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Antonio Villaraigosa. Photo by Janjaap Dekker

CALIFORNIIOS: Latinos East of Eden
Before there were Latinos, there were Californios

by Jorge Chino

Just before last November’s elections, I found myself in Salinas, California. The Salinas valley is a beautiful place to visit in the fall. There are the fields of Castroville, “the artichoke capital of the world,” and Salinas, with its old-fashioned buildings on Main Street. By late summer the grasses and hills turn “a gold and saffron and red — an indescribable color,” wrote John Steinbeck, winner of the 1962 Nobel Prize for literature, in his novel “East of Eden.”

“First there were Indians... Then the hard, dry Spaniards came exploring through, greedy and realistic... Then the Americans came —more greedy because there were more of them. They took the lands, remade the laws to make their titles good,” wrote Steinbeck in his novel. He claimed the Spaniards named Salinas for the alkali which was white as salt, and they named Chualar for its beauty and Soledad for its sense of solitude. “East of Eden,” considered by many to be Steinbeck’s greatest novel, tells a story whose characters are forced to reenact the ancient drama of Cain and Abel in exile east of a paradise they can never reach.

California, the seventh largest economy in the world, with rich farmlands and the virtual communities created by Silicon Valley’s high tech industry, has been, in terms of political power, an elusive Eden for Latinos since the last century.

But this year’s November elections proved to be historic for Latinos in California. Cruz Bustamante became the first Latino to hold a state-wide office as lieutenant governor since Romualdo Pacheco was governor for a few months in 1875. Ron Gonzales became the first Latino mayor in San José since California became part of the union in the mid-1800s. Lee Baca became the first Latino sheriff of Los Angeles county since Martín Aguirre ended his term as sheriff in 1890. Anna Caballero became the first woman and the first Latina to hold the position of mayor in the 124-year history of Salinas.
One of the Californios to be credited for this success is Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles), the recently reelected leader of the Democratic-controlled Assembly, who captured 83% of the vote in his district. Villaraigosa and State Senator Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles) have been recognized for their efforts to channel millions of dollars in campaign funds to Latino candidates and other Democrats.

Antonio Villaraigosa became the Speaker of the California Assembly in February. Handsome, charismatic, and with a zest for power, Antonio Villaraigosa has grown from a poor barrio boy in East Los Angeles into a man who holds one of the most visible political positions in the state. His name has been mentioned as a serious contender for mayor of Los Angeles for the year 2001.

Salinas, Steinbeck’s home town, was a good place to see a Californio like Villaraigosa in action. At a fundraiser there, eyes were fixed on him as he floated through the crowd of Latinos wanting to shake hands. He moved slowly, exuding warmth and optimism in every handshake. Under a harvest moon, Villaraigosa invited the crowd to contribute money and support Democratic candidates such Anna Caballero and Alan Styles, who were vying for mayor of Salinas and the 47th Assembly District, respectively. Antonio Villaraigosa was also in town because he needed as many Democrats in the state legislature as possible, so he could be assured of being named Speaker of the Assembly for two more years.

These new Californio politicians help expand Latinos’ sense of inspiration. But in celebrating our victories, it’s easy to forget important issues that still haunt us, such as the fact that for the last 40 years Latinos’ level of education has not improved substantially, or that 5.5 million Latinos still live below poverty level.

The question is whether Latinos will see substantial changes in the quality of their lives as a result of these electoral successes. Yes, we Latinos work very hard in the fields and we have lots of janitors working in Silicon Valley, but attaining higher education levels still eludes us. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 30 percent of Latino high school students drop out, compared to only 8 percent of white students and 12 percent of blacks.

“This year, I proposed [an education] budget of 1.3 billion dollars more than the year before,” responds Villaraigosa. “I am the product of public schools. I advocate for investing in public universities. I know that, for our community, we need to focus on schools that have low performance. People are not excelling. There has been a lot of disinvesting in public education,” adds Villaraigosa, who attended Cathedral High School in Los Angeles, where he had to help with cleaning to pay his tuition. He later attended UCLA and the People’s College of Law in Los Angeles, where he obtained his law degree. Villaraigosa is proud of the $9.2 billion school bond approved by this year’s legislature session, the largest in state history.

“The good ones always remember where they came from.”
At the fundraiser I found an opportunity to discuss “East of Eden” with a couple attending the event. “It is very depressing,” a woman said, trying to remember what the novel was about. Though Steinbeck was a Salinas native, he never was very well liked by people of the area. “Those were different and depressing times,” I said, but the woman was now moving to avoid my conversation.

