There was something fitting in the fact that it was Antonio Villaraigosa
who announced the death of Ed Roybal last week, and it wasn’t simply that Roybal
was the founding father of Latino politics in L.A. and Villaraigosa its most successful
practitioner. The connection, actually, is a good deal deeper. It’s that Roybal
invented local Latino politics by embedding it in a multiracial alliance, and
that Villaraigosa has based his entire career on that Roybalistic perspective.
A World War II veteran who was director of the L.A. County Tuberculosis and Health Association, Roybal first ran for the city council in 1947 and was defeated. The following year, though, he founded and became the first president of the Community Service Organization (CSO), which registered 15,000 Mexican-American voters during the election of 1948, and recruited 1,000 members, in Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles.
The CSO was something new under the Los Angeles sun — a militant, smart organization devoted to mobilizing the hitherto unorganized Latino community. It was affiliated from the start with the Industrial Areas Foundation, the multiethnic working-class community organization that the legendary Saul Alinsky had built up around the Chicago stockyards. Its chief organizer was Fred Ross, who some years later was to train as his protégé a young Latino organizer named César Chávez.
But in 1948, with Roybal and Ross at the helm, the CSO made the most of a presidential election with two left-of-center candidates: Democrat Harry Truman and Progressive Henry Wallace. It also made the most of the polyglot nature and radical politics of Boyle Heights, which was then as much a Jewish neighborhood as it was Latino, and a cauldron of liberal, socialist and communist tendencies, often arrayed against one another. (I draw much of this account from an article by Kenneth Burt, an invaluable scholar of California’s postwar progressive and labor history.) Stressing the political empowerment and civil rights of Latinos (the “Zoot Suit Riots,” a pogrom against local Latino young men, had occurred just a few years earlier), avoiding the sectarian entanglements endemic to Boyle Heights, and working closely with a Jewish community whose exclusion from the civic establishment in those years was just as real, if less severe, than Latinos’ and blacks’, Roybal and Ross put together a political organization that one year later elevated Roybal to the city council.
He served there, often a lone voice for labor and civil rights and liberties, until 1962, when he was elected to Congress, where he remained for three decades. That he was the seminal figure in California Latino politics is indisputable: Four generations of Latino movement and political leaders (Chávez, then Alatorre and Torres, then Molina and Villaraigosa, then Nuñez and Padilla) have followed in his wake.
But it’s his initial ascent that may be the most interesting aspect of his career. Roybal ran as a tribune not just for Latinos but for blacks and Jews as well, and Burt documents Alinsky’s successful fund-raising efforts at the Jewish Hillcrest Country Club, which provided the resources for Ross and Roybal to organize the Eastside. In a sense, Roybal’s early rise also parallels that of the founding father of L.A. African-American politics, Augustus Hawkins, who was elected to the Assembly in 1934, and then to Congress, like Roybal, in 1962 (where, like Roybal, he served roughly three decades as well). Hawkins won that first election, in ’34, in part as a result of the ferment that accompanied socialist Upton Sinclair’s campaign for governor, just as Roybal was able to benefit from what, in Boyle Heights if in few other places, was a wave of support for Henry Wallace. Both were integrationists who situated the black and Latino struggles within the larger battle for civil rights.
In the ’50s, Roybal ran for county supervisor; he was defeated, after a recount so dubious that it may well have prefigured Bush-vs.-Gore, by Ernie Debs. His campaign, though, provided a training ground for the liberals who were to emerge as a major force in city politics in the ’60s. It was while volunteering on Roybal’s campaign that a young black cop named Tom Bradley met a young Jewish activist named Maury Weiner, who was to become Bradley’s chief lieutenant in his rise to mayor.
So it shouldn’t be hard to see what Villaraigosa saw in the career of Ed Roybal. In his understanding that Latino interests were best advanced in, and by, a broad, multiracial progressivism, Roybal charted the course that Villaraigosa — arguably, more than any Latino pol since the early Roybal — would take into the Mayor’s Office half a century later. Sometimes, as Santayana never quite said, if you remember history, you can do pretty damn well.