In Keeping Prison Out, the Eastside Sounds a Warning


When a coalition of Latino activists, elderly mothers and a few politicians persuaded Republican Gov. Pete Wilson not to build a state prison near East L.A., the opponents’ victory sent a clear signal and a warning:

“East L.A. is no longer a dumping ground. You can’t force anything down our throats anymore.”

Among the messengers from the Eastside are John Moretta, the soft-spoken priest at Resurrection Roman Catholic Church who railed against the prison’s construction; County Supervisor Gloria Molina, who was the first member of the state Legislature to say the prison was a mistake, and longtime Boyle Heights residents such as Lucy Ramos and Aurora Castillo who prayed and marched to stop the proposed 1,450-bed prison.


The best spokesman, however, is probably landscape architect Frank Villalobos, who spent thousands of his own dollars to bus opponents to Sacramento to lobby against the prison. He knows firsthand that “regional projects for the greater good” don’t always work.

Villalobos, 42, was in elementary school in 1960 in Boyle Heights when the state of California ordered his family to move. The Pomona Freeway (60) was being built and his family’s three-bedroom home was located right where the fast lane would be.

“We were the last ones on our block to move out,” he recalled. “We didn’t want to, but we had to.”

Life was never the same again. Unable to find a comparable home, family members were forced to live in separate units of a duplex. Neighborhood ties were ripped apart. That sense of normal living was lost forever.

Many felt the same way in the late 1950s and early ‘60s as freeway construction cut up the Eastside. Neighborhoods that relied on the Ford Market at Ford Boulevard and Brooklyn Avenue disappeared when the Long Beach Freeway (710) was pushed north.

There were other projects that displaced disenfranchised Latino neighborhoods in recent years--most notably, county and federal jails and Dodger Stadium. One joke making the rounds is that no one in East L.A. knows Sybil Brand, the person. They only know Sybil Brand, the women’s jail in City Terrace.


Opposition was mounted to these projects but it quickly fizzled out. The displacement of a few didn’t outweigh the benefits to greater numbers outside of East L.A.

As the prison proposal moved toward passage in 1986, supporters pointed out that L.A. County should have a state prison because 40% of California’s inmates come from here. There’s that regional-need argument again, Villalobos muttered.

He was further angered when Eastside Assemblyman Richard Polanco bought the greater-need argument and voted for the prison proposal in committee. Polanco’s vote with the committee majority sent the measure to the full Assembly. Although Polanco opposed the measure when it reached the Assembly floor, the prison’s passage enraged many and strengthened Villalobos’ resolve to fight it.

“We were sold down the river,” he growled shortly after the vote.

During the long battle, Villalobos and other opponents fought the proposal in ways unfamiliar to most East L.A. residents. Hundreds were bused to Sacramento to cajole legislators. They crowded into state hearings to plead in English and Spanish for due process. They sued in the courts.

And they courted the news media.

They staged rallies, marches, news conferences and other events to say that East L.A. was being victimized once again. And to emphasize the point, Villalobos continually called the proposal the “East L.A. prison,” a reference picked up by many reporters.

The fact is, the proposed site was west of the Los Angeles River, which meant it was much closer to downtown L.A. than it was to unincorporated East L.A. But to Villalobos’ way of thinking, anything east of City Hall is part of East L.A., and that is worth fighting for.

Ultimately, the governor decided he could not support the prison in the face of overwhelming local opposition. So he signed a bill abandoning the project.

Thanks to people like Villalobos, government officials should think twice about suggesting an unwanted project for the Eastside.

One bureaucrat with a potentially controversial idea called me asking for Villalobos’ telephone number. “Do you think he’ll go for it?” he asked after describing his project, which could displace residents.

“Didn’t you think of putting it in another community?” I wondered.

The bureaucrat paused for a moment and admitted, “No.”

Uh oh.