October 6, 2006

A Threat Becomes a Glue

Fourth of a Six-Part Series

By Rene P. Ciria-Cruz
New America Media

Editor’s Note: A threat of eviction gives birth to a Latino organization and creates long-lasting ties with black leaders. This is the fourth of a six-part series on the role of longtime black and Latino community leaders in building interethnic tolerance in South Los Angeles, which has been suddenly transformed by the massive influx of Latinos.

WATTS — Arturo Ybarra admits things didn’t look very promising in Watts in the late 80s when waves of Mexicans and Central Americans began arriving. By 1989 Latinos had surpassed blacks as Watts’ majority population.

“There was a lot of resentment against us ‘foreigners’ as Latinos started moving into the housing projects, which were mostly black,” Ybarra recalls.

“There were lots of interethnic fights back then, especially in the projects,” Ybarra recounts. “Latinos were harassed or became victims of burglaries, vandalism and random violence.” Younger Latinos often retaliated.

Ybarra didn’t lose heart, and to this day he believes that a “comprehensive and long-lasting Latino and African American unity” is possible. But before anything could be done about the rising violence, the threat of mass eviction brought together leaders of both communities in 1989.

BLACKS PROTEST

The Community Redevelopment Agency wanted to turn parts of Watts into an industrial park. Through eminent domain, the agency had the power to buy up and raze properties and remove thousands of residents. Already organized, the black community rose in protest.

Ybarra was alarmed that Latinos weren’t in the public meetings, although they already constituted more than half of Watts’ population and were going to be the most affected by the looming evictions.

Ybarra had been an activist since the age of 15 in Juarez, Mexico. As a university student he survived the plaza massacre in Mexico City in October 1965 and was detained and tortured. He came to Watts in 1969, became a union steward and joined the antiwar Chicano Moratorium and the United Farm Workers movement.

With the threat of evictions in 1989, his organizer instincts kicked in again. He enlisted the help of a local priest, Fr. Ramon Gaytan, and gathered Latinos to attend meetings that had been mostly attended by black residents.

They simplified and translated the CRA’s legalistic notices and provided Spanish interpretation in the community meetings. Soon, there were more Latinos than blacks attending. By August 1990 the Watts/Century Latino Organization was a working organization.

The gap between the communities didn’t altogether disappear. “Blacks began drifting away from the meetings, discouraged by the Spanish translations,” admits Ybarra.

“But we did manage to get state officials through Maxine Waters to pass a bill declaring that eminent domain need not be the main force for redevelopment.” The redevelopment plans have been shelved.

HUMAN RELATIONS PROBLEM

This first taste of victory led to more joint actions between activists from the two communities. Their meetings turned to more general concerns like schools, pollution, crime and violence.

“We identified human relations between us as the most pressing problem,” recalls Ybarra.

In 1994, after some 350 cases of ethnic violence in the housing projects, a task force of the WCLO and the Watts Health Foundation, led by Dr. Clyde Oden, sued the public housing authority.

They reached a settlement in 1996, which included several surveys of occupants about their needs, better policing and enforcement of public housing regulations, and more community activities.

Simultaneously, the task force launched educational activities on public housing regulations including strict anti-drug measures. A conflict resolution and mediation committee was set up. The Watts Community Bridges launched cultural exchanges, featuring tours of black museums and Latino landmarks to dispel misunderstandings. The incidence of ethnic violence in the projects has significantly dropped, says Ybarra.

NOT ETHNIC

“The street violence these days isn’t ethnic,” confirms Jim Smith, a consultant for the Youth and Family Center here. “The shootings are often gang initiations-doesn’t matter what ethnicity you are, you’re just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Perversely, there’s ethnic integration among criminal elements, says Andre Herndon, editor of The Wave Newspapers. “There are Latinos and blacks together in all the gangs.”

The WCLO has had other task forces with African American activists since their joint anti-eviction fight. Their campaign against polluted drinking water forced water authorities to install new pipes.

Their group, Parents and Students Organized, made up of African Americans and Lati-nos, has held school cleanup drives and cooperated with principals to improve students’ academic performance. This effort never stops, says Ybarra, because changes in school staffing sometimes bring in uncooperative principals.

Anyone can come to the WCLO for tutoring, job placement or the HUD-United Way-backed savings program. Thirty-five families are currently in the “hand-holding” guidance for first-time home-buyers.

A low-cost housing project, to be built on the site of WCLO’s headquarters, will have six duplexes for extended families. Of the five families that have pre-qualified, three are black.

This series was written by Rene Ciria-Cruz as a Racial Justice Fellow of the USC Annenberg’s Institute for Justice and Journalism.

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