All along Ventura Avenue signs of neglect are obvious. Broken sidewalks, faded buildings and weed-choked lots litter the area. The neighborhood library is threatened with closure. The recreation center now closes early. The roads are potholed. And gang members loiter on street corners.
Known as the Avenue, the deteriorating strip on Ventura's western edge--18 blocks long and four blocks wide--is one of the city's oldest and poorest neighborhoods. The home of oil field roughnecks 70 years ago, it now houses about a third of the city's 16,000 Latinos.
The Avenue has long been one of the county's largest Latino neighborhoods. But the community--and smaller enclaves of Latinos scattered throughout Ventura--still have no political representation in their own city.
While Ventura has the second largest Latino population of Ventura County's 10 cities, there is virtually no Latino presence in city government. Unlike Oxnard, Santa Paula and Moorpark, no Latinos sit on the Ventura City Council. Nor are there any Latino members of the Planning Commission, school board or harbor commission.
"It would help if we had a Latino councilman," said Phil Marquez, who owns a barber shop on Ventura Avenue. "But I don't know if that would happen. We get mad, but we don't do anything about it."
Four council seats are up for grabs this year in the Ventura City Council election. A half-dozen candidates have announced their intentions, but no one from the Latino community has come forward yet.
For the first time in recent years, however, that could change.
A Latino advocacy group called Latinos for Better Government--formed only a week ago--has announced plans to run or endorse candidates for both this year's City Council and school board races.
Ismael De La Rocha, a Ventura College history instructor who started the group with about 25 other Latino professionals, said formation of the new activist force will have an impact on Ventura city government in future years even if no Latino candidates are elected this year.
Future city councils and school boards will have to be more sensitive to Latino concerns because of the group's existence, De La Rocha said. Elected officials will be able to consult the advocacy group for issues that affect the Latino community, such as affirmative action, gangs and youths at risk.
"We could make a very big difference," De La Rocha said. "They will be forced to react to us."
De La Rocha said he believes the group, which has not selected any candidates yet, will have an impact on the elections. In addition to raising funds and providing volunteers, the organization plans to hold a voter-registration drive targeting Latinos, he said.
He is optimistic about the group's ability to influence both the City Council and school board races this year.
"I think we could get a lot of votes," he said.
Councilman Gary Tuttle, who is heading a campaign to save the Ventura Avenue Library in the neighborhood, said he supports diversity on the council.
But city officials have represented the Avenue fairly, Tuttle said, citing youth-at-risk programs the city provides to the area, and the council's plans to redevelop parts of the neighborhood.
Tuttle said City Council elections in Ventura have traditionally been dominated by a white, old-boy network.
"It's tough to break into that network, as a Latino," said Tuttle, who was elected in 1989 during a campaign that saw an environmental slate supported by Patagonia Inc. win three council seats.
"Not only did Latinos not run, but there was no reason to run," Tuttle said. "They didn't deal with youths at risk, gangs and budget cuts. It basically didn't matter who was a city councilman in Ventura."
Latino politicians from other cities in the county say the explanation for Ventura's lack of Latino political representation in the past involves two elements: numbers and attitude.
Latino residents historically have not comprised enough of the city's overall population, they say, and they were not mad enough to run for political office.
"They've got to be tired enough and upset enough about business as usual to get involved and work to make a difference," said Moorpark City Councilman Bernardo Perez.
Some Latino residents in Ventura say they are too busy working and raising families to bother with politics. Besides, they say, they believe they won't make a difference anyway. In the last election, voter turnout on the Avenue was among the lowest in the city.
The number of Latinos in Ventura has increased in the past 10 years, and at about 18% of the population, figures might be reaching a point where representation becomes a major issue, according to Latino politicians from other parts of the county.
At least 20%, and maybe as high as 50%, is needed to make Latinos a significant factor in elections, they say.
