La voz

As a youth in public schools, I learned little about modern-day Latinos in California. Sound familiar? The fuller story is here now in a single volume: The Search for a Civic Voice: California Latino Politics by Sacramento author Kenneth C. Burt.

With a time frame that begins in the late 1930s and runs to the present, Burt takes his time analyzing the reasons for and results of Latino political power in the state. His book begins at El Congreso, a many-decades-old civil-rights coalition of Latinos and various allies, and winds toward the current state of Latinos in California and presence of Democratic Latino lawmakers in Sacramento.

Burt’s approach is emphatic. His chapters end with key events that flow organically onward. Readers who seek more details will like the chapter notes and the selected bibliography. His original research is impressive.

“The genesis of the modern Latino political and civic voice in California emerged during the era of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal,” Burt writes. That time also brought WWII, one outcome of which was a diverse voting bloc for a Latino candidate in postwar Los Angeles. Mexican American veterans and Latina wage earners powered this movement.

Democrat Ed Roybal of the Community Service Organization, with help from Catholic priests and Jewish union activists, was elected to the L.A. City Council in 1949. Roybal’s focus on doing something about bigoted police and employers swelled his political credibility. This helped stir a social-justice momentum that expanded statewide and to the Southwest. The CSO, under Saul Alinsky and Fred Ross, attracted young people. Two were César Chávez and Dolores Huerta, the duo who went on lead the United Farm Workers’ labor union.

Catholicism helped to cement Latino Democrats’ role in JFK’s 1960 presidency and his brother Robert’s 1968 White House candidacy. As Latinos’ national spotlight spread, their alliances gained strength. They lobbied, effectively, state and federal officials to improve public policy for the downtrodden. Burt’s book is full of “firsts.”

His analysis of the debates over strategies and tactics of the emerging Latino civil-rights movement sparkles with insight. Changed relations with Democratic politicians amid dispute over the Vietnam War in part spawned the Mexican American Political Association. MAPA was more tilted to the emerging middle class, but complemented the CSO’s working-class focus, Burt explains.

Curiously, Burt’s narrative sidesteps NAFTA. The trade deal has wrecked scores of small farmers in Mexico, pushing them to cross the California border searching for work. Yet his broader point of view about the progressive arc of Latino political history in the state is instructive.

The Search for a Civic Voice brings us full circle from the eve of WWII to the last decades. In 1994, California Governor Pete Wilson led the GOP attack on Mexican immigrants. Latinos and their allies have been mobilizing ever since to push it back. Burt’s thesis is that the current rebuilding of working-class, union-led coalitions, with their living-wage campaigns that followed, harkens back to the spirit of El Congreso and the CSO. One change of course is that currently service worker unions—notably in government—have replaced factory-worker unions. This change in organized labor, plus rising Latino voters, underpins the major presence of Democratic Latino lawmakers in the state Capitol today.

Ordinary people can do extraordinary things. But only when they can work in unity. Burt’s book is proof of that.