As Huntington Park goes, does Southern California?

The Pacific Boulevard commercial district in Huntington Park. The city's population is more than 97 percent Latino and half foreign born.
The Pacific Boulevard commercial district in Huntington Park. The city's population is more than 97 percent Latino and half foreign born.
Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

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As Huntington Park officials prepare to swear in two new city commissioners who don't have legal immigration status in the United States, some advocates and political experts said it's a sign of what's to come in Southern California.

"There has been an accelerated incorporation of undocumented immigrants in California," said Fernando Guerra, director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University. "This is the extension of that, much more in terns of civic life. What we are saying is not only come out of the shadows, but participating in helping build a future."

He said its part of California's growing tolerance of unauthorized immigrants that has led to state driver's licenses for those without legal status.

Perhaps one telling thing at the August 3 council meeting where both new commissioners were appointed was a relative dearth of opposition: Two women spoke out against the appointment of 21-year-old Julian Zatarain to the Parks and Recreation Commission, and 29-year-old Francisco Medina to the Health and Education Commission.

One woman accused the City Council of "breaking the law" by appointing two commissioners without legal status; another, a former council member, complained of political favoritism. Both were Latinas.

In 1960, Huntington Park was nearly 100 percent non-Latino white, Guerra said, populated by Dust Bowl migrants and their descendants. That began shifting over the next decade, at U.S. immigration policies shifted and a growing number of Latinos began settling there.

"Huntington Park has been on the forefront of demographic shift," Guerra said. "It's also been part of the whole political transition of California. Everything that has impacted Southern California, you can see concentrated in Huntington Park."

By the mid-1990s, the leadership of the city, on the southeastern edge of downtown Los Angeles, had also shifted. Latinos occupied most elected positions. Today, half of its 59,000 residents are foreign-born, according to census data. More than 97 percent of its residents are Latino, as is a large majority of its merchants - nearly 63 percent.

The City Council member who appointed Zatarain and Medina, Jhonny Pineda said both men had put in lots of volunteer hours; because of their status, neither is to receive a public stipend in their appointed positions.

"They've always given to the community...they just happen to be undocumented," Pineda said.

But Zatarain said part of the reason few came to complain may be that their appointment wasn't on a public agenda.

Plans were to swear in Zatarain and Medina this Monday night during a council meeting, but a spokesman for Pineda said plans had changed and that they'd be sworn in later this month.

Zatarain was bracing himself for blowback at Monday night's meeting now that the news is out - even if he wasn't on the agenda.

"I don't know what to expect," Zatarain said. "Whether people are going to come out and start arguing, perhaps. But at the end of the day, we have to create a dialogue in which we come out with better solutions for our city."

On busy Pacific Boulevard, the city's business district, music store manager Jose Luis Torres said Latinos represent well over 90 percent of his customers. He joked about what some locals call the city.

"The city of Huntington Park is now called 'Ranchington Park,' " Torres said in Spanish, referring to the Spanish word rancho, meaning a ranch or rural settlement.

"It's populated by pure paisanos - not only Mexicans, but also people from Central America, South America," he said. "I tell you this as a merchant, because I see them every day."