Fracturing the Chicano Vote in California

The reality of Mexican-American representation in the Golden State, 1947 - 1964

By John P. Schmal
Published on LatinoLA: July 20, 2005

Fracturing the Chicano Vote in California

The End of World War II

The year was 1947 and the place was California. World War II had ended two years earlier and millions of American GI?s had returned home to their families and jobs. The Great Depression had ended with the coming of World War II and California ? like the rest of the country ? was experiencing a newly found economic prosperity.

As a result of this prosperity, Los Angeles was drawing large numbers of people from all around the United States and from Mexico. Between 1940 and 1950, the population of California increased from over 6 million people to 10 ? million. During the same period, the population of Los Angeles County jumped from 3 million to 4.7 million people.

During World War II, hundreds of thousands of Hispanic Americans had served in the U.S. military, many receiving decorations for their service to their country. These proud veterans returned to their native land, but still experienced many forms of discrimination and prejudice in the job market.

However, as the war drew to an end, an important piece of legislation presented Chicano veterans with an opportunity for advancement in California. The G.I. Bill Act of June 22, 1944 ? or the Servicemen?s Readjustment Act [Public Law 346, 78th Congress, Title III, ??500-503, 58 Stat. 284, 291-293 (1944)] ? put higher education within the reach of thousands of Mexican-American veterans. The Veterans' Readjustment Assistance Act of 1952 [Public Law 550, 82nd Congress, July 16, 1952, Ch. 875, 66 Stat. 663, 38 U.S.C. 997] provided similar privileges to Korean War veterans.

Over the next decade, Mexican-American veterans attended local and nationwide colleges and universities to obtain college degrees. In many cases, these vets were the first members of their families to receive a higher education. Armed with the weapon of education, many of these Chicano veterans became the politicians of the 1960s and 1970s.

In California?s expanding wartime economy, many Mexican Americans had become skilled workers, putting them into a new economic bracket. But, the new prosperity had not translated into political representation. Not a single Hispanic person from California had served in Congress since the end of Romualdo Pacheco?s tenure as representative in 1883. Additionally, not a single Mexican American had served in the California Legislature since the end of Miguel Estudillo?s tenure in the California Senate (1911). The last Latino to serve as mayor of the City of Los Angeles, Cristobal Aguilar, had been voted out of office in 1872 and the last Mexican-American member of the Los Angeles City Council had stepped down in 1881.

The Emergence of Edward Roybal
It was in this vacuum of non-representation that a unique individual came onto the scene. More than any other person, Edward Roybal would pave the way for two generations of Mexican-American Californians, who would achieve representation in the Los Angeles City Council, the U.S. Congress, or the California Legislature.

Born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Roybal had come to Boyle Heights in 1922 with his parents, when his unemployed father sought new employment. Roybal graduated from Roosevelt High School and attended UCLA before going to World War II. After the war had ended, he returned to Los Angeles and became the Director of Health Education for the Los Angeles County Tuberculosis and Health Association.

In 1947, 30-year-old Edward R. Roybal decided to run for councilman of the 9th Council District, which included Boyle Heights, Bunker Hill, Civic Center, Chinatown, Little Tokyo, and the Central Avenue District. The racial makeup of the district?s 185,033 residents was: 45% White, 34% Latino, 15% African American, and 6% ?other.? Even Roybal?s political base, Boyle Heights, was just 43% Hispanic at the time, while 34% of the inhabitants were native-born Whites.

Professor Katherine Underwood has analyzed Roybal?s run for office and noted that Roybal?s first campaign lacked endorsements and neglected voter outreach. In the primary election on April 1, 1947, Edward Roybal and three other candidates ran against the incumbent councilman, Parley Parker Christensen. On Election Day, Christensen won 8,948 votes, while Roybal came in third with 3,350 votes (15% of the total ballots cast). Seventy-five percent of Roybal?s support had come from Boyle Heights.

Following this loss, Roybal became involved with several of his campaign supporters to create the CPO (Community Political Organization) in September 1947. The organization, which was later renamed CSO (Community Service Organization), became the first broad-based organization within the Mexican-American community, representing veterans, businessmen, and workers.

The primary goal of the CSO was to register Mexican Americans to vote. For this purpose, the organization recruited 1,000 members and registered 15,000 new voters in the Latino sections of Boyle Heights, Belvedere, and East Los Angeles. By 1949, Roybal believed that he had enough support to run for the Ninth District seat once again.

