East LA, hotbed of Mexican-American culture, seeks greater local control

East Los Angeles is home to Mexican-American success stories, from boxer Oscar De La Hoya to rock stars Los Lobos to over-performing arithmetic students portrayed in the 1988 film “Stand and Deliver.”

Yet despite all its fame and dynamism, the almost entirely Latino community of 120,000 people suffers from an identity crisis, if not a political one. The 7.4 square mile (19 square km) area is not its own city or part of the City of Los Angeles, but rather an unincorporated area of ​​Los Angeles County.

Now, a group of community leaders hope to exercise more local control by creating a special district.

As it stands, the only elected local government official representing East LA is County Supervisor Hilda Solis, whose district includes nearly 2 million people in dozens of cities, unincorporated areas and counties. Los Angeles neighborhoods.

A special district would give East LA its own elected council to set priorities on solving community issues. Provided East LA can persuade county officials to cede some power, it would also have more say in how local tax revenues are spent.

“I think of East Los Angeles as Los Angeles’ neglected stepson. And that’s largely because of his unincorporated status. There is no local control, and there is no form of community self-determination, ”said Eric Avila, a professor of Chicano studies at UCLA who is not affiliated with the District Special Campaign.

Over the decades, several attempts to become a city have failed, so developers have chosen a less ambitious option. A special district still requires years of planning and possibly voter approval within the proposed boundaries.

The project is still in its infancy, so no perceptible opposition has formed. Solis declined to be interviewed.

“A lot of people outside of East LA are making decisions for us and it has to stop,” said Tony DeMarco, president of the Whittier Boulevard Merchants Association and a leading advocate for a special district.

The most recent attempt to become a city collapsed in 2012 after an organization known as the Local Agency Training Commission discovered that as a city, East Los Angeles would have budget deficits. important. Critics of the study understand that it took place in the wake of the Great Recession of 2007-2009, and that new companies have arrived since.

As a special district, East LA would have more of a say in determining the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s enforcement priorities, but it would not form its own police department.

For example, proponents of greater range want to reduce the havoc that ensues when “lowriders” – classic cars modified to grip close to asphalt and also to reach heights and improbable angles – cross paths. Whittier Boulevard, the main thoroughfare through East LA.

Merchants complain that cruisers spend little money in town, disrupt traffic, start fights, and drink in public.

To a large extent, the special district campaign grew out of local pride.

“If East LA had a flag, I would fly it,” said Alex Villalobos, 38, longtime resident, supporter of the Special District and director of marketing for consultancy firm Barrio Planners.

East LA has also seen its share of heartbreak. Journalist and civil rights activist Ruben Salazar was killed in eastern LA in 1970, shot in the head with a tear gas projectile by an LA County Sheriff’s Deputy during a Chicano protest against the war in Vietnam.

The term Chicano, born out of the civil rights era and coinciding with Cesar Chavez’s movement to organize Latino farm workers in the 1960s and 1970s, has fallen into disuse.

Whatever the nomenclature, many Mexican Americans in eastern LA have complicated identities, as does the community itself.

“We have an American lineage and we have a Mexican lineage. We can’t live without either,” said Froilan Godiles, an immigrant who owns a party supplies business in East LA. “We don’t think of ourselves as Latinos. We’re Mexican. We’re from eastern LA. We’re North American.

From fashionable food to music and language, Mexican-American culture is proudly on display in an area that was part of Mexico until 1848.

“We love to show our flavor, our skin. I don’t know if it’s good or bad, but we love it. We are proud of our roots,” Godiles said.

Four major highways that run through the community were built in the 1960s, tearing up neighborhoods, forcing relocations and lowering property values, making East LA more affordable for working-class immigrants, said Avila, a studies professor. in Chicano. This solidified East LA as an American-Mexican enclave in the 1970s.

Its appeal remains strong. Immigrant entrepreneurs say the widespread use of Spanish and familiarity with Mexican customs make it a great place to start a business. Some store owners barely speak English, serving Mexican American customers for generations.

Lowriders drivers are also drawn to a place where Mexican Americans carved out a distinct place for themselves in Southern California automotive culture after World War II. Today they sail under East LA’s iconic landmark, an archway spanning Whittier Boulevard completed in 1986.

As Ernie Serna, 57, from eastern LA, described the allure: “It’s like a Jew is going to Jerusalem.”

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