Pioneer in Latino Politics in Los Angeles

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Special to The Times

Edward R. Roybal, who championed the rights of the underprivileged and the elderly during 30 years in the House of Representatives and was the mentor to scores of Latino lawmakers in Los Angeles, died Monday. He was 89.

Roybal, who had a pioneering role in the city’s politics, died of respiratory failure complicated by pneumonia at Huntington Hospital in Pasadena, according to an announcement from the office of his daughter, Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-East Los Angeles).

He began his political career in 1949 as the first Latino to sit on the Los Angeles City Council since 1881. After Roybal departed for Congress in 1962, it would be 23 years before another Latino held a seat on the City Council.


“Congressman Roybal was someone who reminded us every single day that change rests in our own hands,” Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina said Tuesday. “This was a leader in our community who understood the responsibility and duty to empower.”

“A champion for civil rights and social justice like him does not come around every day,” Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said in a statement. “He wanted nothing less than what all Americans strive for -- a good job, safe neighborhoods, quality schools and a place to call home.”

“He was there when others in Washington turned their backs on seniors, the disadvantaged and the poor,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said Tuesday.

In 1993, Roybal told The Times that at his first City Council meeting, he was introduced as “our new Mexican councilman who also speaks Mexican.”

“My mission was immediately obvious,” he said later. “I’m not Mexican. I am a Mexican American. And I don’t speak a word of Mexican. I speak Spanish.”

It became his role, he said, to educate his fellow public officials about Latinos and to pay special attention to what he felt were the long-neglected needs of his largely Latino constituencies.


One way he did this was to harshly criticize the Los Angeles Police Department for its treatment of minorities, and he had his own story to underscore his position.

On his first date with his future wife, Lucille, in the early 1940s, a white officer came up behind the young couple -- they were sharing chili beans and crackers at a stand at 4th and Soto streets in Boyle Heights -- and went through Roybal’s pockets.

The officer then dumped the couple’s dinner on the sidewalk, the former congressman told The Times.

“That kind of stuff was happening all the time,” he said.

Roybal also was an outspoken opponent of the city land swap that gave the Los Angeles Dodgers prime real estate for a new ballpark in Chavez Ravine, which was largely populated by Latinos, in exchange for Wrigley Field, a minor league baseball stadium at 42nd Place and Avalon Boulevard. Roybal-Allard later recalled that her father received many angry calls at home from supporters of the deal.

“One man said my father was un-American because he was against baseball and the Dodgers,” said Roybal-Allard. “I was a young girl at the time, and I tried to convince the man that my dad was right. I wasn’t able to.”

Roybal, the first Latino politician from the Eastside to gain wide recognition, was considered an up-and-coming Democrat. Although he lost a bid in 1954 to become California’s lieutenant governor, four years later he came close to defeating Ernest Debs for a seat on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. Roybal initially held a 390-vote lead on election night and, when a 12,000-vote error was discovered, there were four recounts. He eventually lost to Debs amid suspicions that the election had been taken from him because he was Latino.


In 1962, he successfully ran for Congress in the 25th District, which stretched from Hollywood through the downtown area to East Los Angeles and Boyle Heights. In Congress, he championed the rights of illegal immigrants, including opposing the landmark 1986 amnesty law, which led to the legalization of more than 1.5 million Latinos. He favored a more generous plan that would have legalized even more Latinos.

He also was instrumental in getting Congress to approve funds to provide medical, welfare and educational services to eligible immigrants.

Harry Pachon, who was Roybal’s chief of staff in Washington, D.C., from 1977 to 1981, said his former boss didn’t worry about the consequences of his votes.

“He voted his conscience, even when people made fun of him,” Pachon said.

Never a headline grabber, Roybal used his position as a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee in the 1960s and ‘70s to secure congressional funding for key programs. In 1967, he introduced and won approval for the first federal bilingual education law, which established English classes for migrant children and others.

The law began to change the practice in California and elsewhere of funneling non-English speakers into remedial classes.

He worked on behalf of seniors in the 1980s as chairman of the House Select Committee on Aging. In 1980, he persuaded Congress to restore $15 million it had cut from senior citizens’ programs in order to continue low-cost health services for the elderly. He also argued that the younger minority-dominated workforce, including Latinos, needed to be supported by Congress -- especially if it was expected to pay for the public benefits and programs for an increasingly aging population.


“If we don’t invest in the Hispanic population today, we will pay the consequences tomorrow,” Roybal said in 1987.

His devotion to seniors was recognized after he retired from Congress, when the Edward R. Roybal Institute for Applied Gerontology was established at Cal State L.A.

The program is designed to educate physicians, nurses and community members about how best to deliver health services to the aged.

He also supported AIDS research. In 1983, when the Reagan administration had budgeted $17.6 million to finance efforts to fight AIDS, Roybal helped obtain an additional $8 million for the next year. Roybal later proposed an increase of funding to $176 million, which Congress eventually approved.

