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Byline: Luz Villarreal and Eric Wahlgren Daily News Staff Writer

It was a small group with modest goals that gathered back in 1960 in the community center at Las Palmas Park in San Fernando.

They wanted to establish a preschool for 25 Latino children in the community, and they wanted to send a message that Latino parents care profoundly about their children's education.

They called their 10-member group the Latin American Civic Organization, and they were one of the first neighborhood political organizations to take root in a Latino community in the San Fernando Valley.

Thirty-six years later, the organization still is active in early education and neighborhood empowerment among Valley families of Latino descent.

But it is now part of a larger mosaic of Latino political activism in the Valley, and across Southern California and the Southwest, that could reshape the political landscape over the next decade and beyond.

``I don't want to rest now,'' said Irene Tovar of Mission Hills, one of the original founders of LACA and now its executive director.

``I think our work has just begun,'' Tovar said. ``Now we must make sure that every year we have people registered to vote and that we enter the 21st century with viable leadership.''

Traditionally, the Latino electorate has been known more for its voting potential than its power at the polls.

A surge of immigrants, legal and illegal, over the past 20 years has pushed the state's Latino population to record levels - creating a vast pool of new potential voters. Yet Latinos traditionally have registered to vote and turned out at the polls in disproportionately low numbers, leaving their voting potential just that - potential.

But in Latino neighborhoods across the Valley and elsewhere, a sweeping grass-roots effort has been under way for several years to identify potential citizens, help them become naturalized, get them registered to vote and then turn them out at the polls.

And there are significant signs that those efforts may be reaching a critical mass, that Latino voters may be ready to emerge as a significant political power over the next decade and beyond.

In Orange County, Democrat Loretta Sanchez unseated Rep. Robert Dornan in November, her narrow margin almost certainly assured by her appeal to the growing number of Latino voters in the district. (Dornan is challenging the election, claiming that noncitizens registered and cast votes for Sanchez, and other allegations of impropriety.)

Closer to home, the San Fernando Valley in November sent a Latino to the state Assembly for the first time, electing Tony Cardenas to replace outgoing Assemblyman Richard Katz, who had represented the district since 1980 but was turned out by term limits.

Political analysts said the results are a tribute to years of hard work by grass-roots activists in getting Latinos to become citizens, register to vote and then turn out at the polls.

``It is a cumulative thing,'' said Rudy Acuna, a Chicano studies professor at Cal State Northridge.

``I don't think Tony Cardenas just came out of the blue,'' Acuna said. ``He had a community that has built a certain culture of how to become involved politically.''

Neither Cardenas nor Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alarcon, another prominent Latino politician from the Valley, were elected by Latino voters alone. Both, in fact, took pains to appeal to a broad base of non-Latino voters.

``Alarcon and Cardenas were mature enough to reach out, build bridges, calm any fears or suspicions from the non-Latino voters to win. They were able to cast a broad net,'' said Antonio Gonzalez, president of the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project.

But each of their campaigns (Cardenas this year, Alarcon in 1993) was aided by door-to-door voter registration and citizenship drives of the type that are turning increasing numbers of Latinos into active voters.

The shifting political dynamic can be charted through three different sets of numbers:

Total population figures, which show a surge in Latino population across the United States - and particularly in Southern California.

Between 1970 and 1990, the U.S. Latino population grew from more than 9.2 million to nearly 24 million.

California has the nation's largest Latino adult population, estimated at 5.74 million in 1994 (of those an estimated 2.48 million were citizens).

In the city of Los Angeles, Latinos constituted 39 percent of the city's population in the 1990 census - up from 27 percent in 1980 and less than 2 percent in 1960, when Tovar helped form the Latin American Civic Association.

In the Valley, Latinos were 32 percent of the population in 1990, up from 19 percent in 1980.

Naturalization figures, which show a surge in the number of Latinos who are becoming naturalized citizens - and eligible to vote.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service's Los Angeles District Office expects to naturalize a record 300,000 people during 1996.

An estimated 43.1 percent of the state's Latino citizens are naturalized - nearly half of them since 1992, according to The Tomas Rivera Policy Institute in Claremont, a nonprofit research organization affiliated with the Claremont Graduate School and the University of Texas at Austin.

