Grass-Roots Group Seeks to Tear Down Walls, Get Out Vote

Times Staff Writer

The voice behind the black screen door sounded dubious. "What party are you from?" the woman wanted to know.

Angelina Cepeda, a volunteer canvasser for the East Valleys Organization, stood on the doorstep and patiently went through her routine one more time. She wasn't from a political party, she said, but a community organization seeking to make some deep social changes in the San Gabriel Valley.

"There are people with no one to take care of their children while they work," Cepeda said in Spanish. "There are people being paid less than the minimum wage. There are sick people being turned away at hospitals."

A wisp of cigarette smoke floated through the screen. "I don't know what to say," said the woman behind the screen. "I still don't know what party you're from."

For Cepeda and fellow canvasser Tom Caughlin, this was a particularly resistant block in El Monte--a short dead-end street whose mostly Spanish-speaking residents looked at strangers with stony-eyed distrust.

Cepeda and Caughlin were gathering signatures on a document their organization calls "the agenda," a nine-point program, painstakingly stitched together in the past year during countless neighborhood meetings. It calls for a varied program of social improvement, with items on the diverse list ranging from drug-free parks to lower auto insurance rates.

"There are problems that can't be solved without the help of people like you," Cepeda, a full-time factory worker, told one would-be petition-signer on the same block.

"I want to think about it," the man replied.

The East Valleys Organization is composed of 12 San Gabriel Valley churches, both Catholic and Protestant, representing 35,000 families. Members of each church have met with families in their parish--all told, about 14,000 men, women and children in the region--to find out what was on their minds and hammer their thoughts into a program.

Petitions collected all over the metropolitan area by about 500 precinct workers from the group and two sister organizations --"leverage in gaining the support of political leaders," one EVO leader called the petitions--will be on display next Friday at a rally at Pasadena Community College. EVO and its sister organizations--the South Central Organizing Committee (SCOC) and the United Neighborhoods Organization (UNO), have invited national political candidates to attend.

According to EVO, word from the Dukakis campaign reached the group on Thursday that Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis would accept the invitation. As of late Thursday, the Dukakis campaign would not confirm the report.

EVO started to agitate for change, modestly enough, last year in El Monte and South El Monte. Very much on residents' minds in those two cities was the kind of grocery stores they had to shop in, EVO representatives found. People complained that the local stores were over-priced and dirty.

Grocery Stores Targeted

Their concerns were well-founded, says EVO leader Margarita Vargas, a Baldwin Park housewife who participated in the action. A large group of parishioners from Church of the Nativity in El Monte, carrying clipboards and pens, marched through the aisles of Crawford's in El Monte and Santa Fe Farm in South El Monte. They found, among other things, dirty floors, congealed beef blood, moldering produce and mouse droppings, Vargas said.

The group demanded that the managers of the two stores clean them up in a month or face further action by the group.

"They did it," said Vargas sunnily. "They cleaned up. Now the store owners are asking us to help get rid of prostitution in their areas."

From there, EVO joined forces with SCOC and UNO, which operate, respectively, in South Central Los Angeles and East Los Angeles, to campaign for an increase in the state minimum wage.

Last December, largely because of pressure from the three groups, the state Industrial Welfare Commission raised the wage from $3.50 an hour to $4.25 beginning in July.

In July, the three organizations--which generally follow the prescriptions of the late Saul Alinsky, a Chicago social reformer of the 1930s and 1940s, for agitating for social change--began the "Sign Up/Take Charge" campaign. After a rally at Los Angeles Community College, attended by 1,500, the organization sent about 500 precinct workers into the field to collect signatures on the agenda and to register new voters.

EVO workers have collected about 20,000 signatures.

But the going is tough, says Cepeda. "A lot of people get used to suffering quietly," she said. "All they hear is promises that don't come through. I can't blame them (for their apathy)."

The beauty of "the agenda," suggests EVO leader Marie Krajci, is that its goals are both progressive and attainable. "I used to shrug my shoulders and say, 'What can I do?' " said Krajci, a former employee of the Los Angeles Unified School District who quit her job to work for EVO full time. "But people do have power if they choose to exercise it."

Housing Shortage

For example, the three organizations plan to attack the housing shortage by pooling their resources to build 1,000 new single-family homes at a maximum cost of $75,000 each. They endorse Propositions 97 and 98, to create a state occupational safety program and increase funds for schools. They are pressing for an extension of the immigration amnesty program and for increased resources to teach English to amnesty applicants.

They are advancing an innovative "safe harbor" program for neighborhood parks, using police and school personnel to provide a "high-profile presence" so that criminals and drug dealers would leave the parks to children.

"In Pomona, there are certain parks where families don't let their children go because of gang activity," Vargas said. "One suggestion that was made at the City Council was to bulldoze them. We don't think that's the solution."

Cepeda at last enticed the would-be petition signer from behind her screen. The grandmotherly woman, carrying a toddler in her arms, stepped onto her door stoop and launched into an attack on the welfare system, drug dealers and greedy landlords.

After the woman had signed, Caughlin looked restlessly toward the next house. "After dinner may be the wrong time to get 'em," he said. "They all seem to want to talk."

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