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How Do We Come Back? Assemblymember Cristina Garcia on Leadership in Southeast L.A.

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Assemblymember Garcia in her district at a Walk and Talk event, which has encouraged other assemblymembers to duplicate the idea

Before Cristina Garcia (D- Bell Gardens) beat Tom Calderon in 2012 to represent the cities of Downey, Commerce, Pico Rivera, Bell Gardens, Bellflower, Cerritos, Artesia, Montebello, and a part of Norwalk, she was already a doctoral candidate in public administration. Garcia had already taught for several years, mostly in math at Huntington Park High School, East Los Angeles Community College (ELAC), Los Angeles City Community College (LACC), and statistics at the University of Southern California (USC). She also had teaching credentials and a master's degree.

Before she worked closely in the Bell Association to Stop the Abuse (BASTA), an organization comprised of residents who documented the salary scandal that forced a recall, she had lost a city council election in Bell Gardens. In 2010, Before Bell residents helped the Los Angeles Times reporters break the story of civic corruption, Garcia had left Bell Gardens because she believed the stories about how success meant living somewhere "better."

The story here lies in how she came back.

Maywood, California. Late summer, 1993.

In the parking lot of the Food-4-Less supermarket on the corner of Atlantic and Slauson, two high school students stood near the sliding door entrance registering people to vote. The young women wore jeans and T-shirts (Garcia was probably in a Grateful Dead shirt), their hair gathered loosely into ponytails. Their temples beaded with sweat, both because of the weather and from asking complete strangers to sign state-issued documents.

They spoke to people in Spanish because that's what they grew up speaking to their parents and neighbors. One of those teenagers was a then-sixteen-year old Assemblymember Garcia, a junior at the time. The other student was me.

"I don't know what adult would just drop two girls alone in a parking lot all day," Garcia joked when I brought up the memory.

At the time, registering voters in the hot sun wasn't a crazy idea. There's a chance that we drove there in Cristina's Ford Aerostar van. We had grown up walking through parking lots just like the one from that afternoon, and knew how to act in public spaces like most teenagers from urban areas. What was really frightening was the idea that Proposition 187 would pass and prohibit basic services to families like ours: brown, working-class, and suspect. Prop 187 was a virulently anti-immigrant proposition put on the 1994 ballot, supported by everyone from then-governor Pete Wilson to Latinos and other people of color who helped pass it, only to have it defeated as unconstitutional in court.

"I used to have dreams that Pete Wilson was chasing me with green goop in his hands trying to kill me," said Garcia. It was dreams like that which fueled her growing activism, making possible several walkouts she helped organize at our alma mater, a slice of one of the largest in California history, made up of 75,000 students who protested the initiative.

For some people, it takes a direct threat to their community to spark their political involvement. Sometimes that's not enough.

It took a major health event to shake Garcia loose from old ideas about what success meant that moved her closer to home.

Bell Gardens High School Arsalyn Youth Forum in Sacramento with Assemblymember Garcia | Photo: Assemblymember Garcia's website
Bell Gardens High School Arsalyn Youth Forum in Sacramento with Assemblymember Garcia | Photo: Assemblymember Garcia's website

Bell Gardens, January 2009

Garcia was finishing up her PhD while teaching math at LACC and statistics at USC. She had finished teaching at Huntington Park High in 2004; she had started a calculus two course along with an after school program for students who needed extra academic support.

Back in Los Angeles after a winter holiday trip, she had lunch with her parents and her mother ordered a pastrami burger with a side of super nachos. She'd seen her mother eat this kind of food before but perhaps she had not noticed it in the same way.

"Mom, that food's going to give you a heart attack," she said. The next day, Garcia's mother did just that. A woman with a quick laugh and a commanding presence, Garcia's mother suffered a heart attack that took her out of the family real estate business for two years. Being back home for Garcia, while a blessing for her parents, was a difficult adjustment.

When we met at her offices in Downey, Garcia told me coming home was tough, mainly because "being successful for me still meant not living in Bell Gardens, but somewhere 'better.'"

"You leave because you feel there's nothing of worth here. In part because you don't hear about it. The only time the L.A. Times comes here is to cover the drama," she added. "The good stuff gets muted out. You start to think you yourself are not worth it."

Garcia talks frequently about the "brain drain" that happens in communities like southeast L.A. where many college-going residents leave for school, but then never return to reciprocate the support they received to succeed in school. The perception that success means living elsewhere is an exterior concept, one that derives its energy from the idea that where we come from and who we are as working-class Latinos and people of color has no value. Many of us internalize that idea, and indeed, never come home.

