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Cultures Follow Separate Paths in Huntington Park

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

It was a typical Sunday and St. Matthias Catholic Church in Huntington Park was alive with more than 600 Latinos. Children were everywhere, in their parents’ arms, standing on chairs and moving quickly down the aisles.

During Mass, two women gave testimonials in Spanish of how they learned to read and write. Father Jose Diaz pushed amnesty and literacy classes from the pulpit: “It’s never too late to learn.”

Meanwhile, across town at the Community Congregational Church, about 25 whites, mostly senior citizens, sat quietly in a small chapel, listening to a sermon on how to pray more effectively. They are survivors of Huntington Park’s past, which is all but dead.

“Things have gotten so bad,” a 66-year-old woman in a fur hat said after the service. “It is heartbreaking to see this happen in this city.”

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Nowhere in Southern California has the dramatic influx of Latin American immigrants been more acutely felt than in Huntington Park. While other cities have scrambled to deal with newly discovered pockets of immigrants, Huntington Park has been overwhelmed by them.

In the old Huntington Park--in the early 1960s--Anglos made up more than 80% of the 30,000 residents. Many of the town’s settlers were transplanted “Okies” who escaped the Dust Bowl misery during the Depression. They felt secure in neat middle-class neighborhoods just 7 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles. The few Latinos who lived in town were middle-class professionals who participated in civic activities.

In today’s Huntington Park, Latinos--many of them ineligible to vote because they are illegal immigrants--make up more than 90% of the city’s estimated population of 59,000. The 1980 census found that 54% of the city’s Latino population were not U.S. citizens.

Attracted by cheap housing and an already-large Latino population, the new wave of immigrants has transformed a large swath of Southeast Los Angeles County cities, including Bell, Cudahy, Bell Gardens and South Gate, from predominantly Anglo suburbs into Latino barrios.

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Despite this dramatic shift, Huntington Park remains in the hands of a cadre of Anglo officials, some of whom were first elected to office more than 20 years ago.

A RAND Corp. study in the early 1980s called the city an urban disaster. And last year, a Chicago-based urbanologist named Huntington Park one of the 10 poorest communities in the nation.

It is a town where the English-speaking Establishment has held on to political power--no Latino has ever been elected to the five-member City Council; where the Municipal Court judges several years ago tried to ban the use of Spanish by their clerical workers; where Latino activists once accused the predominantly Anglo police force of routinely harassing and brutalizing Latinos, and where longtime Anglo residents now feel like foreigners.

The two groups--Anglo and Latino--coexist but seldom mix at restaurants, in nightclubs, at City Hall or anywhere else.

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“We feel we’re being squeezed out,” said Anne Parks, the wife of 16-year City Council veteran Jack W. Parks. “I went shopping downtown looking for an English (recording) to give for a gift. I couldn’t find one. I was so mad I wanted to move.”

The City Council may be the most segregated institution in Huntington Park, but that could change Tuesday, when municipal elections are held for three of the council’s five seats. A Latino is expected to capture a seat vacated by a retiring Anglo councilman. The two other seats are being contested as well.

“We’ll be better able to have empathy for (Latino constituents),” said candidate Raul Perez, a native of Guadalajara, Mexico, who is favored to capture one of the seats. The 47-year-old real estate loan officer is waging his sixth campaign for City Council.

For years, Latino political activists and voters-rights groups have singled out Huntington Park as a glaring example of a town where an ethnic minority has become a huge majority without winning a place in City Hall.

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And there is a ripple effect, critics complain. None of the city’s nine top administrators are Latino, and just two of Huntington Park’s 18 appointed commissioners are Latino.

Despite their numbers, Latinos have had little political clout in Huntington Park because many are not citizens and cannot vote.

The chances for a Latino to win a seat this year were greatly improved when Herbert A. Hennes Jr. decided to retire for personal reasons. He had been a councilman since 1970.

