Barrio Life Going From Bad to Worse : La Colonia: Oxnard elections offer hope for improvements. But residents say the city treats the violent and impoverished area like an unwanted stepchild.
On the other side of the tracks--steel rails dividing brown from white, poor from not so poor--the barrio unfolds in a collection of bodegas and barrooms, old homes and old problems.
Here in Oxnard’s La Colonia district, mothers guide children home from school through a maze of drunks and dope pushers.
The city champion Colonia Cougars practice flag football in the park, a stone’s throw from a regular gathering of domino players.
Two blocks one way, families of 15 or more pay $500 a month to cram into one-room cottages with outhouses and outdoor showers. Two blocks the other direction, public housing tenants make extra cash by selling candy to children from garages long ago converted into snack bars.
And up and down the streets, an old man sells corn-on-the-stick, spiced with red chili, from a two-wheeled pushcart.
The flag football champions and the old man on his pushcart are slices of La Colonia--the poorest, most crowded and most violent section of Oxnard and the most notorious barrio in Ventura County. It is home to slightly more than 8,000 residents, many from families who have lived in the cramped, working-class community for generations.
More than 95% of the population is Latino. Per capita income is $5,482 a year. Only one of every eight adult residents is a high school graduate. And almost four out of every 10 children live below the poverty line.
These are the classic measurements of poverty. But the continuing decline of La Colonia can also be measured by what it has lost.
It used to have a community wading pool, but it is only a sandbox now. It used to have two public elementary schools, now it has one. It used to have a swimming pool, but it was closed and now collects leaves and wayward toads.
There was a public health clinic once, but it is closed too. And there was a strong agricultural base that provided work for nearly half of the population. But even the farmland around La Colonia has begun to vanish, leaving the barrio’s field laborers with fewer jobs.
Since its birth in the late 1800s as a dormitory community for Mexican laborers, La Colonia has been Oxnard’s unwanted stepchild, residents and others charge. It has been a forgotten neighborhood, they contend, only serviced when their complaints reached a fever pitch and could no longer be ignored.
“The Colonia is like an abused child that has shied away and has no confidence,” said Carlos Aguilera, president of the area’s neighborhood council.
“And we’re losing ground out here. It’s not that the people don’t care, it’s that they have lost faith in the system.”
Surrounded by new industrial development--and plagued by worsening problems of poverty, crime and overcrowding--the barrio finds itself in a period of potential change.
With the city election at hand, coupled with a renewed neighborhood activism that has spurred a city effort to at least identify long-standing problems if not fix them, the opportunity exists like never before for community improvement.
But those who live in La Colonia, parents who have watched their children grow up with few places to play and children who have watched their parents grow old in crumbling slums, wonder whether the barrio will slowly disappear.
The cash-strapped city is looking to cut services and not to provide new ones, they know, and city officials have long eyed the area for redevelopment.
“I see the Colonia with two hands around its neck, the grip all the time getting tighter and tighter,” said Sancho, a lifelong resident who directs a team of drug dealers in Colonia Park, the community’s oldest playground. “It’s going to be like it is in prison: the strong survive and the weak perish.”
City officials often speak of La Colonia as a larger area of about 14,000 people. When they do so, they are including the Rose Park area, a newer subdivision of some 5,500 people that has sprouted to the east of the older barrio.
But, while the two areas have some things in common, Rose Park is more affluent. Houses are more expensive, residents earn more money and most people own their homes.
The traditional La Colonia boundaries stretch from Oxnard Boulevard on the west to Rose Avenue on the east. It is bounded by Colonia Road on the north and 5th Street on the south.
The original Colonia was meant to be a self-contained town, a city within the city.
At the entrance to Colonia Road, there is a large Sunkist packing plant. On the other side of the barrio, in the shadow of the 3rd Street bridge, La Colonia’s largest employer, Nabisco, specializes in tomato sauce and salsa.
There are about 75 other businesses in the barrio.
There is an old-fashioned hardware store and a couple of two-seat barber shops. There is a small branch of the Bank of A. Levy and a string of one-room cafes, one of which makes the best snow cones in town.
There is a radio repair shop and a mechanic specializing in Japanese cars.
