Column: The Eastside, cradle of Latino politics, is squabbling once again

PART I: THE EASTSIDE’S PERPETUAL DESMADRE

Sipping on an iced cappuccino, Antonio Villaraigosa beamed as he described the pinnacle of his career.

His late-1990s stint as speaker of the California Assembly? Nah. Serving as the first Latino mayor of Los Angeles in 133 years? Important, but that wasn’t it. Continuing to advise political hopefuls across Los Angeles County? Nope.

No, what prompted Villaraigosa to happily reminisce for a good hour was his success as a peacemaker in the eternal civil war that’s politics on the Eastside.

Rivalries are part of any region’s politics, but in the cradle of Latino power in Los Angeles, they are biblical. Here, friends turn into enemies, and enemies become friends, as a parade of politicians jump over, around and on one another like a game of “Frogger.”

Villaraigosa was in the middle of what was long the Eastside’s defining feud: pioneering politicos Richard Alatorre and Art Torres versus their former associate Gloria Molina. Through the 1980s and 1990s, they and their followers brawled from Sacramento to City Hall to the county Board of Supervisors, in skirmishes that The Times once politely described as “downright mean.” The two sides even went by nicknames — the Torristas and Molinistas — and claimed restaurants facing each other on Olvera Street (El Paseo Inn and La Golondrina Cafe, respectively) as hangouts.

When Villaraigosa won his Assembly seat in 1994, he represented something different. A rabble-rousing activist with roots in L.A.’s labor movement, he had entered Eastside politics as Molina’s representative on what later became the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board. He frequently found himself on the losing side of votes orchestrated by Alatorre, then a council member and the board’s chair.

In Los Angeles, “Latinos were quickly becoming the dominant ethnic group,” Villaraigosa said. “All that infighting undermined the power that could come with being that dominant.”

After years of jostling with Alatorre and his protege, Richard Polanco, Villaraigosa won over the former and checkmated the latter in his successful run for mayor in 2005.

A Pax Chicano took hold on the Eastside for 15 years — something not seen in decades. Villaraigosa’s favored candidates rose, with only token opposition.

“I knew there was no way to get to the mountaintop with us warring between one another,” he said, stopping from time to time to take phone calls for his consulting business as we sat outside a coffee shop near downtown. “What are we going to do? Like the Hatfields and McCoys?”

Yet that’s what’s happening again on the Eastside.

The battlefield is the forever battlefield: the 14th City Council District. It’s a land of contrasts — downtown and Skid Row, heavily Latino Boyle Heights and El Sereno, gentrified Highland Park and suburbanesque Eagle Rock — represented by a Latino since the mid-1980s. Among those who have occupied the seat are the most iconic and, in some cases, the most infamous of L.A. politicians: Alatorre, Villaraigosa, Jose Huizar, who was sentenced in January to 13 years in federal prison for racketeering and tax evasion.

And, of course, the sitting council member, Kevin de León, who has remained in power despite calls by Villaraigosa and others to resign after he was captured on a recording with other politicians in a conversation that belittled Black people, Oaxacans and Jews, among others .

Seven people are challenging De León for his seat, including two former fellow travelers, Assemblymembers Wendy Carrillo and Miguel Santiago. The splintering echoes a comment De León made on the tape, bemoaning the lack of Latino political unity in Los Angeles compared with Black power.

“They shout like they’re 250,” he said, “when there’s 100 of us, and it sounds like it’s 10 of us.”

The 14th’s state of being has longtime observers asking a question that sounds like a joke but isn’t: Why do politics on the Eastside always devolve into desmadre — chaos?

The Eastside is the axle from which the rest of L.A.’s Latino power wheel springs. The struggles for representation and equity at City Hall and the state capitol, waged decades ago by Eastside politicians, inspired Latinos nationwide. In L.A. today, power is no longer relegated to where Latinos live — it’s citywide.

When the axle squeaks, as is happening in the 14th yet again, the rest of Los Angeles should watch out.

“Is it a special brew in the 14th that they all catch? I don’t know,” said Jaime Regalado, a professor emeritus of political science at Cal State Los Angeles. “It’s the opposite of being blessed, for sure.”

Eastside politics weren’t always so messy.

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They lived in an East L.A. home almost 30 years. Now their landlords want to move in.

