Mothers of Conviction : Eastside Women Become a Force to Be Reckoned With After Blocking Prison Plan


On Sept. 16, 1810, a parish priest in the tiny Mexican village of Dolores rang the bells of his church, signaling to the Indians to fight for independence from Spanish rule.

This morning, Monsignor John Moretta will ring the bells of Resurrection Church in East Los Angeles to commemorate that historic date--Mexican Independence Day--and to proclaim victory for parishioners who led a years-long battle against construction of a proposed $100-million prison in their community.

Gov. Pete Wilson's decision to scrap the prison Monday was a landmark victory for the largely Latino Eastside, which some residents say has been a dumping ground over the years for disruptive projects including freeways, prisons and landfills.

"They thought we wouldn't fight or have the political strength and stamina to organize," said Moretta, an early opponent of the prison. "I'm only saddened that our people had to struggle for so long against something that was unfair from the start."

On the front lines of this battle were 400 women calling themselves the Mothers of East Los Angeles. All of these women were born and reared in Eastside neighborhoods at a time when low-income residents were afraid to fight government officials who saddled their community with projects that never seemed to end up in more affluent neighborhoods.

But when state officials proposed building the 1,450-bed high-rise prison on 20 acres near the Los Angeles River in 1985, the Mothers of East Los Angeles and a group of 47 civic organizations called the Coalition Against the Prison in East Los Angeles drew the line.

The community, they argued, was already saturated with detention facilities housing more than 14,000 inmates within two miles of 34 schools.

Over the years, they learned to overcome their fear of television cameras--and of government officials who scorned their efforts--while organizing demonstrations, candlelight vigils and letter-writing campaigns to pressure politicians and bureaucrats.

Now, community leaders and activists regard the group as a formidable ally in land-use and quality-of-life issues.

"This is a major grass-roots victory for a community that has become a model to be emulated," said East Los Angeles civil rights attorney Antonio Rodriguez. "The East Los Angeles prison movement forced some elected officials to change positions on the issue in order to remain in rhythm with the community and its demands."

Juanita Martinez, 65, who was among 200 residents and lawmakers who converged at Resurrection Church on Monday night to celebrate the victory, said, "We grew strong because our cause was a just one.

"We didn't need another prison in East Los Angeles," Martinez said in Spanish. "We needed that money to build schools and create jobs for our people."

Among the officials on hand were City Councilman Richard Alatorre and state Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles), who authored the measure signed by the governor that killed a 1987 plan requiring construction of the prison near downtown before a prison could open in Lancaster in the Antelope Valley.

Also at the celebration was Assemblyman Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles), who was once called a "sellout" for initially supporting the project. In August, 1986, the newly elected assemblyman had cast the key committee vote that paved the way for construction of the prison.

This year, Polanco, chairman of the Latino Caucus, helped negotiate the measure signed by Wilson that will take $17 million originally allocated for the Eastside facility and redirect the funds to the Lancaster prison.

Still, some residents and lawmakers have found it hard to forgive Polanco for his Assembly committee vote. Among them were Assemblywoman Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Los Angeles) and Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina, who were notably absent from the church celebration Monday night.

"Gloria felt this celebration was by and for the community, but she also found it hard to share the podium with Polanco," said Molina's spokesman, Robert Alaniz. "He could have killed this issue in committee. Instead, he brought heartache . . . to the community."

Polanco said, "Finger-pointing is inappropriate. It's time to celebrate."

Regardless, attorney Terry Kelly, who has represented the mothers in years of legal efforts to stall or block the prison, said East Los Angeles will never again be viewed as a legislative "slam-dunk" for unwanted projects.

"The next time you see a proposal to put something like this in East Los Angeles," Kelly said, "you'll see politicians going to the community first rather than cutting deals in back rooms."

The controversy began in the early 1980s when lawmakers authorized that a prison be built somewhere in Los Angeles County under a compromise worked out with then-Gov. George Deukmejian.

"The issue outraged the community, but it was generally ignorant at the time about the political process, lobbying and fund raising," recalled East Los Angeles landscape architect Frank Villalobos.

In the summer of 1986, Villalobos and Moretta invited dozens of predominantly female Neighborhood Watch leaders from throughout the community to Resurrection Church to organize a massive march against the prison.

At that meeting, Moretta gave the group of women its name, Mothers of East Los Angeles. The same night, the women were marching in the streets wearing white scarfs cut from bedsheets purchased with church funds. The demonstration attracted the attention of the media, and of community leaders and business owners who rushed forward with advice and financial assistance.

Villalobos, Moretta and Lincoln Heights business owner Steve Kasten, for example, donated tens of thousands of dollars to pay for airplane tickets, food and buses used to caravan the women to Sacramento to argue their case.

Aurora Castillo said their first seven-hour bus ride to Sacramento was filled with anxiety. "We approached the first news conference on the Capitol steps hungry and worn out," Castillo said. "Then, one of our Latino legislators turned to us and said, 'This is your state Capitol. You have every right to be here.' I cried."

Since then, the mothers have led efforts to block proposals to build a hazardous-waste incinerator in Vernon, and an above-ground pipeline that would carry oil from Santa Barbara to Long Beach through the heart of Boyle Heights.

"The prison fight is over, but we are not going to rest on our laurels," Castillo said. "We will be vigilant and oppose any hazardous project in our community.

"In the past, we didn't have representation and they tore our neighborhoods apart. Now, we have political clout."

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