Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

In Bell, a recipe for exploitation?

On a window outside the entrance to City Hall in Bell, September 22, 2010
On a window outside the entrance to City Hall in Bell, September 22, 2010
Photo by Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

How much of a role did the city of Bell's ethnic and economic makeup have to do with the corruption scandal that landed eight city officials in jail yesterday? Plenty, if you ask those who live there.

Yesterday Bell's mayor, its former city manager, three council members and three other former city officials were arrested on corruption charges, and a newly released state audit begins to reveal just how much financial mismanagement took place, with exorbitant salaries for city officials and more than $50 million in bond money subjected to misuse.

Meanwhile, some of the discussion about the scandal has turned to Bell's population, as in how governing a majority Latino, working-class and politically disenfranchised community likely made it easier for Bell officials to operate with impunity.

Among other things, the southeast Los Angeles County city - whose population is more than 90 percent Latino - is facing a federal investigation into whether it violated the civil rights of Latino residents by deliberately targeting their cars for towing as a revenue-generating scheme. The city has also subjected residents to the second-highest property tax rate in the county.

On Wednesday morning, Bell residents went about their business at a large shopping center on busy Atlantic Boulevard, maneuvering shopping carts and children around the parking lot and loading bags into their cars. The corruption scandal was on everyone's mind to one degree or another, and in a town where the median household income is in the range of $40,000, some were outright angry about the flagrant mismanagement of residents' tax money.

But in the end, as some put it, the daily grind of a low-wage life takes priority over paying attention to local politics. Some would like to be more politically involved, but can't because they are undocumented. And some of those who can vote don't, in part a holdover from being brought up in Latin American countries where government corruption is widespread, trust in political leaders is minimal to nonexistent, and the prevailing attitude is generally something akin to "it is what it is."

"Poor people are busy working, worried about the economy and what they are going through," said Bernardo Von Borstel, 59, a U.S. citizen and native of the Mexican state of Sonora, as he loaded groceries into his car trunk. "People consider politics as secondary to their immediate needs. That is why these politicians take advantage of them."

Others concurred, including Maria, a 40-year-old undocumented woman who wanted only her first name used. After 18 years in the country illegally, the Bell resident, who works at a clothing factory, said she was outraged by the financial scandal but that she feels helpless to do anything about it.

"I'd like to be more involved," said Maria, who was out shopping with her young daughter. "But we can't get involved or go down to City Hall, because we're afraid that someone will call migra and deport us. We can't give our opinions."

Von Borstel, a longtime U.S. citizen, said he takes the time to vote in elections. But others who are eligible to vote do not, among them legal residents who could vote if they became citizens. While the Latino electorate has grown steadily in recent general elections, and various reports have pointed to higher naturalization rates in recent years among immigrants in general, Latino voters still made up only 7.4 percent of the general vote in the 2008 national election, according to a post-election report by the Pew Hispanic Center.

And while naturalizations reached record proportions in 2008 - following a steep hike in the application fee the previous year - the number of people applying for citizenship has since declined.

Ana Aviles, 55, arrived from El Salvador in 1978 and is a longtime legal resident. This morning outside the shopping center, the South Gate resident joked that she'd love to live in Bell "so I could sign a petition to get those politicians out."

But in spite of her legal status, she has declined to pursue citizenship in order to vote. At first, she was apathetic about naturalizing. In recent years she has considered it more seriously, but after the increase in the application fee in 2007, she said she doesn't have the money.

Besides, she said, politicians aren't people she trusts to begin with.

"Even if I voted, the politicians would still be doing the same dirty deeds," Aviles said. "They do what they want. It's the truth."

But privately, she said, while she is not surprised by what has occurred in Bell - a similar scandal occurred seven years ago in neighboring South Gate, which has similar demographics - she is still disgusted.

"They abused the residents, after all the sacrifices we make," said Aviles, who works as a housekeeper."Most of us work for minimum wage at two or three jobs. We earn our money, and then they steal it, when they should be helping poor people. People have lost their homes. They kept raising the property taxes, the trash fees."

As she prepared to back her weatherbeaten Toyota sedan out of the parking lot, Aviles brought up voting and the naturalization issue again.

"My mother, my brothers and sisters, all of them are citizens, but not me," she said. "Perhaps I will do it. Not this year, but maybe next."