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Affirmative Action’s Edge : New Chief Speaks Up for Hard Work, but Opportunity Must Be There

<i> Frank del Olmo is a Times editorial writer</i>

We like to believe, in a nation premised on equality among all people, that we make it on our own in life. Whether we work as firefighters or as journalists, we like to think that our skills and talent, not our social connections, make us successful.

That’s why I was at first inclined to be understanding, if not sympathetic, to Reynaldo Rojo, who became the highest-ranking Latino in the Los Angeles Fire Department last week when he was appointed deputy chief. At a press conference at which his appointment was announced, Rojo downplayed the idea that his new job was a sign of the city’s commitment to affirmative action.

Rojo said that he had never experienced discrimination in his 30 years of service with the Fire Department, and he attributed his advancement through the ranks to hard work. “I made captain before there was affirmative action. I made senior inspector before there was affirmative action,” Rojo said. “I believed before I came on board that if you work hard, you will get there.”

If Rojo wants to believe that, fine. But saying that there was no discrimination in the Fire Department strikes me as naive, considering the pathetic minority-hiring record that it had in 1973, when Mayor Tom Bradley was first elected. Just for the record, the Fire Department had 3,200 men back then, and only 35 of them were black. Maybe Rojo thinks that he and other Latinos were better off by comparison. There were 72 of them, after all. But, somehow, one Latino in every 45 men isn’t impressive, either--especially in a city with close to 1 million Latinos.

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Those sad statistics come from Joseph M. Sanchez, a prominent Latino businessman who was appointed to the Fire Commission by Bradley shortly after his first election. With a dozen other Latinos who came onto the city’s boards and commissions at the time, Sanchez thought that improving the city’s minority-hiring record was important, and he made no secret about it.

“When I attended my first commission meeting I told them the Fire Department had been a white man’s social club long enough and it had to change,” Sanchez recalled. “Little did I know how much trouble it would be.”

Sanchez is a successful grocer who owns several supermarkets and sits on the board of the prestigious Food Marketing Institute. But 15 years ago he was still struggling to establish himself in a highly competitive business.

“I didn’t need the extra work, not to mention all the grief,” he said. “I even lost some business from the president of a big grocery company who had a son in the Fire Department. But I believed in affirmative action then, and still do.”

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Which is why Sanchez, who left the Fire Commission in 1977, is troubled by Rojo’s comments. “I like him personally. He’s brainy and a good man. But it’s time people like him understood that other people pushed on their behalf. And we didn’t do it just to stir up trouble, but because our community deserved better service than it was getting.”

News events of last weekend emphasized the importance of what Sanchez said.

Early Saturday morning several thousand residents of heavily Latino East Los Angeles and neighboring communities were evacuated from their homes after chemicals that were stored in a nearby plant smoldered into a cloud of toxic gas. Luckily the incident was not as serious as was first feared. Only 70 people suffered minor injuries, mostly respiratory problems. But afterward area residents complained that the authorities had issued the evacuation orders only in English. The noise created by emergency vehicles cruising the streets at 3 a.m. was all that alerted many Spanish-speaking residents to the fact that something serious was happening.

There was a repetition of the incident the next day when cleanup crews inadvertently set off another chemical reaction at the plant. The personnel who issued the evacuation warning the second time around used both languages to make sure that everyone got the message.

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I hope that Deputy Chief Rojo and civil servants like him get the message, too. Most of them undoubtedly earned the high positions that they hold, and deserve them. But the taxpayers who pay their salaries deserve something, too--adequate service. And for a long time the barrios were not as well served as were other parts of town.

That had to change, if only because the city is even more Latino now than when Rojo joined the Fire Department, and the need for public services--especially the all-important services provided by police, firefighters and paramedics--is also greater than ever. And as Los Angeles continues to change, becoming more Asian as well as Latino, government will have to alter its hiring and training policies accordingly.

The next time that there’s an emergency situation in the city like what happened on the east side of the county last weekend, I’m glad that we’ll have courageous men like Rojo around to help deal with it. But I’m glad that we also have gutsy and far-sighted men like Sanchez around to push for policies that help deal with the more subtle challenges posed by social and demographic change.


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