Column: Remember the activists who helped power the blue wave

Leo Estrada, left, and Antonio Gonzalez, right.
(Admin Luskin School of Public Affairs and Nick Ut/Associated Press)

Hundreds of thousands of midterm votes are still being counted across the United States, but you can already verify this result: The Democratic blue wave contained a lot of azul.

The national Democratic Party, which — after ignoring Latinos for too long — wised up and spent more than $30 million to get out the voto and turnout was 174% higher than in the 2014 midterms. A record number of Latinos — Mexicans, Cubans, Dominicans, South Americans — will enter Congress. In California, victories by two Latinas from the Central Valley, Anna Caballero and Melissa Hurtado, helped restore the Democrats’ super-majority in the state Senate.

This surge in Latino political power is a credit to the activists who laid its foundation in the 1980s and 1990s. Two of them, both Angelenos, died earlier this month: civil rights activist Antonio Gonzalez and UCLA professor Leo Estrada. Their passings barely registered in local and national media, but their fingerprints were all over the Democrats’ 2018 success.

Gonzalez was the longtime leader of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project and its policy arm, the William C. Velasquez Institute. A 2005 profile in Time Magazine — which named him as one of the 25 most influential Latinos in the U.S. — described Gonzalez’s philosophy best: “democracy as trench warfare.”


This surge in Latino political power is a credit to the activists who laid its foundation in the 1980s and 1990s.

The SVREP was created to register Latino voters across the United States, regardless of political affiliation. Whether you were a fifth-generation Chicano or someone whose parents were in the country illegally, Gonzalez wanted you to participate in the grand American experiment. So he did everything to make sure that happened. He worked Capitol Hill but also went door-to-door in barrios across the country registering people.

He taught newbies the ins and outs of American politics, community activism and running for office. And once Latinos stepped inside the corridors of power, Gonzalez pushed them to work on big issues — such as the war on drugs and environmental justice — that may not have been obvious choices, but directly effected Latino communities.

Gonzalez even understood the importance of community journalism: Despite an impossibly busy schedule, he hosted a weekly one-hour radio show on KPFK from 2004 to 2016, using his platform to let local, national and international activists explain their struggles on the air to a Southern California audience.

“Chipping away, pushing, prodding,” Gonzalez told Time back in 2005 about his work strategy. “We’ve created a new culture of participation.”

Estrada was even lesser known than Gonzalez — yet in some ways, more influential. The El Paso native started at UCLA in 1977 and helped to transform the school’s urban planning department into one of the most vital in the United States. Through his work on demographics in the Southwest and how it played out politically, Estrada got Latino progressives to realize that activism couldn’t come just from the streets, but also academia.


In an appreciation published by UCLA when Estrada retired earlier this year, he recalled asking a dean at the university if it was OK for academics to involve themselves in local affairs.

“I think our faculty in the field of planning should be in the community, so you do what you have to do,” Estrada’s boss told him. “Try not to get arrested.”

He took those words to heart, and helped to break down the ivory tower by teaching a generation of scholars that their work had concrete, on-the-ground application — and wasn’t just for stuffy university journals.

Enter the Fray: First takes on the news of the minute »

The profe led by example. He worked on the Christopher Commission that examined the Los Angeles Police Department policies in the wake of the Rodney King beating and advocated for reforms such as community policing. Government officials used his demographic breakdowns of political districts to better allocate funds toward Latinos. The American Civil Liberties Union and other nonprofits used his data to craft lawsuits that alleged disenfranchisement of Latino voters across the country. His consulting was crucial in the voting rights case Garza vs. Los Angeles County, the federal court decision that led to a redrawing of county supervisorial districts and helped Gloria Molina become the first non-white to become a county supervisor.

Just as crucial was what Estrada did quietly: mentor scores of former students who went on to become professors, nonprofit workers and activists, whether with a letter of recommendation or a pep talk when they needed it the most. Dozens posted testimonials about his grace and genius on social media. “The modern scholar of color ‘doesn’t have time’ to work with the next generation,” said Alexandro Jose Gradilla, a professor of Chicano Studies at Cal State Fullerton. “Estrada did it over and over again without blinking.”

Estrada and Gonzalez were never in the spotlight like, say, former L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa or longtime labor leader and newly minted state Senator Maria Elena Durazo. Yet they were California at our best: always looking to better the future of the downtrodden. When the Democrats take power in Sacramento and Washingtonin January, party leaders should hold a moment of silence in their honor.

And for anyone else who want to show our respect? Easy. Vote. Then register someone to do the same.

Twitter: @GustavoArellano