Growing up in Highland Park, a neighborhood in Los Angeles, Dr. Fernando Guerra was no stranger to understanding politics and issues that arise in the city. After high school, Dr. Guerra attended the University of Southern California, where he received his bachelor’s degree in Political Science. He furthered his education by earning his master’s degree and doctorate of philosophy in Political Science at the University of Michigan.
In 1984, Dr. Fernando Guerra decided to apply his expertise on racial and ethnic politics, along with urban and local politics, as a professor of Political Science and Chicana/o Studies at Loyola Marymount University. According to his profile on the LMU website, Dr. Guerra not only educates students on these different kinds of politics, but also teaches students how to do research based on LA. An example of a research project is where “… every election, 150-200 of Guerra’s students take part in his popular ‘Exit-Poll Project,’ in which students survey voters as they leave random polling places, then study their results to predict the winners,” states the website.
Dr. Fernando Guerra is the founding director of LMU’s Thomas and Dorothy Leavey Center for the Study of Los Angeles (StudyLA), which opened in 1996 in reaction to the 1992 LA/Rodney King uprisings. The undergraduate center focuses on public opinion research on LA. StudyLA has been researching groups in LA, such as Latinos, to further understand the issues they face in the city and to help effect social change.
“25 years ago, I was the founding director of the Center for the Study of LA, which has now grown quite a bit and does a lot of public opinion polling of Latinos and everybody in LA County,” Dr. Fernando Guerra said.
Latinos make up 49.1% of the population in LA County. Dr. Fernando Guerra said that is one of the reasons that the center focus on the quality of life of Latinos and the issues surrounding equitable political representation.
StudyLA’s conducts the Los Angeles Public Opinion Survey. “We conduct the largest general social survey in LA County. It’s actually the largest general social survey in urban America, and we do it on an annual basis,” Dr. Fernando Guerra said.
CALÓ NEWS interviewed Dr. Fernando Guerra to discuss politics in LA and what it will take for Latinos to find equity and increase representation at City Hall.
Responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.
DR. FERNANDO GUERRA, 64, LOS ANGELES, PROFESSOR AT LOYOLA MARYMOUNT UNIVERSITY AND DIRECTOR OF THE THOMAS AND DOROTHY LEAVEY CENTER FOR THE STUDY OF LOS ANGELES, HIM/HIS, LATINO
WHAT ARE THE MOST IMPORTANT, CRITICAL ISSUES FOR LATINOS THAT ARE LIVING IN LA RIGHT NOW?
I would say number one, obviously quality of life and cost of living, and of course because Latinos are such a large portion of the population every single challenge that a resident of Los Angeles has, affects Latinos and sometimes disproportionately more. So obviously, health, public safety, homelessness. It’s tough to say that there is a unique Latino issue, it is more a matter of degrees that every issue impacts Latinos in LA, some worse than others.
WHAT STEPS DO THE MEMBERS OF THE CITY COUNCIL NEED TO TAKE TO MAKE A CHANGE AFTER THE SCANDAL IN TERMS OF REPRESENTATION?
Number one, there needs to be significant reform. One, they need to establish an independent redistricting commission, which is in process, both at the state level, the city level, and then independent entities, and philanthropies are all working on that project. I think it’s a foregone conclusion that that will happen.
Number two, I think they need to increase the size of the City Council, but be careful not to increase it too large. So Chicago and New York are both at 50. I think that’s a little bit high. It should be somewhere around 25. And the reason I say that is if you make it as big as they are in New York and in Chicago, it actually weakens representation at the community level in that you make the mayor a lot more powerful. Then you’ll have certain districts with representatives that are completely marginalized and ignored. If you get one or two council members from a certain perspective, they’d only be 4% or 5% of the representation and their voices will be drowned out. And so I think 25 would be ideal.
Number three, I think the most important thing to me would be reforming the way land use decisions are made in LA and not creating such discretionary power that the council would have. And that’s why redistricting is always important because people want quote-unquote assets that they could leverage for their own political careers instead of assets that they could leverage for the community.
WHAT IS THE CITY COUNCIL DOING TO ACCURATELY REPRESENT THE LATINO COMMUNITY IN LA? WHAT IS THE COUNCIL NOT DOING?
