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In the summer of 2020, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti convened the city’s Latino commissioners to assure them that, amid the raging pandemic and economic fallout, his administration was doing what it could to uplift the community. But in one corner of the room sat a frustrated commissioner.

Commissioner Nilza Serrano saw how Covid-19 continued its fatal spread among Latinos, many of them workers who never stopped laboring in essential jobs. And once vaccines were available, many in the community weren’t accessing them.

After numerous city meetings, Serrano said, Latinos were not seeing progress.

“Some of us spoke up. We were just not satisfied with what was happening,” said Serrano, who has been on the city’s retirement commission for the past decade. “I just can’t sit here.”

That’s why in August of last year, Serrano and others formed the non-profit Los Angeles Latino Equity and Diversity Initiative (LEADI) and pressed the city for data and discovered:

  • Latinos make up 47% of the city’s population but only 23% of city commissioners, according to the city clerk’s office.
  • Latino and Black city workers earn on average $9 less per hour than white employees, according to a 2021 city controller report.
  • Latino-led firms received less than 11% of public works contracts in 2020, according to LEADI data.

With an upcoming mayor primary election, LEADI members have pushed forward a mayoral pledge to support racial equity in city appointments, wages, city services and more.

Leading candidates Karen Bass, Rick Caruso, Kevin de León and Mike Feuer have signed the pledge. Joe Buscaino committed to sign, but has yet to do so.

“If we don’t have Latinos or people who understand how to address our challenges, then the city has failed our community,” Serrano said. “It’s important that we have Latinos at all levels.”

High-Level Appointments

Los Angeles has approximately 47 departments and bureaus led by general managers appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the city council. In Serrano’s estimation, the city has only four Latino general managers.

Of the 327 commissioners, about 76, or 23%, are Latinos, according to a 2021 city clerk report.

Melissa Alvarez, of Boyle Heights, calls for Latino leadership in Los Angeles. Credit: Michael Lozano / CALÓ NEWS

“We need more representation for our communities and a voice that can relate to us,” said Melissa Alvarez, 29, a Boyle Heights resident and student at California State University, Northridge.

With more leaders from the community “there would definitely be better impact on the community,” she said, with fewer “disparities in environmental justice and the racial health and wealth gap.”

Equity in City Services

Mayor Eric Garcetti recently unveiled his proposed budget for fiscal year 2022-2023, which starts on July 1. If passed as is, 16% of the budget will go to police, 6.6% to fire services, 0.01% to youth development, 2% to recreation and parks and 2% to the library fund.

IIncluding indirect costs, such as pensions, electricity and “non-department allocations,” police and fire will together make up 38% of the $11.8 million budget. Of the city’s $6.8 billion in unrestricted funds, police and fire make up 62%.

“We have to make sure that they’re allocating funds for parks, for sidewalks, for street repair,” Serrano said. “It can’t just be one side of the city that looks amazing.”

Serrano hopes the next mayor will collaborate with public safety officials to creatively allocate funds. “(Police and fire) want lights in parks because it makes their jobs easier,” she said.

Isabel de la Rosa, 23, said she recalls when her library in South Los Angeles was shut down to build new luxury apartments. “There were a lot of people fighting for the library” but ended up disappointed, she said. Standing outside a Boyle Heights bakery, she added: “I would prefer to see nicer things around here. People leave trash at Mariachi Plaza and it’s for the community.”

Equity in City Pay and Jobs

The LEADI pledge also includes equity in city wages and department jobs.

White city employees earn an average rate of $53 an hour, while Black and Latino workers earn about $44 an hour, according to a 2021 city controller’s report. Women on average also earn less than men. Latinos are underrepresented in fire department jobs but overrepresented in street services.

“If the work is equal, the pay should be equal,” said Alejandra Gandar, a Boyle Heights resident, in Spanish.

With better pay, Gandar said, the city’s Latinos “can have a better life and maybe give a better life to their kids, too.”

“Latinos are doing the most dangerous jobs,” Serrano said. “We need to create opportunities that are going to create a bigger pension so that they can retire with dignity.”

Lukas Tekolotl, originally from Boyle Heights, is a staunch advocate for mom-and-pop shops threatened by gentrification. Credit: Michael Lozano

Equity in Contracting

The Board of Public Works awarded 266 contracts in city construction, personal services and more worth $1.14 billion in the 2019-2020 fiscal year, per a board report. But in Serrano’s research, she found that only 28 contracts were given to Hispanic American firms that year at a total value of $1.3 million (0.1% of contracted funds). In 2017, Hispanic American firms received 27 contracts worth $3.8 million.

Cynthia Ruiz, president, Los Angeles City Employees Retirement System, has worked for the Port of Los Angeles and served on public commissions.

LEADI co-founder Cynthia Ruiz said that some firms subcontract people of color and women to reach a city department’s minority-inclusion goal and score a contract but nix them later. “They bring you on as a subcontractor to get the contracts but they don’t actually use you. So you don’t get any money. That happened to me more than once,” said Ruiz, who is now president of the Los Angeles City Employees’ Retirement System.

Lukas Tekolotl, a voter born and raised in Boyle Heights, wants to see more contracting for Latino-led companies, but also hopes the next mayor will prioritize self-sufficiency in business development.

“Brown local-owned businesses are really the fabric of the community,” he said.

LEADI will be hosting a mayoral candidate forum on Latino equity on May 16 at La Plaza de La Raza at 3540 N. Mission Road. Confirmed candidates include Karen Bass, Kevin de León, Joe Buscaino and Mike Feuer. Rick Caruso declined.

The primary for mayor and other city races is June 7. The general election is Nov. 8.

Candidates in the City of Los Angeles and Los Angeles County who would like to participate in a Q&A related to issues important to Latinos may contact CALÓ NEWS at brenda@latinomedia.org.