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East L.A., Latino heartland, revives its dream of cityhood

More than 30 years after the last attempt, the chances of success seem higher.

A group of residents has launched a campaign, including collecting petition signatures on forms such as those pictured here, to make the area a municipality governed by its own elected officials and ordinances.

Reed Saxon/AP/File

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As the rumble of lowriders echoes down narrow streets lined with taco trucks and mural-covered walls, Oscar Gonzales walks from yard to yard.

"We're gathering signatures to make East L.A. into a city of its own," he tells one woman at a small house just off Cesar Chavez Blvd., named for the leader of the Chicano rights movement of the early 1960s. "We don't have a mayor or city council, so when the community goes to the state capital or Washington to bring back money, nobody is out there fighting for us."

The mostly Latin community here was immortalized by the 1987 Cheech and Chong comedy film "Born in East L.A.," in which the pot-smoking protagonists have repeated run-ins with US immigration officials. Crammed tightly into 7.4 square miles, East Los Angeles is to Mexican-Americans what Harlem is to African-Americans: ethnic symbol, social center, and cultural capital.

First stop north of the border for thousands of immigrants, the gritty urban area is the birthplace of world boxing champion Oscar de la Hoya and home to many Latino luminaries including Cheech Marin, one half of the comedy duo.

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