``As many Latinos were naturalized in the last four years as in the previous 40 years,'' according to the institute.

Voter registration and turnout figures, which show a surge in the number of Latinos going to the polls.

There are about 2 million registered Latino voters in the state, which is about 13 percent of the state's 15.2 million registered voters, according to the Southwest Voter Research Institute. Of the registered Latinos, an estimated 27.2 percent registered for the first time in 1992 or later.

Turnout at the polls has risen along with registration. In 1996, Latinos constituted an estimated 12 percent of all voters in California - up from 9.6 percent in 1994 and 7.9 percent in 1990.

In the November election, 53.4 percent of registered Latinos turned out at the polls - below the statewide percentage for all voters, but the highest turnout ever among Latinos.

While the dramatic shifts in these numbers is a recent phenomenon, their acceleration is traceable to years of grass-roots organizing by activists following a fairly simple formula:

Reach out to immigrants, give them access to citizenship classes and help them become naturalized citizens; convince them to empower themselves by registering to vote; organize their support or opposition to particular issues; and turn them out at the polls.

An array of organizations have sprung up in the San Fernando Valley that provide some form of citizenship processing.

Some of them, based in local schools and churches, focus solely on guiding people through the citizenship process. But others, such as Valley Organized In Community Efforts, or VOICE, have forged into political empowerment as well with registration drives aimed at increasing Latino voter rolls.

The Rev. Tom Rush, pastor at Mary Immaculate Catholic Church and co-chair of VOICE, said issues such as welfare reform and Proposition 187, the 1994 measure that denied public services to illegal immigrants, helped mobilize the Latino community like never before.

``There was a groundswell happening in the Latino community very different than before and very noticeable,'' he said.

``There was a desire by people to vote and take part. Before, there was interest, but it was a distant interest. It was like people were immobile or didn't know quite what to do.

``At this point people are saying, we want to get involved; what can we do?''

Rush said the challenge for Latino organizers is to mobilize these new voters around ongoing issues.

That, in turn, would allow them to organize neighborhood groups with the ability to affect public policy like the homeowners organizations and neighborhood groups that have traditionally been vehicles for political power for white and African-American voters.

``What's going to make the difference in the future for Latinos is getting people aware of the issues and getting them to take part in their communities,'' Rush said.

``With new citizens, there's a natural sense of them wanting to be involved,'' he added. ``They are eager to practice their civic right. The challenge for groups like us is to take advantage of this new energy and keep people involved. We have to help keep apathy from setting in.''

Across the Valley, activists like Rush are fanning out to increase Latino political power.

Some focus on helping people become citizens and registering them to vote. Others focus on issues that will rally people to the polls - from hot-button measures Proposition 187 and Proposition 209, which would eliminate affirmative action programs in the state, to more common neighborhood issues like schools or parks or public safety.

Some have formed organizations to rally around particular issues or causes. And some are involved in all three areas.

What follows are profiles of some of these activists and the work they are doing in the San Fernando Valley.

It is neither a definitive list nor a ranking of who is most involved. It is simply a cross-section spotlighting examples of the political activism that is building in Latino neighborhoods across the Valley.

``They are the heroes we sometimes don't hear about,'' said Jose Hernandez, a professor of Chicano studies at CSUN and former mayor of the city of San Fernando. ``They are the daily types that are there when the community calls upon them.''


Age: 45

Occupation: Parent adviser for the L.A. Unified School District.

Residence: Pacoima

After immigrating from Mexico 23 years ago, Tony Alcala cleaned restrooms and washed dishes for up to 16 hours a day, six days a week for 11 years. Then he bought his first home in Sun Valley.

It would have been the American Dream, except Alcala wasn't a citizen and he had little, if any, political clout in his community.

That missing dimension weighed on Alcala, even after he qualified for amnesty in 1990.

``If we want to keep our quality of life, we have to be involved,'' he said. ``We live in a system where if we don't ask for our rights, they don't give them to us. We have to be active. We have to know what's going on in the community.''

Inspired by activist neighbors, Alcala began to attend community events, enrolled at Mission College, where he's still a student, and began the lengthy process of gaining citizenship, which he acquired in September.

