Maria Aguilar approached Los Angeles City Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson to complain about what her children see as they walk to school in South Los Angeles.
“Mucho prostitucion,” she said in Spanish.
A neighbor stepped in to translate her concern into English, but the councilman understood what she meant.
Harris-Dawson is an African American community activist who represents the 8th Council District, spanning from Baldwin Hills, with one of the highest concentration of black wealth in the United States, to the edge of Watts. The district is considered the heart of L.A.'s black community.
Blacks still account for two-thirds of registered voters in the 8th District, making it the only council district where African Americans hold a majority.
Harris-Dawson confronts a challenge: Win the support of the fast-growing Latino community or risk becoming possibly the district’s last black politician.
“If the Latinos ever wake up and say, we want a Latino,” said political consultant and attorney Dermot Givens, “then they can take it.”
Harris-Dawson hired a team of aides and advisors that reflects the diversity of the district, provided translators at events and threw a district block party to celebrate Dia de Los Muertos, the Mexican holiday.
But his biggest challenge might be serving two groups that are sometimes on opposite sides of issues.
“There’s a somewhat unanimous belief in community safety, education and cleanliness,” said Bernard C. Parks, the former LAPD chief who served for a dozen years as the area’s councilman. “The friction starts when you get into the details of how people live and what they are doing.”
Many of the older African Americans, who anchor the neighborhoods in this district, are resistant to the change they see: immigrant vendors hawking food on the sidewalk, colorful murals plastered on homes and vegetables growing in parkways. For many Latinos close to their immigrant roots, this is a way of life.
Parks ran into a cultural roadblock last year after he proposed rebranding the neighborhoods south of the 10 Freeway as SOLA — an abbreviation for South L.A. The name change won support from the three Latino staffers who made up Parks’ legislative team.
But the suggestion offended some politically keyed-in Latinos, who said the decision showed that the larger community was left out of the process, pointing out that in Spanish, the word translates to “lonely” or “a woman looking for love.”
Harris-Dawson holds monthly community meetings like the one Aguilar attended to gauge the temperature of the community, workshop ideas and lay out his plan for revitalizing this district.
In these talks, he has chosen to focus on the universal problems that plague Latino and black residents.
“I’m not sure how unique the struggles are, especially when it pertains to the issues that the city deals with,” he said. “Basic infrastructure, quality-of-life issues affect everybody pretty equally.”
Harris-Dawson believes the fact that he does not speak Spanish is not an obstacle, but he often partners with Community Coalition, the South L.A. nonprofit organization he headed before being elected to the council.
The group provides translation devices that allow member Irlanda Gonzalez to convert the English dialogue to Spanish. At a meeting last summer, coalition President Alberto Retana introduced Harris-Dawson in Spanish, stressing the importance of blacks and Latinos working together to improve the district.
He’s of a younger generation that gets the mixture that he inherited. He understands the dynamics of the Latino majority and works that dynamic.
“He’s of a younger generation that gets the mixture that he inherited,” said Jaime Regalado, emeritus professor of political science at Cal State Los Angeles. “He understands the dynamics of the Latino majority and works that dynamic.”
Harris-Dawson replaced Parks after he termed out following 12 years on the dais. The men have different demeanors and styles of governing.
Over the years, the two men’s relationship became strained. They last spoke in 2009, when Harris-Dawson, then the head of Community Coalition, tried to shut down a liquor store in the 8th District that he said was a nuisance.
Parks accused Harris-Dawson of grandstanding by “creating solutions for nonexistent problems.”
The divide widened, Harris-Dawson said, when Parks said the 8th District had turned into a “poverty pit” after his colleagues redrew his district to cut out three major assets: USC, the Coliseum and Leimert Park, the African American cultural hub.
“I was really insulted by the statement because I live here,” Harris-Dawson said.
Politically he’s often aligned with the other two South L.A. councilmen, Herb Wesson and Curren Price.
“Marqueece is doing all the right things to bring everybody to the table,” Givens, the political consultant, said. “He’s talking to folks and inviting people and getting people’s opinion and calling people. He has done a lot of outreach. That’s not Bernard Parks whatsoever.”
Parks said Harris-Dawson is too similar to Wesson and Price.
“To me, you didn’t get elected to get along,” he said. “You got elected to represent the community.... This collegial, I don’t know what that means. Does it mean when you have a differing of opinions you shrink and say nothing?”
Waves of Mexican and Central American immigrants have transformed the historically black neighborhood so that it is now majority Latino.
It is also one of the poorest council districts with some of the highest crime rates. Last summer, at least 43 homicides occurred in the 8th District, the highest in L.A.
Decades ago, during a far more violent time in the city’s history, drive-by shootings and gang sweeps forced Harris-Dawson’s family to move to the other side of L.A. County — to the foothill communities of Altadena and Arcadia.
There, Harris-Dawson attended San Gabriel Valley schools, which saw an influx of immigrants from China, Taiwan and Mexico and a shrinking white population. On weekends, he visited his grandfather in Baldwin Hills.
He studied political science and mathematics at Morehouse College, an all-male historically black institution in Atlanta. From his college dorm 3,000 miles away, Harris-Dawson watched on TV as neighborhoods in L.A. burned during the 1992 riots. He vowed to return to his city. During freshman orientation, the dean told the group of young men, dressed in button-down shirts and ties, to look around them.
“You will never as long as you live in the United States be in a room with this many black men unless you go to prison,” Harris-Dawson recalled. He did, in 1995, when he attended the Million Man March in Washington.
After college he settled back in South L.A. as many black families began to move out, including to cities in Riverside and San Bernardino counties.
He may turn out to be the 8th District’s last black councilman. But he said he’s determined to help the neighborhoods he has been sworn to represent, regardless of how they look and what language they speak.
“If we improve the quality of life, it helps everybody,” he said.