Demographic shift: Compton's new Latino majority

Historically black city south of Los Angeles now has a Hispanic majority and its first Latino member of City Council

Isaac Galvan is the first Latino on the Compton City Council and, at 26 years old, the youngest person ever elected to the council.

COMPTON, Calif. — Rap giant Kendrick Lamar said it in song: "Compton, Compton, ain't no city quite like mine."

It's not quite his city anymore.

The hub of gangsta rap and birthplace of some of the most influential black rappers and hip-hop artists of the late '80s and '90s (Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube), this gritty city south of Los Angeles is no longer a quintessential African-American community.

Compton, which was once mostly white (former President George H.W. Bush lived there in 1949) and then became mostly black, is now mostly Hispanic. About 65 percent of the people in this city of fewer than 100,000 are Hispanic and only 35 percent are black, according to the 2010 census. Some say Hispanics now make up more than 70 percent.

Latinos, however, are still a minority of the electorate. At City Hall, in the one high-rise towering over wide boulevards lined with small industrial shops, wig stores and convenience marts, black power is hanging on. Until June, the mayor and every council member was African-American. It took protracted lawsuits by Hispanic rights groups to change at-large elections, where all resident citizens vote for all four seats, to by-district elections in June.

The result is that Isaac Galvan — a 26-year-old Mexican-American community college graduate and son of a single mother — won the vote and is the first Hispanic on the City Council. He's also the youngest to ever have been elected to the council.

"I was the first Latino to win but not the first to run," Galvan said. "Mexicans in the city have been treated differently, and I noticed with other Latino candidates, they wanted to treat African-Americans the same way they were treated. I was campaigning to include African-Americans."

He said he ran for office because "I just got tired of the conditions — highest water cost in the state, property taxes among the five highest, potholes on many thoroughfares."

Galvan got in a bit of trouble over failure to disclose campaign finances, and an aide was fired because of a prior conviction for political misconduct. But the new councilman is expected to last through his four-year term unscathed, as most people chalk off the improprieties to inexperience.

Political transformation

This difficult political transformation is unfolding in urban communities throughout the country. As Hispanics — who now surpass blacks in numbers nationwide — come to the U.S., they often settle in poor inner-city neighborhoods that are historically black.

In 20 ethnically diverse metropolitan areas, 4.7 percent of the total population lived in black-Hispanic neighborhoods in 1980. By 2010, that had almost doubled to 8.9 percent, according to an analysis by US2010 Project, which tracks changes in American society.

"One out of four African-Americans lived in that kind of tract (with Hispanics)," said segregation expert John Logan, a Brown University sociologist and head of US2010. "A very large share of both of these groups live together. The question is whether they can find common ground."

The process is slow, and political clout often lags the demographic muscle of Hispanics. Newcomers are rarely U.S. citizens, and can't vote. Others don't speak English. That has allowed blacks, a population with a long history of political organizing, to retain control.

"This is their neighborhood, their cultural interests," said Roderick Harrison, a Howard University sociologist and former chief of racial statistics at the U.S. Census Bureau. "Clearly, it does make for conflict."

But because the new majority is less likely to vote, it can take a generation before it's represented at City Hall. And for a place such as Compton, a powerful symbol of a new black culture that emerged out of high crime and poverty rates, it may take longer.

"There's always a lag time between demographic shift and political representation," said Fernando Guerra, a professor of political science and of Chicana/o Studies at Loyola Marymount University.

Compton and three other cities in this region (Lynwood, Inglewood and Hawthorne) are unique because they all had a black population that exceeded a third at one point and now have a Latino majority. Each approached its demographic transformation differently. Inglewood included Latinos in the political process. In Hawthorne, Latinos pretty much took over. Lynwood has an all-Latino council, Guerra said.

"Latinos have always been able to count on African-American support on major (civil rights) issues, but what happens at the local level … not as much," Guerra said.

"Latinos do not have political representation," said Arturo Ybarra, co-founder of the Watts/Century Latino Organization, a group that is trying to develop Latino leadership. In the Watts section of Los Angeles, which borders Compton, a neighborhood laden with historic significance for African-Americans — it was the scene of riots in 1965 — 80 percent of the population is Latino, yet none represents the district.

"Attending city events as a Latino is kind of uncomfortable," said Judith Sandoval, president of Community Lawyers, Inc., in Compton. "You feel like a minority."

But Sandoval, who has been a resident of the city since she was 4 years old, has noticed more money spent to get Latinos elected. Her group helps needy residents — many of them undocumented — gain access to benefits and services.

"In the past, a lot of people were interested, but their campaign was not well funded. In the end, they would never get elected."

Galvan's election is a hopeful sign, although there is still some grumbling, even among Latinos, that he's not really from Compton. Galvan said he has cousins, aunts and a grandmother here and has spent his entire life between East Los Angeles and Compton. After two years at Santa Monica College, he opened a print shop in West Los Angeles.

Galvan has political ambitions and has found mentors among both Hispanics and African-Americans.

Retired educator Willie Jones, a black councilman elected in 2009, has lived in Compton for 50 years.

"Compton is very parochial," he said. "The black and Latino vote is not monolithic. There are black Republicans, black Democrats … the bigger impact is not Latino or black, but it's generational."

A new generation

The city just elected 31-year-old Aja (pronounced Asia) Brown as mayor, and she is getting national coverage — including being featured in Vogue magazine — for shaking up the old guard. The University of Southern California graduate and urban planner beat former city leader Omar Bradley, who had been convicted in 2004 of misappropriating public funds.

Brown, who is African-American, is somewhat of an outsider in Compton, too. She grew up in Altadena, north of Pasadena, but has a deep emotional connection to Compton: Her grandmother was raped and murdered in 1973 in a brutal home invasion there.

"Young people don't vote, but if they see Galvan, if they see Mayor Brown, they will," Jones said.

La Reina Market, home of Pop's Chicken, is frequented by both Hispanics and blacks. Owner Victor Hernandez is a Galvan supporter. He came from Mexico at the age of 12 and has been in business since 1992.

"I like the way he is," Hernandez says of Galvan, who is enjoying the charbroiled chicken and rice in this modest café.

Mark Deese, a community relations specialist who is working with the Compton High School Family Resource Center, is black and has been in Compton for 37 years.

He said that the Latino majority in Compton "has actually been at the forefront of every black household conversation for many, many years now."

Blacks have not shared power with Latinos because of "the lingering slave mentality," Deese said. "We (blacks) cannot stand to see the progress of families that we perceive as 'illegal,' 'alien' or whatever other marginalizing terms society offers us."

How Galvan will bridge the gap remains to be seen.

"So far there's not too much positive or too much negative," Sandoval said.

"People in Compton are dying for good leadership. Period," said Luz Herrera, a lawyer and a visiting professor at UC Irvine School of Law who used to have a practice in Compton.

She said the city needs to develop leaders, whether black or Hispanic, and to encourage citizens to hold elected officials accountable.

"I have hopes for the new mayor," Herrera said. "I hope it will be a more inclusive community."

Others also felt it was time to move on from the divisions of the past. Said Galvan: "It's 2013. Those days are over, and we have to represent all the people."

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