The year the Olympics came to Los Angeles, Fernando Guerra was at UCLA researching a dissertation on ethnicity and politics in Los Angeles when a friend told him Loyola Marymount University needed someone who could teach Chicano studies with a local angle and some political science classes. He’d never taught before — hadn’t even finished his Ph.D. at the University of Michigan — but his dad encouraged him to apply.
“I’ve had one job my entire life — one job interview. That was 34 years ago,” says Guerra, who as a tenured professor and founding director of LMU’s Center for the Study of Los Angeles has become a leading academic researcher and frequent media analyst of L.A. life and politics.
The center traces its inception to 1992, when the Los Angeles Riots left students feeling like their classes hadn’t fully prepared them to live in a city literally going up in flames during finals. Five years later, Guerra led the center’s first major undertaking: a citywide survey of Angelenos’ hopes, fears, quality of life concerns, awareness of race relations, attitudes toward the police, perceptions of the city and feelings about each other.
“What’s important about public opinion is that opinions lead to behavior, and behavior leads to certain opinions,” says Guerra, and that’s information that civic leaders can use to craft more responsive public policy. “We’re driven by research with practical applications. The role of the center is to do research that creates action that will lead to justice … and not only do students become agents of change, but nonprofits and even government can further their agency of change.”
The center repeats this faculty-directed, student-executed survey every five years, including last year’s 25th anniversary of the riots. Other projects have included a study of attitudes toward Silicon Beach, an opinion poll about the 2028 Olympics, and neighborhood-specific polls (residents of Playa Vista, for example, are happier than most about where they live). A native of northeast Los Angeles, Guerra has also led a multi-year countywide survey of 60 mayors, 57 city managers and 52 school district superintendents about their perspectives on local leadership — a common thread emerging that leaders “are increasingly optimistic and believe in their power to do good and capacity to do great things,” he says.
Guerra is inspired by limitless possibilities for topics of research, but what keeps him energized about doing the same job year after year is teaching — even if that means 30 straight semesters of Intro to Chicano Studies.
“Every year you get a whole new crop of interesting, eager students who want to interact with me, so the excitement never ends. Nothing could be more invigorating than that,” he says. “Teaching, research and service.”
— Joe Piasecki