Jess Margarito, a lifelong resident of the City of San Fernando who was the first Chicano elected to the city council and who also served as mayor, has died from complications of the COVID-19 virus. He was 73.
Margarito passed away on Jan. 8, 2021. He began battling the virus in mid-December, and at one point was placed into a medically-induced coma at the UCLA Medical Center, according to daughter Analisa Margarito Flores, the second of Margarito’s three children. She has an older sister, Yolanda Margarito Montoya, and a younger brother, Jesse, Jr.
Margarito’s wife of 50 years, Cecilia, also became ill from the virus and spent several days in an intensive care unit but is recovering, Flores said.
“This [illness] came suddenly,” Flores said. “He still worked 6-7 days a week (as a director at the Immigration Services of Santa Rosa in San Fernando). He [exercised and] worked out. He had already gone to urgent care once; he thought it was the flu. He [eventually was] on treatment for COVID, but nobody thought this would take him down.”
After working for years as a community activist, Margarito was elected to the local council in 1984 and was named mayor by fellow council members in 1986 — the first year the council had a Latino majority. He was hailed by friends as “a trailblazer” in local politics as well as someone “with a big heart.”
“To me he was one of our early leaders before we had any political representation here in the City of San Fernando,” said Ruben Rodriguez, executive director of Pueblo Y Salud, a nonprofit organization with an office in San Fernando that offers health services, drug/alcohol prevention programs, and is involved in local politics.
“I would say he was ahead of his time, a natural leader, a trailblazer. He was able to inspire people, to get them involved in having Latino representation in the City of San Fernando.”
Lifelong friend Richard Villa, like Margarito, also grew up in San Fernando. “We have a history. We worked together, played ball together, double-dated together, got in trouble together…he was best man at my wedding, I was best man at his wedding,” he said.
“There aren’t enough words to describe Jess Margarito. To me, he was special, he was unique, he was one-of-a-kind. He had a big heart. He was my pistolero — a guy who’s always with you and has your back.”
Inspired by Latino Political Movements
Margarito, who graduated from San Fernando High School (and also played quarterback on the football team), spent two years in the US Army before being discharged in 1968.
San Fernando was a very different city at that time.
“Back in the 1950s and 1960s, San Fernando was divided; it was like the Hatfields and McCoys,” Villa said. “The railroad tracks was the dividing line; Latinos lived on one side and the other side was all the white people. We grew up in it. We lived it.”
Rodriguez agreed. “Most of the council at that time lived in what we called the Huntington Estates. Huntington is a street here, near Glenoaks. We called it the ‘Estates’ because that’s where the big houses were. It’s where all the local business people were who kinda ran the city.”
But Magarito was undergoing his political awakening after returning from the Army. While a student at LA Valley College he formed a branch of MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan). He also marched with Cesar Chavez during the grape picker’s strike in Delano, CA, that lasted from 1965-1970.
Margarito also became involved with the progressive La Raza Unida (The Race United) Party that first began in Texas in 1970 and spread west to other states including California during the height of the Chicano movement. With a small, committed core group, Margarito helped to establish a San Fernando Valley branch of the party that ran out of a small office that became an active meeting spot and the base for organizing and campaigning for candidates in key state senate and assembly races.
Throwing his own hat into the political ring, Margarito made his first attempt to run for a local city council seat in San Fernando in 1972, but did not win. In 1974, La Raza Unida filed a federal court case against the City of San Fernando charging that at-large elections prevented Chicano/ Mexican American candidates from being elected.
The case was eventually decided against La Raza Unida in 1980 although, since this time, at-large-elections viewed as discriminatory on local elections as the “oldest trick in the book” have been banned by Congress in all federal elections and discarded in most states. They persist however in the City of San Fernando.
Margarito stayed close to home, working as a volunteer at jobs he viewed that allowed him to bridge the places he worked with the community. For more than 10 years at Las Palmas Park, he first worked as a part-time recreation aide before becoming a full-time senior leader there. He worked for the US Census Bureau. He also worked as an information programming specialist for Valley Cable TV and helped obtain a franchise for the City of San Fernando.
In 1984 he decided to try to run again for the city council. With the support of Rodriguez and Villa, who helped run his campaign and led voter registration drives, Margarito was able to break through and get elected. His victory for the first time gave representation to residents who didn’t feel they had a voice, opening the door for others besides its white residents to run and changing the face of local politics in his hometown.
“A lot of people helped. We had people knocking on doors of those capable of voting,” Villa recalled. “We brought people out of their caves, so to speak. And we had a good turnout.”
“It became real that a Latino could run and win in the City of San Fernando,” Rodriguez said. “That changed everything; others came about afterward and continued to get elected. But [Margarito] opened up that road. He made it real. A lot of young people [today] may not know about him. But he was definitely a trailblazer.”
Flores naturally grew up in an environment of activism and political education because of her father.
“I was a MEChA president at San Fernando High and I worked for Cesar Chavez,” she said. “I was helping with voter registration when I was 4-5 years old. [Her father] always had us with him [at his side].”
Investigated by Police
Margarito served on the council for eight years until he resigned in 1990, taking a position to become director of the city’s Recreation and Community Services Department. But he was fired from that position in 1994, following a three-year investigation by the San Fernando Police Department, and was accused of signing documents verifying work by three convicted criminals that was never performed between April 1992 and December 1993.
In a plea agreement, Margarito was given three years probation and was required to perform 200 hours of community service. Ironically, working community service would have likely to have been what Margarito would normally do anyway and never viewed as “punishment.”
Flores and others believed her father had been “targeted” by political enemies but — as she described — “he never held a grudge” even though “the City tried to get him on everything.”
“I think the case cost $1 million,” she said. “Even the three people (accused of not doing the work) said, ‘he was just a nice guy and signed off the papers because he thought we would actually do the work.’ That’s the kind stuff my dad did.”
Kept on Working
While some would view his fall from grace with the small city as a scandal big enough to make him recoil, Margarito continued to seek out work that he believed could benefit the community.
In the Valley, he remained a respected “original activist” and a “go-to” guy that others still sought for a good discussion about the early days of organizing that was the foundation for the many Latino political leaders who have successfully been elected today.
Local organizations knew that they could count on his personal generosity to dig into his own pockets to purchase fundraising tickets or give a needed donation. He focused his passion by working with undocumented immigrants, staying right in the heart of his community, which turned into a position at the agency — Immigration Services of Santa Rosa on Maclay.
His niece, Stephanie Escoto, works in the San Fernando office with Margarito. She said her uncle always had a big “hello” and “good morning” for staff and visitors. And he was a huge fan of the Dodgers, Lakers and Rams sports teams.
“He was super excited when [the Dodgers and Lakers] won their championships in 2020,” Escoto said. “He put their team flags up in the office.”
When asked what she would remember most about her father, Flores briefly broke into tears.
“He was my best friend,” Flores said. “We’d go to breakfast together, have lunch. He had so much love for his family. He loved to take us all out to eat, and eat well….Our home, every holiday, we would have strangers in our home because he would pick up somebody who needed a Thanksgiving or Christmas meal. He would open his garage for people to live in who just came into the country — who we knew or didn’t know.
“His family had been extremely poor; his brothers had either been in gangs or were just hard construction workers. But he worked for the community or did these political things with no example. He always told us you could never be too generous or too forgiving. He was just a different soul,” she said.
Rodriguez offered a final tribute.
“In Aztec history we have what they called the Eagle Warriors,” he said, reflecting on the strength of those warriors in ancient Mexico who were in constant battle. “And now another Eagle Warrior has fallen.”