After audio of racist conversations between political officials was released to the public two months ago, it caused people of the Los Angeles community to question if there is an appropriate representation of Latinos in the LA City Council and if there needs to be a change when it comes to the type of leaders that are elected to represent the Latino community.

Currently, the LA City Council consists of 14 council member, four of them Latinos. District 6 is currently vacant after the resignation of Nury Martinez. 

Despite Latinos/Hispanics making up 49.1% of the population in LA County, there continues to be a worry among Latinos when it comes to their representation within the council. “Latinos represent less than a third of the council’s 15 districts, which has highlighted long-standing political tension and concern among Latinos that they are not represented fairly,” according to an NBC News article released before the November elections. 

Along with a lack of representation, the scandal has caused concerns regarding the size of the City Council. An LA Times article mentioned how it can become difficult for the 15 members to accurately represent the number of people there are in each district. As a result, the article stated how having large council districts and a small City Council can affect the representation of Latinos as well.

Thomas A. Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense Educational Fund (MALDEF), shared how common it is for Latinos to face under-representation when it comes to positions of leadership in LA because of the large population. Saenz has noticed a change happening with this issue but there is still more work to be done. 

“We need greater representation to ensure that every subgroup within that large Latino population has its voice heard,” Saenz said. “Within the Latino community there are many different groups with different interests and their views all need to be represented just as the views of those in other communities need to be represented.”

MALDEF, a national civil rights legal organization founded in 1968, ensures that Latinos receive the same rights as any other person living in the U.S. Some of the areas the organization focuses on include education, voting rights, immigration rights, employment, and equal access to justice.

For MALDEF, the constitutional rights of Latinos need to be guaranteed and they promote this in many ways. “We do that through litigation, lawsuits, policy advocacy, community education, and media,” Saenz said. 

CALÓ NEWS interviewed Thomas A. Saenz to further discuss Latino representation in the City Council, his opinion towards the leaked audio not being a reflection of the whole Latino community, and more. 

Responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.


Thomas A. Saenz has been leading MALDEF as their president for the last 13 years.
Thomas A. Saenz

THOMAS A. SAENZ, 56, LOS ANGELES, MEXICAN AMERICAN LEGAL DEFENSE EDUCATIONAL FUND PRESIDENT AND GENERAL COUNSEL, HE/HIM, LATINO/MEXICAN AMERICAN

WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE TO HEAL THE WOUNDS AND HOW LONG WILL IT TAKE?

The language that was used was completely unacceptable and unfortunately it was recorded and released. That kind of language and stereotyping really should have nothing to do with the government. The harm that it may do is somewhat limited by the fact that one council member has resigned, another council member is concluding his term imminently, and the labor fed executive director has also resigned. So that kind of harm should be more limited. Unfortunately, the underlying discussion about political power is probably not unusual among all communities, particularly in a dynamic and rapidly changing city like LA. So that’s a tougher set of issues and how or whether those will ever be addressed is really difficult to determine.

I do note that this is not unique to the Latino community. What is unique is the release of a recording, but discussions like that happen in every community. That’s the nature of redistricting. It is particularly true where you have groups that have historically faced significant underrepresentation, and that is true for the Latino community in Los Angeles. Where we are half the population, but have never had that kind of representation in leadership, regardless of what kind of leadership you look at. So long standing, deep seated patterns of underrepresentation can lead to conversations about power through redistricting that are focused on ethnic racial communities. What is unacceptable again, is the language and racial stereotypes. 

WHAT ARE THE FIRST THREE STEPS TO BE TAKEN TO HEAL RELATIONSHIPS WITH GROUPS WHO WERE DEMEANED BY MARTINEZ AND CREW AND WHY? 

So, I think it’s wrong to attribute any of this to the broader Latino community. These are individual council members who do not have public records of racist tendencies. So in other words, they were not elected by communities that were aware at all of any racism. So it is absolutely wrong, in my opinion, to attribute any of this to anyone other than the individuals who were a part of the conversation.

So this does not reflect on the broader Latino community at all. The racism does not reflect on the larger Latino community at all. There is lots of work to be done in all communities in LA to build deeper understanding and deeper connection, but I do not view this as a scandal that somehow reflects the Latino community. It would be if it were folks with a record of racism, and there are such folks in elected office, many of them white supremacist sympathizers, but who were elected by their constituencies despite knowledge of their white supremacist sympathies. That is not the case here. None of these elected officials had any public record of racist views, racist expressions prior to the release of this recording. So their constituents had no idea about this when they were elected. So it is not a reflection on anyone in the broader Latino community.

