Unincorporated East LA Creeps Towards Cityhood

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When most people think East Los Angeles, stereotypical images of lowriders, cholos, religious murals and Chicano civil rights come to mind. Whatever the visual, East L.A. has become a symbol of power for most Americans, but is it?

The Associated Press recently reported that East L.A. wants to become its own city because of the lack of representation in city politics. As an unincorporated section of Los Angeles County, East L.A does not have a mayor or city council. Instead, the 140,000 residents—97% of which are Latino—rely on one county official for representation who also represents two million others.

This is the fourth attempt at incorporation since 1961 and one can’t help but think how the community will change if it does become a city of L.A.

“Supporters are saying this is a coming-of-age for East Los Angeles, culturally and symbolically, ” says Tom Hogen-Esch, associate professor of political science at California State University Northridge.

Hogen-Esch, who authored a piece in La Opinion about the timeliness of the effort, is hesitant to predict what an East L.A. city will look like, but says the chances of it becoming one is greater now than ever. Prior efforts were plagued by fears of property tax hikes, but since 1978’s Proposition 13, voters can go to the polls knowing new city won’t mean new taxes.

In order for East L.A.’s cityhood to appear on the 2009 ballot, it must first garner 9,200 signatures and undergo a second study to prove itself a viable tax base. It has already done the latter in a previous study, and an army of volunteers are getting closer to reaching the desired number of signatures.

“People are staying in the neighborhood, but we want choices,” says Oscar Gonzales, President of the East Los Angeles Residents Association. “We want to be on the lobby trips to Washington and Sacramento and demand more funding for parks, senior programs, and daycare centers. We don’t have a mayor sitting at the table. An obvious seat is missing.”

In addition to local services, Gonzales hopes new businesses will move into the area in order to create more jobs. Currently, East L.A. lacks a movie theater, gym, or pharmacy, but it’s scary to think about the ramifications of gentrification. Gonzales believes the essence of the area will never change, however.

“It will always remain the mecca of the Latino community. The one thing that has stayed constant in East L.A. is pride,” he said. “We still like our champurrado and pan dulce.”