At the intersection of Cooper Road and Hayes Avenue, there is a bar on each corner. And there are at least a half-dozen churches sprinkled throughout the neighborhoods, including a few storefront evangelical congregations and a Church of God In Christ which serves a large black membership.
But by far, the largest church in La Colonia is Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church, home to about 6,000 members, mostly from the barrio.
“I think they want to insulate us here,” said Father Jose Luis Ortega, second in command at the church which has eight Masses on Sunday, only one in English.
“People come here from all over Oxnard because they are understood in their own language and their own culture. I consider these my people and they need many things.”
Street dealers like Sancho are as much a part of La Colonia as the neighborhood council president or the old man who sells corn. They are as visible a presence in the park as the Cougars flag football team which went from worst to first in the citywide youth recreation league just one year after the squad was formed.
The residents of La Colonia have always been aware of their neighborhood’s problems with crime and drugs. But only in recent years did the extent of the problem become a subject of increasing concern outside the barrio’s borders. As police reversed years of denial and began to admit to a growing gang problem in Oxnard, attention focused on the Colonia Chiques, the largest gang in the city.
And as the city wrestled with runaway crime, including a 94% increase in robberies and assaults over the past two years, law enforcement efforts again zeroed in on La Colonia, which quickly acquired a reputation as the drug-dealing capital of the county.
In 1990, the Colonia-Rose Park area led the city with 235 violent crimes, a number that represents 18.2% of the citywide total.
That same year, police made 1,223 drug-related arrests in La Colonia and Rose Park, accounting for nearly half of the drug arrests citywide.
In response, police in September opened the city’s only neighborhood substation to combat gangs and drugs. In addition, city officials point to a long list of public improvements in recent years.
Since 1988, the city has spent nearly $9 million--27% of the public works budget--in street repairs and other roadway improvements in La Colonia and around its edges. During that same time, the city has spent more than $1.2 million to better public housing and about $3 million in rental and rehabilitation assistance.
A new gymnasium is being built at Colonia Park, the latest in more than $1 million in improvements to the barrio’s two parks.
La Colonia has one of Oxnard’s two senior citizen centers and has the city’s only multi-service center featuring child care, adult education and Head Start classes.
“We have seen some mistakes made out there and, although we can’t correct them altogether, we have been pouring city funds and resources into that area,” said Oxnard Mayor Nao Takasugi. “We’re just trying to improve it the best we can.”
But for all its progress, La Colonia remains Ventura County’s most notorious pocket of poverty and maintains a reputation as a violent, drug-choked neighborhood to be avoided.
And residents charge, and some city officials admit privately, that a practice of neglect has mired the old barrio in a tangle of social ills deliberately perpetuated to keep the area separate and not equal.
“You don’t end up with the results that you have in La Colonia unless you have people making conscious decisions about what should happen there,” said a former high-ranking city official who asked not to be identified. “Go look at how the product has come out and it will be obvious that the investment was not being made consistently.”
The barrio was born in the late 1800s to segregate Oxnard’s Mexican work force from the gentry of the city.
“While the east end of town was a rip-roaring slum . . . where crime and other illegal activities were concentrated,” read an early 1900s newspaper, “the westside was listening to lecture courses and classical music.”
By 1947, the barrio was overcrowded and mostly inhabited by transient farm laborers who rented houses already considered substandard. La Colonia has been and remains a stop on the underground railroad for Mexican immigrants heading north.
“It has always been the Mexican part of town, the unsavory part of town,” said Oxnard resident Juan Soria, a Colonia native who brought a lawsuit that forced the desegregation of the local elementary school district in 1972.
Though political activism has sprouted in La Colonia over the years, it has failed to grow roots and flourish.
After World War II, as veterans returned to a barrio of unpaved streets and outhouses, newly created political groups forced the election of Oxnard’s first Latino council member, Reginald Vela. During the consciousness-raising Chicano movement of the 1960s, when riots broke out in La Colonia to protest lousy conditions, residents elected the city’s second Latino council member, Sal Sanchez.
Both elections brought measures of public improvements.