In the process, he discovered other neighborhood activists, including a number of Latino leaders, and joined them in mobilizing opposition to liquor permits at neighborhood markets and a planned septic waste facility in Sun Valley.

He has participated in neighborhood cleanup drives and has been a member of local community and economic development agencies. He has organized a soccer training camp at the annual Fourth of July celebration at Hansen Dam and a youth soccer league at Sun Valley Middle School.

Through his job as a parent adviser in the Los Angeles Unified School District, he has helped guide parents, especially those with limited English skills, through the school district's bureaucracy.

``We are trying to take back our future politically,'' Alcala said of the growing political activism in the Latino community. ``I'm talking about taking our own education and our own destiny into our hands. I'm talking about having people respect us.''

Along the way, Alcala said, he's witnessed the stresses that changing political realities bring.

``I've been to community meetings where people tell me, `You don't belong here,' '' Alcala said. ``Maybe they see me as a threat.''

Others, however, respect his commitment and his ideas, and Alcala said he sees a growing cooperation among activists of all backgrounds.

``We might all be from different backgrounds, but we all want the same things for our kids,'' he said.


Age: 56

Occupation: Executive director of the nonprofit Latin American Civic Association.

Residence: Mission Hills

When Irene Tovar and other San Fernando Valley Latino activists created the Latin American Civic Association in 1960, their goal was to found a preschool for 25 Latino children.

They recognized that many Latinos weren't getting either a high school or college diploma, and as such their roles as future leaders in Southern California were jeopardized.

What began in a community center room at Las Palmas Park in the city of San Fernando has grown geometrically since then, not only in numbers but in the influence of LACA and its leadership.

Today, Tovar is head administrator for the federally funded Headstart program in the San Fernando Valley, which administers a $7.5 million budget for classes, meals and medical and dental care to about 1,400 children of all races at 30 sites. Parents are eligible for counseling services and job referrals.

LACA, meanwhile, obtained financing and built a 50-unit apartment complex in Panorama City, and is seeking funding for a new housing program designed to help low-income families buy their own homes.

Tovar, who grew up ``extremely poor'' in Pacoima and graduated from CSUN in the late 1960s, has spent more than 30 years building a network of contacts throughout the community.

In addition to LACA, she helped found the San Fernando Valley Neighborhood Legal Services, an agency providing free legal advice to mainly low-income Valley residents, many of them Latinos.

She also has worked to help low-income Valley residents get better access to social services.

``We move based on the commitment that we want to make our community self-sufficient and self-reliable,'' Tovar said, adding that the message extends across ethnic boundaries.

``I would hope that all of us, whether we are Latinos or not, realize we are interdependent,'' she said.


Age: 54

Occupation: Facilities administrator at Pacific Bell

Residence: Pacoima

Four years ago, Cecelia Barragan spent much of her time quietly teaching catechism to youths at her local Catholic church. Then she attended a rally demanding better public education standards, and she found a new calling.

``I saw all these masses of people going to this event to let their voices be heard,'' Barragan said. ``People there were frustrated with the education system. There were politicians, and I thought maybe something can be done.''

She started attending local meetings of VOICE, or Valley Organized in Community Efforts, and became increasingly confident about speaking her mind.

``Everybody was volunteering for different things,'' she said. ``Little by little, I realized that my voice mattered. People stopped and listened and took an interest in me.''

VOICE, formed in 1988, is a church-based activist organization dedicated to mobilizing and empowering disenfranchised residents of the San Fernando Valley.

It has rallied the community to combat the problems of abandoned cars, graffiti and gangs. It has entered the political arena on numerous occasions and was among the leaders in pushing for the successful closure of the nearby Lopez Canyon landfill, operated by the city of Los Angeles.

Barragan has become one of its prominent leaders. Last year, she gave up her five-week vacation to run workshops for people seeking to become citizens and to help register to vote others who had become naturalized.

She organized door-to-door precinct walks, among other efforts, and along with about 200 other VOICE volunteers succeeded in processing 3,507 citizenship applications this year and encouraging 15,960 new and occasional Valley voters to go to the polls in November.