Incorporated in 1906, the city was a community where professionals and blue-collar workers lived comfortably within a short distance of downtown Los Angeles.

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Its major thoroughfare, Pacific Boulevard, was a bustling business district fueled by well-stocked stores--Bond’s, Harris & Frank and the like. A streetcar line brought shoppers into the area.

“It was the hub of the whole Southeast area and, really, a nice place to live,” recalled former state Sen. Lawrence E. Walsh, a longtime Huntington Park resident who was the city’s mayor in the mid-1960s before representing the area in the Legislature.

“It was the kind of town where you knew everybody and their kids in grammar school, junior high school and at Huntington Park High,” Walsh said.

Before the 1960s, Huntington Park was a tranquil neighbor of the black areas of Watts, Florence and South-Central Los Angeles.

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Behind the tranquility of suburban life was an unbending brand of conservative politics. Area voters, although heavily Democratic, were successfully wooed in the 1950s and 1960s by lawmakers who mixed a fondness for family values with a rigid stance against changing the status quo.

But Huntington Park was never the same after the 1965 Watts riots.

Although the violence and destruction never reached the city, troubled Anglo residents looked west across Alameda Street and feared that the billowing smoke on the horizon meant trouble.

“It scared . . . a lot of people,” said one longtime city resident, who asked not to be named. “I mean, people packed up in droves.”

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“White flight” meant looking for safer homes in other Southeast communities, such as Downey, and in Orange County. Although the city’s population actually increased from 29,920 in 1960 to 33,491 in 1975, thousands of Anglo residents moved out of town. Many rented out their properties, creating affordable housing.

During the same period, Chicanos from East Los Angeles and other areas moved in, and so did thousands of immigrants who fled poverty in Mexico and political persecution in Central America.

Pacific Boulevard eventually fell into disfavor with affluent shoppers. The loss of a trolley line and the riots were a powerful combination that sent the shopping district, between Florence and Slauson avenues, reeling. By the early 1970s, nearly half of the district’s 200 stores on the boulevard had gone bankrupt or relocated elsewhere.

The sweeping change in Huntington Park has pumped life into institutions that have embraced it, and strangled others that have resisted. One of the best examples is the town’s churches.

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St. Matthias Roman Catholic Church is the biggest in town, with more than 5,000 families as parishioners and six Masses in Spanish and three in English each Sunday. “It’s either die or integrate,” said Father Rody Gorman, the pastor.

The church, along with another Roman Catholic parish, St. Martha’s, has also become a cultural and social pillar of the new Huntington Park.

St. Matthias offers amnesty and literacy classes, and the church organized and helps run an interdenominational food bank that assists about 2,000 people a month, Gorman said.

The two parishes have thrown their weight behind voter-registration and get-out-the-vote drives sponsored in part by the United Neighborhoods Organization, a Latino grass-roots group.

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“Not enough Latino people are registered to vote,” Gorman said. “It’s extremely difficult to get (immigrants) politically interested.”

There is a different kind of problem across town at the Community Congregational Church. It is slowly dying. It has only about 60 active members, about 30 of whom attend a single weekly service, said church leader Harold Frentz, a retired bank vice president.

In the church’s heyday of the mid-1970s, he said, as many as 150 people would attend services. The church, founded in 1962, sold its building last year because of the declining membership and now rents space in it to hold services.

“A lot of the people who were the old Anglo-Saxon type died or moved off,” Frentz said. “I don’t know if our church will be around in another 10 years.”

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If there is one group happy over the influx of Latino immigrants, it is the merchants along Pacific Boulevard. The once-struggling business district is booming again as Latinos from Huntington Park and surrounding cities scoop up goods along the boulevard, commonly known as La Calle to its shoppers.

It is one of the Southland’s premier shopping areas for Latinos. Vibrant but blaring Mexican ranchera music and the aroma of tacos envelop a collection of food stands, well-stocked vaquero clothing stores and department outlets.

