A legacy lives on in buildings across the city

Times Staff Writer

Across the city he represented for decades, building after building is named after Edward Roybal.

And the reputation of Roybal, one of the most influential and trailblazing Latino politicians in U.S. history, reaches far beyond his political base in East Los Angeles, where there’s the Edward Roybal Comprehensive Health Center. In Atlanta, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention named its main campus after him.

In downtown Los Angeles, there’s the Edward R. Roybal Federal Building, and to the south is the Edward R. Roybal Institute for Applied Gerontology at USC.


This month, yet another building was named after the longtime lawmaker -- the Edward R. Roybal Learning Center -- and those who followed his career say pairing his name with a school is fitting. The high school is downtown and serves a predominantly Latino student body.

“Congressman Roybal was a champion for progressive educational issues that directly impacted Latino children,” said Board of Education President Monica Garcia. “It’s important students be exposed to culturally relevant role models, and Roybal is certainly a figure whose work and legacy we want to remember.”

The campus originally known as the Belmont Learning Center, plagued by funding and construction delays for 15 years, ended up costing $400 million -- the nation’s most expensive high school project.

After Latino organizations championed his legacy, Los Angeles Unified officials renamed the school after Roybal.

Many of the campus’ students weren’t even born when Roybal left public office in 1992, and many have yet to learn about his legacy.

After classes let out on a recent afternoon, a dozen students said they were given a handout on Roybal and told about his accomplishments at orientation, but none could elaborate much on him.


“I just heard that he died in 2005 and was in politics,” said Julia Bethancourt, a 17-year-old junior. Her friend, Wendy Miron, 17, nodded awkwardly in agreement.

But to longtime Southern California residents, especially Latinos, Roybal’s name still evokes deep respect.

He is widely considered the first Latino from Los Angeles’ Eastside to win national recognition. With his election in 1949, he became the first Los Angeles City Council member of Mexican descent since 1881.

And after he left for Congress in 1962, it would take 23 years for another Latino to be elected to the council. The possibility of a Mexican American serving as mayor -- as Antonio Villaraigosa does now -- was unthinkable then.

Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-East Los Angeles), Roybal’s eldest daughter, represents part of his former district. She recalled how during his first few terms on the council, her father faced discrimination just like his constituents.

“During that time in our city’s history, Mexican Americans and other minorities were not welcomed in many parts of our city,” Roybal-Allard said. “So one can well imagine the reception my father got on the City Council. The racial slurs and not-so-quiet whispers directed at him and our family when we attended events and dinners remain vivid in our minds even today.

“But,” she added, “equally as vivid is the strength and the courage he demonstrated as many tried to humiliate and intimidate him to give up his cause.”

In 1962, Roybal successfully ran for Congress in the 25th District, which stretched from Hollywood through downtown to Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles.

During his three decades in the House, he fought for immigrant rights, education and equal access to healthcare. He crafted the first bill to provide schools with bilingual teaching programs and in the 1980s advocated for funding the nation’s first research and treatment programs for AIDS and Alzheimer’s disease, before either cause was popular.

Born Feb. 10, 1916, in Albuquerque, Roybal was one of 10 children. When he was 6, the family moved to Boyle Heights, where he graduated from Roosevelt High School.

After studying at UCLA and Southwestern University, he served in the Army during World War II. Returning to Los Angeles in 1945, he worked as the director of health education for the Los Angeles County Tuberculosis and Health Assn.

After an unsuccessful City Council run in 1947, he created the Community Service Organization to help fight discrimination in housing, employment and education.

The group held voter registration drives in East L.A. and supported Roybal’s second council bid, which he won campaigning for more streetlights, better housing and increased restraints on police, notorious for harassing minorities.

Knowing it wasn’t historically easy for a Latino to win election in Southern California, Roybal mentored and endorsed many aspiring lawmakers, such as Villaraigosa, Los Angeles City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo and Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina.

A political endorsement from “the Old Man,” as aspiring officeholders called Roybal, could be a decisive factor in winning, especially with Latinos, elected officials said.

“He was a political godfather, and he gave good advice,” Molina said. “He was very progressive for his time. He’s someone who I tremendously honor, respect and miss, and I’ve tried to mimic how passionate he was.”

But in his twilight years, Roybal said he worried about the future of Latino leaders, lamenting that politics had become connected more to prestige and money than to the community one represents.

“My kind of grass-roots politics is long gone,” Roybal told The Times in 1999. He died of respiratory failure in Pasadena on Oct. 24, 2005. He was 89.

Roybal-Allard said she could see her father concerned about the way politics plays out today, from Washington, D.C., to the neighborhoods he represented.

“I think he would not be happy with all the spin and, in some cases, misinformation,” she said. Today, politics is “more about the hype and not real issues.”

That’s why people who admire Roybal say it’s important to remember his legacy.

“I hope that when young people see Roybal or [Cesar] Chavez on those buildings around L.A., that it’s a reminder that you can never take the opportunities you have today for granted,” Roybal-Allard said. “Someone before you paved that road.”