Parish Mirrors Burbank's New Ethnic Makeup


When Mass is celebrated in English, the pews of St. Finbar are never full. Although a dwindling flock faithfully attends, the church is never even half full--until it is time for the Spanish Mass.

Then the drought ends and the flood begins.

Every Sunday, hundreds of Latinos make their way to the Catholic community of St. Finbar in Burbank, filling every seat, using every hymnbook.

So striking is the difference in attendance that the pastoral committee this year decided to replace one of the prime-time English language Masses with one in Spanish. The move left some Anglos feeling "as though they were being outnumbered," said Msg. Robert Howard, church pastor.

St. Finbar is in many ways a microcosm of Burbank--its experience with a changing congregation, as well as its reaction, mirroring demographic changes citywide.

Once known mainly as the butt of Johnny Carson jokes, Burbank is changing from an overwhelmingly Anglo suburbia to an increasingly multiethnic city that is beginning to confront issues experienced by its larger urban neighbors.

"It was a long time in coming, and it was painful because we knew that we would hurt some of the good, solid families that have been here," Howard said of the Mass change. "Some, I'm sad to say, will leave the parish. But the archbishop once said, 'It's amazing, if we're going to be together in heaven, why can't we live together here on earth?' "

Latinos, the city's largest minority, grew from 16% of Burbank's population in 1980 to nearly 23% in 1990, according to census figures.

"When people talk about the Latino community, they think it's all Elmwood Street," said resident Marsha Ramos, referring to a city barrio. "But it's much bigger than that."

And much more diverse.

The Latino community is a mosaic. There are Latino families that have lived in the city for decades, as well as recent arrivals from Mexico, El Salvador and Nicaragua. There are older residents who are holding on to traditions, and a younger generation that does not speak Spanish.

What unites Latinos to each other--and to the rest of the city--are their reasons for coming to Burbank and their motives for staying: good schools, less crime and prospects for a better life.

"It's a beautiful place to raise your children," said Viviano Garcia, 63. "I've lived here all my life."

Some, such as Garcia, remember when Burbank, like other parts of the country, was ethnically segregated. Latinos could not use the swimming pool at the Pickwick Recreation Center on Riverside Drive, and some barbers refused to cut their hair, Garcia recalled. Movie theaters had separate seating for whites and Latinos.

Garcia's family moved to Burbank from Arizona in 1933, hoping to find work during the Depression. His mother, a schoolteacher, took a job as a grocery store checker after the city school system refused to hire her.

"She was a graduate of the University of Arizona," Garcia said of his mother, who is now 87. "She had all these degrees and it didn't do her a bit of good. . . . At the time she applied, they said, 'We're not hiring Mexicans.' "

Back then, racism was an everyday part of Burbank life. "You kind of took it in stride," Garcia said. "It was just part of society. . . . We never complained because we just didn't know any better."

Latinos were also restricted from buying homes in many neighborhoods.

"They used to be very strict," recalled Frank Lucero, 67, sitting in his home near St. Francis Xavier Church. He moved to Burbank with his family in 1927. "They wouldn't let them go above Glenoaks Boulevard to live. We were one of the first families to buy up here. They wouldn't let you live here years ago."

As a result, Latinos ended up in city neighborhoods with names such as Barrio Del Chiro, Barrio de la Bandera and Front Street.

But two incidents changed life for Latinos in Burbank, longtime residents say. One was World War II, the other, a freeway.

The war "showed them that we're just like them," said Lucero, who helped liberate Paris as a soldier.

And when the Golden State Freeway was built through the heart of the city's barrio, "everybody started moving into different areas," Garcia said.

As a result, the generation that followed Lucero and Garcia's era had experiences markedly different from their parents. Some, such as Marsha Ramos, 35, grew up scarcely different from her Anglo friends.

In the neighborhood where Ramos lived, there were few Latino families, and she recalls little discrimination. Her father was an engineering geologist, her mother a community volunteer.

Ramos, who serves on the city's park and recreation board, did not learn Spanish until she was an adult. As a volunteer at St. Finbar, Ramos comes in contact with many native Spanish speakers who are sometimes surprised when they hear her speak.

"My Spanish is really not very good," she said. "The people who speak Spanish can't understand why my Spanish is the way it is."

But Ramos, who knows many Latinos of her generation who don't speak Spanish, tells native speakers: "You just wait. Your grandchildren won't either."

Older residents of the city, such as Garcia and Lucero, say Burbank is very different than it was during their childhood. Perhaps no place is that change more evident than in the schools.

"We could not speak Spanish," Garcia recalled. "If we did they would . . . send us home."

At the time, all the Latino students from kindergarten to the sixth grade were kept in one classroom. And on the playground at Luther Burbank School, where Garcia attended, the east side of the yard was for whites, the west side was for Latinos.

Now, the proportion of Latino students in the Burbank Unified School District is 37%, up from 20% during the 1979-80 school year. At least 20% of the students in 16 of the district's 17 schools are Latino, and at some schools they are the majority.

The district's growing diversity has changed the way that classes are taught and meetings are held.

