The 2024 CD 14 election race is still a few months away but 14 candidates have already filed for eligibility to be placed on the ballot. The competitor’s pool contains a diverse cast of characters that includes a controversial sitting councilmember and a former seat holder, two state assemblymembers, an attorney and multiple concerned citizens.
One trait that a majority of the candidates have in common is a Mexican-American heritage, and most either have roots in Boyle Heights or have represented the neighborhood through political office. Boyle Heights is fully contained in CD 14, and two of its most notorious councilmembers in recent history were born and raised in the neighborhood.
Boyle Heights experienced a significant change in the 1940s and 50s as more Mexican immigrants and Chicanos settled in the area. Consistent migration contributed to an increased Latino voter base which led to Richard Alatorre winning the CD14 seat in 1985. Since then, every councilmember in the district has been Latino.
Dr. Fernando Guerra, a professor of political science and Chicana/o Latina/o studies at Loyola Marymount University, says that this is an ongoing, growing trend.
“You see right now that of the top 100 positions in LA County, Latinos hold 39 percent of those, which is really good by national standards,” Guerra said in a recent interview.
As the founder of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles, Guerra has been studying these political trends on the Eastside and greater Los Angeles. He has become an expert on understanding how demographic shifts, particularly within the Latino community, have shaped the city’s politics.
The Boyle Heights Beat spoke with Dr. Guerra about his background as a Highland Park native, the role that Boyle Heights and its Latino population have played in influencing LA politics, and his predictions for how this year’s race will unfold.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
BOYLE HEIGHTS BEAT: You grew up in Highland Park at a time when LA was experiencing a lot of racial and class tensions. Did this backdrop influence your decision to study political science?
Dr. Fernando Guerra: Yeah! When my family moved to Highland Park, it [the neighborhood] was going through a transition from white to Latino. When I got to elementary school, half the kids were white but by the time I graduated from high school, only maybe 15 to 20 percent were white. So I lived through that transition.
I do recall two [significant] events. One in 1969 when [my father and I] were at Lincoln Park. All of a sudden, the mariachi music starts and my dad gets up. We walk over there and there’s this guy talking and he’s running for mayor.
I looked at him and I said, “Well who is that guy?” My dad told me, “That’s Tom Bradley, He’s running for mayor and we’re going to support him.” And I said to him, “Oh but he’s Black. there are no black people in LA.” That’s how isolated I was and how segregated it [Los Angeles] was, you know.
The next year was 1970 and on August 29 the Chicano Moratorium happened. I was too young to participate.
BHB: It’s interesting you can even recall these moments that maybe weren’t significant at the moment.
DFG: That’s exactly right. They were not that significant but my dad would remind me later on and say, “Remember when we were at the park in South Town? Remember when we did this?”
Had I not gotten into this [field of study] and had my dad not reminded me several times, those are events I probably would have forgotten about.
BHB: You’ve spent the bulk of your academic career serving as the go-to expert on LA politics. How and why did you spend your career expanding the study of the political climate here, including serving as the founding director for the Center for the Study of LA?
DFG: So there are two stages. When I started at Loyola Marymount University, I got hired right out of graduate school. If you take a look at that time, There were almost no Latino political scientists around. I literally could count them on one hand and I know who they are, alright?
Little by little, people would just say, we want to know about Latino politics. If you wanted to interview a Latino, it was just either [Cal State LA professor] Richard Santillan or myself. Later on, another guy at Cal State LA emerged. So it was us three for a long time. Today, there are at least 20 Latino political scientists in the LA area that we can talk to.
Secondly, I founded the Center for the Study of Los Angeles, which is kind of a pretentious name because no one center or no one person can study all of LA. So journalists would say, “Hey we got to give legitimacy to the story, wouldn’t it be great to quote someone who is the director of the Center for the Study of LA?” That’s what happened in terms of me being the go-to source not only about Latino stuff but sometimes LA politics in general.
BHB: What are the cornerstone elements of LA politics that continue to fascinate you?
DFG: I think even though we Latinos talk about underrepresentation, there’s still significant representation. One of my cornerstone studies is the study of what I call the top 100 elected positions in LA County. Tracing the incorporation of Latinos, Blacks, Asians, women, and even Jews into these 100 positions and how that occurred. You just see right now that of the top 100 positions in LA County, Latinos hold 39 percent of those which is really good by national standards. The other thing is that you see that African Americans hold 18 percent of those [positions], you know, which is twice their population.
