Political Power Is Key to Progress for Latinos, L.A. County Survey Finds

Times Staff Writer

A two-year survey of Los Angeles County's Latino population has concluded that a greater political voice and improved educational and economic opportunities are the keys to a better future for a community expected to number at least 4 million by the year 2010.

The report, released Wednesday by the nonprofit Tomas Rivera Center in Claremont, offers recommendations on what kinds of programs should be created to best help Latino residents move ahead in political, educational and economic arenas. The findings will be forwarded to governments, private agencies and foundations throughout the country.

Can't Plead Ignorance

"They (policy-makers) can no longer say they don't know what the Latino community wants," said Beatriz Olvera Stotzer, who chaired an advisory committee that worked on the project. "They can no longer say they don't know what the Latino community's needs are."

Billed as a one-of-a-kind study by and of Los Angeles Latinos, the $300,000 survey ranks 10 issues identified as most pressing to the community.

Unlike in past surveys, education--the top priority generally mentioned by Latinos--comes in second to political participation, followed by "economic development," including job training and subsidized child care, and "leadership development."

A secondary grouping lists health, social services, immigration, legal services, crime and housing.

Organizers of the survey said the need for greater political involvement now supersedes all other issues.

"If this human resource doesn't participate in the political process, the talent, energy and ideas go to waste," said Claude Martinez, president of El Centro Human Services Corp. "If you have people in the political system, you can shape educational policy . . . and all other policies."

The report, called the Los Angeles County Latino Assessment Study, predicts that Latinos will make up more than 40% of the county's population, projected at 11 million, by the year 2010.

To come up with the results, surveyors first contacted by telephone 493 Latino households throughout Los Angeles County. Respondents had to be 16 years or older and had to have been born in a Spanish-speaking country, or to be the child of a parent born in a Spanish-speaking country.

55% Not U.S. Citizens

According to a summary of the report, 55% of the respondents were not U.S. citizens, and 17% were undocumented. Almost 60% prefered being interviewed in Spanish, and a like number earned less than $20,000 a year. Seventy-five percent were Mexican or Mexican-American; 17% were of Central American origin and 8% were South American, Cuban or Puerto Rican.

Surveyors then selected 360 Latinos perceived as "leaders" from a wide range of fields and interviewed 242 of those who answered an initial mailer. Of this group, 95% were U.S. citizens, almost half earned $70,000 or more, 90% held a college or higher degree and 70% were Democrats.

The final lists of priorities were drawn up by eight focus groups made up of the "leaders." They were instructed to rank the issues in terms of where the most headway could be made in the next 10 to 20 years, said Julie Solis, a principal investigator.

Although the survey contacted rank-and-file Latino residents as well as Latino leaders, its results appear weighted in favor of the opinions expressed by the leaders.

Discrimination, for example, ranked high on the list from people in the community, but did not figure at all on the list drawn up by the leaders.

"Political participation" did not appear on the community list, yet topped the final report.

Sponsors of the survey explained the difference as one of causes versus effects. Residents tended to list immediate complaints and needs, they said, while leaders sought to identify long-term ways of solving those problems. If more Latinos are brought into the political process--registered to vote, made citizens, taught the nuts and bolts of community activism--then employment, discrimination and other problems can be solved more easily, survey sponsors contended.

"Our community is really concerned with survival--those issues have not gone away," said Leobardo Estrada, a nationally known demographer from UCLA who provided technical expertise to the project. "But we have to get at the causes . . . at the underlying issues."

As political participation grows, he said, "people will listen to us, will be more sensitive to us, will pay more attention to us."

Among other recommendations: increased efforts to stem high school and college dropout rates; apprenticeship programs for youths; drug education programs; investment in Latino businesses, and support for Latino labor.

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