The City Council makes laws. They don’t implement laws, and so I think in most of the legislation that the City Council takes into consideration, they do factor the impact on different communities and the potential disproportionate impact on communities such as Latinos, African Americans, or Asians. They’ve been very good about that. But oftentimes they don’t want to distribute the funds proportionately to the problem, and they’re always distributing the funds proportionately to the district. And so, even though you might have District A that has severe issues with a policy and District B that has very little issues with this policy, they’ll still get the same number of funds to address the policy.
I think that’s what the council is not doing, is appropriately funding in proportion to where the issues exist. They’re always dividing the budget up by 50 when they are either divided up by the degree of the problem, depending on the community.
WHAT IS YOUR OPINION OF NEW MEMBERS THAT HAVE JOINED THE CITY COUNCIL?
I think it is an incredible addition to the council to have increasingly progressive voices. I think LA is a lot more progressive than what the City Council was before. So these new voices, I think better reflect what is happening out in the communities of LA.
IN YOUR OPINION, IS THERE HOPE NOW THAT THERE ARE NEW PEOPLE IN LEADERSHIP OR IS THERE A DISADVANTAGE?
No, there’s always greater hope when there’s new leadership and the challenge is not about hope or new leadership, it’s about what happens to that new leadership over the years.
FROM YOUR OBSERVATION, WHAT MEMBERS OF THE LA CITY COUNCIL ARE TRYING TO MAKE A CHANGE WHEN IT COMES TO REPRESENTING LATINOS?
All 15 would say that they’re trying to make a change, but when you’re talking about representation, you’re talking about elected office, or you’re talking about commissions. Representation can mean so many different things. Representation can be counted in so many different ways. There are quantitative ways that we can count a representation. How many of the 15 council members are Latino? How many of the commissioners are Latino? Or qualitatively, in a qualitative way are Latinos taken into consideration in a significant way to their numbers, even if the people making the decisions around the table aren’t Latino?
I would say that LA city government in general is very Latino friendly, irrespective of whether a council member or decision maker is Latino. This, however, is not an excuse to exclude Latino voices and Latino individuals at the table either serving as council members or significant administrators, staff members, general managers, or on commissions.
I do think that Latinos continue to be underrepresented in a quantitative manner at every level of city government.
IS THERE ANYTHING ELSE YOU WOULD LIKE TO ADD ON THIS SUBJECT?
It’s a constant battle in terms of inclusion. Previously excluded groups have always fought to be included, and there’s always been resistance because people who have power never want to give it up. And so people have to really mobilize to take that power, and you’ve certainly seen different time periods where Latinos have done an extremely good job of mobilizing. But then, the idea that you can have one individual represent all Latinos, all Latino perspectives are impossible. And so when people say, “Hey, there’s Latino representation because there’s a Latina holding that political office”, well what if that Latina happens to be very conservative? What if that Latina has certain belief systems that don’t reflect the majority or the plurality of Latinos? We oftentimes make the mistake about what we call descriptive representation. Just because someone has the same descriptors of you, either gender or ethnicity, that they’re going to represent you. It’s not true. However, it’s more likely than not true. Certainly, I hate when people use that rationale to say, “Well, why can’t you have someone who’s White represent a Latino community?” Yeah, you can. But let me ask the other way. Why can’t you have a Latino represent a White community? You have like the 11th district, the 5th district, the 12th district, all these districts that are incredibly White. They’ve never had Latinos represent them. We’ve had plenty of Latino districts where you have Whites represent them.
If people want to stand up and say that ethnicity doesn’t matter, that race doesn’t matter, that it shouldn’t matter, and they try to justify that always in terms of non-Latinos representing Latino communities. But it never works the other way around. Or at least in practicality, it doesn’t. They say, “Oh, we’re not opposed to having Latinos represent majority White communities.” It’s like, okay, give me a case. Now, there are some cases when you talk at large, like Villaraigosa being the mayor of all of LA or stuff like that, but even then, the plurality of LA was Latino more so than White.
It’s a difficult conversation rock with lots of landmines and certain ways of discussing it. But certainly, the way that it was discussed on those now infamous audio tapes is not, in any way, a way to be discussed for progress, for understanding, for trying to do the right thing.
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