East L.A., Latino heartland, revives its dream of cityhood
More than 30 years after the last attempt, the chances of success seem higher.
East Los Angeles
As the rumble of lowriders echoes down narrow streets lined with taco trucks and mural-covered walls, Oscar Gonzales walks from yard to yard.Skip to next paragraph
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"We're gathering signatures to make East L.A. into a city of its own," he tells one woman at a small house just off Cesar Chavez Blvd., named for the leader of the Chicano rights movement of the early 1960s. "We don't have a mayor or city council, so when the community goes to the state capital or Washington to bring back money, nobody is out there fighting for us."
The mostly Latin community here was immortalized by the 1987 Cheech and Chong comedy film "Born in East L.A.," in which the pot-smoking protagonists have repeated run-ins with US immigration officials. Crammed tightly into 7.4 square miles, East Los Angeles is to Mexican-Americans what Harlem is to African-Americans: ethnic symbol, social center, and cultural capital.
First stop north of the border for thousands of immigrants, the gritty urban area is the birthplace of world boxing champion Oscar de la Hoya and home to many Latino luminaries including Cheech Marin, one half of the comedy duo.
Now unincorporated, with a population of 130,000 and a median income of $28,000, East L.A. would be poised to take the national lead in Latino political power, which has been increasingly flexing its muscle every new US election.
"There are probably 100 city regions packed with Latinos just like us who would look over their shoulder, take pride and try to replicate us in this political new era created by Barack Obama," says Mr. Gonzales, who is president of the East Los Angeles Residents Association, the prime mover behind the effort.
A four-color flier handed out by Gonzales tells residents why cityhood is an idea whose time has come.
"Its rich history is a reflection of the Latino struggle for the American dream," says the flier. It lists the benefits of cityhood for the area: better local representation and services – including parks, public safety, street maintenance – captured revenues, and national recognition.
Campaign organizers will submit the necessary signatures to the county's Local Agency Formation Commission Dec. 12, which will then launch hearings and an economic feasibility study for the new city.
The move by East L.A. residents represents the latest chapter in the decades-long march by American Latinos to register, vote, and increasingly win positions in city, state, and federal government.
Two years ago, they surpassed African-Americans as the largest minority. The number of Latino elected officials has grown significantly over the past 10 years: From 3,743 in 1996 to 5,475 in 2008 – a 46 percent increase.
Beyond these political gains, incorporation may be a way to change the structure of governance itself.