WHAT ARE THE THREE BIGGEST ISSUES THAT NEED TO BE FOCUSED ON BY CITY HALL TO HELP LATINOS IN EVERY PART OF THE CITY AND WHY? 

So first, there needs to be a conscious and concerted effort to ensure that Latinos are included in leadership. Number one, the mayor of LA, for example, appoints hundreds of commissioners, from police commissioners, airport commissioners, water power commissioners, animal services, parks and recreation, library, all the way to zoo commissions. Latinos have never been fairly represented on commissions to reflect their proportion of the population, never come close. So that needs to be addressed by the new mayor, in my view. 

Second, department heads in the city of LA, as in every city, have tremendous behind the scenes power and authority and here again, Latinos have never been fairly or adequately represented as heads of departments in the city of LA. That needs to be addressed as well. 

I would say the cities also need to address the economic inequities that particularly exist in large cities. LA, like the nation as a whole, has extremes. A fair number of extremely wealthy people, extremely wealthy people. And on the other end, lots more very poor working class folks and we need as a society, and it can begin in cities to start to address those economic inequities. That extreme spread of wealth between those who have way too much and those who have too little is a long term serious danger to our democracy.

WHAT CAN BE DONE ABOUT EACH, AND WHY? 

Well, it’s very easy to address underrepresentation. There are qualified and ready LA residents who are Latino for every commissioner’s loss. You simply have to find them, identify them, and name them. The same is true for department heads. There are well-qualified Latinos every time there is an opening and they should be considered, and in many cases appointed.

With respect to economic inequity, the city needs to address providing services to the working poor in the city. That includes folks of different immigration statuses, making sure that their children have every opportunity of wealthy children to learn, not just in school, but outside of school. Making sure that transportation, housing, and nutritional food are readily available to the working poor and really aggressively enforcing existing laws about minimum wage, about working conditions, about fairness in the workplace. And frankly, really looking to ensure that the extremely wealthy are not adding to that wealth through government assistance, meaning subsidies for businesses, and those subsidies take many forms, but the extremely wealthy are being required to contribute their share and their share is greater than others to providing services for working.

DO LATINOS HAVE APPROPRIATE REPRESENTATION ON THE LA CITY COUNCIL, WHY OR WHY NOT?

There’s certainly representation. It is not reflective of the Latino proportion of the full city population, which is half. So there is underrepresentation on the City Council. Now that is beginning to change. Redistricting has always been a part of increasing representation, though underrepresentation is still what the Latino community faces when your population is as large as the Latino population is. We need greater representation to ensure that every subgroup within that large Latino population has its voice heard. Within the Latino community there are many different groups with different interests and their views all need to be represented just as the views of those in other communities need to be represented. But that means that underrepresentation presents real problems.

WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE TO CORRECT OR SUSTAIN THAT?

You need to have leadership, Latino and non-Latino leadership. Identify strong candidates from within the Latino community and help them, promote them, mentor them, enable them to become competitive candidates for City Council, even in districts that may not be majority Latinos. 

WHEN IT COMES TO REPRESENTATION IN CITY GOVERNMENT AND PROTECTING THE RIGHTS OF LATINOS, WHAT IS THE MOST IMPORTANT MESSAGE YOU WOULD LIKE TO SEND TO CALÓ NEWS READERS?

I think the most important message for all of the readers is that this level of underrepresentation and even higher levels of underrepresentation exist throughout U.S. society for the Latino community. And the most important thing that we can do as a community is to focus on that underrepresentation in leadership, to demand that a change, and to follow up with a strong vote.

Latinos consistently show lower participation rates than other ethnic racial communities and that has to change. 

WHAT QUESTION SHOULD WE HAVE ASKED AND WHAT IS THE ANSWER? 

So the only thing I would say is there has been a long history that I could go into detail about of contention between Black and Latino communities. Sometimes that relates to politics, sometimes it relates to employment. Sometimes it relates to other issues. But there is also a long history of cooperation between these communities, and that goes back at least as long as any tensions. And some of that comes from the fact that our communities, Black and Latino, tend to live together in the same neighborhoods. There is no housing segregation between Latinos and Blacks. So when you live together as neighbors, there is naturally going to be cooperation, friendship, alliance, and that has a long history in LA just as unfortunately, a history of tension. A lot of those tensions are really catalyzed by structures of government systems created by neither one of those communities created by the white community, but structures and systems that encourage competition in these different areas. But at the neighborhood level, with a few exceptions of course, really the story is of cooperation long term among neighbors who move together.

Jasmine Contreras

Jasmine Contreras is a freelance writer who grew up in Wilmington, Calif., and received a journalism degree at California State University, Dominguez Hills. She gravitates to news, features, and lifestyle...