Newsletter: Essential California: Gustavo talks with Sheriff Villanueva; desmadre happens

L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva sits at a desk
A picture of L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva taken by my colleague Robin Abcarian for her chat with him last year. Villanueva gave Robin an hour-and-a-half interview in his office; I got an hour with him in a nondescript room.
(Robin Abcarian / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Friday, March 25, and I’m columnist Gustavo Arellano, writing from Orange County.

In 2018, when I was a freelance columnist for the L.A. Times Opinion section, I wrote a piece about an unprecedented election of new sheriffs across Southern California, including one Alex Villanueva of Los Angeles County.

At the time, many hailed him as a welcome relief from the problem-plagued administration of incumbent Jim McDonnell, who had replaced the feloniously convicted Lee Baca.

But something about Villanueva and his fellow newly elected constables, Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes and Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco, didn’t sit well with me. That led me then to warn readers that “sheriffs too often turn into tin-pot dictators with a brass badge and a pocketful of lead.”

And here we are.

All three have made national headlines for sundry scandals — none more than Villanueva. But I barely wrote about him once I joined The Times until, of all things, he announced last fall that all sheriff’s deputies could wear cowboy hats while on the job.


I wrote what I thought was a funny columna; Villanueva proceeded to trash me on his weekly Facebook Live session; I returned the favor with a far sharper column than the first.

We were like two rappers dropping diss tracks on each other. All that was the prelude to a one-hour interview Villanueva granted me last week, from which I’m still reeling.

The ostensible reason for our sit-down — the Latino character of the L.A. County Sheriff Department, and how it reflects Southern California’s Latino community in a way few people want to give Villanueva credit for — makes up Part 1. El sheriff’s bizarre turn during our talk to anti-Black dog whistles constitutes Part 2. And a grab bag of Villanueva complaints in Part 3 — the LAPD, Dist. Atty. George Gascón, vaccine mandates and the term “Latinx” — confirms my overall impression of him: a “half-Puerto Rican Richard Nixon” with a resentment toward perceived elites that “undercuts a sharp mind underestimated by opponents, a mind that could actually do good if its trollish id didn’t always feel there were scores to settle.”

He even used the term “silent majority,” for crying out loud.

So do read my three-part series. And, sheriff: If you’re reading this, when are we going Stetson-shopping together?

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

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A UCLA basketball player jumps with the ball in his hands
Jaime Jaquez Jr. of the UCLA Bruins — eight-clap for his health!
(Chris Gardner / Associated Press)

How Jaime Jaquez Jr. became the UCLA Bruins’ toughest player. As my alma mater prepares for a tough Friday matchup against the North Carolina Tar Heels in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, the young guard’s ankles are the most watched in sports since Curt Schilling’s sock game. Los Angeles Times

They were killed by death squads in El Salvador four decades ago. Now, these martyrs are closer to sainthood. A Los Angeles resident talks about the importance of the Rev. Rutilio Grande, murdered in 1977 along with two Catholic laymen. (Grande’s niece, Ana, is a professor of religious studies at Mount St. Mary’s University in L.A.) Religion News Service

Revisiting “American Me” and its Boyle Heights apartment building 30 years later. Open your architectural eyes, eses. L.A. Taco


In southern Mexico, a crush of stranded migrants clashes almost daily with authorities. And yet Mexico has the temerity to decry American border policy. Los Angeles Times

For years, I Anglicized my Mexican last name. MAGA trolls inspired me to reclaim it. My fellow Times columnista Jean Guerrero with a beautiful personal essay. Los Angeles Times


How Karen Bass and Rick Caruso offer divergent paths forward for Los Angeles. Kevin de León says: Hold my … um, whatever he drinks (I’m not going to presume). Los Angeles Times

More flag drama at Fresno City Hall? After a high-profile debate last year over flying the Pride flag, proposed rule changes are already facing criticism, in the most Fresno story you’ll read today. Fresno Bee

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What a decades-old SoCal murder trial says about race and justice in post-Trump America. My former colleague/forever compadre Nick Schou tells the story of a notorious San Clemente case that the legendary historian Mike Davis once called a “legal lynching.” Red Canary Collective


American jails and prisons are taking a page from S.F.’s behind-bars library. Watch the Chesa Boudin haters somehow turn this into a liability against the progressive district attorney. San Francisco Chronicle

“Zoot Suit Riots”: Los Angeles erupts in violence. PBS will re-air an amazing 2002 documentary on the subject March 29 — here’s a preview. American Experience

Is El Salvador protecting MS-13 from extradition? The Central American nation’s premier investigative news organization gets into the curious case of Helmer Canales Rivera (known to pals as “Crook”), who joined the transnational gang in Los Angeles and whom American authorities want to extradite. El Faro


California set off a biofuel boom — but can it manage the fallout? This story comes to you from national reporter Evan Halper, who is soon to leave The Times for another job. You’ll be missed. Los Angeles Times


Watsonville’s first poet laureate wants to spread spoken word art to community. Bob Gómez, come on down! Voices of Monterey Bay

Long Beach Opera show director resigned due to ‘culture of misogyny’ and ‘racial tokenism.’ Alexander Gedeon’s departure has exposed fissures in the organization. Long Beach Post


Latino animators break through at the Oscars. They hope change is just beginning. Freelancer Carlos Aguilar, one of the best film writers in the game right now, comes to you with this deep dive. It’s always good to see him in The Times. Los Angeles Times

After two years, Hearst Castle is reopening. Honest question, gentle readers: Should I go? I’ve never been! Los Angeles Times

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Los Angeles: sunny and warm, 80. San Diego: partly sunny, 73. San Francisco: patches of fog, 62. San Jose: partly sunny, 74. Fresno: sunny, 89. Sacramento: sunny, 77.

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Today’s California memory comes from Ray Biller:

My first album purchase was the Carpenters’ “Close To You.” I immediately fell in love with the mesmerizing voice of Karen Carpenter. I sang the songs to the point of irritation to my family. But my loving adopted aunt from Iowa, during one of her visits, bought me a ticket to see the Carpenters at the Greek Theatre. It was my very first concert and most memorable. We sat on the back row, but I was entranced by Carpenter’s vocals and still comment today how I was lucky enough to see her artistry in person. Her story was tragic, but her legacy lives on.


If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

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