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Long Beach’s Once-Struggling Centro : Latino Center Makes Grand Plans

Times Staff Writer

A struggling Latino neighborhood center for most of its 16 years, the Centro de la Raza has a new name, a new home and a budget nearly free of public money.

“We’ve reached the point we’ve been trying to reach for years, and it feels damned good,” said Centro’s executive director, Armando Vazquez-Ramos, last week. “We are not dependent on any public money.”

Born of the anti-poverty campaigns of the late 1960s, the Centro’s fortunes rose and fell with the flow of government dollars.

Social Programs Died

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In 1979, it was a $2-million business dealing in jobs, food, education, counseling, legal aid and voter registration. But by 1983, after federal and state grants were cut sharply, most of the social programs were gone and its future appeared bleak.

Now, after two years of retrenchment and reevaluation, a successful legal battle to occupy a landmark Long Beach church and a tripling of its dues-paying members, Long Beach’s only Latino community center has survived.

Its annual budget is less than $200,000 and it mainly provides legal aid to poor Latinos. But the signing of a large contract with a major department store to train Latino job hunters appears close.

And on July 23, after a three-year legal battle, the Centro took possession of the 61-year-old, domed Christian Science Church building at 7th Street and Cedar Avenue and four adjacent dwellings, including three turn-of-the-century homes. The center prevailed in an eviction dispute with the Academia Quinto Sol, a now-defunct educational arm of the Centro that also claims title to the property.

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Income From Rentals

The buildings, valued at $2 million, will net about $20,000 a year in rental fees. And, more importantly, they give the Centro a permanent home with room to grow, said Vazquez-Ramos, 36, whose office adjoins a handsome church lobby of rich mahogany.

Beginning next month, the church’s large basement will house 160 preschool students enrolled in a federal Headstart program during the day. Centro is only the landlord for Headstart, but it hopes to inaugurate its own after-school child-care program.

The Centro after-school program, using the church’s large auditorium, would provide instruction in the performing arts. “It would be something similar to a ‘Fame’ school, open evenings and weekends,” said Vazquez-Ramos. “Our long-term goal is to turn that building into a performing arts center. That’s the concept, that’s the dream.”

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As for the lots on which the four adjacent dwellings sit, he said, “We’ll eventually build a high-rise on that land, housing all of our programs.”

The reality, while encouraging, is decidedly less grand than the dream.

Financial Problems

“They have been crippled financially” by loss of grants, said Donald Pekich, a Long Beach lawyer and longtime volunteer in Centro’s legal aid program. “It’s served the community the best it can. I’ve been there many afternoons when the waiting rooms were just packed with people and their children wanting help with their problems.”

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Vazquez-Ramos, who said he makes about $30,000 a year, conceded that “we’re still very much strapped for money. We make ends meet, but we have to be constantly an a fund-generating frame of mind.”

That means that most activities embraced by the Centro must pay their own way. It also means that the programs must have as broad an appeal as possible.

With that in mind, Centro directors changed the name of the Centro last month from East Long Beach Neighborhood Center/Centro de la Raza to Pan-American Community Center Inc./Centro de la Raza.

The new name symbolizes a wider mission, said Vazquez-Ramos. The center will still serve the poor, but its clients will be the poor of all racial and ethnic groups, not just Latinos, he said.

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An Imposing Edifice

The Aug. 1 name change came a week after Centro staffers had moved from a tattered old storefront at Anaheim Street and Junipero Avenue into the 32,500-square-foot Corinthian-style church with its 80-foot-high dome and pillared entry.

The Centro will officially open at its new location the weekend of Oct. 11 with a public open house and three-day festival.

Although Centro officials say they are reaching out to a larger community, they acknowledge that most of their clients probably will still be Latino.

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“We could not be in a more ideal location,” said Vazquez-Ramos. “We’re right in the middle of the only concentration of Latinos in Long Beach that could be considered a Chicano barrio.”

‘Role of Advocacy’

The barrio lies in the southwestern part of downtown, north of Broadway, west of Magnolia Avenue and south of Anaheim Street. It borders the city’s downtown redevelopment zone.

“We hope to take a role of advocacy here,” said Vazquez-Ramos. “It’s a dilapidated, blighted area that the city has let go to bring in additional redevelopment, rather than committing resources to serve that population. There’s a human removal process going on.”

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Many residents of the area hold menial jobs in service industries, such as hotels, restaurants and stores, he said. “That’s a segment of the disenfranchised population that we have always advocated for, so we don’t intend to change our role. But we are limited by resources.”

Most of the efforts of the streamlined Centro go into its legal aid program.

For a $20 fee, the Centro’s 4,000 members receive legal consultation for one year. If clients are destitute, the fee is waived. Many questions are answered for no fee over the telephone. Three full-time clerks staff the legal aid center, while about 30 local attorneys volunteer their time, said Vazquez-Ramos.

Sources of Revenue

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Pekich, a volunteer counsel for seven years, said the attorneys feel they “owe a duty to this community.” They also get clients through the clinic.

The $80,000 the Centro gets from its memberships is augmented by a $62,000 annual grant from the Legal Services Trust Fund of the State Bar of California. The grant is awarded to agencies that provide legal help to the poor.

Additional Centro funding comes from the $20,000 in building rental fees, $9,000 from a grant to produce a 24-part cable television series on the law and $2,500 from the local Public Corp. for the Arts to organize a three-day performing arts festival set for June, 1986. Fund-raising events bring in additional money.

A large grant from Target Stores is now being negotiated, said Vazquez-Ramos. If the program is approved, the Centro would help recruit minority job applicants and show them how to effectively seek employment, he said. Curtis Robinson, manager of Target’s Bellflower Boulevard store, said a decision on the grant is about two weeks away. They would not specify the probable amount of the grant.

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Some Old Wounds

As the Centro transforms itself from a publicly funded anti-poverty agency into a self-sustaining business, it remains vulnerable to old wounds. Over the years it has been embroiled in numerous controversies. And its relations with City Hall have been abysmal.

It sued the city in 1979, claiming municipal mismanagement of local anti-poverty programs. In March, 1983, City Manager John Dever said in a report to the City Council:

“As the administering agency for several federal programs, the city has found serious inadequacies in Centro’s system of financial management.”

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Vazquez-Ramos then lashed out at Dever. No city funds were forthcoming for 1984-85, and Centro applied for none this fiscal year. Vazquez-Ramos blames the city for many of his troubles.

“We have no inclination to want to work with the city as long as John Dever is there and as long as there is a negative attitude toward the center,” said Vazquez-Ramos last week.

Most worrisome of the Centro’s problems, however, is the lawsuit over title to the church still pending against it by the Academia Quinto Sol, which exists now in name only, and its executive director, Francisco Sandoval. The suit should come to trial this fall, said Sandoval. Vazquez-Ramos said he doubts that the matter will ever come to trial.


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