After the event I climbed into a car with Villaraigosa. “The good ones always remember where they came from,” he said into a car phone.

His remark reminded me of a prevailing notion in the Latino community that African-American elected officials are more responsive to their communities than Latinos. Even the politicians themselves believe this. Graduate student Lou Moret interviewed 30 Hispanic council members from 30 different cities in Southern California, and found that of the 30 politicians interviewed, only three disagreed with the notion.
In addition, Moret’s study found a lack of Hispanic presence in the upper management positions of cities. Moret reported in Hispanic Business magazine that 33 percent, or ten of the cities studied, had no Latinos in any management position.

“Change comes slowly,” Villaraigosa commented about the lag in hiring Latinos for management positions, even in the same cities where Latinos have been elected to office. He sounded very concerned. He looked down and seemed to search his head for a clear answer. One factor is that those jobs may have slow turnover. “You cannot just get rid of people [in management positions], you have to have a reason. You have to wait for the opportunity to come,” said Villaraigosa.

On our way to catch the plane that would take him home to Los Angeles, we got lost in downtown Salinas. We drove by the new International Steinbeck Center, inaugurated in June of this year. After minutes of driving around without direction, he finally raised his voice. “If you don’t know where you are going, stop at a gas station and ask,” he said to his driver.

Villaraigosa is a charismatic politician whose rise to prominence in California politics has been breathtaking. A former high school dropout who used to wear a tattoo that he has since removed, Villaraigosa flirted with gangs and trouble in the streets of Los Angeles. Now he is the first Speaker from that so-called “third world capital” in 25 years.

The strength that Villaraigosa exudes in his activities may come from the years he spent in a poor neighborhood feeling a desire to change the conditions of the people he grew up with. That strength may come from his mother Natalia, who influenced and supported him throughout his life, and who died in 1992, two years before he was elected to the California Assembly. His presence has some of the aura of the old Californios, fighters like Tiburcio Vásquez and Joaquín Murrieta who were branded as bandits by the Protestant newcomers.

Crossover Latinos

"Dime con quien andas y te diré quien eres. “Tell me who you hang out with, and I will tell you who you really are,” goes a popular saying in Spanish. This is what Villaraigosa told the crowd at the Salinas fundraiser. He comes from a breed of Latino elected officials who are able to represent the growing number of Latinos in California as well as the population at large. With agendas that include education, safety and civil rights, the new Californios are elected by Latinos and by non-Latinos alike. Call it facing reality: they have to rely on non-Latino votes if they have high aspirations - and politicians generally do have big ambitions.

There is Cruz Bustamante, the Lieutenant Governor-elect. “I’ll let you in on a secret. Trying to have a decent place to live, good jobs, and decent schools for their kids — that is the Latino agenda,” says Bustamante. “The Golden State is at a crossroads,” adds state senator Joe Baca. “It has a great opportunity to tap its intellectual, financial and cultural resources to move successfully into the twenty-first century.”

“My message is one of bringing people together, one of hope,” says Villaraigosa. It’s the same message delivered by Anna Caballero and Ron Gonzales, who, with their diverse constituencies, need to reach out for votes from a broad base. These new Californios avoid emphasizing their ethnic roots and concentrate on issues important to everyone. They are being voted in by an electorate that is moderate, pragmatic and inclusive.

In their efforts to gain “crossover” votes, the Californios by necessity have to look beyond the concerns of the Latino community. In a state where 29 percent of the population is Latino, whites still make up 53 percent, and other minority groups represent 18 percent.

“I do not subscribe to the idea that we are any different than anyone else,” Villaraigosa says. “Coalition building has always been part of who I am politically. The other thing is that when you get elected Speaker you no longer represent just your district or your ethnic group or other Democrats. I am Speaker of the whole Assembly, including Republicans,” he recently told a reporter.

Just before we made it to the Monterey Airport, Villaraigosa lowered his voice to tell me that he acknowledged the fact that Latinos need to make a great effort to educate themselves.

“How do you knock out a big elephant? A little bit at a time. You start with education, start by getting people involved, you start by inspiring them to be better than themselves,” he said softly. He grabbed his bags, jumped out of the car and caught his plane.

For over a century, California’s wealth and political power have eluded Latinos. We have always ended up in the east: East L.A., East San José, East Palo Alto and Eastside Salinas.

Although the new Californios are paving their way back into power, the question still remains: Are the rest of us going with them to Eden?

Jorge Chino is publisher of El Andar.

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