"We have translators at PTA meetings, site council meetings, bilingual advisory committees," said Andrea Canaday, curriculum coordinator for the Burbank Unified School District.

Depending on the population of the school, letters to parents are sent home in Spanish, Armenian or Korean, as well as English.

And educators must contend with students--about a quarter of the district's population--who speak only limited English.

The district now operates an ESL program for students in all grades, offers bilingual classes at seven of the district's 11 elementary schools, and encourages teachers to earn bilingual education certification or English language development certification.

"The district pays for all the classes, and it pays for them to take the test," Canaday said. "It's a considerable expenditure, but it's one that we think is necessary because none of the teachers who have been here in Burbank for any length of time have been trained to deal with the population they're now serving."

As for the students, they are discovering, as have foreign-born students throughout the region, that school can be a painful experience.

"People make fun of you when you have an accent," said William Trejos, 18, a Burbank High School student. "I was afraid to read."

Trejos, who came to this country to avoid serving in the Nicaraguan army, found battles of a different sort.

"The kids here in the school, they're very racist," he said. "They treated me like I didn't belong."

Olivia Flores, 17, speaks English without an accent. She is bright, friendly and articulate, completing three advanced placement classes this spring.

Nonetheless, she also had to overcome her fears of not fitting in, of being looked down upon by other students.

"All the students, they see you and they treat you like you're not even there," she said.

At Burbank High School, Latino students--who make up nearly 40% of the student body--formed a Spanish Club two years ago. The school also has the Armenian Club, the Korean Club and Students for Black Identity.

Burbank Principal Keiko Hentell said she understands the need for such groups. "When you feel isolated and disenfranchised, it's nice to have your own group of people for support," she said.

But among parents and other students there was concern about the "separatism the clubs engender," she said.

So last year, the school started the All Cultures Together Club in response. Open to all races, the group sponsored activities to educate students about different cultures.

"We had 50, 60 students signing up for it the first day," Hentell said. "It's really important to include white students. We changed so quickly, they're having a real hard time as far as understanding that we're having to pay more and more time to minority groups as far as achievement."

While the population of Latinos has grown, their numbers at City Hall have not. No Latino has ever sat on the City Council.

But Burbank Mayor George Battey predicted that might soon change. Earlier this year a record number of Latino residents applied for city appointments.

"This is the first time that we've had any significant number of Latinos apply to city boards and commissions, and the council appointed a significant number," he said.

Latinos now make up about 6% of all appointees, up from less than 1% last year.

"As part of the evolutionary process we could expect Latinos to eventually position themselves to where they will run for City Council and certainly have a significant representation in city government," Battey said.

A recent battle over a footbridge on Elmwood Avenue that links a predominantly Latino neighborhood and a mostly Anglo one underscored the need for the kind of community leadership and activism that many say had been glaringly absent in the Elmwood area, and in the city's Latino community overall.

Residents on the wealthier side of the bridge wanted it closed, arguing that Latino youths used it to cross to their side to paint graffiti and commit other crimes.

Elmwood residents argued that children needed the bridge to get to school and the elderly used it to get to stores. In a strong and surprising show of unity, Latinos lobbied City Hall. The bridge remained open.

Along with former Elmwood resident Miguel Perez, Josephine Erentreich emerged as one of the key leaders of the protest. She was exactly what the community needed: A community resident who spoke Spanish and English, and who was able to aggressively speak to the needs and concerns of Elmwood residents.

"I try to encourage people to speak up, because I'm not always going to be here," said Erentreich.

She has grown accustomed to the desperate phone calls, asking her to translate letters from court or school. "A lot of the parents don't really know what's going on with their kids because they don't speak English," Erentreich said. Though she said she is glad to help, she tells people "you have to learn the language, because if you don't people will walk all over you."

Like Erentreich, resident Ray Halbur, 79, has also seen his share of change. One of the oldest members of St. Finbar, he has lived in Burbank since 1939 and remembers when the church was first built.

The membership grew so large a new church had to be built, he said. At the time, "it was 98% white."

The church's population began to change gradually until the mid-1980s, when the presence of more Latino and other minorities became obvious. Not so clear is the fate of the church's Anglo population.

"They either moved or passed away," he said. "There aren't too many of the original families still there."

Some of the Anglo members who remain at the church feel that "Latinos are taking over the church," and that St. Finbar caters more to them, Halbur said.

"Overall, everybody has accepted the way it has changed," Halbur said. "Naturally, there is always some dissension. I had some. It's just something you have to accept. You can't turn them away. That's not the Catholic tradition."

And while some residents in the city "feel that the increase in crime and increase in gang problems may be a result of a changing ethnic population," they have accepted it too, Battey said, without the types of racial conflicts that have marred other communities.

"I guess on balance, we've been pretty lucky," he said.

Latinos in Burbank

Population Source: U.S. Census Bureau

Public School Population

1973 1993 Latino 13.7% 37.6% White 84.7% 51.2% Asian/Pac. Islander 1.1% 6.0% Black 0.1% 2.8% Filipino American 0.3% 2.2% American Indian 0.2% 0.2%

Source: Burbank Unified School District

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