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Latinos Aspire to New Power as the City’s Biggest Minority

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Pasadena’s Latinos surprised everyone--even themselves--when their numbers grew by 9% in the last decade, overtaking blacks to become the city’s largest minority group with 27% of the city’s 131,591 residents.

By comparison, blacks now make up 18% and Asians 8% of the city’s population.

The U.S. Census figures have prompted recognition of the city’s Latinos and talk of political redistricting that could empower the long-ignored minority.

Despite their rising clout in numbers, Pasadena’s Latinos lack corresponding political clout. They make up only 8.5% of the city’s registered voters. A Latino has never won a City Council seat. A Latino was first elected to the school board only two years ago. Latino citizens rarely fill the City Council chambers, as blacks, neighborhood groups, AIDS activists and others often do.

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And the city’s old Latino neighborhoods have vanished, depriving the group of a stable base from which to draw political leaders.

Why?

“We are a colonized people,” said Deputy City Atty. Nick Rodriguez, a former staff member of El Centro de Accion Social, the city’s main Latino political and social service organization.

Unlike immigrants from other countries who embraced the culture after arriving in the United States, the Latino experience, at least for many Mexican-Americans, is of a population that tried to maintain its own culture, Rodriguez said.

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“We are still, to a large extent, disenfranchised, non-participating; excluded and accepting of that exclusion,” he added.

“We are the invisible people,” said Serafin Espinoza, an administrator at the Villa-Parke Center, which provides a variety of counseling services for Latinos. “People don’t worry about the Hispanic population, because they don’t vote.”

The statements sum up a variety of historical, social and cultural forces that have long kept Pasadena’s Latinos in the political shadows. But now, as their numbers rise, Pasadena’s Latinos--73% of them Mexican-American--believe their day is coming.

“The Hispanic decade is not going to end in 1990,” predicted Latino activist Oscar Palmer. “It’s more like the Hispanic century is coming in the 21st Century.”

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When Pasadena’s Latinos assess their political and economic status, they do not single out discrimination and hardship as causes. Instead, they talk about the Latino experience in a broader sense. Political grandstanding is not their style, Latinos say. And they object when they are bunched together with blacks, a comparison that has been made since the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

“Everyone wants to lump all minority impact into how loud you speak, or how many threats you make,” Espinoza said.

Although black activists appear willing to confront and challenge with headline-grabbing rhetoric, Pasadena Latinos tend to characterize themselves as reserved and working behind the scenes. Phone calls and personal, one-on-one meetings are the style, Espinoza said. It is a method that may result in quiet progress, but little media or public awareness of inroads.

Also, a history of allegiance to Mexico and its culture--another characteristic of Mexican-American temperament--has meant rejection of Anglo values; a turning away from American culture and clout.

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“That’s not our way, my child,” Latino parents often tell their children.

Latinos characteristically devote much time and energy to the family, eschewing outside influences--such as political action groups, philanthropic organizations and mainstream social groups, Rodriguez said. The result is low voter registration and participation in the political system, according to some Latino activists. Latino registered voters outnumber others in less than two dozen of the city’s 1,500 census blocks.

A unique historical, predominantly Mexican, immigrant experience also contributes to the lack of participation. Unlike the bulk of other minorities, such as blacks or Asians, many Mexicans have “always had a place to go back to,” Rodriguez said. “As a people, we don’t have our backs to the wall.”

Conflict between the United States and Mexico has also kept Mexican-Americans from assimilating fully into a culture they perceive as hostile. Under the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended a two-year war with Mexico, the United States received half of Mexico’s land--the area comprising Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and parts of California, Wyoming and Colorado. For many older Mexicans, it is a vivid, bedtime story told to them by their elders.

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“When people from Mexico come here, they have to fight that historical conflict,” Espinoza said. “It’s going to take generations and generations to wash that anger away.”

Finally, Rodriguez and others say that the decades-long Mexican Revolution that began in 1910 taught Mexicans the futility of political organizing.

“Latinos came to the conclusion, a long time ago, that politics is dirty,” Palmer said. “It’s a very deep sense of ‘Don’t fight City Hall; you’re wasting your time.’ ”

Although historical and social factors may help explain the lack of Latino clout, there are other factors--unique to Pasadena--that have kept the city’s Latino population politically disenfranchised.

