The day in February that the ports were reopened, dozens of ships still sat idle in Long Beach harbor, waiting to offload their goods. They appeared tiny from Mayor Robert Garcia's 14th-floor office, where nearly as many reporters waited outside for an interview.
“It's certainly been the most difficult thing we've had to deal with,” Garcia recalls. It has been nearly a year since Garcia became not only the youngest mayor of Long Beach but also the first Latino mayor and the first gay mayor. The labels sit a bit awkwardly on the shoulders of the 36-year-old.
“When I won my election, the very first sentence on every news article was, 'Mayor Garcia makes history by becoming the youngest, first openly gay, Latino mayor of Long Beach,'” he says. “And that's great, because I'm very supportive of all those communities, because I'm from them. I honor that. But it's my job to represent everybody.”
Garcia was born in Lima, Peru, to poor parents. They and six other family members saved their money and immigrated to California when he was 5, settling in the San Gabriel Valley. His parents divorced and he was raised by his mom, a medical assistant and housekeeper.
Despite his disadvantages, Garcia excelled at Covina High School, where he edited the school newspaper. At Cal State Long Beach he joined a fraternity, which helped him overcome his shyness. He was voted class president — his entry into politics.
“Well, everyone likes winning,” Garcia says, bashfully. “But I like that you have the ability to get stuff done.”
In 2007, he and a friend started a blog that grew and grew, eventually becoming an online newspaper, the Long Beach Post. He also taught communications at the University of Southern California. But the politics bug never went away, and in 2009 he ran for Long Beach City Council, winning and becoming, at age 31, the city's youngest councilman ever.
Garcia is young and smart and a doer. He's part of a wave hitting Long Beach. The city is becoming wealthier, younger, more diverse. It is hugely bicycle-friendly, much more so than its big neighbor to the north. Garcia helped push for more bike lanes and authored a law eliminating bike registration.
“Next to L.A., Long Beach is the largest city anywhere in the area,” he says. But at half a million people, “It's still manageable. It's a big city that's not so big that it's difficult to get changes quickly.”
Garcia has returned to his native Lima a few times. The contrast is a powerful one, as Lima is a city still mired in extreme poverty. Garcia can't help but think what his life would have been like if he still lived there, if his parents “hadn't taken that risk.”
“The chances are I would be working somewhere and working hard,” he says. “In Peru, you don't have access to college. LGBT folks don't have rights like they do here. I think I'd be in a much different place.”