Chu's win over Cedillo in Los Angeles a symbol of Latino confidence
One of the first things she'll tell you about herself is that, as a teenager, she met Cesar Chavez. And that when her family moved from East Los Angeles to South El Monte in 1960, they endured the racist comments of certain neighbors who soon joined the "white flight" out of that place.
Now she's running a city where Latinos outnumber Asians by more than 10 to 1.
So when Gil Cedillo, a Chicano with roots in the Eastside, ran against Judy Chu, who is Chinese American, for a seat in Congress, what did la alcaldesa Figueroa do?
Naturally she voted for Chu.
"To me, it's not about race or ethnicity," Figueroa told me. "It's about the person who's most qualified. Judy has her finger on the pulse of the San Gabriel Valley. Her agenda is the agenda of the people."
Something really monumental happened last week in the San Gabriel Valley and Eastside, where people voted to fill the seat of Hilda Solis, who left Congress to join the Obama administration as Labor secretary.
The district has been represented by a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus since the early 1980s. In private, a lot of Latino leaders said the seat should remain in Latino hands. Some believed it was improbable that a Chinese American woman could win a seat in a district with a hefty Latino majority.
In the end, about one in three Latino voters chose Chu, helping give her a nine-point victory over Cedillo for the Democratic nomination. They were following the lead of several local and regional Latino political leaders, including Figueroa, L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and L.A. jefa Maria Elena Durazo.
To understand how remarkable the Latino embrace of Chu was, consider some recent history.
A generation ago, the trauma of decades of powerlessness and discrimination still defined Latino politics. Civil rights groups were fighting in court to increase Latino representation in local government. They persuaded a federal judge to redraw the boundaries of the Los Angeles County supervisor districts to create a seat with so many Latinos that a Latino candidate would be sure to win.
Today the boundaries of that "safe" Latino district on the Eastside and the San Gabriel Valley overlap, roughly, with the congressional district that is expected to send Chu to Washington after a July 19 runoff election.
As late as 1990, the Latino political class was a small club, dominated by a handful of men. Now both the city and county of Los Angeles have Latino pluralities, and there's a robust Latino caucus in all levels of government.
That's why Judy Chu's victory in the barrios of El Monte, Temple City and other places isn't a sign of the Latino community's weakness, but rather a statement of its strength and self-confidence.
"A lot of things are better, we've made a lot of progress," said Grace Montañez Davis, who was there at the beginning of the Latino community's modern political history.
Chu's victory in the primary marked the end of an era, so I went to talk to Montañez for a bit of historical perspective. Most L.A. Latinos don't know her story, even though their debt to Montañez and her generation is huge.
She's is a frail but sharp 82-year-old now, with a brand new Stars and Stripes hanging over the front porch of her small home in Highland Park.
The daughter of Mexican immigrants, Montañez was born in Los Angeles and grew up in 1930s Lincoln Heights. She remembers the immigration raids that took place on her street as a girl, and wondering "if they would come for us next."
There were no Latino elected officials in Los Angeles until Edward Roybal was elected to the City Council in 1949. Montañez worked with the Community Service Organization in the historic Eastside voter registration drives that helped make the Latino vote a force in the city.
There was a deep hunger for political representation in Latino Los Angeles then. "We needed people who understood our community," she said. "They had to be people who came from our community."
She taught citizenship classes to Eastside residents, including her own father. In 1958, she worked on Roybal's campaign for Los Angeles County supervisor, which many historians believe he lost through fraud. Montañez and other activists gathered evidence of intimidation against Latino voters but failed in their efforts to have the results overturned.
Thirty years later, she got a call from attorneys for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund. They wondered if Montañez still had her records from the 1958 election. She had saved everything, and the old papers became essential to MALDEF's court victory that redrew the Los Angeles County supervisor districts.
Every Latino elected official in Los Angeles owes Montañez a debt of gratitude, though only a few recognize it.
"I saw Gloria at a dinner the other day," she says, referring to Gloria Molina, the county supervisor. "She sat down next to me, and we had a nice long talk."
In 1991, Molina won the seat on the Board of Supervisors created as the result of MALDEF's lawsuit, becoming the first Latina ever elected to that body.
Latino history in Southern California is like that: a defeat that is forgotten to history, followed by a triumph that everyone takes for granted.
A lot of people took it for granted too that Latino voters would simply pick the most prominent Spanish surname on the ballot last week. Many did, but thousands also voted for Chu, a tireless networker who's spent years building ties to Latinos in the San Gabriel Valley.
Ernesto Zumaya, a 22-year-old student-body president at Rio Hondo College, walked precincts for Chu.
Like Montañez, he lives in an era when immigration raids stoke fear in his community. In fact, Zumaya himself is an undocumented immigrant, part of a generation of young people who have grown up as de facto Americans with few legal rights.
"I believe in justice," Zumaya said. "And I believe that Judy is going to be one of those fighters we need."