This did not sit well with some of his constituents. “We would get calls from people who would say, ‘What are you doing? There are no gays in East L.A.’ But he didn’t care. It was a health issue to him,” recalled Henry Lozano, another of Roybal’s former chiefs of staff. “He was ahead of the curve when it comes to fighting AIDS.”

“He was a quiet ground-breaker,” said Pachon, who is now president of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, a think tank at USC’s School of Policy, Planning and Development. “Many of his accomplishments go unrecognized because he did things in a quiet way.”


Knowing that it wasn’t easy for a Latino to win election in Southern California -- when he left the City Council in 1962, for example, it created a void in representation on the panel that wouldn’t be filled until then-Democratic Assemblyman Richard Alatorre was elected to Roybal’s old seat in 1985 -- Roybal extended a helping hand to many Latino politicians.

Aspiring officeholders sought an endorsement from “the Old Man,” knowing that a nod from Roybal could be a decisive factor, especially with Latinos.

Among those who received his help were Molina, now chairwoman of the county Board of Supervisors; Alatorre; state Democratic Party Chairman Art Torres, and Roybal’s daughter.

He “paved the way for the next generation, just like we’re paving the way for the generation after us,” Roybal-Allard, who represents parts of her father’s old district, told The Times in 1999. “But he was really the pioneer.”

In the 1970s, Roybal founded the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, a nationwide research and civic action group for Latino lawmakers across the U.S. The group now has more than 6,000 members. He also co-founded the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, serving as its first chairman.

Roybal has more buildings named after him than almost any other Los Angeles politician, including a health center in East Los Angeles and a federal building and courthouse in downtown Los Angeles. Most recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention named its main campus in Atlanta after him.


Roybal was born Feb. 10, 1916, in Albuquerque, N.M., one of 10 children of Baudilio Roybal Sr., a carpenter, and Eloisa Roybal. When he was a child, the family moved to Boyle Heights, where he attended public schools and graduated from Roosevelt High School.

During the Depression, Roybal was one of thousands of young men who joined the Civilian Conservation Corps. He studied accounting at UCLA and Southwestern University. He later became a public health educator with the California Tuberculosis Assn. After serving in the Army during World War II as an accountant for an infantry unit, became one of the directors of health education for the L.A. County Tuberculosis and Health Assn.

His work in the field prompted many friends on the Eastside to urge Roybal to run for a seat on the City Council, which he did in 1947. He was defeated. Two years later, he won the seat by campaigning for more street lights, better housing and increased restraints on police.

Roybal attributed his victory to following the principles of Chicago activist Saul Alinsky, who preached that coalitions between similarly affected groups should be forged for the common good.

The coalition Roybal forged was between Latinos and Jews, who both sought greater equity and an end to racism.

It made sense for Roybal to reach out to Jews because they were an integral part of life in Boyle Heights in the years before and immediately after World War II.


He followed up this election strategy by helping to establish, with Eastside activist Anthony P. Rios, the Community Service Organization, which was a partnership between Jews and Latinos on the Eastside that conducted voter registration programs on Roybal’s behalf.

As a congressman, Roybal frequently clashed with the Immigration and Naturalization Service over what he said was its uneven enforcement of the country’s immigration laws. Angered over INS tactics in the 1980s, Roybal fumed: “Next to the IRS, the INS is the most discourteous arm of the federal government.”

In 1978, Roybal was reprimanded by his colleagues in the House of Representatives after he admitted lying about a $1,000 gift he received from South Korean lobbyist Tongsun Park.

The incident made no difference to his constituents, however, who returned him to Congress that year with 70% of the vote.

Senior citizens were particularly forgiving, especially after Roybal explained that the $1,000 contribution -- which he said came from an unknown donor -- had been used to buy tables for the elderly at a 1974 Roybal fundraiser.

The congressman followed local politics, advising and endorsing a number of Latinos who sought elective office. In 1991, Molina, with Roybal’s endorsement, won election to the county Board of Supervisors.


With unmistakable joy, Roybal attended Molina’s swearing-in ceremony as she became the first Latino to sit on that body since the 19th century. Friends said later that Roybal relished the moment of Molina’s swearing because of his own controversial loss to Debs.

Roybal retired from the House in early 1992. Xavier Becerra, with Roybal’s endorsement, won election in the newly constituted 30th District, which included half of Roybal’s old 25th District.

Roybal missed a chance to serve in Congress alongside his daughter, who was elected to the House in November 1992.

After he left Congress, he continued his involvement with issues affecting the elderly and with politics, endorsing several local candidates.

Among those who won elections with his endorsement was Nick Pacheco, who in 1999 was elected to Alatorre’s seat on the L.A. City Council.

Besides Roybal-Allard, Roybal is survived by his wife, Lucille Beserra Roybal; daughter Lillian Roybal-Rose; son Edward Jr.; four grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren.


A vigil will be held Sunday at 7 p.m. at the Resurrection Church, 3324 Opal St., Los Angeles. Funeral services will be held Monday at 9 a.m. at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, 555 W. Temple St., Los Angeles.


Ramos, now the chairman of the journalism department at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, wrote this obituary while a member of The Times staff. It was updated by staff writer Claudia Luther.