When George Cole moved to southeast Los Angeles County looking for factory work in the early 1970s, the mostly white and working-class area was being transformed by waves of Latino immigration.
Cole applied for an apartment and the landlady bestowed her approval.
Soon, he got a job—$3 an hour at a plastic bag factory. He was the only white worker in a plant full of illegal immigrants. He got the job by tricking the white owner into thinking he spoke fluent Spanish by reciting lines he remembered from high school Spanish. He received 50 cents an hour more than the immigrants on the line.
Back then, Cole only knew enough Spanish to trick a gullible businessman. But from the moment he began working alongside the immigrants, he began to learn—and never looked back. It would help forge his identity.
Over the next 35 years, his adopted town of Bell—along with surrounding cities such as Huntington Park, Bell Gardens South Gate and Maywood—were transformed from mostly white to more than 90% Latino. Most of the manufacturing plants, such as Bethlehem Steel, Firestone Tire and General Motors, disappeared.
He was elected to the Bell City Council when it was still all-white and now is its only white member.
Cole has emerged as a leader for southeast Los Angeles County. He took a prominent role in making sure overwhelmingly Latino cities served by the Los Angeles Unified School District have a voice in Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s takeover plan, which a judge threw out last month.
“George Cole is a Latino leader,” Supervisor Gloria Molina said, “even though he is not Latino.”
Consider a community meeting last year where state Sen. Martha Escutia (D-Whittier) introduced her Democratic successor, Ron Calderon.
Calderon spoke in English. Escutia translated. A few people got annoyed.
South Gate Councilman Henry Gonzalez said one woman in the crowd referred to Cole and cracked, “Here’s a white man who can speak better than you can!”
Cole, 56, is not embracing another culture as much as trying to fit into the world around him. It was a lesson he learned from his father, a Presbyterian preacher and activist who ministered to Latino farmworkers in Arizona in the late 1950s.
“My father taught me to embrace change,” Cole said. “A lot of people were afraid of the changes that were taking place, but I just accepted it.”
After working at the bag factory, Cole landed a job at Bethlehem Steel in Vernon, eventually earning $16 an hour.
He became active in the union. Over time, more Latinos joined him on the lines. He traveled to Mexico City for a conference on immigrant workers rights. His Spanish continued to improve.
“He stood out as a big guy, this gabacho speaking Spanish,” said Rudy Montalvo, a longtime friend from his union days. “Our people are downright brutal and cruel if they see a pocho [American-born Latino] take Spanish and tear it up,” Montalvo said. “But you turn it around, and someone like George starts talking Spanish and they embrace you.”
The next few years amounted to a demographic earthquake in southeast L.A. County as Latino immigrants—legal and illegal—flowed in.
When Cole and his wife, Judy, moved to Bell, one of his biggest worries was that his children wouldn’t have anyone to play with because “there were hardly any children in the streets. Most of the neighbors were older, white,” he said. Soon, his children had more than enough playmates as streets filled with Latino children.
One of the Coles’ sons, Jason, played on Garfield High School’s varsity football team. It was a tradition that the varsity players shaved their heads.
“We told the coach we were not going to allow our kid to shave his head,” Judy Cole said. “We didn’t want him to be in a situation where he could be construed as a gangbanger.”
Her sons rarely complained about being treated differently, even though they were among the only white students at the East Los Angeles school.
The Coles adapted, but transition was more difficult for others in the community.
At the time, Bell was in the grips of a casino corruption scandal that would lead to indictments against a former mayor and a city manager. Friends who knew Cole for his union and nonprofit work suggested that he should run for office.
Cole said the tipping point was when he took his two boys to a park only to see part of the playground area and the park being razed to make room for an office for city staff.
“It told me the priorities of the city were all screwed up,” Cole said.
Cole used Spanish campaign literature, a first for the city, when he joined the all-white council in 1984.
Hernandez campaigned for Cole and was criticized by some friends.
“They said, ‘Why are you supporting a white man? Why not support a Mexican American?’ ” Hernandez recalled. “I told them, ‘It doesn’t matter if he’s a white man. He’s got a Spanish heart.’ ”
Increasingly, Cole took on issues that resonated with the growing Latino community. Cole began to host Tuesday night meetings to discuss education issues. Most of the people who attended were Latino immigrants. Cole helped ferry local parents to school board meetings. He complained that schools in the southeast got short shrift in part because they were poor and Latino.
For many Latinos new to town, he became a kind of fixer.
“He’s the guy who delivers, whether it’s a low-flush toilet to a home or getting someone’s kid some help,” said J. Arnoldo Beltran, an attorney long involved in the Latino community.
Once, a community activist—a former fellow steelworker—pulled Cole aside and asked for his help in filling more City Council seats with Latinos.
“I told him it was not about simply replacing white faces with brown faces. It was about replacing bad leaders with good leaders,” Cole said.
Some friends believe he many have embraced Latino culture too much—or at least the cuisine. After Cole had a heart attack last winter, Felisa Martinez, 54, a patron of the Oldtimers Foundation, told him he had to lay off the burritos and tacos he loved. Instead, she brought him dish after dish of diced cactus salads.
Today, Cole is one of only two white council members in the Latino cities of southeast L.A. County. The other is Bill DeWitt, who kept his lumber company in South Gate as other businesses left.
Cole has his detractors. Some opponents call him a wannabe political boss who uses his long service on the council, in addition to the Oldtimers Foundation, to bully foes. But even those critics, many of whom declined to speak on the record, say Cole is popular.
But Cole said he feels less comfortable when he’s away from home. “When I’m in a restaurant out in Rancho Cucamonga and everyone around me is white,” he said, “then I feel different. It feels funny.”
|Cities in Transition|
|Latinos were a minority in southeast L.A. County cities when Bell Councilman George Cole moved into the area in the early 1970s.|
Percent of Spanish Origin*
* People with Spanish surnames or whose first language is Spanish.
Sources: Census Bureau, 1970 census; Claritas, 2006 estimates.