Vela served two terms and called it quits in 1956. Sanchez also served two terms, and in 1974 lost a bid for a third term. Not until 1978 was another Latino, Manuel Lopez, elected to the City Council.
Lopez, who spent some of his boyhood in La Colonia, is still on the council and is now running for mayor. And Colonia native Andres Hererra is running for City Council.
“The Colonia is neglected because Mexicanos really don’t get involved in the political process,” Soria said. “We haven’t been taught by our culture that we have to stay on top of things.”
And conditions have gone from bad to worse in the past decade.
More Colonia residents live in poverty than ever before, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Nearly half the residents don’t speak English well or don’t speak English at all.
The average person earns less than half that of what other Oxnard residents earn. Two-thirds of the housing units in the barrio are officially designated as overcrowded, six times the county average.
“When I was growing up, the Colonia was the safest, most beautiful place there was,” said council candidate Herrera, who was born in the barrio and who still has family there. “It wasn’t until I got to the other side, until I crossed the tracks, that I began to realize that things were so bad and that we weren’t getting our fair share.”
Fairness is an issue that comes up often in the barrio.
At a neighborhood council meeting last month, kicked off by a homespun four-piece band, Oxnard Police Chief Harold Hurtt told a group of about 100 residents that he wanted to learn the community’s concerns.
“We have an ordinance in the city of Oxnard that prohibits drinking in public parks, why isn’t it enforced?” a woman wanted to know. “You couldn’t get away with this in other parts of town.”
La Colonia has a heavier concentration of bars and liquor stores, and restaurants and markets that sell liquor, than any other place in Oxnard, according to state Department of Alcoholic and Beverage Control records.
Most afternoons, and especially on weekends when more than 1,000 soccer players and fans jam the two local parks, enterprising entrepreneurs stock coolers and sell beer from their cars.
“Why haven’t you put up the signs against drinking that the city ordered for Del Sol Park?” the woman persisted.
Hurtt promised to investigate, and discovered that signs had been ordered and received, but never installed. They were put up a few days later.
Much was made recently about a graffiti-spree where vandals tagged 46 businesses and houses up and down Oxnard Boulevard.
But La Colonia is coated in graffiti, and a search of city records revealed that it is removed less often than in other parts of the city. In the last two years, Oxnard’s graffiti-removal contractor wiped out 4,300 graffiti markings.
Less than 10% of the removal effort was concentrated in the barrio.
Graffiti markings are erased on a complaint basis, public works officials said, and La Colonia residents simply have not complained as much as others.
A weekend graffiti removal program started last year, using federal money and work release prisoners, reportedly concentrates one-fourth of its effort in La Colonia, although community services officials do not have records of the program.
A citywide anti-graffiti program approved last month aims to more fairly distribute removal efforts.
Parks and recreation workers complain that La Colonia is not viewed as a priority on the part of top city management. They say that equipment is allowed to linger in disrepair longer at La Colonia parks than in other areas of the city.
Because the parks department is short on employees, maintenance workers split their time between La Colonia parks and parks outside the area.
The same holds true for every park in the city, with the exception of Oxnard State Beach Park, which at 62 acres is the city’s largest park and has two full-time city workers and a weekend crew of juvenile offenders that, until recently, was used mostly to weed parking lot planters near the beach.
Maintenance workers who have worked La Colonia said they have been told by supervisors to pay more attention to parks outside of the barrio.
“The difference is amazing,” said one employee who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal. “There has been a lot of neglect of that neighborhood.”
Parks Superintendent Michael Henderson said his department does not treat one park differently than another.
He said Del Sol Park is one of three in the city with restrooms open daily. And Colonia Park has facilities, such as the handball courts and a recreation center, not available elsewhere.
“A park is a park no matter where it is in the city,” said Henderson, noting that Del Sol and Colonia parks are heavily used and recently have received a lot of improvements.
But even when city services, and cutbacks, are fairly applied, La Colonia often ends up at a disadvantage.
Street sweepers hit every area of the city once a month, but because overcrowding puts a large number of cars on the street in the barrio, the sweeper often can’t get close enough to the curb to do a good job.
Officials created a bilingual information program a few years ago to remove cars on sweeping days.
