Fifth of a Six-Part Series:
By Rene P. Ciria-Cruz
Editor’s Note: The largest black service organization in Watts helped an emerging Latino group and makes no distinctions between communities. This is the fifth 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.
WATTSArturo Ybarra recalls that Latinos in 1991 wanted to hold a Cinco de Mayo celebration for the first time but had no funds.
“We went to Ted Watkins of the WLCACthe Watts Labor Community Action Committee,” Ybarra recounts. The late Watkins, a prominent labor and civil rights leader, headed the powerful community organization.
“He surprised us by writing a check for $1,000. He said he had been waiting for the chance to do that,” says Ybarra.
To this day the annual Watts Cinco de Mayo festival is jointly held with the black community. It began as the “Latino African American Cinco de Mayo,” but organizers eventually decided to de-emphasize ethnic distinctions.
“WLCAC still lends us logistics, tables, electrical equipment,” says Ybarra. “We use the Watts Tower amphitheater as a venue, the VIP reception is black and Latino.”
He boasts, “In the 14 years that we’ve held it there wasn’t one in 1992 because of the Rodney King unrest we’ve never had a single incidence of violence in Cinco de Mayo.”
Timothy Watkins, the son of Ted Watkins, is current president and CEO of WLCAC. He’s as intense as Ybarra is calm in demeanor.
“You may not believe it, but I’ve never made any distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them,’” he declares, dismissing reports of a widening divide between Latinos and African Americans as a result of the national debate over immigration.
“Fact is, I’m lighter skinned than Arturo and I’m often addressed as a Hispanic. I speak back in Spanish. I consider him a black man of another ethnicity and many Latinos look like him.”
The Watkins are life-long residents of Watts. Even before graduating from high school in 1971, Tim helped his father create some of WLCAC’s programs. He was a landscaping contractor with 50 employees but turned over the business to his wife when he assumed leadership of the organization.
Ybarra describes WLCAC as the “power broker” in Watts. Viewing its facilities, it’s easy to see why. Housing units, stores, a museum and theatre, offices, buildings for job-training and after-school programs occupy a seven-acre site on South Central Avenue.
The WCLAC runs commercial ventures, senior centers, a door-to-door transportation service, home repair services, several rental properties and California’s oldest African American cultural festival. It has contracts and grants from both government and private institutions. In the 1970s WLCAC had an annual budget of $20 million, now reduced to a single digit by government funding cuts.
Both African Americans and Latinos use its facilities. In one wing of its administration building about 50 kids sit around tables, hunched over homework or reading. They have names like Estela, Kayveon, Nadia and Tracy and are in the fifth to eighth grades.
Ralph Flores heads the site’s LA Bridges gang prevention and after-school program for 10 to 14-year-olds. It has tutorials, anger management, parent support groups and nights out, field trips and conflict resolution. “We’ve never had a racial incident here in my seven years as director,” he says.
United Auto Workers organizers led by Tim’s father founded the WLCAC just before the Watts riots of 1965. The car industry was still a major employer then, and in the aftermath of the unrest, the WLCAC’s importance grew as a provider of economic openings and hope to the black residents, especially after the industrial plants closed and the jobs disappeared.
“We serve whoever lives in Watts and needs us. In fact, we don’t refuse former convicts from across the city/county border who need our help getting jobs, which gets us into trouble with our city bureaucracy,” Watkins complains.
He sticks to the view that residents of Watts are one community: “When Latino and black kids fight in school, or even in jails, it’s not an ethnic riot. I consider it a domestic dispute.”
Watkins’ attitude, he explains, comes from his family’s political roots in the big civil rights confrontations of the ’60s and ’70s. His late trade unionist father worked with Cesar Chavez, and his mother enforced the family’s boycott of grapes for eight years.
”At one time,” he laughs, “I even forgot the taste of grapes.”
Rene Ciria-Cruz as a Racial Justice Fellow of the USC Annenberg’s Institute for Justice and Journalism.