"It's a function of numbers," said Oxnard Mayor Manuel Lopez, who linked Latino political successes in his city and Santa Paula to the fact that Latinos make up more than 50% of the population in both communities.
Because of the racial percentages and the history of political apathy among Ventura Latinos, activists from other parts of the county say they are focusing countywide political activities on cities such as Oxnard and Santa Paula, where they believe they stand a better chance of winning.
Meanwhile, life on the Avenue plods on.
For John Partida, 19, life on the Avenue means standing on street corners with other gang members and getting harassed by police.
Partida, who says he is a member of the Avenue Gangsters, is a high school dropout who lives with his parents and doesn't hold a job. He feels his city leaders have failed him and believes a Latino politician would better understand his needs.
"We need to have people help us get jobs," Partida said. "All they care about is white people. All they want to do is lock us up and get us off the streets."
Partida criticized city and school officials for reacting strongly to the fatal stabbing of Jesse Strobel, a 17-year-old white student from Ventura High School.
In the wake of Strobel's death, school officials established a strict dress code banning all hats and revoked off-campus lunch passes. City officials closed a section of Poli Street, which divides the school, to lessen the chance of drive-by shootings.
"Some white boy gets killed, and they close down the street," Partida said. "If one of us dies, they don't care."
When asked about his future, Partida shrugs and predicts that his future is a prison cell.
"There ain't no future for us," he said. "Everyone knows if you end up in a gang, you end up in prison."
For Roberta Payan, director of Ventura Avenue's recreation center, Westpark, life on the Avenue means watching whole generations grow up with low self-esteem and mediocre ambitions.
People aren't encouraged to become involved in politics, and children don't have any role models, Payan said.
"I took a group of kids to City Hall for a field trip once, and we went by the council chambers and on the walls are pictures of the past mayors and City Council," she said. "They looked at all the pictures and they noticed immediately that everyone was white.
"And they asked me, 'How come there are no Mexicans up there?' I didn't know what to say."
The City Council, which is elected by the community at large and not by districts, has always overlooked the Avenue, Payan said. She cites the possible closure of the Avenue's library and the lack of youth programs. Westpark had its hours reduced about a month ago because of a budgeting problem, but it will extend its hours July 1 after this fiscal year, Payan said.
"We've been so neglected," she said. "We have a couple of white liberals on the City Council who take care of us and who throw us a bone every now and then. You don't see any of them until election time."
The Avenue is a neighborhood where children, who don't have a way to travel to the park, must play on dirty, abandoned mattresses and other discarded furniture. Many residents can't afford cars, and people resort to walking, taking the bus or riding a bike. Rusted fences, tall weeds and abandoned buildings are also scattered throughout the neighborhood.
Avenue residents say they're unhappy, but are too preoccupied with their families and jobs to become involved in politics.
"People are too busy," said Eleanor Gomez, who has lived on the Avenue for 30 years and has never voted. "To me, it doesn't make a difference."
In a neighborhood with more than 11,000 residents, only 10 people are active in a group called Renewed Avenue Pride, which works with area youths. The group has not held any major events or activities lately because its members are busy with their jobs and other projects, Chairwoman Lorraine Sanchez said.
Cliff Rodriguez, who is planning to run for the Ventura Unified School District board this year, said politics is a luxury for the middle class and upper classes.
"You don't have time to go to meetings, and other things, because you're wiped out from doing the stupid physical labor all day," Rodriguez said.
Tony Chavez, 18, said he had registered to vote in the last election, but changed his mind about actually voting when Nov. 2 arrived.
He felt awkward and a little scared. He wasn't sure how to do it, he says. "They don't listen to us anyway."
Even when residents do speak up, officials don't always respond the way they should, said Betty Molina, an Avenue parent who wants to keep the local library open.
County officials have targeted the Avenue's library for closure because it is too expensive to operate. Other county libraries are open fewer days because of budget cutbacks, but no other branches have been proposed for closure.