Proposition 187's passage in 1994 added new impetus to her efforts, she said.

``People are not treated equally and respected as human beings,'' she said. ``I take that very personally.''

But Barragan said her political efforts extend beyond new immigrants.

``It isn't just a Latino cause, it's anybody who is down,'' she said. ``Anybody who has always been on the outside. If we build ourselves up, we help the rest of the Valley.''

Personal responsibility and empowerment is what counts, she said.

``You are taking a position when you choose not to get involved,'' she said.

In recent years, Barragan has visited Washington, D.C., to lobby for Immigration and Naturalization Service outreach centers, Sacramento to push for state funding for an anti-gang program and to Los Angeles City Hall on an array of other issues.

``This work is something that has touched my whole being,'' she said. ``I've become aware of how much power we do have when we get together. It isn't just Latinos, it's all of us working together for equality.''


Age: 43

Occupation: Executive director of Pueblo y Salud

Residence: Palmdale; Office: City of San Fernando

Xavier Flores was just 17 when he embraced the nascent civil rights movement of the late 1960s, organizing student boycotts at his Oxnard high school to protest the low number of Latino teachers and administrators there, and to press for a Latino history curriculum.

Later, after studying at Moorpark Community College and Cal State Northridge, Flores began to register new Latino voters.

At first it was slow going, as he and others encountered many of the historic problems that have kept Latino voters away from the polls: a distrust by many new immigrants of the government, language barriers and unfamiliarity with the democratic process.

But they persisted, and gradually a network of individuals and organizations began to emerge and to garner results, said Flores, who is the executive director of Pueblo y Salud, a nonprofit group in the City of San Fernando that fights alcohol and tobacco a`buse.

The connections were largely in place - including the Mexican American Political Association's local chapter that Flores helps lead - when Proposition 187 triggered a surge in Latino voter registration.

In two years, Flores said, local organizations registered more than 13,000 Latinos in the San Fernando Valley alone - a rate that far exceeded earlier efforts, he said. The San Fernando Valley Voter Registration Education Project, which Flores chairs, was responsible for 5,000 of those.

The organization has implemented more than a dozen voter registration drives in the last 12 years, and it is a process, Flores said, that Latino leaders are committed to continuing.

``Opening up the political doors through voter registration will allow us to open up the economic doors,'' he said.


Age: 39

Occupation: English teacher at Sepulveda Middle School

Residence: Pacoima

Once a Junior Olympics national boxing champion, Pacoima teacher Francisco Flores has never lost his fighter's instinct - only these days he's battling for the next generation of leaders.

As such, he's emerged as a community leader, recognized by LAPD officers and others for his efforts on behalf of youths.

``There is a great need, and if you don't fill it who will?'' Flores said. ``I think we have to empower kids if you want them to be able to make decisions and change things in their lives.''

Flores regularly takes low-income youths on field trips with Meet Each Need with Dignity, a Pacoima-based organization that provides food, clothing, counseling and medical care to more than 13,000 low-income people each month.

He also volunteers nightly as a boxing coach for at-risk youths as part of the LAPD's Jeopardy anti-gang program.

``I'm not making fighters out of them,'' he said. ``I'm making better citizens out of them through self-discipline, honesty, sportsmanship and dedication. This is a tool to motivate them.''

The lesson is always the same: Don't give up th`e fight.

For Flores, that also means joining other community activists in trying to stop a consortium of oil companies from building a 132-mile pipeline from Kern County to southern Los Angeles County, which would run about five blocks from his house.

Flores said he first learned about the so-called Pacific Pipeline after seeing a notice about a hearing on the proposal in October 1994, and quickly joined a door-to-door effort to try to block it.

``People from Sylmar, Pacoima and San Fernando are learning how to get together and influence an issue for the first time,'' Flores said.


Age: 33

Occupation: Small-business owner

Residence: City of San Fernando

Rafael Torres had no political aspirations when he opened a restaurant in Sylmar two years ago. He simply wanted to run a successful business.

But Casa Torres has become a popular spot for political fund-raisers - at least six have been held there this year - and Torres, 33, says he's increasingly aware of the way politics and business interconnect.

