East LA Bid for Independence Could Achieve a Key Victory

tags: California, urban history, Mexican American history, East Los Angeles

Eric Avila is a professor in the departments of History and Chicana/o and Central American Studies at UCLA. His latest book is The Folklore of the Freeway: Race and Revolt in the Modernist City.

If the nascent campaign to realize a long-held dream of municipal independence for East Los Angeles gains steam, it would be at least the fifth organized attempt over the last 60 years to achieve what many other communities have long enjoyed in the L.A. urban region: local control and political representation.

The most recent attempt at cityhood for East Los Angeles failed in 2012. But this time, community leaders are aiming for something that might be more attainable: a “special district” designation for the nearly 7.5-square-mile unincorporated area.

East L.A.’s bid to be a special district follows a well-established political tradition in Southern California.

What most people refer to as “Los Angeles” is really a jigsaw puzzle of 88 incorporated cities that compete for resources with financially strapped cities such as Los Angeles and Long Beach. When Lakewood incorporated as an independent municipality in 1954, it won the right to selectively contract vital services — such as road maintenance, law enforcement and libraries — at cut-rate prices without having to contribute to general county funds.

That approach to self-governance became known as the Lakewood Plan and provided a model that many communities in the greater L.A. region have adopted to secure political representation and local control over local revenues. Diamond Bar, La Cañada-Flintridge and Calabasas are some of the many cities that have taken this route. The plan’s legacy is not necessarily positive; its benefits have not been afforded equally; and it has compromised a sense of civic unity in the Los Angeles region.

It has also created islands of unincorporated territory, like East Los Angeles, which has been vulnerable to the placement of unwanted infrastructure — including such disruptive projects as freeways and toxic-waste facilities. Activists such as the Mothers of East L.A. have successfully fought off proposed prison construction there.

The approximately 125,000 residents of East Los Angeles are largely Latino, and they are represented by only one local government official: L.A. County Supervisor Hilda Solis, who has roughly 2 million constituents.

Since a local Chicano civil rights movement took shape there in the 1970s, calls for the liberation of the barrio have invoked the vexed histories of the Spanish takeover of Indian lands, the U.S. invasion of Mexican territory and the bulldozing of Mexican American neighborhoods. Land loss and displacement have been central to Chicana and Chicano activism, making East L.A. a symbol of local aspirations toward community self-determination.

measure of independence for East Los Angeles would help legitimize its importance as a long-standing and culturally vibrant center of Mexican American art, music, food and political activism.

Read entire article at Los Angeles Times

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