The Seeds of Latino Leadership Are Sown


Newspapers take snapshots of time, as this front page reminds us; they don’t predict the future. Despite his bitter vow that “you won’t have Nixon to kick around any more,” the media--not to mention Democrats and stand-up comedians--had Richard Nixon to kick around for years.

Who could have predicted that, after he failed to take the California governorship from Pat Brown, he would capture the White House, resign in disgrace, and, most improbably of all, resurrect himself as an esteemed elder statesman?

Who could have predicted as well that one of the significant events of the 1962 election was buried in the “Nixon Concedes” story? Los Angeles City Councilman Edward Roybal was elected to the House of Representatives, becoming California’s first Mexican American congressman in four generations.

I say “Mexican American” because back then, at least in Los Angeles, there were no “Latinos,” which covers everything from Argentines to Guatemalans. If you lived in Southern California and you were a Juarez, a Garcia or Maese, you probably were a Mexican. And “Mexican” was sometimes spat as an epithet.

So it was noteworthy when Roybal, the first Mexican American elected to the Los Angeles City Council this century, belatedly followed the footsteps of Romauldo Pacheco, who briefly served in Congress in 1877-78 and again from 1879-1883.


(Pacheco is a remarkable story himself. Born in Santa Barbara to a prominent Californio family, he was an excellent seaman and horseman, and the only Latino governor of California (1875-76). He is also probably the only California governor ever to have lassoed a grizzly bear.)

When Roybal joined the House, there were only two other Latino congressmen, Joseph Montoya of New Mexico, and Henry B. Gonzalez of Texas. There also was Antonio Fernos-Isern, the resident commissioner from Puerto Rico, but then, as now, the island’s congressional representative could not vote on the House floor.

My father, Al, remembers when Roybal, against significant odds, was elected to the Los Angeles City Council in 1949. Dad even handed out fliers for his campaign. I’m sure Dad never realized that decades later he would hand out fliers, and make yard signs, for another Latino candidate--my mother.


Roybal defeated incumbent Gordon L. McDonough, 69,008 votes to 53,104. He succeeded by building coalitions, recognizing he could not win by appealing just to Mexicans. Others, however, had pigeon-holed him. At his first City Council meeting, he bristled when he was patronizingly introduced as “our new Mexican-speaking councilman, representing the Mexican people of his district.”

My mother, Dora, had a similar experience when she first ran for the Alhambra school board in 1978. The local newspaper labeled her a “Chicana activist.”

This was certainly news to us--and her. She just wanted to be known as a PTA mom--a PTA mom who had grown frustrated by what she saw as a lethargic school board. She thought she could do better, and to our delight and her surprise, 15,045 voters agreed, making her the second of two candidates elected from a five-member field. (Voting for your mother is an electoral pleasure hard to describe.)

Mom won four more elections after that, finally retiring last year. Like Roybal, she wanted to represent everyone, not just Latinos, although she did give her campaigns a Latino twist, using as her theme an inspirational slogan we saw on a wall during a vacation in Mexico: Querer al nino es educarlo. The translation as it appeared on Mom’s campaign literature: “To love a child is to educate a child.” It was the perfect sentiment.

Roybal and my mother never worked together--though she has girlhood memories of seeing him all the time at Our Lady of Talpa Church in East Los Angeles--but they are linked in a way. They made it easier for other Latino officeholders to follow. The latest estimate says there are 4,965 Latino elected officials nationwide, 18 of them members of Congress (and three of them are women, including Roybal’s daughter, Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-L.A.)).

The congressman and Mom share something else. Roybal, who stepped down in 1992, has had two federal facilities named after him, a federal building in Los Angeles, and in July, a portion of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At Alhambra High School, my alma mater, there’s a new library with a bronze plaque dedicating it to the work of Dora Padilla.

Such a sentiment--and such numbers of Latinos in public office--was unimaginable when this front page reported that Roybal was headed to Congress in 1962.