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Latinos Hope Center Will Be Unifying Force : Culture: In addition to food giveaways and athletic programs, officials hope to offer classes and provide jobs and immigration information.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Latino community of Long Beach held a fiesta last weekend.

There were tacos and menudo. A mariachi band played tunes from Mexico. And Spanish-speaking youths from rough neighborhoods duked it out in a portable boxing ring as part of a well-monitored athletic exhibition.

The occasion was the opening of the new Latino Cultural Center, a community facility staffed by volunteers in an abandoned gymnasium on Atlantic Avenue across the street from Poly High School. One of the area’s few drop-in places for Latinos, the makeshift center is the creation of the Hispanic Apartment Managers Assn. and the Latino Entrepreneurial Assn., whose members wangled a deal with a local church for use of the 30,000-square-foot building.

“We wanted our kids to feel like they had a place to go,” said Luis Pinel, president of the 160-member apartment managers association.

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In addition to distributing donated food to poor families and providing athletic programs in boxing, basketball and soccer, Pinel said, organizers hope to offer classes at the center in English literacy and art, give out information on immigration, jobs and law enforcement, and hold community dances, concerts and meetings. All of its programs depend on volunteers.

Ultimately, they say, the new center could become an important social and political force for unity in the neighborhood, especially in light of the redistricting plan approved by the City Council last week that will make the area surrounding it a largely Latino councilmanic district.

“This is a good springboard for the Latino development of this area,” said Dan Torres, president of the local chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens and one of the leaders of El Concilio, the coalition that pushed for reapportionment. “Political empowerment is what we want. We see this as the fountainhead--the beginning of this community’s empowerment.”

Forming the backdrop, however, is another motivation, namely keeping up with the Cambodian community, whose members began arriving in the neighborhood as refugees just 10 years ago and have done remarkably well. One of the most visible symbols of their success in the eyes of many Latinos is a brand new $2.5-million Cambodian community center recently built, with the city’s help, on Anaheim Street. It stands on the onetime site of Centro de la Raza, an earlier Latino center that eventually closed due to internal strife and lack of funding.

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“We had (Latino) kids coming up to us and asking what was going on,” said Pinel in explaining his group’s desire to create a place where Latino youngsters could congregate. “This was a Latino neighborhood and suddenly there was a big change.”

In creating its own community center, the Latino group has not requested financial assistance from the city, said Aurelio E. Agundez, president of the Latino Entrepreneurial Assn., because its members believe in maintaining their own independence.

“We are entrepreneurs and we think that we can get the money on our own,” Agundez said. “We don’t want to rely on anybody’s charity; we want to show from the beginning that we are self-sufficient.”

By the same token, according to Pinel, many Latinos resented the eagerness and speed with which the city seemed willing to reach out and help the Cambodians.

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City officials deny that Cambodians have been shown any favoritism but acknowledge that the city played a pivotal role in helping them build their community center.

Encompassing 26,000 square feet on a large corner lot, the two-story Cambodian center on Anaheim Street--designed in the style of a pagoda--was paid for with the help of a $280,000 low-interest loan from the Local Initiative Support Corp., a national corporation set up to help struggling nonprofit groups, and a $170,000 deferred-interest loan from the city. In addition, said Than Pok, executive director of United Cambodian Community Inc., which owns the building, the city waived certain parking requirements to ease construction and helped secure a $1.6-million loan from Queen City Bank.

“The city was very supportive, and we couldn’t have done it without that,” acknowledged Pok. He said the rest of the money came from his organization’s coffers. “But what we got from the city wasn’t a favor, it was a loan. And we don’t feel that we took anything away from anyone; when we bought the lot it wasn’t a Latino center, it was just an eyesore abandoned by everyone.”

At one time, the site had been home to a movie theater. Later, in 1969, it was leased by Centro de la Raza, a community center that offered an array of social services to young Latinos. By 1986, when the Cambodians purchased the lot, however, the Latino center had already been relocated to the old Scottish Rite Temple on 7th Street, renamed Pan-American Plaza, where it eventually closed due to lack of funding and an internal dispute over ownership of the building.

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While City Council members generally say they acted properly in supporting the Cambodian center’s construction, some admit that the Cambodian community has achieved a better track record than most other minority groups in securing the city’s help.

"(It’s because) the Asian community has been more aggressive in pursuing its goals,” said Councilman Clarence Smith, whose district includes the area where the new Latino center stands. “Some of the Cambodians came here with a lot of managerial and leadership experience; building a cultural center was not new to them.”

Councilman Wallace Edgerton, whose district includes the new Cambodian center, said guilt over the Vietnam War may have played a role in making the city responsive to the Cambodians’ request. “It was fresh in our minds that they were the victims of some very unfortunate circumstances because of foreign policy,” he said, “so we felt there was a moral imperative to try and help them as much as we could.”

During the recent opening of their new cultural center, the mood among the Latinos seemed highly festive. “Family unity is what we’re after,” said Pinel, who says he plans on running for a City Council seat in the new Latino district. “We could have waited for the city, but this (the center) would never have happened if we hadn’t gotten off our duffs.”

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In exchange for permission to use the building rent-free through September, he said, his group promised the Methodist Church, which owns the facility and the church next door, to paint and landscape the abandoned gymnasium and its downstairs classrooms. To date, he said, he and other volunteers have donated about $4,000 of their own money and countless hours of labor to that task. Meanwhile, he said, they are negotiating with the church for a more permanent arrangement under which they could rent out portions of the building to support the cultural center.

“The community support has been phenomenal,” Pinel said. “I think we can pull it off.”

Ironically, the Cambodians are having a difficult time doing just what the Latinos want to do. While a portion of their brand-new building is made up of offices and conference rooms occupied by United Cambodian Community and various other Cambodian-related social service agencies, the bulk of space in the building is designed for lease by outside companies.

To break even, Pok said, his agency must rent out about 85% of the space.

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But business is down on Anaheim Street these days. Wracked by serious gang violence that has reduced the neighborhood to a virtual ghost town after dark and hobbled by the economic recession, local businesses are struggling to survive.

As a result, UCC officials have been able to rent out only about 70% of the 18,000 square feet of leasable space in their building--a failure that is costing them about $5,500 a month, according to Pok.

“If this doesn’t turn around,” he said, “we will be in big trouble.”


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