Reviewing The Search for a Civic Voice

[The Search for a Civic Voice: California Latino Politics, Kenneth C. Burt, Regina Books 2007]

California Latinos Rising

As a youth in California public schools, I learned little about modern-day Latinos in the state. Sound familiar? The fuller story is here now in a single volume: The Search for a Civic Voice: California Latino Politics by Kenneth C. Burt.

In 14 chapters, the Sacramento author and political director of the California Federation of Teachers analyzes the reasons for and results of Latino political power. The time frame is the late 1930s to the present. He begins with El Congreso, a civil rights coalition of Latinos and various allies.

Burt’s approach is also emphatic. His chapters end with key events that flow organically onward. Readers who seek more details will like the chapter notes and the selected bibliography. His original research is impressive. “The genesis of the modern Latino political and civic voice in California emerged during the era of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal,” Burt writes. WW II followed. One outcome was a diverse voting bloc for a Latino candidate in postwar Los Angeles. Mexican American veterans and Latina wage earners powered this movement. Democrat Ed Roybal of the Community Service Organization, with help from Catholic priests and Jewish union activists, was elected to the LA city council in 1949. Roybal’s focus on bigoted police and employers expanded his political credibility. This helped stir a social justice momentum statewide and across the Southwest. The CSO, under Saul Alinsky and Fred Ross, attracted young people. Two were Caesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, the duo who went on lead the United Farm Workers’ labor union.

Religion plays no small role in human affairs, which included electoral politics. Catholicism helped to cement Latino Democrats’ role in JFK’s 1960 presidency and his brother Robert’s 1968 White House candidacy. Latinos’ national spotlight spread. Their alliances gained strength. They lobbied, effectively, state and federal officials to improve public policy for the downtrodden. Burt’s book is full of these “firsts.”

His analysis of the debates over strategies and tactics of the emerging Latino civil rights movement sparkles with insight. Changed relations with Democratic politicians amid dispute over the Vietnam War in part spawned the Mexican American Political Association. MAPA was more tilted to the emerging middle class, but complemented the CSO’s working-class focus, Burt explains.

He critically surveys Latino political appointments, elected officials and the electorate from the high-water point of liberal policies in the late-1960s forward. Generational changes led some Latinos to vote for GOP politicians in California and nationwide. That move helped to fracture the old Democrat New Deal coalitions. Gov. Jerry Brown bucked this trend in the 1980s by backing laws that helped the UFW, which became a major fund raiser for the state Democratic Party.

By then, groups such as the CSO had lost political power. California’s suburbs sprawled, as new development devoured farmland. Voter turnout slumped. Businesses and unions funded direct mailers and media ads. Such changes eclipsed the politics of CSO precinct walkers meeting and speaking with locals.

Curiously, Burt’s narrative sidesteps the NAFTA. The trade deal has wrecked scores of small farmers in Mexico, pushing them to cross the California border searching for work. Yet his broader point of view about the progressive arc of Latino political history in the state is instructive.

Burt brings us full circle from the eve of WW II to now. In 1994, California Governor Pete Wilson led the GOP attack on Mexican immigrants. Latinos and their allies mobilized to push it back, successfully. Burt’s thesis is that such rebuilding of working-class, union-led coalitions, with their living-wage campaigns that followed, harkens back to the spirit of El Congreso and the CSO. One change of course is that currently service worker unions-notably in government-have replaced factory worker unions. This change in organized labor, plus rising Latino voter registration since Wilson’s politics of immigrant-bashing, underpin the big presence of Democratic Latino lawmakers in the state Capitol today.

Ordinary people can do extraordinary things. But only when they can work in unity. Burt’s book is proof of that.


Seth Sandronsky lives and writes in Sacramento. .

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