Julian Nava dead: Trailblazing L.A. politician, U.S. ambassador

In the spring of 1980, Julian Nava was about to become a pioneer again.

Born in Boyle Heights, he went through his life as a man from the very beginning. First president of the Mexican-American student body at East Los Angeles College. One of the first Mexican Americans to earn a PhD from Harvard. The first Latino elected to the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Trustees. One of the masterminds behind a pivotal television series about the Chicano experience.

Now President Carter had appointed Nava the first-ever Mexican-American Ambassador to the United States to Mexico.

He sat down for an interview with The Times shortly after the Senate approved his nomination. Nava told this newspaper that while his choice for the role was “historically significant … after the novelty wore off, all that really matters is what kind of job you do.”

President Carter, Cyrus Vance and Julian Nava speak to reporters

President Carter, right, and Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, left, introduce Ambassador Julian Nava, the new U.S. envoy to Mexico, at a news conference April 21, 1980.

(Harvey Georges/Associated Press)

It was an apt summary of a man who built his career on pragmatism and principle rather than political posturing. Nava paved the way for waves of Latino politicians across Southern California to follow him in education, elective office, diplomacy and beyond, working in systems that had long excluded people like her. That drew snags from both sides of the proverbial political aisle early in his career: liberals accused him of not doing enough for Latinos, while conservatives claimed he was a political radical.

But allegations, a sale – a sellout – has never bothered Nava. Shortly after winning the LAUSD seat in 1967, he told The Times, “The only reason I ran was to cause a lot of trouble for the school board — the right kind of trouble.”

Nava died of natural causes in San Diego on July 29. He was 95.

With a deep voice and sociability, he wielded power in some of the most turbulent times in the history of Mexican Americans in Southern California.

A young Julian Nava smiles in his naval uniform

Julian Nava served in the Navy.

(U.S. Navy)

The Navy veteran served on the LAUSD board when student strikes against educational inequality gripped schools across east Los Angeles in the late 1960s in what is now known as the Chicano Blowouts, and as parents in the 1970s in the San Fernando Valley against the design of compulsory school buses revolted to prevent desegregation. The son of Mexican immigrants from the state of Zacatecas became US ambassador to Mexico at a time of heightened tensions between the two countries over increased migration and the discovery of oil south of the border. He advocated bilingual education and undocumented immigrants at a time when doing so was politically risky.

Surprising friends and foes alike by running for mayor in 1992 at the age of 65, a decade after becoming ambassador, Nava vowed to bring peace to a city still plagued by unrest and a recession.

“I’m thinking about it [the mayor’s job] as a brief, valuable civic assignment, free from obligations to any personal, political machine or particular interest group, and free from particular loyalty to my own ethnic group as well,” he said at the time, adding, “I don’t intend to be a professional Hispanic .”

“He wasn’t ideological — he never was,” said his daughter, Carmen Nava, chair of the history department at Cal State San Marcos. “He was an educator at heart. He was passionate about his community and building connections. He was all about getting the job done, and it wasn’t easy work.”

One of eight children of a barber who went out of business during the Great Depression and a homemaker, Nava was Boyle Heights through and through.

He attended Bridge Street Elementary, Hollenbeck Middle School and Roosevelt High before graduating from East LA College in 1948 after serving in the Navy. The multicultural make-up of the Eastside in those years “vaccinated [me] against prejudice,” he told The Times in 1983, although he also frankly shared stories of teachers being paddled for speaking Spanish in class and how it took a visit from his brother in his navy blue to convince his Roosevelt high counselor Enroll Nava in college prep courses.

After graduating from Pomona College in 1951, Nava went to Harvard, which enabled him to teach throughout Latin America and Spain, the latter on a Fulbright scholarship. He returned to Southern California to become a history professor at Cal State Northridge when it opened in 1956, eventually becoming one of the last two professors of the school’s inaugural class when he retired in 2000.

Early in his career, Nava was involved in LA’s burgeoning Latino political scene. He was a volunteer for Ed Roybal in 1949, when Roybal became the first Mexican American to serve on the LA City Council since the 19th century. Nava helped organize voting efforts with the Community Service Organization, the civil rights group then led by a young Cesar Chavez. Mayor Sam Yorty appointed Nava Cultural Ambassador in 1961, charged with preserving the city’s Latino heritage.

Nava was such a big name in Latino LA in 1967 that community members asked him to run for an LAUSD board seat against two-year incumbent Charles Reed Snoot. The odds weren’t good. No Latino had won a citywide election since Roybal’s victory in 1949. Nava, 39, finished second in the primary; in the runoff, Snoot characterized Nava as a “liberal, sociologically motivated professor who has to endorse sit-ins and love-ins from his associations”.