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The obliteration of the city’s old Latino neighborhoods, for example, has prevented the rise of local leaders, activists say.

Office and light industrial buildings now line Fair Oaks Avenue, an area once known as Sonora Town. One of the city’s first Latino neighborhoods, it could not hold its own against redevelopment. Winona, another Latino area in the so-called Lincoln Triangle area in northwest Pasadena, was bulldozed in the 1970s to make way for a freeway and corporate headquarters.

“Wherever you go (in other cities) you can find some place to buy pan dulce, or tortillas, or menudo, " said Lydia Fernandez-Palmer, director of El Centro de Accion Social, referring to a cake-like bread and tripe soup.

Without a permanent neighborhood, the Latino consciousness that arose in the 1960s--with protests against the Vietnam War by the Chicano Moratorium, the rise of the military-styled Brown Berets and support for Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers--was late coming to Pasadena, says Fernandez-Palmer. When she arrived in the 1970s, it was “like stepping back in time,” she recalls.

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Pasadena’s proximity to Los Angeles, where Latinos exercise more clout, has also diminished Latino influence in the San Gabriel Valley city. For example, Antonia Hernandez, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, lives in Pasadena, but is not considered a political player there. Many other local Latinos do the same, exercising their political skills in the bigger city, or at the county level, but not at home.

It “has led to disenfranchisement,” said Pasadena school board member George Padilla. “There’s no vehicle for moving up; no programs for developing leaders.”

In the past, when Pasadena Latinos did organize, the issues were not political, but educational.

“One of the things that the Hispanic community really believes in is that the only way to make it here is through education,” Fernandez-Palmer said.

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During the 1970s, Latino teachers and activists began pushing for bilingual and Latino culture classes in the Pasadena Unified School District to foster pride and provide a road to economic success and independence. The Pasadena Scholarship Committee, one of the first Latino civic organizations, was created to provide college tuition aid for Latino students.

El Centro de Accion Social has programs geared toward improving the educational performance of Latino children.

Finally, diversity among Latinos makes it hard to reach a political consensus. Thanks to educational scholarships and affirmative action, Latino economic advancement during the 1980s created a class of people vastly different from those who rallied behind Chavez and his union movement in the 1960s, Fernandez-Palmer said.

“That generation (of the 1980s) has done very well, but in doing so, the identification, the stereotype, of how Latinos will vote or react to certain issues is gone,” she said. “I find a very, very diverse population now.”

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Pasadena’s current Latino political leaders reflect this diversity.

Espinoza, 43, works at the city-run Villa-Parke Center primarily with low-income Latinos--about 600 monthly--who visit the center on Garfield Street for immigration, welfare and family counseling.

“This is almost like a port of entry for immigrants,” he said of his offices, where Spanish-speaking day laborers from Mexico, Guatemala and Nicaragua cluster every morning seeking work.

Espinoza, who emigrated 21 years ago from Michoacan, Mexico, oversees four employees and a $160,000 annual budget.

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In May, the center will move into a $6.9-million building designed to resemble the Pyramid of the Sun near Mexico City. The structure represents a political coup for the Latino community, which rejected the city’s $1.5-million plan to rehabilitate the present facility and lobbied for the new structure.

On the other side of town, school board member Padilla, 46, works as an architect and structural engineer out of his home in the upscale San Rafael neighborhood.

An outspoken board member, Padilla takes pride in being a political independent who bucked a small cadre of local Latino activists to run against and defeat their preferred Latino candidate in 1989.

Although he has been criticized for living in a predominantly Anglo neighborhood instead of in Districts 2 or 3, which have larger Latino populations, Padilla is proud of having worked his way out of his East Los Angeles gang neighborhood.

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As a Latino, Padilla says, he was “never expected to work to capacity” and was slated for vocational school by his counselors and teachers--a stereotype he wants to combat in Pasadena schools with more programs for Latino students and more professional Latino role models.