So the whole history of racial and ethnic incorporation, at least at the elected level, is pretty significant in LA. You do have these voices. There’s a secondary question about what difference it’s made. That needs to be further analyzed.
BHB: What role has Boyle Heights played as a political and cultural entity in shaping local policy?
DFG: Boyle Heights is the quintessential LA neighborhood, then of course it becomes the center of Latino politics, culture, and civic society. You see almost all of the original Latinos get elected from Boyle Heights. People like [Edward] Roybal, when he got elected to city council and then to Congress, Boyle Heights was in his district.
There was a time when Boyle Heights was in CD14 but couldn’t elect a Latino for a very long time. That’s because of gerrymandering. While Boyle Heights was there it was also attached to some very white areas on purpose to dilute the Latino vote. And so, while Boyle Heights serves as a symbol of Latino political empowerment, it also serves as a symbol of how to dilute and disenfranchise the Latino vote.
BHB: When did we start to see the shift of power?
DFG: Well, a demographic shift happened in the 1940s and 1950s mostly because of the internment of the Japanese that created vacancies, as they were put in concentration camps. Latinos moved into some of those areas. But then the movement of Jews from Boyle Heights to the Fairfax area also created all kinds of opportunities [for Latinos].
Then of course, in terms of political empowerment, it really happened in the late 60s and early 70s that you get one or two Latinos, basically the only Latinos, from Boyle Heights. Then you get basically to 1985 when Richard Alatorre wins the 14th district in a special election. [That seat] has been held by a Latino ever since.
There were significant efforts in 1979 and 1983 where a basically unknown person almost beat the white incumbent [Art Synder] in 1983. That led to this white incumbent knowing that he wasn’t going to win another re-election. He resigned from office and that’s where the special election was held, where Alatorre wins.
BHB: How effective do you think Latino leadership has been in CD14? I ask this because the seat has been marred by scandal, notably by José Huízar and currently by councilmember Kevin de León.
DFG: There are so many different ways to measure that. We’ve had some of the most significant Latino elected officials hold that position. [Former LA mayor] Antonio Villaraigosa, Richard Alatorre, and then Kevin de León, of course. These are three individuals who were all first state legislators.
You’ve had this district attract some very significant players and in a way become the head of the Latino movement by representing Boyle Heights. It gives you a little bit more cachet.
If you take a look at that, especially Richard Alatorre, he was able to, more than anybody else before or since, mobilize resources.
So, when you take a look at what impact an elected official has on a district, you have to look at it both symbolically and substantively. By symbolically, I mean just being elected, just being the fact that there’s a Latino there, going to community events, and being at different things like that.
Substantively means how does the quality of life and city services improve? Street cleaning, tree trimming, trash pickup, all of that. More parks, more money, more responsive police. That really begins to happen with Richard Alatorre. So while many of these guys have been problematic in one way or another. They’ve been pretty good at bringing back, quote unquote the bacon to the district. That’s why when people are like, “Man why does Kevin DeLeon still have support,” it’s because the guy has been delivering services and goods to that district.
The other aspect, of course, is a negative one, where you bring shame. I mean, come on, José Huízar, it’s shameful. I’ve never been more disappointed in one individual than him. When I first met him, he had the pedigree on paper: UCLA, Princeton, Berkeley. Book smart, looks good, everything. He’s from the hood. I could not design a better individual to represent Boyle Heights than him other than someone like [CD13 Councilmember] Hugo Soto-Martinez or [CD1 Councilmember] Eunisses Fernandez.
So his fall from grace and the shame he brought on the community, to me, is even more significant than anything Kevin de León or anybody else has done.
BHB: How do you think these scandals have affected the district’s ability to serve its constituents?
DFG: I totally agree with the assumption of your question, that the scandal has completely hampered and impacted the ability of Kevin de León to serve the district.
No doubt about it. He is ineffective because of the scandal and the treatment and the restraints that the rest of the city council has put on him. I’m torn because I do think that Kevin should have resigned. I do think it’s appropriate for people to protest him, but on the other hand, how is it fair for the constituents?
He can’t get more services and he can’t legislate on their behalf. I mean, I actually think it’s a civil rights violation that he’s not on committees. Now you have Curren Price who’s actually being indicted and he’s allowed to be on committees. It’s shameful what Kevin did but Kevin did not do anything criminal.
I’m not saying that Curren Price did anything criminal because he’s innocent until proven guilty, but he’s been indicted on criminal issues in his role as councilmember, how he conducted himself as a council member in terms of legislation and votes. And yet, they’re letting him vote?
