The City of Bell and Stereotypes

The Los Angeles Times recently reported that California Attorney General Jerry Brown charged "Bell leaders of secretly plotting to enrich themselves and conceal their lucrative compensation." Then the press reported the arrest of eight Bell officials for charges based on cheating taxpayers out of around $5.5 million dollars. District Attorney Steve Cooley said, "This was calculated greed and theft." Over the past few months, the Times has reported that the city manager of the mostly Latino working-class city was being paid nearly $800,000 a year and city council members around $100,000 a year for part-time work, entitling them to millions in state pension funds. At the same time, Bell residents were paying the highest property tax in the state, and Bell employees, barely earning minimum wage, were being laid off because the city lacked funds. Meanwhile, Bell police officers were being pushed to impound more cars to raise money for the city. When the first stories about the greed in Bell hit the news, a co-worker, who was born and raised in Mexico, jokingly kidded, "What do you expect when a bunch of Mexicans decide who's in charge."

Around the same time as the story of corruption in Bell, I read a news article about a guy named Joe Sanchez who Los Angeles was honoring for what he has done for our community. I wondered why we thrive on negative stereotypes. Is doing so an unavoidable part of our nature? Why don't we look at a situation through a positive rather than a negative lens? Instead of viewing the City of Bell through a stereotype that Latinos are greedy, why don't we expect people to act like Latino businessman and political activist Joe Sanchez?

After attending a ceremony honoring Joe Sanchez at the Lincoln Heights fire station in August, I wanted to learn more about him. I interviewed Joe's daughter, Gloria Alvarez, who is the editor of Eastern Group Publications. From Ms. Alvarez, I learned that Joe Sanchez's family is the story of the American dream going right. His ancestors moved to New Mexico around the same time the Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth. When Joe was eight years old, with the same desire as most of our ancestors to improve their family's life, his family moved to Los Angeles. Like poor children of all races and cultures, Joe worked throughout his school years, shining shoes, selling newspapers, sweeping, and arranging vegetables in a corner grocery store owned by the Weber family. Weber and his sons sold both regular groceries and dented cans or discontinued lines. Joe managed to work, stay in school, and graduated from Jefferson High School. From the Weber family, Joe learned that a well-run small business can compete with the giants like Ralphs Groceries. With his new wife Dolores, he opened a small corner grocery store near Bunker Hill in central Los Angeles. Joe and Dolores would eventually open their own discount store in the heart of what is now Chinatown. Like the Webers, he sold both regular goods and damaged goods. In the years that followed, he would buy out his former boss' business. Tony Villar, now Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, was one of the many young men and women who found a job and an opportunity in the Sanchezes' store. With a few dollars in savings, he later opened a similar grocery store in south central LA near Slauson. In time, Joe and Dolores, with Joe's sister and brother-in law, Dolores and Manuel "Cal" Soto, opened a third store in East Los Angeles, called La Quebradita: a little break.

Like many other small businesses, not all of Joe's ventures were so successful. When he ventured out of the Latino area to the Orange County community of Westminster/Stanton, his business failed. The Westminster/Stanton area is infamous for its history as the community where Latinos sought an equal education, before the 1954 United States Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that children of all races are entitled to an equal education. According to the Harvard Law Review,

The Mendez case spurred the desegregation of Mexican American students in California schools and Played an important role in the evolution of desegregation cases that led to Brown seven years later. Litigation was brought by several Mexican American families, who were later supported by LULAC, on behalf of their school-aged children who had been denied admission to schools reserved for Anglo whites in Orange County. . . . [T]he district court ruled that segregating Mexican American students without credible examination to determine that they had English language deficiencies denied them equal protection of the law under the Fourteenth Amendment, and the court enjoined the districts from continuing to segregate.

Joe is aware of the effect of race on the success of a business, but is too humble to blame racism for failure of his Stanton store. Failure in Stanton did not stop Joe. Shortly after it failed, he opened another store in Lincoln Heights, a predominantly Hispanic, working-class neighborhood in Northeast Los Angeles. Joe had learned that a successful small business depends not only on what one sells and the demeanor of employees, but on giving back to the community. The community was always more important to Joe Sanchez than getting rich. His community was keeping his store open and, unlike the Bell politicians, he sought to repay what he thought he owed his community.

At the recent ceremony for Joe in Lincoln Heights, city officials spoke about the Fire Commission member. According to the speakers, in 1973, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley chose Joe to be the first Latino in modern times to serve on the Los Angeles Fire Commission. A federal court had ruled that the Los Angeles Fire Department was engaging in racial discrimination in hiring. Although many Latinos, African Americans, Asians and women lived in Los Angeles, the firefighters were overwhelmingly white males. As a new commissioner, Joe was going to do what he could to change the injustice. He immediately faced a claim that there were so few Latino, Asian and female firefighters because, to remain the best fire department in the country, fire fighters had to be 6'1" tall to do the job. Joe challenged the department to prove that point, even bringing back data from Japan and Peru to show that shorter fire fighters could indeed handle the physical requirements of the job. Soon, the fire department was at or near the racial percentages of the community.

Joe was pleased, but not finished. The Los Angeles Fire Department had decided to open a paramedic service and to assign the units to West Los Angeles. Joe forced the fire department to conduct a citywide study to evaluate if the department's resources were being distributed equally; they were not. He reminded his fellow fire commissioners that residents in East Los Angeles also needed paramedic services, forcing the department to expand the service.

As a grocer, Joe knew that farm workers were the ones who plant, irrigate, weed, thin and harvest the vegetables and fruit. In 1979, Cesar Chavez's United Farm Workers struck in the fields asking for $5 an hour. When Joe learned that the families of those who grew the goods he sold were hungry, he drove a truck to Calexico to feed the strikers' families. He would go on to collect many more truckloads of food for hungry farm workers. For more on Joe Sanchez, see "Sanchez's Legacy Honored at Eastside Fire Station" and "City's First Fire Commissioner Honored with Lincoln Heights Station Plaque."

The story of what happened in Bell is a tale of the corruption committed by people of all races and cultures, not a story about the race or culture of the indicted. Stereotypes are never good, but if we must use them to make our daily life less confusing, why don't we use stereotypes that further the reality that the Latino community is a community of individuals like Joe Sanchez. Why not see the many like Joe Sanchez, who use hard work and ingenuity to help the community, as the example of Latinos in California, and a way to work against racial stereotypes? It is time we recognize that the greedy and self-centered, like the Bell politicians, are not the norm, but an anomaly.