When news broke this week that former Los Angeles Councilman Jose Huizar would plead guilty to federal racketeering charges for his role in a corruption scandal that rocked Los Angeles politics, “American Me” immediately came to mind .
No, not the overwrought Edward James Olmos movie about the origins of the Mexican Mafia – I’m talking about the long-forgotten book published in 1948 about Mexican-American life in and around the Eastside. Author Beatrice Griffith, a social worker in neighborhoods like Happy Valley, Belvedere and Maravilla, wrote the bestseller to document the travesty of what she saw: a community of good people robbed of the good life by racism and charlatans.
It is a powerful, beautifully written exposé of what Mexican Americans faced during World War II, alternating between short stories and street-level messages to address issues – police brutality, housing inequality, underfunded schools, drugs – that the Eastside then and sadly plagued persist today.
She rightly pointed the finger at white supremacy as the culprit behind so many problems. But just as villainous in her mind was one of LA’s quintessential archetypes: the Eastside politico.
In the fictionalized chapter, one José Villa smokes an expensive cigar and spits out bromides like “A pueblo unido is a pueblo fuerte(A united people is a strong people) as he struck down a shopkeeper who needed help freeing a son wrongfully imprisoned.
In the non-fiction essay, Griffith viewed Villa’s real-life counterparts as “sold-out performers” who “work both sides of the court to their advantage” and thrive “on the fears, ignorance, poverty and political isolation of their people.
“Such a person,” concluded Griffith, “is quick to jump on the bandwagon and brag about the plight of ‘my people,’ when it is to his advantage to do so.”
That describes many of the most prominent Eastside leaders in the 75 years since Griffith published “American Me.”
That’s hussar. That is the successor of Huizar, council member Kevin de León. That’s De León’s former councilman Gil Cedillo. That’s Cedillo’s classmate from Roosevelt High, former mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. They are Villaraigosa’s former political adviser Richard Alatorre and his friend Richard Polanco. And their friend, Art Torres.
Huizar, who pleaded Friday, and Alatorre, who pleaded guilty to federal tax evasion in 2001 for failing to report money he received from people who tried to influence him when he was on city council, are the only ones to face criminal charges.
But they and others of their kind are philosophical comp address. Almost for a man – and almost all of them have been men – the Eastside politico has played an outsized, toxic role in LA Latino life.
For the record:
9:35 a.m. January 21, 2023An earlier version of this column stated that Jose Huizar was the only one of several LA Eastside politicians to face criminal charges. In 2001, former LA Councilman Richard Alatorre pleaded guilty to tax evasion for failing to declare approximately $42,000 he received from individuals attempting to gain his influence while he was an elected official and served on the board of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
These native sons flaunt rags-to-riches stories for media cameras and the public as they accumulate the power that allows them to enjoy tailored suits, fancy dinners, campaign donations, and other luxuries.
They cycle in and out of positions in City Hall and Sacramento – elected official, lobbyist, consultant, commissioner – allowing them to stay in the political game all their lives. They dangle opportunities—volunteer, recruiter, campaign manager, staffer—to idealistic upstarts, supplementing the youth’s resumes and sucking the reformist out of them.
Each evokes a righteous semblance of representation and selflessness that he exudes in public appearances and when people whisper that he has lost touch with his roots. If one of them does something wrong, politicians from the East invent excuses and justifications or remain silent. Anyone who resists is slaughtered as a traitor and outsider. Their ongoing scandals and rival cliques have made generations of Latino voters cynical about democracy itself, allowing the Eastside politico to survive, thrive and replicate.
Of course, it’s not just Latino politicians who embody these traits. But politicians on the east side always pitched themselves above the fray, as the way forward for a city that is now overwhelmingly Latino. So what have they brought their constituents all these decades since Griffith so caustically called them out in “American Me”?
Neighborhoods dealing with the same problems of disinvestment and political ignorance she portrayed, but the oppressors are now Latinos, not whites.
No one embodied the rottenness of the Eastside politico more than Huizar – and no one better personifies why this political character must eventually die.
Huizar handled a biography straight out of “The Great Gatsby”: a son of working-class parents who grew up in Boyle Heights, worked his way into prestigious colleges, and became the first Mexican immigrant elected to the Los Angeles City Council. He was as comfortable at high-end parties in downtown Los Angeles as he was at the Quiet Cannon in Montebello for the annual banquets of the Federación de Clubes Zacatecanos del Sur de California – associations from Huizar’s native Zacatecas, the state where my parents were born and where hundreds of thousands of Angelenos have roots.
He used this background to protect himself from critics who claimed he was gentrifying downtown LA and Boyle Heights, and to fight back against federal prosecutors who claimed he took millions of dollars in bribes to make all this development happen. When the proverbial mold was finally over, he donned Catholic iconography as any savvy Eastside politician would.
His trials loomed over the infamously racist LA City Council audio leak. Those on the tape—fellow Eastside politicos De León and Cedillo, politician-in-spirit and then-City Council President Nury Martinez and then-LA County Labor Federation President Ron Herrera—rationalized their colleagues’ illegal actions and patted themselves on the back for it.
“I never criticized Jose Huizar,” said De León, to which Martinez quickly replied: “That’s smart,” before adding: “What should I say question Jose also had no debts in his children’s school and was trying to figure out how to pay for his studies[?]”
With Huizar’s admission of guilt, their defense of him seems dumber than ever – showing once again that the one thing Eastside politicians defend above all else is their own.
The progressive political wind now blowing through Los Angeles gives hope that Huizar and his ilk are numbered. De León is a political pariah because he refused to step down in the wake of the racist tape leak. The two newest Latino councilors, Eunisses Hernandez and Hugo Soto-Martinez, ran like anti-politicians and have so far rejected the trappings of their predecessors: Hernandez favors woven Oaxacan bags instead of the Louis Vuittons that Martinez flaunted, while Soto-Martinez seems to prefer his worn jacket over hip suits like Huizar.
I hope she and other young Latino elected officials continue on this humbler path. However, the demise of the Eastside Politico is something this newspaper has proclaimed before – and it has always gone wrong.
It happened in 2009, when then-Times columnist Hector Tobar wrote that politicians “couldn’t unite the Latino Eastside behind” a Cedillo convention. Tobar was right: Cedillo lost. But Cedillo, then a state senator, won his old parliament seat the following year, while De León took Cedillo’s senate seat.
In 2002, the late Frank del Olmo opined that Council District 14’s ugly race that year between Villaraigosa and then-incumbent Nick Pacheco “might have sounded the death knell for a worn-out political ‘machine’ on the Eastside.”
That was almost the same sentiment expressed by Del Olmo in 1987, when Gloria Molina defied the Alatorre machine and won a council seat, leading the legendary columnist to hope that “internecine political battles like the one between Molina and [her opponent]’ would not become ‘routine’.
Unfortunately they did.
Villa, the fictional Eastside politician from ‘American Me’, was not paid any wages. In his final scene, Griffith describes sitting in his downtown office with a picture of himself “in a Mexican sombrero and charro suit shaking hands with the fat mayor who is all soft and smiling.”
Villa leans back in his chair, laughs after skinning another Mexican merchant, and repeats, “Mi pueblo me mantiene.” My people support me.
This is something the Villas and Huizars and De Leóns of the Eastside have been saying for far too long, with little resistance. Now Huizar risks at least nine years in prison and a recall campaign against De León is in the works.
May the pueblo be ready to silence the Eastside politico once and for all.