Days before Christmas, María Vela was saying goodbye to the narrow one-bedroom apartment in East L.A. that has been the backdrop of her family’s lives for the last 30 years. 

Vela looked at her wedding photo hanging in their living room. The couple hosted their wedding reception out on the driveway, Vela said, gesturing outside. They raised four children in the duplex near the end of a cul-de-sac in their historically Latino neighborhood. Their kids enjoyed a quintessential East L.A. upbringing until one-by-one they left for college, except for Vela’s youngest girl, a high school junior.

Now the family is being evicted by Christmas so their landlords, who live next door, can move in.  

Family evictions

Evictions are on the rise nationwide and in California. While most Los Angeles-area evictions happen because tenants struggle to pay rent, even tenants who manage to remain current with rent are at risk of eviction. These “just cause” or “no fault” evictions happen because landlords want to move into their tenants’ units, renovate a unit or leave the rental market. 

No-fault evictions are contributing to the displacement of families from their longtime communities, along with other factors such as rising rents, too few affordable units, and expired tenant protections. 

“Homeowner move-ins have been bringing about this exodus of Angelenos leaving their communities because they can no longer afford rent,” said Cinthia Gonzalez, an organizer at Eastside Leadership for Equitable and Accountable Development Strategies (LEADS). “It’s a heavy load.”

After state pandemic-era tenant protections expired, average monthly eviction filings surpassed pre-pandemic levels in a dozen of California’s most populous counties, according to court records obtained by CalMatters.  

Counties that extended local eviction moratoria saw delayed, but still stark, eviction increases. That was the case for Los Angeles County, which saw a 17% increase in eviction filings the first eight months of 2023, compared to pre-pandemic levels.

Even though there have been state and local efforts to strengthen protections against evictions for “just cause,” those protections didn’t help Vela’s family stay in their longtime home. 

A man who identified himself as one of Vela’s landlords told CalMatters he didn’t want to comment on the matter. 

Part of a community

Vela has lived in the same home since she immigrated to the U.S. in 1996. 

She met her husband at a party while he was visiting Mexico. Within months they wed and went together to East L.A., where he was already living with his three brothers. 

When the brothers came across the duplex unit in the early 1990s, it was dilapidated and littered with trash in a neighborhood with active gangs. The brothers asked the landlord if they could fix it up in exchange for being able to live there. The landlord agreed and charged them $300 monthly. 

As the family grew, the home started to feel smaller.

Over the years various landlords neglected the property, Vela said. Walls are chipping, holes where mice have crept in are covered by unsecured wood, and mold grows in the bathroom. 

But they were able to remain there long enough to give Vela’s children the stability and joyful upbringing they needed to succeed.

Carolina Correa, 23, graduated from Brown University and landed a job at an environmental justice nonprofit in San Francisco. Diana Correa, 26, graduated from UC Berkeley and is pursuing a master’s degree in history. Jesús Correa, 19, started at UC Merced in the fall. 

The youngest, 16-year-old Fabiola Correa, wants to follow in her siblings’ footsteps and become valedictorian or salutatorian at Esteban Torres High School. She’s eyeing UC Berkeley too. 

Carolina remembers whispering with her siblings as they lay on bunk beds or on the floor, to not wake her parents in the bedroom. They slept in the living room and another living space in the apartment and had little privacy, but it helped them stay close. 

Their father taught them to ride bikes and he’d watch them ride in circles on the dead end street, Carolina said. He hosted carne asada barbecues with family. Block parties with live bands and traditional Mexican food and sweets brought neighbors together. 

“It was really nice to just have that literally right in front of my house, on my street, and to be a part of community in a way that is something so special to East L.A.,” Carolina said. 

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Proposed USC research facility revives worries of gentrification on L.A.’s Eastside

For some Eastside residents and local organizers, a proposed research facility at USC’s Health Sciences Campus in Boyle Heights is the latest example of a decades-long wave of gentrification spurred in part by the growth of the private university.

About 50 demonstrators marched last week in protest of USC’s proposed 202,000-square-foot, seven-story Discovery and Translational Hub, a research and laboratory space that would include a lecture hall, a “grab and go” cafe and vending machine area, a biorepository, a medical chemistry core lab and an array of collaboration, meeting and support spaces.

