City Cuts Off CSO : Flora Chavez Keeps Poor Afloat as Her Agency Sinks
At the cluttered office that Flora Chavez runs, her photographs of a 1960s civil rights march share space on the wall with pictures of the three Kennedy brothers, migrant farm workers and a favorite mariachi band.
On any given day, Chavez, 70, can be found counseling a Latino family on amnesty, or notarizing a business letter for someone who can’t speak English, or comforting a sick neighbor, or baking banana-nut muffins for the co-op market she has out back.
“We never turn anybody away, no matter how hard it gets,” said Chavez, a tirelessly energetic, slight woman whose white, wiry hair frames a face worn by time and care.
For Chavez, it’s all in a day’s work. But it’s work she fears will soon be ended, the victim of political and bureaucratic entanglements far beyond her grasp.
Chavez directs the West Los Angeles branch of the Community Service Organization (CSO), a statewide agency founded by Latino activist Tony Rios in 1947.
City Stopped Paying
Unlike the rest of the organization, Chavez’s branch, operating since 1966 out of a gray plaster one-story house in the low-income Oakwood section of Venice, depended largely on city funds. But the city stopped paying in January because of problems the parent CSO organization had with the Internal Revenue Service.
Although efforts are being made to find a way for Chavez’s branch to regain financing, Chavez thinks that it is only a matter of days or weeks until she will be forced to close her doors.
“And it will be a real shame,” she said in a Southwestern twang born of her Albuquerque, N.M., upbringing. “We make a difference here, believe you me.”
Chavez has always been a champion of underdog causes, from the civil-rights days of the ‘60s (“plenty of walkin’, plenty of sit-ins”) to what she says was around-the-clock amnesty work up to the deadline at midnight Wednesday.
Chavez is not Latina; the last name comes from her marriage to Filaberto Chavez in 1935 in New Mexico. Giving birth the next year to her first child, in a state with a high infant mortality rate, and then watching a friend’s baby die, awoke her to the need for better health care, especially for the poor. From that single mission, her crusading fervor grew.
Sitting in her office recently among stuffed filing cabinets and tables stacked high with papers, folders and books, she remembered her union-organizing days at the Lockheed plant in Burbank during World War II.
And she remembered the time back in the ‘60s--exact dates have faded--when she and colleagues picketed a Los Angeles grocery store every day for a year because it wouldn’t promote blacks.
And there was the time in Los Angeles when they lay down in front of cars belonging to Ku Klux Klan members to stop them from attending a meeting.
In the late ‘60s, there were trips, sometimes two or three a day, to haul medical supplies to migrant farm workers, and then marches with farm labor organizer Cesar Chavez (no relation).
In the ‘70s, crime on the streets of Venice became the adversary. Chavez and longtime Venice resident Pearl White, a CSO member and community activist, started their own version of Neighborhood Watch patrols.
Night after night, Chavez said, they would personally tend to victims of stabbings, shootings and muggings on the wild streets of Venice.
“You couldn’t get the police to come into Venice back then,” Chavez said. “It was hell.”
She lobbied to get more police attention and then for a Spanish-speaking police officer in the Venice barrio.
Helping Latino immigrants apply for amnesty or for other types of visas has filled her days recently. She says she has often become a “traveling notary,” hopping into her blue 1979 pickup truck and going to applicants’ workplaces to notarize the papers required to certify employment.
Chavez’s CSO operation also offers a nonprofit credit union, a buyers’ club, an inexpensive farmers market stocked with Mexican foods hard to find on the Westside, free legal advice on Saturdays and a translation service for Spanish-speakers. And in one of her toolsheds out back, next to the trailer where she lets a couple of homeless women live, she has stored toys and games destined for the children of migrant farm workers on holidays.
Chavez and CSO founder Rios met 30-odd years ago when they bumped into each other as they went door-to-door registering Latinos to vote in the Venice area.
Impressed by her activism and devotion, Rios recruited Chavez some years later for CSO on the Westside.
CSO, one of the oldest Chicano community groups in California, has 15 branches across the state. Cesar Chavez and Rep. Edward Roybal (D-Los Angeles), the first Mexican-American to serve on the Los Angeles City Council, sprang from the ranks of CSO.
The Westside CSO under Flora Chavez’s direction could be considered modest: Its city-funded budget last year was only $40,000; 225 people made first-time visits to Chavez’s office in search of help last year; first-time and repeat visits totaled 4,251.
But the visitors are people, Chavez and her supporters say, who might not find the same help elsewhere. They are the poor or the uninformed or the disfranchised who might otherwise fall through the cracks.
Chavez measures her victories in people such as Rosendo Carrillo.
Unlike scores of his friends, Carrillo took care of his immigration problems years ago. Lawyers were trying to overcharge him, he said, so he turned to Flora Chavez.
It was Chavez who guided him through the reams of legal paper work, and Carrillo was rewarded with a visa--long before immigration work became big business.
“I went to many lawyers; they robbed me,” Carrillo said. “Here, she got me my visa, only $30. Before, I had waited six years, paying money, carrying papers all over the place, told only to wait. I have a lot of faith in her.”
Carrillo returned to Chavez on a recent Friday afternoon, this time bringing a friend who needed similar help. The friend had to write and notarize a letter to immigration authorities; Chavez took down the information, charged a $5 notary fee and promised the letter for the following Monday.
Minutes earlier, a young, anxious Mexican family from Oaxaca had arrived, a sheaf of amnesty papers in hand.
“You have helped a lot of people?” the man of the family asked in Spanish. “I would like you to put our papers in order.”
Chavez, answering in the broken “Spanglish” that she speaks and dressed in blue polyester pants and tennis shoes, began to recite the litany of requirements: fingerprints, photographs, a marriage certificate for the couple and birth certificates, with official seals, for their two children.
And with that, Chavez had launched yet another amnesty application.
The Mexican father from Oaxaca said he had heard of Chavez through word of mouth in the neighborhood.
“We went to see a lawyer, but they charge a lot,” he said. “Then there is such a backlog, you spend a lot of time, waiting in line.”
“It’s a racket,” Chavez answered. "(The lawyers) take the money even when they know (the applicant) won’t qualify. This is the U.S.; we should have more integrity.”
Chavez says she is determined to continue some form of volunteer work even if her agency never regains financing. Maybe she’ll work on Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign, she said, or learn to give comfort to AIDS victims.
“I’ll keep busy,” she said. “I won’t be idle. Never have been. I’m tired, but I’ll never get too tired to be active.
“There’s a lot left to do. If everyone would do just a little, maybe things would start to change.”