After the City Council shut down swimming programs at Oxnard and Hueneme high schools and the La Colonia pool two years ago, private groups stepped in to bring the high school programs back to life. That hasn’t happened in La Colonia.
Community Services head Jim Faulconer pulled together about a dozen residents at a meeting last month to develop a neighborhood improvement plan for La Colonia.
“If the city’s involvement is lagging, let’s push the right buttons,” Faulconer told the gathering at a library conference room. “Let’s put the neighborhood in charge of developing this plan.”
But many in attendance, hardened by years of empty promises, were cynical about the city’s interest in the barrio. They said talk of turning things around in La Colonia has never been matched by the political will to do so.
“We are ready to respond but we are tired of waiting,” said Antonio Ruvalcaba. “We come to these stupid meetings and it’s just wasting our time.”
Added longtime resident Emily Ramirez: “Every time we have proposed something, the city has not been there to support us.”
Some accused city officials of staging the meeting to boost the efforts of incumbents seeking a return to city offices in Tuesday’s elections.
“Your track record stinks,” said Aguilera, the neighborhood council president. “The Colonia has been pushing for decades and our resources are always taken out and used somewhere else.”
Added Teresa Guerrero, a white-haired woman who has been in La Colonia all her life: “We don’t think you have forgotten the Colonia. We know that you have forgotten the Colonia.”
The debate is lost on many in this working-class community who have watched in dismay as jobs have been lost and fields have been plowed under to make way for new business parks and other developments on the outskirts of the barrio.
Ten years ago, nearly half the barrio’s population worked in agriculture. Today, only one-third hold farm-related jobs.
In the early morning during strawberry season, the streets will fill with laborers who hold jobs picking the fruit. But it used to be that way year-around.
Many here now agonize over bills they can no longer pay. Much of the living in the barrio is hand-to-mouth and day-to-day.
Through the picture window of his cramped barbershop on Cooper Road, Sam Gonzales has watched the changes in La Colonia.
“The streets aren’t the same,” said Gonzales, who for most of his 70 years has opened the shop at 5 a.m. when the barrio stirs to life. “A lot of companies have moved and many of the men have gone back to Mexico where they can find work.”
The walls are filled with pictures of scantily clad women and well-muscled boxers striking defensive. A haircut costs $5. A shave or a massage, $2.
Two blue-leather chairs, dangling old leather razor strops, take up most of the space. A row of wooden chairs, some of them broken, fill one side of the shop and are mostly occupied by friends, not customers.
The old man is nearly doubled over, his spine permanently bowed from a lifetime of snipping hair. He has little hair of his own and he’s missing a couple of front teeth.
“The fields are gone and the people are going with them,” the barber said.
For some, the evolution has resulted in an economy in which the best money is made outside of the law. Near the handball courts at Colonia Park, a group of men has witnessed firsthand the decline of the barrio.
Some deal drugs, others don’t. Many have been to prison; others, like Sancho, are on their way. Currently free on bail after being convicted of selling drugs, he is awaiting a sentencing date that could result in an eight-year prison term.
“I sell drugs, not for myself, not for my habit, but to feed my family,” said the father of three, who controls a lucrative slice of the barrio drug market. “We’re just men trying to stay on top to survive.”
Many of the men say they are deeply pained and feel cheated by a system that automatically counts those who are brown and born in the barrio as troublemakers.
When you can’t tell the good guys from the bad, Sancho said, it’s easier for those who govern to think they are all rotten and spend their time rounding them up like stray animals.
“You lose all feelings of rights and responsibilities,” he said of being locked up early and often, his teen-age son sitting nearby and listening. “I let my kids know it’s wrong what I do. But they are going to have choices now to go as I did or take another route.”
Sancho and others contend that the barrio’s drug culture is born out of the same widespread neglect that has choked La Colonia for decades. The same system that gives youngsters a baseball field--but no gloves, balls or bats--leaves them with too much time on their hands and pushes them toward crime.
“Look at the conditions of this park,” he said, his giant arms, plated with dark green tattoos, sweeping over the well-worn grounds. “They institutionalized it. It looks like the yard at Folsom Prison.”
