Change from the Inside: My Life, the Chicano Movement, and the Story of an Era by Richard Alatorre with Mark Grossman
Richard Alatorre may not be a household name today, but he was on the front lines of many of the key California political battles of the 1970’s and 1980’s. He also played a leading role in the rise of Chicano politics in both Los Angeles and California, authored the historic California Agricultural Labor Relations Act, and created California’s 1981 reapportionment that ensured Democratic control of state government despite sixteen straight years (1983-1998) of Republican governors
If that is not enough to impress you about Alatorre’s historic legacy, he is also the person most responsible for the sharply rising number of Latino legislators in California today.
Retired from politics, Alatorre has written a political memoir that leaves nothing off the table. His book is a must read for California political junkies. It is also a must read for activists throughout the nation who want to understand how to get things done in politics.
The Rise of the Chicano Movement
Alatorre has actually written three books. The first describes the rise of Chicano identity and politics in 1960’s Los Angeles. This portion of the book is an excellent companion to Luiz Rodriquez’s classic, Always Running, also set in LA.
Alatorre charts his younger years growing up when discrimination against Mexican immigrants (soon to be called “Chicanos” was everywhere. The schools were designed not to educate Chicano’s but to divert them into jobs where even a high school degree was not required. Alatorre’s rise out of that environment is nothing short of miraculous, and his account of his early years gets the reader hooked from page one.
As Alatorre grows in political sophistication, he discovers that Chicano’s are not getting their fair share of government services. In Los Angeles of the 1960’s African-Americans were the politically dominant racial minority, and programs serving them got the vast majority of funds earmarked for under-served communities. Alatorre describes how he worked to increase resources to Chicanos, reminding me of efforts I describe in my book on San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood to also wrest federal War on Poverty resources from African-American communities whose leaders sought to keep all of the long overdue dollars. Alatorre’s success in that struggle foreshadowed a long career of knowing which buttons to push to get results.
“Back Room Politics”
After losing a special election in 1971 to a Republican due to opposition from the La Raza Unida Party (a remarkable story itself), Alatorre was elected to the State Assembly in 1972. He was one of only a few Chicano lawmakers, but he quickly made his mark.
Alatorre describes his role: “I earn a reputation that sticks as a master of back-room politics. When they give it that term, it sounds corrupt. I learn during the early part of my political career that’s the only way deals happen and things get accomplished.” Contrasting himself with his Westside Los Angeles Assembly colleagues Howard Berman and Henry Waxman (both later moved on to Congress), Alatorre notes a racial component to the “back-room” politics image: “When I use the same strategies and tactics that make Berman and Waxman successful, I’m viewed negatively. The pundits see Howard as a brilliant public servant who can get things done. I’m just seen as seedy, beset by blind ambition, and only in politics for myself.”
Alatorre’s close relationship with Willie Brown reflected their mutual commitment to getting deals done for the poor, racial minorities and underserved communities. Brown has also been attacked for “back room” deal making. Yet Alatorre shows time and time again how Brown, first as a key player in the Assembly and then as Speaker, used his clout to benefit progressive interests. I was unaware of many of Brown’s accomplishments for social and economic justice up and down California in the 1970’s and 1980’s and Alatorre does a great public service in setting the record straight about Brown’s Assembly record.
Alatorre’s ability to get things done reflected his early recognition that “everything that happens at the Capitol is 95% bullshit and five percent what really matters.” What mattered to Alatorre was Chicano political empowerment, protecting the interests of Cesar Chavez and the farmworkers movement, and helping businesses and programs in his district. By forging strategic political alliances with Brown and other Assembly speakers, Alatorre proved one of the most successful California legislators in modern history.
The two most dominant figures in Alatorre’s life were Willie Brown and Cesar Chavez. In 1982, Alatorre was forced to choose between the two, in what became the most high profile speakership war in California history. Alatorre and fellow Chicano legislator Art Torres backed Brown, while Chavez, Dolores Huerta and the UFW wanted Howard Berman as speaker. If you remember that nasty and prolonged fight, you have to read Alatorre’s account because it has the absolute ring of truth.
Chavez and the UFW bitterly attacked Alatorre and Torres for being “sellouts.”The union even picketed Torres’ home and office. But Alatorre saw Willie Brown as the one legislator in Sacramento he could always trust, and Brown never let him down in the years that followed.
Shifts to LA City Council
Alatorre was a rare politician in leaving state politics to serve on the LA City Council. He was the first Latino on that body since Edward Roybal in 1949, an astonishing fact given the subsequent rise of Latino power in Los Angeles.
The shift to the LA City Council made sense for Alatorre, but the third section of the book gets weaker at that point because recounting past political events in Los Angeles requires deep knowledge of the city’s politics at the time. But this period does show Alatorre’s recognition of the importance of staying connected to one’s political base. He also reveals some information about other Los Angeles politicians of the time that surprised me, particularly some less than complimentary facts about former progressive Councilmember Mike Woo.
Overall, Alatorre reclaims a lost history of California politics. He has also written an essential account of the rise of the Chicano movement. Alatorre is a zelig-like character who is always at the center of the action—he even raised the bail for student protestors and faculty connected with the legendary 1968 east Los Angeles walkouts (the film WalkOut , which chronicles that historic event, is a must see).
The book is not perfect. It is too long at over 400 pages and needed additional editing. And Alatorre offers a view of Chavez and the UFW’s post 1980 decline that has been challenged in my book on the farmworkers movement and in the accounts of many others (he blames Republican control over the ALRB starting in 1983 for the union’s decline, ignoring that Chavez had already precipitated the decline by driving away most of the key UFW volunteers and shiftting from grassroots organizing to funding legislators).
Alatorre has a written a powerful memoir that is hard to put down. It is a political tour de force that anyone interested in California politics will enjoy reading.
Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron.Filed under: Book Reviews