The truth is that there are plenty of successful and bright people who are in southeast L.A. for school or work, who lead lives that others emulate: growing their own food; creating art and beauty in the region. Many people who did go to college out of the area are returning, like Garcia, like the young people working on the Southeast L.A. Colectivo, and others like them.

A real fact about Bell Gardens had remained: its politics.

In the 1990s, the Bell Gardens City Council and civic leadership at the time dipped in and out of scandal, ranging from fist fights at meetings and nepotism in city hiring, among other things. As student activists, we'd grown up watching our civic leadership become less Anglo and increasingly Latino, but unfortunately what remained was a hostility toward public inquiry and involvement, resulting in a lack of transparency.

"The City Council was still a mess." Garcia complained. "But my sister finally told me to shut up and do something about it."

Garcia ran for a city council seat in 2009 and lost. As much as she thought the civic leadership was out of step, she realizes now that she did not see the great deal of knowledge her constituents and neighbors had to offer.

"My neighbor with a third grade education had a lot to teach me," added Garcia. "Running and losing for city council helped me see that one thing I still had to learn was humility."

A New Era in the Southeast

For many people, Garcia's win over Tom Calderon in 2012 represented the defeat of fiefdom-style politics in the region. Garcia, however, wants to make clear that she was not alone in reaching the assembly.

After many months of organizing with Dale Walker and Denise Rodarte, BASTA co-founders, the group delivered. Rodarte and Walker had been gathering information on Bell civic leaders before the story had broken. With the help of their families, the movement quickly gained momentum, creating an opportunity for change in the entire region.

They created and reached demands such as resignations from top Bell administrators, all the way to creating legislation that returned unused city taxes to residents' pockets, about $200 for each homeowner who had overpaid on some of the highest taxes in the area.

"There was a widow of opportunity between the time the story broke over embezzlement in the City of Bell and election time," she explained. "I didn't want to run, but was being recruited by a group of residents and people I trusted. I said no initially, but then I had a sense of responsibility and felt I should step up and be the type of leader we had all been calling for, so I decided to run." The events leading up to the assembly race had activated long-time residents who were also tired of politics as usual, and without the backing of labor or business, Garcia won the seat. "The voters were really hungry for something different. We motivated folks who were not coming out came out and voted. When we did the math, we knew we could win the seat."

Notice Garcia uses "we" and "I" interchangeably at times. To me, this proves that her motivation and work are based on collective empowerment; a rare trait in political figures.

Assemblymember Garcia greeting constituents at a senior center in 2012 | Photo: C. Garcia staff member
Assemblymember Garcia greeting constituents at a senior center in 2012 | Photo: C. Garcia staff member


Not long after Garcia was elected, Al Jazeera broke another scandal, this time involving former Senator Ron Calderon and Assemblymember Chuck Calderon, who, respectively, were indicted (not yet convicted) for money laundering and taking (and soliciting) $100,000 in bribes. During the FBI investigation, Garcia made a statement calling on Ron Calderon to resign, forging one of her main initiatives around ethics in the legislature. She introduced the Political Conduct, Ethics & Public Trust Acts of 2014, which while it moved through the legislature and a handful of bills from it were made into law, eventually, the largest act faced a veto by Governor Brown.

"While I am very disappointed that these measures were vetoed, in particular the contribution limits to elected water board members, my resolve to fight for this and other reform measure has not wavered," Garcia said in a press release following the veto. "If anything, it is clear to me that in the upcoming year I need to do a better job of educating the Governor and his staff on the need for this and other reforms."

I contend Garcia is not afraid of anything and is not easily deterred.

"I'm not a bomb thrower," said Garcia, "I'm strategic and I look for opportunities." She likes to remind people that while the work she's done in the past may seem radical, she's a strategist with a long-term vision for the region.

Garcia envisions many changes while she's in office, from creating incentives for residents in working class communities to buy more fuel-efficient used cars, to developing youth leadership, all the way to creating a new system to ensure campaign expenditure limits. She also hopes to help increase female representation to fifty percent in the legislature. And of course, she says, "I can't do it alone."

To change the stories told about the southeast, Garcia created the "Pride of the 58" community recognition program, or #Pride58 on Twitter. According to her website, the goal of the program is to "tell our own stories and recognize individuals, businesses and community organizations making positive impacts within the 58th Assembly District; to honor those who inspire people, serve others and who do good without ever having been asked."

"The idea behind Pride of the 58 is to catalog our own stories and remind youth that there is a lot to come back to in their community and a lot of good work that they must continue to build on" said Garcia. When we tell our own stories, when we collect and share them, we broaden our perceptions of home.

Garcia, her staff, and community members are helping to change the negative beliefs we hold about southeast neighborhoods, reversing the idea that where we are and who we are has no value.

We have to write ourselves into history and create many different ways to come home.

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