A dispute over the naming of a new southern California high school provides a glimpse of the country’s ethnic future. During a February 2008 hostage standoff, Los Angeles police officer Randal Simmons was slain by a gunman as Simmons tried to protect the gunman’s family members (three of whom the gunman had already killed). During off hours, Simmons, a 27-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department and a member of its elite SWAT unit, had mentored teens in Carson, a hardscrabble industrial suburb south of Los Angeles. As a minister in the Glory Christian Fellowship, Simmons tried to keep Carson’s youth away from the city’s thriving gang life.
This fall, the Carson City Council voted to name a new high school after Simmons in recognition of his service to the community. Since then, however, Latino residents of Carson have pushed to rescind the vote and to name the new school after César Chávez, the farmworker organizer. “I’m very upset,” resident Miriam Vasquez told the Los Angeles Daily Breeze. “This is a Latino area. It should be named after Cesar Chavez.” Simmons was black, but opponents of the Simmons resolution insist that race has nothing to do with their position. Rather, they protest that the community was not consulted and that members of Simmons’s church had railroaded the recommendation through the council.
Without presuming to pass judgment on Cesar Chávez’s merits, one can’t help observing that he would have had more relevance to Carson if he had organized oil refinery workers rather than field hands. Simmons, by contrast, worked directly to help Carson parents—many of them Latino—raise law-abiding children. And the Los Angeles Unified School District, which built and will run the new high school, already has a school named after Chávez. But Latinos are now the majority in Carson, as in many California cities and suburbs, and they are playing ethnic politics as vigorously as any group before them. (Dallas is likewise embroiled in a dispute over whether to name a major thoroughfare in a riverfront development project after César Chávez.)
For now, the name of Carson’s new school rests with the Los Angeles school district. In the long run, however, the country’s immigration flows will play a large part in determining who its heroes are.