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Unhappy Santa Ana Tenants Take Strike to Landlords’ Doors

Times Staff Writer

About 500 Santa Ana tenants who have refused to pay rent until landlords make needed improvements at their dilapidated dwellings picketed on Saturday at the homes of two apartment owners, drawing the wrath of at least one neighbor in the process.

The protesters, mostly Mexican nationals, first showed up aboard five school buses at the home of Richard Zanelli at 8902 Pinehurst Circle in Westminster. Zanelli, who owns about 140 apartments in Santa Ana, was not home, but the marchers, many with children in tow, nevertheless paraded around the block-long cul-de-sac.

They carried placards, chanted and passed out literature to Zanelli’s neighbors, asking their support in trying to persuade Zanelli to make repairs at their apartments.

Angry Neighbor Emerges

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Ten minutes into the demonstration, an angry neighbor, Gordon Lawrence, emerged from his home and began to lash out at the rent protesters with a barrage of profanity and racial slurs.

Lawrence, who lives four doors down from Zanelli, picked up a water hose and complained to a police officer that the protesters should not be using the sidewalk in front of his house.

Lawrence threatened the protesters and screamed at them.

“Come on, you wetbacks! You (expletive). Come on and I’ll turn you into the immigration,” he screamed repeatedly.

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Victor Lopez, one of the organizers of the pickets, stood almost face-to-face with Lawrence and challenged him to turn the water hose on him. Lawrence continued to scream but did not use the hose. Lopez then retreated when asked to by a police officer.

But then Clint Eastman, another neighbor, took up the cause for the protesters.

“Come on, Gordon! Wet me--I dare you! Come on and I’ll have you arrested,” Eastman told his neighbor.

Again Lawrence only screamed profanities.

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Eastman said later that Lawrence has had frequent run-ins with other residents in the quiet middle-class neighborhood over the years.

“I empathize with these people (the protesters),” Eastman added. “They live in terrible conditions down there.”

Lawrence, however, did not quit. He stood in his front lawn and sprayed water on his sidewalk, forcing the marchers to sidestep his house. He continued to taunt them and yell racial slurs.

Warned About Fighting

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Nativo Lopez, the organizer of the rent strike since its inception about five months ago, told the tenants not to fight with Lawrence or anyone else who tempted them.

Before the five buses took off for Santa Ana for the second protest, Lopez spoke to each busload forcefully, but calmly.

“We didn’t come here to fight, but to win over the good people. He (Lawrence) is a racist. But remember he is not the enemy . . . the enemy is Zanelli,” Lopez cautioned the protesters.

When the five buses arrived at the home of Pablo Sarabia at 1242 S. Marine St. in Santa Ana, the protesters were met by a counter-demonstration. Sarabia, who owns apartments at 829 S. Standard Ave., had gathered about 25 Salvadoran and Mexican tenants in his front yard to verbally counter the protesters.

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“Will Lopez clean your toilets?” and “Lopez tricks our own brothers” read some of the signs Sarabia’s supporters carried. The two groups taunted each other.

“You sell yourselves out for a dollar . . . or a piece of bread,” the tenants kept repeating.

Sarabia, who called the strikers “stupid” for protesting against him, carried a large tape player and tried to drown out the protesters’ chants with ranchera music.

“These people don’t know what they’re doing. They’re stupid. These others (the tenants supporting him) love me,” Sarabia said.

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‘Educate the Neighbors’

Nativo Lopez said the tenants, who call themselves “Families for Fairness,” picketed the neighborhoods of Zanelli and Sarabia to help “educate the neighbors” about their problems.

“We appeal to your sense of fairness and justice in our present plight to secure habitable living conditions as enjoyed in your neighborhood,” read the leaflet the protesters passed out to their landlords’ neighbors.

The rent strike--under the auspices of Hermandad Mexicana Nacional, an immigrants’ rights organization Lopez heads--has grown to include 500 tenants who are refusing to pay their rents until conditions at their apartments are improved.

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Because many or most of the strikers are thought to be in the United States illegally, their protest has attracted attention from around the country. Such militance is unusual, if not unprecedented, among illegal immigrants.

The renters three months ago were told to pay their rents to a court-appointed receiver, which was to oversee the needed repairs. However, in the past month most of them have refused to pay into the receivership, claiming the landlords have still refused to make the repairs.


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