A high turnout of Latino voters in 2005 helped make Antonio Villaraigosa L.A.'s first Latino mayor in modern times and then helped re-elect him in 2009.
Though none of the major mayoral candidates in the 2013 campaign has a Spanish surname, one candidate is working to remind Latino voters of their shared ethnicity – and that’s City Councilman Eric Garcetti.
Garcetti is Mexican-American on his father’s side, though some fellow Latino politicians have questioned his background. Assembly Speaker John Perez of Los Angeles told KPCC: “There isn’t a Latino candidate running for mayor that I know of.”
And L.A. City Councilman Jose Huizar said of Garcetti: “He says he’s Latino but, you know, that’s for the voters to see or the constituents to see.”
Garcetti, sitting for a recent interview in his council office, recited his paternal ancestry: “Both of my father’s parents were proudly Mexican-American, both spoke Spanish as their first language. My grandfather was born in Mexico, my grandmother’s parents were from Mexico.”
Garcetti grew up in Encino and attended the private school Harvard-Westlake. He later became a Rhodes Scholar and joined the Naval Reserve. His last name is Italian, a vestige of a paternal ancestor who emigrated from the country.
“No one would say Salma Hayek’s not Mexican and she has an Arabic, Lebanese last name,” Garcetti said.
As for why some Latino politicians may question Garcetti’s credentials, Louis DeSipio, a Chicano Studies professor at UC Irvine, says it may be more about life experiences.
“I’ve never heard anybody deny [Garcetti's] father’s heritage and consequently his own," DeSipio said. "Instead, I think what they’re saying is that he hasn’t faced some of the same struggles that many multi-generation Mexican-Americans in the Los Angeles area have.”
One of Garcetti’s competitors, Controller Wendy Greuel, has picked up endorsements from some of Los Angeles’ Latino leaders, including Huizar, Congressman-elect Tony Cardenas, and County Supervisor Gloria Molina. United Farmworkers co-founder Dolores Huerta is also supporting Greuel.
It’s unclear what effect those endorsements will have. A recent survey from Loyola Marymount University’s Center for the Study of Los Angeles found Garcetti is leading among Latinos voters.
Garcetti has won the endorsement of council colleague Ed Reyes.
"If you look at the pictures of his grandfather, they look like the pictures of my grandfather," said Reyes, "and my grandfather is Mexican, and that's real.
“How we each translate our heritage, our culture, varies from area-to-area because you're looking at different socio-economic dynamics. So, what might be interpreted as Latino for one might be different to another."
Juan Rodriguez, a local gallery owner who co-hosted a recent fundraiser for Garcetti that targeted young Latinos, said Garcetti "seems very real. He has the energy. He’s innovative. He’s into technology, into architecture. I just kind of felt that he was very much what Los Angeles embodies as a new leader."
Rodriguez continued: “We have different backgrounds, our parents could be maybe Indios or Spanish or any other race, but you know he has the history. He’s still Mexican by his father, his roots, but he still has L.A. I feel the connection.”
The Garcetti campaign predicts that Latino voters could account for as much as 30 percent of the turnout in the March fifth primary.