Mis Ángeles: How It Feels To Watch The Fall Of People In Power Who Are 'Ours'
A friend once told me, "You don't change the devil, the devil changes you."
She was talking about what it's like to be a person of color in a prominent position of power at one of the biggest media companies in the country.
She intended to go in there and change the culture, but wound up having to leave the post after realizing she was becoming the institution.
I've been thinking a lot about that conversation lately. I was thinking about it as I saw the news pour in about City Councilmember Jose Huizar's arrest on racketeering charges. Here was a Mexican American from Boyle Heights, elected to represent the historic Mexican American neighborhood, being charged with exploiting his position for financial gain.
I talked to a few of my friends from BH who knew Huizar and they didn't seem surprised. One of the people I spoke with is writer and activist Erick Huerta, who said even though he wasn't stunned by the arrest, there was a time he was optimistic about Huizar's intentions.
"Obviously feel differently about it now," Huerta told me, "but back then I genuinely felt that he was putting in work to make the community better for everyone."
Huerta is a respected voice in Boyle Heights. He is one of the original contributors to L.A. Taco, which is where I first met him, and he hosts the hyperlocal podcast Orale Boyle Heights. For many years he wrote about life as an undocumented Angeleno living in BH in his A Random Hero blog.
Ten years ago, when Huizar was just beginning his ascent to power, Huerta got a sit-down interview with him.
"Back then, everyone called him a barrio pimp," said Huerta, because even then some locals thought of him as a gentrifier. But Huerta felt gentrification politics seemed "more complex at the time" and he wanted to really get to know Huizar.
He walked away from that interview believing Huizar was an advocate for the community, doing his best to navigate the complexities of politics.
This is what Huerta wrote 10 years ago: "It's safe to say that behind all the political drama and BS that goes around, Huizar is improving BH for the better."
This week, Huerta told me, "Looking back on it now, that was a weak hot take cause I was still young and optimistic."
And, you know, Huizar was one of ours. Which makes the allegations now hurt in a different kind of way.
To be clear, Huizar hasn't entered a plea yet. His attorneys told LAist that he "intends to respond to the government's allegations in court." But those allegations have a lot of us Angelenos thinking and talking.
I asked Huerta if he thinks the system is so messed up that it turns people with good intentions into just another cog in that messed up system.
"It does and it doesn't," he replied. "The way the City Council is set up, you can't go in there hoping to change everything without being changed by how the council functions. Like if I got on the council, I'd be there to f---- s--- up, but would get immediately stonewalled by others 'cause I'm not playing their game."
But Huerta said he also thinks it's not just systemic.
"It's one thing to go into the job hella optimistic about making positive change and eventually getting jaded that you just show up to collect a check," he said, "but Huizar's history of infidelity and [the] alleged bribes showed he was already morally corrupt and looking out for himself, like many career politicians."
I know that's not what everyone in BH thinks. But that last part really hits me hard.
Are "career politicians" just doomed to do what's in their best interest? Can we never count on them to do what's right and just, if it costs them politically? Even if they're one of our own?
That's an especially precarious position for people from historically marginalized communities.
George Floyd's death and the civil rights protests that have followed have exposed institutional powers to new levels of criticism and self-reflection. Every day, I see corporations and media companies, like the one I work for, reckon with "diversity issues" and systemic racism.
Those conversations are important. The business, entertainment and media worlds should reflect the communities around them.
But take a look at the most powerful elected officials in Los Angeles, and it doesn't seem to matter that the top prosecutor in Los Angeles is a Black woman, or that the county sheriff is Latino, or that the LAPD, in the past 20 years, has become almost a one-for-one reflection of L.A.'s ethnic makeup.
Jackie Lacey, L.A.'s first Black district attorney, is protested regularly by Black Lives Matter. Sheriff Alex Villanueva, a self-described progressive, is under fire for his lack of transparency in the department's killing of 18-year-old Andres Guardado. And nearly 80% of people killed by law enforcement in Los Angeles County in the past 20 years are Black or Latino.
So does representation matter? When people from marginalized communities gain entry, can they actually change the institutions that have so much power over a system that seems to work against us? God, I hope so.
Because lately, a lot of what we're hearing seems to point us back to, "You don't change the devil, the devil changes you."
About the Mis Ángeles column: Erick Galindo is chronicling life in Los Angeles for LAist. He took on this role after serving as our immigrant communities reporter. Erick came to us last year from LA Taco, where he was the managing editor of a James Beard award-winning staff.
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