The boulevard’s sidewalks are also the favorite ground for a familiar sight in Latin America, the ubiquitous food-sellers. They are mostly young mothers who hawk corn on the cob or meat burritos in one hand and hold an infant in the other.

“My husband isn’t working right now, so I have to do what I can,” said 22-year-old Marta Zamora, a mother of two from Mexico. “And corn is easy to cook.”

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For years, Latino residents had a particularly tough time with Huntington Park police. The department, which Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner once called an “embarrassment” to law enforcement, has been at the center of controversy.

In the late 1970s, Latino activists fumed when the police helped U.S. immigration agents arrest more than 80 residents of a local apartment building.

Racial tensions were compounded in 1984, when Southeast Municipal Court officials approved an English-only rule. The judges, including former Huntington Park Councilman Russell L. Schooling, forbade Latino employees to speak Spanish in the courthouse after a black employee complained that she could not understand her fellow workers.

The judges eventually dropped the rule, and the county was forced to pay an $85,000 settlement to a Latino employee who filed a discrimination lawsuit.

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In late 1987, community-police relations hit an all-time low when two police officers were convicted of torturing a burglary suspect with a stun gun to extract a confession. The suspect was a 17-year-old Salvadoran youth.

One officer served 64 days in County Jail and the other served about a year in state prison. The city paid $300,000 to settle a lawsuit resulting from the incident.

Several months after that incident, the City Council reluctantly fired Police Chief Geano Contessotto. The new chief, Patrick M. Connolly, quickly set out to improve his department’s rapport with the community.

Connolly, former head of the UCLA campus police, secured a state grant and set up a boxing club for local youths in 1988. Connolly said the 56-officer department also is trying to hire more Latino and Spanish-speaking officers. Latinos now account for about 25% of the force, but none are ranked higher than sergeant.

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In the eyes of the Fry family, Huntington Park today is more Latin America than Smalltown, U.S.A.

David Fry, 51, lives with his wife and daughter in a tidy wood-frame house on Miles Avenue, several blocks north of City Hall. A real estate agent in Huntington Park since the late 1950s, Fry abandoned residential sales for commercial sales years ago because he doesn’t speak Spanish. Few of the house-hunters knew English.

The Frys do mix with well-established Latinos at the Moose and Elks lodges, but said they almost never socialize with or even talk to the immigrants who now are the backbone of the city.

Because of the language barrier, Fry’s wife, Gail, doesn’t know her next-door neighbors--a Latino family that has lived there for 13 years.

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“If I see them, I’ll wave and say ‘Good morning,’ ” she said. “We’re friendly but we don’t talk.”

Their daughter, Jeanne, a top student at Huntington Park High, tutors classmates in calculus after school. She is one of the few Anglos on campus, where nearly 98% of the 3,600 students are Latino, but says many of her friends are Latino. She aspires to become a lawyer, but added that she plans to leave town after graduation.

While the Frys long for the old Huntington Park, newer residents like Jose Dagoberto Reyes think the city is a perfect gateway to American life.

“I go to the library and most of the people speak Spanish,” Reyes said in Spanish. “In the parks, in the streets there are people with the same values. It feels good.”

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Reyes fled the civil strife in El Salvador in 1981. He lives with his wife and five children in cramped quarters in a small guest house three blocks from Pacific Boulevard.

And like David Fry, Reyes, a 45-year-old sculptor, doesn’t mix with others in town who don’t speak his language.

“The city doesn’t have programs to integrate the people,” he said. “There’s no socialization. We don’t mix because we have the feeling that we are not in our own home.”

But as the Latino population continues to swell even larger and become more established, a new Huntington Park is taking form. Many Latinos say the small city will provide them with opportunities they never had before.

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High school senior Joel Perez, 17--no relation to Tuesday’s council candidate--wants to become a teacher and has his eye on bigger things.

“I have a plan,” Perez said. “I don’t know if it will ever come true, but I’ve been thinking about running for City Council, for mayor of Huntington Park.”


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