Villaraigosa, a Mayor for All of L.A.

by Marcela Sanchez
June 2, 2005

WASHINGTON D.C. -- Three minutes into our telephone conversation and the mayor-elect of Los Angeles wants to talk about a movie. Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised -- Antonio Villaraigosa is, after all, the newly elected leader of the motion picture capital of the world.

The movie on his mind isn't the latest "Star Wars'' installment or an old Schwarzenegger blockbuster, but Paul Haggis' "Crash.'' The recent independent film explores race relations in the second largest U.S. city by giving the viewer a fly-on-the-wall view of the lives of people of varying backgrounds and ethnicities. Over the film's 100 minutes the viewer begins to understand -- if not empathize with -- the reasons why its characters harbor prejudices and fears.

Villaraigosa thinks that "Crash'' might help people, and particularly the residents of L.A., to see our commonalties and get past our prejudices in order to envision a future together. Sadly, this is a vision not commonly espoused among politicians these days.

As if to reinforce American anxieties over changing demographics and animosity toward immigrants, more often than not leaders throughout the country are enacting laws and expressing views that do little to build alliances and deepen understanding. Last month, Congress passed and the president signed into law a bill that makes it harder for immigrants to get driver's licenses. In California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has been applauding the work of vigilante groups at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Villaraigosa is on a different path, or at least that's the sense you get when you speak to him or look at his achievements in Los Angeles. A third generation Mexican-American and high school dropout who once wore a "Born to Raise Hell'' tattoo, Villaraigosa won the mayoralty of Los Angeles in a landslide election last month. His victory was historic, as Villaraigosa became the first Latino mayor of L.A. in 133 years. Above all, it was surprising.

Four years ago, Villaraigosa ran for the same office and lost -- a defeat many attributed to the environment of resentment created by Los Angeles' tremendous demographic transformation: Latinos had gone from one-fifth to one-half of the population in a generation. Tension and apprehension have gotten worse since 2001. Among the city's underclass, according to Connie Rice, a civil rights attorney and a cousin of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the city's two largest minority groups, African-Americans and Latinos, are engaged in "open warfare.''

From racial violence in the schools and freeway shootings to the Mexican president's racial remarks and a local T.V. station's decision to tout the city of Los Angeles as part of Mexico, the environment in L.A. was so hostile that many a Latino politician wouldn't have given serious consideration to the mayor's race. Yet, Villaraigosa won and did so with an 18 percent advantage over incumbent mayor James K. Hahn.

Still, Villaraigosa is reluctant to declare his victory a watershed in L.A. politics or race relations. His vision is that the city's strength is in its diversity and that "a great city is a city where we can grow and prosper together.'' L.A. voters heard him and for now have chosen to give his message of inclusion a chance.

He faces enormous challenges. The demands for jobs, affordable housing and a sense of security will require serious juggling. His predecessor failed to deliver and lost. But Villaraigosa is what no other mayor was before him, said the Rev. Clyde W. Oden, Jr., senior pastor of Bryant Temple AME Church in Los Angeles. "He is multilingual.'' Villaraigosa can talk "to the brothers on the streets,'' said Oden, just as he is able to connect with upper-middle-class residents, with labor leaders, and with newly arrived immigrants.

Sure, local leaders are supposed to be better connected to people's real issues. But when it comes to changes created by the latest wave of immigrants, the burden has been mostly on local governments to respond. The federal government has been largely missing or acting only in ways that add new burdens on local governments.

Near the end of "Crash,'' Sandra Bullock's character desperately confesses to a friend: "I am angry all the time and I don't know why.'' She feels isolated and afraid. Americans around the country are angry and blaming the seemingly uncontrollable flood of immigrants -- particularly from Latin America -- for taking U.S. jobs, transforming U.S. communities and making them very unsettled.

All of this happens just as most leaders in Washington seem oblivious, unwilling to show the leadership necessary to face the issue head on. They leave a void that Villaraigosa, at least, is trying to fill by appealing to Angelenos' better nature.


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