost jobs. Nor are City Council chambers ringing with debate on what to do with the numerous toxic dumps in the community.

Politically, even moderate Latino candidates often find it difficult to attract liberal support. When Nava decided to run for state superintendent of schools in 1970, liberals refused to support his candidacy. Until Richard Alatorre was elected, no Latino had served on the City Council for 23 years. Statewide, Latino assemblymen and senators rarely served more than one term before the early ‘70s. The emergence of an East Side political machine can be traced in part to this lack of support for Latinos in politics.

Second, Nava blames the process of electing board members by district for the board’s lack of sensitivity toward Latinos. Since the voters established election by districts in 1979, Nava said, “each of the board members has become a little Caesar who dominates [his or her] own district, caring less for the entire system.” In contrast to at-large elections, school-board candidates running for district office don’t have to rely on the Latino vote to get elected, so “they don’t care about it.” The end result, Nava claims, has been the rise of “rotten boroughs.”

(Generally, though, Latinos support election by district since it was almost impossible to elect Latinos in at-large elections. Nava was an exception. Successful suits to bring about district elections has dramatically increased the number of Latino elected officials throughout the Southwest.)

As bad as board insensitivity to Latinos, Nava said, is the political maneuvering of some board members. For example, he accuses Roberta Weintraub, who was elected to the board for her stand against busing, of leading the crusade against home-grown candidates. He said reliable insiders had told him that Weintraub “let it be known that she did not want the new superintendent to come from the ranks of the L.A. district.” Nava feels that Weintraub still carries a vendetta against most district administrators because of their alleged role in implementing court-mandated busing. “They [the administrators] got the message when the Bus Stop board fired (former Superintendent William) Johnson.”

Third, under the likes of Weintraub, improving the quality of education is a difficult task. According to Nava, “board decisions are not based on what is good for the district at large, but mainly on those things that affect the board members. For education, this is disastrous, since the effects of education are general.”

Nava dismisses the school board’s contention that it went outside the system because it wanted a nationally recognized educator as a “sham.” Former L.A. school Superintendent Harry Handler had a national reputation, he says, and “his hands were still tied” insofar as he had to “count votes on the board before initiating new programs in the schools.” But because Handler was a product of the L.A. system – 30 years in the district, five as chief – Nava believes he and his staff were able to move educational mountains. In selecting Britton, the first superintendent to be brought in since 1948, Nava thus sees the board consciously moving to increase its own power at the expense of the superintendent.

The real question is whether Britton’s experience as chief of the Dade County system will help him run the one here. The two districts share some characteristics: a steady influx of non-English-speaking immigrants, an increasing minority population (mostly Latino) and escalating school enrollment.

But Nava said that Britton faces difficult problems in managing the L.A. school system. For one, he will walk into the job with only the most basic knowledge of how it works. More important, Britton lacks a “corps of loyalists to protect him from an impatient board.” Unless he quickly moves to develop political allies in Sacramento and the community, which he can use as leverage, Nava fears the new superintendent will be powerless.

Much has been made of Britton’s successful implementation of a comprehensive bilingual program in the Dade County school system. Indeed, some school board members who voted for him cited this achievement as a crucial factor. But, as Nava points out, Cubans have real political muscle in Florida, with many of them middle-class and professional. In short, the political atmosphere there is much more friendly toward such programs and others that seek to upgrade education.

In contrast, a sizeable number of the Latino students in the L.A. system comes from poor Mexican-American families. Many of the parents are economic refugees from Central America. Others are undocumented. Indisputably, these people do not have the money or the know-how to organize and force the school board to address their needs. Nava believes that Anton, as a district veteran, would have been in a far better position to rally support for their cause.

When asked what we should do about the failure of the board to appoint Anton, Nava hesitated. “Maybe Anton should sue the system,” he said. Then, ever reluctant to part with his “work-within-the-system” philosophy, he mused: “Perhaps the school district is too large and should be divided into workable units.”

As for me, I stopped believing in fairy tales and miracles a long time ago.

Los Angeles Herald Examiner (September 11, 1987)

From – Los Angeles Herald Examiner (September 11, 1987)

Title – “Juan Pablo won’t see”

In an August article in The Tidings, the newspaper of the Los Angeles Archdiocese, it was reported that Juan Pablo II’s itinerary for his visit to America targets cities with large Latino populations, the vast majority of whom are Catholic. In Miami, San Antonio and Los Angeles, the pope plans to make a special appeal to Latinos in Spanish.

Unfortunately, Juan Pablo will see little of the Latino community while here. The reason: Papal security. Law enforcement has designated St. Vibiana’s Cathedral where the pope will stay, a foreign embassy, which means the police can legally remove anyone within 500 feet of the cathedral. The homeless at the Union Rescue Mission next door also have been moved out of sight and out of mind, for security as well as cosmetic reasons.

The tight security arrangements disappoint many Latinos, who would like Juan Pablo to see their problems close up. Some, disillusioned with the promises of the “decade of the Hispanic,” want the pope to celebrate more than their numbers. They would like him to know that they would appreciate receiving the same kind of support he has given the Solidarity movement in Poland.

If Juan Pablo would look east, across the Los Angeles River, he would understand why they feel this way. There, he would find that few Latinos hold stable jobs; that poor workers face serious obstacles when attempting to organize. Only 18 percent of the American workforce today is unionized, and the percentage of minority union members is even lower.

In short, the rules are stacked against unions. For instance, two years ago a National Labor Relations Board dominated by Reagan appointees broke a strike of Morenci, Arizona copper miners, by allowing scabs to vote on whether or not to certify striking locals. And Gov. George Deukmejian has all but sentenced the California Agricultural Relations Board to death in his quest to destroy the United Farm Workers Union.

The pope also would find that Latinos are overwhelmingly clustered in lower paying industries, with large numbers of undocumented workers stuck in a secondary labor market. Labor organizers flatly assert that it is impossible to organize this sector. As a result, many Latino families earn just enough to rent dwellings infested with rats and roaches, often having to choose between paying the rent or feeding their families.

The pope will probably remain ignorant of these conditions, because the planners of the papal tour in Los Angeles seem more intent on not offending their white constituents than in exposing the pope to life in the Latino communities. True, pope advance men indicate a willingness to involve (***cut off word***), gays, women rights groups and middle-class Catholics. But I would be shocked if Latino leaders were asked to discuss either racism in America or the inequities in the U.S. workplace in the presence of the pope.

You can bet that if the subject of racial inequality does come up, our elected officials will accentuate the positive. Juan Pablo will be told of the tremendous strides Los Angeles has made in improving human relations and ameliorating poverty. As proof of their sincerity, they will surely point to a plan to construct a $150 million Statue of Liberty West at the Terminal Annex.

Our elected leaders will omit, of course, California’s plan to build another prison at the doorstep of East Los Angeles, within a two-mile radius of 26 schools. They will pass over the fat that neither the mayor nor the City Council have diligently fought this travesty. Nor will the city’s largest and most powerful Catholic group, the United Neighborhood Organization, be criticized, for laying the burden of the prison battle onto little Resurrection Parish. Finally, no mention will be made of The Tidings’ failure to keep the prison issue at the top of the Catholic agenda.

The irony in all this is that if Catholic Church is to achieve its goal of regenerating the family, it must preserve communities. Unwanted prisons destroy communities. Many Latinos feel that if the pope knew about the prison and its effects, he would be morally obligated to speak out.

Juan Pablo, I wish that the theme of your visit were not such a big secret. Just on moral terms, Latinos are poor and have for too long been ignored by the American Catholic Church. Poland is not the only country that needs a “Solidarity” movement. Bienvenida.