Protesters believe the project will help price out residents of Boyle Heights, Lincoln Heights, Ramona Gardens and El Sereno neighborhoods, worried about the effects of an influx of more affluent researchers and the university’s expanding footprint.

“For more than 100 years, USC has come into our communities of South Central and Boyle Heights expanding their campuses without any accountability to our laborers, workers or community needs,” said Cinthia Gonzalez, a community organizer with the anti-gentrification group Eastside LEADS. “We say, no more.”

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Tenants protest, decry ‘unfair’ evictions by ELACC

A small group of tenants at four buildings owned by the East Los Angeles Community Corporation (ELACC) are protesting their eviction notices, claiming the nonprofit developer is treating them unfairly and going against a policy of no displacements set in conjunction with a coalition of nine Eastside organizations.

That coalition, Eastside Leads, announced last month that it was removing ELACC from its membership, demanding that the developer stop all pending evictions and meet jointly with the six tenants –all being evicted for non payment of rent.

ELACC says that it has attempted to negotiate payment plans with the tenants –including three at the iconic Boyle Hotel in Boyle Heights–  but that it’s the tenants’ obligation to fully pay back their missed rent.

Under the city of Los Angeles COVID-19 regulations, renters were  protected from eviction over debt accumulated during the pandemic. But rent was never canceled, and tenants had until Aug. 1 to pay landlords all of the rent they missed between March 1, 2020 and Sept. 30, 2021. And tenants have until Feb. 1 to pay rent owed from Oct. 1 2021 to Jan. 31, 2023. Tenants who don’t pay those debts in full could face eviction.

According to Eastside Leads organizers, all of its coalition partners met with ELACC President and CEO Monica Mejia on Aug. 8 and tried unsuccessfully to seek a resolution for the tenants.

In a statement, Eastside Leads said that the rights of the six tenants were violated during the COVID-19 pandemic and that they were “unjustly facing evictions.”

Mejia said that ELACC has tried to work with the six tenants, but that any resolution would have to involve repayment of all past due rent. As a non profit developer, the executive said, ELACC needs to collect rent in order to pay back loans and maintain its properties. 

Mejía insisted that ELACC’s model of affordable housing depends on the collection of rent and that it never agreed to a policy of no evictions because of non-payment.

“There haven’t been conversations with Eastside Leads where we’ve decided that rent [payment] is no longer required, Mejía said. “We just don’t have that kind of a system right now.”

Mejía said that for privacy concerns she could not meet with tenants as a group, but that she had offered to meet with them individually and work out a payment plan.

But Eastside Leads digital organizer Kimberly Alvarado said that conversations with ELACC were one-sided and that tenants were being offered an “unreasonable and unattainable” payment plan of 50% of unpaid rent being paid upfront, with the rest in installments. 

“Where’s the humanity in that when people are struggling?” Alvarado questioned. “It’s not like these tenants don’t want to pay, it’s that they’re not in a position to do what ELACC is demanding of them.”

Alvarado said that the coalition found “other inconsistencies, discrepancies and instances of misconduct facing tenants on their properties.”

A letter from Eastside Leads dated Aug. 18 and addressed to Mejia and ELACC board chair Araceli Sandoval-Gonzalez lists a number of complaints against ELACC and a property management company. Among other requests, the Coalition asks that ELACC:

  • Begin an external mediation process to address concerns and challenges faced by the six tenants. 
  • Issue a rent reduction for tenants facing the eviction process. 
  • Investigate allegations of misconduct and sexual harassment by employees of the management company.
  • Withdraw pending eviction cases and announce a no eviction without mediation policy.

Following a protest by the tenants in front of ELACC’s headquarters on Aug. 23, the developer said it would launch an investigation into the harassment claims.

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LAUSD celebrates 10 years of restorative justice, but progress remains uneven

This May, the Los Angeles Unified School District celebrated the 10th anniversary of the School Climate Bill of Rights — a resolution that halted suspensions for willful defiance and brought restorative justice practices into classrooms.

Social justice advocates and school board members applauded the nearly 80% reduction in overall suspensions in LAUSD since the new policy passed.

“The best thing that has happened is that LA Unified is seeing students for students, and that includes their boundary-pushing, their risk-taking, their lesson-learning — you know, behaviors that come with growth and development,” said school board member Tanya Ortiz Franklin, who authored May’s commemorative resolution.

