Living for Tomorrow in Los Angeles

Photo by Sheila Barabad.

It can sometimes feel as if those in government only theoretically understand the issues that impact communities of color. They may listen to the problems and agree to proposed solutions, but in most cases, public servants don’t reflect the communities they represent. Los Angeles, however, is a different kind of city.

With Latinos making up about half of its total population, the political climate in Los Angeles County has been shifting, especially if you consider the July 2015 report “The Status of Latinos in California,” sponsored by the Leadership California Institute. The report found that Latinos represent one in five registered voters, hold one in four Assembly seats, and sit on city councils in 27 of the state’s 58 counties. That’s the good news. The bad news, according to the report, is that their voting strength is only half their proportion of California’s population; Latinos hold only one in eight State Senate seats and an even smaller percentage of supervisorial chairs.

According to the Los Angeles Times, this is “symptomatic of a troubling turn for Latino politicians and voters. Together with other data, it suggests the possibility of a ceiling forming over a group that, until recently, thought it had limitless upward mobility.” The report showed that the best chances for Latino political representatives come from small towns populated primarily by Latinos.

“The beautiful thing about Los Angeles is that it has a culture open to transition—even drastic change. We won’t stop pushing until conditions improve for every Angeleño.”

Miguel Santana came from one such town in challenging circumstances. He faced a number of barriers, but Los Angeles’ City Administrative Officer (CAO), who reports to both the city council and Mayor Eric Garcetti, has always approached success differently.

“I’m a product of my background, my upbringing, my community, and my family,” Santana says. “All of that plays a role in the work I do and what I consider to be a successful outcome. What success means to me is also what it looks like to people in the community—not necessarily what it means to people in City Hall.”

Santana may bring an unusual approach, but his top priority is to represent the communities he serves because he understands their needs. Santana comes from a low-income community where undocumented immigrants often land to find people with similar backgrounds.

When he was growing up in the now predominantly Latino city of Bell Gardens, CA, his was the first Mexican family in the neighborhood. Raised by undocumented parents, his family struggled financially. As Santana went on to attend Whittier College, he too would know the pain of not having enough. He and his wife at the time had four daughters by the time he was 27, and the young couple relied on public assistance to survive.

“As a person who has relied on the government as a safety net, I know what that looks and feels like. It is a little surreal that two decades later, I’m overseeing the system I was once a part of,” Santana says. “For me, it’s impossible to untangle the reality I knew from the work I now do. My approach is informed by my lived experiences, not by policy.”

Santana has never questioned his particular approach, but that’s not to say it hasn’t been challenged by others. When he was appointed CAO in 2009, it was in the midst of the global economic downturn—the worst financial crisis the City of Los Angeles had ever seen, and one from which it is still recovering.

Not one to mince words, the CAO says many of the financial problems that arose for the city were “self-inflicted.” He is not one to place blame elsewhere, and during that time of great need, what the City of Los Angeles really needed was a reality check. His honesty has served both himself and the city well. Part of digging themselves out of the hole has required owning up to the damage done and figuring out how to proceed. Progress requires keeping a lid on spending, but even then, as Santana reported to the city council in April 2014, Los Angeles will face budget deficits through 2018.

“I was brand new when the downturn was happening, and yes, it was a challenging time to take on the role, but it was energizing to take action. In order to survive, we had to really learn from the experience and develop a plan that would make us stronger. I believe we’re doing that,” he says.

For a long time, Santana admits, the city had a “live today, deal with consequences tomorrow” kind of approach that wasn’t serving it well. The CAO asserts that the most important shift that has occurred during his tenure with the city has been cultural. Decisions are now being made more intentionally and with the understanding that the choices made today will have a long-term impact. This awareness makes his job a little easier and frees up more time for him to focus on mapping out strategies for farther in the future.

“Every day we are confronted with challenges that jeopardize crucial programs and the wellbeing of thousands of people,” Santana says. “So, much of my job is to establish a more solid framework and develop strategies to avoid those kinds of threats.”

The City of Los Angeles has come to represent a warm-weather paradise and economic powerhouse to many. The city has an undeniable influence over mainstream American culture, and Los Angeles is also the third-largest metropolitan economy in the world, after Tokyo and New York City, with a GDP of over $700 billion. What many outsiders may be surprised to know, Santana says, is that Los Angeles has spent so much time trying to survive; it has been unable to resolve some basic, fundamental issues. For example, Los Angeles’ Skid Row is the epicenter of homelessness, with as many as 10,000 homeless people residing in a
half-mile area.

“Taking on the difficulties the city faces is a major challenge and one that this mayor’s office takes very seriously,” Santana says. “The beautiful thing about Los Angeles is that it has a culture open to transition—even drastic change. We won’t stop pushing until conditions improve for every Angeleño.”