In the April 5, 1949 primary election, Roybal knocked Daniel Sullivan and Julia Sheehan out of the council race by capturing 37% of the total votes cast. This forced a runoff with Christensen in the May general election. In the general election held on May 31, 1949, Edward Roybal soundly defeated six-term Councilman Christensen by a vote of 20,472 to 11,956, winning by a 2-to-1 margin. With this victory, Ed Roybal became the first Mexican American since 1881 to win a seat on the Los Angeles City Council. He would serve as Council member of the 9th District from July 1, 1949 to Dec. 31, 1962, before moving on to the U.S. Congress in 1963.

Fracturing the Chicano Vote
In 1960, the Census Bureau reported that California had a total population of 15,717,204 persons. This new figure increased California?s representation in the U.S. Congress from 30 seats in 1950 to 38 seats.

Roughly 1.5 million Hispanics made up more than 9% of the California population, but 20% of these Hispanics were foreign-born, many of whom were not naturalized and, as a result, were not eligible to vote. In Los Angeles, Latinos made up 9.6% of the population in 1960, slightly above the African-American population of 7.6%.

As the new decade commenced, there were still no Chicanos in the State Senate, the Assembly or in the California Congressional delegation, primarily because of political fracturing. ?Fracturing? is the practice of drawing district lines so that a minority population is broken up. Through fracturing, the voting members of a minority are spread among as many districts as possible, keeping them a minority in all the districts.

The 1961 Reapportionment
In 1961, with the 1960 census statistics as a guide, the California Legislature reapportioned the Senate and Assembly pursuant to section 6 of article IV of the California Constitution. Testifying before the Reapportionment and Elections Committees of the Senate and Assembly, Los Angeles City Councilperson Edward Roybal, complained about the fragmentation of the Chicano communities in L.A. He stressed the importance of creating Hispanic districts.

Aside from the testimony of Councilperson Roybal, there was minimal Chicano participation in the 1961 redistricting process. The longtime Chicano political activist, Nell Soto, stated that this lack of Chicano participation was due ?to several factors, including Chicanos? lack of awareness of the reapportionment process; the focusing of Chicano interest on local rather than statewide issues; the absence of Chicanos in the Legislature who might have informed the Chicano community about the importance of redistricting; and more concern on the part of Chicano activist to register Chicanos to vote than to create Chicano districts.?

And so it was that the East Los Angeles Barrio, with its large population of Hispanics, was split up into six different Assembly districts, seven State Senate districts, and six different Congressional Districts. After the 1961 reapportionment was completed, Mexican Americans represented significant populations in the following Assembly Districts: the 40th, 45th, 48th, 50th and 51st Eastside Assembly Districts. All of these districts fragmented the Chicano community and were combined with neighboring Anglo communities so that Hispanic voters rarely made up more than 20% of any one district's population.

The Chicano political researchers, Gilbert Lopez and Richard Martinez, observed that the 1961 redistricting ?seemed to have severed Chicano communities and as a result rendered them incapable of forming viable voting blocks by attaching them to areas that would prove to make their vote meaningless.?

The California Supreme Court later ruled that California's thirty-eight congressional districts, as drawn in 1961, were unconstitutional. Similarly, the Supreme Court also ruled that both California?s Assembly and Senate would have to reapportion their districts.

In his study of the 1961 reapportionment, elections consultant T. Anthony Quinn, Ph.D., wrote:

Despite the state?s large Mexican-American population, Mexican-Americans were not a political force at all. In 1960, not a single federal or state office in California was held by a Mexican-American. Spanish-speaking neighborhoods regularly returned huge Democratic majorities, but they exerted no political power of their own. Jesse Unruh and Robert Crown (the two Assemblymen chiefly responsible for the 1961 plan) saw such Hispanic neighborhoods as putty, to be shaped as necessary to maximize Democratic opportunities. The huge East Los Angeles barrio would be divided among six Assembly Districts.

Although the redistricting of 1961 resulted in the continued gerrymandering of the Latino community in the Los Angeles, one congressional district was created that would pave a way for Councilperson Ed Roybal to run for Congress.

The 1962 Elections
In the June 5, 1962 California Primary Election, thirteen Chicano candidates ran for office. City Councilman Edward Roybal had announced that he would run for the 30th Congressional District. Around the same time, Henry Mendoza, a Republican, announced that he would run for the 21st District.

In addition, eleven Chicanos were on the ballot for the 40th, 45th, 48th, 50th, 51st and 77th California Assembly districts elections. In East L.A.?s 48th District, Frank Lopez and Frank Paz had run against each other in the primaries. Political analysts believed that Frank Paz might have won that election if he had not faced another Latino in the primary.