Teachers, parents and children said the library is being singled out because it serves a poor neighborhood. Hundreds of letters were written to the Board of Supervisors, protesting the closure.
About two months ago, the supervisors decided to hold off on shutting down the library for 60 days so that civic leaders could do some fund raising to save the branch.
The Ventura City Council last week decided to provide up to $15,000 in matching funds to help keep the library from closing its doors. Councilman Tuttle had asked the council for an outright donation, but other council members suggested giving matching funds to encourage residents to contribute money.
Latino residents in other parts of the city say they have also been neglected by their elected officials.
Last year, the Ventura Unified School District board unanimously approved new boundaries for the district, which compelled parents in the Montalvo area to bus their children to Ventura High School while allowing students from four exclusive hillside subdivisions to remain at popular Buena High.
Furious Montalvo parents accused the board of giving preferential treatment to the wealthy hillside community north of Foothill Road. According to the 1990 census data, Montalvo's population is equally distributed between Anglos and minorities, of which Latinos make up the largest number. The hillside communities are about 86% Anglo.
Marie Corral, a computer teacher at Montalvo Elementary School, said she is considering moving so her son can attend Buena High, which is in her neighborhood.
If he is bused to Ventura High School across town, he won't be able to participate in after-school activities and sports because he won't be able to stay late, Corral said.
"I don't think it was a racial issue. It was more of a rich versus poor situation," Corral said. "It just happened that the rich tended to be white."
Corral, who has lived in Ventura for 15 years, said a Latino council member is long overdue.
"I think we would be represented better because they would understand better the problems that come up, and the Latino family situation," she said.
Ventura city officials, however, defend their track record, and cite their recent donation to the Ventura Avenue Library and their plans to redevelop parts of the Avenue.
"They're certainly getting their fair share of services," City Manager John Baker said. "Our calls for police are higher on the western end of town, which includes the Avenue. Street cleaning and graffiti abatement are pretty much uniform throughout the city."
Councilman Jim Monahan, who owns a welding company on Ventura Avenue, said he represents all residents equally, but would like to see more services on the Avenue.
"You don't see someone sweeping the streets everyday like they do in downtown," he said.
Monahan said he has not heard many complaints from Avenue residents.
"I guess they're not upset," he said.
Pete Tafoya, a trustee at the Ventura County Community College District, said he believes the Latino population in Ventura would have to increase to at least 20% before representation becomes a big issue.
Even then, a candidate cannot rely on the Latino vote to get into office, Tafoya said.
"The theory is not to depend on the Latino vote, but to use it as a deciding factor," Tafoya said. "You have to have a broad-based appeal."
Art Gonzales, a 43-year-old Ventura native who was raised on the Avenue, said Latinos have the same issues and concerns as Anglo voters. "I'm not going to vote for a Hispanic just because they're Hispanic," he said. "I want someone who thinks the same way I do."
Tafoya said activists have poured their time and money into Oxnard and Santa Paula because they felt Latino residents in those cities were ready to elect a Latino politician.
"You have to go for what is achievable first," Tafoya said.
Oxnard residents in November voted in the city's first elected Latino mayor, their first black councilman and only the fourth Latino councilman in the city's 90-year history. Latinos and blacks, who make up nearly 60% of the city's population, voted in record numbers.
Marcos Vargas, executive director of the Latino advocacy group El Concilio del Condado de Ventura, said his organization--which did a voter registration drive for the Oxnard City Council election--"has not developed any long-term plans to devote to Ventura."
The group is simply too busy at the moment with other projects, he said.
Tafoya said another reason that Latinos historically have not been elected to the City Council in Ventura is because "the Latino leadership there has not sufficiently matured, the way they have in Oxnard."
Ventura's new political advocacy group--Latinos for Better Government--is evidence that the city's Latino leadership has now come of age, De La Rocha said.
"We have no representation," he said. "It's really embarrassing."