How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Bell corruption scandal inspires a new media experiment: A newspaper, in Spanish

Photo by NS Newsflash/Flickr (Creative Commons)


It's been a while since all heck broke loose in Bell, a working-class, Latino-majority city in southeast Los Angeles County.

In 2010, eight city officials that included the mayor and former city manager were arrested and charged with corruption. Things have settled down somewhat since, and the city has just named a new city manager to replace the one accused of bilking residents.

But some of the same circumstances that contributed to the scandal, namely a busy, working-poor immigrant population with little political investment or involvement, are still there. And while mainstream media coverage became intense for a while, with two Los Angeles Times reporters who investigated the scandal winning a Pulitzer, this coverage still doesn't easily filter down to residents. All of which has made the city a draw for the latest local media experiment.

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The Pulitzer-winning reporter who could have been deported

Photo by Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

On a window outside Bell City Hall, September 2010

A post in late March highlighted the story of Ruben Vives, a Los Angeles Times reporter who was once undocumented, brought here as a child from Guatemala by his mother.

Last month, Vives was a contender for a Pulitzer Prize for his work on uncovering the Bell political corruption scandal. Today, it was announced that he won.

Vives, 31, and veteran reporter Jeff Gottlieb were awarded the Pulitzer gold medal for public service for a series of stories exposing how politicians in the working-class, mostly Latino city of Bell were paying themselves extravagant six-figure salaries and manipulating records. Their reporting led to criminal charges against former city administrator Robert Rizzo and seven other current or former city officials, who were charged with multiple felonies and ordered to stand trial.

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The award-winning reporter who could have been deported

Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

"Educación," Luis Genaro Garcia

A remarkable story that made the rounds over the weekend is that of Los Angeles Times reporter Ruben Vives, who with colleague Jeff Gottlieb recently won the Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting for uncovering the Bell political corruption scandal. He is now a contender for a Pulitzer Prize.

In the latest issue of Orange Coast magazine, columnist and former Times journalist Shawn Hubler - who once employed Vives' mother - told the story of the kid she knew first as her nanny's son:

Her son was a 17-year-old high school student then. Quiet. Polite. Smart, too—college-smart, we’d tell the nanny, who’d just smile. Proud, we thought.

He was about six months shy of his 18th birthday when she told us the real story: Her son had been born in Guatemala and brought into the country as a little boy. She had left him with his grandma, had saved every spare cent to pay the coyote. For the first six years of his life, she’d scarcely seen him; when she had swept him into her arms, he barely recognized her. She’d never told him that his papers had expired, that he was here illegally. She had assumed they were all going back to Guatemala. Now, though, she was reading that her citizenship wasn’t enough, that at 18, he could be deported. Her boy, she said, desperately wanted to go to college.

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City candidates reveal increasingly diverse L.A.

Art by Eric Fischer/Flickr (Creative Commons)

A color-coded ethnicity map of the Los Angeles area, based on older census data

Today's municipal elections in Los Angeles and other local cities happen to coincide with the scheduled release this afternoon of 2010 Census data for California, which will show us the racial and ethnic breakdown of the state and how it has changed since ten years ago.

The census data is just beginning to roll out, but the roster of candidates for Los Angeles City Council, and for council seats in surrounding cities, is a good indication of what the face of Southern California looks like. On the L.A. ballot alone are eight immigrants, along with others who are the children and grandchildren of immigrants.


  • Council District 2, which covers much of the far eastern and southeastern portions of the San Fernando Valley, is represented by incumbent Paul Krekorian, who is Armenian American. He is running against businessman Augusto Bisani, an Italian immigrant who was born in Rome and arrived here in 1968.

  • In Council District 4, a central district stretching from Koreatown into Silver Lake, Los Feliz, Hollywood and North Hollywood, incumbent and Silver Lake native Tom LaBonge, whose L.A. family roots date to the 1800s, is running against two immigrants. Tomás O'Grady, a businessman and environmental activist, is a native of Ireland who came to the United States in 1990. Stephen Box, a producer and transportation activist, is a recently naturalized immigrant from Australia.

  • Council District 6, which covers much of the San Fernando Valley, is represented by Pacoima-born council member Tony Cardenas. He is running against other candidates of Latino descent, website developer Rich Goodman, whose bio describes him as coming from a "multicultural Mexican American family," and code enforcement official David Barron, whose father was born in Mexico City. A fourth candidate, businessman James "Jamie" Cordaro, is third-generation Italian American.

  • In Council District 8, which covers Baldwin Hills, Leimert Park, West Adams and other parts of South Los Angeles, incumbent and former police chief Bernard Parks is running against two other African American candidates, nonprofit CEO Forescee Hogan-Rowles and firefighter Jabari S. Jumaane.

  • South L.A's shifting demographics are more evident in neighboring Council District 10, a traditionally African American district whose population makeup has changed in recent years as immigrants move in. Four African American candidates, among them incumbent Herb Wesson, Jr., crime victim advocate Althea Rae Shaw (the aunt of slain high school football star Jamiel Shaw, Jr.), employment specialist Austin Dragon and businessman Chris Brown, are joined on ballot by Andrew Kim, a Korean-born civil rights and immigration lawyer, and Luis Montoya, an L.A.-raised Latino whose family runs a Christmas tree lot.

  • Council District 12 in the far northwestern portion of the ethnically diverse San Fernando Valley was represented by City Council member Greig Smith, who is retiring. Among the half-dozen candidates competing for the seat are two immigrants from India, businessman Dinesh "Danny" Lakhanpal and Navraj Singh, a restaurateur and formerly a captain in the Indian army, and Armineh Chelebian, a neighborhood council member who arrived with her family from Iran when she was a teenager. They are joined by two Valley natives, Smith's chief of staff Mitchell Englander and Brad Smith, a neighborhood council member and former journalist, and by real estate broker and longtime Valley resident Kelly Lord.

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More gratuitous lunchtime tamales

Photo by Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

Cuban-style tamales on Noche Buena, December 24, 2010

The holidays aren't over yet, right?

I'm close to hitting the wall, but not until I finish the leftover Cuban-style tamales that graced my parents' Noche Buena table the other night. These are sweet corn tamales with pork, mushy and slightly crumbly and very good, though not easy to make (to do it right, one has to grind the corn).

I usually make Mexican-style tamales, which can be whipped up from dry masa mix and still taste spectacular. But this year my mother sought out the work of a professional, i.e. a woman in Bell who makes Cuban tamales and sells them underground via one of the local carnicerias. So to the unnamed tamal lady, mil gracias. They were delicious. I only wish I'd had more room for them amid the lechón, yuca, black beans and rice.

For anyone who is feeling ambitious and has yet to completely burn out on tamales, here are a couple of Cuban tamal recipes. One calls for either fresh corn or frozen kernels and requires a food processor, unless grinding corn by hand is your thing. Another employs a shortcut mix of canned creamed corn and cornmeal. The latter trick is something my late grandfather adopted after grinding corn became too much of a chore, and the results weren't bad. Some people have been known to add a little boniato (sweet potato) to sweeten the masa, but the corn should do.

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