Local leaders need to put South Whittier on the map

During my high school years I resided in a Southern California frontier, a collection of humble homes built on paved-over cow pastures.

On maps sporting bright colors for the many cities around it -- Whittier, La Mirada, Santa Fe Springs -- my community was a bland patch of yellow, signifying its unincorporated status. To this day, when I tell people the name of this community, I draw blank stares.

South Whittier is so anonymous that one day last year I wrote its name in this column, went to bed, and discovered in the next morning that one of our copy editors had stripped it of its capital S before the newspaper went to print. He didn’t know South Whittier existed, and figured I must have meant the southern part of the city of Whittier.

To a lot of people South Whittier is still “nowhere.” And when you live nowhere, bad things can happen.

I first learned this more than 30 years ago, when officials based in neighboring Whittier shut down my high school and gave me and several thousand other South Whittier students and parents a lesson in cold-hearted local politics.

Last week, I went back to South Whittier. The cows were gone from the last bit of open pasture a block or so from my old home. But there were still a lot of people who feel South Whittier is getting the short end of the stick.

“It’s a reality that if you’re born in certain ZIP Codes, you don’t get a fair shot in life,” said Layla Avila, a 36-year-old educator who is president of the South Whittier School District Board of Trustees. “I look forward to the day when the people rise up and light a fire under their elected officials.”

In 2001, the county divided South Whittier between two supervisorial districts, effectively splitting the responsibility for governing the community between two elected officials based 20 miles away.

“We’re like our own borderland here,” said Jorge Hernandez, a 25-year-old activist elected to the school board in 2009.

I’d never thought of my old ZIP Code -- 90605 -- as a strike against me. But a lot of other people did. A 1979 story about South Whittier described it as a “heavily lower-middle-class community,” which I suppose explains why none of its neighbors have swallowed the territory up.

But I did think of South Whittier, back then, as a place where people were largely apathetic about government, and the government didn’t care much about the people either.

It was circa 1979 when I suggested to my friends on Safari Drive that we call the county and have them put up a “Not a Through Street” sign on the entrance to our cul-de-sac. Lost drivers kept turning into our dead-end block and interrupting our games of street football. I never did call, however. A year later, I went away to college and never moved back.

Three decades later, there’s still no sign.

Today you can find a number of civic-minded people in South Whittier. But most of them will tell you they are members of a lonely minority.

South Whittier has no identifiable center. It’s common for a South Whittier resident to wander into Whittier City Hall to complain about a pothole, only to be told: “No, your address is not in Whittier. You have to call the county.”

When I lived there, South Whittier was about evenly split between Latinos and whites. If the trends of past decades continue, South Whittier will be about three-quarters Latino in this year’s census.

About 55,000 people live in South Whittier, but last year Avila won reelection to the community’s school board with fewer than 500 votes.

South Whittier is suffering from a problem that plagues many California communities -- the still-large gap between the Latino population and the institutions of American democracy.

A few days before I set off for South Whittier, Arturo Vargas of the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials called me with a plea for help. For the last several months, he’s been trying to round up recruits for the California Citizens Redistricting Commission, which was created when voters passed Proposition 11 in 2008.

The idea is to turn over the job of drawing boundaries for state Assembly and Senate districts to laypeople.

As of Jan. 8, however, just 9% of the eligible applicants were Latino in a state where Latinos constitute 37% of the population. The redistricting commission’s 14 members will be chosen, in part, by lottery. Vargas wants more Latinos in the candidate pool so that Latino-majority communities like South Whittier don’t get shortchanged when district boundaries are redrawn after this year’s census.

“At this point, we’re trying to do what we can to get Latinos to apply and get into the final pool,” Vargas said. The deadline is Feb. 12

It’s sort of embarrassing that you can get hundreds of thousands of Latinos out for an L.A. march demanding immigration reform -- while only 800 or so have signed up so far for the critical task of drawing the maps that will shape the future of state government.

In South Whittier, the people who’ve caught the civic bug still struggle to get their neighbors excited about county budgets, planning studies and other minutiae of local government.

“People say, ‘That doesn’t impact me, it’s not about me,’ ” Rosalia Contreras told me in Spanish at a South Whittier community center where she’s worked as a volunteer for 20 years.

My friends and neighbors, both Latino and white, mobilized in South Whittier more than 30 years ago in a time of crisis.

It was 1978, and the Whittier Union High School District was debating which campuses to shut down in the face of a budget shortfall. The cheerleaders at Sierra High tried to spur me into action. “Help us save our school,” they’d say. But I was a cynical 15-year-old junior then, so I ignored them.

In the fall of 1979, I drove to Pioneer High for the first day of my senior year and realized all that I had lost -- among other things, half my friends had been assigned to other schools. Both the high schools closed by the Whittier Union High School District in 1979 were in unincorporated South Whittier. The high schools in the city of Whittier stayed open.

South Whittier is still run by the Board of Supervisors. But when the board drew boundaries for supervisorial districts, it split South Whittier in half between Supervisors Gloria Molina and Don Knabe. This is a raw deal for South Whittier.

The deputies assigned by Molina and Knabe to South Whittier -- Angie Castro and Andrea Avila, respectively -- are working hard to serve their constituents. Working out of their cars, they shuffle from one meeting and complaint to the next, trying to keep parks running and potholes filled.

Unfortunately, both are juggling several other duties. Besides South Whittier, Castro handles press and arts issues for Molina. Avila is also county liaison to Downey, Norwalk and Whittier.

South Whittier really is “somewhere,” and it needs its own local government. But only the people who live there can make one.

Our state needs a better government, too, and only we citizens can make one. If you’ve got a few hundred hours to spare, sign up for the redistricting commission. You’ll spend a lot of time poring over maps -- and remaking California democracy.