Aztlán Spotlight Article

A preview of an article in Aztlán: A Journal of Chicano Studies.
 
Volume 39, Number 2
Fall 2014
 

Formation of a Latino Grassroots Movement The Association of Latin American Gardeners of Los Angeles Challenges City Hall

By Alvaro Huerta and Alfonso Morales

Abstract: When the city of Los Angeles banned gas-powered leaf blowers in 1996, the law sparked one of the most dynamic grassroots campaigns by Latino immigrants in recent history. Latino immigrant gardeners, working with a small group of Chicana/o activists, organized the Association of Latin American Gardeners of Los Angeles (ALAGLA), which pressured city leaders to reverse the ban. ALAGLA pursued its objectives by engaging in the political process, taking direct action, advocating technological adaptations, and reframing the gardeners and their tools in a positive light. Turning public opinion in their favor, they persuaded city leaders to void the draconian elements of the ordinance, which included a misdemeanor charge, a $1,000 fine, and jail time for gardeners using the blowers. ALAGLA’s movement can be compared in some ways to earlier immigrant-organizing efforts by organized labor, notably the United Farm Workers and the Service Employees International Union’s Justice for Janitors campaign, but it is also distinguished from them by ALAGLA’s nonbureaucratic grassroots structure. The association’s campaign for social and economic justice shows the potential for collective action among marginalized immigrant workers and petty entrepreneurs in the informal economy.
 

On January 9, 1998, after a historic organizing campaign, a group of Latino gardeners successfully forced the city of Los Angeles to take the teeth out of an ordinance banning gas-powered leaf blowers. Starting out with few financial resources and little or no political support from local unions, business groups, civic leaders, or elected officials, the Latino gardeners nonetheless pressured city leaders to drastically amend the ordinance, which would have criminalized contract gardeners in the city’s household service sector. The original ban included draconian penalties for gardeners using gas-powered leaf blowers within 500 feet of a residential area: a misdemeanor charge, a $1,000 fine, and up to six months in jail (Boyarsky 1997; Cameron 2000; Martin 1996). To defy this harshly punitive ordinance, the Latino immigrant gardeners partnered with a small group of Chicana/o activists to form a dynamic grassroots organization, the Association of Latin American Gardeners of Los Angeles (ALAGLA).

Given the unregulated nature of the informal economy, informal petty entrepreneurs and domestic workers are some of the most difficult sectors to organize. To achieve their goal of overturning or reforming the ban, the Latino gardeners embraced creative organizing and media tactics, including barefoot marches, press conferences, truck caravans to Sacramento, political theater, and a week-long hunger strike that garnered mass press coverage. Through these multifaceted and energetic organizing efforts, ALAGLA became an effective vehicle for capacity building and collective action. It successfully reached out to numerous Latino immigrant workers in the city, gave voice to their concerns, and influenced policy at local and state levels. Consequently, ALAGLA successfully challenged the second-largest city in the country.

By examining how this group of informal workers organized so effectively, we can learn how similar groups without significant financial resources or political clout can challenge local governments when faced with unjust laws. Circumstances vary, of course, and perhaps not all of ALAGLA’s organizational and political tactics will be effective in other parts of the country. However, given the obstacles that low-wage immigrants and working-class communities face when they go up against well-financed corporations and local governments, the case of ALAGLA represents a historic victory for los de abajo—those on the bottom.

Alvaro Huerta, PhD, holds a joint appointment as an assistant professor of urban and regional planning and ethnic and women’s studies at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. Alfonso Morales, PhD, is an associate professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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