Just scratch the surface at the gathering of the State Assembly's Latino legislative caucus a few weeks ago in Long Beach and you'll hear the still fresh wounds of California Latino politics.
La Palma City Councilman Ralph Rodriguez faced the ugly side of his city's ethnic tensions on the first day he put out campaign signs for his first run for office.
"I recall somebody driving by in a truck, rolling their window down, and telling me to go back home, we don't need my kind here. And it struck me because I'm 8th generation Californian. My 8th grandfather was baptized, the signed certificate by father Serra," Rodriguez said.
In Covina nearly a decade ago, then-councilman Roger Hernandez pushed to do away with at-large city council elections and elect members by district. At-large elections traditionally hurt ethnic minorities because fewer, by proportion, turn out to vote than white voters. In Covina that dynamic had kept Latinos from winning office. Hernandez bore the brunt of the policy proposal.
"Hate mail, people telling me to go back to my country. I was born here in the United States. I don't know what they're talking about when they tell me to go back to my country, right?" Hernandez said, describing the flack he received for advocating on Latino issues.
Nearly 40 years ago the critical mass of Latinos in the state legislature hit five. Cinco. And that prompted the Mexican American lawmakers to form the Chicano legislative caucus. There are now 27 legislators of Latin American descent serving in Sacramento.
Has this crop of politicians failed the people that helped elect them? With so many more Latinos in elective office, why do Latino students continue to have higher than average drop out rates. Why are Latino neighborhoods so poor in resources?
Cal State Long Beach student Jocelyn Rodriguez calls it a disconnect.
"There's such a disconnect between a specific group of Latinos that are in congress, highly educated, PhDs, and there's Latinos growing up in our more urban areas that have felt that disconnect that have been dropping out. I think that part of being in office is being able to find solutions to that disconnect," she said. Rodriguez wants to become a contracts lawyer. She used to think family law was the key to helping immigrant families like her own. The power of a contract is huge, she said.
There were lots of emotions in the air as a mariachi blared in a large hall at the Museum of Latin American Art. Rodriguez embodied many of them. She has high hopes to run for office and lead Long Beach as mayor one day. The inspiration to run for office was sparked in high school when she met the late State Senator Jenny Oropeza. Rodriguez is at the event to mourn Oropeza's death and to continue the push for greater Latino representation in government. Staffers collect donations for a CSU Long Beach scholarship in Oropeza's name. Rodriguez is there to network. You know, sip wine, exchange a joke and a business card, and part with the obligatory, "Let's keep in touch."
Oropeza's public service was straight out of central casting: student body president at Cal State Long Beach, the first Latina on the Long Beach Unified school board, which then led to a successful run for Long Beach city council and then the state legislature. That's the path Roger Hernandez, of Covina, followed to the state assembly last year. What about this idea that Latino elected officials have failed Latinos? "I would honestly say that it could be worse," he said. Latino elected officials have been trying their best.
The event's organizer, Artesia-area state assemblyman Tony Mendoza, said more Latinos in elective office would bring solutions to the problems in Latino neighborhoods. More Latinos, he said, need to be appointed to the state board of education. Surely Mendoza isn't talking about getting any Latino into office. Latino politics has had its share of bad apples. Richard Alatorre, Mike Hernandez, and Albert Robles, to name a few.
There's no Latino in statewide office yet, Mendoza complains. Did you support Abel Maldonado, the Central Valley Republican who ran for Lt. Governor, I asked.
"This guy, in the last five years that I've been an Assembly member, he never once stood up once for anything that we believed in, never came to any of the events we had in the Latino caucus. But when he was running for Lt. Governor all of a sudden he became Mexican, became Latino and brought out his roots. And I'm like, bro, you haven't been involved. C'mon, really? That's pretty self-serving. No, I did not support him," Mendoza said.
La Palma councilman Rodriguez said the Latino caucus is strongest on social issues. But right now the economy's foremost on voters' minds, and running on economic issues, he said, could hold the key to bringing more Latinos to Sacramento.
"I'm in Orange County. In my particular city Hispanics make up about 7% of the population. We're predominately Asian. But I think one of the things we've been able to do in Orange County where you've seen some Latino elected leaders in non-majority Latino cities. We're touching on the issues that matter to everybody. It really doesn't matter your background. It matters where you're going," Rodriguez said.
The story of ethnicity and American politics is one of the insiders using the outsiders and the gradual transformation of the outsiders into insiders. That assimilation hasn't happened to Latinos. It's happened to the Irish, Italians, and Jews.
State Assemblywoman Bonnie Lowenthal, a Jewish American, chatted away with attendees as she freely peppered her chatter with Spanish. She defended the relevance of the Latino caucus.
"I think there's always a place for people to connect with each other about mutual history, mutual needs, sometimes it's within one's own ethnicity, sometimes it bridges ethnicities In Sacramento, for instance, you will often find the Latino caucus, the black caucus, the Asian caucus, and the Jewish caucus," woah! There's a Jewish caucus? Who knew? "It's an informal caucus made up of staff as well as members, we're in the minority," Lowenthal said.
Maybe Latinos could follow the lead of influential State Senator Darrel Steinberg, a Jewish American. He told the Forward newspaper, "Government's proper role is to be a catalyst for social change... but it also must be a backstop for people who don't have any other choice. It's the people who don't have a voice who we must stand up for here. That is the essence of tikkun olam," that's the Hebrew biblical concept of repairing the world.
Here's an idea: to balance the massive budget deficit Latino legislators could tap into the Aztec notion of a cyclical universe in which destruction is followed by re-birth. OK, it's unlikely, but it couldn't hurt to try to convince Californians that what's good for Latinos is good for the state.