Long Beach has a number of unique American stories to tell following the inauguration ceremony of the new crew of city officials. Just after he was sworn into office to serve as the city’s new mayor, Robert Garcia told the audience crowded into the Terrace Theater in downtown Long Beach about his early-childhood days. Born in Peru and later moving to the United States as a child, Garcia spoke of how hard his family worked to give him and his siblings a better life.
He remembered learning English, attending college at California State University Long Beach and the best day of his life– the day he became a U.S. citizen. Garcia has grabbed attention from the media for being the city’s first openly gay, first Latino and, at 36, the youngest mayor, but that night, Garcia focused primarily on his identity as an American and how Long Beach encourages a spirit of acceptance for everyone.
“And what I love about the city the most is that you can find the American dream here,” Garcia said. “There is an opportunity here for everyone to succeed no matter what color of your skin, no matter who they love, no matter where they live or where they’re from, or what country they were born in… I believe the American dream is alive in Long Beach for everyone.”
In an interview with the Signal Tribune immediately after the ceremony, Garcia acknowledged the historic significance to his election to office, but he emphasized that he wants to be a “mayor for everybody,” that he is there to support everyone in this city.
This week, Garcia takes over the leadership of what is one of the most ethnically diverse councils in the city’s history. The nine-member council now also includes four women. Garcia, Councilmembers Lena Gonzalez, Suzie Price, Stacy Mungo, Roberto Uranga and Rex Richardson, City Attorney Charles Parkin, City Prosecutor Laura Doud and City Prosecutor Doug Haubert were all sworn into office Tuesday.
The new mayor is one of three Latinos who will now sit at the dais, but several other cultures will be represented.
Newly elected 3rd District Councilmember Price believes she may be the first Persian-American woman to hold a council office in Long Beach. Although she was born in the United States, Price said that she lived in Iran as a child and left the country when she was seven at the time of that country’s revolution in 1979. She and her mother were not political refugees, she told the Signal Tribune in a phone interview on Tuesday, but she remembers the chaos and upheaval in those days of the revolution just before she returned to the U.S. Price remembered that around the time they left Iran, there was turmoil in the country. There were riots in the streets, she said, adding that there were many protests and people started to burn books and photos in trash cans.
Like Garcia, Price also remembered learning English as a second language as a child, but she also recalled other painful memories– she had to leave behind her father and sister and she didn’t see them for 24 years. She acknowledged that those memories have shaped the person and leader she eventually became.
“I think that,” Price said, “my diverse culture and my unusual past in life has given me a level of depth in terms of being able to understand the struggles that each individual undertakes in their life, regardless of their background, their race, their ethnicity and lifestyle.”
Eighth District Councilmember Austin praised the Council’s mix of backgrounds. Austin, 6th District Councilmember Dee Andrews and newly elected 9th District Councilmember Richardson are the three African-Americans on the Council.
“This is what Long Beach looks like,” Austin said. “This is what diversity looks like, and I think everybody in the city will have a point of view and have a voice here at the table over the next four years.”
In addition to 4th District Councilmember Patrick O’Donnell, Mungo, the incoming representative of the 5th district, is the only other white member of the Council. In an interview with the Signal Tribune on Tuesday, she also praised both the Council’s ethnic diversity in addition to the number of women who now speak for the city.
“I think that the demographics of the council are more representative of the community,” Mungo said, “and that’s important…we’re all just very excited to serve.”
With four women and five men on the Council in addition to the mayor, the City Council is also now more evenly divided between the sexes. That divide was pronounced when the time came to pick a new vice mayor. The decision was the only one that Long Beach’s new City Council had to make on inauguration night. The women serving on the Council were united in their support of Suja Lowenthal over 8th District Councilmember Austin for the position. It was a close vote, but the majority of the councilmembers selected her. Dee Andrews, who nominated Lowenthal, was the only male councilmember who voted for the representative of the 2nd district. The other remaining male councilmembers voted in favor of Austin.
Seventh District Councilmember Uranga and 1st District Councilmember Gonzalez were both born in the U.S., but they do have family roots in Mexico. In addition, Uranga’s grandfather is from the Basque region in Spain. Uranga has a different experience of being an American than that of his two Latino peers on the Council. He lived through the Civil Rights Era of the 1960s and 1970s. He remembers Cesar Chavez and the Chicano movement. Uranga has a long record of community activism, much of it alongside his wife, Tonia Reyes-Uranga, who represented the 7th district several years ago. Uranga said in a phone interview this week that Long Beach can be leader for the rest of the nation in terms of how it represents its population, but he also echoed Garcia’s desire to support everyone in the entire city.
“I hope,” he said, “that this diversity on the city council really leads to some good policy [for] the city as a whole.”
Price agrees. While she recognized that the ethnic diversity of the new Council is significant, she voiced that she is more impressed with this particular Council’s creativity and energy.
“I’ve always believed that it really doesn’t matter…what your ethnicity is or what your age is,” Price said. “It’s about where your heart is. It’s about doing the right thing.”