Race at the Crux of Compton’s Political Debate

English translation of the second story in a four-part series on Latinos’ fight for a seat on the all-black Compton City Council.

Race has long played a significant role in the politics, demographics and social landscape of Compton.

And the controversy developing around a new voting system proposed for electing city officials puts a delicate topic on the table—how prevalent racism is in the only city in south Los Angeles County where Latinos are the majority of the population but hold no seats in the City Council.

Compton Mayor Eric Perrodin recognizes that the city’s racial dynamic involves blacks wanting to maintain power and viewing Latinos as the group looking to take it away from them. Racism exists, he said, but “to a degree.”

“I don’t believe it’s as prevalent as people say,” he said.

Tensions have been on the rise since three Latina voters sued the city alleging that its at-large election system, in which council seats are decided through votes across the city, prevents Latino voters from electing the candidate of their choice.

Although some political analysts say Latinos tend to vote for their own race, one plaintiff, Enelida Alvarez, 30, said, “It’s not a race issue.”

A handful of Latinos who have emerged as leaders of the Committee “Yes on Measure B, for Democracy in Compton”—which has already met twice and will gather again Thursday—all say change is justified because it is long overdue. Less than a month and a half remains until the vote on Measure B, which would change the method of electing the four council members from at-large to by district.

In Compton, Latinos made up 21 percent of the population in 1980, while blacks made up 75 percent. By 2000, Latinos became the majority at 59 percent, overtaking blacks at 40 percent, and in 2010 the Latino population almost doubled that of blacks, 65 percent to 33 percent. Whites held the majority before 1970.

The fact that Latinos now represent two-thirds of the population prompted Jose Serrato, 61, a political organizer for the city since the 1960s, to say, “Compton is 50 years in the past.”

“I used to say, ‘We’re going to give it to them!’” Serrato said with a laugh. “Now I’m more conservative. I don’t want to say, ‘We’re going to kick their ass,’ but it’s slang for, ‘Let’s beat them at all costs.’”

Just as controversial as Serrato’s comment on Latinos seeking political power from blacks, is the question of what a fair distribution of power would look like.

“Why attack Compton when they already have Lynwood, South Gate, Huntington Park?” said Royce Esters, 74, president of the National Association for Equal Justice in America and a Compton resident since 1956. “We have to have a level playing field here.”

Race entered the debate with a lawsuit on the city’s current election system, which has only seen black council members win seats in the past few decades. Claims by District 1 Councilwoman Janna Zurita that she had a Spanish grandmother and by District 3 Councilwoman Yvonne Arceneaux that she had a Mexican father don’t go unchallenged.

Arceneaux’s husband Herbert, 69, said whites did not let him walk through certain parts of the city as a resident in 1960. “Hell yeah, it’s visible,” he said when asked about racism among blacks and Latinos.

“A few weeks ago, a Hispanic man was showing a house in the 400 block of Raymond and when my wife and I came, he not only shut the door, he slammed it,” he said.

But Lorraine Cervantes, 70, a Compton resident for 59 years, said she’s proud that Latinos have preserved their language and hope to gain political power.

“Why does it happen that when I raise my voice for my people, you (blacks) call me racist?” she said. “It’s not our fault that the whites made you lose power. I never, ever have been discriminated against by a white person as I have by African Americans.”

The lawsuit against the city, settled in late February, puts Measure B on the ballot for the June 5 election and again in November if it fails to pass initially. It’s not the first time Latino voters have gone to court because they feel they lack representation.

In mid-2011, brothers Alex and Luis Landeros sued the Compton Community College District because the two Compton seats were decided through an at-large election. Their lawyer, Joaquin Avila, born and raised in Compton, alleged violation of the California Voting Rights Act of 2001 for lack of representation, the same grounds that the lawyers in the latest lawsuit used.

The settlement agreement with the community college district delayed elections in 2011 and instituted a vote by district in 2013.

“We saw an injustice because we could never really have balanced elections,” said Luis Landeros, 42.

“There are three layers: the city, the college and the next step will be the Compton unified school district,” added Alex Landeros, 55. “It might be us or it could be other plaintiffs, but as far as if it will be done, it will be done.”

But Herbert Arceneaux said that going to court “does not do any good.” Blacks waited their turn to get elected through the at-large system, he said, and lawsuits “I think push the wedge even farther apart” between blacks and Latinos.

According to Census data analysis by the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO), a nonprofit organization that facilitates the participation of Latinos in politics, Latinos who are U.S. citizens and of voting age represent 28 percent of all Latinos living in Compton. In other words, only about one in four Latinos are eligible to vote.

Furthermore, the NALEO analysis showed that in the November 2010 elections, the 2,091 Latinos who voted made up only 17 percent of voters in Compton and 19 percent of registered Latino voters. By comparison, non-Latinos made up 83 percent of voters and had a 65 percent turnout. Some see change coming, but the question remains how near in the future.

“I see a change in another four to eight years,” Herbert Arceneaux said. “As the young kids get out of high school and claim their domain and say they want representation. All schools are predominantly Hispanic.”

Perrodin, who supports Measure B for representation and fiscal reasons, optimistically concluded: “We’re all American.”

But he added that the easiest way to see if one’s position is consistent is to switch roles with those deemed the adversaries.

“If the majority of the population were black and all elected officials were Latino, would you as a black continue to want voting to be at-large? If you can say yes, then your position would be consistent,” he said. “But I don’t believe that is the case.”