Looking across the political landscape, Marshall Diaz saw a world where maps mattered as much as campaign fundraising or stumping for a candidate.
Beginning in the 1980s, he engaged in battle after battle over maps that define voting districts. Working with others, his goal was to have the maps redrawn in a way that solidified Latino voting power and increased the likelihood that a Latino would be elected to office.
Often he and his colleagues won those battles, and when they did, the face of California elected officials changed in historic ways. Over the years, Diaz worked on a variety of redistricting issues: the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, the state Legislature, the Los Angeles School Board.
"A lot of people in public office owe their being elected to Marshall as one of the key players in redistricting," said Alan Clayton, a longtime friend who worked with Diaz. "In terms of empowering the Latino community ... he was one of the real leaders, one of the unsung heroes."
A resident of Echo Park, Diaz died Friday of heart failure at a hospital in Reno, where he had been visiting, said his niece, Theresa Leal. He was 62.
Diaz was born in Bakersfield on June 24, 1944, and raised by his mother, a librarian for Kern County, who survives him along with two sons, a brother and a sister. After graduating from high school he moved to the San Fernando Valley, found work at an auto plant in Van Nuys and attended Cal State Northridge.
It was the early 1970s, and Diaz, inspired by the farmworker movement, threw himself into activism.
"He just had a lot of kindness and love for his community," said Sandra Figueroa-Villa, who was 17 when she met Diaz, a lifelong mentor.
After earning a degree in social work from the university, he was admitted to law school but later dropped out, friends and family said, to work on behalf of his community, a role that he would play the rest of his life.
In the early 1980s, he led a push to increase the number of Latinos hired for civil service jobs in California.
Speaking on behalf of Chicanos Advocating for Equality, Diaz told the State Personnel Board that Latinos made up 17.2% of the state's workers but only 10% of California's civil service force, "and we find it totally unacceptable," Diaz said, according to a 1983 Times article.
Diaz also was active in several community-based organizations such as El Proyecto del Barrio Inc. and El Centro del Pueblo, where he served as chairman of the board of directors.
"We went from a $25,000 deficit and a $25,000 budget to a $5-million budget," said Figueroa-Villa, who is executive director of El Centro del Pueblo.
"It was through his leadership, resources and local community support."
But it was his redistricting that had the most impact. In the 1980s, the roster of elected officials -- on any local or statewide body -- read very differently than it does today.
"It was just embarrassing," said Leticia Quezada, a former Los Angeles School Board member. "There were so many Latinos in Los Angeles, and we were not able to elect one person."
Voting districts were drawn in a way that prevented Latinos from collectively harnessing their political power, even in areas of the city heavily populated by Latinos, she said.
"I think Marshall recognized that redistricting was very much a key to the empowerment of the Latino community, and that he, in unison with others, was in a position to accomplish that goal and make sure that we had an equal opportunity to elect people of our own choosing," said Armando Duron, an attorney and a longtime friend.
Diaz was a leader in Californios for Fair Representation, an umbrella organization of Latino organizations.
He also was active in the Latino Redistricting Coalition. Through such organizations, he participated in nearly every major redistricting effort from the 1980s to the present, Clayton said.
The behind-the-scenes work he performed might be called the grunt work of political reform, but it was the foundation on which others could build, and it was invaluable.
He and others redrew maps, testified before committees, lobbied allies and sometimes prodded the U.S. Department of Justice to file suit to bring about change.
"What came out of that [Los Angeles City Council] redistricting is that there are now five Latinos sitting on the Los Angeles City Council where in 1985, when we started, there was one," said Clayton, who works for the Los Angeles County Chicano Employees Assn. "That's a tremendous success story for the Latino community."
For all of his efforts on behalf of Latino elected officials, his political work did not earn him a living. For many years, he worked as a Medi-Cal eligibility analyst for the California Department of Health Services.
The political work was mostly a volunteer effort that he financed out of his own pocket. The effort helped change the political landscape.
"In the 1980s there were no Latinos," Quezada said. "Now we have them in the Assembly, in the Senate, in the Congress. In a short 25 years all of this happened. But it would not have happened if not for people like Marshall."
A wake will be held from 5 to 8:30 p.m. Sunday at Utter McKinley San Fernando Mission Mortuary, 11071 Columbus Ave., Mission Hills.