Of the thirteen Chicano candidates in California, only three men would take office following the November 6, 1962 General Election. In the primaries, John Moreno had faced three other Chicano Democratic candidates in the contest for East Los Angeles? 51st Assembly District seat.

A native of Los Angeles, Moreno had attended USC and served in the U.S. Navy from 1945 to 1947. Before running for his Assembly seat, John Moreno served as the Mayor of the City of Santa Fe Springs. Once elected, Assemblyperson Moreno would serve as the representative of the 51st District for only two years: 1963 and 1964.

Philip Soto, a Democrat from La Puente, was a veteran of the U.S. Air Force and was a member of the La Puente City Council prior to his service in Sacramento. He became the state representative for the 50th Assembly District.

With their November 6 elections, Philip Soto and John Moreno became the first two Latinos from Los Angeles County to be elected to the California State Legislature in the Twentieth Century. They were also the first Latinos to be elected to serve in the State Assembly since the election of Miguel Estudillo of Riverside County in 1907. The election of these two men set a precedent for a long line of Latino legislators committed to the service of their communities.

While Soto and Moreno celebrated their Assembly districts, Ed Roybal also savored his own victory. On November 6, 1962, after defeating Loyola University Professor William Fitzgerald, the City Councilman became the first Hispanic from California to be elected to Congress since the 1879 election of Romualdo Pacheco.

Edward Roybal took his seat in the House of Representatives on January 3, 1963 at the start of the 88th U.S. Congress. He would serve for twenty years from the 88th Congress to the 102nd Congress, retiring on January 3, 1993. At the start of his Congressional career, Representative Roybal represented the 30th District from 1963 to 1975. From 1975 to 1993, he served in the 25th District.

As Ed Roybal prepared to run for Representative of the 30th Congressional District, he resigned from his City Council seat on July 31, 1962. An African-American, Gilbert W. Lindsay, was appointed to replace him on January 28, 1963, even though the 9th District had a large concentration of Latinos. Lindsay would serve in this capacity to Dec. 28, 1990, when he died in office. In three years, African Americans went from having no representation on the Los Angeles City Council in 1960 to having three representatives in 1963. At the same time, Latino representation went from two council members to zero.

The City Council apportionment of 1962 split East Los Angeles among seven councilmanic districts. Because of this fragmentation, Chicanos could not be a majority in any one of the city?s fifteen districts, even though they represented a large portion of seven of the council?s fifteen districts.

The 1964 Elections
In the June 2, 1964 California Primary Election, Ed Roybal received 49,151 votes in the 30th Congressional District, easily winning reelection to his Congressional seat. According to the California Statement of Vote for 1964, Roybal?s closest opponents received only 15,153 and 13,228 votes.

In the elections for the California Assembly, many Chicano candidates stepped forward to seek a mandate for representing their communities. A total of eleven Chicanos ran for the 10th, 38th, 40th, 45th, 48th, 50th 51st, and 75th Assembly District seats. However, by the time the elections had ended, only one Hispanic Assemblyperson would take office.

In the 50th Assembly District, Philip Soto won reelection by 2,178 votes in the general election. Two years later in 1966, however, facing the same opponent in 1966, Soto would lose his seat by 4,309 votes, apparently because of boundary changes to his district after the 1966 reapportionment.

When Assemblyman Moreno tried to get reelected to his 51st District seat, he found himself up against another Chicano candidate, Dionisio Morales. This contest split the Chicano vote and led to victory in the Democratic Primary by Jack Fenton. Jack Fenton received 16,278 votes to John Moreno?s 12,850 votes.

As 1965 began, only two Chicanos (Roybal and Soto) represented California in Sacramento and Washington. The reality of Mexican-American representation in the Golden State was still far from complete.


Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and William C. Velasquez Institute, ?California Congressional Redistricting Plan? (Submitted July 17, 2001, Los Angeles).

Richard Santillan, ?California Reapportionment and the Chicano Community: An Historical Overview 1960-1980,? in The Chicano Community and California Redistricting, Vol. I (Rose Institute of State and Local Government, Claremont Men?s College, 1981.

Richard Santillan, Chicano Politics: La Raza Unida (Los Angeles: Tlaquilo Publications, 1973), p. 11.

Katherine Underwood, ?Pioneering Minority Representation: Edward Roybal and the Los Angeles City Council, 1949-1962,? Pacific Historical Review ? 1997

About John P. Schmal:
John Schmal is the coauthor of "Mexican-American Genealogical Research: Following the Paper Trail to Mexico" (Heritage Books, 2002). He is working on books about Indigenous Mexico and the political representation of Latinos in California.

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