AFTER THE RIOTS: THE SEARCH FOR ANSWERS : For Some, L.A. Fails to Be a Refuge : Immigrants: Huntington Park shopkeepers thought they had left the horror of war behind in their native lands. But the riots brought it back.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For Nicaraguan-born Coyla Asensao and other shopkeepers in her neighborhood, it was a night of terror that will not be assuaged by new windows or restocked shelves.

"In my country, everything happened. Fires, big fires. Killing. Two wars," said Asensao, 42. "But here? In this country? No. Now I feel scared something like that could happen again."

Asensao, a beautician, left Nicaragua 10 years ago. She landed in a business district in Huntington Park--midway between the Harbor and Long Beach freeways--that was ravaged by looting and fires after the Rodney G. King verdicts.

The shoe emporiums, the auto parts store, the newish mini-mall, the jewelry boutiques, the bridal and tuxedo shops, the electronics outlets--all were looted or torched.

It was in this neighborhood, surrounding the corner of Pacific Boulevard and East Florence Avenue, that the world had come to work. There are shopkeepers from Mexico, Korea, Iran, Vietnam, Nicaragua, Cuba and the Netherlands. Many said they had fled political tyranny or the ravages of war. But it was here they saw the crumpling of their American dream.

Although shopkeepers and police consider the area dangerous at night because of gangs, merchants said that until last week, the most serious problem they faced on an average day was occasional shoplifting. That was until Thursday, April 30, Day 2 of the riots.

On the night of the King verdicts, there was relative calm here--despite angry crowds at the riot's epicenter five miles west near Florence and Normandie avenues.

At Florence and Pacific, order was not shattered until 24 hours later, when merchants guarded their stores with guns, firing occasionally at looters.

Police did not arrive to help protect the stores, and in the days since the looting and fires the media have overlooked the area--absences resented bitterly by some store owners.

Some of the merchants said that aspects of the looting and burning appeared to be organized. One shopkeeper said that the first vandals, an amalgam of Salvadorans, Cubans and blacks, smashed and opened storefronts and then left. Expressing hatred for the police, the vandals told him that they would next "hit" South Gate and Long Beach.

Other merchants said they saw scouts early in the afternoon, casing businesses that would be robbed. The Mexican-American owner of a fabric store said that whoever robbed him knew what they were doing, taking only the most expensive items. The owner of a furniture store, who fled Saigon after the fall of the U.S.-backed government in 1975, whispered that she suspected a Communist influence.

In the eyes of many Latinos, it was a night of shame, a night when everyone from gun-toting neighborhood gang members to giggling mothers and children loaded up their vans and sedans with stolen loot.

"At first, there were four black people" who began casing businesses along Florence, said bartender Javier Mayer, 39, a native of Mexico City. "And then, behind them, a whole bunch of Mexican people. I'm sorry to say. My own people did this."

Mayer's bar is on the south side of Florence, in an unincorporated area patrolled by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. The north side of the street is patrolled by the Huntington Park Police Department. About 90% of the city's 57,600 residents are Latino, according to the 1990 census. City Clerk Marilyn Boyette said that 65 businesses were damaged in the rioting. Losses from fires are estimated at $1.8 million.

Shapour Fotoohi, 30, stood outside his "Mr. Discount" electronics store, which looters had demolished. He compared the scene to the Iran he left after the 1979 revolution.

"Revolution happened in my country. People were crazy. But people never, ever touched anybody's shops or house," Fotoohi said. "In Iran, people (were) fighting with the government. . . . Please, please write in newspapers what goes on here."

Fotoohi's 24-year-old brother, Alireza, was a partner with him in "Mr. Discount" and another demolished business on the south side of Florence. "We work hard. In 24 hours, it's gone. Nothing left!" Alireza Fotoohi said, his eyes welling with tears.

Based on experience, Guillermo Flores, 48, thought that his family's bakery would be safe. "I was here for the Watts Rebellion," said Flores, a native of Xasatca, Mexico. "At that time, they (looters) didn't show up in Huntington Park. . . . When I saw all this damage, I thought: 'Oh, my God!' "

For Nga Thi Luong, who along with her husband spent the night protecting their Super Discount furniture store with a handgun, the rioting evoked memories of the fall of the South Vietnamese government. "Same thing as 1975," Luong said, pointing at the goose bumps raised on her arm. "You see? See? . . . I think some of it--little bit--is Communist."

Another shopkeeper, a woman who said she fled Cuba in 1968 while her father and husband were imprisoned on politically related charges, stayed to protect her store. She blamed the rioting on lax immigration policy but added that many of the looters "were driving nice cars."

In his karate studio, Ruben Gonzalez pointed with pride to the snapshot pinned to the wall of Gonzalez with Chuck Norris, the karate film star who was his first mentor. Gonzalez, 40, a native of Michoacan, Mexico, said he has lost some clients because of the rioting.

"They call and say the place they were working was burned out. 'I can't come, because I don't have (a) job.' " But Gonzalez suffered no damage. "We're lucky. . . . When I saw what the court said about Mr. King, I said, 'Maybe there's going to be problems.' "

Leonie Hall was among those who sensed trouble Thursday afternoon--and did not rely on the police to protect her pharmacy. "This is my life," said Hall, an Indonesian who emigrated from the Netherlands. "If I don't have this, I don't have anything."

Hall, whose business is near the northwest corner of Florence and Seville Avenue, said that after seeing two unfamiliar men scouting the stores in an adjoining mini-mall, she called police and began transporting the first of four truckloads of items to a storage locker. About 5 p.m., she saw a man running with a gold chain on a board from a nearby jewelry store. From 6 p.m. on, Hall said it was pandemonium.

"There were hundreds of people," she said. "The neighborhood went crazy. The police (were) nowhere in sight."

Holding hammers, clubs or crowbars, the early looters went on a smash-and-grab spree. Between 6 p.m. and 1 a.m., she counted 22 groups of would-be looters that she either intimidated or begged to go away.

"Most of them were not hard-core criminals," Hall said. "They didn't show any anger. Women (were) sitting in the car saying: 'Get me a Size 9, and get a Size 6 for so-and-so.' It was was a free-for-all. . . . I'm just shocked, disgusted, frustrated. I feel sad for mankind, that this is how we have to behave for a pair of shoes."

Hall's and many other businesses are reopening. But at the nearby Trak Auto, there is sign hanging that reads, "Bye Bye H.P. Closed Due to Civil Unrest."

Across the street, at Vanessa's Sports Shoes, Andres Montes said he lost about 400 pairs of shoes. Montes was among those who fired his gun that night to keep looters out from the front and gasoline bottle-hurling teen-agers from the back alley. His pickup truck was stolen. Montes, 35, an immigrant from Mexico, choked back tears recounting how he had worked for years as a waiter to someday own a business. "This is crazy," he said.

A block east, one of the few shops of its kind left unscathed is Honey's Boutique, a Latino-operated business that rents and sells videos. Two film posters displayed toward the street are "Boyz N The Hood," and "Homeboys," a lesser-known film described this way by its promoters:

"It's Cops vs. Gangs. Brother vs. Brother. And Nobody's Taking Prisoners."

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