LOS ANGELES - East L.A. — birthplace of the lowrider, Los Lobos and Oscar de la Hoya — is to Mexican-Americans what Harlem is to the black community. Now it wants to become its own city. Commonly mistaken for a part of Los Angeles, East L.A. is actually an unincorporated section of Los Angeles County, with more than 130,000 people — 96 percent of them Latino — packed into 7.4 square miles.
Cityhood proponents complain that East L.A. is treated as an afterthought by the county Board of Supervisors, and they want the community to take charge of its own destiny.
"We're a nationally branded area," said Diana Tarango, vice president of the East Los Angeles Residents Association, the prime backer of the effort. "We should be making our own decisions about planting trees on the street or putting up light poles."
While outsiders often see the area as gang-plagued and poverty-ridden, East L.A. possesses cultural and political symbolism for Mexican-Americans.
Fernando Guerra, director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University, pronounced East L.A. "the epicenter of Latino culture."
For decades, East L.A. has been a first stop for immigrants just over the border, though these days there are nearly as many Salvadoran pupuserias selling filled tortilla patties as Mexican taquerias selling tacos.
Neighborhoods seem plucked straight from Latin American villages: a backyard rooster can be heard crowing, or a man peddles the rice-based drink horchata from a shopping cart. Brilliantly colored murals of the Virgin of Guadalupe and Aztec chieftains decorate walls of housing projects and corner grocery stores.
In the 1960s and '70s, the community was the focus of the burgeoning Chicano civil-rights movement.
In 1970, police and thousands of Chicano anti-Vietnam war protesters battled in the street, and Los Angeles Times columnist Ruben Salazar was killed in the melee. A park in East L.A. is named for him. A boulevard nearby carries the name of Cesar Chavez, the migrant farmworker leader.
East L.A. is a fusion of cultures north and south of the border. Spanish is the predominant language, but it is a hybrid version, Spanglish, punctuated with Hispanicized English words: "breka" for break, "marqueta" for market, "cora" for quarter.
While nortena music booms from downtown stores, East L.A. has also produced artists such as Los Lobos, who have combined Mexican oompah sounds with American rock rhythms. Lowriders, often with customized Chicano-theme paint jobs, cruise the streets.
Among the community's famous sons are boxer De La Hoya and actor Edward James Olmos. Olmos came full circle when he starred in the 1988 movie "Stand and Deliver" as the real-life East L.A. teacher Jaime Escalante, who turned barrio kids into calculus champs.
Proponents of cityhood hope to draw on that cultural pride. The bid marks East L.A.'s fourth attempt at incorporation since 1961; the last one was in 1974. Tarango and others say the movement failed because of political infighting.
Rep. Grace Napolitano, D-Calif., who supports cityhood, said she is encouraged this time because residents are well-organized and informed.
"It has a great chance of passing," said the congresswoman, whose district includes East L.A. "But they will need to allay fears that incorporation will mean an increase in property taxes."
Voters probably won't get their say on cityhood for two years while the issue wends its way through the bureaucratic and political process.
The residents association must first submit a petition by December asking a county commission to conduct a study on whether a city of East L.A. would have an adequate tax base. So far, organizers have collected about half the 10,000 signatures needed, said Oscar Gonzales Jr., association president.
Gonzales said he expects the study will be favorable — a similar report ordered up by the residents association found the city would generate $51 million in revenue, well above an expected budget of $45 million.
If the bid for cityhood passes muster with the study commission and the county supervisors, the question will be put to the voters of East L.A. The supervisors are not taking a position until they see the study.
Some East L.A. residents fear cityhood will cost them more. They worry, for example, that mom-and-pop stores that now manage to operate without business licenses might be forced to obtain them.
"I think it's good as it is," said Jacob Salazar, owner of a sporting good store. "I don't see any reason to change it."
But supporters say a city council would be more responsive than the county supervisors.
Auto dealer Louis Herrera said local officials would be more motivated to attract businesses like the Starbucks that opened last year. That would boost the downtown shopping district, which is dotted with 99-cent stores, dusty windowfronts filled with gowns for first communions and "quinceaneras," or Latin sweet-16 parties, and signs advertising Western Union money transfers to Mexico.
"The county is huge. Each supervisor has 2.1 million people," said Herrera, who also heads the East Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce. "We're sort of like a lost child."