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Blacks, Latinos have been arrested at 'disproportionate rate' in L.A., report finds

A new analysis of Los Angeles Police Department data released this week by L.A. City Controller Kenneth Mejia shows that Latino and Black people were arrested at a "disproportionate rate" between 2019 to 2022.

Black people, who make up 8% of the county’s population, accounted for 27% of all arrests; and Latinos, who account for almost half (48%) of the Los Angeles County, made up 51% of all arrests.

Both demographics, when combined, make up 56% of the county's population and yet totaled more than two-thirds of all arrests at 78.26%, according to the report. White people, which make up 29% of the county, ranked third in the total number of arrests at 16%.

Henry Perez, the executive director of the nonprofit InnerCity Struggle, said the report is alarming but not surprising. Perez said the organization, which works to organize communities in L.A.'s Eastside neighborhoods to address violence and crime, has historically experienced overpolicing.

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LAUSD graduates reflect on challenges in their K-12 education

In a roundtable event hosted by Equity Alliance for LA’s Kids, recent LAUSD graduates reflected on their navigation of an often difficult, educational experience.

Graduates from East LA and South LA high schools, identified by the Student Equity Needs Index (SENI) as some of the highest concentrations of high-need schools, shared their challenges from policing to housing, while also highlighting their support systems in and outside school.

Equity Alliance for LA’s Kids is composed of local community and in-district organizations such as Catalyst California, Community Coalition, InnerCity Struggle and the Partnership for LA Schools, organizations that these graduates are part of.

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Henry Perez expects to build on the legacy of Inner City Struggle

In 2005, Maria Ruiz was going through a dire situation: her three sons were struggling in school, and she had no idea where to find help. That’s when she met Henry Perez, who had just been appointed as coordinator for the Familias Unidas program at InnerCity Struggle (ICS).

“I felt hopeless because I felt that there was nothing I could do to help my children, and as a mother that is one of the worst feelings,” said Ruiz, a longtime resident of Boyle Heights. “I met Henry at a workshop he brought to Hollenbeck [Middle School] where my oldest was going, and he changed all of our lives.”

She says Perez helped her gain access to valuable resources to support her children, with extra attention to her middle child who, as someone in the Autism spectrum, struggled to find adequate support in school. Seeing what ICS could do for her family, Ruiz decided to join the Familias Unidas team to fight for more dedicated support for struggling students in LAUSD.

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These high school grads are the COVID Class of 2023 and have the stories to prove it

It had only been a week since graduation and these teenagers were giddy. Summer sprawled out in front of them. College is just a few months away — a future some still can’t believe will be theirs.

One will be leaving soon to take prep classes at UC Berkeley. Another has an apprenticeship at a Bank of America branch. One dreams of being a congresswoman. But this recent afternoon was not so much about the future as it was about the past.

These students, who attended Los Angeles Unified schools in the Eastside and South Los Angeles, see themselves as the COVID class of 2023. They were first-year high school students when the pandemic forced campus closures in March 2020. Now, when so many have moved on to normalcy, these students explained how the pandemic left a transformative mark on their high school years.

They returned to the classroom as juniors, lives upended, academics in tatters and the pandemic’s emotional fallout palpable.

Gathering at InnerCity Struggle, a nonprofit in Boyle Heights, they described an urgent resilience, a compulsion toward a better future that carried them through waves of grief, the rebuilding of relationships and the stress of college applications. Some talked of their experiences with food insecurity, housing instability, increased anxiety and depression. All of them mentioned the teachers, family and friends who carried them through their four years.

Here are some of their reflections.

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Most COVID-19 Tenant Protections Have Ended. What Comes Next Is Unclear For Many LA Renters

For more than three years, L.A. County’s COVID-19 tenant protections helped prevent evictions. These protections expired at the end of March, but some Angelenos are still struggling to pay rent.

The end of the pandemic-era protections also means that renters who owe money to their landlords will have to pay it back. Some tenants are thousands of dollars in debt, and advocates fear that many of them could become unhoused.

Earlier this week, staff members and volunteers at InnerCity Struggle, a nonprofit in Boyle Heights, went door knocking to alert community members about the changes — and to inform them about their rights.

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