Ed Roybal, first 20th Century Mexican American elected to the Los Angeles City Council (1949-1963) and to the House of Representatives (1963-1992) was a progressive Latino politician long before there was something called a Chicano movement. His political contributions should be deeply studied by Latinos and progressives.
He was a New Deal Democrat with left of center politics all his life. He stood up against the loyalty oath of the McCarthy era, he was an early Congressional critic of the Vietnam War, and was a supporter of labor rights and put domestic need over militarism all his life.
He kept running for higher offices like Lt. Governor and County Supervisor and was a founder of the Mexican American Political Association well as the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. In his later years in Congress he held important committee appointments defending important programs against Reaganism.
The Los Angeles Times article says he voted against the Landmark Amnesty law, that is a distortion, he voted against the vicious employer sanctions provisions of the bill that also included the amnesty. Without the fight of Roybal in Congress against sanctions along with Latino, civil rights and progressive labor activists, the amnesty provisions would never have been written, much less passed. (Today we need to extend the “amnesty” and get rid of the employer and other sanctions.)
I remember the first mass Chicano demonstration I went to, it was in downtown LA in June of 1968 and was a protest of the conspiracy charge arrests of the LA 13, organizers and supporters of the student walkouts that year. I remember hesitating going fearing the police might attack, but hundreds and maybe thousands were there downtown including Roybal. A few weeks later I had the courage to help lead a protest to get UCLA cafeterias and vending machines to stop selling grapes during the farm worker called boycott. Having principled politicians around helps.
As an activist and also a writer for the Peoples World and Peoples Weekly World I had a chance to learn of and see Roybal in action at key points. At labor meetings I heard him speak how as a young child in New Mexico during a railroad strike he would join with the other “manito/a” children in throwing rocks at passing trains.
At a meeting with the establishment “LA 25” after the police attack on the Chicano Moratorium of Aug 29 1970 he told of how as a youth in Boyle Heights a siren would go off near sunset signaling a curfew for Mexicanos. At this critical time he told the LA establishment something like “police brutality was a top priority when I was first elected, and it is today as well”!. Just before the moratorium he had joined in a mass downtown demonstration protesting the police killing of the undocumented Sanchez cousins.
In the back issues of the Peoples World of the early fifties are articles about Roybal standing up to the loyalty oath, standing up against the elimination of rent control, protesting the Bloody Christmas police brutality, protesting the prohibitions on public housing projects, and much more. In one story, I believe it was on the abolition of rent control, Roybal was the lone “no” vote and his colleagues were mad. One of the council members came up with the canard that Roybal had threatened him with a knife”.
Yes like Rosa Parks, Ed Roybal was a pioneer who had to take heat. He was no radical, not a leftist but he came from the New Deal era, he was part of the CCC program that showed government could and should do much more for the working people. He benefited and joined in united front programs and issues and developed.
I remember an article critical of Roybal in La Raza Magazine that accused him of being an “arco iris” a rainbow politician who came out after the storm. Looking back on this I can see that article two ways, Roybal was a man of coalition who came out for well organized events and issues for progressive issues. As a left wing and communist activist there were many issues I worked on that Roybal did not speak out on, but I was always working in his district and never recall his “machine” trying to silence or punish me.
It is important to remember that in the 9th Council District where Roybal made his breakthrough in 1949 the largest voting group was African American and that his coalition went beyond Mexican Americans, Jewish and labor activists as is usually recounted. When Roybal finally moved on to Congress he did not insist that a Mexican American replace him as the biggest group in the district was African American. Roybal did however put energy and clout behind the formation of the Mexican American Political Association that fought for Mexican American (Chicano and Latino) representation as an independent progressive political group.
Ed Roybal went to UCLA in the thirties, a later alumnus, former L. A Controller Rick Tuttle tells me Roybal lived in student Coop housing there with Tom Bradley (later L.A. Mayor) and George Brown (a leading peace advocate in Congress). In the mid sixties Brown (who then represented part of East L.A.) was among the first two to vote against the Vietnam War, the next vote Roybal and a few others joined in. Roybal also was key in winning Latino Votes for Bradley’s successful mayoral campaign in 1973.
At one time I did organize a picket of Roybal. In a bill that added rights for immigrant workers he included provisions to use the Social Security card for I.D. purposes. A few of us in an immigration coalition protested. He responded with a meeting with us including broader forces. He also invited pioneer African American Congressman Augustus Hawkins to join in. In effect Roybal explained that immigration was one of the more racist federal departments and to get even small positive action took compromise, and that often usually perfunctory request for cooperation from him were ignored. Hawkins corroborated the discrimination. I still objected to the provision but recognized the context of his action.
Roybal was a very dignified person, “buen educado” (well educated)” socially as we say in the community, always impeccably dressed and very civil, his style helped win people over and when he showed emotion his emphasis stood out. I could see in his approach his background as a new deal social worker winning over a community theretofore denied and outcast to use new public programs. When he got into a fight his style became more that of an organizer in the style of Alinskyite Fred Ross who helped Royal in developing the Community Services Organization. Cesar Chavez, who also had Fred Ross as a mentor, had that seemingly low key approach as well.
Roybal had a sense of irony. In one of the Congressional sessions in the early eighties when House Democratic Speaker Tip O’Neill was pushing hard for the passage of employer sanctions Roybal led a heroic successful blocking action with the passion of an organizer, despite the important committee assignments O’Neill had apportioned him. The next session Roybal put his name on a bill with moderate sanctions in it but did nothing to move it. It died early on and Roybal called press conference to point out that he had put out the bill at the request of “leadership” (ie Tip O’Neill, to make the point that it was community opposition not his personality that gave force to the anti sanctions. His sober demeanor at the CSPAN covered press conference was belied by a faint grin as he announced the defeat of the measure.
In these days when we face the vicious far right politics of Bush and Schwarzeneggar we need to keep in mind the correlation of the organization grassroots based coalition and the ability of progressive politicians to make principled stands. Ed Roybals career in politics is an important model of one style of such correlation. Latino and progressive activists and politicians have much to learn from his contributions.