How does that work? Where is the consistency? I feel strongly about that. I signed a letter along with a bunch of other academics and civic leaders asking for Kevin to resign. I’m supporting the right of the citizens in the 14th district to have effective representation and representation that is given to the rest of the citizens in LA.
BHB: Do you think this means the district needs to change the way it elects its leaders?
First of all, that district shouldn’t exist as it exists. I lived in that district. I’ve been tracking that district. Eagle Rock is about as different as Boyle Heights as any two communities can be in LA. Maybe not as much as it used to be but definitely when it was put together. This is a classic gerrymandered district with the purpose of diluting the Latino vote.
Now, Latinos have held a seat since 1985 but it should never have been drawn this way. That’s why I am very strongly supportive of an independent redistricting commission that will take care of that and other issues that have, I think, negatively impacted LA.
BHB: To my knowledge, no woman has ever managed to secure the CD14 seat. Why do you think this is the case? What do you expect from this year’s election, considering that there are two women candidates that are popular, Wendy Carillo from Boyle Heights and Ysabel Jurado from Highland Park?
So every election is unique and situational. I am a scholar of public opinion and data. I cannot make a conclusion unless I have, when I do public opinion, at minimum, 400 observations. The annual survey that I do is 2,000. So to make a generalization from, let’s see, 1, 2, occurrences, meaning there have been 6 elections in the CD14 that have been elected a
Latino over a Latina. While that is pretty clear in direction, it’s not a foregone conclusion because if you take a look at the rest of the delegation in the city council, It’s majority women. The Latino community is more likely to elect a woman than non-Latino communities.
If you take a look at the totality of elected officials in L A County and in California, a woman is more likely to come out of a Latino-dominant district. For instance, there are twelve Latinos in the state senate of California. Ten of them are women. So when people say, “Hey, Latinos won’t elect a woman,” and they’re only looking at the 14th district, that to me is a sloppy scholarship and incomplete analysis.
I have the data, overwhelmingly, that Latino voters are more likely to elect women than non-Latino voters.
BHB: So based on your data, what do you think makes CD 14 an outlier since the district has a sizable Latino population?
DFG: It is an outlier from, from that sense, you know but again there’s not enough cases to overwhelmingly say, “Only a male can get elected in this district.”
You have to have viable candidates and I think Wendy Carrillo * is the most viable Latina running for this district in the history of the 14th District.
BHB: Why do you think that is?
She’s coming from a significant position in the assembly. She’s represented the district, she can raise money, and she’s going to have a following. It’s gonna be a tough race. You got Miguel Santiago, Wendy [Carrillo]. Obviously Kevin himself and [Ysabel] Jurado.
So you have four viable candidates. Um, and they’re all gonna take a slice. I think the front-runner is Miguel Santiago followed by Wendy. But given the way things can unfold, it wouldn’t shock me if Kevin de León came in second. I don’t think he’ll come in first, but it wouldn’t shock me if he came in second.
BHB: We’ve had recent demographic shifts in Boyle Heights. There’s been a lot of talk of gentrification, specifically white gentrification. There’s also been an influx of Central Americans as well. As much as you can speak on it, how do you think the neighborhood’s changing demographics have impacted local politics?
DFG: Number one, just generically, the history of Los Angeles has been a history of ethnically changing neighborhoods.
From day one that has been constantly happening. Boyle Heights is the quintessential neighborhood where this has occurred. From white to Jewish to Japanese to Mexican, now to Central American.
Number two, the Latino community has increasingly been diversified, meaning it’s not just Mexican origin. We have all kinds of others. However, 80% of Latinos in the city of LA are of Mexican origin. That is still a significant group. Then 80% of 50% ’cause the Latino population of 50%. That means 40% of the city of LA is of Mexican origin. So the idea that the population has been diluted is not further from the truth. In absolute numbers, there is still a big Mexican origin population.
Number three, there is gentrification going on that’s happening elsewhere. But you know, it’s happening around the borders of Boyle Heights meaning the Arts District in downtown, first and foremost. It certainly is going to leak over to that area. I have no doubt about it. So it will have an impact and this is where I think the city is not doing justice, not only to Boyle Heights, but all kinds of different communities.
* Editor’s note. Dr. Fernando Guerra was interviewed before Wendy Carrillo’s DUI arrest this month. Boyle Heights Beat reached out to Guerra after the arrest, and he said he stands by his statements about the assemblymember’s chances.