The Palmers--Cuban-born Oscar, 44, director of bilingual education in the Pasadena Unified School District and his wife, Lydia Fernandez-Palmer, 39, director of El Centro--are sometimes perceived as packing a one-two political punch.

Palmer, volatile and outspoken, has been active in Pasadena’s Latino politics for more than 20 years, and addresses a wide range of issues, calling himself “Oscar Palmer, private citizen.”

Fernandez-Palmer assumes a more low-key, accommodating role. A former Pasadena elementary schoolteacher who was raised in the San Fernando Valley, she heads El Centro, which has a $200,000 yearly budget and six full-time staff members.

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Operating out of a city-owned house on Del Mar Boulevard that it rents for $1 a year, the center serves an estimated 10,000 people annually with summer school classes for elementary schoolchildren, cultural events, family counseling and referrals to immigration and legal counseling.

With the opportunity that redistricting presents for changing Pasadena’s political picture, these Latino leaders find themselves facing new pressures.

“I know many people in City Hall are anxious for me to say, ‘Here’s where you’re going to draw the line,’ ” said Fernandez-Palmer of proposed new council district boundaries.

Redistricting efforts have only just begun with the creation of a 15-member redistricting task force, whose report to the council is expected in May. But some Latinos are already gearing up for a fight to add two districts--both Latino dominated--to the current seven.

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These new districts could be carved out of three existing districts where the Latino population is heaviest: Districts 1 and 3, now represented by African-American council members Isaac Richard and Chris Holden, and District 2, represented by a liberal Anglo, Rick Cole.

Demographics point to three possible areas that could form the basis for council districts with substantial numbers of Latinos voters. They would roughly be bounded by: Lake and Fair Oaks avenues on the east and west, on the south by Colorado Boulevard and on the north by the city’s limits; another bounded on the east and west by North Allen and Los Robles avenues, on the north by East Mountain Street and on the south by the Foothill Freeway (210), and a third from Villa Street on the north to Del Mar Boulevard on the south and from Lake Avenue on the west to Sierra Madre Boulevard on the east.

Although Councilwoman Kathryn Nack and other council members believe nine districts are too many for a city of only 131,591 residents, Richard favors the additions.

Creation of new districts would ensure Latino representation and avoid a replay of the black-versus-white racial dynamics played out earlier this year during Richard’s election campaign, the councilman says. That bitter runoff campaign pitted Nicholas Conway, an Anglo resident of the upscale Linda Vista area, against Richard, who was supported by many in low-income and minority-dominated northwest Pasadena.

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“That was a civil war we fought,” Richard said. “I think another civil war is coming. . . . But instead of black-white, it will be black-brown. And I don’t want that to happen.”

But Latino activists aren’t worried. Whether the districts are carved according to population, or voter registration, as the city attorney has advised, time and demographics are on their side, Palmer believes. “Politically, the population is young,” he says.

Nearly a third of the city’s Latinos are under age 18 and that group makes up 40% of the city’s under-18 population. Although only 5,386 Latinos are registered to vote, Palmer estimates the potential voting bloc is closer to 12,000--a number that will increase as time passes and as Latinos push for voter registration.

Citing changes in Latin America, activists say the past lack of participation may soon end.

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“The Mexican that comes here now is not the same campesino as before; the same humble person,” said Latino activist Ed Maya, a redistricting task force member. “They’re aggressive.”

Mexico is now one of the most industrialized nations in Latin America, and immigrants from that country are increasingly sophisticated and urban, Maya said. That means they will adjust faster to urban life here, voting and participating in society, he believes. Similarly, he said, Latinos from Central America bring with them a tradition of political activism.

“The wave is coming,” Palmer predicted. “It’s an exciting time for Hispanics, because of the opportunities to become a full partner in the society.”

Pasadena’s Registered Voters

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Although Latinos make up 27% of Pasadena’s population, they account for only 8.5% of the city’s registered voters. Registered Latino voters outnumber other ethnic and racial groups in fewer than two dozen of 1,500 city census blocks, as shown. This compares to Anglos, who make up 65.8% of registered voters, but only 47% of the city’s population, and African-Americans, who account for 20.8% of registered voters and 18% of the city’s population. A few pockets with no plurality or with mostly Asian-Americans are not designated.


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