California’s Latino Caucus turns 50. What they’ve accomplished, and their priorities ahead

·5 min read

Fifty years ago, five Latinos came together to create the first ever Chicano Legislative Caucus. At the time, the lawmakers, all male and of Mexican descent, made up 4% of the Legislature.

Though a small group, the establishment marked a turning point for California’s then-14% Latino population.

Over the next five decades, the caucus grew, diversified and became an influential group in the Capitol. That progress coincided with the Latino community exploding to 40% of the state population.

The group, now at a record 38 members, has since been renamed the Latino Caucus. It has racked up a series of major wins since its founding, including pushing back against anti-immigrant legislation in the 1990s and building a social safety net for the state’s undocumented community.

The work is not over however, said current chair and Assemblywoman Sabrina Cervantes, D-Riverside.

“We have to continue pushing forward and ensuring that we uplift the nearly 16 million Latinos in California and fighting for our vast contributions and the needs of our humanity,” said Cervantes.

Senadora María Elena Durazo, D-Los Ángeles y presidente del Caucus Legislativo Latino de California, en la Clínica Sierra Vista el martes 27 de julio de 2021 por la mañana en Fresno, CA.
Senadora María Elena Durazo, D-Los Ángeles y presidente del Caucus Legislativo Latino de California, en la Clínica Sierra Vista el martes 27 de julio de 2021 por la mañana en Fresno, CA.

2023 Legislative Priorities

Cervantes recently spearheaded the caucus’ annual tradition of announcing its legislative priorities for the upcoming year. This year, caucus members voted to prioritize 14 bills spanning health, housing, education, environment and immigration.

Several members spoke at Tuesday’s press conference to present their measures.

Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula, D-Fresno, presented his legislation first. Assembly Bill 4 continues a push to extend full Medi-Cal coverage to more undocumented residents.

In recent years, the caucus has successfully won legislation for some undocumented residents to join Medi-Cal. AB 4 would broaden the income eligibility for undocumented adults.

Sen. Lena Gonzalez, D-Long Beach, vice chair of the caucus, authored another healthcare measure, Senate Bill 616, which aims to increase the amount of paid sick leave days that an employer is required to provide from three to seven. She cited the COVID-19 pandemic as an example of why employees, particularly “essential workers,” need additional time to care for themselves and others.

“Furthermore it can reduce employers’ overall cost by containing potential disease outbreaks and allowing workers to recover faster and return to work more productively in the fourth largest economy,” Gonzalez said.

Assembly Majority Leader Eloise Gomez Reyes, D-Colton, led the presentation of education-focused legislation with AB 278. The measure would establish dream resource centers in high schools across the state. These centers provide services to support the undocumented student population.

The end of Tuesday’s press conference centered on further bills to improve the social safety net for the state’s roughly 2.3 million undocumented residents.

“It’s past time that the state acknowledged how important they are to California,” said Sen. Maria Elena Durazo, D-Los Angeles.

Durazo spoke about her legislation, SB 227, which would provide workers who are excluded from unemployment insurance, due to immigration status, with $300 per week for up to 20 weeks in 2025.

Assemblymen Juan Carrillo, D-Palmdale, and Miguel Santiago, D-Los Angeles, presented bills that would secure monthly cash assistance for undocumented seniors and expand food benefits to all undocumented immigrants.

These measures likely face an uphill battle as the state seeks to close a projected $22.5 billion deficit without cutting programs that are already providing services to Californians.

Last January, Newsom released a proposed state spending plan that would delay the food assistance timeline for undocumented seniors by two years.

Santiago referenced the delay in his comments.

“Now we’re talking about budget cuts and the first thing that comes off the table is Food for All…People can’t wait two years when they’re hungry,” said Santiago.

Looking back on 50 years

Cervantes calls herself a reflection of the caucus’ diversification and progress. She is the first LGBTQ+ Latina caucus chair and marks the third consecutive woman who has led the group. At 21 members, Latinas are now the caucus majority.

But the progress didn’t come easy. It took until 1982 before the first Latina, Gloria Molina, was elected into the Legislature. Another 23 years passed until former member Martha Escutia became the first female chair.

When Escutia joined the Assembly in 1992, the caucus only had six members and was on the brink of facing a series of racially charged measures.

Proposition 187 came in 1994, which sought to ban immigrants from receiving social services, health care and education. Other measures followed including Proposition 209, prohibiting affirmative action, and Proposition 227, an effort to end bilingual education.

“We were playing defense with only six members in the middle of anti-immigration hysteria,” Escutia said.

But the anti-immigrant rhetoric and bills inspired young Democrats, particularly Latinos, to get involved in politics. Eventually, Escutia said the caucus used this momentum to create support and solutions for the state’s immigrant population.

The first big breakthrough for undocumented Californians came in 2001, when a law passed allowing undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at California’s public universities. Then in 2015, former Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law allowing residents to apply for driver’s licenses regardless of immigration status.

More changes have come in the last few years with the state extending Medi-Cal eligibility.

California began allowing undocumented children to join Medi-Cal in 2015. Four years later, eligibility broadened to those younger than 26. And last year, the state started covering people aged 50 and over. Next year, all low-income undocumented residents would become eligible for the state-subsidized insurance.

“The Latino Caucus has made California more progressive and that’s a good thing,” said Escuita.

The caucus has also advocated for equal representation in state government and beyond. The group now is 30% of the Legislature and seeing former members and non-members take up higher positions.

Most recently, the caucus pushed for the appointment of Patricia Guerrero as chief justice of the California Supreme Court and the state’s first Latino U.S. Senator Alex Padilla.

“I am honored to stand on the shoulders of great Latino leaders that came before me, and I look forward to the next 50 years,” Padilla said in a statement.