Column: Karen Bass’ Latino-Black family is everything the ugly audiotape is not
Last month, after the first L.A. mayoral debate between Karen Bass and Rick Caruso, I approached their campaigns with the same request.
I wanted to sit down with each candidate to discuss subjects that would offer insight into how they would serve as mayor.
I asked Bass to talk about her Mexican American stepchildren. As a family, they have lived what so many people say L.A. has always lacked and needs now more than ever: good relations between the Black and Latino communities.
With Caruso, I wanted to discuss our shared Catholicism. That’s the anchor for his community work and volunteerism, which is too often overshadowed by his gleaming developments and ability to spend nearly $80 million of his own money (so far) to run for office.
Bass, 69, has rarely opened up about her blended family. Caruso proudly proclaims his faith, flashing an image of the Virgen de Guadalupe in the background of one television ad and a photo of a young Rick with his late uncle, Father Lawrence Caruso, in another.
But Caruso rejected my suggestion that I attend Mass with him, saying through his people that it was a private affair. When I offered instead to meet at the USC Caruso Catholic Center, built with a $6-million gift from Caruso and his wife, Tina, I never heard back.
Bass agreed to my invitation almost immediately.
That’s how I found myself sharing Korean barbecue in Mid-City with Bass, her three adult kids and a grandchild the night before a leaked tape of Latino city councilmembers saying all sorts of bigoted things, including about a Black child, upended L.A. politics.
Scythia, Omar and Yvette Lechuga are the biological children of Jesus Lechuga, Bass’ former husband, born after Bass and Lechuga divorced in the 1980s. Bass, a physician’s assistant, remained friends with Lechuga until his death last decade and was an active part of the children’s lives “since I was in the womb,” said Scythia, a manager at a Ralphs in Santa Clarita. “Karen actually gave my mom her first prenatal…. She was in the delivery room!”
I mentioned how unusual it was to maintain such close ties — Bass and the Lechuga siblings’ biological mother remain friends — especially since so many divorces end in acrimony. Bass pushed back almost immediately.
“It has always been about the kids,” she replied while passing around banchan. “I always knew that the children are central, and it doesn’t matter what’s going on with the adults.”
“We’re just full integration,“ Scythia added.
“Now, if the children hadn’t been born, I mean, maybe we would have just gone our separate ways,” Bass said of Jesus. “But I just don’t do that. I mean, when a relationship is over, it doesn’t mean that you have to hate each other.”
She dug into a plate of white rice topped with extra bean sprouts and kalbi. “But it’s always about the children. The children have to be something.”
The dinner was mostly like any family mealtime — in fact, Bass and the Lechugas have patronized the spot for over 20 years and ate there two weeks earlier.
Scythia is the oldest sister at 34, funny but more reserved than 30-year-old Yvette. Omar, 32, was the shy guy who spoke up only to offer great insights or perfectly timed jokes. Bass and I split a Sapporo as the kids told laughter-filled stories about how she taught them to use chopsticks. How she drove them and their friends all over Los Angeles each summer in a beat-up green Dodge minivan. Holidays spent together every year since they were small. How she was the “gatekeeper” for Scythia and Yvette whenever a guy wanted to date them.
Bass mostly basked in their love.
Yvette, a nonprofit worker, passed around childhood photos of her and her siblings reading on couches while Hot Wheels littered the living room floor. There were stories about their “big sister” Emilia — Bass and Lechuga’s only biological child — who died at age 23 alongside her husband, Michael Wright, in a 2006 car accident.
Scythia, Omar and Yvette all swore that their stepmom hadn’t changed one bit as she went from working in emergency rooms to co-creating an influential nonprofit in South L.A. to California Assembly speaker to Congress member to the cusp of becoming head of the second-largest city in the United States.
“The only thing that’s changed,” Omar deadpanned, “is less newspapers,” because she now reads mostly online.
Out of the family chatter emerged a Bass who privately acted on the principles she has long advocated for publicly and promises to pursue as L.A. mayor.
One of the first big tests for her blended family came when Yvette was diagnosed with childhood leukemia at age 5. Because of her medical background, Bass took charge of hospital stays and doctor’s appointments.