Seagulls picked through a trash can overflowing with garbage. A high chain-link fence guarded the abandoned swimming pool. A group of men worked up a sweat playing handball, a prison yard game.
All the while a steady stream of customers, mostly people from outside La Colonia, arrived to buy what the dealers were selling.
To change things, Sancho said, Colonia residents will have to fight through a cultural roadblock that has long held quiet suffering above boisterous hell-raising to bring about reform.
And in the end, he’s not sure whether any amount of complaining will do any good.
“They knew what they were doing when they built this Colonia,” he said. “They put us here to destroy each other.”
These are unprecedented days in the existence of the old barrio.
It is bordered on two sides by relatively new industrial development, and rumors swirl that redevelopment one day will swallow large chunks of the area and move the poor people out. As recently as this past summer, city staff members proposed studying the area for potential redevelopment.
La Colonia residents were able to defeat the move, for now. But they remember beating back a similar effort years ago, and many worry that the city will keep trying.
Although more than two-thirds of Colonia residents are renters, a handful of longtime families own the bulk of the property or have passed it down from one generation to the next.
And in the last decade, as the median home value soared from $47,000 to $151,000, the incentive to sell has increased.
“The city is not to be trusted,” said neighborhood council president Aguilera. “The community needs to organize and decide whether it wants redevelopment. If it does, we need to develop a plan so that the community, not the city, determines the future of the Colonia.”
The future of La Colonia may be at the ballot box, as fledgling voter registration efforts pay dividends and elect a representative from the barrio. Or it may be in the courts, as activists threaten to revive an effort aborted last year to force Oxnard to pick City Council members by district instead of in citywide elections.
Or the barrio may go on as it has for more than a century.
“I think it has always been a struggle for la raza ,” said Rosa Flores Michel, who owns and operates a small cafe on Cooper Road. “I think if the people put enough pressure on the city, it will make a difference. That’s the real question: What kind of pressure can the Colonia bring?”
The Barrio at a Glance
The Oxnard barrio of La Colonia is the poorest pockets in the city and is getting poorer. No area of the city is more crowded and has more people living in poverty.
1980 1990 Population 6,734 8,098 Racial Makeup 92.2% 95.2% Latino Latino Per capita $2,757 $5,482 income Population 28.4% 32.4% below poverty level Children below 15.6% 38.5% poverty level High school 15.2% 16.6% graduates 25 and over
Source: U.S. Census Bureau
% Households Median Per Capita Earning Household Income $75,000 or More La Colonia $23,220 $5,483 3.2% Rose Park $31,056 $6,169 3.9% Oxnard $37,174 $12,096 11.0% Ventura County $45,612 $17,861 20.4%
% Population % Children % Elderly Below Poverty Below Poverty Below Poverty Level Level Level La Colonia 32.4% 38.5% 22.3% Rose Park 17.5% 18.9% 11.7% Oxnard 12.5% 16.6% 8.3% Ventura County 7.3% 9.8% 5.7%
Source: U.S. Census Bureau 1990
Education and Employment
High School Graduates College Don’t Speak 25 and Over Graduates English Well La Colonia 16.6% 1.6% 47.1% Rose Park 20.1% 1.2% 40.4% Oxnard 61.3% 13.0% 25.9% Ventura County 79.4% 23.0% 11.7%
Managers, Workers Workers Professionals in Agriculture in Retail La Colonia 2.1% 33.5% 13.1% Rose Park 6.2% 37.8% 14.3% Oxnard 18.2% 12.2% 14.8% Ventura County 29.2% 5.3% 15.2%
Source: U.S. Census Bureau 1990
Occupied Owner Renter People Per Dwellings Occupied Occupied Median Value Dwelling La Colonia 1,468 32.0% 68.0% $151,300 5.38 Rose Park 907 53.6% 47.6% $169,300 6.04 Oxnard 39,302 53.7% 46.3% $204,600 3.56 Ventura County 217,298 65.5% 34.5% $245,300 3.00
Crowded Dwellings La Colonia 66.7% Rose Park 69.7% Oxnard 25.0% Ventura County 10.5%
Source: U.S. Census Bureau 1990
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