Felipe Aguirre, former mayor of Maywood, provides insights into his political background and philosophy. Sitting in his office in Slauson and King Ave., in a typical day at work for his non-profit Comité Pro Uno, Felipe recounts the events that shaped his political identity.
Mr. Aguirre, when is it that you started being actively engaged in politics?
That would be a really long time ago. It started in Chicago, Illinois. The tenement housing where I lived in would be burned occasionally. The landlords were committing arson to collect insurance money. They would burn the place in such a way that people wouldn’t get hurt; choosing times when people were not inside, like during work hours. I think a janitor got burned, tough, and ended up in the hospital. A group of the tenants got together, including myself, and went to the Alderman, who in Chicago lingo is what is equivalent to a Councilman here in Maywood. Nobody was paying attention to us, so we joined the Uptown People’s Planning Coalition.
Where your efforts in the Uptown People’s Coalition successful?
Oh yeah. We were able to get two of these landlords in prison. These guys would pay gangsters to commit the arson, and then they would get a cut of the insurance money. They would only burn buildings that had a high amount of debt. The landlords had borrowed against the buildings. They would use that borrowed money to build condos, raise the rent, etc.
How do you model your organization style?
I am influenced by Saul Alinsky. Have you heard of him? He wrote a book called Rules for Radicals. In addition to that I started getting involved with an organization called Industrial Areas Foundation.
What is it that brought you to L.A. County?
After I finished school I got a job offer in California. I didn’t finish my degree, but I was working on Economics and Geography. When I moved to California to work, I started with the newspaper Sin Fronteras in January 1976. That was the first bilingual (English and Spanish) newspaper around. It was distributed in about six or seven states.
Is that newspaper still around?
No, it’s been gone for many, many years. But I think the archive is in Stanford or UC Santa Barbara, I forget. After I finished working with them I just stayed in California.
Do you feel that your politics originate from Chicago, that you have some sort of connection to the world that Barack Obama came from?
No, he’s from a different generation. I’m 62, and he’s in his 40’s or 50’s. It’s a different world. But the fact that he was also a community organizer does, I suppose, makes our backgrounds have something in common. He knows what it’s like to knock on doors and get people organized. We did the same thing here when the police check points were taking cars away from the undocumented. David Velasquez, the priest that used to be in Santa Rosa de Lima, was an important participant in organizing efforts. We were part of this coalition called One L.A., and ultimately, we were successful.
You are most known for having been a Mayor of Maywood 2008 to 2009, but what were the events that led to that to begin with?
Well basically I was working with PUMAS (Padres Unidos de Maywood). We were helping tenants resolve problems with housing, helping with women with domestic violence cases, and we were working with a labor union to represent people in neighboring Vernon. I got involved because a lot of people would come to our office and said that their vehicles were towed. I helped people fill out their forms to get their cars back. It was difficult to recover them, because they were impounded and put in a 30 day hold. They had to pay a towing company lots of money to get their cars back. The Maywood PD would target the undocumented specifically. We helped people get attorneys to recover their vehicles. We tried to get the city council to change their policy, so we made an alliance with Santa Rosa De Lima Catholic Church. We kept petitioning the city council to stop targeting the undocumented. When we noticed that we weren’t getting results, I ran for council member and I won in November of 2005. Once you are a member of the Council, it is up to the Council itself to decide who becomes mayor. There is a new mayor every year. The council members later on nominated me for the 2008 to 2009 term.
What was one of the challenges you had as Mayor and how did you overcome it?
The biggest challenge was when we made the city a sanctuary for undocumented immigrants. The House passed the Sensenbrenner Bill, which was a draconian law proposal against the undocumented and those who helped them in any way, so the Council and I decided to counter that by declaring our city a sanctuary city for undocumented immigrants. Immigrants are the basis of our community. The Minute Men came and protested against us. Our reaction to that was to register qualified Maywood residents to vote, and to make a citizenship fair, so that more people, who were not citizens yet, would qualify to vote. It is important for our community to gain political and economic power.
Do you have any plans for the future?
That’s it actually. I feel like I’ve done everything I had to do. Now I just help people with immigration and domestic violence cases, as well as lead the Maywood CA Chamber of Commerce to help businesses create a network of support. But as for doing anything big, I think that’s it for me.
Thank you for giving me the time to conduct this interview
You’re welcome! Any time!