“When I didn’t have hair, they didn’t really question our connection,” Yvette said. “But every time I grew my hair back, they would question her, ‘And who are you?’”
“You remember that!” Bass said, surprised. “You remember that?”
“Yeah,” Yvette replied.
“That would make me very angry,” Bass said, her voice dropping. “They would want to know who I am, asking for proof, which I would refuse to give them. It’s like, ‘Who do you think I am? I’m her mother. So there. What are you going to do about that?’
“And then the other thing,” she continued. “I don’t know if you guys will remember this, but when I would take you to San Diego, I would always worry with Checkpoint Charlie.”
The San Clemente Border Patrol checkpoint, I asked?
“Yeah!” she replied. “I’m in the van with them. Am I going to get stopped? We didn’t. But I worried about it.”
There was silence. Then Bass saw her grandson Michael, 13, whisper something to his mom, Scythia. He wanted some Sapporo.
Bass grinned. “You know that’s not happening.”
It was a motherly side seldom acknowledged in Bass’ public profile as an activist and politician, which her opponents have long pointed to as proof that she’s a member of the liberal elite.
“I have read so many articles that claim that she’s worth $1 million, $4 million, $22 million,” Yvette scoffed. “I’m like, ‘Where? Show me! Please!’ Why haven’t we gone to Hawaii?”
“Or to help pay for our school?” Omar cracked.
Yvette nodded over at Scythia. “She wouldn’t be working at Ralphs!”
Scythia laughed, and added, “We don’t get paid to be her daughter.”
“My refrigerator’s broken,” Bass suddenly remarked.
“It’s missing the handle,” Yvette said with a scold.
“What was her birthday present?” Scythia asked, before answering: “We helped clean out her refrigerator.”
They all text one another daily, and Bass loves taking care of her grandchildren, whom she called “my boys” multiple times during our dinner. I asked Bass how being a mother figure to Latino children has influenced her life.
“I don’t know that it did,” she responded.
“The other way around,” Yvette quickly replied.
She explained that she and her siblings didn’t get much Mexican culture from their biological parents. In fact, her father would tell them how schoolteachers washed out his mouth with soap for speaking Spanish in class.
“Because that’s how we grew up, [Bass] actively, always tried to get us closer to our roots,” Yvette said. “We would go through a phase — ‘I don’t want to listen to music in Spanish! I don’t want to eat the Mexican food! We’d rather eat Korean food!’ ”
“I didn’t want them to be disconnected from their culture,” she said. “That’s very important. Extremely important. And now I’m getting on them because —”
“We don’t speak Spanish,” Scythia sheepishly admitted.
“Well, I want Henry to speak Spanish!” Bass shot back with a smile, referring to Yvette’s son.
“It’s a big regret of mine that I’m not fluent, and there’s no reason I shouldn’t have been,” Bass continued, explaining how she learned enough at the county hospital to talk with immigrants but that now she “sounds like I’m 6.”
“Well, you’re more fluent than us!” Yvette replied.
Bass campaign’s team — which had spent the entire time at a nearby table looking at their smartphones — told us to wrap up. We had hung out for an hour and a half.
I ended by asking Bass why she had kept this side of herself from the public for so long, and why she was now allowing me and others in. Yvette has spoken at Bass rallies, and her son drew laughs during the primaries when he mimicked his grandmother during a speech.
“It’s just been how I’ve lived my life,” she said. “I didn’t want people to think this is tokenism. Like, ‘Oh, she just went and found these kids.’”
“We were just a family,” Scythia added. “Not that, ‘Oh, we’re Mexican and she’s Black.’”
“Your values are 24/7,” Bass said as she put leftovers in a to-go box. “It’s how you live. It’s not just what you do when you’re in front of a camera.
“Our family,” Scythia concluded, “is not a hashtag.”
We said our goodbyes. The following day, Los Angeles underwent a political earthquake. The Latino politicians on the tape portrayed an us-versus-them attitude toward Black people, white people, other Latinos and just about everyone else.
Bass and her stepchildren demonstrate just how wrong they were.