``There is a lot of activity that affects businesses,'' he said. ``There's signage issues, planning and city projects.

``So many businesses keep to themselves,'' he said. ``We need to get involved and get to know each other if we want to make things better.''

So Torres has gotten involved. He's a volunteer on a San Fernando City Council commission on economic development, has joined the local Kiwanis Club and is building a network of contacts.

A graduate of Valley College with a degree in accounting, Torres is an emerging community leader, said Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alarcon.

``The people in the community are very proud of him and see him as a role model for what a person can accomplish through hard work and through a sense of respect for where he came from,'' Alarcon said.

Torres offers an equal respect for Alarcon and for Tony Cardenas, another local activist who in November was elected to the state Assembly.

```They grew up in the community, and I believe they can relate to us,'' he said. ``They want to do something better for the area and for Latinos.''


Age: 42

Occupation: Executive director of Cities In Schools

Residence: Sylmar

It was the gang-related death of one of his teen-age sons in 1990 that steered William ``Blinky'' Rodriguez into action, convincing him to forge a Valleywide truce among Latino gangs two years later.

The truce these days often seems so fragile that there is some dispute as to whether it still exists. But it has come to symbolize the community's willingness to take back its streets and work with youths in shaping their futures.

``What drove me was the passion that God gave me as it related to violence and the loss of my son,'' Rodriguez said. ``It's been a long haul, but we're still here.''

From the start, Rodriguez realized his personal struggle would remain limited if he worked alone. He tapped the shoulders of former gang members and churches, and sought the support of council member Alarcon.

Today, in addition to exhorting gang members to keep the peace, Rodriguez also heads a program designed to encourage kids to stay in school.

Insisting that street leaders like himself have to go further, he is taking part in the nonprofit Valley Leadership Institute's 10-month training program, which seeks to cultivate about 25 community leaders each year.

``I'm learning more about the mechanics and nuts and bolts of how the Valley operates,'' Rodriguez said. ``It's a good place for networking and meeting people who might feel your passion and say, hey, what can I do to help?'

``When it's all said and done, this Valley belongs to all of us,'' he said. ``No one entity can do it all.

``Grass-roots is really the buzz,'' Rodriguez added. ``If there is going to be change, people realize they have to be about that change.''


Age: 53

Occupation: San Fernando cluster administrator for the L.A. U`nified School District

Residence: Santa Clarita

Maria Reza was among a handful of Latino teachers when she began teaching at San Fernando High School in 1969, and she joined the Mexican American Political Association in an effort to increase Latino representation in the schools.

``There wasn't any power structure (in the Valley),'' she said. ``We were invisible.

``We were the first generation of college graduates in our families,'' Reza added. ``I was the first Latino home economics teacher at San Fernando High School.''

Today, she is one of the highest-ranking Latino administrators in the Los Angeles Unified School District, overseeing 19 schools with about 24,000 students. She also has a keen sense of community activism.

``Issues like Prop. 187 and 209 have given us a wakeup call to stand up and listen and become part of the democratic process,'' she said.

``But it's up to us to inform others about the truth of our needs and our strengths. We have not been taught as a culture to speak out. We have to learn and develop those skills if we want our voices to be heard.''


Age: 49

Occupation: President and CEO of El Proyecto del Barrio Inc., a health and human service nonprofit organization based in Arleta

Residence: Panorama City

As a college student during the 1970s, Corinne Sanchez was active in the Latino student political organization MEChA, or Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan, at California State University, Long Beach.

``With the student movement and the Vietnam War, I became sensitive to the disparities that existed with people of color, particularly for African-Americans and Latinos,'' Sanchez said.

Her professional life since college has been dedicated to empowering the disenfranchised.

She first went to work for Montal Education Associates, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting Latinos into higher education administrative positions. She then worked as a deputy director for Chicana Action Services C`enter in downtown Los Angeles, helping Latinas train for employment and providing assistance to battered women.

She went back to school and received a law degree while working for El Proyecto del Barrio, later becoming its president and CEO. The agency serves about 25,000 clients a year through medical and dental services, tutoring and cultural programs for youths and job development services for low-income residents.