Photos by Julian Nava in the Los Angeles Times

Photos of Julian Nava on the campaign trail for his successful LA Unified School District trustee race, which appeared in the July 23, 1967 edition of the Los Angeles Times.

(Los Angeles Times)

But a multicultural, bipartisan, citywide coalition propelled Nava to a surprise victory. Hollywood stars Gregory Peck and Steve Allen hosted a fundraiser for Nava in Beverly Hills, with Cesar Chavez as a celebrity guest. “There was joy in Northridge, where Nava lives now,” wrote The Times a month after his win. “There was chaos in Boyle Heights, where he came from.”

The honeymoon was short-lived.

A year later, Nava found himself at the center of a political firestorm, caught between his new office and students leaving the office, inspired by Lincoln High School teacher Sal Castro, the trustee’s friend, to demand better school conditions. Nava was initially heavily criticized for not openly supporting students, although opinions changed after he spoke out against police brutality and criminal charges faced by Castro and other activists.

“Even though he started it tapado [obtuse]’ Castro told a biographer in 2011: ‘[Nava] grew up in this position and played an important role” in the implementation of reforms.

After a failed attempt to become California’s superintendent of public education in 1970, Nava remained on the LAUSD board until his retirement in 1979. Until 2001, no Latino would win a citywide election in LA.

Shortly after he left the board, Carter appointed him US Ambassador to Mexico, a position he held less than a year after Ronald Reagan took office and was replaced. Over the next decade, Nava embarked on ventures as diverse as the fruit and vegetable industry, wrote columns for Mexican newspapers, and even ran an oyster farm.

He attempted a final electoral comeback by entering LA’s 1992 mayoral campaign. Nava’s greatest moment in this election came in a debate against an opponent, in which Nava proposed allowing non-citizens to vote in local elections and defended the rights of street vendors. His comments prompted “a loud chorus of boos,” according to the Times.

But Nava had had little support from Latino voters until then.

He was accused of giving in to LA Sheriff Sherman Block via a committee on which he served as co-chair alongside attorney Gloria Allred, and then further inflamed law enforcement’s critics when he confessed to his “very good relationship.” ‘ boasted about former LA Police Chief Daryl Gates. Nava opposed an ultimately successful action by the city that allowed civilian oversight of the police department and joined an unsuccessful recall against Mayor Tom Bradley, who had helped Nava secure black voting in 1967.

Nava’s political moderation brought him increasingly into conflict with the Latino political scene he had helped create.

“Some thought that 20-25 years ago, Nava was the right person at the right time to open doors,” political science professor Jaime Regalado told The Times 21st Century in 1993.”

He ended with 1% of the vote.

Julian Nava drives a nail as a volunteer.

Volunteer Julian Nava assembles a storage unit for the multipurpose room of the new Escondido Children’s Museum circa 2001.

(Dan Trevan / San Diego Union-Tribune)

After his political days, Nava embarked on a second career as a documentary filmmaker, continuing to write books on subjects as diverse as Latino genealogy and a romance novel about Tibet. Nava retired to San Diego 20 years ago and has volunteered with the San Diego Children’s Discovery Museum and Encuentros Leadership, a mentoring program for Latino teens.

“He was never done learning,” Carmen Nava said of her father, “and he was never done helping.”

There are two LAUSD schools named after him: the Dr. Julian Nava Learning Academy and Nava College Preparatory Academy, both in south Los Angeles.

He is survived by his 60-year-old wife Patricia; her children Carmen Nava, Katie Stokes and Julian Paul Nava; a sister, Rosemarie Herzig; and six grandchildren. Plans for a public commemoration are in preparation.

To the end, Nava saw himself as an advocate and champion of the community he came from.

“Everything I am and how I think,” says the opening line of his 2002 autobiography, “was shaped by my Mexican roots.”

https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-07-30/julian-nava-lausd-board-member-mexico-ambassador-dead Julian Nava dead: Trailblazing L.A. politician, U.S. ambassador

Alley Einstein

USTimesPost.com is an automatic aggregator of the all world’s media. In each content, the hyperlink to the primary source is specified. All trademarks belong to their rightful owners, all materials to their authors. If you are the owner of the content and do not want us to publish your materials, please contact us by email – admin@ustimespost.com. The content will be deleted within 24 hours.

Related Articles

Back to top button