Sanchez also practices law part time, and last year incorporated a community agency she helped found in 1991, the San Fernando Valley Partnership, an anti-substance abuse organization.

She also sits on numerous local, city and state boards of health and legal associations.

``It's a small community,'' she said. ``We all know each other. Each of us tries to help get people on their feet. We're dealing with a lot of basics, getting people educations, jobs, housings, helping these people empower themselves.''

In addition to the social services offered at her agency, Sanchez and her staff have registered voters and held classes teaching people how to register voters.

This year for the first time, they also conducted a ``get out the vote'' campaign, calling registered voters before and during election day.

``We believe people who become more educated and employed should have some say in the status of their future, and that's through voting.''


Age: 23

Occupation: University student and president of Associated Students Inc. of Cal State Northridge

Residence: Northridge

Vladimir Cerna can't vote, but the president of Cal State University Northridge's Associated Students organization spent the past year using his campus position to help drive his fellow students to the polls.

A native of El Salvador who will be eligible to apply for citizenship in the year 2000, Cerna made headlines across the state when he invited former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke to the school for a debate on affirmative action.

Cerna, 23, who` said his father and uncle were killed in El Salvador because of their progressive political views, said his activism stems largely from growing up under a repressive regime.

``I come from a country that hasn't allowed criticism of government policies,'' said Cerna, who arrived in Los Angeles as a political refugee when he was 13. ``In the United States, I feel like a kid in a candy store. You can speak to your legislators, campaign against someone you don't want to be elected. There are so many ways to change things you think are wrong.''

The Northridge resident has made some enemies on campus for his outspoken views and was threatened with a recall campaign by some student leaders, who objected to the invitation of Duke.

``A leader is someone who can make difficult decisions in difficult times,'' said Cerna of his decision to invite Duke.

In addition to his duties as student body president, Cerna is a member of various Latino organizations on campus, including the Latino Business Association and MEChA.

``They provide a network of information that becomes useful when it comes time to challenging positions and offering solutions,'' said Cerna, who also works with local chapters of groups such as the National Organization for Women.

With the final say over a budget of nearly $4 million raised through student fees, Cerna has won praise for helping trim parking fees, battle tuition hikes and build links among student campus groups.

``He has been a very sensitive leader that has not been pigeonholed into his own community needs,'' said Tom Piernik, the university's director for the Office of Student Development and International Programs.


10 Photos

Photo: (1--color) Tony Alcala, 45, advises parents on how to involve themselves with the Los Angeles Unified School District and gain improvements for their kids.

(2--color) Pacoima's Cecelia Barragan, 54, found her voice by volunteering in numerous neighborhood projects through a network of community religious groups.

Terri Thuente/Daily News

(3--color) Irene Tovar, of Mission Hills, is executive director and a founding member of the Latin American Civic Association, as well as Valley head for Headstart.

Myung J. Chun/Daily News

(4) Xavier Flores, active in his community since age 17, now runs a Valley group fighting alcohol and tobacco abuse.

Gus Ruelas/Daily News

(5) Maria Reza, 53, rose from being a home economics teacher at San Fernando High to a position as one of the highest-ranking Latinos in the Los Angeles Unified School District, overseeing 19 schools.

Tom Mendoza/Daily News

(6) English teacher Francisco Flores, once a Junior Olympics boxing champion, is still fighting for youths and community, rallying against a pipeline project through his neighborhood.

Gus Ruelas/Daily News

(7) Part-time lawyer Corinne Sanchez, 49, is president of a nonprofit human services organization for the needy in Arleta.

Tina Gerson/Daily News

(8) After the gang-related death of his son, William ``Blinky'' Rodriguez dedicated himself to developing a gang truce in the San Fernando Valley. While results have been fragile, his grass-roots efforts have attracted attention across the city.

Tom Mendoza/Daily News

(9) Rafael Torres, 33, was drawn into leadership as a business owner in San Fernando, where political fund-raisers are held at his restaurant.

Myung J. Chun/Daily News

(10) Cal State Northridge student body President Vladimir Cerna, 23, has been working to open his constituents' eyes to the sometimes controversial opportunities of democracy.

Gus Ruelas/Daily News
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Dec 29, 1996

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